"How can I make you understand, Lainie? I'm afraid to go out alone with her. It's too eerie to explain to anyone else, but I thought you'd realize how I feel. I don't trust her, what else can I say? How can I follow a dog I don't trust across a street or down a flight of stairs?" Cathy Abbott rubbed her fingers together in a series of quick jerky movements and shuddered. She buried her face in her hands and began to cry in hoarse, dry little sobs.
"Ah, honey, please don't cry. I'm not trying to get on your case. I just worry about you staying holed up in the condo all the time. I'm not trying to force you to go out if you don't want to. You know me, always the cheerleader. I only want to see you get back as much of your old life as you can."
Nodding, Cathy raised her glasses, wiping her eyes with a handful of tissues. "I know that, Lainie. It's just that I can't believe in this dog the way I do Suzi." She stroked the sleek black head, the pointed, mobile ears. "You can't imagine what it's like to be blind, the helplessness, knowing that a moment can change your whole life. I'm so afraid sometimes, so scared I don't know what to do. I literally can't move. I really wish you'd take her away or something."
"You can't be scared of Kip? It's obvious from the look on her face that she's devoted to you, she adores you."
"Does she really look at me that way or are you just saying that to make me feel better?" Cathy rubbed her fingers over the short velvet coat.
"True story, Cath. She loves you."
"Then what's wrong with me? Why don't I believe in her? I feel like I can't trust her because she scares me."
"That's only old history and because of what's happened with Suzi. You feel guilty, like you're replacing your best friend, y'know, loyalty issues and stuff. If you'd just met Kip as a replacement, say, it would be different. I know it would. But this horror we have to go through with Suzi disappearing changes everything and I don't blame you for feeling terrified. Don't worry, though. She'll be home soon."
Cathy pulled the sleek head to her lap, feeling the tears start again. Gentle searching fingers worked their way up the long sloping shoulder and began to massage the thick black neck, taking courage from the bulk, the strength of the creature before her. She drew a deep, quivering breath and tried to relax.
'I'm just scared to death, Kip. Give me a little time to adjust and while I'm going through all this, please ignore me! I have no idea what I want except Suzi ... and you.'
Cathy tried hard to be courageous, but her fear for Suzi's safety undermined the strong facade and her face crumbled in sorrow and dread. Her fingers tightened around the leather harness like a life line attached to the big dog's body. She rested her forehead on the rigid handle and moaned. "I miss Suzi so much I can't stand it." Tears coursed down her cheeks, fogging her dark glasses.
Lainie Morgan regarded Cathy with mournful brown eyes and thanked God again for her eyesight. Sighing, she pursed quivering lips, slipped an arm across Cathy's shoulders and gave her a firm hug. "It's going to be alright, I just know it is. You need to give yourself some time to get used to Kip. Give her a chance, play with her, make friends, y'know? Like you did with Suzi? Kip's crazy about you; it's obvious from the way she watches you. And it's not being disloyal to Suzi that you guys are close. I bet you when she gets back, they'll be best friends."
Lainie pulled Cathy against her shoulder, murmuring, stroking the long honey brown hair. "I know you're scared right now so you're really not yourself. That's why you're having such a hard time with Kip. Just give it the rest of the week. If you still feel that way, I'll call Jim and have him take Kip back. Can you do that? Give it that long?"
A sigh that started in the pit of Cathy's stomach parted her lips in a bleat. "I guess, yes. I'm not being fair to her, but you know I don't particularly like Dobermans. Remember the one on our block when we were kids? He never did anything, never even barked. He just had this way of staring at me. Scared the crap outa me every time he did it. I can still see him in my mind's eye." She swallowed convulsively; tears seeped from under her dark glasses and splashed on her arm. "Mostly I'm scared for Suzi. Why hasn't anyone called yet?"
Kip watched both women intently, her gaze shifting from one face to the other. Hearing her name caused her short tail to twitch. Unable to contain herself, she rose unbidden and pressed into Cathy's side. Kip gave her hand a couple of quick swipes with a pink tongue and whined, hoping for a pat or a word of praise.
Cathy reached for the dog, stroking the short silky coat. With something akin to apology in her voice, she said, "You're a good girl, Kip. It's not personal and it's sure not your fault. You're a wonderful girl; you're just not my Suzi."
"They'll call us soon, you know they will. All they want is money." Lainie's voice quivered a moment, hanging on a whisper. "They won't hurt her, Cath. There's no reason to ... they just want money." Her voice ended in a groan. "Oh, God!"
Cathy started to cry once more. "I'm so afraid I'll never see her again."
Kip raised her long slender muzzle to the skies and cried along with Cathy, low, grumbling sighs mixed with high chirps.
* * *
Ever since the accident that took her sight, Cathy had created strict procedures for everything in her life. Developing and adhering to rigid patterns provided the foundation and security of her strange and frightening new world.
The doctors told her there would be several months of rehabilitation required before she could resume anything like a normal life, and with Lainie's help, she found a place that suited her needs. Located in the hills above Del Mar, Shadow Valley's first-rate facilities and state-of-the-art techniques promised rapid recovery, both mentally and physically.
The mood swings were vicious, throwing her from shrieking, barely contained fury at the injustice of it all, to fear so deep and profound it immobilized her, leaving her unable to do anything but sob with terror.
At first, Cathy resisted all attempts at therapy, preferring to wallow in anger and self-pity, but that didn't last long. Being the kind of person she was, she soon realized the importance of independence and mobility. After all, she was only twenty-three, and sitting on a sofa somewhere listening to the radio for the rest of her life did not appeal.
With Lainie's support and encouragement, she connected with a counselor who specialized in rapid onset traumatic blindness, and began to come to terms with her anger, the single consistent feeling she experienced since the accident.
Dr. Grayson urged Cathy to talk about her feelings, withholding nothing, including the fury she felt regarding her accident. She talked until she was hoarse, pounding her fists on the table, stamping her feet, at one point tearing her hair. It was the blackest time in her life; more than once she seriously contemplated suicide.
It took Cathy almost a year to come out the other end of that dark tunnel. She determined she'd never look back. Thanks to the huge settlement she won from the department store, money would never be a problem, even if she could no longer work, but she knew she would, and itched to get back into her old routines.
With youth and otherwise excellent health spurring her on, Cathy gave in to Lainie's nagging insistence that she take another step toward independence and get a guide dog.
The big yellow Lab gave Cathy courage, confidence and much-needed support. Learning to rely on the dog, to believe in her, required the biggest leap of faith Cathy had ever taken. In return, Suzi never let her down, never left her side and gave her unconditional love. After three months of intensive, on-site training, Cathy and Suzi were ready to take on the world; it was time to find a new home.
After conducting an extensive search for just the right place, they found a penthouse condo in Del Mar, a block from the beach and just minutes from Lainie's office. It was early spring and the large rooftop patio with its ocean view sealed the deal. The elevator made getting around easy and the exercise room had all the equipment the girls ever used.
The price was outrageous, of course, but so was everything else in the area. Here, they were at least guaranteed a garage parking space, a safe secure home and for Lainie, a short commute to work.
It took Cathy several months of moving freely around the huge condo before she built up the confidence and comfort level that finally allowed her to go outside with Suzi.
At first Lainie accompanied them on their daily beach walks, but as soon as Cathy felt at ease going alone, Lainie excused herself. "My hair just freaks out in the morning wind. It's so humid it just hangs on my head like limp spaghetti. Takes me forever just to get ready for work."
Mornings, except for the most inclement weather, consisted of a jog along the beach with Suzi. Two miles up, two miles back; every day. Their walk always ended at the Starbucks next to her condo complex.
The weather was usually so pleasant they'd often stroll to the other end of the block to visit the green grocer for fresh fruit and salad makings for lunch or to pick up eggs or milk. Next door, Le Petite Croissant announced itself with the sweet aroma of baking sugar and butter. The girls bought all their baked goods there, including sinfully delicious key lime tarts that gave their teeth fits.
When they passed her favorite restaurant, Touch of Italy, hints of tomato sauce, thyme and garlic danced on the wind before giving way to the sea breeze.
Errands run, they would return to the condo, and after a quick shower and a snack bar, Cathy set to work, creating. Unique, free-form plaster sculptures were her specialty, but her copper renderings provided the biggest continuous revenue.
Although the accident had robbed Cathy of her sight, her memory remained fresh and alive, affording her endless scenes, both real and imagined. Birds of all types and sizes flew above her, floating on the updrafts, wings expanded to their fullest. Horses galloped, tails aloft in the wind; majestic mountains, sailing ships, whales breeching the waves, children flying kites; all those scenes and so many more lived in her memory, real to her mind's eye whose vision remained unimpaired.
From those memories she created exquisite, original, one-of-a-kind designs that kept her bank accounts flush and her need for creativity fulfilled.
The sprawling condo, located behind locked security gates, afforded Cathy the
exact amount of freedom she could handle and no more. Adventurous by nature, she'd lost her free wheeling confidence to try anything once. Vulnerable now, she confined herself to things with which she had history and a personal knowledge. Her biggest fear was separation from Suzi.
Both girls felt safe in their new home, reassured by on-site security and the sophisticated surveillance devices that the management installed to keep their residents protected. The tall wrought iron fences gave them an additional level of protection from outside intruders.
Access to the shore lay directly across the street. The blacktopped beach paths provided a smooth surface, amply peopled and yet quiet, sedate and gentle in its slope.
For almost a decade she lived there in peace, safe in her cocoon.
I do not play with Evil Eddie, so I show inner thoughts set off in apostrophies. In the ms, I use italics.
It was a morning like every other. Cathy awoke to the lightest tinkling of Chopin in the background, the soft piano notes soothing to her ear as one form of darkness exchanged itself for another. The table next to her bed held her cell, her monitor and her tracking device. Each had a particular place in her wardrobe; it never varied.
The chair, what she thought of as her staging area, held a light jacket, a short-sleeved shirt, running shorts and fresh undies. She shed what she wore, made a quick change and thought ahead to her day.
A cold wet nose snuffled her ear.
"Did you have a good sleep, Suzi?" Deft fingers stroked the soft fur that decorated the dog's beautiful face. Cathy adjusted the harness, quickly securing the buckles and fitting the leather ends into their keepers.
The Lab did a little jig in place and whined under her breath, licking Cathy's cheek several times in rapid succession.
"Sounds like you want your run, little girl."
She grasped the top of the harness and headed down the long hall, chatting to the dog. They crossed the kitchen floor to the back door and hesitated. The latch always stuck and Cathy prepared to give it a little bump with the bottom of her fist.
Instead, the door opened at her touch. She halted, the hairs on the back of her neck rising, and listened a moment. Suzi whined again, beginning to dance in anticipation.
"My imagination is in overdrive. Lainie must have had maintenance here and forgot to mention it. Okay, okay, let's go."
Over the years since she lost her sight, Cathy noticed distinct changes in her body. While she didn't think blindness was something one ever really got used to, many of her other senses had sharpened to compensate. She'd developed an oversensitivity she couldn't explain.
Take sounds. It wasn't that things got louder. On the contrary, things one didn't ordinarily hear were quite audible to her.
Another was an awareness of people in the room with her, of feeling their presence. The strangest, at least to her, was her heightened sense of smell. People smelled. Not bad, necessarily, nor good. They just had unique odors she hadn't noticed or at least registered before. Sometimes it was the oily smell of hair in need of a shampoo or the scent of sweat hidden under a layer of cologne. Food smells clung to some, particularly oranges.
The sweet, familiar aroma of soaps and perfumes smelled different, unique on each person and she recognized the regulars in her daily life from several yards away.
For instance, she knew the doorman waited just a few yards ahead. Already the scent of cinnamon emanating from his body reached her nostrils.
Thomas Jackson opened the huge door for her, greeting her by name. "'Mornin' Ms. Abbott, Suzi. Good ta see you ladies out an' about. Have a good walk."
"We will, Thomas. The sea smells so salty this morning and I feel a mist. Is a storm coming in?"
"Yes, ma'am, it sure is. Clouds are gatherin' tight like cotton candy, all shades of gray with blue. Yellow tinges, too. Weird. The sky looks like a bruise. This is the kinda weather brings out the strange in folks. Y'all be careful, hear? Don't stray too far, please. I'll be watchin' for when ya get back."
"Oh, thank you, Thomas. I appreciate that, but I'm well protected." She nodded at the dog. "I'm safe with Suzi."
"Indeed, and have a good jog, Miss."
Cathy and Suzi crossed the street and continued onto the beach. When they reached the familiar trail, she snapped the harness in fixed position and clucked to Suzi. "Let's go." She tucked both arms into her sides and began to jog, counting off the strides.
Raucous screams pierced the air as seagulls swooped into the ocean in search of their breakfast. The distant toot of a car horn and an occasional bark were the only other sounds she heard that morning.
They'd covered most of their allotted distance without passing another jogger. As Cathy came abreast of the turnoff to the street front, she heard a slight scuffle in the sand behind her, a muffled yelp and then nothing. She called, "Suzi?"
When the dog did not whine in response or nudge her with a cold nose, slow, creeping terror began to overtake her. For one horrible moment, she feared she'd lose control of her bladder.
"Suzi?" She raised her voice and cupped her lips. "Suzi!" Full blown panic flooded her body. The impossible had happened. As inexplicable, as bizarre as it sounded, the dog was gone. Someone took her. Cathy knew it with certainty. It was the only explanation. Suzy would never have left her alone. Someone must have followed them and grabbed the dog right off the pathway.
Shaking fingers reached into her pocket and pulled out her cell phone. She hit the speed dial and waited, her stomach churning while tears of fright slid down her cheeks. "Lainie? Someone stole Suz ... Lainie?" It took her a moment to realize that she'd reached voice mail. She must be in the shower. Could she have already left for work? Cathy checked her watch. Eight on the button. Lainie left for work at eight. Damn!
Disconnecting, she hit the third button.
"Good morning, Casa Del Mar Shores. How may I direct your call?"
"This is Cathy Abbott and I'm on the beach, not too far off the walkway and someone just stole Suzi. Can you please send someone to get me right away? I think I might be turned around and I don't want to move."
"Yes, Ms. Abbott. We'll send someone directly. Just stay where you are."
"Please hurry. I'm scared to death."
"I'll stay on the phone with you, Ms. Abbott. Javier is on the way across the street as I speak...."
"Ms. Abbott," a familiar voice called, drawing closer to Cathy's side. "It's Javier. I'm going to take your arm. Are you okay?"
Cathy extended both hands. "Oh, yes, I'm okay, but I have to get home. I need to call Lainie. We have to find Suzi!" Her voice rose as she slipped her arm into the crook of the man's elbow. "But first, look around, make sure. Do you see her anywhere at all? Up by the seawall?"
"No, ma'am, I don't see her or anyone else. It's really deserted this morning, and Ms. Morgan already left for work. Are you ready to go back to the condo?"
"Yes, and please hurry."
"Hi, Ella, it's Lainie. Did I catch you at a bad time?"
"No, not at all. You've been on my mind, actually. How's Cathy doing? Any word at all about her dog?"
"Nah, not a thing. Makes me crazy. Why would someone steal a guide dog? I know they cost a fortune, but they aren't exactly that easy to move. Between the microchip and the web search Cathy has going through the foundation that trained Suzi, I can't imagine how they'd ever even be able to take her to a vet. Makes no sense to me; none of it."
"I know. Jim and I were talking about it last night. So how is Kip coming along? She's the first Seeing Eye dog they've ever trained. Quite phenomenal for a Doberman, don't ya think?"
"Kip's the best and she's doing just fine, everything you could ask and more. All things considered, it was a miracle you could supply her the next day. Replacement through normal channels takes months, sometimes longer, and Lord knows Cathy's grateful to you for her. It's just that she, well, she feels disloyal or something. She can't get around without assistance, she knows that, but she's torn up over Suzi. I am, too. Shoot, we had her for almost ten years and you talk about a sweet dog; we miss her so much."
The quivering voice began to climb and then settled. Lainie clenched both hands, willing herself not to cry. "I hope Cathy can come to grips with this. With each passing day, it gets less and less likely that we'll ever see Suzi again. Right now Cathy's in complete denial. She's on the verge of something and it's scaring me to death."
"Ah, give her some time, she'll work stuff out. She's a real trooper, and besides, maybe Suzi will turn up. It could happen. Anyway, what do you have in mind? Did you call for a particular reason or just to chat?"
"I have a couple of things I want to discuss with you. Can I come over to the restaurant around noon? It's really important and my afternoon is open until three."
"That sounds great, Lainie. Been way too long since we've had the chance to hang out and have a nice chat. Terry will be here, too, so we'll be able to have some quality time together, just the three of us. See you then."
Lainie pulled into the lot and parked next to a spectacular red, 12-cylinder, '94 Jaguar XJS convertible. She chuckled at the latest incarnation of the classic sports car that still gave Terry heart palpitations, even after all these years. The charging silver cat perched on the nose of the hood seemed to urge the car ever faster. Standing still, it looked like it was speeding.
She glanced at the neon sign overhead, the slightest buzz tickling her ears. Smiling, she pulled the door open and stepped into the inviting world that was ELLA's.
Couples and foursomes filled the lounge tables; business people on a set time schedule, looking for quick service and great food, sat at the oak bar. Classic rock played on the state-of-the-art juke box and posters of everyone who was anyone in that great rock era graced the walls, ensconced in natural oak frames.
Guests in the dining room enjoyed a more leisurely pace with decorous service and sufficient time between courses to take pleasure in their expensive meal.
Lainie saw Ella in the lounge with Terry, seated at their favorite booth. She approached her longtime friends and flashed a smile showing white, even teeth.
Terry rose first, embracing Lainie. "How's it going?" She turned and indicated a chair next to hers. "Ella said things are still not so good with Cathy. What a damned shame. Anything we can do to help?"
Ella half-stood, leaned forward and gave Lainie a hug, pushing her chair out from the table a bit. Lips slightly pursed, bright blue eyes alight, she said, "Have a seat. I went ahead and ordered us a large antipasto. Sound good to you?"
"Can't go wrong with that." She smiled as the bartender approached. "Hey, Al. I'd like a glass of pinot Grigio."
He returned shortly with a glass of wine, a basket of warm bread, a hefty serving dish of antipasto and three salad plates. "Anything else, ladies?"
"We're good to go, Al. Thanks." Ella nodded, turning to Lainie. "So, what's up?" She wrapped a slice of provolone around a piece of pepperoni and took a bite. Delicate eyebrows raised, she glanced from Lainie to her twin and back.
"Y'know, El, it's so strange. Now that I'm ready to put it into words, I don't really know what to say. It's mostly gut feelings."
With a sage expression, Terry nodded. "Always go with those. I've regretted the ones I've ignored far more than those I've followed up on. True words."
"Like what gut feelings? What's happened?"
"Well, we've had a real surge in mystery phone calls in the last few months. At first I thought they were telemarketer types, always the same routine, calling at dinner time. We let the calls go to the machine as a matter of habit. They'd wait for the message to finish and then hang up when it ended; now they stay connected, listening, hoping we'll answer, I guess. It's so creepy!" Lainie lifted her glass to her lips and took several quick swallows. She shrugged at the girls.
"Their numbers are always blocked, so I can't follow up on anything through caller ID. There's no way to even know if it's the same person, and I've gotten to wondering about that, too. Before Suzi disappeared, they were an annoyance at most, and they're not brand new by any means, but they've doubled, maybe some days tripled in number from a couple of months ago. Cathy is freaked out, refuses to answer the phone now unless the caller identifies themselves. She's afraid to let them know she's there alone. Worst part is, every time it rings, she's convinced it's about Suzi and when it's not, she has a fit. It just sucks."
"Hell of a way to live," Terry said, shaking her head. "Maybe she needs a getaway, change of scene, stuff like that."
"I'm all for that, but who'd she go with? That's why I wanted to talk with you two. I need to hire some kind of live-in security or bodyguard to watch out for Cathy now that I'm staying at Hank's so often. I feel guilty about leaving her alone all the time, but it's either that or I forget a personal life of my own. Makes me feel so bad. I lose either way."
Blinking back quick tears, Lainie speared a piece of cheese and popped it into her mouth. Draining her glass, she held it up to Al. A new one appeared, the old removed.
"Hey, Lainie, you can't blame yourself. You deserve to fall in love and get married like everyone else. You didn't sign your life away when the accident happened. I think you're a perfect example of what it means to be a best friend." Ella patted her hand in support.
"She's right, Lainie. You've gone far beyond what anyone would expect. Good grief, you gave her ten years of non-stop time and devotion; it's your turn now."
"That's nice of you to say, Terry, and I appreciate the thoughts, but the timing really sucks. Every day that passes with no word about Suzi, she gets worse. Either she gives in to bouts of depression, and you know she's prone to that anyway, or she becomes even more high strung and agitated than usual. Remember, this is a gal who ran four miles every day, without fail! Now she won't leave the house, even with Kip, unless I'm with her. She's scared to death and God knows I don't blame her, but I'm at a loss. I don't know what to do anymore."
Ella shook her head, expression edgy. "Until the calls stop and you hear something definitive about Suzi, maybe it's better that she stays inside the condo when she's alone. You don't think the dog and the calls are connected, do you?"
"I don't know for sure, but the calls certainly started months before the dog went missing. And short of holding her for ransom, what can you do with a Seeing Eye dog? Sure can't sell her on EBay, for God's sake. Why would someone steal her and then not ask for money for her return? Her ID was on her collar and on the harness!" Lainie shook her head and raised her suddenly empty glass to Al. A fresh glass appeared in a moment. She nodded at him, grateful, and then turned her attention back to the twins.
"None of this makes much sense to me, but, okay, maybe the caller did steal Suzi; the question is, why steal the dog at all if not to extort money from Cathy? Why? To scare her, throw her for a loop, make her less confident? Sounds crazy not to mention personal."
"Your building is safe, isn't it? No one can get in unless they're approved through your security, right?" Terry shrugged. "Being in the penthouse, you're as safe as you can get, huh?
Voice tinged with bitterness, Lainie nodded. "One would assume. I have nothing but the brochure from the real estate broker to attest to how secure the place is, but...." She sighed and shook her head, lips pursed. "I don't know what's wrong with me; that's not being fair or accurate. It's as good as it gets and we love it there; we can't live in a prison." She speared a green olive and a thin slice of prosciutto and popped them in her mouth. She chewed for a moment, swallowed and shrugged.
"Plus, I have an even bigger problem looming and I'm at a complete loss as to what to do. Hank's taking me out to dinner tonight and I'm sure he's going to propose to me. We've been dating almost two years so I don't see a long engagement in our future. What do I do then?" Lainie drained her glass, rolled large brown eyes at Al and nodded for another.
Terry glanced at Ella, eyebrows slightly elevated; together they stared at Lainie.
Before either could reply, Lainie continued, her words only slightly slurred. "You know I love Cathy like a sister. We've been closer than close since childhood. At first, helping her adjust to her blindness and getting my career on track took up every waking moment and I didn't have time for a steady guy. Things have changed since I made associate. My practice is going full steam and my work load is actually lighter than it used to be. Guess I've proven myself to my bosses. Anyway, I'm crazy about Hank. I want to get married and have kids and my clock is winding down. I kinda let my life get away from me." She paused a moment, lost in thought. "And yet, how can I leave Cathy? How do I tell her that I'm moving out of her life, at least as we've known it all these years? Good Lord, we've been best friends since grade school, roommates all through college! And now, with Suzi gone, it makes it even worse. How can I possibly leave her now?"
Lainie pushed her plate away, lips quivering, eyes glazed with tears. "I don't know what's going to happen if we don't get that dog back. I'm not sure Kip will ever be the right replacement. Anyway, as you can see, I need your help. Is this something Sessions and Browning would do?"
Those familiar with this series could be of special help to me regarding repetition. This is a stand-alone book using many of the same characters and places familiar to you. As one who is familiar, do you mind hearing me repeat what ELLA's looks like, the posters. Do you want me to go through that again?
Dave M, my friend, shall we talk about Gracie and Stevie again or would that be just toooo redundant? I'm all for it if you agree.
Three men entered the lounge, deep in conversation. Beside the lighter haired man walked a gorgeous Doberman, tall, muscular and black as night. Another Doberman, russet-colored, lithe and in excellent condition, accompanied the second man; the third man walked alone. They headed for the back table, still engrossed in their discussion.
Jim slid into the booth, moved the reserved sign to the back ledge and nodded at Al, who approached with their drinks.
The bartender smiled as he placed their glasses on the table. "'Evening, gents."
"Hey, Al," they replied.
"Where are the girls?" Jim asked, glancing around the large, almost empty room.
"Terry's in a confab with Chef regarding tomorrow's fresh purchases. Since business finally picked up again, the orders get bigger each day and he is not a happy camper. Ella's in the office, finalizing the schedule with the new talent. He played his first gig here tonight and the folks loved him. Dude does Clapton better than Clapton." Snickering at his own cleverness, Al shrugged. "Eh, what can I say. It's been a long night. So, you guys wanna eat? Chef put out the best prime rib ever tonight. My suggestion for sure. I scored a stuffed pork chop on my break, but that was hours ago; they're all gone now. Some good stuff goin' down in there." He took the inevitable pizza order and headed for the kitchen.
"So Rudy, how's Steve working out?" Lenny asked, referring to the new dog trainer.
"He's a wiz-kid for sure. The dogs love him, they relate well, even the roughest of them, and he's doing great with the puppies. He's very pro-military training, so when he finds a dog with the right attitude, he's in heaven. Still, he was the one who taught Kip the guide dog routine, so he's very versatile. She surprised me. I had her consigned to the pet category. So sweet, so loving, so totally useless for us; she won't bite. Thinks all that work in the barn is really playtime in disguise. She takes a nip or two at most and then starts running circles around the perp and barking hysterically. First time she did that I grabbed her, gave her a couple of slaps, kinda roughed her up a bit and what did she do? Peed on my shoe!" Eyes wide, he pursed his lips in disbelief. "She won't jump on anyone, won't even chase except for fun, even though she ranks tops in agility. Climbs the fence in four strides, all the tough stuff. She's just a Lab in Dobie disguise. I think that's why Steve tried that stuff with her in the first place. He trained Seeing Eye dogs for several years before he moved out with us. He thought she was worth a try. How's Kip doing, by the way?"
Jim shrugged. "She's fine, but Cathy? Not so good. Evidently she has past issues with Dobies so there's that. Plus, she's really grieving for her lost dog, feels kinda fickle about replacing her so soon."
"Have we heard anything about the dog's whereabouts? Seems strange, stealing a guide dog." Rudy shook his head, dark eyes squinted. "Takes a special kinda person to rob the blind, let alone steal their only means of independence." He clenched his teeth hard enough to pop a muscle in his jaw.
"Okay, Chef, I'll go easy on the avocados. They just look so good." Terry nodded as she backed out of the kitchen, placating arms extended. "You bet, first thing, like always." With a look of relief on her face, she walked toward the table.
The guys mumbled at her, halfway through their pizza.
"Hi, Terry. What's up? You look stressed." Jim took another bite and nodded.
"Oh, man, Chef is on a tear. Looks like the recession is over, at least for us. For the last two weeks, maybe more, business is back to normal and then some, so he's bitching up a storm. I swear, he's inventing cuss words, but I really don't blame him. We have a banquet every day next week and a wedding rehearsal dinner on Thursday night; himself is not amused. I think he got spoiled there when we were running at half speed. So, what're you guys up to?" She accepted the drink Al placed before her with a weary smile.
Before they could respond, Ella walked into the lounge, a tall young man at her side. She escorted him to the front door, nodding as he spoke. They hesitated, finalizing their conversation. She waved a casual goodbye. "See you at six."
The door closed behind him.
Ella spun around, crouched low and hugging herself, gave them a thumbs up and a cheer. "We got him! He starts tomorrow night." Grinning from ear to ear, she swaggered over to the table, waving hi at the guys. "His name is Brad Smart. He plays guitar, piano and flute and has a fabulous voice. Pricey, but well worth it. Six nights a week. He has a gal that sings with him on weekends. I heard a CD of them together ... shivers."
"He reminds me of Robert Plant, back in the day. All that hair. I don't know how they deal with it." Lenny ran a hand through his short dark hair and chuckled at Rudy, who wore his in a similar fashion. "No muss, no fuss."
They turned teasing eyes toward Jim, whose thick, wavy blond hair just brushed the tips of his ears and his collar.
He made a comic face at them and raised his eyebrows. "Different strokes. I love long hair on guys, as long as its styled." He chuckled and made a show of patting the back of his head as he nodded at the poster of Eddy Van Halen on the wall above them. They all laughed, glancing from one long-haired rocker to the next.
"Anyway, Ella, what's the update on Cathy and Kip? Last I heard there were some problems going on."
Troubled, she glanced around the table. "Oh, there are, but it's not about Kip, not directly. Lainie stopped by this afternoon. She's looking for someone to act as Cathy's live-in companion and bodyguard. They've been getting hang-up calls on top of everything else, and Cathy is scared to death. I'm sure it's a short term job, no more than a month or so. She just needs time to adjust to losing Suzi and get comfortable with Kip. Is there anyone you can recommend, anyone in the company?"
"Doesn't Lainie still live with Cathy?" Jim shrugged at her, head tilted to one side.
Terry shook her head at him. "She's been spending a lot of time at Hank's and she's pretty sure she's getting a ring tonight, so she's planning ahead. Lainie figures they'll be getting married in a couple of months, so she's in an uproar over that as well. Those poor girls."
"I felt so sorry for her today, she's really stressed. Had to go home in a taxi this afternoon. She must have polished off a bottle of wine at lunch, and she's usually not much of a drinker." Ella gathered her hair into a twist and clipped it in place with a large barrette. Tendrils the color of burgundy wine hung on her fair cheeks. "She feels so guilty she can't stand it."
"I'd like to help, but Lenny and I are overextended as it is. Would you want it, Rudy? Give yourself a change of venue. You're the best equipped to help her adjust to Kip, realize how playful and loving she is. I think it's just a matter of time before we either recover the other dog or she bonds with Kip. There's so much dependence involved on her part, it's sure to happen if she gives it time."
"Well, normally I wouldn't be able to take it, but with Steve back at the training center, I'm available, that's for sure. Give me a little background. Where does she live?"
Jim snickered. "Oh, it's hard time, man. She has a seaside condo in Del Mar Shores. Hazard duty for sure, but you can do it. I believe in you."
Beetling his eyebrows, Rudy leaned forward and leered. "What's she look like? What does she like to do? How long has she been blind?"
Jim shrugged. "She's a doll."
"A doll? You're dating yourself," Lenny said.
Ella shook her head. "You guys, I swear. She's above average in the looks department, beautiful honey blonde hair, and her personality is tops. Pretty good figure, fit, about 5'6" or so. Great big smile, toothy but beautiful and probably her best feature. She loves to jog and earns a very substantial living as an artist. She works with copper wires and plaster stuff. Very talented. She's been blind for about seven or eight years. I can't honestly remember."
Terry leaned forward, shaking her head. "Ten. The accident happened ten years ago, El. We were just out of college, remember? She tripped and fell down the escalator at the mall. Smacked her head so hard it blinded her." She got a faraway look in her dark eyes. "Can you believe it's been that long ago?"
"God, time flies. You're right, it's been ages. She sued the people involved and got millions. Her attorney literally subpoenaed the escalator and made them operate it at slow speed. Sure enough, before long this jagged piece of the rail appeared. A scrap of leather torn from her shoe still hung on the pointed edge. Needless to say...."
"Okay, I'll take the assignment. When do I report?"
"Is tomorrow morning too soon?"
"I'll be there, Ella. Give me the address."
Nathan Stanley paused by a window in his condo and watched the distant boats crisscross the face of the calm blue sea. He opened the slider and walked out onto the patio. A gust of warm salty air ruffled his hair and he smiled, adjusting his Ray Ban aviators. He loved his rooftop patio and spent most of his leisure time there, either basking in the sun or creating wonderful meals.
Not only the favorite but most frequented space, he took great pains with the decoration and furnishings, and gazing around, felt he got it just right. It was perfect for his needs.
Ficus trees, tall and leafy, provided shade and a large number of pots and metal urns housed tomatoes, peppers, a variety of lettuces and eggplant. He had an impressive herb garden and two dwarf lemon trees. Oleanders, heavy with large pink flowers, sat in deep redwood planters that lined the waist-high railing.
Smiling with satisfaction, he stepped back and surveyed the dining area. The large marble table could easily seat ten, but he doubted he'd ever use it. He preferred the tall, matching pedestal table with its heavily padded bar stools. He'd placed it in the corner of the patio next to the railing where he ate each night in solitude, surrounded by pots full of the heady fragrance of gardenias.
The hedges barely reached the table top, so Nathan had an unobstructed view of the ocean and the condos around him, including glimpses of the small restaurants and shops on the avenue below.
For three blocks back from Shoreline Boulevard, clusters of high-rise condos soared, floating in the air, coveted human rookeries purchased before groundbreaking began.
Sitting there gave him the feeling of holding court in some exclusive little bistro at the edge of the universe, with nothing on his mind but himself and his work, his favorite topics. He finished his glass of merlot and went in search of more.
Nathan used the patio kitchen almost every night. A secretive man by nature, he had no friends, but he loved to cook and made elaborate dinners each night that would rival the efforts of a five-star chef.
It was on a starry night such as this, about six months ago, when he saw her for the first time. He figured he was two, maybe three floors above, giving him an excellent view of her patio.
She wore a floor length white caftan, probably silk from the way it moved, and bare feet, the sandals merely two thin gold straps. The light breeze rippled through gown and hair, long blonde strands lifting softly from her neck before falling gently back into place on her shoulders. She held a wineglass in one hand while the other caressed the golden head of the dog at her knee.
Before giving it a second thought, he picked up the camera that never left his side, focused and began taking rapid shots of the woman.
The moon, full and bright, rose above her and a light wind picked up, causing more movement in hair and gown. She swayed back and forth to a tune unheard by any but her, ethereal music, her back arched like a ballerina, a slender silhouette in profile. She ran one hand through her long glossy hair; the other raised the glass to her lips and drained it.
He shivered as he continued to shoot one picture after another. Mesmerized, overwhelmed with emotion, it took him quite a while to recognize the woman. When it finally hit him, he zoomed in on her face, amazed, confirming what he already knew.
It was Cathy Abbott, an artist he'd been following off and on for years. He actually owned some of her work! Nathan knew she lived in the Del Mar area but had no idea they were neighbors. Heart pounding, he continued to watch her, snapping photos from time to time.
She remained on the lanai with the dog for another hour or so. Seemingly lost in thoughts, she sat motionless, like a white marble statue in a temple in Greece, the splendor of the night highlighting her delicate beauty.
Nathan sat with the camera in his lap, watching her, talking to her in his mind as though they shared a long and loving relationship. He knew he'd captured three or four pictures that were extra special and spoke to her about his hopes for them, for their future.
From that time on, he spent every spare moment watching her, photographing her and falling more in love as the days and weeks passed.
She spent as much time on her lanai as he did on his, and like him, almost always alone. He perceived their similarities as some sort of sign and soon forged a strong bond as he began to share his innermost secrets with her.
'Do you remember the first time we met? It was before your accident. You had a wonderful showing in that gallery down in Old Towne, remember? The people would not go home! It was incredible. They bought virtually everything in sight. I felt fortunate that I'd gotten hold of that plaster piece early on; you know it, the one with the horse? It was not the time for a faint heart, let me tell you. I snatched it up and would not let go until it was mine. You remember it, of course; how silly of me. The woman is you, and yes, I recognized her as you. I remember when you had your accident. I was in London covering some royal something and never heard a word until I got home three months later. Darling, I'd have rushed to your side had I known.'
The final paragraph is done in italics in the ms, but here, due to EE's comtempt for my wishes, I use a simple apostrophe to set off inner dialogue.
This chapter is short ... actually it's a third of a whole chapter, too much to post in one sitting.
Rudy pulled into the guest parking area, chose a shady spot and checked his surroundings, noting places where one might hide. The huge trees provided both shade and cover, something he stored in the back of his mind for future reference.
Striding up the path, he climbed the steps to the wide verandah and paused to enjoy the scene spread out on the street below him. A tree-shaded cobblestone sidewalk on either side of the broad boulevard set the tone and tenor of the neighborhood and invited everybody to window shop as they walked.
An older couple strolled up the avenue, paused to purchase a paper and seated themselves at an umbrella-covered table at the open-air French cafe. Other diners nodded in recognition, calling hello to familiar neighbors.
Two artists, their easels turned toward the sea, recreated the splendor before them. One concentrated on the swooping birds, capturing their aerial antics. Sand pipers raced the last of the waves, searching in the shallow water for crabs.
The other chose the sea itself, deep sapphire blue with greenish tints, the crests of waves so transparent you could almost see through them.
The doorman greeted him, directing him to the information desk. A young woman smiled in welcome. "May I help you, sir?"
"I'm here to meet Cathy Abbott. My name is Rudy Clark."
"Yes, sir, you are expected. She's on the tenth floor, C, on the left." She nodded at the elevator and smiled goodbye.
He pressed the doorbell and waited. The voice on the intercom said, "Who is it?"
"It's Rudy Clark, Ms. Abbott."
The door opened. "Good morning, Mr. Clark." She extended her hand. "I'm Cathy Abbott and this is Kip, who obviously knows you very well. Please come inside."
With a chuckle in his voice, he took her hand and shook it. "So nice to meet you. Yes, Kip and I go way back, huh, girlie?"
He stroked the top of the sleek black head while Kip's entire body vibrated with joy in the presence of her old trainer. The expression on her face showed how much she wanted to bark. The rapid movement of the ears, the lolling tongue and the wide grin on her face confirmed the affection she still had for Rudy.
'Same old clown. Not a serious bone in your body is there, old girl?'
"I can't thank you enough for taking this job, Rudy. Ella told me you're doing it as a special favor for me and I doubly appreciate it. Thank you." She offered a wide smile, nodding at Kip. "You did a great job with this one. She's trying so hard to please and she takes good care of me. It's just ... well. Let's go outside on the lanai, shall we? It's a beautiful morning and I have a fresh pot of coffee waiting. I hope you haven't had breakfast yet. Mrs. Adams will serve us out there."
Cathy turned toward the back of the condo and headed toward a wall of windows, Kip at her side. The sliding glass door opened onto an expansive patio with an unobstructed view of the ocean. Boats of all kinds drifted across the vast blue plateau.
Cathy led the way to a shady corner, indicating Rudy should sit.
Behind them, a fully equipped outdoor kitchen provided sinks, oven, range, a fridge, a large grill and a fire pit for outdoor entertaining.
Nodding appreciatively, Rudy said, "What a beautiful spot this is, and I love the sculptures." He passed the offered chair and stopped at one in particular, a seagull riding the crest of a wave. "This seagull ... you made this, didn't you?"
"Yes, I did. It's an early work, one of my favorites, the first one I did after the accident." She continued to talk as Mrs. Adams served coffee and individual bowls of fruit. A plate of assorted breakfast Danish rested on the table between them as well as an iced bowl containing a variety of yogurt cups.
"So, what do we have here?" Cathy turned toward Rudy and nodded.
"All kinds of yogurt plus bite sizes of melon, strawberries, bananas and grapes. There's a bran muffin, an almond bear claw and a sticky bun. What's your preference?"
"I think I'll take the bear claw but I really should pass. It's been ages since I left the condo and eating like this without exercising, well, not good." She took a generous bite of her Danish, mumbling. "Hard to resist though. So, did you bring your clothing and what-all?" Her hand traveled up her knife to her coffee mug, which she lifted with both hands. She took several sips and smiled. "Whoa, those are so sweet. Good, but sweet."
"The bran muffin is out of this world, best I've ever had, and to answer your question, yes, everything's still in the car. I'll go down and get my bags after breakfast."
"Sounds great. Actually, I hoped we could take a nice walk on the beach after we finish eating. Kinda move the food around. Does that sound like fun to you? I haven't been out since ... in ages. I'm going stir crazy."
His tender smile went unnoticed; he nodded. "It sounds great, Cathy. I love to walk. You can show me around the 'hood." Rudy finished his breakfast, glancing around the rooftop garden. He shook his head.
'And I'm actually getting paid for this? Gorgeous spot, beautiful place and the company of a lovely lady. I know what Jim meant when he called her a doll. I should be paying, not the other way around.'
"Good morning, Ms. Abbott. 'Morning, sir."
"Hi, Thomas. This is Mr. Clark. He's going to be staying with me for a while. If he needs anything, he can come to you, right?"
"Yes, ma'am. Any time, sir. I'll be glad to help any way I can. Y'all have a nice walk now."
They strolled across the veranda and Kip hesitated at the top of the staircase, waiting for Cathy to take hold of the railing. The dog remained still while she slid her foot to the edge of the stair. Secure now, Cathy gave the command to go and they started down at a steady pace, Rudy right behind. He joined them on the sidewalk, listening to the nearby surf pounding the sand and marveling at how well Kip did as a blind guide.
Cathy turned in his direction and grinned. "Let's cross at the light. We can have a nice walk along the beach and when we get to Laguna Drive, we can take it up to the boulevard. I'll show you my favorite shops."
They continued down the sloping path, chatting. When they reached the light, he tucked her free hand under his elbow and drew a deep breath.
"I love the beach. I've lived near it for a good part of my life, although not lately. The training facility is located on the outskirts of Altadena. It's beautiful, but I miss the ocean. You live here long?"
"Lainie and I bought the condo after my accident and rehab. It's been almost ten years."
"Does it bother you to talk about it?"
"Nah, not any more. There was some kind of loose piece on the escalator step that grabbed the back of my shoe and virtually threw me down the stairs. I hit my head so hard I had a concussion. Spent ten days in the hospital, unconscious, and when I awoke, I couldn't see."
"Oh, my God, that's terrible." He tightened his grip on her hand, murmuring in reassurance. "You must have been scared to death."
"I was frantic. I came to without much fanfare; just woke up. I'd opened my eyes, I felt it, but I couldn't see. Thank God a nurse happened to be in the room at the time. She talked to me and held my hand until the doctor came in. Lainie stayed with me the whole time. She was in the hospital cafeteria having a bite of dinner when it happened. She came back and I was awake. And blind."
The silence that followed, although profound, was not strained. Her detached recitation of the events leading to the discovery of her blindness, although mechanical and rehearsed, held no self-pity. On the contrary, it was like an oft-repeated, well-known chorus of the facts she lived with since the accident.
Rudy nodded from time to time, listening to her matter-of-fact presentation of the last decade of her life. He glanced out at the ocean where a speedboat towed a zigzagging skier across the face of the water and smiled. "As active as you were, did you ever surf or water-ski?"
She chuckled and pushed her dark glasses back up her nose. "It's been a while, of course, but yes, I used to do it all the time. Boogie-boarding is great fun, too."
"Would you like to water ski again?"
"Of course, but I can't."
"Sure you can. I used to be a Navy Seal, so I'm certified in a variety of water activities and I promise to make that happen for you. I can't do much about the boogie-boarding or surfing, but we can ski together."
They reached the beach path and Cathy bent over to put Kip's harness in the stay position. Three abreast, they jogged up the path, the screech of seagulls and the occasional bark of a dog the only sounds besides the pounding surf and their measured breathing.
She slowed to a walk and then stopped, puffing, her hand searching for Kip's harness. She raised the handle and stroked the dog. Panting, she raised an index finger. "How?"
"We'll rent a boat and driver and you can stand in front of me and just lean back. I'll support you, and I'll catch you if you fall." Rudy watched her face as a variety of emotions flitted across it.
"You really think we could do that?"
"Sure. We'll start off in the bay so you won't have to deal with waves at first, but once you get used to it, get your sea legs back, we'll go on the ocean."
Cathy chuckled. "Hurry summer."
"Won't be long now."
They continued down the beach walk, chatting quietly.
"I'm so out of shape I can't believe it. Feels fantastic to be out again. Are you having fun?"
"Oh, yes, the ocean is beautiful and there aren't many people out yet. This afternoon it'll be wall to wall. Oh, I see a sign ahead for Laguna Street. Is that the one you want to take?"
"Yes. I wanted to show you some of the local shops. What sounds good for lunch? I can't cook, but Mrs. Adams is there, so you pick it, she'll fix it."
"How about if I take you out for lunch? Or maybe dinner? Lunch for me is usually just a salad or a sandwich anyway, but I like a nice hearty meal at night. Hey, tell you what. How about if I cook for us tonight? I can barbeque with the best of them."
Her laughter, tinkling and lighthearted, made him smile as they strolled down the sidewalk.
"Well, if you're sure, that'd be great fun. I can do some basic stuff, like salads, but I'm a culinary flop. Mom didn't like to cook, so I never got familiar with the kitchen as a kid, never learned my way around. In college, of course, it was the cafeteria or the local pizza parlor. Shortly after graduation I had the accident, so a lot of things I wanted to do remain undone. Besides, I'm always so busy, it's easier to eat out or make something quick and simple. I build a great sandwich, a little lopsided sometimes, but totally edible."
It was Rudy's turn to chuckle. "I live far enough away from town that I've learned to cook for defensive purposes. I can only take just so many heat 'n eats. I'm no chef, but I do my favorites quite well. I'm a wiz at the barbeque grill and use a microwave like a pro. I have all the cooking gadgets. George Foreman has a separate wing in the kitchen."
She laughed, deep rippling chuckles. "Oh, me, that's funny. So, do you live alone?"
"Yes, in a manner of speaking. Until Steve arrived, it was just me and as many as fifty Dobies, all of whom wanted to sit on my lap."
Cathy laughed again and shrugged. "Still, it sounds kinda lonely, living that far away from other people. I don't know what I'd do without Lainie." She slid a hand across Kip's forehead and patted her neck. "Dogs are great companions, though, no denying that. Of all the dogs you've ever trained, do you have a favorite?"
Rudy chuckled. "Yes, I do. Without a doubt, it would have to be Tony. Never in all my life have I encountered a dog like him. Smart beyond words, utterly devoted and completely fearless. He's been with Jim since he was a yearling."
"That Tony?" The laughter came again. "Oh, I know him. Ella wants me to make a sculpture of him for Jim's birthday. I'm about half done. I'll have to show it to you, get your take on how much it looks like the real Tony."
"Of course, he's a tad past his prime now, but in his day, he was magnificent. He does all kinds of tricks which Jim happily employs when he's dealing with the bad guys."
"I've heard the stories." Cathy tightened her grip on Rudy's elbow and hesitated a moment as Kip slowed her pace. "We're in front of From the Farm, right?"
"Yes, we are. Shall we go in?" Rudy reached for the door knob and pulled. An unusual bouquet of fragrances, redolent of watermelon, fresh basil and peaches, kissed the air. They drew in deep breaths and giggled with delight.
What the store lacked in size it more than made up for in quality and uniqueness. Avocados, ripe pineapple, mangos, papayas and a colorful mixture of chilies filled the small oak bins. Seasonal fruit and vegetables from local growers stood next to those imported from south of the border, all packed in wicker baskets that lined the shelves.
The meat case held a variety of choice cuts, including flap meat, the basic staple for steak fajitas.
Rudy ordered a pound, selected three huge succulent ripe tomatoes, a sweet onion and two Anaheim chilies and a jalapeno, careful to handle it with the plastic bag. He added a bunch of cilantro and a dozen fresh-baked tortillas to the cart.
"How do fajitas sound tonight? We can eat out on the lanai. I've been told I make a killer salsa, and you have to go far to beat my marinade. Do you have sour cream at home?"
"Yes, but I'm not sure about the avocados. Better pick up a couple; head lettuce, too."
They continued to shop, adding two bottles of merlot to the cart as well as a large lime. Rudy insisted on paying, and nestling both bags in the crook of his elbow, he took her hand and led the way outside.
This is a 'getting to know you' chapter for Cathy and Rudy. No action, really, just character revelation.
I know that's a crazy place to stop, but it's too long as it is. The final part of the chapter will be out with your morning coffee!
They meandered toward the condo, pace leisurely, enjoying the sun and salty aroma that engulfed them. She pointed out different restaurants as her nose told her they approached, singling out the distinctive smells of bakery goods. Sugar, butter, cinnamon, they hung in the air, suspended at nose level.
"How do you figure they do that?" She lifted her face and sniffed again.
"I swear, they pipe it out of the kitchen. Marketing ploy of the century."
"Do you like bakery stuff?"
"A-huh. Lead the way."
The girl behind the counter greeted Cathy by name, glancing admiringly at Rudy.
"Hi, Patti. What smells so good?"
"Everything really, but I bet you're talking about the gingerbread with cream cheese icing. Fresh ginger; it makes all the difference. Want a taste?"
There was now a third bag under Rudy's arm as they continued down the street.
"Tell me more about the farm."
"Well, after living with all this at your disposal, I suppose it'd seem like the back of the moon. It can get lonely, I guess, but it's so beautiful, so serene, I love it. Real good for the head. Working with the dogs is my passion." He tightened his hold on her arm as they ascended the steps to the verandah. The door opened as they approached the lobby.
"Hello again, Ms. Abbott, Mr. Carter. My, what a busy day y'all had." Thomas nodded at the bags and grinned.
The delicious aroma of cinnamon wafted her way. "Thank you, Thomas. It's a lovely afternoon. We had a great time shopping."
"Indeed, I can see that, and have a great dinner."
Cathy stood as close to Rudy as she dared, enjoying his scent and the strength that emanated from his body.
His body. All she'd really 'seen' about him thus far was his arm as he helped her across the street. It felt rock-hard and muscular, although not in that burly, lumpy way she found off-putting and vaguely threatening. His upper arm felt like that of a marble statue and her mind immediately knew what she had to do. She'd recreate him in plaster.
They crossed the foyer, punched the button for the penthouse and waited for the elevator.
At a loss for words and suddenly shy, she cast about for something to say. "What do you do when you're not training dogs?"
"Well, I'm into gadgets and not just for the kitchen. You know Jim and Lenny are PIs, right? Do the girls ever share any of their adventures with you?"
"Not so much lately, but a lot at the beginning. I heard about them catching those terrorists who were gonna spray anthrax all over LA, where they got that huge reward? And Ella told me about Amy and Bob, of course, but not much else."
"Aha, you caught all the highlights. Those cases were quite unusual, though. Most of the time they track down runaways of one sort or another. For their work, they need all kinds of sophisticated tracking devices, ground prox, electronic gadgets of all kinds, and I am the gadget master."
"What you are is a hoot," she said, giggling. She continued to ask questions, making her interest in him clear. Never good at subterfuge, she was not going to play cat and mouse with the first interesting man she'd met in ten years. This was not the time to be coy.
No novice in affairs of the heart or otherwise, Rudy smiled down at her, usually cold black eyes soft, tender and caring. He knew when a woman found him attractive and Cathy made her feelings clear. He shifted the bags and took her arm again as they entered the elevator. "Jim and I go way back, met in the boy scouts, actually. We had an unusual hobby in common ... we trained guard dogs. We became close friends, went to the same college, roomed together. After graduation, he took a nice inheritance from his grandparents and bought the first pawn shop, the one in Beverly Hills. I joined the Seal program, did several tours; spent a year or two under cover in Afghanistan working with the K9 units. We always kept close touch and when I left the service, we decided to open the training facility. We bought three breeding bitches and a good, I mean really good stud dog and went into business.
"At first we trained strictly for companion and personal security. Then one day I got a call from an old friend I knew from the Seals. We met and over a couple of drinks he mentioned how high the demand was for military dogs, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan, and how much the government paid for them.
"He put me in touch with the procurement agent and the rest, as they say, is history. Our path changed a bit at that point, although it's only a very small, select group that can go military, at least the way I train them."
She unlocked the door and headed down the hall toward the kitchen. "What do you mean?"
"Well, our dogs are different. They operate on hand signals from the trainer and usually work on their own. Most of the time, the military canine units are German Shepherds. They bark like crazy at the drop of a hat, intimidating everyone within a ten yard radius. They're great for that, the best for crowd control in riot situations. Loud, boisterous, definitely in your face and they have a hell of a bite, second only to the Rotti in power. But if you want a dog to get somewhere without anyone knowing he's coming, to sneak up on someone and disarm them, to find a missing person or a fleeing perp, my dogs can't be beat.
"Usually Shepherds are kept on leashes and the handler directs the dog to jump at the prisoners, snarling, snapping and barking his head off, just pouring on the aggression, and believe me, it's needed in that situation; works, too. My dogs do not bark. They do not need to be restrained by a leash and most of the time they're independent agents. They know their mission and the first weapon in their arsenal is stealth. They sneak up on their prey, a far different assignment than the other dogs; far more deadly."
Her laugh came again, but this time it seemed forced. "There was a dog in my neighborhood when I was a kid. A Dobie, black, with big hazel eyes. Very different from most dogs' eyes which is why I remember him so vividly. Anyway, he'd stare at me when I'd pass his yard. He didn't bark or snarl or do anything at all. He'd just watch me. Scared me to death. He's the one responsible for my fear of Dobies, although Kip sure changed a lot of that. She's just a sweetheart."
"Having a big dog watch you like that would scare anyone, although he probably didn't mean any harm. They're just very territorial and they'll protect their people with their last ounce of blood."
"So I assume you only work with Dobies?"
"I've trained other dogs over the years, but now, since we're breeding our own stock, we stick to Dobies. Their versatility and athleticism make them the best security dog available, at least that's my opinion."
She pulled a couple of bottles out of the fridge with a grin. "Beer here!"
It was his turn to chuckle. "Oh, Sam Adams. Sounds great."
"Okay, so back to the farm. How long has this been going on?"
"More than fifteen years. We built out all the kennels, designed everything just the way we wanted it. With almost twenty acres, you can get creative. We don't have any near neighbors, just miles of citrus groves surrounding us in every direction. Sometimes it smells so good you just want to lie down in the grass and give in to it."
"Oh, Rudy, I can't wait to go there. It sounds wonderful. Tell me more, paint me a word picture."
"The main house is mine. It's quite large, an L-shaped ranch type on one floor, very comfy. The facility has kennels to house fifty dogs, although we rarely have that many at one time. We have a large aluminum building where we train the dogs for attack work and tracking. In one of the pastures we have a variety of obstacles: walls, chain link fences, balance beams and ladders, all kinds of barriers for them to get over, under or through. We have miles of dirt roads, mostly agriculture, citrus groves and stuff. I have a couple of horses and do as much riding as I can fit in. I never get tired of it."
"Horses? I love horses! I owned a horse until I went away to college. I rode every day with Terry and Ella."
"No kidding? Shoot, if you were that good, with the right horse you could ride again, and I have just that horse. He's a retired cow pony, absolutely bomb-proof. His name is Boomer; you'll love him."
The expression on her face caused him to draw a sharp breath. She was transfixed, leaning against the counter, clearly remembering. "I used to jump." Voice low with anticipation she said, "You really think I could ride again? It never crossed my mind. Oh, how exciting. My God."
"Absolutely. Would you like to go out to the farm this weekend? We could take a nice trail ride and I'll introduce you to the dogs and the man who trained Kip to be such an extraordinary guide dog. She's incredible, don't you think?"
"I'd love to, it sounds wonderful, but I'm afraid ... I mean, what if I miss a call about Suzi?" Cathy nodded, stroking the dog's head. "And yes, Kip is super. I just don't want to get too attached because when Suzi comes back ... y'know...." Her lips quivered as her voice trailed off; her mood changed abruptly. She drew a deep breath and sighed. "You don't think there's much chance that she's coming back, do you? It's been too long."
"I know it's not what you want to hear, but if they stole her to collect a ransom, I think you'd have heard long before now. If it's any consolation, maybe some frantic father stole her for his blind child or wife. Sometimes I think it's easier to make up a comfortable scenario than to agonize about the unknown reality, especially since there's a good chance you never will know."
"Mind games; I do it, too. Suzi was twelve, so I knew the time would come when I'd have to get a new guide dog, but I planned to keep her with me for the rest of her life. Now...." She heaved another sigh and shrugged. "Well, I still believe in miracles."
Rudy pulled the last of his luggage from the trunk and closed it. They'd spent the afternoon on the terrace where Cathy had her studio, an expensive lean-to with walls on three sides and one open toward the east. He'd watched her work, saw pieces of plaster take on the shape of a soaring bird. She worked on the bill, amazing him as the chunk of plaster took on the shape of a fish, her movements secure and practiced as she worked with nimble fingers.
Part of his mind, the part he listened to most, screamed at him to get back in the car and drive as far away from Cathy Abbott as he could get. Alarms went off in his mind like land mines, refusing to stop, bombarding him with memories. The last time he felt like this about a woman it had ended in disaster; he couldn't go through it again.
'If I had a brain in my head, I'd run.'
But he didn't run. Captivated, he entered the lobby and walked to the elevator. He opened the condo door to the strident ringing of the phone. Leaving his bags at the entry to the hallway, he headed for the kitchen, calling her name.
Cathy leaned against the counter, one hand gripping the handle of Kip's harness, the other fluttering about her throat.
"Cathy? What's wrong? Do you want me to get the phone?"
She seemed unable to speak, but nodded slowly, lips drawn into a tight, tense grimace.
Rudy lifted the receiver. "Hello?" Instead of the empty line he expected, the clear sounds of someone on the other end made him pause. "Who is it? Can I help you?"
After several seconds the caller hung up. There was a clear and distinct click as the line disengaged. Rudy replaced the receiver in the cradle and turned to Cathy. Before he could say a word, the phone rang again.
Startled, she uttered an involuntary cry and burst into tears.
Rudy moved to her side, placing a protective hand on her arm. "I'm right here, Cathy, don't worry. You're not alone. I'll protect you. How about if we let it go to the machine and see if he'll leave a message."
The answering machine picked up on the third ring, gave its canned message and beeped. The caller's voice, low and menacing, sinister, made the hair on the back of his neck stand up. He slipped a protective arm across Cathy's shoulder.
"Don't you ever hang up on me again, Cathy. I'm warning you! You send him away, I mean it. Get rid of him right now. If you don't, I'll make you so sorry you'll wish you had. Do it now. Get rid of him!" The voice remained cold and steady although his rage filled the quiet kitchen.
Rudy picked up the phone. "Do you have Suzi? We're prepared to pay any reasonable sum to...." He heard the click, stared a moment at the dead line and hung up.
"Oh, my God, oh, God, please! He knows my name." Tears seeped from under her dark glasses and poured, unimpeded, down her cheeks. "He called three times while you were getting your stuff. He said ... Rudy, he knew my name. He...."
Perplexed, Rudy leaned against the counter, trying to piece together the happenings of the last several minutes while continuing to reassure Cathy with shoulder pats.
When first told about the hang-up calls, he assumed it was the thief who stole Suzi. Now he wasn't so sure. His offer to pay a ransom should have made the perp sit up and take notice, but it didn't. It should have been offers and counter offers, promises of anonymity and a meeting place, all those things needed to arrange payment, agree on a rendezvous and make the exchange.
'But all the guy can say is he wants me to go away? Something's very strange here.'
"Has he ever talked before?"
Cathy blew her nose and sniffed, shaking her head. "No. That's the first time he's said anything. He called three times while you were getting your things from your car."
The phone rang again. Rudy's hand snaked out and snatched the phone from its
cradle and hit the speaker. With a finger to his lips, he pressed the receiver to his ear and waited.
The light but audible sound of breathing told Rudy the caller wanted him to know he listened; it was almost a taunt.
"What do you want? Do you have our dog? Why won't you speak?"
Voice pitched low and savage, the man said, "What the hell are you doing there? You have one hour to get out. If you don't, you'll be one sorry bastard."
The slamming of the phone reverberated down the line; Rudy winced, pulling the receiver from his ear.
Several moments passed in utter silence. Cathy continued to cry, small, sniffing sounds coming from behind a Kleenex.
"Did Mrs. Adams leave already?" Rudy glanced around the huge kitchen, looking for signs of the woman.
Cathy pulled herself together with effort and nodded. "I sent her home since you said you wanted to cook dinner tonight. Have our plans changed?"
"No, not at all. I'm looking forward to it. Cathy, do you know whether he's ever talked to her?"
"No, I don't think so. That's the first time he's spoken to my knowledge. Why?"
"Just curious, mostly. Which came first, the calls or Suzi's disappearance?"
Cathy shrugged her shoulders, remembering. "Oh, the calls did. They started about four or five months before Suzi ... left. Do you think tonight's caller is the one who took her?"
"I'm not sure, but I doubt it. It makes no sense at all. If this guy needs a guide dog, why would he call and harass you? And if he expects a ransom, why didn't he respond to my offer?" Rudy shrugged. "If he took her and plans to keep her, for whatever reason, why would he call you at all? No, I think it's someone else."
The color drained from Cathy's face. Reflexively, she reached down and stroked Kip's head. "I'm never going to see Suzi again, am I?"
Rudy walked to her side, arms outstretched. "I'm not sure, Cathy. With this much time passing, I have to admit it doesn't look good."
She laid the harness gently on Kip's back and turned toward him. "I sure could use a hug."
"I sorta figured." Stepping toward her, he put both hands on her shoulders, allowing her to step into his space, to control the closeness of the embrace. She slid her arms around his waist and rested her head on his chest.
He felt the shudders ripple through her body as she started to cry again. Lips pursed in angry sorrow, he began to rock slowly back and forth, whispering words of comfort and reassurance while in his mind he devised a proper end for the man who made her cry. If they ever came face to face, the results would not be pretty.
She drew a deep breath and slowly pushed herself away from Rudy. "Thanks, I really needed that. I feel better now."
"My pleasure. How about if we open that bottle of merlot? I could use a drink. You?"
"Oh, yes, that's a great idea. I have no idea where the glasses are; you'll have to root around."
"I found them already. Now I'm in search of a corkscrew ... okay, here it is." Rudy glanced around the kitchen duly impressed. "For a girl who doesn't cook, this is some kitchen."
She chuckled. "That's what Lainie says. Evidently the gal we bought from was quite the socialite and local hostess. Used to have huge parties with all the right people." Tinkling laughter followed. "I finally met her at one of my gallery showings last year. She's still the hostess with the mostest. Now she lives in Beverly Hills and moves with the Hollywood crowd."
"Here you go," he said, handing her a glass of wine. The deep burgundy color and heady bouquet made his mouth water. He tipped his glass gently against hers. "L'Chayim."
"Skol," she replied with a grin.
"Mmm, very good. I don't know about you, but I'm starved. I'm going to fire up this grill and cook us some dinner."
She nodded in agreement. "If you can find a bowl, I'll make the salad." She opened the fridge and felt around for the dozen or so veggie-filled baggies loaded in the lower bin. She placed them and a head of iceberg lettuce on the counter. "Mrs. Adams always keeps all kinds of sliced veggies for me. I just about live on salads, so this makes it quick and easy."
They worked in companionable silence and soon the aroma of grilling steak filled the air.
"Where do you generally eat?"
She paused a moment and shrugged. "Well, when its warm and Lainie's here, we usually eat on the lanai. When I'm alone, I sit at the counter here and listen to the TV news." She read the watch on her wrist. "Yep, the political free-for-alls are about to start. Shall we?"
He shook his head, grinning. "You're a girl after my own heart. Let's catch the last of the local news first, find out who did what to whom in the 'hood?"
She picked up the remote, tittering. "Do you remember that song, it was ages ago...."
Before she could hum three notes, he said, "Dirty Laundry. Don Henley. Great song." They started to sing along together as Rudy flipped the strips of steak onto their plates. With a wasted flourish, he bowed lightly in her direction and placed her plate in front of her.
"This is kind of embarrassing, but could you cut the meat into bites? I've tried dozens of times to master the art of slicing but I just can't; more times than not, Suzi got half my dinner. When I'm alone, I eat with my fingers, y'know, just take small pinches of stuff. Salad spears easily with a fork, which is one of the reasons I eat so much of it. Sounds terrible describing my table manners; looks worse, I'm sure. I hate being blind!"
Rudy swallowed several times, at a loss to say anything that mattered. "Well, its fajitas, remember, so everything is already mostly bite sized strips. Do you just prefer to eat with your fingers or would you like me to roll your stuff in the tortilla?"
"I have a mind like a sieve, I swear. I forgot what we're eating for dinner. No, I'll just work with my fingers if you don't mind."
"You can be yourself around me, Cathy. Eating with your fingers makes perfect sense. Tell me how I can help with your plate. Do you place things any particular way when you have a large variety?"
"No, I just have more stuff to feel my way through."
"If you filled your plate the same way each time, you'd develop a pattern that would be easy to see. Heck, let's do it now. Okay?" He pulled her plate towards him, segregating the food into distinct piles.
"So, steak at six, onions at three, peppers at nine, tomatoes at twelve, tortillas in the middle. Your plate looks like it's about to take off!"
A light smile played on her lips. "What a cool idea. Yes, I could do that. I have no problems when I'm sculpting or working with the copper because I feel everything through my fingers anyway; it's all so familiar, so natural. My first inclination was to do the same with food, but a pattern works much better. Good Lord, after all these years...."
The news, good and bad, filled the silence as they ate. Improvement in the jobless numbers and a continued low interest rate encouraged people to spend again, so that was good, but news of a triple murder-suicide in Carlsbad and a massive forest fire in Arizona followed by an update on war casualties made Rudy sigh.
Cathy clicked off the TV. "Me too. I'd rather talk. Tell me more about Boomer."
The shrill ringing of the phone caused them both to start. They let it go to the answering machine.
Choking on his hysteria, shrieking, babbling in furious tones, they listened as he struggled to get his voice under control. "You frickin' bastard! I warned you, told you to get out. I gave you an hour. Now you're going to regret it, you son of a bitch. I'll kill you. Get away from her! Get out!" The voice rose to a roar at the finish, followed by a hollow click.
"Oh, my God, I've gotta get out of here." Her lip started to tremble and her hand tightened on Kip's harness. "What should I do?"
"I think we need to stick to our plan. Tomorrow morning we drive out to the farm and spend the next couple of days there, as long as you want. I know you'll have a good time. We can ride and you can relax. You're tight as a guitar string, girl. I highly recommend some time away from that phone."
Voice low, she said, "Sounds like you have a good plan. While we're gone I'll have the number changed and unlisted. I should have done it already. I'm just afraid I'll miss a call about Suzi."
Rudy ran his hand across his brow, scowling. "It's probably best not to dwell on that. If you'd like, I can help you pack your bags. Do you have jeans? How about some kind of boots?"
In a matter of minutes, they packed Cathy's bags, remembering to bring a heavy sweater just in case.
"Are you tired?"
"Good grief, no. I feel like I've just had a double espresso at Starbucks. How about you?"
"If you go down the hall and turn left into the dining room, you'll see the bar along one wall. It's stocked with all kinds of brandies and stuff. Help yourself to whatever. I'll have a snifter of Grand Marnier, please. I don't see much sleep in my immediate future."
"I'll be right back."
He returned with their drinks as well as several jars of bar snacks and assorted bags of nuts. He placed her glass next to her right hand and loosening the jar lid, poured a handful of smoked almonds into his palm.
She took a sip of the aromatic liquor and chuckled. "Oh, good, you brought the snacks. When things get tense I always get hungry, even when I'm full. It never fails." She turned in his direction. "Do you see the jar with the cereal in it? I'd love some of that. Lainie makes it by the ton. She puts extra Worcestershire sauce in there, hot sauce, too. It really goes better with a margarita than this, but I'll make do."
He opened the lid and handed her the jar. "Are you up for talking about tonight, as well as when Suzi disappeared? I must have a million questions, but I don't want to overstep my bounds."
"Absolutely. Ask away, anything you want to know, but first, I have a question for you. Are you scared?"
Rudy harrumphed. "No, not even a little bit."
"Absolutely. Ask away, anything you want to know, but first, I have a question for you. Are you scared?"
Rudy harumphed. "No, not even a little bit."
"Good. That's what I figured." She settled back in her chair and nodded. "Ask away."
"Okay. First, do you have any enemies that you know of?" He watched her shake her head, her expression bland. "How about admirers, maybe a fan of your art or another tenant in the building, anyone like that?"
She considered his words, mulling over them and their implications. "Not that I can think of. I know tons of people from the industry, but I don't socialize with them. It's always couples, for one thing, so I feel out of place, and I'm afraid, nervous in big groups. It's not fun for me unless Lainie's there. If she is, though, it's different. It's about the only social life I have, but at least if I smear something on my nose, she'll tell me about it. I worry about that kind of thing constantly so it makes me very self-conscious. I stay away from crowds as much as I can."
"I promise you, Cathy. If there is something you need to know about your face or your hair or clothes, whatever it might be, I promise I'll tell you, even if it's embarrassing. I understand how you feel, believe me. I think you're one of the bravest people I know."
They sipped their drinks for a moment and then Cathy said, "It's been a few weeks ago, but one day Lainie and I decided to eat dinner at that little Chinese place I showed you earlier. We like it because they have great sweet and sour chicken, crispy little bite sized pieces ... anyway, Lainie said I had an admirer. A man sitting alone at a table across from us seemed to be watching me, enough that it caught her attention, but she hasn't mentioned seeing him since."
"She didn't recognize him from the neighborhood, huh? Okay, then how about the people who work in the condo. Anyone you can think of?"
"No, not one. I've known all the employees here for years; very little turnover. They're here longtime, and even the outside vendors that do landscape and windows and all, they've been here forever."
"So exactly when did all this start?"
"I'm figuring mid-August, although I'm not certain. I remember working on a commissioned piece, a copper sunburst, just putting on the finishing touches when the phone rang. I picked it up but no one answered, although he made sure I heard him breathing. I just hung up. Didn't happen again for a week or so, maybe two. I lose track of stuff like that, time passing." She shifted in her chair and took another sip from her glass. "Anyway, I was working outside again, prepping a piece for firing. It's the last chance to catch a rough spot or an area that needs a bit more sanding and the interruption pissed me off, broke my concentration.
"It was the same deal, breathing but no talk. I said hello again and waited a moment. When he wouldn't say anything, I told him I had no time for people who played silly-ass games and hung up on him. Guess he didn't like that. The calls became more frequent for a while, but still no talking. Then a week or two would go by before I'd realize he hadn't called and I'd think that was the end of that. Pretty soon they'd start up again. Like watching a seesaw, up and down, back and forth. I stopped answering from that first day on ... just let the machine get it. Then Suzi disappeared."
"I don't think the caller has anything to do with Suzi. It just doesn't make sense. How about irate ex-husbands or boyfriends?"
Her chuckle lightened her expression but not by much. "I'd just broken off an engagement when I fell down the escalator. After the accident I had no desire to meet anyone new; the doctors and nurses were more than enough. My life was scary, very daunting. I didn't need new people added into the mix. Having Suzi, Lainie and a couple of old friends was all I could handle. Now, of course, it's different, plus my job keeps me as busy as I want to be."
"We keep coming up with dry wells here. Okay, the accident happened ten years ago. When did you receive your settlement from the insurance company? Did they fight you hard? Was anyone blamed, made the scapegoat?"
"I never heard about anyone being blamed. The insurance company paid up pretty quickly, considering the amount involved, and the claim was settled about seven or eight years ago. I had a great attorney and he really pressed them, plus it was obvious negligence and they knew it. They paid my attorney and hospital fees and I got a lump sum settlement of ten million. Sounds like so much when you say it."
"Not to me. Who would trade their sight for any amount of money? What kind of money could compensate for your loss? Impossible to gauge, and you were what, twenty-three? I bet they're taking better care of their escalators now." He checked his watch, eyes widening. "It's almost one. Talk about time flying. I can certainly sleep now, how about you?"
They walked down the hall toward the bedrooms. Hers came first and she and Kip went inside. She walked to the side of her bed, shot a lazy smile in his general direction and began to remove Kip's harness. Freed of the wide leather straps, the big dog shook herself several times and whined.
"You want to go out? Out? Okay." She settled on the side of her bed as Kip padded over to the large doggie door and let herself outside to the patio.
Rudy chuckled. "I was just going to offer to take her for a walk, but it looks like you've got it handled."
"It was the first thing we did when we moved here. The terrace wraps around the whole condo. Out those French doors is a nice private patio with a long grassy area. She even has her own tree. I'll show you tomorrow. Kip will come back when she's ready. Goodnight, Rudy, and thanks for everything."
"See you in the morning."
Rudy closed the door behind him and returned to the hallway to get his luggage and his half-full brandy glass. He entered his suite, left one bag by the door and placed the other on the large queen sized bed. Flipping the snaps, he opened the lid and pulled out his robe and slippers.
After a quick shower, he dressed and did a closer inspection of his suite. Off the sitting room, on the far side of the outside wall, he saw a sliding door. He pushed the drapes back, opened the door and stepped onto the terrace. The star-studded sky, inky black now, stretched to forever. The almost full moon cast a bright light, bringing out vivid shadows on the surrounding buildings, its silvery reflection riding the sea.
He sipped his drink and allowed his eyes to take in the beauty of his surroundings.
'Must be high tide. I hear the pounding surf.'
He continued to enjoy the view, slowly pivoting to the right and when he finally recognized the high-rises next door, he realized that he was behind Cathy's workshop.
Living in a penthouse was so deceiving, especially this one with so many rounded corners. It gave you the illusion of being alone, unseen. In truth, you were visible to anyone on floors higher than yours. Although too dark now to pick out items on shadowy patios, indoors, residents conducted their lives in deliberate oblivion, unconscious to any number of unseen spectators watching less than a hundred feet away. The very idea of drawing a curtain over their multi-million dollar view never occurred.
The chilling wind brought a strong scent of salt as billowy clouds changed direction, now rolling in from the sea. The stars disappeared in bunches and the moon slipped behind a cloud, leaving the night murky and dark.
Rising before dawn was one habit Rudy couldn't break, nor did he really want to, although there were times when it had its appeal. No matter how late he stayed up the night before, his eyes would pop open as the sky began to lighten.
The aroma of coffee wafting from the pot on the corner of his sink provided additional incentive. He opened one eye and stared out the window. Gloomy gray clouds filled with mist hovered above the deck like a wet blanket. He turned over in an attempt to go back to sleep.
The intrepid sun made its presence known, poking holes in the clouds. The alluring smell of coffee turned the tide.
"I give up."
He threw the covers off and dragged his robe across his shoulders. Yawning, he poured his first cup. He savored the flavor, letting the hot liquid rest on his tongue, the flavor rich and slightly bitter. The watery sun beckoned and he walked out onto the lanai and approached the railing. He removed the plastic cover and sat on the padded bench, long legs stretched out, drinking his coffee and surveying the condos across the way.
Rudy looked down on neighboring patios, taking idle note of how they were furnished. The only building taller than his was also the closest. Except for the inevitable hedges lining the railing, the rest of the top two patios were hidden from view.
The sun continued to burn away the low-lying clouds, strengthening its grip on the morning. Rays of gold painted the building with subtle tones of rose and mauve. No longer alone, Rudy watched a man walk onto his terrace with a newspaper folded under one arm, coffee cup in the other. He glanced around, taking in the beautiful morning, and yawned.
'Another guy who appreciates the sunrise.'
The man stretched, settled onto a chaise lounge and started reading his paper.
Rudy drained his cup, about to get up for a refill when he saw something out of the corner of his eye. Cathy and Kip. He opened his mouth to greet her, and hesitated, afraid he'd startle her.
"Hi, Rudy. Did you sleep well?"
He chuckled, shaking his head. "How did you do that? I was about to say hello, but I was afraid I'd scare you."
"I knew you were here. I could smell you; your cologne is very distinctive. I take it you found the coffee?"
"I brought my own pot, actually. I inject the first several cups. Let me get a refill and I'll be right back."
"We'll be waiting."
He returned bearing the pot, plugged it into a convenient wall socket and chuckled. "Fresh cup sound good?"
She paused a moment, head cocked to one side. "You have a percolator? Wow. I had one ages ago, made the best coffee. Then it broke or something. Anyway, it was before my accident. Now I have a drip. Good old Mr. Coffee."
"Always preferred the perk. For one thing, it makes the coffee so much hotter. Plus, I drink it all day long and around noon in the summer, I switch to iced."
"I do, too. Lainie says it's a wonder I ever sleep. I guess I can thank the wine for that."
"Best night's sleep starts with a glass of wine."
"That's for sure."
They lapsed into silence, enjoying their coffee and the now fully risen sun. Gulls called in the distance, floating on the currents, waiting for breakfast to swim by.
She stroked the dog's ear, lost in the beauty of the morning. "You'd swear you were on the ends of the earth up here. So quiet. Except for the sounds of the birds and an occasional car, it feels totally isolated."
"Hard to believe you have so many close neighbors."
"What? What do you mean? How close?"
"Well, it's like any housing development. I guess the separation between buildings can't be more than a hundred feet max, and some a good deal closer."
"I had no idea. I don't think I like that. Can people see us now? Are they watching?"
"Well, there's only one building taller than yours, and not by much; two floors. The top two can see you from their patios, as well as at least two windows. But the way the building is positioned in relation to yours, they're the only ones with patios on this side."
"How about my workshop or the dining area? Can they see in there?"
"I don't know. Let's check it out." He watched the expression on her face, finding it hard to read. He couldn't tell whether she was scared or pissed off, finally deciding it was a little of both.
Cathy and Kip led the way to her workshop, turning the corner and stopping by one of the benches.
"What can they see from here?" she asked, voice tight.
"Right here, nothing much, certainly nothing inside the workshop. The dining room wall blocks any kind of view in there." He took several steps away from the wall and the other side of the building appeared. He moved a little farther out and raised his voice a bit. "But from about here to the end of the lanai, the two condos above you have a full view, especially the penthouse."
"I really hate that. I thought I was all alone up here. It's very ... disconcerting to find out otherwise. It makes me feel so vulnerable now, knowing people can watch me and I won't even know it. I hate this."
"Oh, sweetie, I'm sorry. It must make you very uncomfortable."
"It does. Maybe I could have screens installed. Do you think the condo management company might arrange to have that kind of work done? Maybe they can do it while we're at your farm."
"I don't think it'll work, Cathy. You would virtually have to put a roof over your lanai and I still don't think it'd do what you want. Besides, it's only two sets of people at best. The others are even with you or lower." He hesitated a moment, not wanting to seem unfeeling. "You said earlier that you'd be living here alone. So Lainie and Hank are engaged?"
"They got engaged a couple of nights ago. I'm just preparing for a rough ride."
"Speaking of that, shall we get on the road?"
They got off the elevator and headed for the main door. Before they got very far, they heard a voice behind them.
"Good morning Ms. Abbott, Sir. Can I help with the bags?" Javier smiled at Rudy, extending his hand.
Rudy smiled, nodding. "That'd be fine, thank you. It's the red Mustang under the tree over there." He turned and took Cathy's arm, and folding it close to his body, they strolled down the walkway to the lot.
Rudy saw it even before Javier, who gasped aloud. All four tires were flat and the side he could see bore deep scratches.
"Son of a bitch, I don't believe it. Wait here, Cathy."
He hurried to the side of his car, keys and cell already in hand, amazed at the depth of the gouges. The tires bore puncture marks, as did the convertible top. Rudy reset the security system, thankful that the vandal had not entered the car and wondering why he hadn't.
The glove box opened at his touch and he checked the contents to be sure. He pushed a button on the dashboard and turned back to Cathy, aware of her concern. "I'll be right there; everything's fine."
The line connected. "OnGuard, what is your emergency?"
"My name is Rudy Clark and someone vandalized my car, slashed all four of my tires." He gave the required info, including the size and make of the needed replacement tires.
"Yes, sir, we show the present location of the car. We will be there in approximately thirty minutes with your new tires. Will you be there?"
"Yes, thank you." Rudy walked back to Cathy, unsure how much to tell her.
"What happened to your car? Did someone run into it?"
He sighed. "No, someone slashed all four tires and gouged the sides and top. I have my roadside company bringing out new tires. They figure about half an hour. How about if we have the front desk call us when they get here? I could use another cup of coffee."
"Get out ... slashed your tires? They...?" A good bit of the color drained from her fair-skinned face. Two red blotches dotted the apples of her cheeks then faded to dusky beige. "Do you think ... oh, my God, is it possible?"
"Let's go upstairs and discuss this, okay?" He took her elbow and escorted her to the elevator, giving quick instructions to Thomas Jackson as they crossed the lobby. "When you see a big wrecker pull in, will you please call me?"
"Yes, sir. I'll see to it personally."
* * *
Norman Stanley sat in the visitor's parking lot of Cathy's condo, his car strategically hidden behind a large magnolia tree. Waves of rage swept over him, threatening to swamp him. For several hours he'd sat there, wanting to see first hand his rival's reaction to the damage to his car.
He smiled as he saw Rudy, Cathy and the dog cross the lot and approach the Mustang. He had the perfect vantage point as well as being within easy hearing distance.
Norman chuckled, hand across his mouth as he heard Rudy swear. Looking forward to seeing a continued and noisy exhibition of male fury, something that would diminish his rival in Cathy's eyes, it was all Norman could do to keep from screaming as the reality unfolded.
Instead of throwing a fit and cursing to the heavens, the man merely patted Cathy's arm and told her to wait there while he checked it out.
He pulled his cell from his pocket and dialed, no doubt summoning assistance. Within moments he ended his call, took Cathy's arm and headed back to the condo.
Norman stared at their retreating backs in furious disbelief. The guy acted like he didn't care, that the attack on his car was of no real concern, a surprise, a momentary inconvenience that someone else would fix in short order.
What the hell was that? Most guys would have a fit if someone did that to their car, especially such a new one.
He slammed his fist into the steering wheel until his hand ached. Shaking fingers twisted the key in the ignition and the engine roared to life. He put the car in gear and drove around the block to the entrance to his garage. He had to see what they did next.
* * *
They entered the condo, and by habit, she reset the alarm. The strident ringing of the phone a moment later made them both jump.
"Bastard. Let it ring through," she said, voice clipped.
Rudy stood next to the answering machine, a small recording device in his hand. As the message ended, he hit the button and waited. It didn't take long.
"How do you like the job I did on your car, you bastard? Next time, it'll be your frickin' neck. When your new wheels arrive, be a smart dude; hop in and drive, just drive away. Don't come back again or I'll kill you."
Rudy clenched his fists and something that might pass for a smile quirked his lips. Otherwise, he showed no emotion as the voice baited him. The time would come when he'd meet this guy face to face, but Cathy was already scared enough. They didn't need to talk about it now. But someday.
Rudy turned his attention to Cathy and watched a variety of emotions flit across her face. The color drained from her cheeks when the man threatened to kill him and she swayed slightly, leaning against the kitchen counter.
"I'm right here with you, Cathy. Don't be afraid. This guy can't get anywhere near you, count on it. We can leave as soon as the new tires get here. You'll feel better at the farm."
"Oh, my God, no. I can't go away with you, not after this. I don't know what this guy is up to, but I can't leave ... go somewhere new and strange? No, not now."
He hesitated a moment, not sure what to say. "The decision is up to you, of course, but I'm staying with you no matter what. You need protection, a lot more than this building affords on its own. If you stay, so do I."
The look of relief on her face was so intense, he sighed. "Don't worry, Cathy. I won't leave you. You're as safe as possible. If you're sure you don't want to go to the farm, that's fine. Besides, maybe it'll be better in the end to fight it out here where we're on familiar territory. We can take it as it comes."
"I'm so scared, I can't tell you. That guy is positively mad." Her teeth started to chatter.
Voice husky, he said, "Come here." He opened his arms and enfolded her, hugging her close.
The disheveled dog stood in the middle of the sidewalk, head down, panting, drawing deep slow breaths. She approached the staircase and began the climb, placing one weary, swollen foot ahead of the other. Bones showed through her filthy coat and a yellow discharge crusted both eyes. Her tongue hung from her mouth, flaccid, indicating her dehydration.
She'd barely made the landing when the astonished doorman let out a cry of dismay.
"Dear Gawd A'mighty, is that Suzi?" He crossed the veranda in three strides and bent over the exhausted dog. "My Lord, it is! Suzi! Where ya been? Oh, Ms. Abbott is gonna be so excited. Come on, old girl, let's get ya home."
He held the door wide open for the dog, who limped across the foyer to the elevator. Turning to the desk clerk he said, "I'll take her up. Call Ms. Abbott an' warn her or she'll stroke out for sure."
* * *
"I still can't believe it," Cathy said, caressing Suzi with one hand and Kip with the other. "She sure feels and smells a lot better after her bath."
Rudy chuckled, eyes twinkling in the late afternoon sun. "She's a regular Lassie, Come Home."
"Poor old girl. The vet said she'll be okay, but she's lost a lot of weight; feel her. How about that cold in her eyes?" She turned in Rudy's direction. "Any more seepage?"
"No, she's clean as a whistle. The bath did her a world of good. I'll put the drops in her eyes when they're due, in about another hour. One good indication is her appetite, although a medium rare sirloin would tempt the most finicky eater. And she seems to have made friends with Kip." He cast an amused eye at the dogs. "Of course, she really didn't have a choice. Kip wouldn't have it any other way. I've never in my life met a dog of any breed who loves everybody on sight like she does. Strange."
He stared at the Dobie and shook his head. "Her mother is a holy terror and her father is on military duty in Iraq; her litter mates range from mid to top level on the aggressive scale. And then there's Kip. Who knows what cosmic disturbance occurred in her gene pool?"
"She's a sweetie and now that I can finally admit it, I love her to death. You'll let me keep her, won't you, even with Suzi back? I'll pay whatever price you want for her."
Lips quirked in a tender smile, he nodded. "I'm sure we can figure something out. She's quite the little nurse. Now she's licking Suzi's feet. Frankly, her pads are so torn up they worry me more than the cold in her eyes. I'm going to make her some kind of bootie. She's licking the salve off as fast as I put it on and now Kip's joined in the effort."
Cathy chuckled. "I already have several pairs. The sidewalks get so hot in the summer I put them on her to protect her feet."
"Where are they? I'll get them."
"Check the cupboard next to the kitchen door. They're in a shoe box on the lowest shelf."
He returned with the box, wanting Cathy to select the pair she didn't mind losing. The salve would stain them yellow permanently.
"There's a set of rain boots in there. Use them. They'll hold the salve so it won't leak through."
Rudy sat on the floor and after scooting Kip out of the way, brushed more salve on Suzi's paws and one-by-one, pulled on the boots. When Kip made an attempt to sniff them, Rudy gave her a stern no, which was all it took. Kip returned to Cathy's side, a mournful expression on her face.
"Suzi is an amazing dog. No wonder you love her so much. It won't take long before she gains back the weight she lost and the salve will make her pads heal quickly. The only other thing she needs is rest. You can tell how tired she is from the way she breathes."
"I know, poor girl. Where in the world do you think she's been all this time? It's been over three weeks!"
"Wherever it was, and we will probably never know, it was a long walk home. And yet she made it. Astounding when you think about it ... just a miracle she wasn't hit by a car."
"Oh, I forgot to mention, Lainie was so excited about Suzi coming home, she and Hank are coming over for cocktails. They've got tickets for a play at seven, so they'll be over about five-thirty. Mrs. Adams makes hors d'oeuvres all the time and freezes them for unexpected company, so we'll serve them. You get to pick. We'll have great choices."
"What's Hank like?"
"I don't really know; smart. He works at the same law firm as Lainie. Nice guy, seems friendly enough, I guess. I've only met him a couple of times. Lainie's crazy about him, I know that, and she has good taste, so he has to be okay."
"You don't sound sure. Anything in particular or just a gut feeling?"
"You can tell me your impression after they leave tonight. I don't want to prejudice you one way or the other."
Lainie entered the condo in a swirl of excitement, calling hello. "Cathy, it's me." She walked down the hall to the family room, a man of medium height and build following behind her. "They're out on the lanai," she said over her shoulder and headed for the French doors.
The girls hugged the dogs and each other, squeals of delight mingled with thankful tears over Suzi's amazing return. They had no choice but to divide the affection equally; Kip insisted on getting her fair share of pets, regardless of who came back from the dead.
Rudy extended his hand to the man who approached him and smiled. "Hi, I'm Rudy Clark."
The shake and the smile came back at him. "Pleased to meet you. I'm Hank Cameron." He glanced at the girls and shook his head. "This is nothing but a miracle, don't you think? Lainie and I'd secretly given up hope, although you couldn't talk like that around Cathy. She just knew Suzi would come home and here she is. This is beyond wonderful."
"It sure is. God knows how far the poor dog had to walk to get home. Well, can I pour you a glass of wine or something? I'm sure you're more at home here than I am."
Hank chuckled. "I know my way around, that's for sure. Lainie and I've been going together a couple of years. Most of the time we stay at my place, but I feel at home here, too. I think I'll mix up some martinis." He raised his voice slightly. "Lainie, you want a 'tini? Cathy?"
"Sounds great. Two Lemon Drops?"
"You got it." His voice back to normal he asked, "Rudy?"
"No thanks, I'll stick with the wine, but give me a rain check."
Hank nodded, pulled two lemons out of the fridge under the bar and deftly sliced them in half. He squeezed the juice into a cocktail shaker, added a teaspoon of baker's fine sugar and poured Grey Goose vodka over the ice.
Capping the top on the container, he gave it several hard, quick shakes and strained the contents into three frosted glasses.
"She looks wonderful doesn't she?" Lainie accepted the drink, and smiling at Hank, took a long sip. "Mmm, that's so good."
Smiling, Hank laid a hand on Cathy's arm. "Here you go Cathy, incoming." He glanced down as he placed the drink in her hands and lightly squeezed her shoulder "How are you doing now that Suzi's back? You must be thrilled."
"I am, Hank. Thanks for asking. I didn't think I'd ever see her again, and suddenly here she is; just walks home out of the blue. It's incredible."
They continued to chat about the miracle of Suzi's return, the threatening phone calls and vandalism of Rudy's car.
"That really scares me, Cathy. Are you going to be okay here? Hank and I just booked tickets on a cruise ... it's only four days, but if you want, I can cancel or...."
"No, absolutely not. I'll be fine, Lainie. Rudy said he can stay with me for as long as I need him. Actually, we were going to spend some time at his farm when his car was trashed. When are you going on the cruise?"
"Day after tomorrow. Like I said, it's just a quickie down the coast. I've had a profitable but very busy couple of months at work and I'm frazzled. Hank and I finally got a lull in business, so we figured we'd get away while we have the chance."
"That sounds like great fun, Lainie. Don't give me a thought. Like I said, I'll be fine with Rudy."
"Well, honey," Hank said, pointing at his watch. "We better get going. We don't want to be late for the theater."
She slipped her arm into his and nodded. "I'll give you a call tomorrow, Cathy. Have a great night with Suzi. I can't tell you how happy I am that she's back ... you prayed so hard for her return."
Not very far away, a man with bright green eyes looked down on them, murder on his mind.
Nathan Stanley sat on his patio and stared into his cup, perplexed. He took his coffee black, had for years, and yet the coffee in his cup contained cream. A slight scum covered the surface, making his stomach roil; his index finger told him the cup was stone cold.
He waited, hardly breathing, listening for something, some kind of explanation as to what was going on. Finally, he took the cup over to the sink, got a new one from the cupboard and poured a fresh cup. He took a sip and nearly spit out the cold scorched liquid.
'What the hell is going on? That crap has to be days old.'
It took but a moment to rinse out the pot and brew some fresh coffee. Cup in hand, he returned to the pedestal table, gaze down, the force of long habit inflicting itself even though he knew he was alone. It was one of many tactics he used to stay under the radar. For whatever reason, most people do not give more than a cursory look at someone who averts their eyes. In keeping with his desire to blend, he wore nothing but black or gray and always kept his dark hair in whatever short style reigned at the moment.
Of average height and build with a pleasant, nondescript face, he had no scars, no tattoos, nothing to call attention or remember except large, startling green eyes the color of a sliced lime. They drew attention and comments from everyone he was forced to look at, something people commented on and even worse, remembered about him.
Women, in particular, found them fascinating, with their long dark lashes and never failed to comment on them, even when he'd known them for years. It infuriated him, causing him to go to no end of trouble to change them.
Contact lenses solved the color problem but caused his eyes to tear constantly; often one lens dislodged itself in the deluge, causing more comments as it rested on his lower lashes or curled up under his eyelid. After trying every type available, he gave up and bought a pair of wire rimmed reading glasses with gray tinted lenses. From any kind of distance the vivid color muted and with a downcast expression, he convinced himself no one saw his eyes, and for the most part he was right.
A quick glance around the empty lanai comforted him, ensured his seclusion. The messy counter with its shriveled half-eaten sandwich screamed at him that something was wrong. He couldn't even remember making the first pot of coffee, and that sandwich? He touched the bread, tentative and unsure. Hard as a rock. Closer inspection showed the mustard and mayonnaise had spoiled.
'Mustard? What the hell ... I never eat mustard on a sandwich. Oh, God, what is going on?'
And what in the world had happened to his slacks? There was a smear of grease or something on one knee and a tear in his right pocket.
Amazed, he continued his inspection and noticed dirt on the palms of his hands; one fingernail, broken almost to the quick, showed a thin red line of blood. Opening his mouth, he prepared to suck on it, took a closer look at the fingertip and thought better of the whole idea. Nathan turned to the sink, flipped the handle on the hot water tap, soaped his hands, dried them and applied lotion.
He rubbed his hands together, noting several small cuts and a light bruise on the back of his right hand that caused him to wince when pressed. He glanced at his planting area with trepidation, wondering if the garden supplies would give him a clue as to the origin of the dirt and the bruise. The counter was immaculate, not a speck of dust to be seen. The tools hung from their assigned pegboard spots with nothing out of place.
Unable to shake the intense feeling of apprehension, Nathan went through the condo, room by room, looking for an explanation, something amiss, anything to explain the feeling of dread and foreboding that filled his stomach with icy coldness.
Anxious, he hesitated and then opened the door to his workshop, flipping on the overhead lights.
The walls held framed photos of such quality and originality that even the most casual, uneducated observer knew they viewed the work of a talented artist. More than a job, more than a hobby, this was passion.
He drew a sigh of relief, half expecting to see carnage and destruction. But no, the room was in perfect order.
Sunsets, one more spectacular than the next filled half of one long wall. Fiery sunrises, incomparable in beauty, crowded the other half.
Ocean scenes took up the entire southern wall, so diverse and varied in their presentation that each one told a fantastic story. Tall sailing ships, caught in a gale, rolled from side to side as waves washed over their decks.
Humpback whales trekked through the sea, breeching the waves, returning to their roots in the Pacific Northwest.
Waves crashed into the jagged, man-made stone jetty at the Newport Channel, and the infamous Wedge it created threw foam twenty feet in the air. In the background, fearless, and many thought insane surfers poised on their boards, ready to ride the big one into shore, daring the treacherous currents to throw them into the hungry maw that waited for its next victim. Tragedy had visited many times.
Another wall featured winter, with snow, glittering icicles and trees stripped bare of every vestige of leaf; banks of snow perched on the edges of cliffs and waited to fall, causing the viewer to inadvertently hold his breath.
He loved those pictures, many of which, over the years, were immortalized on magazine covers sold around the world.
Nathan considered himself a natural-born spy and very much enjoyed his life as a paparazzi. Following stars around, especially the women, was a huge turn-on for him, almost like hunting. Thanks to being average in just about every area but photography, he had the uncanny ability to melt into the crowds, a chameleon no one really saw let alone remembered.
Ready at all times, he carried a variety of cameras in his trench coat or jacket pockets, each small, specialized and state of the art, as well as the trusty Nikon that rarely left his side.
In the center of the spacious room on a raised platform stood a large ivory and glass showcase shaped like a restaurant sandwich board. One side of the case held what he thought of as his personal best, award winners, extraordinary pictures that paid him in excess of six figures each and allowed him to live a life of easy luxury. There were only eleven so far, each with its accompanying article and the name of the publisher.
Nathan regularly supplied magazines like National Geographic, Windows of the World and West Coast with pictures, earning a handsome income without ever having to interact with people other than speak on the phone with the Purchasing Director from whichever magazine offered his next project.
As often as not, it was while on assignment that he managed to take his most noteworthy and award winning pictures.
His camera fixed on the smoke rising from the damaged building on that clear, cloudless day while he snapped in rapid succession. Fiery red-gold flames licked the upper floors as another plane struck the second tower. That shot was his highest paid photo to date, taken that fateful September 11 while he was in Manhattan to cover the final round of some golf tournament on Long Island.
Next, the world-famous face of a beloved actor morphed into a monster, contorted with fury as he screamed at a fear-stricken little girl of about ten, filling the picture with ragged emotion. The stark reaction of the child mirrored that of a woman seated at the table directly behind them. It made the front page of every tabloid in the United States and Western Europe.
When the hurricane struck New Orleans, he holed up in a hotel with half a dozen other news teams, reporters and photographers, praying the flood wouldn't sweep them away. He got it all ... the broken levees, the poignant faces of the homeless, parking lots full of forgotten buses, under water and useless now, and loving compassion as the more fortunate shared water and blankets.
Finally, he got the heat, the stink, the thirst, including several random acts of violence, but the condition of the abandoned pets, in various states of distress, broke his heart. He cared far more for dogs and cats than he did for people, and seeing their pathetic expressions while they searched for lost families brought tears to his eyes.
Nathan snapped shot after shot, including his fourth highest paying photo, a hound dog sitting on a rooftop as the flood waters reached their peak, howling in despair, his cat friend pressed against his side, either to give comfort or take it, equally distraught and crying pitifully as the waters rose and swirled around them.
The tabloids paid big for pictures like that, as well as those of famous people in less than attractive situations. Due to his extraordinary ability with his cameras and his lack of facial recognition, he gained better and easier access to his targets than the well-known paparazzi who insisted on getting in everyone's face.
He'd slip the appropriate lens into his Nikon D-3 digital camera and take pictures from fifty feet away that looked like the subject stood or sat, or in some cases lay right in front of him.
Fires, floods, tornados, tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and people ... over the course of a twenty year career, he got them all. The best of the best filled one side of the showcase.
It was the other side of the case that caused him so much confusion and fear.
When he first bought it, he planned to reserve it for award winning pictures only, those accompanied by a copy of the check and the supporting article from a magazine or paper. He expected it to take him another decade to fill it up, and yet....
Nathan stared at the unfamiliar photos, mostly close-ups of Cathy Abbott, some in settings he didn't recognize. He had a number of photos of her on the appropriate wall, but these, displayed here of all places, made him blush with their naivete, the lack of feeling or empathy, let alone talent or proper composition.
They were his style and unmistakably his work, although inferior in every way and nowhere up to his present abilities. More than anything else they showed great poignancy and sorrow. Each picture had strong potential but contained a major flaw either in lighting or focus; some had a grainy finish. He shook his head, perplexed. They looked like amateur hour, early works, and he found it embarrassing to see them in such close proximity to his best efforts.
No doubt he took them, but he didn't know them, didn't recognize them and sure wasn't proud enough of them to give them such prominent display.
So, why didn't he know them? Although more than familiar with the subject, he knew he'd never snapped those particular photos. How could he forget them if he had? Pictures totally unfamiliar to the supposed photographer would seem impossible, and yet, there they were, displayed in his showcase.
'Which leads to the next question. How did they get there? I sure didn't put them there.'
On his desk, next to his computer and printer, a stack of photos rested on an open three-ring binder. He pushed the photos aside and opened the familiar file.
The beginning reminded him of Erica, a fellow paparazzi he'd known in France.
At the time in question, they pursued a particular heiress ... one who the tabloids believed was on the verge if killing herself ... through the streets of a hot, steamy Paris. Two weeks of stakeouts and forced treks through any number of haute couture boutiques and high-end department stores, where she bought everything in sight, finally culminated in a particularly gruesome and ultimately successful hanging, accomplished by tying one end of a stout rope to the top railing of her terrace, the other around her neck and hurling herself over her balcony.
That untoward move caused her to become the instant focal point of the patio below, where Countess DuVeauville's current en suite soiree was in full swing, causing an epidemic of fainting ladies as the familiar heiress swung in the gentle breeze, no doubt providing the topic du jour for the foreseeable future.
His shot of that mishap netted the third highest single payment of his career thus far.
The slowest night at ELLA's, hands down, was Monday. Over the years, they'd tried closing, but the staff didn't appreciate it and neither did the customers. Regulars counted on being able to get a great after-theater supper or a fabulous early dinner at ELLA's, especially if they were entertaining out-of-town guests or business associates.
Local concierges agreed that dependability was a large part of the restaurant's appeal, not to mention excellent food, entertainment and location. They recommended it to natives and tourists alike, as well as the convention and seminar attendees who stayed at their hotels. In grateful appreciation, Ella regularly comped them a meal.
With the hiring of Eric Shiller, her Food and Beverage Director and evening host, her only real work consisted of banking and reconciling the books.
Terry insisted on keeping her long-time job and went to the LA markets each morning to procure fresh fruits, veggies and fish for Chef.
The staff coordinated their days off, setting their own schedules, knowing from long experience how many waiters and bus people would be required for a particular night.
Their booth in the lounge had its permanent reserved sign in place. Ella tossed it onto the back ledge, slid to the rear corner and started folding a large pile of napkins.
Their dance card was full, as Terry had informed her earlier. With several new acts opening in town, three large conventions in full swing and the usual accompaniment of tourists, the restaurant was booked for the night.
Terry plopped down next to Ella, a sheaf of papers clutched in one hand. "Do you miss the old days?" She nodded toward Eric, who stood behind the podium scanning the guest register and conferring with the head waitress.
"Nah, not really. It was fun at the time and I loved opening the place, making it ours, but talk about hard work." She ran a hand through her burgundy hair, blue eyes glittering in the subtle lighting. "I loved every minute of it, but after we teamed up with the guys, things changed. The hospitality business ... it's a hard life, girl." She peered at the pile of papers. "What'cha got there?"
Terry shrugged, passing them over. "Chef decided I need an inventory list for my morning shopping so I don't duplicate. He's got a memory like a steel trap, I swear. Take last week; so maybe I did go a bit overboard on the avocados, but he still managed to use every one for the lunch special, with that crab salad, remember? He acts like I haven't been doing this for the last decade. He's a pistol, let me tell you. I wish we could find him a girlfriend."
"When Jolene left it really changed him. Talk about morose. Then Denise came along and I thought, okay, wedding bells are just what he needs. Now she's gone. I don't think she's coming back."
"Nah. Push me over some napkins."
The lounge door opened and Cathy, Rudy and both dogs entered, drawing a good bit of attention from the assembled regulars as they walked toward the back booth. It's not everyday you see one person with two guide dogs.
Ella grabbed her first, Terry close behind. Cries of delight rose as they hugged the dog and each other.
"Oh, you came back! Oh, Suzi, what a wonderful girl you are." Ella drew the golden head to her, gently rubbing both floppy ears. "You scared us to death."
"Suzi, you're so thin! But your coat is as beautiful as ever," Terry said, blinking back quick tears. "You're a miracle."
The girls hugged again while making much of their long-lost pal.
Kip sat next to Rudy's leg, eyes darting from him to Cathy, then the girls and finally Suzi. She whined under her breath, obviously wanting to get into the middle of the love-fest. Chuckling under his breath, Rudy began to stroke her head, running his hands down her neck. Placated slightly, Kip stopped whining.
Six o'clock at ELLA's meant happy hour in the lounge with two-for-one well drinks, a variety of complimentary taste treats and a light preview of the evening's entertainment. In a momentary flash of culinary generosity, Chef presented a buffet table of hors d'oeuvres that exceeded even the wildest expectations.
Ella tapped Cathy lightly on the arm. "You need to check out what Chef made for us. He's been in such a foul mood all day, I figured we'd be lucky to get crudites and sliders. This must be his idea of reparation. You want to go up with me and we'll see what he did?"
"Sounds great." She turned to both dogs and gave the command to stay. Offering her hand, she rose and smiled. "Lead on, m'dear! I'm starved."
Rudy stayed behind with the dogs, wanting a chance to talk with Jim and Lenny without the girls. "What do you guys make of the crazy phone calls and the beat-down on my car?"
"Have you heard any more today? Anything since last night?"
"All quiet, thank God. I want Cathy to be able to relax for a while now that Suzi's back. It's been a rough couple of weeks for both of them; they need some down time."
"When we first heard about this case, I figured whoever made the calls stole the dog, but there's obviously no connection between them. It's an unrelated coincidence, always the most difficult to figure out." Lenny shrugged and glanced from Jim to Rudy.
"I agree. Once Cathy told me the calls started months before Suzi went missing, I discounted any link. But these latest calls where he's threatening violence and then following through, they're very different. For one thing, it's the first time he's talked up to this point and it's significant. He's escalating fast, in the full-blown rant stage, vicious, ugly stuff, but he's still in control. No telling how long that will last, but the dude has some serious anger issues, so probably not much longer. Once he lets go, the shit'll hit the fan. Did a job on my car and told me the next time he'd do it to me."
Jim chortled at that idea and leaned forward, drumming his fingertips on the table and beetling his eyebrows. "I'd pay good money to see that." He gave Rudy an elbow then shrugged. "Seriously, though, it sounds like you have a stalker. He's obviously watching her, which means he probably lives nearby. What's Cathy's place like?"
"She's got a huge penthouse condo. Access by elevator and stairs. Lobby is manned round the clock, unarmed personnel. Sophisticated surveillance setup in the lobby and the halls. Probably the parking lot as well; something worth checking into. Be nice to come up with a picture of the perp."
The girls came back from the buffet table, laden with goodies. "I don't know what got into Chef, but he sure put together a great spread. Check it out."
Grinning, the guys got up and took Terry's advice.
This is the first half of a full chapter. Too long to post in one. Other to follow shortly.
Norman Stanley parked across the street from the restaurant, lights off, trying to decide what to do next. He'd followed Cathy and her new boyfriend from her Del Mar condo up to Hollywood and now sat in a pool of indecision, hesitant and unsure. Hollywood was not unknown to him, not by a long shot, and some parts he knew quite well. This was not one of them and the thought of being lost in the dark made him sick to his stomach. Just thinking the word and what it meant caused his heart rate to skyrocket.
It had been a hell of a day. For more than four hours he sat in the shady parking lot, waiting for the man to come down and get his car. The headache that swept over him when he saw Rudy pack Cathy's pale mauve luggage in the trunk of the Mustang set off lights behind his eyes so painful he cried out.
The throbbing had subsided to a dull ache, but every now and then a tremendous bolt jabbed his right eye, making him queasy.
'You miserable son of a bitch! You were supposed to leave alone, not take her with you! Oh, you are so dead.'
With the restaurant parking lot filled to capacity, cars utilized spaces along both sides of the street curb, surrounding Norman. He waited and waited, wondering finally what he waited for. Delicious smells wafted to him from the restaurant and his empty stomach would no longer be ignored. He wrenched the door open and got out of the car. Walking across the quiet street, he straightened his shirt and jacket and ran both hands through his dark hair.
Norman entered the lounge, eyes down, willing himself not to look around more than it took to get a seat at the bar. He nodded at Al, still avoiding eye contact and ordered a vodka tonic. He laid down a twenty, nodded pleasantly when his drink arrived and glanced at the buffet table.
"You picked a good night to come in, friend. Chef outdid himself, and that's saying something. The kitchen is open and we can serve you anything right here at the bar, but if I were you, I'd hit the buffet."
Knowing he had no option, he raised his eyes and smiled. To ignore the friendly comments would call attention he didn't want. He grinned at the bartender and nodded. "Thanks for the tip. I'm starved and everything looks great ... smells good, too." He smiled and hoisted his glass and sipped. The bartender went back to work.
Norman studied the buffet again. It gave him the perfect opportunity to scope out the lounge and watch Cathy, who he spotted sitting at a booth in the back of the lounge.
Eyes down, he sauntered to the buffet, picked up a cocktail plate and with slow deliberation selected several slices of rare roast beef, a small cheddar cheese roll and a couple of crispy hot wings. Down the buffet line he went, stopping no more than ten feet from Cathy's table.
Hesitating, Norman picked up another plate and selected several stuffed mushrooms, doing anything he could to prolong his proximity to her table. He scooped up some olives, smiling as he heard her talk with joy of Suzi's safe return.
He walked back to his seat, and sipping his drink, allowed himself to relax in her company. Rather than facing the bar, he sat turned to one side now, facing her, legs crossed nonchalantly as he appeared to take in the sights and sounds of ELLA's.
Cathy's table, far at the back end of the room, yet clearly visible, gave him the opportunity to watch her without being noticed. Whoever the people with Cathy were, they all knew each other well. It was obvious in the warm and casual way they spoke.
He could easily be one of them, sitting at that table, joining in their conversation, part her group, belonging to it. 'Oh yes ... Suzi is a miracle and we're so glad she came home. And yes, thanks for asking, the last photo I submitted is in contention....'
He would say all the right things, be polite and attentive, friendly even, and when it was time to go, she'd leave with him.
Norman ate every bite on both plates, tempted to return to the buffet table. Before he could do so, the busboys came out, returned whatever food remained to the kitchen and tore down the tables. The dance floor returned.
In the corner, surrounded by several ficus trees and a variety of musical instruments sat a man of extraordinary beauty, even by Hollywood standards. Long slender fingers coaxed the most amazing sounds out of a delicate white flute. Light, airy notes, haunting and almost mystical in their presentation, floated in the air. Like an Irish lullaby, the poignant strains tugged at the heartstrings of anyone with an ounce of Celtic blood.
Considering the golden skin and bright azure eyes, the wavy blond hair could easily be natural. Shoulder-length, it floated lightly on the breeze created by the fan behind him. Later tonight, when the light machines came on, displaying him in splendid silhouette on the stark white canvas behind him, the effect was ethereal.
Norman swallowed several times, amazed at the depth of feeling the music evoked; mesmerized, he gazed at Cathy and then closed his eyes, transported to another time.
* * *
"So delicious," Cathy said as she popped another stuffed mushroom into her mouth. "It's a good thing we don't live close by. I'd weigh a ton. Everything just melts on your tongue."
Terry chuckled. "It's a constant battle, let me tell you. Older you get the harder it is. I've given up on the continual pizza. Chef makes too much other delicious stuff that isn't nearly as fattening. So far so good, but I'm watching. So, where are you guys headed?"
"Rudy's taking me out to the farm for a couple of days. We're going to ride a bit, get away from that damned phone, mostly, and just relax and have fun."
"You'll love it out there, believe me. When Jim and I retire, we're going to build a house on the property and get some horses for ourselves. Gosh, I miss riding." Ella rolled her eyes at Jim and winked. "I'm counting the days to retirement."
"Don't start too soon, wench. We're way too young to retire. Besides, we never really have to. We can take on as much or as little as we want right now. Frankly, I can't imagine not working at something." Jim grinned at Ella. "And what makes you think we have to retire to build that house and get some horses? The club virtually runs itself, same with the shops. How about taking that on for the next project? Let's build a house." He nuzzled her neck, causing her to giggle. "Ya wanna?"
She looked at him, eyes wide. "Are you serious? The last time we talked about this, it was like way in the future. Now it's closer?"
"You have to admit, our portion of the reward we got last year will do the deal twice over. It's sitting in the bank not drawing enough interest to feed a mouse. Maybe it's time to put it to better use. The PI business is positively booming and the dog trade, my God, it's hard to keep up, especially in the private sector. We have a dog going tomorrow to a Hollywood celebrity. The dude already has enough muscle to overthrow a small country, and now he has a canine guard. Strange times for sure. The paparazzi are rabid for photos and stories they can make a buck off of. Well, starting tomorrow, the paparazzi will have something else to watch out for."
Ella giggled in anticipation, not to be thrown off track. "Oh, I know just where I want to build it, too. Do you remember?"
"I sure do, and I think now we can afford those extras we weren't sure about when we first talked. In this economy, we'll be able to get a great house built for a song."
Terry's lip continued to puff and when no one noticed, she said, "Hey, we'd like to do that, too, wouldn't we, Lenny? Can we make it a triple?"
They all laughed.
"Wouldn't have it any other way," Jim said. "Let's all meet up at the farm tomorrow and do some serious scoping out."
They gathered up their things and prepared to leave. Ella waved her fingers at Al as she and the rest of the gang headed for the back door.
The song ended along with Norman's reverie and he came dragging back to reality with deep reluctance. He glanced idly around the lounge, confused at first and a bit disoriented, unsure of his present location. As his eyes sought the place where he last saw Cathy, he gasped at the empty table, body rigid.
'Gone? She left me just sitting here? Again? She left me alone!'
Anger and fear coursed through his body producing an instant headache as memories of the past several hours came flooding back. He'd recognized Rudy from the parking lot, hating his rival in a wild, feral way; on sight. Now he'd snuck off with Cathy, stolen her away, right from under his nose, and he wouldn't be able to follow.
'She left me all alone again. Why does she keep doing that?'
Norman threw another ten on the bar and hurried across the floor to the outside door. He burst onto the sidewalk and blinked several times, not believing his luck. There they stood in the parking lot, chatting. He wasn't lost after all!
He turned his back to them and scurried to his car, wanting to get inside, hide behind the darkened windows and make himself ready to follow them.
|Author Notes||Special thanks to Dave M for help with a less than perfect sentence and providing a better one! :)|
The red Jag was the first to leave the lot, quickly followed by the SUV. When the Mustang reached the street and turned in the opposite direction from the others, Norman put his car in gear. He waited until the Mustang crested the rise, waiting for the traffic light to change.
He pulled away from the curb with his lights off and followed them up the street at a crawl. As they approached the traffic on Vine, the area changed abruptly, turning busy and much more commercial; he flicked the lights on, hoping to go unnoticed.
Most drivers wouldn't have noticed, but Rudy did; it was second nature to him. He picked up the white BMW in his rearview mirror as it pulled away from the curb across from the restaurant.
'Not exactly a car to draw undue attention unless you wanted to steal it.' He'd only noticed because its lights were off; he shrugged. That happened a lot with all the streetlights casting their day-glow, and the guy might not realize it yet. When the lights came on moments later, he let out an I told you so sigh and glanced at Cathy.
"How're you feeling? Did you get enough to eat?"
"Oh, yes. Did you try one of those mushrooms? To die for! Thank you for taking me. I had the best time tonight. I love Ella and Terry and spending time with them like that is something I don't get to do very often. And the food is outstanding. Of course, I've been sampling Chef's wares for ages. Can you believe it, he's the only chef Ella's ever had?"
Rudy elevated both eyebrows. "Really? That's incredible, considering. That's one line of work that can be very mobile."
She laughed. "That's for sure. Anything in the hospitality business is rough. Lots of turnover in the beginning, half your employees trying to steal from you. Takes a couple of years just to overcome the staff, but once you get your core set, you never lose them and they keep the newbies in line." She turned in his direction, a flirty smile on her lips. "Well, at the risk of being a cliche, how much farther is it?"
He laughed. "About an hour or so, especially with the traffic being so light."
"Good, that's what I'd hoped, since I have a captive audience. Now, tell me what we're going to do tomorrow. Starting with how much I'll love Boomer."
Rudy told her everything he knew about Boomer, including his life as a real cow horse. He laughed when she told him she'd always ridden English. "I have a couple of saddles, all Western. We'll have to make do."
He took her along the trails and byways that circled the farm, riding them from memory, describing a favorite citrus grove or the green rolling hills at sunset, a light, babbling brook running through.
They used freeways for most of the trip, but when Rudy exited to a side road, she immediately felt the difference.
"Country roads, huh? Won't be long now. Oh, I can't wait."
* * *
Cathy lay in bed, still half asleep, dreamy. Two tons of bricks lay on top of the comforter, one on either side of her, pinning her to the mattress. She knew if she moved so much as a hair, they'd be upon her, nudging her arms, licking her face, whining to go out.
To prove her point, a long, tapering black muzzle poked the covers once and snuffled, ears pricked high, dark brown eyes wide. Head tilted, she watched and waited and then whined under her breath.
On the other side of the woman, a shaggy golden head popped up from the bed, ears wiggling, tongue lolling, tail slapping the bed. The dogs grinned at each other as Cathy greeted them. Wriggling like puppies instead of dignified adult dogs, they pounced on her and each other, Kip barking with delighted abandon.
There was a knock on the door, and between chuckles, Cathy called, "Come in."
Both dogs stopped playing as Rudy entered the room bearing two steaming cups of fragrant coffee.
"No rest for the weary, they say. How about a cup of coffee?"
"That'd be heaven, for sure. Oh, I had such a good sleep. How about you?"
"With dogs on the bed?" he asked, frowning in slight disapproval. "I don't know how you stand it. Bad enough if they'll get under the sheets, but when they lay on top like dead weight so you can't even turn over ... makes me crazy."
"I'm so glad to have Suzi back, she can sleep on my pillow if she wants. Kip, too." She took several sips of coffee and murmured in appreciation. "What's it like out?"
"Beautiful once the fog dissipates. Guys on the weather channel predict low seventies. Man, can't ask for better riding weather."
She finished her coffee in several swallows and placed the empty cup on the nightstand. "Tell you what. How about if you give me a minute or two to get dressed and stuff? I'll call for you to come back and get me as soon as I'm ready. Both dogs need to go out anyway, and my suitcase is right here, so I'll do fine."
"Sounds great. I'll be waiting. Com'mon, girls, lets go outside." He picked up her cup and grinned. "Like a coffee refill?"
Cathy heard the door close behind him. Left arm searching for the nightstand, she threw the blankets off and placed both feet on the floor. She extended a tentative hand, landing on the top of her suitcase. She flipped the snaps and raised the lid. On one side, her old jodhpurs and underneath, a light, short sleeved pullover top.
The paddock boots waited on the floor next to the night stand, and after dressing, she pulled them on over her socks, remembering with bitter nostalgia the last time she wore them.
Fury erupted from the pit of her stomach with such force it overwhelmed her. She wrapped her arms across her chest as a range of emotions rocked her to her soul, luring her down that black, endless road again, to the recriminations, the rage, all those 'what ifs' that lurked at the back of her mind. The power, the intensity of her anger made her shake.
"Stop it," she said aloud. "You know better than that."
She sat on the bed, still shaking, remembering gallops along the beach, the thrill of jumping a big fence, the freedom you felt just walking along a trail listening to the birds singing in the trees. Fists balled, she pounded the mattress. Overwhelmed with anger and sorrow, she gave in, sobbing and crying into her pillow as the tears streaked her cheeks.
Rudy listened outside her door, a cup of coffee in each hand. He heard her words and felt her anger, unsure what to do. Sometimes just having a good rant made him feel better and he thought it might be the same for her. On the other hand, maybe what she really needed was a hug, someone to reassure her.
Rudy put the cups on the hall table and knocked on her door.
* * *
"This is Boomer." Rudy took her hand and laid it on the soft, velvety nose.
Cathy grinned wide and brought her cheek against the gelding's muzzle. "Oh, I love horse breath. It smells so oaty and fresh. My horse, his show name was Air Commander but I called him Danny. Anyway, he had the best breath of all. I'd feed him apples or carrots and in return, he'd breathe on me; really. Deep, perfumed breaths. One of my favorite smells of all."
"Me, too. Tied with puppy breath."
She wrinkled her nose and shrugged. "That's an acquired taste, I guess." She continued to touch the horse, running her hand down his neck to a deep, muscular shoulder then up to his withers and down the wide back to a broad, powerfully built rump.
"How tall is he? Danny was huge, 16.3. I couldn't mount him from the ground, but Boomer feels in the doable range." She tapped his rump in satisfaction then moved to his tail, running her fingers through the silky and luxuriant strands.
"Oh, that feels so good." Her voice trembled and she bit her bottom lip. "I never realized how much I missed this."
"You don't have to miss it again." Rudy smiled. He'd been smiling a lot lately, and it was unusual enough to make him reflect. There was no question Cathy caused it and he acknowledged her effect on him with a mixture of wonder, speculation and concern. He loved his life and considered it full, rewarding and satisfying without the entanglements and responsibilities that came with a wife and family.
The dogs were his life, all the family he wanted and he took personal pride in each little task they achieved. His home had everything he desired and more, and if it was a little isolated, well, being alone was nothing new to him.
Not known to shoot from the hip, especially regarding women, his response, his attraction to Cathy left him questioning himself and the direction of their relationship. He discounted the obvious with a mental flick of the wrist.
Pity had nothing to do with it. While he felt compassion for her, his deep admiration for her courage, his awe for her artistic accomplishments and independence far overrode anything that smacked of pity.
Rudy had no idea where it would lead, but he signed on for the ride, however rough and bumpy it might be. They hardly knew each other, but he had no doubt she returned his feelings. He felt a strong attraction to her, real chemistry, something he hadn't felt in a long time. Although they'd never kissed, he knew it wouldn't be long. His stomach lurched in anticipation and he laughed at himself.
'Good Lord, ya'd think I was sixteen again.'
Beautiful women had always sought him out, admired his dark good looks and supposed hero status, first on the football field, later as a Seal. They made him feel like quite the guy for most of his life.
The right girl never came along, but it was just as well. With his job, he spent extended periods of time overseas, and maintaining a relationship in those circumstances failed every time. Besides, no one brought him to the point of marriage, of wanting that intimacy and lifelong commitment until the day he met Anita Crawford....
It was enough to swear him off women forever, and for five years, he'd done just that. Then Cathy came into his life and everything changed.
This was not the first time Nathan Stanley woke up in a mind-boggling situation, but this one frightened him worse than any other so far. For one thing, he had no idea where he was or why he lay slouched down behind the steering wheel of his car. A quick look out the windows yielded nothing but a blacktopped parking lot and trees. He closed his eyes for a moment, trying to remember, to retrieve some little glimmer of the familiar, something to give him a clue. Nothing.
After reassuring himself he wasn't in imminent danger, he twisted around in his seat and sat up. Not too far to the left he saw double lanes of headlights indicating a fairly busy road.
'I must be parked in some rest stop off the freeway.'
Three big rigs clustered together by a square outbuilding that had to be restrooms.
He opened the door, stepped outside and glanced around. There were no other cars in the area and he relieved himself right there, not wanting to walk by the trucks and chance being seen. Still unable to place his surroundings he leaned against the car and waited for something familiar to come to him.
The breeze held no hint of the sea; rather, hay, the faint smell of citrus and some herb he couldn't identify floated on the air.
'Where the hell am I?'
Uneasy, he looked at the trucks again, not wanting to be seen. He didn't know how he ended up here in the middle of the night, but not having a witness was always the best, regardless of the circumstances.
After much mental pressure, he recalled the evening to the last moment he remembered, but that memory was impossible. He glanced at his watch, noting the time. The last thing he remembered was drinking coffee on his lanai.
He began to pace back and forth by the side of the car, unsure what to do next. How would he get home if he didn't even know where he was?
'I'm sure not going to find out just standing around.'
Nathan got back into the car, locked the doors and turned the key. An annoying beep started immediately, but Nathan didn't turn the lights on until he was half way down the access ramp. He stared in disbelief at the angry red flasher on the dashboard, now buzzing, indicating he was almost out of gas.
'Son of a bitch. I don't believe it!'
He noticed his camera lying on the passenger seat, the red light glowing, indicating the camera was on. With shaking fingers he reached for it and pushed the off button.
'I've got to get home and see what's in the camera.'
It took him almost ten minutes to find a gas station and through it all, the indicator buzzed and flashed indignantly, warning him of impending disaster and bringing him to the brink of hysteria. He needed to fill his tank and find someone who could tell him where the hell he was.
The young man at the gas station gave him directions to the freeway, and an hour later, Nathan entered his garage, reeling with fear at the possibilities of what filled his missing hours. He grabbed the camera and hurried through the lobby to the elevator.
Fifteen minutes later he stared at the computer monitor as one photo after another appeared. Cathy Abbott.
He remembered their first brief meeting, years ago at a gallery showing of her work. Almost unknown at the time, Nathan snapped dozens of photos, hoping he might capture with his lens what she had with plaster. The freedom she exhibited, the sensation of flying, the overwhelming feeling of floating, spoke to his soul. A short time later he read about her accident and subsequent blindness and as much as he was able, he felt sorry for her.
She crossed his mind infrequently, but when he heard about an upcoming showing, he would attend if he was in town. Marveling at the growth and maturity of her new efforts, Nathan began to follow her career. He owned two of her free-form copper works, and a magnificent early plaster piece of a woman galloping a horse took center stage in his living room.
He attended her most recent showing at the Beverly Hills mansion of socialite and philanthropist Betsy Bailey, an exhibition and silent auction to benefit some worthy cause or another.
Shy as always, Cathy and her guide dog sat in a quiet corner with Lainie, sipping wine and chatting with small respectful groups of people who came up to comment on the show. Although she smiled frequently, Cathy felt uncomfortable in the midst of so many strangers and it showed.
Nathan's natural compassion made him a likely friend, one who would commiserate with her misfortune. A life of loneliness and fear gave him the ability to empathize with her loss and he began to build a connection in his mind.
He knew how it felt to be alone in a room filled with people, to be afraid of so many things. Twice he made attempts to approach her and introduce himself; twice shyness interfered and he failed.
His attraction to her, platonic though it was, overwhelmed him at times and the reason behind his desire to make friends with her troubled him deeply. It was her blindness. Her inability to see fascinated him although he had no idea why it should matter. He grudgingly acknowledged his desire to get to know her, to learn about the things she liked to do, how she felt, what mattered to her most, but he still didn't know why.
Nathan bought his condo as much for a tax write-off as anything else. Just two blocks above the public beach, not too far from the airport and with lots of shopping and dining close by, it was an excellent location. He knew he would make a substantial profit should he ever decide to sell, which became more and more unlikely. The longer he lived there, the more attached he became.
He thought penthouses said so much about a person's position in life. Granted, this was not Los Angeles or La Jolla, but by anybody's standards this was upscale beachfront property.
His shock in seeing Cathy on her lanai that first day and realizing he could spy on her while she worked was quite intense. It gave him an incredible and rather perverse thrill to know he could stare at her with impunity, drink in her beauty, watch her, and all the while she would never know, never realize he snapped shots in rapid succession.
From that first day on, he wrestled with his choices. Either he could continue to remain anonymous and watch her secretly or he could introduce himself to her, bump into her on one of her daily walks and take a chance on becoming friends.
'Why can't you do both? She never has to know you can see into her patio and she'll never figure it out for herself. You can have it both ways.'
That could work when he thought about it. After all, they were neighbors. Although Cathy wouldn't remember whether she'd met him before, it was a great opener and best of all, it was true. He could use it to forge a bond ... fellow artists with much in common.
He had no trouble learning her routine. She jogged with her dog every morning at seven, did a little shopping on the boulevard and went back to her condo to work. She never left the neighborhood unless accompanied by Lainie or a couple of women who came by from time-to-time to take her for lunch. But mostly, Cathy was alone, just like him.
Nathan was in San Francisco on a four-day shoot when he made a firm decision. When he got back to Del Mar he would follow Cathy and introduce himself. He hoped a chance meeting over vegetables at the market would give him the opportunity to say hello.
If not, he'd simply call to her when she finished her run, tell her they'd met before at one of her earlier showings and offer to buy her a cup of coffee. After all, they had a couple of professional acquaintances in common.
It wasn't much to latch onto but it had to work. He didn't know what else to do.
For almost ninety minutes, Nathan waited across the street from her condo, tapping his foot in impatience and drinking coffee by the bucket. He focused on the lobby door and waited, willing her to come out. His watch told him at this point she wouldn't be coming. It was almost eight; if anything, she should be returning from her jog by now, not starting it. He hurried down to the walkway and stared down the beach at nothing, although he could see a good distance.
'Did I miss her somehow? Could she have changed her routine?'
Puzzled, he returned to his post. By 8:30, with a fresh latte in hand, he gave up and walked back to his condo. He picked up his binoculars and began to scan as much of her patio as was visible to him.
Of course, the far side was concealed by the rounded corner of the building, but her work space and the entertainment area were in full view. No Cathy.
Perplexed, he waited. She followed a strict routine and worked outside every day, especially one as nice as this. He sat there all morning and on into the afternoon, alternating between fear that something had happened to her and, unexplainable waves of melancholy and sorrow. His emotions took over, focusing as always on his fear of abandonment, of being lost and alone.
That was the last thing he remembered until he woke up in his car three days later.
The key in his hand shook so badly it took three attempts to get it into the slot and unlock his door. He hurried inside, closed the door and leaned against it, listening to his heart making valiant attempts to leap out of his chest.
His throat felt so bad he could hardly swallow and yet he was dying of thirst. Just getting home had been an ordeal of monumental proportions, two of the longest hours of his life.
He staggered down the hall to the kitchen, pulled a glass from the cupboard and slammed it into the front of his fridge. The ice cold water refreshed him. His second glass eased the pain in his throat to the point where he could swallow a couple of valium.
Willing himself to calm down, he drew deep, cleansing breaths, relaxing as his heart resumed its normal beat. The valium went to work immediately, allowing Nathan to have a cohesive thought.
'I have to make some kind of sense of this. Oh, my God, why is this happening? Where have I been? What the hell was I doing in a park off the 134 freeway? The 134, yet? Where does it even go?'
He rang his trembling hands as tears of frustration threatened to fall from his eyes. His stomach rumbled, complaining of imminent starvation. He had no idea how long it had been since he'd eaten.
For the first time in his life, Nathan didn't want to cook. He jerked open the refrigerator door, spied a vaguely familiar piece of quiche and ate it, not even bothering to heat it up. His outraged stomach revolted and Nathan delivered the quiche into the kitchen sink. He clung to the counter as his head spun and perspiration bathed his face.
Slow careful steps took him across the kitchen floor to the sliding glass doors. In need of fresh air, Nathan made it to the pedestal table, pulling himself up on the stool like an old man. He stared at his hands as if they held the answers to all his questions.
'What did I do for those days I can't remember? Where did I go, or more to the point, where was I heading? What possible place could I be going? Why didn't I just get gas when I started to run out? Why, why, why.'
Nathan stared at Cathy's dark condo and sighed. He could not keep himself from staring down at her windows. The condo was empty but it didn't mean she'd moved, not necessarily. The furniture on the lanai remained in place as did several of her bronze pieces.
The darkened windows were unusual, no doubt about that, but she could be on a vacation. Checking his watch again for the date, he calculated she'd been gone at least as long as he had. Wondering if there might be a connection, he listened to his still-hungry stomach complain.
Using his head this time, he pulled a plate of broiled chicken breast from the patio fridge and placed it on the table with half a bottle of merlot.
Hoisting himself up onto the tall barstool he took a deep breath and leaned against the high back, a glass of wine in his right hand. He wondered where Cathy was, hoping her departure was temporary. His heart sorrowed for yet another loss in a life full of loss, deprivation and need.
'It doesn't have to be that way. Maybe she's on a little get away, or a cruise, maybe. Lainie isn't there either, so maybe they're together on vacation. It is possible they moved, so be prepared. We'll just have to wait until she comes home.'
Nathan stared out into space for an hour or so, slowly disappearing.
Cathy drew the fresh, fragrant air deep into her lungs. "Everything smells so good, especially the sage and thyme. I remember my mother's garden smelled like this. She always grew fresh herbs, insisted it was the only way even though she didn't cook. She just loved the smells. Lavender, and dill; basil, too."
She raised her nose, drinking in the new sweet tang of citrus, reins in one hand, the other resting firmly on the saddle horn. Even though she felt perfectly secure, it made no sense whatsoever to chance falling off the horse.
'By the end of the weekend, I'll be trotting! Still, if it never comes to more than walking along the trails, to be able to ride again is pure joy.'
"So tell me what you see, what we're riding on. It almost feels like plowed ground, although it's not that time of the year."
"You're close. We're riding down the edge of a citrus grove, grapefruit on one side, orange on the other. It's still a bit early in the year, but the trees are beginning to bud. Can you smell the hint of flowers? So sweet."
"Oh, you bet I can. Say, are there any fruits left? I'm working up an appetite." She turned in his direction, a hopeful expression on her lips.
"Nah, these trees are grown commercially. There's not a piece in sight. They have to do that because of the fruit rats. They'll take over the area if you feed them." Rudy glanced at the full saddlebags and laughed. "But don't worry, I brought us a nice snack to eat. Riding always makes me hungry, too. There's a nice place to stop just ahead. It's where the workers gather to eat lunch when the season comes. We can use it now, though. No one's here at this time of year."
"Sounds cool. What did you bring to eat? I should have had more than that apple. You were right."
"Fear not, fair maiden, I have a small feast."
Her tinkling laughter warmed his heart, and he gazed at her with love. He turned off the path and led the way to a wooden table. He stepped down from his horse, and held Boomer while she dismounted.
Cathy held onto the saddle with both hands, keeping herself upright, although her legs wobbled like jelly. Rudy took her by the arms, steadying her while she recovered her balance.
"Take a couple of steps backwards and you can sit on the bench. Even as fit as you are from all your jogging, it's nothing like riding."
"Spaghetti legs. I remember that feeling." She tittered, slightly embarrassed at her need of his support. Shades of dusky pink tinged her cheeks as she laid a gentle hand in his. "Thanks, I needed that."
She sat on the bench, flexing her legs, rotating her ankles and grinning like a kid. "My old trainer used to say riding put you in touch with muscles you never knew you had. She was right." Cathy leaned back on the bench and grimaced with relief. "The ride back should be interesting."
Rudy couldn't take his eyes from her face. The person sitting before him bore no resemblance to the frightened, frantic woman he first met. Strong, capable and confident, she glowed with health and vitality, fearful of nothing. He drew a deep breath, feeling lightheaded somehow, as little ripples of love rolled up his spine.
"Not to worry. We can take a shortcut through the grove if you want. I took you the long way around. We're really only about ten minutes from the farm."
"I'm very resilient. Give me some food and a bit of time to recover and I'll go the distance. So, what's to eat?"
"I hope you're hungry." He emptied the saddlebags and placed the contents on the table and recited their fare. "We have meatloaf sandwiches on crispy rolls, celery and carrot sticks, a crisp dill pickle, several actually, and a container of coleslaw. Sound good to you?" He placed her plate before her, calling out where each item was.
"I bet I'll have a couple more hours in me once I fuel up. I'm ravenous."
Confident, she picked up her sandwich and guided the end to her lips. She made appreciative sounds as she chewed, nodding several times. "Excellent," she mumbled. "One of my favorite sandwiches. Did you make them?"
Rudy grinned, tipping the corners of his wide mouth in anticipation. He took a bite, feeling his taste buds explode. "Steve's wife, Alice ... loves to cook and always makes enough to share. I just sliced it up and piled it on the roll. It's really good, isn't it?"
"I'm sayin'." She swallowed, took a sip of her beer and nodded. "So how do you like working with Jim and Lenny?"
"I don't do much field work any more. My main concentration is training and breeding dogs, although now we have Steve, and he's doing such a great job, who knows. I have to admit I miss it."
"I'm sure glad you decided to take my case."
Cathy clasped her hands together and wished she'd worn more than a light shirt. The afternoon passed with blinding speed, leaving them sitting in the twilight, remnants of their meal before them. She shivered, unable to hide it any longer. "I would do just about anything not to have to say this, but I'm freezing. Maybe we should head back home."
Rudy nodded and began to pack up their remains. "I've got everything cleaned up here," he said, stuffing the debris back in his saddle bags. "We're about ready to go."
He tied the bags to the back of his saddle and turned to help Cathy mount. She took an easy leg up, laughing, smiling down at him as she shivered.
"We let time get away from us, but we'll be home in no time."
He was right and less than ten minutes later they jogged slowly down the driveway toward the farm. They walked into the barn, stopping in the wide aisle. Rudy dismounted first and cross tied his horse. He detached the lead shank from Boomer's bit and pulled a halter over his bridle. With the horse tied, he said, "I'll help you get down."
"I had such a good time, I don't want it to end." She made a face of disappointment, laid the reins on Boomer's neck and prepared to dismount. She slipped both feet out of the stirrups, slid her right leg over the horse's butt, leaned her stomach on the saddle and began what always felt like the endless slide.
Her feet touched the ground sooner than she'd anticipated, causing her knees to buckle. She began to lose her balance when Rudy caught her, holding her steady.
"The time isn't going to end, Cathy, just the ride." Steady arms encircled her waist, held her fast, held her gently, waiting for her equilibrium to return.
She turned in his arms, facing him now and causing her heartbeat to accelerate like a teenager on her first date.
"Oh, Cathy, you're so beautiful." He traced the line of her cheek with his forefinger, his face mere inches from hers. Slowly, gently their lips met in a kiss as soft and gentle as a summer breeze.
She raised her hands to his face, looking at him the only way she could, through searching fingertips. Light but firm touches discovered the broad forehead. His eyebrows arched slightly and her fingers paused at the high, almost pointy cheekbones. Building a picture in her mind, she felt the sides of his straight nose, moving down to the strong, masculine jaw line. Chuckling, she felt the scruffy hint of a five o'clock shadow.
"What color is your hair, your eyes?"
"Both dark, almost black. I'm Scots-Irish."
"I like muchly." Soft pink lips, wide and full, searched for his again. Face uplifted, she found the corner of his mouth; nibbling, seeking, she pressed into him.
With a sigh, he bent down and covered her face with kisses, murmuring to her while strong arms held her safe. His lips found hers again and they pressed together, matching parts. Two halves now whole, they melted into each others arms.
Warm lips grazed her neck, little butterfly kisses traced their way from neck to cheek, fluttering, lingering there where a dimple lived. Wind roared in her ears as those lips continued their slow approach to hers, murmuring now, soft words, sweet nothings, words of promise and hope.
Sighing, she returned the kiss, her hands caressing the arms that held her, that made her feel so safe. He smelled so good, like all her favorite things: horses, trees and freshly mowed grass. Her lips sought his again, trembling and unsure, yet full of love and trust.
The kiss went on, slow and soft, then hungry and demanding, sometimes so light as to seem like the caress of the breeze.
The moment remained unbroken until Boomer whinnied shrilly as one of the grooms entered the barn. It was dinner time and the gelding wanted his hay and a nice portion of oats and everyone needed to know that he was sick and tired of standing here in the middle of the aisle, ignored.
Rudy grinned at the groom and nodded at both horses. "Can you do these guys up and please give them a nice bran mash? It's getting colder by the minute."
"Si, senor, I do it. I blanket, too."
Dogs flanking them on either side, Rudy and Cathy made their way up the driveway, arms entwined.
This was a little longer than normal, but I didn't want to cut it again.
Norman shifted the night-vision binoculars, uttering a string of horrible oaths. He'd hardly slept a wink for the three days she'd been gone. Subsisting on coffee and leftovers, he watched and waited, allowing himself but a few hours sleep.
Vicious bursts of temper made him pound his hands on the marble table and curse the man who took his Cathy away. The worst part, knowing it was his fault, made him want to scream. He clenched his fists, wishing they were around his rival's throat, choking the life out of him.
Why hadn't he kept the damned gas tank full? How could he let something that frickin' simple happen? The tempo of the pain in his head increased its beat, causing more lights to go off behind his eyes. Low whimpers escaped his lips and he wondered for a moment if he would faint. He licked away the tiny beads of saliva that gathered at the corners of his lips and ground his teeth.
He'd lost her! That bastard just drove off with her and he couldn't follow, couldn't rescue his beloved because he ran out of frickin' gas! How could he let this happen?
'Because you're not thinking things through! Cathy should be here right now.'
She belonged at his side; she was his companion, his lover, his friend.
A little after nine the following morning, Norman entered the office of Desiree Collins, Managing Director of the Del Mar Shores Condominium Association.
After shaking hands she nodded, indicating a chair. She pulled several files from a cabinet behind her and placed them on her desk. "I understand you're looking for a short-term lease, Mr. Stanley. We actually have several units to choose from, all offered furnished and in a variety of sizes. What do you require in size, number of bedrooms and baths, things like that?"
"I'm only interested in the penthouse floor. Anything lower would not fill my requirements. A studio would be more than adequate, but for the right unit, size doesn't matter."
"What does matter, Mr. Stanley?"
"Lighting mostly, as well as good views of the sea, the surrounding hills and a good sized patio. Do you have anything that might interest me?"
Her cheeks pinkened to a rich rose as she nodded. This unit was a hard sell, small and very expensive. "Only one, but it is exquisite; my favorite in the whole complex, actually. It has one huge bedroom suite, two baths, boasts wrap-around patios and a fabulous view of the harbor with an outdoor entertainment nook that includes another kitchen and fireplace. The unit has lovely furnishings, antiques and...."
Norman raised his hand, forcing a smile. "I can't wait to see it. Is it available for showing?"
Desiree pulled a set of keys from her pocket and made direct eye contact, noting for the first time the incredible green of his eyes. 'Must be contacts.'
An hour later, Norman signed the lease, wrote a check for his deposit and six month's rent and walked out the door with a key to the condo next door to Cathy's.
Desiree Collins watched Nathan leave, noting the buoyant step and wide smile and checked the mirror over her credenza. She reached for her purse, pulled out a comb and ran it through her gleaming red hair. She freshened her lipstick and winked at her reflection. 'Nice looking guy, single, great credit score and plenty of bucks. Okay. Now let's just hope he's straight.'
Norman bounded down the steps, feeling better than he had in several days. It was always his way of dealing with things.
Be pro-active and do something! Waiting around for things to happen usually meant nothing happened at all.
He hurried up the block to his other condo, head down as he passed fellow strollers on this bright and beautiful morning.
It didn't take him long to pack the few things he needed and return to his new acquisition. Norman parked in his assigned spot right next to Cathy's, noting it was empty as expected.
He opened the condo door, dropped the suitcase and back-pack on the floor and hurried through the beautiful living room, blind to the lovely antiques and paintings. He burst onto the lanai, hoping to see Cathy sitting on her chaise, but nothing had changed. He had a very limited view of her patio from here, nothing like what his other condo afforded, but that really didn't matter.
Norman padded down the hall to the bedroom and flipped on the lights. From his walk-thru with Desiree, he already knew the location of his goal. He slid the closet door open and walked to the back end. In the far corner, a hatch blended into the ceiling so well most people would never notice the portal leading to the crawlspace between units, but Norman did. Hopefully, it led to Cathy's bedroom closet.
A quick check of the fully supplied kitchen closets yielded a tall utility ladder, a flashlight and some bailing twine. Chuckling, he took them and his back-pack into the bedroom closet, positioned the ladder under the hatch, mounted it and pushed.
The cover came away without a sound, but a fair sprinkling of dust rained on his upturned face. Furious spitting sounds erupted from his lips as he jumped off the ladder and wiped his mouth with the back of his sleeve, revolted. Mopping his face with his handkerchief, his stomach rolled in disgust.
Opening the back-pack, he pulled on a pair of thick latex gloves, unwrapped the emergency fire escape ladder and threw it up into the hatch. It landed with a clatter and the backpack followed. He waited for a response and when none came, he grasped the edges of the hatch with both hands, hopped in place and hoisted himself onto the edge of the crawlspace. The duct was large enough for him to move quickly and the flashlight showed the way.
He reached the firewall that separated the units, withdrew a reciprocal saw from the backpack and set to work cutting through. In no time at all, he'd cut a large space and crawled through. With the ladder tucked under one arm, he continued down the passageway and in less than three minutes, reached the hatch to Cathy's condo.
Knowing she wasn't there made his work easier.
Norman was not a typical offender and he'd certainly never broken into anyone's home before. In fact, he had no police record, not even a parking ticket, but as paparazzi, he often had to go into places off limits to him. If he'd let that stop him, he'd never have shot some of his best works.
Add to that, he'd read more than his share of lurid detective magazines and was an avid watcher of CSI. He had a good idea how things worked in and out of the law, and even better how not to get caught.
Although not an expert, Norman knew his way around surveillance equipment, at least to the point where he could bug a couple of rooms and be fairly confident of going undetected. He pulled her hatch cover, unrolled the fire ladder, fixed the handles to the sides of the hatch and let it fall to the floor. He scurried down and planted the first bug in her bedroom, attaching it to one of the legs of her bedside chair.
He hid the second in the kitchen, choosing a back corner under the cabinets. The third he stuck to the bottom of the dining table on her lanai, and triggering all three bugs, smiled as the flashing red lights on his handheld remote told him the systems were activated.
Norman climbed back up the ladder, pulled it behind him and fixed the hatch cover in place. All he could do now was wait for her to return.
* * *
Ella stood on the porch with Jim, coffee cups in hand, discussing upcoming plans. A variety of critters lay on the floor surrounding them. She drew deep breaths of air and leaned into his shoulder. "It's so beautiful, I could stay here forever." She rested there a moment then turned a wide smile on him, her face glowing with anticipation. "C'mon, guys, let's take a walk."
She started down the steps, a large Doberman female at her side. As they approached the training field, Ella reached out a hand, fingertips in contact with the strong, muscular neck. She tapped Amy on the forehead to get her attention, made a fist and a quick series of movements. "Go."
Amy charged the chain link fence, jumping at it midway up, digging in and quickly scaling the heights. She jumped off and sat on the other side, staring at Ella and waiting for the next command. Ella pointed at the tube, made a fist and cupped it in her left hand. "Go."
The dog tore through the tube, emerged and ran to the next obstacle, crawling under the low-hanging ropes that swung four inches above her head, threatening to ensnare her. The next signal brought Amy back to Ella's side where she sat, grinning.
"What a bunch of showoffs! Every chance you get." Jim glanced at his girls, pride on his face. "You two are a pair that would beat a full house any day. And Ames, aren't you in great shape? Who'd have thought that an aerobic dance workout each morning would keep you fit enough to do that? Good girl."
Amy gave Jim a wag or two, ears attentive to the tone of his voice. Eyes alight, she turned her attention to the dog smirking at his side. She stared at Tony, her cohort in more than one crime stop, ears perked, her tail wagging unbidden. He returned the stare and the tail wiggle, although his mature stature kept him from barking wildly and chasing Amy all over the field.
She chirped under her breath, enticing him, finally dodging down on her front end and butting him with her nose.
"Oh, for Pete's sake, Tony, let her have it. Go play."
Tony took off across the pasture zigzagging all over the lawn, butt curled under him, Amy hot on his trail.
Ella glanced at her watch, a slight frown on her face. "I wonder what's keeping Terry and Lenny. They...." The words stopped at they saw the SUV crest the low hill and pull up in front of the office. Rudy and Cathy joined them on the porch, bearing fresh cups of coffee.
"Good deal. I'd really like to get started planning our house." She shot a sideways glance at Jim and stared at the wide gold wedding band that joined her emerald engagement ring. "You are the best sport in the world, you know that? I love you for it. You sure you're not getting tired of my sister being around all the time?"
Chuckling, he shook his head. "How could I possibly mind? You two are so much alike, I love it. Of course, the fact that Lenny and I are so close makes a difference. I doubt if I could have put up with Bob, even for Terry."
"Amen to that."
They thought back to the time when Bob terrorized Terry, kept her an emotional captive, beat and abused her and finally tried to murder her. Inadvertently, their mind's eye, along with their gaze turned to Amy, the final executioner.
Ella put her arms around him, hugging him close. "I still get the creeps every time I remember it."
"Me, too. Thank God for Lenny."
"Thank me for what," he said as he and Terry joined them. Cathy, Rudy and Kip followed not far behind.
"Oh, we were just remembering Bob, for some reason, and Amy."
"Eeuw! Thanks, but let's not, huh?" Terry frowned at Ella. "Whatever would make you think of him? Miserable bastard."
"Never mind, Terry. I shouldn't have even mentioned it. Say, Jim and I want to go over the design of our house. Let's walk over to that section of the property."
Good mood restored, they walked toward the far corner of the property, the dogs frolicking in the pasture. As they passed the barn, the shrill greetings from Boomer and his buddies set their spines tingling.
"I had such a great time riding yesterday. Boomer is the best." Cathy turned in Rudy's direction, tightening her grip on his arm. "I can't remember the last time I felt this good, this happy."
Jim almost tripped when he caught Rudy's expression as he gazed at Cathy. In the twenty plus years they'd been friends, he'd never seen that look before, nothing even close. Right there in front of God and everybody, Rudy Clark was in love. He chortled and elbowed Ella. She, too, watched Rudy and Cathy, a satisfied expression on her beautiful face. Voice low, she said, "Not to be smug or anything, but I knew they'd hit it off."
Terry stared at the barn, longing clear on her face. "Well, one thing for sure, we're going to have to enlarge the barn. Only makes sense to keep them all in one place."
* * *
Their getaway ended too quickly, although they accomplished all their goals, including how to enlarge the barn to accommodate four more horses.
Cathy and Rudy were the last to leave. She waited on the porch for him while he gave some last minute instructions to the kennel personnel. The sound of his voice, just audible to her ear, made her smile. He was a dream come true.
The last thing she ever expected to find was love. She'd given up on it the day she woke up blind. Her life since then, although lonely, met her needs, at least those that could be met.
She thought about last night and shivered at the memories. Whoever would have figured? And Rudy was so exciting, so caring. She felt safe and confident with him, so much so, she even allowed the dogs to romp free of their harnesses. As long as Rudy walked with her, she didn't need anyone else. And how perfect was his timing, this entry into her life?
She knew how much she owed to Lainie and that she'd never be able to pay her back. A decade of love and devotion to a handicapped friend qualified for sainthood as far as Cathy was concerned, but things had changed.
Lainie loved Hank and it was time for their needs to be considered. It wouldn't be long before they married and she couldn't expect to live with them, didn't even want to; it just wouldn't happen. Hank wanted Lainie to himself, at least in the beginning, and she didn't blame him one bit.
Still, it terrified Cathy to the depth of her soul when she allowed herself to think about living alone.
And then, through a series of misadventures, to say the least, Rudy entered her life, changing it forever. She chortled again, raising her arms in the air.
"You're so beautiful," he said, slipping his arms around her waist, burying his lips in her hair. "What are you chuckling about?"
"Ooo, I didn't hear you come up. I was lost in remembering." She turned in his arms, cheeks flaming. "Last night."
The soft kisses got more and more insistent. Panting, she pulled her lips from his. "I absolutely have to be home by four."
He swept her up in his arms, and holding her like a young child, he covered her face with kisses and carried her into the house.
This one is a bit long, too, but I hope you'll find it worth it!
Although the new condo was fully furnished down to the sheets and towels, the fridge was empty. Norman looked at food like fuel. He needed it to keep going and while he knew good from bad, he had no interest in cooking or gourmet fare past firing up the barbeque and grilling a steak or some chops.
He bought his staples at the chain store a couple of blocks over, stocking up on basics like coffee, bread and eggs, but took to frequenting the local shops on a daily basis, selecting his dinner from the wide variety of home-made choices available in the various display cases.
The little French bistro, his preference for breakfast, garnered him several talkative new friends. There was much to be learned over an order of baked eggs and cheese.
Not only did it give him the opportunity to be known by the shopkeepers and
locals, something he actually wanted for a change, he could gossip casually, listening for choice tidbits, and when he got around to mentioning Cathy, no one raised an eyebrow.
That was how he found out her dog had been stolen. No one had the exact date, but he figured it was just around the time he'd left on assignment to San Francisco. At least he knew why she didn't jog any more.
Her present whereabouts remained a mystery to all and no one seemed to know anything; the waiting game continued.
After planting the bugs, Norman returned to his condo and fired up the grill, suddenly hungry. Mind still whirling with possibilities, he carried a rib eye steak over to the waiting hot barbeque. It was not surprising that he almost fell over in shock. The steak skidded off the plate and bounced onto the hot grill, sputtering to a stop in a spurt of juice.
There sat Cathy, stretched out on her favorite chaise, his rival beside her, holding her hand and kissing the tips of her fingers. He turned her hand over, kissing the pulse at her wrist and progressing toward her elbow. Cathy leaned her head back, long hair spilling down the side of the chaise in cascades of molten honey.
Norman felt the blood leave his head, followed by the familiar onset of a brutal headache. It staggered him compounding exponentially as the blood and the fury hit him at the same time. The pressure was so intense he feared his eyes would explode from their sockets. Leaning back against the railing, he closed his eyes and waited for the nausea to subside, waited for the rage to abate.
When he could finally move again, he worked his way to the telephone and dialed. He wished he could see the look on her face when she realized he had her new number. Over the past few days he'd discovered a lot about her apartment as well as personal things he wanted to know, including her new, unlisted phone number, conveniently left on the work order on the kitchen counter.
The phone rang twice and went to the machine. Instead of Cathy's personal message, a mechanical voice now said, "Leave a message at the tone."
"I told you, you stupid bitch! I warned you to send him away. This is all going to be your fault, Cathy, just remember that! You're gonna be so sorry. I'm gonna...."
Rudy snatched up the phone. "What the fuck do you want, you cowardly little shit, harassing women and hiding behind a phone? You little prick, why don't you come over here and say that to my face? You'd rather scare defenseless women, you frickin' coward, but that's just your speed, weasel. Come on over and let's settle this like men, that is if you know how. I'll meet you any time, any where. Just name it."
"You're full of shit, dude, all talk. You think I'm scared by the likes of you? When I get done with you, you'll look like your car."
"The car is fixed and what you did to it doesn't even exist anymore. Just like you won't exist anymore when I'm done with you. You have no idea who you're screwin' with, asshole. I am going to separate your head from your shoulders with one clean shot, or I might rip it off with my bare hands if I'm in the right mood. So where shall we meet? I'll give you full advantage because you're going to need it."
Cathy raised a hand to Rudy, shaking her head violently and indicating she wanted him to hang up. She heard him place the receiver in the cradle and reached both hands toward him. "We have to make a plan. I only heard half of that, but I know enough to be scared to death. It took me too long to find you and I'm sure not going to lose you now, Rudy. I'd just die. How the hell did he get my new number and how could he know we were here? We haven't been home half an hour and I don't think the phone's rung since the number was changed."
"Beats me, baby, but it's time to sweep your condo. Come on over here and sit on the stool. I'll turn on the news for you. Just sit right here until I'm finished, okay, and then we'll figure out what to do next. Here, let me top off your wine. You doin' okay?"
"Okay, but if the phone rings again, I want to answer it. He's not going to scare me, Rudy. As long as you're here, there's nothing he can do to us. He can't even get into the building."
"I'll try to be quick, but I don't have any of my tracking equipment here. I'll just eyeball it. If I can't find it, I'll have Jim bring me something first thing tomorrow."
Rudy systematically worked his way through the living and dining rooms, coming up with nothing. He headed for the kitchen, and rather than waste anymore time, pulled out his cell and dialed Jim. He took the chair next to Cathy as Jim picked up.
"Hey, Rudy, what's happening?"
"Where are you?"
"I'm about twenty minutes from the restaurant. You got a problem?"
"We just got another threatening phone call and the guy is officially off the rails."
"Another one? How could that happen? I thought she switched her number, got unlisted."
"She did. Looks like this is the first call she's had. No previous messages on the machine. She said her phone rarely rings except for art commissions or people trying to set up a showing. Strange. Anyway, I want to pick up a bug detector. I don't have any of that stuff with me. How about you?"
"I have several sets on board. Did you talk with this guy?"
"Yeah, I sure did, and Jim, he is a psycho. Real deal, the certifiable kind."
"I'll be there in less than an hour. Traffic is light and as long as everyone behaves it won't be long."
"I really appreciate this, Jim. I owe ya one."
"Eh. Paid back a dozen times over. I'll be there in a bit. Give me the address."
Cathy turned toward Rudy, lips in a tight grimace. "What are we going to do? How do you figure he got the new number?"
"I don't know, but don't worry about it, honey. We'll figure it out. Maybe he works for the phone company." He glanced at the work order on the counter and shrugged. "Who lets the vendors in here when they need to work? Do your maintenance folks stay with them? What do you know about that?" He flipped the paper around and began searching for a familiar name.
"Nothing, really. Of course, this was the phone company, so maybe they let the utilities people work alone; I don't know, but Lainie would. She's the one who handles that kind of stuff. Besides, what are the odds that the guy who's stalking me works at the phone company and would be the one out of thousands to get my work order?"
"On the face of it, I agree. But stranger things have happened, sweetheart, believe me. Just bear with me if I get a bit overprotective until this wacko is put away."
"Oh, no. I trust your judgment completely, Rudy. We'll play this one by your rules. Frankly, I'm scared to death. It's hard for others to imagine going through something like this blind. I wouldn't even know where to run."
"Oh, baby, don't worry." He pulled her into his arms then, hugging her close. "Don't be afraid. He can't hurt you here, and I'll protect you. I just have to figure out how to get this guy to show himself so we can have him arrested."
"That's fine, but arrested for what? Threats? Can we prove he trashed your car? If not, we have nothing but a voice on the phone."
"I'm going down tomorrow and talk with condo management. If they have taped surveillance in the parking lot, it's quite possible we'll get a make on the stalker. From then on, we should be able to nail him."
The phone rang again.
"Why not let me talk to him? It's me he wants and maybe I can get him to talk. Put him on the speaker phone before I pick up. He'll never be able to tell you're listening like that."
"You got it," Rudy said, pressing the button.
"Oh, Cathy, I hoped you'd pick up. Did you finally send him away?"
"What? Who is this?"
"Please don't do that, Cath. It hurts too much. Is he still there?"
Unable to take any visual clues from Rudy, she played it her way. "No, he had to leave for a while. He went to pick up some take-out. We're hungry. Now answer me, whoever this is. Why do you keep calling? I'm sick and tired of it!" When he didn't answer immediately, she hung up.
* * *
Norman threw his cell across the room with such force it burst into smithereens. As it ricocheted off the wall he shrieked, "Son of a bitch!" over and over again, his voice breaking with the force of the scream. Pain tore at his body as he rocked back and forth.
'Whoever this is? Did she actually say that? Dear God, how could she forget him so completely that she didn't even recognize his voice?'
Norman ran to the computer, uploading the most recent pictures from his Nikon. Shadowed by the full moon drifting between clouds, Cathy danced with his rival, slow easy steps so fluid he could almost hear the music.
He dipped her to one side, the graceful move forever captured on film. Slowly he pulled her to him, and off they went again, dancing to a song only they heard.
Another pictured them in silhouette, a photo so striking it caused him to draw his breath deep and hold it. Entwined, their lips just inches apart, profiles in solid relief with the full moon behind them, they danced.
The copy machine began to scan the photos, one after another. As they came out, he pulled them from the tray and systematically destroyed the man, stabbing a knife through the face, tearing, rending, slashing, the face now unrecognizable.
Norman cut the profile photo in half, removing the man, saving Cathy.
'Saving Cathy. Save Cathy? Oh, my God, what's he done to her? Do I ... yes, that's it. I need to save her!" He leaned against the desk, his mind whirling through waves of pain, spinning in agony as one dire possibility after another presented itself.
If only he could silence what he considered to be the voice in the back of his mind. It told him terrible things, things that weren't true, that couldn't be true. It argued and demeaned him, crushing him.
"She said he went to get carryout because they were hungry, you fool. Wonder why they were hungry? If she wanted to leave, she would. If she answered the phone she could make a call to the police, to a friend, anyone. She's fine."
'Maybe not! Maybe she's afraid to leave. She can't go out alone since the dog was stolen, maybe that's it.'
"That's ridiculous! She lives in a condo, not the back of the frickin' moon! Of course she could leave if she wanted to. She doesn't want to because she's gettin' it on with her new boyfriend. Face it, kiddo, you're history, even by your pitiful standards."
Norman turned on his heel and headed down the hall to the display room, several pictures in his hand. He hurried over to the showcase and wrenched open the glass door on what he thought of as 'his' side of the display cabinet. These pictures might not be as financially valuable as the others, but the spirit and the feelings they displayed made them special and more than compensated for the amateurish end product, at least as far as he was concerned.
The first photo he took of her, hair flowing in the breeze, the moon playing with the shadows surrounding her, took center stage. The others fanned out from it like rays of sun. His favorite showed her putting the finishing touches on a free-form plaster sculpture of a wave crashing onto the beach. Her expression solemn, almost tense, showed how much of herself she poured into her work. To own one amounted to a spiritual if not physical connection that couldn't be broken.
Norman stared at the latest picture he'd placed there, a close-up of his rival. The face disturbed him deep within his soul, but he wasn't sure why. It was the strong face of a man in his early forties with high cheekbones and a slightly hawkish shape to his nose. A full generous mouth and small even teeth made for an engaging smile. Perhaps it was the way the dark, deep-set eyes bored into his. Although their expression in the photo was pleasant and attractive, it took no imagination to know what they would look like when angry.
In the end, Norman decided it was the short hair that tipped the balance. 'Ex-military, probably career and very dangerous. Green Beret, maybe, or a Seal?'
Any of those Special Forces guys were nuts; deadly, but nuts. Since he had nothing to lose, he was more than ready. Without Cathy, he really didn't care what happened.
Sorry for the language rating, but there are times when only the real word will do! Same with the verbal violence!
Heart pounding in her ears, Cathy leaned back against the counter, her teeth chattering. "He knows me, called me Cath, like we were old friends or something." She clapped both hands across her mouth while dry heaves ran up and down her throat. "What the hell does he want? Is he trying to drive me nuts? Because if he is, he's doing a damned good job of it."
"Oh, honey, I'm not sure what's going on. Here, sit down at the counter and I'll get us some wine." He held the chair for her then walked across the kitchen to the wet bar. "Was the voice familiar at all? A tone or the cadence? People often try to disguise their voices at times like this, but I felt he genuinely thought you should have known who he was. He sure wanted you to, and yet, he didn't offer his name when you didn't. He feels a strong connection to you, that's for sure."
Rudy paused a moment in mid-pour, obviously considering the possibilities. Glasses ready, he corked the bottle and took the stool next to Cathy. He placed the wine before her and patted her hand. "I'm inclined to think it's a fan or someone here in the neighborhood. If he knows you at all, he either met you out walking or at one of your gallery showings. Do you remember anyone talking to you who seemed interested in getting to know you?"
"Nothing but the normal neighborhood greetings, the clerks in the stores, stuff like that. They're all very friendly, always tell me about specials they're having and the good sales. They feel sorry for me so they pick out the best produce they have. The guys at Starbucks are positively manic about me not burning myself. It's very touching, actually. Considering my life, I am a most unlikely candidate for an obsessive stalker. And yet, here it is. Gives me the creeps."
"Try to remember when the calls first started. Anything happen that might have triggered them? Anything, a big sale? A special request? Try to remember."
"I never thought about it that way. It was hot, I figure late July, early August. I remember being very busy with several projects and the interruption made me mad. Other than that, I can't pinpoint anything special."
"How about Ella and Terry? How often do you see them? What do you do when you get together?"
"I see them every couple of months for lunch. They usually come down here to get away from the restaurant. They like the little French bistro, so we eat there, although depending on the weather, we go for tacos a couple of blocks farther up the boulevard. Great walk in good weather. The other night was the first time I've been to Ella's place for dinner in months."
"Any other social activities, friends who might have introduced you to someone new to the group? Someone else's date, even?"
Lips pursed she shook her head. "I know it's making you nuts, but no, I have no idea. I lead, led a quiet life until Suzi was stolen. Except for a gallery showing, which happens like every six months, I'm usually always at home, especially since Lainie and Hank got so close. Now we have all this drama with Suzi and phone calls from that total maniac, I feel like I'm about to come out of my skin, but no, I can't think of anyone."
"Honey, you can't make it happen. I keep thinking there's something I've missed. I talked with Desiree Collins, down in management, to see if she would have footage of the attack on my car, see if they might have our guy's picture, but no luck. They don't have cameras in the guest parking, just in the garage and inside the building."
"Figures. Is Desiree going to check out the tapes for the lobby that day anyway? Maybe he came inside, not expecting security and all that, and then maybe left? Possible?"
"Yes. I'm going to meet her tomorrow if she sees something strange. It's not a big building and she felt certain she would recognize everyone on the tape. If not, she'll give me a buzz."
"She will. She knows everyone in the building and half their friends. If there's a stranger on there, she'll pick him out."
Rudy felt his cell vibrate, half inclined to let it go to voice mail. He took it out and read the face plate. "Ah, this could be good news. I just got a call from the people who are going to put a new top on my car." He flipped it open.
"Hi, this is Rudy. What's up?" He listened for a while. "Yes, first thing in the morning. Yes, see you then." He chuckled as he returned the cell to his pocket. "They have the top. It just came in and there's an early morning slot available. I'm going to drop the car off first thing."
"Well, a bit of good news for a change. What about the damage to the paint?"
"I've got an appointment to have it painted next week. Pretty soon she'll be right as rain. At first I thought I'd rent a car, but the condo is so perfectly located, we can eat out or in, depending what the weather is like. Actually, I'd like to do that tonight. There are so many right close by, and...."
"Oh, I'm starved, so if you want to, I'm up for it. How does sweet and sour chicken sound?"
"Outstanding. Shall we bring the dogs?"
"Absolutely. There's a table toward the back of the room that Lainie and I often take if it's empty. There's plenty of room for dogs. Let me go freshen up a minute. I'll be right back."
* * *
Norman hurried out the door, took the elevator and sprinted down the street. He entered the China Bowl, smiled at the host and asked to sit at a table along the wall. He'd seen her here several times before and knew which table she preferred. His seat gave him the perfect position to watch Cathy and hear what they said.
He ordered a beer which arrived just before Cathy. Gaze fastened on his menu, he watched the host lead them to the expected table. She sat with her back to the wall, as did her companion, her face shadowed in the guttering of the candle.
The host greeted her warmly, telling her how nice it was to see her again and how he hoped she'd come back often.
Their waiter recited the evening specials, grinning at Cathy in recognition. "But of course, sweet and sour chicken for lady, right?" Chuckling, he handed Rudy a menu and left a moment, returning with two glasses of red wine.
"So, I already know what I'm going to get. How about you?"
"I love Chinese, so anything would be great. Let me see, yes. I'm ready, too."
He nodded at the waiter. "Cathy?"
"I'll have sweet and sour chicken with plain rice this time, Lo Sun. And a shrimp roll."
"Soup come with? Egg drop, very good."
"Can you put that in a go-cup for me?"
"No pro'lem, I can do that. And you, sir?"
"Make that two soups to go and I'll try the sweet and sour chicken, too, and the vegetarian platter with egg fu young with noodles. Oh, and a shrimp roll as well."
Light laughter made him smile.
"Wow, you must be hungry. Of course, it's the best breakfast in the world, huh?"
"Oh yeah. Right along with pizza and cold fried chicken."
"Tell the truth, when it's simply prepared, y'know, grilled or baked, I prefer meat cold. Except for lamb. Not good cold."
"Not good ever! That is one meat I just can't stand. Even smelling it cooking makes me gag. Sorry. That's not dinner table conversation, is it?"
Cathy laughed again, inching her hand across the table until she felt his fingers. "How many people are here right now? I know it's a bit late, but I hear people talking."
"There are three people sitting over in the corner, a couple near the front door and a guy sitting at the table across from us a bit."
"Doesn't sound like he's here, does it?"
She sat back as Lo Sun placed their shrimp rolls and a little caddy containing sweet and sour sauce, hot mustard and soy sauce with sesame seeds. The aroma of fried won ton wafted into her nostrils and she swallowed convulsively.
"Which way is the sweet and sour? And the mustard? I love that stuff."
"Do you want me to put some of each on your plate?"
"That'd be great, Rudy. Thanks."
"A nice helping of mustard at three, sweet sauce at nine, shrimp roll in the middle."
She dipped the end of the crispy roll in the mustard and then liberally in the sweet sauce. She bit the end off, which promptly exploded in tiny, juicy fragments. Cathy clapped one hand over her mouth, while she put the roll on her plate. Color flooded her cheeks as she turned to Rudy. "Oh, my God, I hate when that happens. Did I get you?" She leaned back in her chair, mortified.
"Oh, honey, that kind of thing happens to everyone. Juice spurts. Actually, you missed me entirely." He leaned into her, reaching for her hand. "No one saw a thing, so there's no need to be embarrassed."
Her face continued to flush as a warm rose painted the apples of her cheeks. "How humiliating to be out with someone who does stuff like that.
"There's no one in the world I'd rather be with. You must know that by now." He
turned her hand in his, kissing the wrist, then the fleshy base of her thumb, her palm.
Her hand began to tremble. She closed her eyes, lost in the feeling.
Rudy kissed the tips of her fingers, his eyes riveted on her face as though to memorize it. "Surely you know how I feel about you, Cathy. We have so much fun together ... last weekend was incredible. From the moment I met you, even with the bad stuff going down all around us, we still had a good time. We think the same about so many things, have so much in common, even friends. I don't want to leave you any more, to spend time away from you. I love you."
She melted into his arms, a smile of such rapture on her face it brought tears to his eyes. "From the moment you came into my life, it changed. I love you, too."
Norman watched them talk, heard their exchanges of love, and fumed in helplessness while shards of pain pierced his eyes, his soul. 'That's supposed to be me she's talking to, you bastard. You thief. I'll get her back and you'll never see her again.'
His stomach roiled as he listened to them, heartsick at their profession of love for each other. Realizing he neared the end of his rope, he put his fork back on his plate and rose to leave. The waiter hurried to the table, bill in hand. Two twenties and an indication to keep the change were all Norman could muster before leaving the restaurant.
Physically sick, Norman forced himself to saunter up the boulevard, knowing their meal would keep them another half hour. Anyone who might identify him later would see nothing untoward or out of place. A leisurely stroll home after a fine dinner.
What lay in front of him would take no time at all. Eyes down, he climbed the steps and walked across the lobby to the elevator. The doors opened, he stepped aboard, hit the P button and moved to the back of the car.
The door had almost closed when a tall man with longish blond hair stuck his hand between the doors, forcing them to open. He stepped aboard, a tall muscular Doberman Pincher at his side.
He, too, hit the penthouse button. When the elevator opened, the dog and man crossed the floor to Cathy's door and rang the bell. When no one answered, the man fished a key from his pocket and used it to unlock the door.
Norman, already as jittery as a new mother, slowed his steps as he approached his door. Rustling around in his pocket with a great sound of jingling, he waited to see what the man would do next.
Twisting the key in the lock, the dog and the man entered the condo, closing the door behind them.
Norman felt his stomach turn again as he closed his door.
'Timing. Every frickin' thing in life works or doesn't work because of timing. Every single thing. So who the hell is that bastard and what does he want with Cathy? And he knows her so well he has a key?'
Knowing he had a relatively small window of time to accomplish his tasks, he hurried to his computer, accessed the bugs he'd placed in Cathy's condo and began to examine all three areas.
The man sat in the living room, waiting, the dog at his side. Within a few moments another key turning in the lock signaled that Cathy and her new man had returned.
"Hey, Jim. I sure appreciate you doing this for us. You been waiting long?"
"Not three minutes, Rudy, it's no problem. I'm glad to help." He reached into his pocket and pulled out the bug locator and placed it on the table.
"Can you stay for a while? How about a beer or a glass of wine."
"I have to take a pass, but thanks anyway. I've been on the road all day, haven't had a bite to eat and Ella is already tapping her foot. Rain check?"
"Oh, you bet. We'll do it next time. Well, if you have to go, I think I'll sweep the condo and see if we have bugs. Again, most appreciated, my friend. Owe ya one."
Norman sat back a moment, thinking. He planted three bugs. Could he get to one first, at least, save it from detection? He ran down the hall to his bedroom, picked up the remote and deactivated the bugs. Next, he entered the closet, climbed the ladder and hoisted himself into the attic crawlspace.
With the flashlight between his teeth and moving as fast as the dark and confined area would let him, he reached her closet, pulled her cover hatch aside, stuck his head into her closet and listened.
As expected, the man started with the living room, kitchen and dining room. To do a decent job even with sophisticated equipment, it would take time to cover that much space. With any kind of luck, he could get the bug out and replace it once the asshole finished the sweep.
His rival's name was Rudy. He repeated it several times. 'Rudy. I don't believe it.'
Norman attached the ladder to the lip of the hatch and scurried down to the floor of Cathy's closet. Retrieving the bug from the chair leg, he hurried back to the closet, already three steps up the ladder when he heard a sound.
Not exactly a whine, surely not a moan, yet there it was. He turned to stare into a pair of glowing eyes. Unsure what he saw with his limited lighting, he instinctively gave several sharp, hard kicks.
Kip had seen Norman come down the ladder and watched with interest as he bent over the chair. This new form of entertainment appealed to her funny side, and with a smile, ears up, more than ready to join in the fun, she whined. She gave another excited whine and pretended to jump at Norman's leg.
He let out a low cry and kicked her under the chin with all his might, causing her jaws to snap shut, thus biting her tongue.
Stunned, Kip stepped back an inch or two, more than ready to accept that accidents do happen, when the second kick caught her squarely along the jaw, splitting her gum. Staggered for a moment, she paused and tasted blood. She turned away, a combination of disillusion and uncertainty on her face and walked out of the room, her lips pink with blood. Glancing over her shoulder, Kip lifted her lip and growled under her breath.
Norman pulled himself over the lip of the hatch and lay on the unfinished floor, panting.
'Son of a frickin' bitch. What the hell was that?' He knew Suzi, recognized the kind yellow Lab. But that, that was not Suzi.
Hands trembling, he pulled the ladder up and fixed the cover over the hatch, checking for a snug fit. As fast as he was able, Norman scurried back to the rented condo. He had to get out of here and he had to make a plan and there was little time to do it.
Back home safe, Norman sat in the living room, the recovered bug from her bedroom in his hands. All his surveillance equipment was top grade, over-the-counter and paid for with cash. He knew better than to plant something traceable, so he had no fear of being tracked through online orders or invoices.
His thoughts scattered here and there like a pinball game.
"Get control of yourself, Norman. If you continue to act this way you'll jeopardize Nathan and I can't have that. Get a glass of wine or something. We need to devise a plan." The voice in his head sounded worried rather than filled with its usual mockery and contempt. Norman poured himself a glass of wine and resumed his seat.
"What in the world would make a regular citizen suspect their home was bugged in the first place? Why? What would set them off?"
'Maybe he's not a regular citizen.'
"How many people do you know who carry bug detectors in their cars?"
'Not too many. I have to find out who he is.'
"He's parked right next to your space. Get the plate number and we'll know soon enough."
'I got it when I trashed his car.'
"Then get to work."
Norman's familiarity with a wide variety of electronic gadgets included tracking devices, security and surveillance equipment and an extensive and intimate knowledge of how to work the internet to his advantage.
It stemmed from his being paparazzi, which included more than just taking photos. Tapes of the right people in the wrong situation always brought in tons of money. They might not be evidence in a court of law, but in the court of public opinion, they represented solid gold. Alimony and child support payments often hinged on the good name of the offended party. More than one lucrative contract had been lost due to an unpleasant revelation or obnoxious photo.
Norman came back to the nagging question at hand. How many people had a friend with bug detection equipment at his fingertips?
Questions he couldn't answer continued to bubble in his brain, but at least his rival now had a name. Rudy Clark.
Rudy stood by the door, one hand on the knob, the other on her shoulder, reluctant to leave her alone. "I should be back by nine. If anything comes up, I'll give you a call. Are you hungry?"
"Ah, not really; not yet. I'll have another cup of coffee and sit on the lanai and read until you get back."
"Good. I know of a little bakery that makes the most incredible chocolate chip croissants."
"Yum, sounds good. I'll be waiting."
Norman sat in his car by the garage exit, waiting for Rudy to leave. He'd heard enough last night to know Cathy would be alone for a while this morning. Either he'd make his move now or forever have regrets. As the Mustang disappeared in the early morning traffic, Norman hurried back to his condo.
Strangely enough, he'd gotten a good night's sleep and his plans, fuzzy and unsure when he went to bed had gelled overnight into an effective and workable arrangement.
Once again he climbed the ladder in the closet and made his way down the now-familiar passage toward Cathy, his pounding heart promised another migraine. He pulled the hatch cover back, attached the ends of the ladder and climbed down to the floor. He stood there in her bedroom, motionless, glancing around at the beautiful space, noting the slider onto the patio. Floor to ceiling windows faced the ocean.
Footsteps silenced in the thick carpet, he padded down the hall to the kitchen. The pot of coffee smelled inviting and he was sorely tempted to give in, but he passed, not wanting to leave a shred of evidence for the police or Rudy to find. He saw her standing by the railing of the lanai, face pointed toward the ocean, doing her morning exercises.
Using a chair back for balance she stood on tiptoe and brought one leg as high to one side as she could get it. Ten counts up and down and she switched legs. She leaned forward, leg now lifting behind her. The routine caused her to perspire, bringing high color to her cheeks. With a small dumbbell in one hand Cathy started curling; after ten reps, she switched.
Mesmerized, Norman watched her finish her routine. She picked up her cup, drained it, and headed for the kitchen, left hand on Suzi's harness. Norman moved quickly to the back of the room, not wanting to start anything here. Hopefully she'd go to her room to shower. That's when he'd get her.
Cathy walked into the kitchen and put her empty cup in the sink, unaware of Norman standing in the far corner, but the dogs saw him.
Suzi turned a surprised muzzle in his direction, took two deep breaths and in true Lab style, began to wave her thick plumed tail at the unknown guest.
Kip, too, stared at the man, her tail raised and uncharacteristically still. The ears jerked up and down in a series of quick moves, like an air traffic controller's flags and finally lay flat against her head. Whoever he was, this guest was no stranger to Kip. They'd met last night.
Kip, too, stared at the man, her tail raised and uncharacteristically still. The ears jerked up and down in a series of quick moves, like an air traffic controller's flags and finally lay flat against her head. Whoever he was, this guest was no stranger to Kip. They'd met last night.
Turning her attention on Cathy, she began to make noises deep in her throat, not barks, exactly, more like talking, as the notes went from low to high and back again.
Cathy began to laugh. "Kip, is that your way of asking for a treat?" She felt around in the cupboard for the box of dog biscuits and pulled two out, handing one to each dog. "I'm going to have a shower and when I get back, we'll go outside again and get some rays. What a great day."
She put Suzi's harness in the fixed position and walked down the hall alone, her right hand just touching the wall.
Norman skirted the dogs and followed Cathy into her bedroom, closing the door before the dogs could follow.
Cathy placed her cell, transponder and tracking device on the nightstand, about to pull her shirt over her head when every hair on her body rose. She was no longer alone in the room. "Suzi? Kip?" Frozen to the spot, she held her breath, waiting.
He stood right behind her, pleasant, minty breath just inches away from her neck as she pulled the shirt back in place.
"It's me, Cathy. Don't be afraid." She let out a predictable shriek, which he muffled with his gloved hand. "Easy, easy, you know I'm not going to hurt you. Stop fighting me. Please don't scream any more."
She stopped struggling, realizing the futility of it and instead engaged in a battle of wits while her body threatened to shake apart. "Wh ... who are you? Let me go." Ripples of fear coursed up and down her spine and her chattering teeth clicked together like castanets.
He held her arms down while she struggled. "Stop doing that," she cried, trying to twist out of his grip. "Get your hands off me, you're hurting me."
"I don't want to. I'll release you the moment you relax and stop struggling."
'Oh, God, Rudy. Help me.' "I won't scream. What do you want? How did you get in here?"
"We have all kinds of time to play twenty questions later. Right now, we need to leave here. Come with me." Norman placed his hand on her arm again and she jerked away, lost her balance and fell onto the bed.
"I'm not going...."
He grabbed her arm again, twisting it behind her back hard enough to make her cry out in pain. "Shut up now and don't argue. I don't want to hurt you, but if you don't cooperate, I'll kill Suzi, too."
"I'm not leaving...."
"Yes, you are." Norman twisted her arm higher and pulled her to her feet. "Let's go." He pushed her in front of him, opened the bedroom door and shoved her into the hall.
Suzi and Kip sat there, whining. The dogs rose and followed them down the hall, unsure what to make of such strange happenings.
Norman opened the front door, peered around to make sure they were alone and pushed her into the hall.
Kip made to follow them and once again, Norman kicked her viciously in the jaw, slamming the door in her face. Her lip split as the toe of his shoe smashed into her muzzle.
Suzi scratched on the door, trying to follow Cathy. Giving up, they sank to the floor on either side of the door and waited for her to come back.
They stopped at his front door long enough for him to open it. He pushed her inside and closed it quickly.
Once inside his condo, Norman relaxed. His heart regained its normal cadence and the headache subsided. The hardest part of the whole deal was over. He had Cathy all to himself and it was going to stay that way.
Large green eyes searched her face, the trembling lips, now pursed in fear, the glorious skin, pink from time spent in the sun and her recent scare. He knew her cheeks would feel like silk. He loved the strong, narrow hands, the short, workman-like fingernails. He took her hand and kissed it before she realized what he was doing.
"Stop that! What are you doing?" Cathy moved with great reluctance. Her knees had been knocking since he first grabbed her and the effort to walk, plus her fear, made the muscles in her legs cramp. Still rigid with fright, she managed to mutter, "Sit. I have to sit."
He led her to the sofa, careful to keep her in the center of the room. He watched the pulse in her throat throb violently, familiar with the painful sensation. "Would you like a glass of water?"
Cathy nodded slowly.
"Stay right here, please. I'll be back directly."
'Oh, God help me. What am I going to do? Rudy, please come quickly!'
Her heart sank as she remembered placing her cell, transponder and tracking device on her bedside table and for a moment she gave in to despair. She was officially out of touch, something that had never happened before. She heard him approach and steeled herself not to burst into tears.
"Here, Cathy, drink this. You'll feel much better; it's nice and cold. And please don't be afraid. I won't hurt you."
The water was cold, frigid and she drank the small glass, grateful for the simple pleasure. Refreshed and hydrated, she extended her arm and attempted to hand him the glass. It slid out of her grasp and bounced on the thick carpet.
Slowly she crumpled, fell back against the sofa cushions and lost consciousness.
Norman positioned the cart next to the sofa, opened the steamer trunk and gently eased Cathy inside. Inert, she allowed him to place her body in a fetal position, legs drawn to her chest, arms crossed. He closed the lid, flipped the lock and got ready to leave. He placed his tripod and several cameras on top of the trunk, strapped them down, picked up his keys and headed for the elevator.
With any luck, he would go directly from the penthouse to the garage, but if he stopped at the lobby, anyone who noticed him would assume he was on his way to a photo shoot. He'd already notified condo management that he would be away for an extended period of time.
Luck accompanied him to the garage, where he parked his car, but instead of getting into it, he pushed the cart across the floor to the pedestrian gate, inserted his key card into the slot and stepped onto the grassy paseo. He checked the empty sidewalk in both directions, pushed the cart across the street and took the back way to his real home.
This building boasted two elevators and Norman hurried to the freight lift behind the garage, inserted another key card, entered the car and pushed the button.
Moments later, Norman closed his apartment door behind him, smiling in victory. He glanced at his watch and laughed.
'Just under five minutes, from the time I left the condo to getting here. Excellent time and no one saw me. Just a matter of timing and I'm due for a break.'
He laughed again, rubbed his hands together and wheeled her into the bedroom adjoining his. He lifted the lid and stared at her, his heart stung with such joy it hurt. Her dark glasses had fallen to the side and he saw her face without them for the first time.
Norman had no idea what her eyes would look like, but the last thing he expected was such normalcy. There was no sinking or receding of the eyeball, nor did the shape of the eye droop or take on a diminished aspect. They appeared normal in every way, including long, dark lashes.
As the drug wore off, Cathy began to fidget, her face going through a variety of expressions. Almost completely conscious now, she feigned continued sleep, hoping to hear something, find out something important that would help her get back to Rudy. The cramps in her legs brought a moan to her lips as she tried unsuccessfully to stretch out.
Although she knew he was right there because she could smell him, she still jumped when he spoke.
"It's going to be wonderful, Cathy, you'll see. I'll be the best friend you've ever had. I'll devote myself to you, to making you happy and if, some day you return the love I feel for you, I will reciprocate, but I will never initiate, let alone force you to do something you don't want to."
Her lids flew open and dark, sightless eyes seemed to bore into his. Her hands fluttered at her chest, banging against the sides of the trunk. "Where am I? Where is Suzi? What ... get me out of here!"
Taking both her hands in his, he helped her sit and finally step out of the trunk. "Oh, you don't need to worry about her any more. From now on, I'll guide you. I'll be your eyes. We'll travel the country, the whole world. I'll describe everything for you so well you'll be able to see it. Then, when we get home, you can create more masterpieces from our adventures together. Ah, Cathy, please tell me you'll try to be happy." He led her to the couch, easing her down on one end.
Shocked, scared and sickened with the residuals of the drug he'd given her, she raised both hands, covered her face and sobbed. "Where are my glasses? I want to go home. I want Suzi and Kip. Why are you doing this to me? Who are you?"
The voice, pitched low and melodic, calmed her in spite of her fear of him. No hint of menace or threat accompanied his words as he placed her glasses in her hands. "We met at your first exhibit ... just before your accident. I became an admirer of yours and over the years I've attended many of your gallery showings. I own three of your pieces."
"You're a fan?"
"I guess that's a word that fits, although I'd prefer you think of me as an enthusiast, an aficionado of your work."
"Who are you and what are you going to do to me?"
"Norman. And that's with, darling, with. I've chartered a yacht for three months, complete with crew. It's stocked with the best food and drink money can buy. We'll spend all that time getting to know each other, lazy days, just the two of us. When the three months are up, if you don't want to stay with me, if you don't love me as much as I love you, I'll bring you back to Del Mar and you can pick up your life where it left off. Three months is not that much to ask."
"It's a lifetime and why did you have to do it this way? Why not just introduce yourself, maybe join me for a cup of coffee after my jog? I'm an easy person to meet. My schedule never changes. Why all the drama, scaring me like this? And why the weird phone calls and the damage to Rudy's car? I don't understand."
"I tried to meet you a dozen times, but I'd lose my nerve. Then I noticed that Rudy guy move in and I knew I had to act fast. You never gave me a chance, when you think about it. How else would I meet you with him in the picture?"
"Well, this way is crazy. I can't go away with you for three months." Cathy paused, amazed that she could hold such a civilized conversation with the madman who just kidnapped her. "In the first place, I just accepted two commissions, both rather intricate, and one has to be finished in less than three months, so you see, it's impossible. And I have to use the restroom. Would you please lead the way?" She got to her feet.
Norman took her arm, holding it close. "This is your room so you might as well get used to what's in here. I figured it'd be easier with less furniture, so there's only a chair, a bed and a desk. Besides, it's only for tonight. We leave tomorrow." Norman led her to the bathroom. "It's pretty typical. This half wall, here, has the toilet on the other side." He slid her hand along the wall until it ended. "Turn and walk a step or ... okay, there you are. I'll be outside the door so give me a holler when you're ready."
Cathy emptied her bladder in a rush, anxious to dress again. Petrified, unsure what to do next, she sat there, her heart pounding. Finally she rose, and with her right hand on the wall, followed it to the end, made the complete turn and felt around for something familiar. "May I come out?"
He opened the door carefully, a pained expression on his face. "Of course you can, Cath. I want to make you as happy as you're able to be, anything it takes."
"Then let me go. Nothing would make me happier than that."
"No can do. In three months, if you still want to, you can leave. But I want my time with you, I deserve it. Besides, we'll have great fun, you wait and see."
"Where are we going?"
"I thought Hawaii. Or we could go farther south to Tahiti, maybe. What do you think?"
"I think you're out of your mind. Can you just lead me to the bed and then go away? I'm exhausted and scared and I want to be alone."
"I know this is a lot to take in all at once. When you're ready for something to eat or drink, whatever, just give me a holler." He took her hand and led her to the bed. "I'll give you some time alone, Cathy."
Norman walked toward the door, his steps long and quick. He opened it, said goodbye and closed the door. Turning, he watched her, curious to see what she'd do if she thought she was alone.
Cathy sat with her back against the headboard, propped on the pillows, legs in front of her. Tears seeped from below her glasses, making wet trails on her cheeks.
The pain she felt pierced his heart and he turned away, knocking lightly on the door, opening it wide on her muffled reply. "Can I bring you something, anything at all?"
"Let me go." She rolled away from him, continuing to cry. He backed out of the room, pulling the door closed and headed for the kitchen.
The two most disconsolate dogs he'd ever seen waited for him on the other side of the door. Crestfallen and anxious, they stared at him, whining. Rudy glanced at them with growing trepidation and raised his voice over Kip's low-pitched howls.
"Cathy? I'm home." He threw a large bakery box on the chair and began his search.
A quick glance in the living and dining rooms yielded nothing. "Cathy?" He hurried down the hall to her bedroom to find nothing, both dogs right behind him, Kip still going on in that eerie wail.
Fearful she might have fallen, he charged across the floor into an empty bathroom. Rudy leaned against the tiled wall, trying to still his heart as he glanced out onto her private little patio. The empty kitchen told him nothing and he yanked the slider across the track with such force it bounced off the rubber stopper, squeaking in protest.
He hurried across the lanai to her workshop, praying that somehow the dogs had left her while she completed some tasks on a project. He'd give anything to see her with headphones in place, doing her exercises.
Empty. More frightened than ever, he returned to her bedroom, determined to comb every square inch of the condo until he found a clue to her whereabouts.
His heart sank when he saw the cell and locator on the bedside table. Still as death, Rudy waited while fear and fury took turns playing havoc with his stomach.
She would never go anywhere willingly without taking Suzi and Kip, and leaving her cell, the transponder and locator was impossible. They were her lifelines. Some how, some way, that guy had gotten into the apartment and kidnapped her.
For a moment he actually froze, unable to move. In a blink, the emotions disappeared and training kicked in. He turned sharply and almost fell over both dogs.
Kip followed Rudy so closely she'd clipped his heels twice, causing him to shout at her. Unlike her usual reaction, which was to hide away and sulk, this time she would not be ignored. When Rudy refused to engage, she started to bark at him, high, shrill sounds that raised the hair on his arms and finally got his attention.
Rudy squatted in front of Kip and really looked at her for the first time. The swelling along her muzzle, the dried blood and the bruise on the inside lip bore mute testimony to the events of the morning.
"That bastard kicked you, didn't he?"
Kip continued to talk at him; the range and tenor of her sounds gave him the creeps. He had no doubt she was telling him what happened to Cathy. Never taking her eyes off his, she rose and walked down the hall, looking over her shoulder at him and talking. He followed her into Cathy's closet, gave a quick glance around and shrugged.
"She's not in here, Kip."
He turned and hurried back down the hall to the front door.
Kip snuffled at the carpet in the back of the closet, growling under her breath. Slowly she raised her gaze to the hatch in the ceiling. Her lips lifted over her fangs. As though measuring the distance from the hatch to the floor, she snarled again.
Rudy crossed the floor of the lobby and went straight to Desiree Collins. The receptionist read his face correctly and hit the intercom.
"You may go in, Mr. Clark."
The door closed behind him before she could finish her sentence.
"Have you seen Ms. Abbott this morning? Did she leave the building with anyone?"
"No, sir, not to my knowledge. Let me ask Mr. Thomas." After a quick confab she shook her head and replaced the phone. "No one has seen her this morning."
"Can you check the security tapes for me? I only need the past three hours."
"I can do that, sir. Please have a seat and I'll get the tapes set up for review."
Fifteen minutes later, Rudy began watching the footage, first of the lobby, then of the parking garage. As each person came into view, Desiree named them and which unit they owned.
"No one is a stranger to you, then? No one out of place?"
"I'm sorry, Mr. Clark, I wish there was something I could do. Have you called the police yet?"
"No, there hasn't been enough time since her last sighting. She's over twenty-one, so it's going to be tomorrow or the next day before they'll put her into the system."
He rose and shook his head. Extending his business card, he said, "Please give me a call on my cell if you hear anything or someone else remembers a stranger on the property. I'll be in the condo for a while. I'm going to call the people in her address book. I guess, somehow, maybe she went out with someone."
"But you said she left the dogs. She never went out without Suzi, never in the nine years I've worked here."
Rudy stared at her a moment and then walked away muttering under his breath.
* * *
In response to Rudy's call for help, Lenny and Jim sat on the sofa in Cathy's living room, planning.
"Jim, I'm positive she was kidnapped by that maniac who's been stalking her. Cathy wouldn't leave without Suzi, let alone her cell and tracking stuff. Absolutely impossible, and yet, she's gone. There's no sign of her leaving on the security cameras and the doorman says he hasn't seen her all morning. She didn't even leave me a note, and we had plans to go out to lunch. Her little purse is on the kitchen counter. Nothing seems to be missing, not a hair out of place."
Lenny leaned forward, nodding. "We need to call the cops, get a missing person out on her. She's not the typical missing adult, so they'll get to work on it sooner. Shall I make the report?"
"Would you do that, please? Thanks."
Lenny rose to his feet, pulled his cell from his pocket and walked across the room to the windows. His partner, Cricket, strolled beside him, the morning sun gleaming off her deep russet coat.
"When I got home, Kip and Suzi were camped out in front of the door. They looked about as unhappy as I've ever seen dogs look. I wish they could talk, damnit, although Kip is sure trying. I'm getting more and more concerned as each minute passes. I know that psycho has her and I don't know what to do."
Jim stared at Kip, a frown on his face. "What's that on her lips? Blood?" He took the dog's muzzle gently in his hands, looking closely at the damaged lip. "Poor little girlie, look at this, Rudy."
They examined the dog, noting the bruise on her gum as well as the split lip.
"I know. Looks like the son of a bitch kicked her right in the mouth. Bastard must have done that this morning. But the other one, it looks a bit older, don't you think? But then, it's the gum, maybe just a glancing blow. Hard to say." Rudy stroked the black head. "What did you see Kip? What happened?"
The dog cocked her head from side to side, doing her best to communicate. Low growls and tiny gurgles in her throat followed sharp barks. She rose, made eye contact with Rudy and headed down the hall to Cathy's bedroom.
"She did this a while ago. She's got a problem with Cathy's closet, I guess."
Just curious enough and with nothing better to do, Jim and Rudy followed her into the closet.
None of her clothes seemed to be missing, although neither man could honestly say they'd know if half her wardrobe had disappeared.
Two matching leather suitcases and a pull-along stood in the back of the closet alongside several clear garment bags containing dressy attire.
"The whole thing has me stymied. How the hell did she get out of the condo without the doorman seeing her? She couldn't! The only other answer is she went straight to the garage, but why would she do that? Manager identified everyone on the tape; no strangers and no Cathy. She'd be a little hard to miss. Besides, I know her well enough to know she would never try to do that alone. Someone had to be guiding her, and yet she wasn't on any of the tapes."
The two men turned away from the closet and headed back down the hall to the living room as Lenny and Cricket approached.
"They'll be here in half an hour or so. Find anything?"
Rudy gazed at Cricket, as if seeing her for the first time. "Hey, Lenny, I'd like to see if Cricket can track Cathy. Let me get a scarf or something with her scent on it." Rudy returned in a moment, standing away from the other men. "Send her to me."
Lenny made a fist followed by another signal. He pointed at Rudy and said, "Go."
Cricket walked over to Rudy, her tail wiggling as she grinned at her old trainer.
"Hey, girlie, been a while, huh." He stroked her head a moment, staring at her. The dog stared back, relaxed. He held up one of Cathy's slippers and said, "Find."
Cricket sniffed the slipper several times and began to track. Rudy led her into the bedroom, hoping that would be where the freshest tracks would be. Cricket immediately alerted, turned and hurried back down the hall to the front door.
Rudy opened the door, allowing Cricket access. She sat at the door of the condo next door and whined.
Flabbergasted, Rudy turned to Jim and Lenny. "Is ... do you think it's possible?"
"Who lives there?" Jim knocked several times, but no one answered. "We need to talk to the super of this building and get in there."
Before they could move, the elevator door opened and a uniformed Del Mar cop and a plain-clothes detective stepped out.
The introductions and most of their statement took place in the hall and Cathy's living room. When Rudy admitted there were no signs of violence, no struggle of any kind, they nodded politely and promised to put out a notice of a missing person. Lenny watched them get back in the elevator and shrugged.
Jim remained in the hall, standing guard on the off-chance someone was in the condo and might try a getaway. Tony sat at his side.
The next time the elevator opened, Desiree led the way. Without hesitation, she unlocked the door and stood back as Rudy requested.
Cricket charged down the hall to the living room, stopping at the sofa. She whined several times, sniffing the sofa and the carpet in front of it. Rudy encouraged her to check around, but Cricket wasn't interested in anything but the area in front of the sofa.
"Well, that's strange. It's like she hit a cold trail but we know it isn't ... and we ... oh, dear God, do you think he put her in some kind of container or something?" Jim blanched at the thought and turned toward Rudy and Lenny.
They saw it virtually in unison, the evenly spaced tracks across the floor from the sofa to the door.
Lenny knelt on the floor. "Here's your answer."
Teeth clenched, Rudy shook his head. "That's why there's no photo of her on the tape. She was inside something."
"What? I mean, how much do you figure she weighed? How tall ... how long would the container ... oh my God, it's a trunk maybe?" Jim glanced from Rudy to Lenny and shrugged. "Maybe?"
Rudy turned pale and sweat poured down his face as he stared at Lenny. "Dear Jesus, he stuffed her in a box? But there wasn't anything like that on the tapes. Nothing."
Rudy turned to Desiree who stood next to the door. "Who lives here?"
"A man named Nathan Stanley. He leased it several weeks back. He's a paparazzo, travels a lot. Told Mary in reception he planned to be away for a while, filled out the form."
"Did he say where he would be?"
"No. Nothing like that. It just authorizes us to enter the unit in case of emergency, but in his case, since he's just renting, we operate on behalf of the owner when the renter isn't available, and we have his permission on file."
"When did he leave? Did you see him this morning?"
"I assume he left this morning, but only because he said it on the form and he isn't here, but no, I didn't actually see him leave. We can check easily enough." She pulled out her cell. "Mary, did you see Mr. Stanley this morning? Okay, ask Mr. Thomas. Alright. Thank you."
Desiree closed her cell and put it back in her jacket pocket. "No sign of him. Of course, if he had luggage, if he planned to drive, it's likely he just went directly to the garage."
Rudy turned to her, eyes intense. "Isn't he the guy you told me about, the one who also has a condo next door?"
"Yes, he is."
"Can you get me his address?"
"It's back in my office." Desiree turned toward the elevator. "I can call you...."
"That's fine, I'll go down with you." He turned to Jim and Lenny. "Let's check it out."
They piled into the elevator, Tony and Cricket in tow.
"What kind of car does he drive?"
Desiree opened the file and brought out what little paperwork rested therein. "Here is his address." She pushed a postcard sized sheet of paper at him. "He drives an '08 Lexus, white, license 2FID486. His parking spot is next to Ms. Abbott's."
Rudy handed her a business card. "If this Stanley guy should happen to come back, please be sure to call me. It's life or death."
Desiree Collins nodded, fully appreciating for the first time what kind of trouble Cathy was in. "Anything I can do to help, Mr. Clark. Ms. Abbott is a favorite here. We'll do whatever we can. And if you need to get back into that condo, just call me."
They took the elevator to the garage, noticing the slot next to Rudy's Mustang was empty. While he couldn't swear to it, he was sure the Lexus had been there when he got home.
Rudy slid his access card through the wrought iron pedestrian gate lock and looked up. It was beginning to make sense now in some macabre way. If it turned out that Nathan Stanley could see Cathy's condo from his veranda then another nail in the guy's coffin was ready to drive home. They walked into the lobby of the Del Mar Arms and approached a young woman behind the desk.
"May I help you, gentlemen?"
Rudy nodded, smiling broadly. "Yes, we're looking for Nathan Stanley. Do we have the right building?"
Dimples appeared in each tan cheek as she grinned back at him. "Yes, sir. He owns a condo in this building."
"Is he in residence?"
"No, sir. He left about half an hour ago. He's a photographer and he told us he'd be away on business for the next week or so. May I take your card and tell him you'd like to speak with him?"
"Did he leave a number where we might reach him?"
"No, he just said he'd call for messages later in the week."
"Thank you very much. I have his cell. I'll just give him a buzz."
When they reached the sidewalk, Rudy said, "Let's go to the garage, see if his car is there. Maybe we can figure out how to get up to his condo."
Unlike Cathy's building, this one did not have the more high-tech improvements like license recognition, but utilized a security password. After the third try, Lenny got it. StanP2.
"They have absolutely no imagination," he said as they walked through the gate. The elevator worked the same way and moments later, they stood in front of Stanley's door.
"Hold the elevator until I get the door open. I don't want any surprises." Jim bent over with his packet of lock picks, eyed the keyhole and went to work. Rudy let the elevator go as the condo door popped open. Jim turned to Tony, gave him several hand signals and sent him into the condo. The dog returned moments later, giving the clean and clear signal.
Rudy pulled Cathy's slipper out of his pocket and had Cricket sniff it again. Then he cast her to find. Unhesitatingly, she sped down the hall and into what turned out to be a bedroom. She sniffed the bed, trotted into the bathroom and returned immediately. She alerted, sitting by the bedside.
"No doubt she was here. Now what?"
"I think we have enough to bring the cops in."
"Let's do it."
Norman leaned back in his chair, thinking. He had to get her out of his condo fast. The ease with which the kidnapping went down blew him away; he never thought he'd pull it off, and yet, here he was, sitting with the woman of his dreams. With a window of twenty-four hours at best, and probably a lot less, he had to find a place to take her, somewhere isolated and quiet.
Rudy would be on her trail the minute he returned to the condo and found her gone. Norman cut the window of time down to one hour and concentrated. They sure couldn't stay here and one way or the other, he had to move her within the hour.
He had no real strategy to speak of, never believing he would be able to pull off the kidnapping in the first place, and found himself embroiled in the plan before he had time to think about what he'd do when he got her. Not that he regretted taking her, nothing of the sort. Still, he wished he had some kind of contingency idea in place.
Of course, the story of the yacht was pure fabrication, plucked from thin air like a long ago dream. He would never put himself in a position where he might be caught with no chance of escape, and where could one be more captive than in a boat at sea? He shivered. The very idea of spending three months on the ocean made him ill, so that one wouldn't have worked in any event. But still, he had to admit for a spur-of-the-moment response, not too bad.
Her reaction, classic for a kidnap victim, made him angry and sorry at the same time.
'She should want to be with me, not be scared to death. Why is she acting like this?'
The demeaning, hateful voice in his head spoke in harsh tones. "You don't have time for this right now, Norman. You have to get her out of here before her boyfriend figures out where she is and comes over and takes you apart. Better still, just take her back and go to Paris for a couple of months. She can't recognize you and all this will be over well before you get back."
'I can't take her back; I won't do it. I need to make a plan.' His mind whirled as he bounced from one ridiculous idea to another. 'So what should I do? Help me, damnit! Where should we go?'
The voice was thunderous. "This was crazy from the get-go. You should know by now you can't make someone love you. Let her go. She can't identify you and once he gets her back, that Rudy will drop the whole thing."
'No, I can't do it; I won't. She will love me, I know she will. She just needs time.'
Norman began to pace, his fear rising with each passing minute. Where could they go that would be isolated enough to suit his needs without causing hardships getting there.
How about one of those cabins up in the mountains above Escondido? It was still early enough in the season that one might be available. They could do a little walking in the afternoons.
He knew if he could just have her alone to himself she'd come to love him. He just needed time, quiet time, just the two of them.
A quick net search led him to several realtors who managed mountain rentals. He viewed the available cabins, choosing one at the base of the mountain not far from a substantial shopping center. It suited his needs in every way and Norman checked for availability. Open for the next two months.
Chuckling, he input his personal information as requested, including his credit card number and was informed that the front door opened with a combination lock as follows: 32R,5L,43R.
Alright. First thing to do was get there. Once he had Cathy secure, he'd buy all the food and drink they'd need for at least a week. By that time, with any kind of luck, he could trust her to accompany him to the store. He wanted to build a normal life with her as quickly as possible.
Norman entered Cathy's room and paused, listening to the deep, steady breathing. She would sleep for at least three more hours under the strong sedative. He had more than enough time to do what he needed to do.
Just as before, he rolled her body into the trunk, secured it and headed for the front door. He took the freight elevator to the deserted garage and loaded the trunk into the back seat. Norman hopped behind the wheel, backed out of his slot and glanced quickly around. Not a soul to be seen.
* * *
As he turned onto East Vista Verde, Norman glanced again at the paper on the seat beside him; 32543, bottom of the road on the left. He turned into the driveway that wound its way up to the house.
Hidden under the canopy of tall California oaks and a variety of pines, the house nestled in the shadows. None of the other houses on the road showed any signs of being inhabited, no cars in driveways, no lights in windows, no sounds of children playing.
It was almost spooky and exactly what Norman wanted. The chalet had a carport with a side door that led to the kitchen. He hurried around to the front of the house, used the combination and opened the door. More than pleasantly surprised, he glanced around.
The furniture looked comfortable, the huge plasma screen TV was an unexpected surprise and the stacks of DVDs ensured movies galore. He loved the fireplace; the tidy kitchen was fully equipped, including a large coffee maker and a microwave. Yes, this would do nicely.
He opened the back door and walked down the ramp to the carport and with keys in hand, opened the trunk. He pulled the handcart out, opened it for use and slid the trunk onto the base. Norman pushed the cart up the ramp, through the kitchen and into the living room. He unlocked the top and opened the chest.
Cathy continued to sleep, her breathing lighter now as the sedative wore off.
Norman made several more trips from the car to the kitchen, arms loaded with grocery bags. The shopping center furnished him with all the food they'd need for the week, plus essentials like toothbrushes and shampoo.
He uncorked a bottle of merlot and poured himself a glass, watching her closely, waiting for her to awake. He turned the oven on, found a baking sheet and put several pieces of fried chicken and a large helping of French fries on it. He slid the sheet into the oven and turned his attention back to Cathy.
She moaned several times, ran her tongue over her lips and tried to swallow. "Oh, God, where am I? Is anyone there? I don't feel good. I can't move."
"That's just because you've been lying in one position for quite a while. Here, take my hand and I'll help you."
She moaned several times as her cramping leg muscles dueled with the intense tingling sensation that surged through her body.
Norman helped her out of the trunk, settling her on the sofa near the fire place where a nice blaze crackled on the hearth. Cathy rubbed her upper arms vigorously, trying to restore circulation.
"I'm so thirsty. Can you give me a drink of water?"
"I'd be happy to." Norman placed the glass in her hands, a smile quirking his lips. He'd read enough about the Stockholm Syndrome to know the first way to make someone dependent on you is to provide for their needs and treat them kindly. The enticing smell of chicken wafted into the room.
"You must be hungry, I know I am, and the chicken smells delicious. Would you like to eat dinner with me?"
"I'm not hungry."
"Alright. Well, enjoy the fire. I'm going to have dinner. If you change your mind, let me know."
Norman placed several pieces of fried chicken and a helping of fries on his plate and opened the container of coleslaw. He watched her expression as she heard him place a scoop of something on his plate, tapping the spoon on the edge to dislodge its contents. Perched on the edge of a stool, he sat at the counter and took a bite of his chicken breast, holding it between two tentative fingers.
"Whoa," he said, blowing air through his mouth as the hot meat hit his tongue. He took several quick sips from his wineglass and sighed. "Hot."
The counter faced the living room and the chair he sat in gave him full view of Cathy. From the position of her cocked head, Norman knew she followed his moves, concentrating on what he did.
"Are you sure you don't want something to eat?"
"What I want is to use the restroom. I'm sorry to disturb your meal, but I can't wait."
He rose and walked to her side. Reaching for her arm he helped her rise. "It's right this way."
Cathy knew she'd been sitting next to the left arm of the sofa, not far from the fireplace, which meant a wall, probably an outside wall. She began to count the steps as he escorted her to the bathroom.
Each one carried them farther away from the kitchen and the enticing smell of food. They made a left turn and another sharp left.
Norman took her right hand and placed it on the wall. "Straight ahead is the toilet. The sink is on the left. If you need me, just call." With that he closed the door behind her.
She leaned against the wall, willing her heart to resume its normal beat and trying to come up with a plan. It was useless and she knew it, but she couldn't just sit here and do nothing. She had no idea where she was or who had taken her, but one thing was clear. She knew it to be the one fact she could depend on above all others. Rudy would find her. He'd find her and take her away from this lunatic; he would, she just knew it. Her bottom lip quivered, tempting her to give up and wail like a baby.
No! Rudy would want her to be strong, to think, to help him find her. She couldn't do that if she curled into a little ball of fright.
With one hand on the wall and the other in front of her, she began to feel her way around the room. Just as he said, the toilet was straight ahead on the wall. To the left, the sink. Holding the sink she inched her way along, waiting for her toe to come in contact with the shower stall or tub. There it was, a bathtub. Carefully, she stepped into it and ran her hands along the wall, hoping for a window.
She continued to search, stepping out of the tub and proceeding along the wall. The last turn took her back to the door. With one circle of the room she knew where she was and headed back to the toilet.
Miserable, frightened beyond words, she thought of Rudy again, of what she'd allowed herself to think might be her future. To have that much happiness dangled in front of her only to lose it broke her down and she began to sob.
Norman waited at the other side of the door, listening. Hearing her cry made him sad, but it also infuriated him. 'Why is she doing this? Why is she continuing to shut me out, to fight me? We belong together, she knows that.'
Irritated, he went back to the living room and the crackling fire. Things were not going as he planned. By now they should be talking, sharing a meal, perhaps discussing her next commission or his next photo shoot.
Bored, he turned on the TV, interested to see if her kidnap had made headlines. Nothing as yet, but that didn't surprise him.
|Author Notes||This is half of one chapter, but it's too long for one sitting. I'll get the other out directly.|
|Author Note:||Dedicated to my little Cali-gurl, Shelley Kaye|
Kip and Suzi met him at the door, in no better spirits than when he'd left them earlier. Rudy undid the snaps that held the harness in place, lifting it from Suzi's back. She gave an appreciative whine and shook herself several times.
Kip sat tall, almost aloof, as if to underscore the misery she felt. She kept making eye contact with Rudy and then staring down the hall at nothing. After the third or fourth time, as though to assist a not very bright child, she nosed his hand, gazed at him again and stared at the dark hall.
Finally, in desperation, she took his hand between her teeth in a touch so light as not to burst a bubble and literally led him into Cathy's closet. Releasing his hand, she ran to the back, scratching at the rug and snuffling, interspersed with loud sneezes. Rudy turned the light on and called her off to the side, seeing for the first time the bits of plaster and paint littering the floor.
Kip never took her eyes off Rudy as he knelt on the floor, taking samples and putting them in a little envelope. Frustrated, she ran over to him, snuffling, and then as pointedly as an animal could hope to do it, she touched her nose to his cheek, made direct eye contact with him and slowly looked up at the hatch in the ceiling overhead, attempting to draw his gaze with hers. It took three more times before he looked up.
A variety of emotions raged through him as he followed the dog's stare. "Oh, my God! Good girl, Kip."
It didn't take him long to find a ladder in the pantry. Donning a pair of latex gloves, Rudy lifted the hatch cover, not particularly surprised that it opened without a problem. He hoisted himself onto the ledge of the hatch and began to check out the attic. The fire escape ladder lay in a pile by the hatch, a small bag of tools, including a flashlight and some twine beside it.
A clear trail on the dusty floor led him to the condo next door. A hole large enough to shimmy through had been cut in the dividing firewall between the units. He followed the trail to the end and lifted the hatch without regard for who might hear him. He knew the unit was empty.
Opening the other hatch, he shook his head as the proof stared him in the face. There stood the waiting ladder, clear evidence that the dude had easy and obvious access to Cathy. This should be enough to get a search warrant. Rudy replaced the cover and hurried back down the passage way, through the hole in the fire wall and back to Cathy's apartment.
Rudy scurried down the ladder and took Kip's head in his hands. "Good girl, Kip. Good dog. Sorry I underestimated you. Now I know what happened to your lip. Good girl."
He let her go, rushed into the kitchen and hit the condo office button on the phone. "Yes, this is Rudy Clark. Is Desiree Collins available? Thank you and please tell her I'll be right down."
"Nothing yet, I take it." Desiree nodded at Rudy, indicating the chair by her desk. "How about the police?"
"I have no confidence in them. If I expect to get her back I'll have to do it myself. Now, what's he look like? Be as thorough as you can."
Desiree leaned back in her chair, a faraway look in her eyes. "He's around 5'10", medium build, in pretty good shape ... no gut. Dark hair, medium length, no beard or moustache, nothing much in the looks department, pleasantly plain, but nothing to call attention to except the most incredible eyes I've ever seen in my life. They're green, very clear and big. They're unforgettable. Other than the eyes, though, he's quite non-descript."
"Did he ask about Cathy, mention her in any way?"
"He didn't have much to say about anything. I asked him some questions, he answered, but that was about it. Didn't volunteer much. He seemed shy with me, almost uncomfortable. I found it particularly strange the way he checked out the condo. Most people, when they get ready to spend that kind of money are interested in the furniture, the appliances, what utilities come with, but not him. He went directly to the bedroom, checked out the closet and the patio off it, turned around and told me he'd take it. His interest in the view, ostensibly his reason for renting the unit, sure didn't show. He never even went outside." She shrugged. "Strange dude."
"Do you have a clear photo of him on the security tape?"
"Right here." She handed him several photos, pushing them across the desk at him.
"He looks vaguely familiar, but I don't know whether it's from seeing him here somewhere, or at one of the local stores. Shy guy, huh, eyes down like that."
"That's how he acted with me; he was almost coy, y'know? Strange for a man who's a professional photographer. I always think of them as aggressive and pushy, getting in people's faces like they do. Who knows? Maybe he just doesn't want anyone to remember those eyes."
Dejected, Rudy got to his feet. "Thanks again for your help."
"Any time, just let me know what I can do."
Lenny grinned in spite of himself as the husky tones of Detective Sandy Carroll sang in his ear. "...call you back. Leave a message at the tone."
"Hey, Sandy, it's Lenny. How's tricks? Hope all is well in your neck of the woods. Listen, I have a deal on my hands I hope you can help me out with. Give me a buzz when you get the chance, could ya? It's urgent."
He'd barely disconnected when the cell rang. "Hey, you."
They chatted for a moment and then Lenny got down to business. "I have a friend who's missing and I'm pretty sure I know who has her. I need a warrant to get into his condo. Can you help me out with that?"
"Give me some details, Lenny."
He did so, including what they'd found in the rented condo. The break through the fire wall compounded by the obvious tracks leading from one unit to the other sealed the deal for Sandy.
"Consider it done, Lenny. I have your judge. I'll call you back shortly."
"I'll be waiting." He hung up the phone and turned a smug face to Jim. "Half the game is who you know. Sandy figures we'll have our warrant in less than an hour."
San Diego detective Joe Ellis entered the lobby of the Del Mar Arms and approached the unusual group gathered at the reception desk. Three men stood off to one side, each accompanied by a large Doberman Pincher. Joe drew a deep breath, happy to know they were on his side.
Lenny introduced himself, then Rudy and Jim, and turned to the condo manager with a smile and a nod. Detective Ellis handed her the warrant and requested access to Nathan Stanley's condo.
"I have the keys right here. Let's go."
Unable to admit their clandestine entry earlier on, Rudy, Jim and Lenny pretended they'd never been there before. The detective stood back as they checked the condo, rifling through desk drawers, closets, anywhere that might indicate where Cathy was.
Rudy took the waste basket next to the desk and turned it upside down. He picked up each crumpled piece of paper, scanning it quickly, discarding the unimportant contents. His search turned up nothing.
Lenny sat at the computer, amazed when the sleeping monitor sprang to life at a touch of the mouse. He checked the emails, quickly finding the realtor from whom Norman had rented the cabin. Lenny pulled a little notepad from his pocket and jotted down the address and driving directions. He hesitated a moment and then put the notepad back in his pocket. "Doesn't seem to be too much here."
He walked over to Joe, a smile on his face. "Please be sure to thank Detective Carroll for me. We go way back and I appreciate her help with this."
Joe grinned. "She sure thinks a lot of you, that's for sure. Told me about a couple of your gigs back in the day. Man, things are rough in LA, huh?"
Lenny chuckled, nodding. "Fun times in the 'hood. Again, thanks for the time. I think we can take it from here. We'll be sure to contact you if something comes up. You can do the same, right?" He handed Joe a card, then shook his hand. "Thanks."
Lenny turned to Jim and Rudy and shrugged. "Guess that's it here. We might as well cash it in."
Both Jim and Rudy started to protest when they saw the expression on his face.
They nodded, heading for the door.
Bidding Detective Ellis goodnight, they walked out of the lobby toward the parking lot. Once out of earshot, Lenny said, "I got the address. I know where he took her. Let's go."
They hurried to the Suburban, stashed the dogs in the back and climbed aboard.
"Where to?" Jim asked as he exited the parking lot.
"Where did he take her?" Rudy's eyes narrowed to slits. "Where are they, Lenny?"
"In the mountains above Escondido, over near Lake Hodges. Take the 15, Jim, and get off at the fairgrounds and take that road, what is it, Via de la Valle? Anyway, follow it to Del Dios. I figure it's about an hour from here. So what do we want to do? Shall we try this one ourselves or do we want to involve the cops?" Lenny glanced at Rudy.
"I'm afraid if we bring them in, he'll kill her. He's off the deep end and if he's thinking the way I'm afraid he is, he won't give her up. He'll die with her."
"I'm with Rudy. If he sees a bunch of cops he might panic and then who knows what." Jim stepped on the gas, heading up the access ramp to the freeway.
"Let's try it ourselves. If we get in too deep, we can holler." He reached down and engaged the fuzz buster as well as the cloaking device that disrupted the radar guns. He entered the Metro lane and hit eighty-five all the way to the fairgrounds, one eye trained on the rearview mirror.
They got off at Durante Blvd. and were immediately embroiled in the traffic that crawled up the avenue towards town. Horse trailers, refusing to slam their precious cargo around, coasted through red lights, stopping just inches from the bumper of the car ahead. There they waited, stopped in the middle of the intersection and generally causing a menace while other drivers honked their horns and tried to go around them. Pedestrians heading to the show took their life in their hands as they jaywalked over to the admission gate.
"What the hell is going on around here?" Jim cried, pounding the wheel as another rig stopped dead in its tracks, right in the middle of the six-lane intersection.
Lenny glanced at the marquis that advertised the programs at the fairgrounds and shrugged. "Greater San Diego Hunter Jumper Association Championship Horseshow."
"Good God, I hope they ride better than they drive."
They hit every red light and by the time they finally headed out of town, they'd lost almost half an hour.
Lenny shook his head and stared morosely out the window. "I wish we'd found this out sooner. It's going to be dark by the time we get there."
They followed the twisty, two-lane highway to the East Vista Verde turnoff.
"The addy is 32543, so we have a ways to go." Lenny glanced out the window to the surrounding foliage. Under any other circumstances he'd be waxing eloquent about the beauty of the area.
The setting sun turned the western sky red, quickly melting into shades of pink, mauve and gold. Then it was night; that quickly, it turned black as coal. No streetlights or utility poles, no nothing.
The house they sought came into view, at least some of it did. Perched as it was on the top of a hill, only the front and the carport were visible from the road.
"That's it, Jim. Where should we park?"
"Let's go up there, get around the bend and park on the shoulder."
They piled out of the car and took a good look at the isolated cabin above them. Lenny let the dogs out of the back and they slowly made their way toward the cabin, choosing a path parallel to the driveway and about twenty feet into the underbrush. Firelight flickered in the living room windows, competing with the TV's constantly changing array of colors.
"Let's split up. I'll take Kip and check the front and the carport." Rudy melted into the darkness.
"I'll check the back, see if there's a porch or maybe a cellar. I'll wait for you there," Lenny said.
Jim tapped Tony's head to get him to focus, made several hand signals then gave Tony the sign to heel.
Together they crossed the driveway, keeping to the shadows and checking the side windows for access or any sound that might indicate Cathy's whereabouts. They worked their way around to the back of the house and waited at the edge of the shrubbery.
The lightest snapping of twigs alerted Tony to Rudy's approach. Moments later,
Lenny moved away from the concealing shadows next to the house and joined them.
"It's his car," Rudy said. "There's a door from the carport that leads into either the kitchen or some sort of mudroom. I couldn't get a look inside even though there are no curtains on the windows. There's very thick shrubbery that lines the house, a good four feet wide and at least as tall."
"There's no cellar, no attached shed or porch; I don't like the looks of this." Lenny shrugged. "How the hell are we going to get in there short of barging in the front door like a SWAT team? I have to go under the assumption he's packing, and if so, that puts Cathy in terrible danger. This guy has no record of violence, nothing like that. I don't think she's in immediate danger, but if he senses he's under attack, all that could change in a blink. We need to make a good plan. Let's go back to the car and talk."
Jim nodded. "I agree."
They walked in silence, carefully picking their way along the rough path. Finally, with the dogs once again in the car, they talked.
"How are we going to lure him out of the house? If we can get him outside, one of us can run in there and get her. I can't let him see me because he knows who I am, but not you guys." Rudy turned to Jim. "Any ideas?"
Lenny sighed. "So we get him outside and set the dogs on him. That'll keep him plenty busy if it goes down like that, but what if he comes out with Cathy? Then what? And we have to assume he's armed."
Jim shook his head. "Guys, he's not coming out. He knows we're hunting for him, and while he might feel relatively safe right now, the second we knock on that door, all hell will break out. Nah, we need someone he'd open the door to without feeling threatened."
"Oh, boy," Lenny said.
Lips pursed, Jim shrugged. "What other choice do we have? The cops? It'll end up being a shooting gallery with Cathy caught in the middle."
"Man." Lenny sighed to the depths of his soul. "Make sure they bring Amy."
Ella and Terry sat in the lounge folding napkins, trying to stay positive and failing miserably.
Caught between lunch and dinner, the few patrons present listened to the music or talked quietly, enjoying their drinks and the inviting atmosphere.
"I'm so scared for Cathy I've got the rollies in my stomach, y'know? I can't remember being this afraid in a long time."
Ella nodded at her twin, jaws clenched. "I know. It makes me crazy. Poor Cathy has had to endure so much shit in her life and none of it her fault; now she has to deal with this."
"And Rudy." Terry sighed, lips tight. "It's so sad, so unfair. After all those years they spent alone, both of them so isolated. We should have introduced them ages ago, but who knew they'd hit it off like that? They were so happy, just having fun falling in love, getting to know each other, and now this."
"Dear God, if something happens to her, that'll be the end of Rudy."
"Ooo, don't say that. They're going to find her, you just wait and see. They have to." Terry's eyes remained on the napkins in front of her, refusing to look at her sister.
Ella's cell phone vibrated, causing her to start. She pulled it out of her pocket and answered. "Jim, where are you?"
She listened, nodding several times and glancing at Terry. "We can do that. Give me directions." Ella wrote on a paper placemat left over from lunch, again glancing at Terry. "You need us to do anything else, bring anything? Okay, but it's going to be a while. Figure what, two hours in traffic? We'll be there as soon as we can. I'll keep you posted."
"We got us a gig, big time. How'd ya like to bust Cathy out of some cabin where that crazy man has her stashed?" Ella jammed the cell back in her pocket and nodded, grinning. She scooted to the edge of the booth and rose.
Terry was already on her feet. "You've got to be kidding. Let's do it. What cabin? Where is she; tell me what the guys said."
"Wait until we get outside, huh?" Ella nodded to her bartender. "Take care of stuff, Al? We won't be back tonight."
They headed for the office to get their purses then out the back door to the parking lot.
Beside Ella walked a tall Doberman, heavily muscled and strong, an alpha-female with an attitude.
Nodding at their backs, Al smiled and turned to his next customer.
Terry slid behind the wheel of the Jag and fastened the seatbelt. "So where are we going?"
Ella snapped her fingers and pointed. In one smooth gliding motion, Amy cleared the side of the car and landed in the back seat so smoothly she never made a sound. With the top down, she had full view of the street and the street had a full view of her. No one came near the little sports car as it exited the parking lot.
"Lake Hodges. Escondido area. The guys are pretty sure, short of a visual sighting, that they've found Cathy. The problem is the cabin. No covert entry. Either the guys go in like the Marines, and they sure could, or it's going to take a soft touch."
"That would be us, right?"
Ella nodded, eyes fixed to the road. "They figure if you go up to the door, tell him a story, out of gas, something, we'll figure that out, we can get him out in the open." She raised both hands to her head and raked her fingers through her burgundy hair, scratching. "God! This makes me crazy; sorry, Terry. Anyway, Amy and I'll hide out of sight and once he clears the front steps, I'll send her in. From there it's a piece of cake." She continued to scratch her head, an old time habit that meant a lot to Terry. She knew where those actions could lead.
"Stop that! And gas is dumb. He won't have gas. What else ... oh, how about a jump? Maybe we can get him to give us a jump?"
"Hmm, now that's a really good idea. If you have the battery cables in hand when you knock on the door and tell him all we need is a couple of minutes of his help, like what could he do? That would give the guys time to get Cathy out, and then we can let the dogs finish this."
Terry pulled her cell out and dialed Lenny. After confirming that they had battery cables, Lenny congratulated her on a great plan and cautioned, "We shouldn't be talking while you're driving, and please, honey, do not get all brave up there, huh? Don't ad lib. The success of the mission depends on him seeing you as non-threatening, just a poor defenseless woman who needs a little help in the form of a jump. He doesn't need to know you and Ella can pull an engine, okay? Just be your sweet self and you'll do just fine. You feel okay about this?"
"Lenny, I can't tell you how good I feel ... I feel great! Better than I have in a long while. I'm gonna strangle the bastard myself if I get the chance."
The silence on the other end of the phone was profound. Finally, "May I speak to Ella, please?"
* * *
"See, this is the thing I have against using the girls, certainly in cases with people they know. Terry's loaded for bear, says she's gonna strangle him. Ella, on the other hand, is just itching to set Amy on this lunatic, and we have no idea where Cathy will be when all this goes down. That's the cop speaking, of course. Removed, I have to admit it's the plan most likely to succeed. We just have to contain Terry until she can lure Norman far enough away from the house that Amy can do her thing."
Jim stared at Lenny, a question in his eyes. "We can't do that, buddy. We cannot allow Amy to be involved in this. It's out of the question. She can take him down, but then I'll send Tony in to guard. This will be a police investigation and you know they'll make the connection. Frankly, I'd rather not use her at all. She's supposed to be dead, remember? Do you want to take the chance of dredging all that up? I don't."
"Shit, you're right. I can't believe I forgot. Okay, scratch that. How about this? Amy can stay with Ella somewhere on the other side of the house and out of sight. If she's needed, Amy is still right there. You send Tony in behind Norman once he gets far enough away from the house; we'll use him instead of Amy. He will use a more ... tempered approach than she would, and we'll get the same results without any questions or interaction with the LAPD on past cases."
This is the first half of a long chapter, so I broke it up. It's a bit slow, but the next half won't be! LOL!
Terry dropped Ella and Amy off before pulling to a stop in front of the cabin, the long nose of the Jag effectively blocking the driveway. She glanced into the shadows on the other side of the carport, knowing they concealed Lenny, Rudy and Jim. She opened the door and got out of the car, pulled the jumper cables from the trunk and started walking up the driveway. A cement sidewalk led from the drive to the front door. Terry rang the doorbell then stood back, taking advantage of the shadows.
The door opened several inches as Norman peered outside. A moment later, his hand connected with the porch light switch, the bulb so dim when it came on it did little to dispel the darkness.
"Can I help you?"
Terry held up the cables. "I hope so. My car is stalled and I'm pretty sure I'm lost. I'm looking for Overview Drive. Do you know where that is?"
"I don't know the area. We're here for a little vacation. I don't think I can help you."
"Well, if you'll give me a jump," she said, nodding at the carport, "I'll go back down the hill and try to get some signal. I can't even use my cell here to call for roadside assistance. Please, I need your help."
Clearly conflicted, Norman knew he had no choice. "Wait here while I get my jacket." He closed the door in her face, fully aware of her surprised expression. The door opened again and Norman stepped onto the porch.
Terry turned and walked down the stairs, keeping her distance as she retraced her path back to the Jag. The expression on her face held triumph and something close to victory.
Norman kept pace with her, walking slightly to her right. Something really strange was going on. He couldn't put his finger on it, but some sixth sense screamed in his ear of danger from all directions. Not another house on either side of the road even had ground lights on. The entire area lay shrouded in darkness.
A rustling sound caught his attention and out of the corner of his eye, he saw Rudy sprint into the house. "Hey! What the hell are you doing?" He made a grab for Terry, his hands reaching for her hair, when eighty pounds of Doberman hit him square in the back, doubling him over, causing him to emit a shrill, high-pitched whistle of abject horror.
Norman lay on his back, eyes wild, while a face from the pit of hell loomed over him, ravening jaws no more than an inch away from his nose. Its teeth clicked together like scissors, threads of drool threatening to fall with each jaw snap while the most unearthly snarls filled the air.
Norman closed his eyes and left.
Rudy charged into the house, Kip one step in front of him. Her nose told her things his did not, and she knew where she was headed. She dashed down the hall to a closed door and barked with joy. Whining, she hurled herself at the obstacle that separated her from Cathy, growling and crying all the while. Rudy ordered her down as he opened the door and called to Cathy.
"Here, over here," she said between sobs. "I'm right...."
Kip virtually landed in her lap, crying, sobbing and barking in a range of sounds worthy of an Italian opera.
With one arm, Rudy pushed Kip aside and scooped Cathy into his arms, covering her face with kisses. Their tears mingled as she clung to him, refusing to release him.
Kip butted Cathy with her nose several times, pushing Rudy's hand away and all the while keeping up the doggie talk. Ignoring Rudy's attempts to restrain her, she continued crying and giving Cathy nose-butts of love.
"I want to get you out of here, honey. Can you stand? Are you okay?"
"He didn't hurt me, Rudy. I'm fine. Lead the way." She placed one arm in his, her other hand stroking the sleek black head as they made their way down the hall toward the front door.
Rudy paused on the porch, about to notify her of the step when Kip caught the scent of her enemy and bolted toward Norman, the most unholy sounds issuing from her throat. Her intentions clear, her snarls other worldly, she charged him, shrieking in fury.
Rudy called Kip several times, but she ignored his calls, deaf to anything that distracted her from the only thing on her mind.
Tony heard Jim call and raised his head, glancing in Jim's direction in time to interpret another quick set of hand signals.
Tony stepped in front of Norman then, effectively shielding his body from Kip's onslaught. Head lowered, Tony growled, bearing his fangs at the smaller, younger female as she slid to a stop in front of him. In a show of dominance, he raised his shoulders and snapped at her, clearly threatening. As the dominant male and acknowledged leader of their little team, her reaction should have been one of submission.
It was not. Instead, she seemed to plead her case with a determined assortment of whines and snarls and female wiles, punctuated with teeth snaps that rivaled Tony's on his best day. She came close enough several times to ruffle his whiskers and he was not amused. His growls deepened.
She attempted to dodge him, but Tony stood his ground, no longer threatening, but refusing to let her by.
"Call Kip, Cathy. Yell for her."
"Kip! Kip, come here. Help me!"
Through the bloodlust that filled her brain, Kip heard Cathy, and that momentary break in concentration turned the tide. She raised her head, ears up, stump wagging. Once more she snarled, snapping in Norman's direction, then turned and bounded across the lawn, whining, chittering and talking up a storm as she buried her muzzle in Cathy's stomach.
Finally, throwing caution and her training to the winds, she stood up on her hind legs, placed her paws on Cathy's shoulders and proceeded to give her a thorough face-licking, all the while muttering promises of love and devotion.
Jim told Tony to stand down as he approached the inert body lying on the grass. The face, now slack, seemed almost blank, devoid of emotion.
Lenny bent over the body, two fingers pressed against the carotid artery for a pulse. "He just passed out, I guess. There isn't a mark on him."
"Tony has that effect on people sometimes. Shit, what the hell got into Kip? I thought she was such a shrinking violet. She was gonna chew him a new one, that's for sure."
Lenny shrugged. "Good thing Tony stood his ground because she sure wasn't listening to Rudy. She was on auto-pilot or something."
"Thank God she listened to Cathy. Well, it's over now, but what's with the perp? I mean, how scared can he be?"
Lenny nudged Norman several times in the ribs, encouraging him to wake up. Slowly the eyes opened, lids fluttering. They closed again for a moment, then darted wide open. He struggled to sit, staring from Lenny to Jim, settling on Tony.
"Oh my God, aren't you beautiful," he said, extending his hand for the dog to smell. "Oh."
Clearly perplexed, Tony withdrew a bit further and glanced at Jim for explanation.
"Please don't touch the dog. He'll take your arm off next time."
"He'll take ... why would he do that? I, where am I? Who are you?" A light moan escaped his lips as he recognized Cathy and Rudy approach. He glanced around, bewildered. "Cathy? What in the world ... can someone please tell me where ... what is going on?"
Rudy stepped up, face a mask of fury. "I'd be glad to, you son of a bitch. You kidnapped Cathy and brought her here. Don't try to deny it, there's your car right in the driveway." Rudy's voice cracked and for a moment he was speechless.
"You're out of your mind. I did no such thing. Tell him, Cathy."
She shivered, leaning closer to Rudy. "I don't know you. Who are you?"
"I'm Nathan Stanley. We've met a couple of times over the years. I'm a fan of your work ... own a couple of pieces. Do you remember Betsy Bailey's exhibition of your pieces? That was the last time we spoke, but we've known each other for years."
"Betsy's, yes. That was just a couple of weeks ago, right? I don't remember talking to you."
"It was just in passing. I purchased the freeform of the seagulls swooping...."
"Cut the crap, Stanley. You just kidnapped her and you know it. You're going away for a good long time."
Nathan stared at Rudy, shaking his head. "But that's ridiculous. I didn't do any such thing. Why are you saying that and where are we?"
The revolving lights warned of the arrival of the sheriff; an unmarked car followed closely behind.
Jim turned to Ella and beckoned her aside. He lowered his voice and pointed at the SUV. "Put Amy in there and tell her to stay down. I'd prefer if the cops don't see her."
The slamming of car doors encouraged Nathan to stand up. He turned to Jim, hands extended, palms up in the age-old gesture, a protestation of innocence. "I swear I didn't kidnap Cathy. I don't know how I got here or anything, but you have to believe me. I don't know what's going on."
Silent, Jim stared at Nathan, his mind remembering a runaway he'd rescued several years back. The kid, seventeen year-old Jackie Jacobs, had MPD, and when the host personality was in control, she took her meds and remained an attractive, intelligent, upper-class kid with just a tad too much adventure in her personality.
When she stopped taking her meds, the other personalities came out, and depending upon which one took control, things could get very dicey. Risky behavior including hanging with junkies, dirty works, unprotected sex and turning tricks landed her in jail on a fairly regular basis.
The parents had her committed in the end; scared, at their wits end and tired of being financially responsible for someone who treated their love with such cavalier disrespect, they cut her loose when she turned eighteen.
Looking at the man before him, Jim saw an uncanny resemblance, a similarity to the night he'd finally caught up with Jackie. Spitting obscenities, she'd physically assaulted him, screaming at him to leave her alone, begging him to let her go. When that ploy failed to attain the freedom she sought, she simply stopped ... everything.
Jackie closed her eyes and stood there a moment; then, for lack of a better word, she seemed to fade, slumping to the ground like a deflated balloon. Several minutes later, the girl regained consciousness, presenting an entirely different personality, one who seemed to have no knowledge of her present whereabouts or situation.
The truthfulness of her statements rang clear. Dazed and disoriented, she had no idea of recent events in her life, staring at Jim like he was some kind of goblin popped up from under a bush. He had the sinking feeling that the same kind of disorder enslaved Nathan Stanley.
Detective Sandy Carroll approached the team with a scowl, eyes fastened on Lenny's. Without so much as a nod to anyone else, she said, "Detective, may I speak with you a moment?"
They walked as far from the others as it took for a private conversation.
"I didn't get the invitation."
"I know, Sandy, I'm sorry. It all went down so damned fast we didn't have a second to spare. We weren't even sure we had the right place. I called the moment I could."
"We should have been here from the get-go. Lenny, this is bullshit and you know it. Even though we couldn't get a missing persons report going as early as it was obviously needed, you should have called us the moment you had a clue." She shook her head. "Shit, man, I got you that frickin' warrant. Why didn't you trust me?"
"You have to give me a minute to explain. It wasn't like that at all, Sandy. We've been on this case for weeks. It started when her guide dog was stolen. Cathy needed a replacement and we happened to have one ready to go. She's an old friend of my wife's and it was only natural that she called us when she started getting all these weird phone calls. We sent a partner from our agency, Rudy Clark, to be her bodyguard and to assist while she learned to adjust to the new guide dog. His presence must have set this loony bird off, because the next thing you know, here we are."
The uniformed cop walked up to the detective, motioning for a moment of time. "We'd like to take the suspect in. Shall we wait for you?"
"No, I'm right behind you. Go ahead." Sandy turned to Lenny, something akin to hurt in her eyes. "I'm sure we'll be talking again soon." With that she turned on her heel and headed for her car.
Nathan Stanley sat before Detective Sandy Carroll, eyes down, hands clasped in his lap. He had nothing more to add to this interrogation than the last. He had no idea what they were talking about and the last thing he could actively remember happened several days ago.
"Have you ever been hospitalized for mental or emotional evaluation, Mr. Stanley?"
He raised his eyes to hers and shook his head. "That's none of your business, nothing to do with this. I've tried to cooperate, but I have nothing further to say until I speak to my attorney."
Detective Carroll stood up and shrugged. "You were caught red-handed, Mr. Stanley. There isn't an attorney in the world who can change that."
She nodded at the sergeant. "Take him back to his cell until his attorney arrives."
Still in a minor state of shock after the events of the evening, Nathan stumbled as he accompanied the guard back to his cell.
He perched on the edge of the cot and made as systematic an assessment of his situation as he was able. Why would he stop the meds when he knew what the end result would be? There was always something that triggered that impulse to go it alone, but he had no idea what it was this time.
'It's been quite a while since I stopped, too. I feel it.'
The difference in his behavior was striking, but his ambivalence to it surprised him. Things had been going so well for him; what made him stop taking the meds?
Conflicted, he acknowledged they kept him on track and no doubt he needed them, but he hated how they made him feel. On the other hand, Nathan loved the lack of restraint and freedom he felt now, as though nothing really mattered and the meds were a thing of the past.
Cathy Abbott. He'd kidnapped her? The concept was ridiculous, but he accepted the obvious. It explained, to a degree, all the unfamiliar photos of her in his office. The alters had reemerged; there was no other explanation.
The night he'd awakened in that car park off the freeway, lost, or the morning not long before that, when he regained control on his lanai, with ripped pants, dirty hands and no memory of how he got that way.
But why now? He'd been free from their intrusion for several years, unfettered by the drives to stop taking his meds, to act out in ways that got him in so much trouble when he was younger. He was different now, he thought he'd changed. But it was starting all over again.
The guard unlocked his cell, admitting a woman of middle age with dark, graying hair, a stick-thin figure and a no-nonsense manner about her that matched her severe black suit. She placed her briefcase on the table and turned to the guard, nodding dismissively. "If I need further assistance from you, I'll call."
With that she glanced at the guard as he backed out of the cell and locked it.
"I'll be right down the hall, Ms. Scanlon."
Marsha Scanlon extended her hand to Nathan, greeting him by name. "I'm your public defender, Mr. Stanley. I need to hear your side of the story. Please sit." She indicated the chair next to hers and nodded. "Can you tell me what happened, Nathan?"
"No, I can't. I can only surmise. I have DID."
The slightest snort escaped from Marsha's nose. She'd heard that one before, and drew a deep breath. "How do you know that, Nathan?"
"I was diagnosed at age eleven. I've had it all my life. As long as I can remember, I've had ... friends, other personalities that live in my body and take it over when they want to."
"When and where were you first diagnosed?"
"I can't remember much about the first eight or ten years of my life, but I had a bad break when I was in my last year of high school. I spent six months in Sharp Mesa. Once they got my meds properly scheduled, I did fine. They gave me extensive counseling and taught me ways to deal with my problems. It made all the difference in the world."
"Have you ever been arrested before?"
"No, ma'am. I've never indulged in any illegal activity and you'll find no criminal record. I don't know what happened, how or why I kidnapped Cathy Abbott, but it looks like that's what I did. None the less, it's an aberration. I don't remember doing anything like that before."
The attorney continued to take notes, glancing at Nathan on occasion and wondering. DID was the latest malady du jour, a convenient illness that exonerated the perp, laying the blame for his actions on other personalities within the host, something very difficult to quantify.
She wasn't sure that it actually existed. It presented such a pat excuse for bad behavior that many an attorney pled DID syndrome as a defense on behalf of their client, never believing for a minute the veracity of their testimony.
"Do you know your alters, what their place is in what you do?"
"No, they've never introduced themselves to me."
She glanced at him, wondering if he planned to play some elaborate game, but she didn't see any sign of guile or duplicity in his expression. Over the years, she'd heard it all and considered herself quite an expert at lie detection. Nathan seemed as perplexed as ever.
"Do you ever have any warning before another alter is about to take over your body?"
'I can't believe I'm having this conversation. Take over your body?'
"No, ma'am, I don't. When the other alter leaves and allows me back in control, I usually don't know where I am or how I got there. Equally, I have no power to deny it when he wants to take over again."
"Well, that's not strictly true, is it? The first thing you do is stop taking the meds, right? That gives the others an opportunity to take over. You have to be off the meds before the alters can manifest, correct?"
Nathan stared down into his lap, lips pursed. "Yes, I suppose that's true. It's just been so long since I had an episode. I can't remember when it started up again."
"Tell me about the first time ... the first recent time, leading to this end result. Were you taking your meds?"
"I think so. I was as happy as I can be, no issues or problems. I'd just bought this really neat condo in Del Mar, great location, views beyond belief. I took a couple of exceptional shots that I sold for big money, so when I found the condo, I put a bid on it and moved right in. I was ... am happy there."
"When did the fixation start with Cathy Abbott?"
"I don't think you can call it a fixation, actually. I admire her work tremendously especially since she's blind ... bought several pieces over the years. I've known her, at least on the most basic of levels, like a fan, for more than a decade. Why would I want to kidnap her now?"
"You tell me, Mr. Stanley."
"I can't. I don't have a clue and that's the truth, whether you want to believe it or not."
Rudy and Cathy sat snuggled up on her sofa, the dogs asleep at their feet. The fire, although unnecessary, added much to the ambiance, crackling on the hearth and sending out the delicious smell of cedar.
"How did you know where to find me? It's a miracle, and you did it so fast. My hero." She nestled closer, wrapping herself into the crook of his arm like she wanted to melt into him.
The combination of flirtatious words and obvious admiration made Rudy grin. "Flattery will get you everywhere, m'dear." He nuzzled her neck, making exaggerated, kissy, slurpy sounds as his lips traveled from ear to collar bone and back. "You are one delicious wench. I love you so much. Just for the record, don't ever do that again. I've never been so scared in my life."
She giggled, running her forefinger down his cheek, which presently wore a scruffy and not very comfortable beard. "I love you too, sweetheart. And I'll sure try." She chortled. "Now that it's over and I'm safe I'll admit it, I was scared out of my wits. At least at first." She reached for her wine glass, picking it up with both hands. "I feel kind of sorry for Nathan now. He didn't seem to have any idea what happened or where he even was."
She hesitated, sipping from her glass. "You're not going to like this, Rudy, but I have to tell you the truth as I know it. The man who kidnapped me was not the man they arrested. There was a big difference in his voice, for one thing. Entirely different speech patterns. Nathan speaks differently, cultured, a worldly man, perhaps? I don't know. I'm just saying their voices were so different it would be impossible not to discern one from the other, even for a blind woman.
"Not just the choice of words, or even the different accent, which is a bit much, you have to admit. The cadence and the, I don't know, the beat was very distinct. Do we know anything more about him since he was arrested?"
"Under normal circumstances, we wouldn't. But after Lenny abased himself to Sandy with a dozen yellow roses, abject apologies and two great seats Saturday night for Celine Dion's concert ... and do not even ask how he got them ... she's feeling better about us. What we know so far is his attorney went to a judge who agreed, predicated on the previous diagnoses and long history of DID, Nathan should be remanded to the L.A. Mental Health Court Program for observation and diagnosis. He's no longer at Parker Center, but is probably already ensconced in some cushy little funny farm, going through testing and setting the stage for some insanity plea at his trial. I can't tell you how many people I've dealt with over the years ... people that I've known personally, who tried it. He won't get it. At least I hope not."
"I'm going to have to testify, aren't I?"
"Yes, we all will. It's not a big thing, honey. I'll be with you every step of the way."
"I hope he doesn't have to go to jail. Maybe they can help him in the hospital, get his drug program working again, something. Maybe they can find out what set him off after all that time leading a normal life. I think it's very ... I don't know, sad, what's happened to him."
Rudy leaned back a bit, wanting to see her facial expression. He couldn't believe his ears. "You feel sorry for him? He kidnapped you, drugged you who knows how many times, hid you away in a cabin and you feel sorry for him? I can't believe it!"
"Don't be mad at me, Rudy, please. I just wanted to be honest with you. Nathan didn't kidnap me; Norman did, but he never hurt me or treated me mean. He never even raised his voice. He didn't do anything but try to make me comfortable. He offered me food and drink whenever I wanted it. I know what he did was wrong, dear God, and I know he can't be allowed to do that again, to me or anyone else. But yes, I feel sorry for him. DID must be an incredible cross to bear, having to accept blame and responsibility for what someone else did."
'Cross to bear? Someone else? Dear God, she sounds just like him!'
"Cathy, it's a ruse, a ploy. He's using this disorder as an insanity plea, as a way to get out of paying for what he did to you."
"I know it's very controversial and most doctors don't acknowledge it, but Rudy, I was with him and I'm telling you, Nathan Stanley did not kidnap me. It was that Norman character or personality, alter, whatever, who did it, who took me, not Nathan."
Bleak is an apt description for any correctional facility, and Playa Mesa Jail was no different.
Nathan lay on his cot in the darkness, listening to the cries of his fellow inmates, some shrieking at the top of their lungs, hurling obscenities at each other or mocking the guards patrolling the walkway.
He felt well-represented by Ms. Scanlon and realized that with any luck at all, he could be back at work in six months. No one he worked with would ever have to know he'd been arrested or hospitalized. It wouldn't hit local news, let alone national TV; no one died. It was a minor hiccup in a life well shrouded from public view. Once he got back on his meds, he'd resume his life as a paparazzo and forget about Cathy Abbott. Maybe the thing to do would be to move. Really move.
The last trip he made to Tribeca, he stayed near a huge warehouse in the process of undergoing a transformation to individual condos and everything about the building appealed to him.
'I'll sell the condo in Del Mar and relocate to Manhattan.'
The distance in itself would slow or stop any further inclinations toward Cathy, and the meds would give him the control he needed to remain dominant.
He lay there in the dark, listening, thinking and practicing for tomorrow and his interview with the doctor assigned to his case.
"Good morning, Nathan. How are you? I'm Dr. Pritchard and I'll be working with you for court evaluation." A hand shot out in his direction, refusing to be ignored. Nathan shook it.
"Please sit down and we'll get started." Dr. Pritchard scanned the folder before him, thumbing a rather substantial number of papers in his back-file. "The incredible age of the internet. What used to take a week to compile we now have on our desk in twenty minutes, printed. Access to information? Immediate." He shrugged his shoulders, a slight quirk to his lips. He continued to scan the dossier. Finally, "So, you have been diagnosed with DID since age nine. You've been hospitalized several times, mostly in your twenties, but for the last ten years or so, no recurrence of your alters? Do you know them, Nathan? Are they familiar to you, have names?"
"No, I don't know any of them. Up until recently, I had the control. I took my meds, kept myself as stress-free as possible and had occasional therapy consults. I've been happy, at peace. I can't imagine what provoked the alters, why they came back now."
"Who is this Cathy Abbott you kidnapped? Is she known to you or only to the alters?"
"I know who she is. I've admired her work for years; she's an artist ... a blind artist who creates some of the most beautiful free-forms in plaster and in copper I have ever seen. I own three of her pieces. They're just glorious. I've been an admirer for about ten years now. We've spoken on occasion although she does not remember me. That's understandable."
"Why is it understandable?"
"Because I'm nothing."
"What does that mean, you're nothing?"
"Just that. Half the time I feel invisible, but I like it that way, so I don't do anything to change it. I can't be hurt if I don't let anyone in."
"And people want to hurt you?"
"That is my experience. Starting with my father."
Dr. Pritchard nodded in encouragement, already well aware of what the answers would be. It was all old history. Rather than drag it out of Nathan word by word, he synopsized the situation as clinically as he could, not daring to allow a drop of pity to show. It was not the time.
"He broke trust with you, the most basic trust of all. A father protects his children, he does not rape them. That is what your father did to you. Is that when you first started to notice time lapses?"
A light sprinkling of perspiration filmed Nathan's brow, trickling down his temples. He blinked twice and then sighed. He closed his eyes.
Dr. Pritchard waited, pleased that his plan had worked so well. A moment later, the eyes opened, but they weren't the eyes he'd last seen. These were different; aggressive, combative.
"My name's Michael, an' when you want to talk about our disgustin' pig of a father, you come to me. Nathan don't know much, don't remember nuthin' about what that bastard done to us, an' I'm here to make sure it stays that way. So? What?"
"Nice to meet you, Michael." Pritchard glanced at his notes and nodded. "So, you're the protector. You take the pain, live the situations too painful for Nathan to handle. You're doing a good job. I commend you, especially for the last ten years."
Nonplused, Michael leaned back in his seat, staring at Dr. Pritchard, studying him. "Do I detect a shrink with a brain?"
"I'd like to think so, Michael. First of all, let me get my cards out on the table. You don't have to be 'on' for me. I believe in DID. I believe in you and your story, for lack of a better word. It's a very new field, and unfortunately, unscrupulous people glom onto DID as a good defense to get out of paying for their actions, but in your case, absolutely not. You are what I consider the perfect example of a DID sufferer."
"That will sure make things a lot easier for me. Like, all this stuff, all this frickin' drama, those damned dogs. I don't like it, I'm sayin'. I'm more, y'know, like laid back and stuff, and yet, this bein' the enforcer an' all, it gets thrown on me. Why is that, doc?"
"That's hard to say, Michael. How many of you are there?"
A strange look came over Michael's face, crafty and suspicious. "Why?"
"Well, it would help me to know them. I'd really appreciate it if you could introduce me. Remember, I'm on your side and maybe if we can all get ourselves out here, get everyone on the playing field, maybe we can do things that will help all of you."
"We? I don't have that kinda say. That call belongs to the gatekeeper."
Michael smiled and closed his eyes.
Pulling his camera from his desk, Dr. Prichard shot pictures in rapid succession, concentrating on the difference in the facial features as they shifted from Michael to Nicholas.
The eyes opened; he blinked once and nodded. "Dr. Pritchard, I am Nicholas."
Dr. Pritchard pursed his lips hard and buried his face in the file to keep from chuckling. He knew this was real, but it seemed so campy, his sense of humor would not let go.
Finally composed, he cleared his throat and looked up into the most incredible eyes he'd ever seen. Bright green and piercing, they bored into his, trying to intimidate, to take control of the situation. This was no longer a scene from a grade B movie. The word that sprang to mind was menacing. He continued to make notes.
'Subject presenting third alter, Nicholas. Threatening posture, he is the gatekeeper perceived by Michael as boss.'
Whether it was because his eyes were opened as wide as they could go, or because of their direct, unblinking focus, for several moments he felt threatened. Alex slid his foot across the floor to the panic button which would bring security through the door like a horde of commandos.
"I appreciate you making an appearance, Nicholas. Can we speak candidly?"
"Yes, of course. What do you want to know?"
"The host personality is Nathan, correct?"
Nicholas nodded, gaze almost hypnotic as he continued to stare at Dr. Prichard. "Yes, he is."
"What is your function?"
"I protect Nathan."
"From the world."
"Do you protect him from the others as well? The alters?"
"Then why didn't you protect him when they kidnapped Cathy Abbott?"
"Because I couldn't. Two alters are quite determined when they want to get out. One is a child we haven't seen in years. He's probably not even viable now. The other is Norman. I tried to keep Nathan on his drug regimen, but Norman got through and just took over."
"So you want to be where you are now?"
He nodded. "Nathan needs to get back on track, get over this obsession with Cathy Abbott."
"He's obsessed with her like Norman?"
"I wouldn't put it that way. We're all just parts, serving different needs of the whole. Norman acts on Nathan's most hidden feelings."
"Nathan's history shows sexual abuse by his father beginning at age three or so."
"That is correct."
"Did you deal with Nathan at that time?"
"Michael took over the personality at those times. Nathan knows about it intellectually through all his years of counseling, but he has no special knowledge, no personal dealings with it. Michael did that."
"So who is Norman?"
The slightest scowl flitted across Nicholas' face. "He's our bad boy, our wild child; my opponent. He wants to act on everything bad or risky that Nathan wants. We contend at every turn. Nothing but sheer willpower has kept him at bay for the last decade or so. Then one night while eating dinner on his new condo patio, Nathan spotted Cathy Abbott on her lanai on the penthouse next door. That was all it took."
"Nicholas, thank you for being so candid with me. The session is almost over and I'd like to speak with Norman. Can you let him out, please? I'll see you again soon."
Nicholas closed his eyes and again the facial changes occurred. When they opened this time they were guarded and quiet. "What do you want?"
"I'm Dr. Pritchard, Norman."
"I know that."
"Then you know why I want to talk with you."
The faintest smile parted Norman's lips. He merely nodded.
"Why did you kidnap Cathy Abbott?"
He leaned forward suddenly, bent from the hip. "Because we were meant to be together. If I'd had another week, she'd have agreed to stay with me forever. I love her! I'd never hurt her, never scare ... you ask her, she'll tell you. I treated her great."
"That is true, Norman. She corroborates your story. The problem is you took her against her will. You can't just carry people off like that, even if you love them."
"I know. I just couldn't help it. We've known her for years but she never meant that much to me. Then we moved to the new condo and we saw her on her lanai one night, and from then on, we knew--I knew-- I had to have her."
"You stopped Nathan from taking his pills, right?"
"How about the times he'd end up in strange places. Was that you, too?"
"What is your goal? Why are you doing this to Ms. Abbott?"
"I know we're meant to be together, no matter what she thinks right now. It's just a time thing; she needs to adjust. We'll have a wonderful life together. I'll take her all over the world. I'll be her eyes."
Alex Pritchard continued to write, his pad of paper filling rapidly. "I would like to speak to Nathan again, please. Can you do that?"
Norman closed his eyes; soon Nathan returned.
"Have you been aware of the conversations I've just had with your other alters, Nathan?"
"No, I, they don't deal with me. I'm not privy to anything they do or say. What's going on?"
"Well, you're in luck, actually. I'm about to conduct an in-depth study of DID, including behavioral changes, personality triggers, motivational reflex, societal problems, including your anxiety issues. I think it would be beneficial to you to join. If you agree to commit yourself to three months of intensive therapy along with a variety of other activities and programs, I can get you transferred to my care and spare you any jail time. Would you like that?"
"Yes, sir, I would like that very much. Where would I be staying? Here in town?" Nathan continued to stare at his fingers.
"Yes, not too far from here. It's a nice place, very restful. It's called Lowell House, it's in Beverly Hills."
Nathan smiled for the first time and raised his eyes. "I take it business is good."
Alex returned the smile. "Yes, it is. I'll arrange to have you transferred shortly." Dr. Pritchard rose and nodded again. "I'll see you at Lowell House for lunch." With that, he gathered up his things and headed for the door. He knocked and a guard let him out. They talked for a short time and then he left.
The hospital guards escorted Nathan to a waiting county transport vehicle and transferred his custody to two uniformed LAPD officers.
Nathan took his place in the back seat and glanced expectantly out the window as they drove down the street.
They wound their way through the thick cap of gray clouds that heralded the morning. The higher they climbed the faster the fog dissipated under the force of a fairly stiff on-shore breeze and a determined sun. One more turn on the twisty road and they were above the line. Sun.
Dr. Pritchard told Nathan he would be happy here and he hoped that would be the case. Nervous, he picked and chewed on the corner of his thumb, tearing at the cuticle.
The driveway into Lowell House proved to be one that a movie set would envy.
The three-storied Tudor mansion, home of the late R. E. Lowell, took center stage, set as it was in the middle of an acre of prime Beverly Hills real estate.
Donated to the Los Angeles Mental Health System to use in perpetuity for the study and ultimate cure of DID and assorted MPD, Lowell House enjoyed tax-free status.
The yearly contribution of a million dollars from the Lowell Foundation for upkeep of the estate made it an easy choice.
R.E. Lowell suffered all his life from bipolar disorder and what was then loosely termed multiple personality disorders. He attributed his success to the disorder, crediting his acknowledged position as a vanguard in Hollywood cinematography and as producer of numerous Emmy-winning films. While he readily acknowledged his disorder's place in a long line of career accomplishments, at times it plagued him severely, especially in his personal life.
* * *
The car stopped at the bottom of a wide veranda. The cops led him up the stairs and through the open front door.
A large woman, dark skinned and obviously in charge, smiled at them. "Officers, is this Nathan Stanley?" She extended her hand for the transfer papers he offered to her.
"Yes, ma'am. This is him."
They waited until she notified house security before they took the cuffs off Nathan.
A burly guy who looked like a Sumo wrestler came down the hall, face wreathed in smiles.
"Welcome, Mr. Stanley," he said, still smiling. "I'm Donnie. Dr. Pritchard said I should take special care of you. He thinks we're going to be great friends. Says you play a mean game of cribbage." He nodded at the cops to release Nathan, and put one arm across Nathan's shoulders, a hand the size of a ham hock draped casually over his arm.
"So how was the trip over? And man, what do ya think of your new digs? Pretty cool, huh? Wait until you see the pool, and if you're into tennis, we have a great court."
Nathan stared at Donnie a moment, then threw his head back and roared with laughter. As they continued to walk down the hall, he draped his arm over Donnie's shoulder like they were lifelong buddies. "So, how long have you been here?"
"Seems like forever, Mr. Stanley."
"Oh, please, call me Nathan. At least now." He tittered. "I have alters, y'know. They all have names, but I don't know any of them."
Donnie nodded as he led the way down a long hall. "I hope I figured right, but since you live near the beach, I thought you'd like lots of windows. The best suite in the house, I think." He stopped midway down the hall and opened the door with a flourish. "How's this?"
Nathan nodded, pleasantly surprised. The use of the word suite might be a bit overstated, but clearly this was far above what other hospital facilities ever offered, at least any he'd been in. Two queen beds with tables and lamps, a small sitting area with two chairs, a table and a TV on the wall. A door at the bottom of the room opened onto a bathroom and small, walk-in closet. Sliding doors opened to a minuscule patio with requisite table and two more chairs.
"I'm more than pleased, Donnie. This is very nice. I'm glad you chose it for me." He walked into the closet, surprised to find clothes hanging. Light, pullover tops and pants with elastic waistbands in a variety of sizes and colors awaited. "I'd like to get out of this jail garb. Are these for me to wear?"
"Sure are. I'm on the other side. Listen, I'll get us a couple of sodas and meet you out on the patio, okay?"
"I'll be right there." Nathan closed the bathroom door and quickly stripped out of the prison issue orange jumpsuit. He was in the shower and singing before he knew it. 'Wash that prison smell off me. It's disgusting.'
He joined Donnie on the patio, grateful for the soda waiting for him. He drank half of it in a series of long swallows and sighed. "Oh, I didn't realize how thirsty I was. The coffee in jail is so far beyond bad; no wonder they're always trying to break out. Hope we do better here."
Donnie tittered, grinning at him, eyes lost in mirth. "You're a riot, my friend. Dr. Pritchard had us pegged, that's for sure. Okay, meds. How're you doing, by the way? You handling stuff okay? You look cool."
"I'm doing great, but I want to get back on my protocol right away. I can't go it alone, but when I take them it's alright. You have the cocktail they gave me the last time, right? We could at least start there."
"That's what Dr. Prichard thought." He pulled a small tray toward him and picked up a little paper cup holding three tiny pills and a carafe of ice water. He handed the cup to Nathan with a grin.
"Here you go."
Nathan swallowed the pills with the remainder of his soda and nodded. "Are we too late for breakfast or is lunch coming soon? I haven't had a bite to eat since the cops picked me up and it's making me a little weak."
"If you can hang in for another half hour, lunch will be ready. Dr. Pritchard wants us all to meet in the dining room, get to know each other and all that stuff. Break bread." With a twinkle in his eye, Donnie reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a small packet of saltines; he offered them to Nathan with an apologetic shrug.
Although a bit crumbly and a little the worse for wear, they made Nathan salivate. Grinning, he took them, ripped open the cellophane, poured the crackers into his mouth and chowed down.
"Who would believe how good they could be?" He laughed again and finished off the carafe of water. "Only thing that's missing is the peanut butter."
Donnie and Nathan walked down the hall toward the dining room. As different patients joined them on their walk, a low buzz of conversation filled the silences of a moment ago.
The main dining room of Lowell House sat sixty and served a variety of functions. They held most of their fundraising parties there, as well as small seminars on DID and some of the attendant disorders closely aligned.
Today, two round tables for twelve and a rectangular table for four filled the front quarter of the room. Donnie pulled out a chair and nodded at Nathan to take the one next to it.
Dr. Pritchard sat at the rectangular table, several stacks of files in front of him. He tapped the microphone to his right and called for quiet.
"Everyone, please sit down." Moments later he resumed. "You have all agreed to become part of an in-depth study on DID. For the next three months, you will be participating in a variety of programs that include drug and dietary combinations and individual and group counseling. We've already made a preliminary pairing; each of you has a personal therapist trained in DID. Your therapist is your go-to guy or gal.
"To the best of your abilities, we hope you will bond and become real true friends. The aim of the pairings is to develop a trust level some of you might never have felt before. We're going to have our lunch now, and when we've finished, we'll have our first group session in the multi-purpose room down the hall."
The wait staff entered carrying large trays of assorted sandwiches and individual bags of chips. They placed pitchers of iced tea and water on the tables and left.
The majority of the people in the study were women, ranging in age from late teen to senior citizen.
Nathan remained quiet in the presence of so many new faces. For the first time in his life, he felt an immediate connection with someone; in this case, Donnie.
Dr. Pritchard had paired them well, giving Nathan a positive feeling about the treatments to come and his reaction to them.
He would have far preferred sitting in the lounge or their bedroom, chatting privately, and he slightly resented the intrusion of all these other people. Still, that was how it would be; he had no choice.
Food meant a lot to Nathan and the sandwiches were a pleasant surprise if uninspired.
'Good food, at least two people who get me, and a nice place to stay. Sure beats Parker.'
With lunch concluded, they filed out into the hall and headed to the multi-purpose room.
A woman Donnie laughingly referred to as the hall monitor gave them the number of their assigned group.
Six women and two men sat at their table, quiet, filling out the questionnaire before them. Donnie and Nathan took their seats, introducing themselves.
Each of the patients gave a small overview of why they were there and the goals they hoped to achieve during their time in the program.
Nathan complied, mumbling through his statement. "I've had DID since I was a little kid. I kidnapped a woman and I stopped my meds program, so I'm all messed up. I really need help."
A perky redhead with a sprinkling of freckles across her nose and close-set blue eyes went next. "My name is Anne. I'm a sex addict. I was raised in a strict conservative home where my brother sexually abused me for all of my life as I remember it. My goal is to live a normal life. One without sex."
One after the other, they spoke about their problems and their hopes for the future. Nathan refused to engage more than was absolutely necessary. After so many years of therapy he found the whole exercise a bore, although he would readily agree that it helped in many ways.
The meeting finally concluded and they were allowed free time to swim, read, watch TV or whatever activity they wanted.
"What would you like to do now? I could enjoy some crib, or we can do that later. Would you like to take a walk?"
"That sounds great, Donnie. Lead the way."
They walked to the far end of the multi-purpose room and out the door to a thick, green lawn. It spread out before them, inviting everyone to take off their shoes and socks and run barefooted. Colorful roses grew year round, their perfume wafting through the quiet peaceful evening. Night blooming jasmine wove their way around a trellis next to a huge bay window, their aroma taking center stage.
"I wish I had my camera, Donnie. I clearly understand, privacy issues for the others, but my God, what I could do with that."
Nathan nodded at the sky as it prepared to bid the sun adieu.
The light fleecy clouds, interspersed with smog, created some of the most fantastic sunsets imaginable; shards of light snaked downward and set them aflame. Following true to form, purple shadows threaded with vertical gold rays followed, heading for the horizon and a slow sizzle as they dipped into the sea.
"Do you know anything about this place?" Nathan gazed around the lawns, noting the swimming pool sporting a variety of colorful floats, deck chairs and tables sprinkled on the surrounding veranda. They settled next to the pool, watching the underwater lights shimmer.
"Not really. We've only been here a year, but I have to admit I love it."
"Where are you from, Donnie?"
"I'm from Hawaii, originally, but I moved to Los Angeles when I was four. We still have family there, and I visit every couple of years, but I'm an Angelino. How about you? Where are you from?"
"San Diego, born and raised."
"It's the life, huh? Did you grow up by the beach, surf and stuff?"
"Nah, I grew up inland, Kearney Mesa area. Got to see a lot of jets. We were in the flight pattern for Miramar. The sound of them ... as a little kid, I'd often wake up on the back lawn, staring at the sky and pretending the world was coming to an end."
The blink was imperceptible. "That sounds wild. Why did it remind you of the end of the world?"
"The sound is thrilling, deafening. It's, like, almost physically engaging, y'know? It's more than hearing ... you feel the power of the jets, the roaring and the ground shakes. It's so cool. It's hard to explain; maybe it's the noise of the engines, that thundering, rumbling they do, who knows. I felt the power vicariously and hoped for something like that for me; I needed control." Nathan shook his head, brow furrowed. "I'm not making sense here, I know. My father...." Nathan drifted a moment, fists clenched into tight balls.
"Did you ever think about being a pilot, get to fly one of those puppies on your own?"
Nathan laughed, head tilted in Donnie's direction. "Nah, I never thought past just listening to them. Guess that makes me a voyeur of sorts. Of course, in all reality, that's exactly what I am. I'm not a part of life, my own or anyone else's. I just immortalize others on film. Strange, huh? I take pictures of life, but I don't have one of my own."
"Can you remember any of the things your father did to you? I know one of the alters protected you from living through it, but do you have any...." Donnie leaned back in his chair, watching the change come over Nathan. He made quick notes, never taking his eyes from Nathan's face.
"I already told that other asshole and now I'm tellin' you. When you want to find out stuff about our prick of a father, you talk to me, got it? Comprende?"
Donnie nodded. "Got you loud and clear, Michael. I didn't mean to step on your toes."
Slightly mollified, Michael nodded. "Just so's ya know. He can't deal with that shit, man. You'll send him right over the edge and then where will we be?"
"How do you feel about being here? Do you want to see any breakthroughs for Nathan or do you prefer things as they are?"
"Whoa. A choice? I never gave it much thought. What would that mean?"
"It's called integration. In order to get better, Nathan has to learn how to come to grips with the abuse he suffered as a child. He cannot move forward until he does that."
"So, you want him to get rid of me? Us?"
"I certainly wouldn't phrase it that way. Each of you performs certain tasks that Nathan can't do for himself right now, but in time, he could learn to."
"What would that mean for us?"
"Freedom, I guess. You've done a hell of a job running interference for Nathan, dealing with what he could not. You were outstanding. No one could argue that, least of all me. But Nathan isn't a little kid anymore. He's not that helpless child who needed protection. He can do this if we all help him. Can you see that?"
"Are you ... you want me to step out of the way so he can remember what happened to him? How much dear old dad 'loved' him?" He leaned toward Donnie, eyes wide, staring. "Do you know what his, that frickin' bastard, did to him? Because if you think he's ready for that, you're nuts."
"If we can't integrate Nathan, he'll never be able to live a full, normal life. To do that we have to have the cooperation of all the alters, because if you are working against us, there won't be any progress."
"But that's bull, man. We, he was doing just fine until Norman got the hots for that Abbott broad. He's the one ya gotta shut down; Norman's the bad one. We all know it. He has his own agenda."
"Agenda? What do you mean?"
"He doesn't want to be part of us anymore. Norman wants to take over the body completely, forever. He does it, too, for long periods of time, sometimes. I don't like Norman."
"We can't let that happen, Michael."
He mumbled something and closed his eyes. His facial expression went slack, shortly followed by a return to normalcy.
Nathan nodded at Donnie and shrugged as though no time had passed. "Do we have to talk about him right now? Maybe later after I'm on the meds a while? There's no rush, is there?"
"No, Nathan, there isn't. How do you feel right now?"
"Okay, I suppose." He gave a brief shrug then nodded. "I guess you might say I have expectations I've never felt before. I think a lot of it has to do with you."
"Me?" Donnie chuckled, small white teeth gleaming in an ear to ear grin. "Why?"
"I feel comfortable with you. I've never had a friend before. I didn't dare. But with you, I can just be myself. I don't have to be on guard against saying something stupid, so it makes me feel good."
"See! I told ya old Dr. Pritchard had us pegged. I am your friend, Nathan. I hope we'll be friends long after you've left here and resumed your old life. Paparazzi, huh? Man, what a deal."
Nathan snickered. "That's paparazzo if you want to be technically correct. And yes, it's a fantastic life. Just about the only one I can imagine leading with my illness."
"Well, in real life you have to deal with people, y'know? You have to interact. I can't do that because I don't like people. Just being around them, it makes me so tense; the idea of interacting with them makes me want to hide somewhere. But my job doesn't entail any of that. I get close enough to get the picture I want and then sell it to the highest bidder.
"I don't have to conform to anyone else's rules or punch a clock. When I take an assignment it's usually over the phone or by email. I work for a lot of different mags, little guys, big guys, I don't care. They all pay. The most important part is I can do it alone. I don't need anyone else."
"You don't really want to get better, do you?"
"I guess it depends on what you mean by better. Do I want to continue with leading some kind of double life, kidnapping women, blacking out, losing blocks of time and waking in strange places? No, I don't want to continue with that. But I don't want to change all that much. I like my life. I love my condo and my job is perfect for me. I just have to get rid of the alters."
"You don't see that as the same thing?"
"Getting rid of the alters as changing your life?"
"Honestly, Donnie, I'm not sure. It's like the meds. I know I have to take them, but I hate how they make me feel. Already, with just that one dose this morning, I feel ... heavier."
"I know. And actually, it's time for another round. I'm wondering if you would like to keep a diary of your time here. Note how the meds make you feel, the mood swings, stuff like that. It'll help us know which combination will work best for you. We're going to do a lot of trial and error before we hit just the right mixture for you. We depend on your input. Interested?"
Nathan shrugged. "Yeah, I guess.
Donnie sat in Dr. Prichard's office, a file open before him.
"How are things going with Nathan?"
"Fine, for the most part. He likes me, trusts me, so that's good. He hates the meds, what's new, but he's keeping a journal, so hopefully he'll expand past the meds to how he's feeling."
"Have you met any of the alters yet?"
"Yes. Michael. The other day Nathan and I were talking and I asked him if he remembered anything about his father and he immediately cashed out. The next thing I know, there's Michael. He wanted to get in my face about talking to Nathan about 'the prick,' as Michael calls him, but I defused him very easily. He's not nearly as tough as he'd like to be. No doubt he steps up, and he's determined to protect Nathan, but he's not the bad boy. I asked him if he'd ever thought about letting Nathan know about the abuse and he adamantly said no. I agree, at least at this point."
"What's your prognosis so far? Will his participation in the study benefit him?"
"I'm having serious doubts. In the first place, Nathan leads a life he greatly enjoys, so we have no carrot there. He doesn't indulge in any of the usual risky behaviors like unprotected sex or drugs and he's not on the street. To the contrary, he's very well off and loves his job. I mean, going almost ten years without a significant break is a rarity in DID. I'm inclined to believe there's a chance we won't win this one."
"What's your best case scenario?"
"If I can get Nathan to the point where he can control the alters, mostly Norman, from what I hear, Nathan could continue to lead what he refers to as a normal life. If not, I don't know."
"Perhaps you can engage the gatekeeper. He has the ultimate control. If you can convince him that Norman has to be held down at any cost, you might get a concerted effort."
"That's my next course of action. Do we have a name for the gatekeeper?"
"No, Nathan doesn't know any of them."
"Well, we're as ready as we'll ever be for court tomorrow." Donnie pursed his lips and shrugged. "Okay, well, back to the trenches." He rose, gathered up his files and bade Dr. Pritchard good bye.
The preliminary hearing for Nathan Stanley ended in a whimper. His caseworker, in conjunction with his attorney, appealed to the judge on a variety of levels to keep Nathan Stanley out of the system.
First offense, no history of violence, no record of any sort. Those three truths went far in swaying the judge. With a penal system already straining at the seams, there was strong motivation to place non-violent offenders in out-patient or assisted living arrangements, depending on the financial abilities of the individual. Nathan Stanley could well afford the hefty fee that accompanied a stay at Lowell House.
Nathan testified for more than half an hour, his sorrow and repentance for his actions so obvious, those present added deep contrition to the positive side of his case.
When his attorney asked him if he'd ever intended to hurt Cathy Abbott, his reply was so pitiful, so obviously true, there wasn't a dry eye in the house.
Beautiful eyes the size of saucers, he stared directly at Cathy. "I never meant to hurt you or scare you. I'd cut my right arm off before I would lay a hand on you. You are so blessed, so gifted, your art moves me so deeply, I can't even describe it. I am so sorry, so sorry. Please, forgive me." Tears of remorse dampened his cheeks, bottom lip quivering in sorrow. He whispered, "Please."
The most moving testimony on Nathan's behalf came from the victim herself, who refused to identify Nathan Stanley as the man who kidnapped her.
The entire Sessions & Browning contingent sat in the audience, well aware of what Cathy would say and hating every minute of it.
"I would be a liar if I said that Nathan Stanley kidnapped me when he so clearly did not. The man who testified at length just now had nothing to do with my kidnapping. I can state without a doubt that it was not him. I have no reservation, no question in my mind, none whatsoever. Nathan Stanley did not kidnap me."
Her presence in itself tugged at the heartstrings as she and Suzi approached the witness box. By the time she finished her testimony, tears flowed freely down Nathan's face; the overworked prosecutor capitulated.
Donnie Sorsolei, state-accredited therapist and expert in DID, took the stand and stated that in the six weeks he'd been working with Nathan Stanley, he'd seen great strides toward integration of the alters and had reason to believe that by the end of the three months session, Nathan would be able to return to a normal if state-structured life. Strict adherence to his medical protocol plus weekly therapy sessions with Dr. Pritchard to monitor his progress were court ordered for a year. He would be reevaluated every six months for progress.
Dr. Pritchard further implored the judge for mercy. "Mr. Stanley shows deep and continued remorse for the fear and dread his actions caused Ms. Abbott and those who love her. In my many years of treating DID, I've never been more convinced of the veracity of a patient's statements or of his remorse for his actions. And yet, even while he accepts responsibility, it was not Nathan who carried out these acts upon Ms. Abbott, but an alternate personality, an alter as we call them.
"An alter known as Norman became obsessed with Ms. Abbott, and for a brief time, fixated on his desire to befriend and ultimately cause her to fall in love with him. We feel strongly that the obsession is over and that it will not recur."
The judge remanded Nathan to six more weeks confinement under the care of Dr. Pritchard and five years probation with strict warnings too continue with his drug and therapy sessions as prescribed.
"Stay in line, Mr. Stanley, obey all Dr. Pritchard's orders and we'll see you back here in six weeks for further evaluation and placement."
* * *
Nathan watched Cathy walk out of the courtroom with Suzi on one side, Rudy Clark on the other. Seeing her again made him profoundly sad. He'd read the police report, knew what happened, but he had not yet integrated with his alters, so he had no personal knowledge or memory of what Norman put her through.
How had his genuine admiration for her artistic talents, something he'd felt for almost ten years, suddenly morph so far off base that it became an obsession? He had to do whatever it took to ensure it never happened again.
Nathan followed Donnie and Dr. Pritchard to the waiting car and their return to Lowell House.
Nathan's new drug cocktail helped in many ways, including overcoming some of his aversion for people. The combination of meds seemed to make it easier for him to communicate his feelings to others and make his needs known, even if they remained at surface level at first.
"How do you feel about what just happened in court, Nathan?" Dr. Pritchard asked.
"Seeing Cathy again made me sad. I know that's not what you meant, but it's true. As for the sentence, I'm glad. I think it's quite lenient, all things considered."
"Why did seeing her make you sad?"
"Because I never meant to hurt her or scare her! Poor little girl." Nathan stared into his lap, breathing rapidly as he fought off a rush of tears. "I can't tell you how her work moves me, the beauty, the grace, but admiration is a far cry from some kind of manic fixation. I don't understand how the change happened. How did it turn into such a morbid fascination?"
"We're going to get to that, Nathan, I promise. The first thing we have to do is unlock the door to the alters. Do you have any idea how we would best go about that?"
Nathan glanced at Donnie and nodded. "I think it's time to try the hypnotherapy Donnie told me about. I want a breakthrough, Dr. Pritchard. I'm ready to handle whatever I need to."
EE is on the rampage again! Look what he did to my page. Ah, well, I've tried to fix it and I can't. Please bear with me!
"I'm so glad you feel good about this, Nathan. You are about to begin a cool journey, dude, it's a good thing. We'll put you in control of the whole deal, the whole enchilada. We'll have to call you Boss."
Nathan tittered. "Me? Boss? Dude, you need a little therapy yourself." His laugh got nervous, tentative. "I'm only kidding...."
Donnie threw an arm over Nathan's shoulder and did a faux punch to his midsection. "You don't ever need to worry about what you say to me. We're best buds, remember?"
Nathan turned to Donnie and returned the belly jab, laughing. "You're the best thing that ever happened to me. You're the first friend I've ever had. Strange at my age, huh?"
* * *
They met in Dr. Pritchard's office, shades drawn against the afternoon sun; the gurgling sounds of water flowing over the little fountain in the corner and the soothing melody of flutes kissed the air with their mystical symphony.
Donnie sat on one side of the chaise lounge, Dr. Pritchard on the other.
"Are you comfortable, Nathan?"
"Alright. Before we begin our journey we have to establish the ability for either of us to end the treatment if there is a problem."
"Problem? What kind of problem?"
"If you get unduly frightened or nervous, you might want to take a bit of a break. When you feel you need to break, hold up your right index finger. Yes, just like that. Now, when I want to end the session, I will snap my fingers and call your name. When you hear that, you'll come out of the trance. Okay?"
"Yes." He wiggled his index finger several times. "Like that?"
"Just like that. Okay, here, we go. First, let's regulate your breathing. Take nice, deep cleansing breaths. On the count, one, two, three ... very good, Nathan, just like that. You are standing in front of an elevator. When the door opens you will step inside. You feel very calm, very relaxed. Step inside. The door closes and you begin to descend. Look up at the floor indicator. As each floor passes, you feel lighter. You are happy.
"As you approach the basement, I want you to remember a safe place, a place where no one and nothing could hurt you. It's warm and sunny and you are at peace. Other people might be there, friends. We're nearing the lowest floor. When the elevator door opens I want you to begin counting with me. Tell me when the door opens."
"It's opening now."
"Let's count. Ten, nine, eight, seven, you can open your eyes, Nathan. It's beautiful here. Six, five, four, open your eyes, yes, look around. Three, two, one."
Nathan opened his eyes to a long forgotten place; it was a safe place once. It would be his safe place again.
"Where are you, Nathan?"
"I'm under my bed."
"How do you feel?"
"Safe. He can't get me under here."
"Who can't get you?"
"Are you alone?"
"No. Michael is here, too."
"He's myself. He protects me."
"How does he protect you?"
"He lets me go away, far away from Daddy."
"Do you think Michael would like to talk with me, too? Can you both be here at the same time?"
"I don't know. Let me see." Nathan closed his eyes a moment. As before, Michael appeared.
"I don't think I like this. Why are you doin' this to him? I thought you was his friend." He shot an accusatory glance to Donnie and then returned his attention to Dr. Pritchard.
"We're trying to help him, Michael. He's in a lot of trouble right now and we have to help him."
"What kinda trouble?"
"The trouble with Cathy Abbott."
"But he didn't have nuthin' to do with that. Norman's the one who kidnapped that lady."
"You know that and I know that, but the police don't." Dr. Pritchard glanced at Donnie and shrugged. "We have to protect Nathan or they'll put him in prison."
"No! Oh, no, no you can't let them do that. I don't think I can go through that. I know what happens in prisons. Please!"
Michael's agitation grew, approaching a full-blown anxiety attack. His index finger shot up, wiggling back and forth.
"Michael, I need to speak with Nathan right now."
Michael closed his eyes, even as his facial expressions continued to register horror. He began to puff, finger wagging.
"Nathan? I need you to come back right now."
There was an obvious personality switch as the body relaxed and the facial features resumed their familiar appearance and yet there was a difference.
"How are you feeling, Nathan?"
"I am feeling fine, thank you. Please allow me to introduce myself. I am Peter. I am the gatekeeper."
Donnie gave Dr. Pritchard a thumbs up and nodded in relief. This was the breakthrough they'd been waiting for. To have it come so quickly was nothing short of a miracle. He continued to scribble in his note pad, listening intently as Peter spoke.
"I appreciate you...."
"Can we please just cut to the chase, doctor? You don't need to play games with me. I know exactly what you're doing and what you hope to achieve. I am here to help you do just that. Nathan cannot go to prison and that's all there is to it. We would not survive."
Eyebrows elevated, Dr. Pritchard leaned forward and nodded. "Excellent, Peter. We could not succeed without your cooperation. Will you be able to tell us what we need to know?"
"We'd like to hear about Norman. Do you know why he kidnapped Cathy Abbott?"
"It's really not complicated at all. We were eating dinner on the lanai one night last summer and Ms. Abbott chose that night to dance before the moon, as it were. Nathan had met her several times through the years, but it was the first time Norman saw her; he was immediately besotted." Eyes soft, Peter's stern expression changed somewhat as the night played over in his mind. He smiled.
"She was truly the most beautiful thing we'd ever seen. Nathan just took pictures. That's all he ever does, all he ever wants to do, live life on the periphery, but not that Norman. Oh no, he fell in love with her on the spot. Dreamed up this elaborate plan to spirit her away somewhere so he could show her how much he loved her, win her for himself. When her boyfriend appeared, that did it for Norman. He lost all sense of reality. She was the first person any of us ever felt close to. Quite profound, doctor."
"It sounds like you feel sorry for Norman."
"Not at all, at least not as you mean it. He is our loose cannon and I don't like him, but he's part of Nathan, part of us all. I guess everyone has a little part of a Norman in them, don't you think?"
* * *
"I had a feeling this would happen from the get-go and it really pisses me off." Detective Sandy Carroll stared down the end of her short little nose, trying her best to intimidate Lenny. She failed miserably, and worst of all, she knew it. "I hate slick attorneys and I hate bleeding hearts. Shit."
"I know, it bugs me too, but there it is. Cathy doesn't want to testify, and if you make her, she's ready to swear that the man who kidnapped her is not Nathan Stanley. Just like she did today."
"Perfect. Coupled with a clean bill of mental health and a rousing sis boom bah from the frickin' shrink, he's going to walk."
"Well, not exactly walk, Sandy. He'll be wearing a monitor forever, I guess. He's been remanded back to Dr. Pritchard's custody for six more weeks of treatment, more if they decide he needs it, and he's on probation for the next five years. Looks like that's the best we're gonna get. Still sucks, though."
Sandy leaned back in her chair, fingers tented in front of her lips, slowly tapping. "You buy this DID defense?"
Lenny sighed, shrugging. "I don't know whether DID is a real deal, but I know this much. I really felt sorry for Nathan today. I watched him like a hawk, didn't take my eyes off him the whole time we were in court, and if I were a betting man, I'd say yes. In his case, I believe in DID."
"It's such a copout plea ... the devil made me do it crap." She tapped a bit longer, then lurched forward to her desk. "I see defeat when it's staring me in the face and I can't continue to waste the people's time and money on this case. Just keep a close eye on Ms. Abbott, huh?"
Lenny rose, gave her shoulder a squeeze and nodded. He snapped his briefcase shut and grinned. "So, how was Celine?"
Sandy smiled, dimples deep. "Outstanding. Thank you."
Nathan sat alone by the pool, staring out into nothing. One week from today he would go before the judge for final disposition of his case. He felt confident for the most part. His integration with the other alters, already well underway, gave him hope for the future. The thought of going home to his condo, of preparing dinner in his kitchen, then dining on his lanai gave him a rush.
Maybe sometimes Donnie could come over. He'd make something special. The idea made him smile. The smile broadened to a grin as he saw Donnie approaching him from the far side of the pool.
"Hey, Nathan. Whatcha up to, buddy? You been out here long?"
Nathan nodded at his empty coffee cup. "It was so beautiful this morning, so clear, I decided to watch the sun rise. Hate to miss the best part of the day."
"I know what you mean. You want to get another cup of coffee or are you good?"
"I'm fine. This is my third, actually." He chuckled. "Had enough."
Donnie studied the expression on Nathan's face. "How do you feel about our last session with Norman? Are you comfortable with knowing them? Knowing what they know?"
"Now that I have the cue words, the control, I have power over the alters, even over Norman. All the others really seem to have my best interests at heart, but not him. Do you know why that is?"
"Do you remember the first time you met Norman? The first time you became aware of him?"
The color in Nathan's cheeks increased to a rosy flush. "Until recently, I only knew Norman as a shadow ... like a dream, y'know, a sexy dream. I didn't, still don't know him in any other way. Plus, I've always been celibate, so I'm not sure why the dreams are like that."
"Well, hopefully we answer some of that this morning. I'd like to explore your relationship with Norman, how he interacts with the other alters. I think it's important to get our cards on the table with him, don't you think?"
"I don't know what's going to happen, but we need to do something soon. My court date is coming up and I need to be solid, right?"
"I'm ready, Donnie. Let's do it."
Nathan stretched out on the chaise lounge, his hands clasped lightly across his stomach. He nodded at Donnie and winked. "Wish me luck."
Donnie laid a gentle hand on Nathan's shoulder. "Always the best, my friend. Begin."
Nathan began to implement the key cue words and visualizations they used in the self-hypnosis treatment. "I'm stepping into the elevator. The floor counter drops as the car descends." He drew a deep breath, relaxing visually. "We are in the basement. The door opens. Norman."
Nathan waited a moment and then nodded. "Hello. I'm glad to see you again. Can we talk?"
"Yes. What do you want?"
"We have to reach some agreement, a conclusion to the present dilemma. I do not want to go to jail and neither do you. How can we resolve this problem to everyone's satisfaction?"
"That's not an adequate solution. We must. If we do not, we will never be free. Do you understand that? We will never be free. We will spend our lives in jail or worse."
"What could be worse?"
"A state prison for the criminally insane."
"That is not a viable option."
"Then we need to come to an agreement. There is no other choice."
"What do you want from me?"
"You are the last bridge to cross, Norman. I understand how you feel. Childhood was a horror show, a nightmare of never-ending proportions. Adolescence as we knew it was filled with such revulsion and hatred, I have no idea how we managed and young adulthood was even worse. I know why you act the way you do, but you don't need to. Cathy is not ours to love, but that doesn't mean we can't find someone for ourselves."
"Yes, us; you know what I mean. We're part of each other, we are each other and we're so much better now. It's different with the others. They are a part of our past, when we were kids. We don't need them any more, we don't need to keep playing that same old song, Norman. We can find someone to love who will love me ... love us back."
Donnie recognized a momentary glitch in the conversation, writing it in his ever-present notebook. The continued sparring between Nathan and Norman concerned him greatly.
Nathan had made huge strides in the three months of therapy he'd undergone in Dr. Pritchard's program. Leaving behind the loneliness and isolation that had defined his life, Nathan had come to grips with the reality of his existence. Donnie just wasn't sure Nathan had the requisite strength to maintain power on the outside when conditions were not controlled inside.
"You make it sound like buying a new car or something. Besides, where will we find this person? How will we meet her?"
"It's always been my fault, being so shy, disliking people. I kept us away from a normal life, but I won't do that anymore. Once we're integrated, we can go home. I can get back to work. Heaven knows how many assignments we've missed since we were arrested. I want to go home, don't you?"
It rarely rains in Southern California in the summer. Blue skies prevail, but not on this Monday morning in August.
Dr. Pritchard, Donnie and Nathan waited in the traffic as cars inched their way down the boulevard.
"I can't remember the last time it rained. Smells good, doesn't it?" Nathan sat alone in the back seat, staring out the windows. "Wow, it's really coming down. Good thing we have an underground parking garage. If we ever get there. How do you think it's going to go today, Donnie? What do you think will happen?"
Donnie slid a glance at Dr. Pritchard before turning slightly in his seat. "I think it will go very well, Nathan. You're feeling a little nervous, huh? That's to be expected, I think. Don't worry, buddy, everything will be just fine."
Judge Callahan listened to the testimony of Dr. Pritchard, pleased to hear about the progress Nathan had made in integrating the alters. Donnie spoke at length about the changes he saw in Nathan and his belief that he was no longer a threat to the public, to Cathy Abbott in particular, or to himself. He recommended continued outpatient therapy, but concluded that Nathan was capable of resuming his place in society.
Nathan was the last to take the stand. After asking several questions about his state of mind and his feelings about being able to resume his life, Judge Callahan pronounced his verdict.
"Mr. Stanley, according to the testimony presented here today, it is the decision of this court that you be released on your own recognizance and that you continue your weekly sessions with Dr. Pritchard and his staff until further notice. We will see you back here in...." He opened his calendar and nodded. "Back here on February 8th. Ten a.m. You are free to go."
Sorry it's been so long...writer's block a bit. Thanks for waiting and I hope you enjoy.
Nathan stood by the door, waiting for the taxi to take him back to Del Mar. His stomach rolled a bit. He wasn't sure whether it was sorrow at leaving Lowell House or excitement about going home. Probably a little of both.
"You're going to do just fine, Nathan. I bet you're excited to get back to your condo. Gotta take that prize-winning picture, right?"
Large green eyes wide, he nodded. "Yes. Yes, I am. It feels good, right, you know? It's just that I'm really going to miss you, Donnie. I really am." Eyes down now in an attempt to hide the embarrassing film of tears that glazed them, he shrugged. "But I'll see you again. At least once a week here, and you said you'd come over for dinner, too, right?"
"Sure I will, buddy. You can count on it. Okay, here's your ride. You take care, and feel free to call me whenever you want. Any time, right?"
"So, give me a hug."
Sniffing, Nathan nodded several times, awkwardly patting Donnie's back. He got into the taxi and waved goodbye as they drove down the driveway.
After three months of living in Donnie's pocket and dealing with people all day and half the night, the dark, silent condo seemed cold and disturbing, almost ominous. Nathan poured himself a glass of wine and walked out onto his lanai. The warm sea breeze ruffled his hair and he felt himself physically relax. 'Oh, yes.' He drew another deep breath of salty air and nodded. 'It's so good to be home.
Unbidden, his eyes searched Cathy's patio, hoping to catch a glimpse of her sculpting or maybe working on some copper masterpiece. The only piece of furniture he could see bore a black plastic weatherproof cover.
He sighed. Turning on his heel he walked back into the house, refilled his glass and headed to his office. The message machine had long given up blinking. The red eye glared balefully at Nathan as he crossed the room and hit the button. Pen poised above a notepad, he began to take down names and phone numbers as the messages poured forth. Twenty minutes later he'd neatly segregated those he wanted to respond to from the much larger pile of junk which he threw in the trash basket.
Tired of listening to his stomach rumble, he walked to the kitchen and opened the fridge. A very sour, almost solid half-gallon of milk greeted him with its pungent aroma. The eggs had to go, as well as the blue-flecked bread. Other than those three items, the fridge was empty.
Holding his breath, Nathan turned the water on full force and poured the milk down the drain, rinsing the container several times and finishing off with several squirts of citrus air freshener. He gathered his notes and the garbage bag and headed out. He'd have dinner and pick up some staples on the way back.
Out of habit, Nathan went out the back door, using the freight elevator to avoid anyone who might be in the lobby. While he still felt shy around people, he'd lost much of his aversion to them. Thanks to Donnie's persistence, he'd made several friends at Lowell House, and realized he could do the same once he got home. As he emerged from his quiet street to the more populated boulevard, he drew another deep breath and glanced around.
'It's so good to be home. I didn't realize how much I missed it.'
As he drew abreast of the Italian restaurant, a variety of aromas so enticing, so tantalizing assaulted his nostrils that his mouth filled with water, taste buds erupted in anticipation. It'd been a long time since he'd smelled anything like it. Three months easy. He chuckled and entered the restaurant.
He sat at a nice window table, not too far from the front door, rather than his usual table in the back of the room. Nathan watched the people stroll down the street, often slowing to notice something in a store window.
One of the things that Donnie virtually harped on was that the past was exactly that, thereby unchangeable. It was up to him whether he wanted to live there with the nightmares or demand a life in today.
The choice was his and he made it with glee.
'Six months from now, there will be a woman sitting across from me at the table, enjoying dinner and talking about her day ... with me. She'll like me, think I'm funny. Donnie says I have a droll sense of humor. She'll like how I look or maybe she'll love my pictures. Oh, and I am such a good cook, she'll love that, I think. I know it'll happen if I give myself a chance. I just have to believe in the possibility. I have to open myself up and believe it can happen and it will. Donnie said so.'
Nathan nodded once, picked up his wineglass and took a sip. Slowly he raised his eyes and allowed himself to look around. A woman in her late twenties entered the door just then, short blonde hair cut in a spiky, pixie kind of cut that made him imagine Peter Pan. Without even thinking, Nathan smiled. She caught his gaze and returned the smile and then turned to follow the host to a table at the back of the room.
'See? It's just that easy. And, she's cute, too.'
Nathan leaned back, allowing his waiter to place a small antipasto and a toasty garlic baguette before him. He took his time, enjoying his meal and the watching the girl at the far table.
The waiter actually made small talk as he cleared the table for the next course, commenting that Nathan's choice of spaghetti with clams was his personal favorite as well. With a cry of 'mangi bene', he placed the steaming dish before Nathan with a flourish. "Parmigani?" he asked, offering the cheese grater.
"Yes, please. I love it."
"Me, too," said the waiter, continuing to work the grater.
Nathan finished every speck on his plate, amazed at his appetite. For whatever reason, the food tasted wonderful, even better than he'd remembered. With a chuckle he pulled some bills from his wallet and nodded.
'Freedom simply cannot be overvalued, overrated. What could possibly be more important to anyone than their freedom?'
He rose from the table, picked up his notes, which he hadn't even looked at, and stuffed them into his pocket. When his glance once more strayed to the blonde woman, he was surprised to see her looking at him.
She returned his smile and wiggled the tips of her fingers at him in a goodbye gesture.
Nathan grinned back and walked out the door. He continued down the street and stopped at the grocery store to pick up coffee, fresh milk, eggs and bread. That would cover breakfast tomorrow, and when he felt like it, he'd make a trip over to Ralph's and stock up. Shopping bags clutched in both arms, he headed for home.
He reflected on the success of the evening and the liberating feeling he had. He watched the sun sink into the ocean and wished he had his camera so he could take that picture for posterity.
'Donnie would be so proud of me. I walked into the restaurant with my eyes up, I talked to the waiter and I flirted with a girl. That's really good for my first try. She was so pretty, too.'
He felt a sudden tingling sensation along the bottom of both arms, almost like chill-bumps. A tremor ripped through his body.
"She wasn't Cathy!"
Nathan stopped dead in his tracks, shifting the bags in his arms as he fished around in his pocket for his keys. "Of course she wasn't Cathy. What a stupid thing to say."
He slipped the key into the lock, turned it and entered his condo. He put the bags on the kitchen counter and wrinkled his nose as the slightest nuance of sour milk wafted into his nostrils. He sprayed another layer of citrus freshener over the sink and shrugged.
"Norman, it's not going to happen. Cathy belongs to someone else, but we can find our own girl to love, someone who will love us in return."
"I don't want to do it that way. I want Cathy."
"Didn't you see how that woman in the restaurant flirted with me? We could get to know her. She was interested."
"Bullshit. I want Cathy."
"We have to forget Cathy. Not only does she not return our feelings, she's in love with someone else. Someone with big dogs. Need I remind you of that? Just get over it."
"Right back at ya."
EE hates my computer, so I don't use italics here on FS. However, in the ms, all apostrophes are gone and italics reigns!
Hope you enjoy!
Ella sat in the restaurant office, counting out last nights' take and making up the cash drawers for the lunch shift. Small piles on the desk consisted of credit card slips, checks and cash. "We sure had a good night, Amy." Ella finished the coffee in her cup and poured another. "Shall we go make the deposit?"
She picked up the bank deposit bag, stuffed the packets of cash and receipts inside and pulled the heavy zipper closed. She slipped the special lock into the slot and clicked it closed.
"Let's do it."
Amy crawled out from under the desk and stretched. She gave a big yawn and wagged her stumpy tail. Eyes alight, she walked over to the sofa, picked up her leash and returned, shaking it from side to side.
Leash attached to the thick spiked collar, they went out the back door and into a warm, sunny summer day.
At one time, way back when, making the deposit gave Ella the heebie-jeebies. Carrying that amount of cash on such a regular, predictable basis made her a mark for robbery, especially in a neighborhood with such a wide variety of indigent neighbors. Even though she carried a gun and knew how to use it, she still felt more than a little uncomfortable.
Her street might be downright gorgeous, but three blocks in either direction, not so much. Gang bangers, druggies and petty thieves had moved uptown, and brought their unsavory lives with them.
Jim didn't like it a bit, and solved the problem in the person of Amy, a large, coal-black Doberman Pinscher. With her at Ella's side, he no longer worried about her making the deposit, and what few punks had ever given robbing her a thought quickly forgot that idea when faced with eighty-five pounds of solid Doberman muscle. Just looking at Amy gave most people pause for thought.
Ella pulled the depository door open, shoved the bag inside and closed the door. She heard the bag drop into the bin with a thud. Just to be sure, she opened it again. Gone.
"Let's go. We're going to pick up Terry and have lunch with Cathy and Rudy. Do you want to come?"
Brows furrowed, ears swiveling to catch each word, Amy tilted her head, listening. She knew 'come' and 'Terry' and of course, a go anywhere was fine with her. She began to talk to Ella, making definite and individual sounds, their tones rising and falling as she described how she felt about 'let's go' and Terry. Finally she barked, ending in a high-pitched woo-woo.
Ella grinned as she opened the door to her new car. The little BMW, top down and ready to go, invited her behind the wheel. She'd never been able to understand Terry's fixation for her car, thinking privately that it was quite adolescent, her car thingy.
Then, last month, some fool in a tank disguised as a Cadillac hit her parked car broadside upon entering the restaurant parking lot, totaling her little Fiat.
Luckily no one was injured, although her car looked like it had been through the wars.
The next day, Jim took her shopping, and there was her little baby, just sitting there in the lot, waiting. It was love at first sight.
"I'm not sure about red, El. Isn't one red sports car in the family enough?"
"That depends upon whether Terry is ready to trade in the Jag. This little baby is mine." She virtually purred when she got behind the wheel. Driving it was a blast.
Jim followed her home at a safe distance, hoping superstitiously that he'd not just made a huge mistake.
* * *
The screen door slammed behind Terry as she hurried across the porch and down the stairs. "Don't you look cute! Love the outfit." She nodded at Ella, closing the door as she settled into the passenger seat. "That shade of green looks so good on you, but I hate it on me. Go figure." The twins looked at each other and grinned, identical faces, matching smiles and hair; they shrugged.
"It's all in your head, Terry. It looks good on you, too. So, where shall we take Cathy for lunch? She mentioned a new Mexican place that just opened right on the beach. Sound good to you?"
"Oh, yes. Margaritas sound wonderful. Chips, salsa and mariscos."
"You slay me, I swear." Ella cranked the music up and hit the classic rock station just in time to hear Eric Clapton sing the praises of a '57 Chevy.
* * *
"What a darling place," Terry said, taking a sip of her margarita.
"It's becoming our favorite. Rudy and I come down here a couple of nights a week. We've only done about half the menu. What looks good to you?"
"Just about everything. Oh, here's your mariscos, Terry." Ella tapped the menu, pointing at the seafood section.
"Rudy and I love the samplers. There are three on the menu. All great."
Terry nodded in agreement. "Sampler platters are always my fave. Gives you a variety of goodies to choose from."
Cathy nodded several times. "Okay, let's get the seafood one, huh?"
Their waiter approached the table, pad in hand, followed by a busboy carrying chips and salsa.
Ella grinned. "Sounds good to me." She gave the waiter their order, including a side of guacamole.
"Now that that's out of the way, tell us how you've been. Things are great with Rudy. I already know that from Lenny and Jim." Ella chuckled as a blush dusted Cathy's cheeks.
"I've never been so happy in my life. We have so much fun together. He pretty much lives with me now, although he goes back to the farm a couple of times a week to meet with Steve and check the dogs' training program. He's been talking so much about how he loves the detective work and how well Steve is doing, I won't be surprised if he joins the team full time."
Terry scooped some guacamole onto a chip and popped it into her mouth. "That's what Lenny said. With the economy so bad and people still out of work, the incidence of kidnap...." Eyes wide, Terry stared at her sister, lips pulled into a grimace. She turned to her friend. "I'm sorry, Cathy. I didn't mean to bring that up."
"No problem at all. Actually, I wanted to ask you both a couple of questions about it. Nathan has his final hearing tomorrow. I can't believe how fast time has passed, but I'm wondering, do you think I should be there?"
"Did you get a subpoena to appear? Because if not, why would you want to subject yourself to that? What does Rudy think?" A frown creased Ella's brow, blue eyes intense.
"He thinks it's a terrible idea. Any contact with Nathan is bad as far as he's concerned."
"I bet Lenny would say the same thing." Terry gazed at Cathy, lips pursed. "You're sorry for him, aren't you? I can see it in your face."
Ella leaned forward, placing a hand on Cathy's arm. "You damned well shouldn't be. Remember how scared you were of him?"
"Yes, but most of that was because we thought he had Suzi. Once I realized he had nothing to do with that, things changed somewhat."
"What? He's still the same guy who trashed Rudy's car. He broke into your home and kidnapped you." Eyebrows elevated, Terry stared at Cathy.
"Do you know about Nathan, what he went through as a kid? Imagine being sexually abused by your father to the point where your personality shattered and you became unable to deal with reality. Yes, I'm sorry for him. You were in court when he testified. Didn't you feel the same way?"
Ella nodded. "Okay, yes, for God's sake. You'd have to be some kind of a sadist not to feel sorry for him. Still, you might choose not to remember, Cathy, but he had you so scared when he was making those phone calls, I can't see how you can let it slide."
"That wasn't Nathan."
Cheeks pink, Ella stared at Cathy. "He snuck into your condo, drugged you and kidnapped you. Those are just the facts."
Terry started to shake her head at Ella, correctly interpreting Cathy's bobbing lips and said, "Honey, we're not trying to upset you or make you feel bad. It's just a, well ... look here. Lunch." Relief flooded her voice.
By the time the waiter set down the platters and exchanged old glasses for new, the subject changed.
"Girl, you know what's good." Ella nudged Cathy and grinned. "What're your choices here?"
"Oh, boy," Cathy said with a chuckle. "I'll take a little fish taco and did you get the one with the shrimp cocktail?"
"Terry and her mariscos. We sure did. Here's rice and beans and a nice warm tortilla." Ella continued to help Cathy with her plate, telling her what was located where.
Terry leaned back in her chair, staring at Cathy and remembering Lenny's words this morning.
'It's that Stockholm syndrome we talked about earlier. She feels sorry for Nathan; she feels empathy with him rather than the anger she should feel. That's not good, not good at all.'
"So, are you going to the hearing tomorrow?" Terry shot a quick glance at Ella, eyebrows raised.
Cathy pursed her lips and sighed. "No. Rudy's really adamant about it. I can't say anything more than I already have anyway, so it doesn't really matter. I hope they let him resume whatever is a normal life for him. Personally, I've never felt so sorry for someone in my whole life and I don't even really know him. It just makes me so sad."
"Well," Ella said, assuming her no-nonsense tone of voice. "It's all over anyway, 'nuff said. Now I have a great idea to share. Jim and I think it'd be great to have a little beach getaway and if you guys want, we'd love to have you join us."
Eyes the size of quarters, Terry leaned toward Ella. "Which beach? Where?"
"Count us in and I don't care where. I can speak for Rudy on this one. Where?"
"Dana Point, actually. Jim and Lenny did a job a couple of months ago, remember the Anderson kid? Well, the Anderson family is spending the summer in France and they told Jim to feel free to use their beach home."
"So, when do we leave?"
"We're leaving on Friday morning. Is that too soon for you guys? We're staying at least a week, maybe the remainder of the month. Jim wants to attend the Pro-Am golf tournament at San Juan Hills Golf Club. He's hoping to run into some old friends."
"What a ball. Count us in."
Tittering, Cathy wrapped both hands around her margarita and tipped it to her lips. "Drink up, ladies. I have to pack!"
Ella stood in their bedroom, hands on hips, lips pursed. "I don't know why we have to take the van. Can't the dogs sit in the back seat of my car?"
Jim shrugged. "Sure, I guess, if you don't mind them in your brand-new little roadster."
Ella chuckled. "Roadster. Gimme a break! I take Amy with me all the time anyway, and if it means I can drive, I don't care. Besides, you know how it is near the beach. The van will be like driving a bus down there. We'll do better in my car."
Clear green eyes stared at her in amusement. "You don't fool me, wench. You just want to give Terry a run for her money. Okay, the car it is."
* * *
"Terry, we're going to be late if you don't get going." Lenny stood at the bottom of the stairs, waiting. "We're supposed to meet everyone at the restaurant in twenty minutes."
She appeared as expected, dragging a pull-along suitcase; a huge, bulging purse hung from each shoulder. "I'm ready. Did you get everything else packed?"
"Yes, m'dear. We are a go. Come on down!"
She chuckled, grasped the stair rail and started down the stairs. "Let's do it."
Three little red sports cars, tops down, lined up next to each other in the otherwise empty parking lot.
Jim handed the guys a slip of paper with the address to the beach house and cocked his head at Rudy. "The girls are feeling frisky," he said, nodding at Ella and Terry. "See if you can't get out there first and maybe they'll let you lead the way."
Lenny turned toward Jim, laughing. "That's the funniest thing I've heard all week." He glanced at Terry as she sat behind the wheel of the Jag, a familiar expression on her face. "The gauntlet has been thrown. God help us all."
"You'd think at their age they'd be a little less rowdy."
"Ooooh. If that comment ever gets back to anyone, you're so toast. Burnt." Lenny laughed again. "I'm keeping my distance."
The sixty mile drive from Hollywood to Dana Point took almost two hours, mainly due to lost tourists gawking all over the place and a fender-bender that occurred when a low-rider refused to yield to a UPS truck, with predictible results.
When their exit finally arrived, they all heaved a sigh of relief as they accessed the Pacific Coast Highway.
* * *
"Good Lord, did you know it'd be like this?" Ella leaned into Jim as she stared at the huge house. "Oh, my. It's just gorgeous."
They parked three abreast and walked up the flagstone path to the front door.
Rudy and Cathy pulled up the rear, flanked by Suzi and Kip. "It's beautiful, honey. Big, tall windows and a wrap-around deck, and the beach is just steps away. Let's get the luggage stowed and we'll check out the back."
Jim nodded at Rudy as he followed Ella up the stairs. "There's a nice big bedroom down there we thought would be best for you guys. Check it out." He pointed toward a long hall.
"Will do, Jim. Thanks." He turned to Cathy and gently placed her right hand on the doorjamb. "Okay, sweetie, let's start the tour from here. The foyer is small, maybe eight feet across. If you go left, I figure we'll find our bedroom. Straight out is the living room, more like a great room. It looks out over the beach. To the right is the dining room and the kitchen must be right behind it."
"Let's drop our things in the bedroom, get the food and drinks into the fridge and then we can check out the beach, okay?"
He gave her a squeeze. "You're reading my mind, as usual."
They gathered in the kitchen as Ella blended a pitcher of margaritas. She filled their glasses and nodded to Jim. "Take those out with you. I'll mix up another batch and we can sit outside all afternoon. What a wonderful day."
The incoming surf pounded the sand, sending the little birds scurrying. Sea gulls swooped and dove, crying out in their sad, eerie way.
This is a laid back chapter, getting everyone in place. Remember if this is your first chapter, this is a novel and if you have questions about the characters, they've probably been answered earlier. This is definitely not a stand-alone chapter. Hope you enjoy!
Nathan sat behind his desk, the phone messages from last night spread out before him. He turned down two foreign jobs out of hand. They would interfere with his therapy sessions, plus he'd surrendered his passport as part of his court agreement. Besides, he had no desire to attend the newest exhibit of Paris haute couture.
The largest group consisted of boring opening nights or requests from agents for candid photos of the latest in Hollywood starlets. He narrowed his choice to three offers that really turned him on.
The Beverly Hills Dog Show was always a great gig. He loved dogs and often spent his time roaming behind the scenes, finding what he called doggie-owner look-alikes. His skill in presenting just the right angle and his perfect sense of timing made them unique. They brought in great money and often won him minor awards. He chuckled in anticipation.
High surf was expected along Huntington Beach and all the big names of the sport gathered to compete with the waves, each other, and their adversary, the sea. The prospect for great pictures could not be overstated. He would have ample opportunity to snap the perfect shot, one with a potential value in excess of six figures.
Showcasing the best surfing on the mainland held a great lure for Nathan. His mind went back to the times he'd spent in Hawaii and Australia covering the biggest stars in the surfing world. He had personal experience of the worth of those photos and hesitated.
His little stint at Lowell House had set him back almost two hundred thousand. While he was nowhere near broke, he needed to think about plumping up the bank account.
The third offered an invitation from the group funding and organizing the charity Pro-Am golf tournament down at San Juan Hills Golf Club. It was a long stint, lasting three full days, but if he could get a picture of Tiger Woods, for instance, he would have his accounts fat again. No doubt there would be other famous celebrities in attendance as well, giving him more to work with than just the players. He sighed, tempted.
'I'd really rather go to the dog show, but I need to get some money put back in the account. Golf's okay, not bad at all, actually, and the perks are fabulous. It just doesn't appeal right now.'
He crumpled the golf note, tossed it into the wastebasket and dialed the contact number in Beverly Hills. The woman at the other end of the line informed him that the dog show marketing committee had already placed the job.
Nathan sat back in his chair, thinking. Depending on the surf was a leap of faith he didn't feel like taking. He recalled too many wasted weekends praying the flatsies would rear up and provide the desired towering waves.
He fished around in the trash, pulled out the crinkled note and began dialing. The coordinator for the tournament thanked him for his response and assured him he was still their top choice. If he could be there a day early, they would appreciate some candid photos of the opening night gala and dinner. Nathan accepted the job, promising to arrive well before noon the next day.
"Donnie. Hi, it's Nathan." He hesitated a moment, nodding, smiling as he listened to his friend. "Yeah, things are going really well. That's part of the reason why I called. I have a job down near San Juan and I'll be there for the weekend." He paused again and laughed. "Yes, I'll be staying in Dana Point, at the St. Regis ... you bet, first class all the way. I'm wondering, is there any chance I can change my next appointment from nine to ten?" Another smile and a nod. "Yeah, I miss you, too. Okay, see you on Monday, ten sharp."
* * *
The light traffic made the drive to San Juan easy. Nathan found his mind wandering as he thought about the upcoming evening.
Charitable organizations worked hard to generate as much excitement as possible surrounding their games and events, thereby garnering the much-needed state and local media attention that often led to additional monetary contributions for their coffers.
Attendance at the ball was a social must. The event ranked in the top five charitable benefits of the season and was supported by both the Women's Club's and Junior League's of San Diego and Greater Los Angeles counties. The worthy beneficiary was breast cancer research and every woman with social standing in the community would attend this black tie event.
Nathan followed the winding driveway and pulled to a stop in front of the beautiful St. Regis Monarch Beach resort. The startling white of the Tuscan style architecture, glistening in the intense sunlight, momentarily made him squint.
One of the perks he enjoyed was a room for the weekend, compliments of the tournament marketing team. They wanted him there for the night as well as the many cocktail parties that would be held throughout the weekend. All the competitors had reserved rooms, as had the big-shots from out of town; spontaneous soirees were common as were liaisons of a more clandestine nature.
When not attending the golf games, they expected him to find human-interest stories in the lounge, backfield or bar. It would be anything but a quiet weekend, and just being among so many people and not minding it gave Nathan courage.
'Okay, so I'm not a people-person, but a lot of folks feel that way. At least the aversion is gone and I can make friends, just like Donnie said. And when I get home, I'm going to try to find that blond girl and introduce myself. First thing.'
Nathan followed the valet into the hotel lobby clutching the large leather bag that contained his cameras.
* * *
Cathy and Rudy sat on the lanai, chairs facing towards the ocean. The birds searched for dinner, swooping and calling to each other. Already boats dotted the horizon, colorful sails rippling in the wind. Even farther out, a speedboat towed a young girl on water skis, long blond hair trailing behind her.
"I can't believe we've been here almost a week. It's been so much fun, so relaxing. I wish you didn't have to go out to the farm. I'll miss you!"
"I'll be back before you know it, Cath. I have no choice, really, not on this one. We have two dogs ready to make the transfer to their new handlers and I have to be there for the changeover."
"Well, of course, I understand that. Why are these dogs so special?"
Rudy hesitated, a proud smile on his lips. "They're both very talented. One is a bomb-disposal dog. He can identify IEDs and other kinds of weapons from a fairly safe distance and alert troops before the device explodes; he's heading to Iraq. The other one? Man, she's something else. She's going to do her part to keep the bad guys on the other side of the border. God help anyone she gets hold of."
"Depends on which side you're on. She'd rather fight than anything else, including eat. She's so rare, she's an anomaly; I've only bred one other like her and that's her mother."
"Runs in the family, huh?"
He nodded, large dark eyes half-closed in thought. "She's super at everything, and I mean super. There's never been a fence she can't either climb or jump; she clears six feet in stride, if you can believe that. I wouldn't if I hadn't seen it. She has a bite that will rival a Rotti and she can swim under water. Just brings her nose up high enough to catch her breath and back down she goes. She'd be great working with the harbor patrol, which is where she was headed until the guys at DHS heard about her and scarfed her up."
"So she's on border patrol now? Won't she get bored?"
He chuckled. "Nah, I doubt it. They've assigned her and her handler to a three mile stretch along the Rio Grande. It's heavily infiltrated, especially by the drug runners. She'll have some pretty busy tunnels to find and destroy."
Cathy snickered. "I take it her handler is a track star. How is he supposed to keep up with her?"
"He's mounted. They brought cavalry units into play about a year ago. The horses are silent, at least compared to ATVs or other chase vehicles, they can go anywhere a person can go and then some, and they'll keep up with the dog."
"Wow, once the word gets out, the gangs will give her area a wide berth."
Rudy nodded, reaching for his cup. "That's the plan. They'll keep her mobile enough that the drug runners will think there are dozens of her. If she's as successful as I think she'll be, dog patrols will become commonplace. Whatever works. Those guys are the lowest of the low."
"What if they shoot at her? Even Gracie is vulnerable to bullets."
"That's true, but DHS developed special Kevlar vests, like the troops wear, that protect the entire body, and little helmets, like the ones bike riders wear. She'll be as safe as they can make her...much safer than the dudes she's there to take down."
They sat together in the warm sun, listening to the surf pound the beach.
"Well, I guess I'd better get going, hon." Rudy glanced at his watch and rose to his feet, smiling as Terry and Ella walked onto the lanai, yawning, steaming cups of coffee in hand.
"So you're off, huh?" Ella blew into her cup and took a tentative sip. "Jim's half tempted to go with you, just to see you put Gracie through her paces. If he didn't have this big golf deal on his plate he'd be right there with you. He calls her Amazing Grace."
"She is that, no doubt about it." Rudy bent over and kissed Cathy on the cheek. "I'll be back late tomorrow afternoon, before five. I'll call if it looks to be any later." He kissed Cathy again and headed for his car.
Jim and Lenny joined the girls a few minutes later, wide smiles on their faces.
"Hey, El," Jim said, still grinning. "How'd ya like to see what the chef at the St. Regis calls a banquet?"
"Get out. The Monarch? Oh, absolutely. How did you manage that?"
"It's a group I met when I played in that tournament in Palm Springs. You remember Joan Chandler, I'm sure. The same people are putting this event together and they're holding a black-tie ball tomorrow night."
Ella turned to Terry and grabbed her arm. "Did you bring that little tape recorder?"
Terry nodded. "It's in the glove compartment of the Jag. Juiced up and ready to go." She turned to Lenny. "I didn't bring anything to wear to a ball. We'll have to shop."
Ella nodded. "Without a doubt. Cathy, do you feel comfortable leaving Kip here with the other dogs?"
"Absolutely. I was about to suggest that."
"Cool. Well, guys, we'll be home by two for sure, probably sooner. If not, we'll call. Oh, we're taking Ella's car." Terry smiled and then did the unthinkable. Tossing her keys to Lenny, she grinned. "Have fun."
They watched the girls head for the driveway. The echo of slamming doors followed the sounds of the engine turning over; they backed out onto the road, waving goodbye.
"Oh, goodie," Lenny said, winking at Jim and wiggling his fingers like W. C. Fields, twirling the long distinctive key by its shank. "We got the Jag. Shall we take a little cruise?"
|Author Notes||Just wondering if my long-time readers would like to hear about Gracie and Rudy and her meeting with the DHS agent. It's already written but I'm afraid it won't be well recieved as an individual chapter. But if you want it, let me know. Who cares about popular!|
Rudy shook hands with Steve, clapping him on the back in greeting. "Today is the big one, huh? I have to admit, I'm thrilled. Max is a go, I know. All we have to do is introduce him to his new trainer and that's that. Our little Gracie, on the other hand." He shook his head and grimaced. "A rough deal, huh?"
"Yes she is, for sure. We've had a couple of issues over the past few days that I wanted to pass by you. She doesn't want to accept my authority. Oh, she follows orders to the letter, never a problem there. It's ... I don't know, like she's challenging me mentally for leadership, or, I don't know, you'll see. So far it's come to nothing. Anyway, thought I'd pass that on."
"Alpha female, just like her dam. It's okay for this application, but it's a real problem in the progeny and it's why I don't breed for it. I'm going to see if I can get her to switch allegiance to the new handler right off. Can't hurt." Rudy shrugged.
"How does she relate to you?" Steve asked.
"She doesn't like me any better than she likes you, and I know what you mean. You're just waiting for her to challenge an order. Still, she never does. She's a hell of a team player and I know she'll do a good job for these guys."
They walked out the back door and approached the kennels. For a variety of reasons, Gracie occupied a corner spot in the first row.
As they came around the corner of the building, Rudy was struck once again by her beauty. She lay on her padded bunk, at rest, attention on the distant groves. Her nostrils twitched and in a moment she became aware, alert.
She turned her sharply sculpted head and stared at Rudy, dark eyes intent, ears up. Her stubby tail twitched twice and was still.
Blackest of black, tall and sleek, she was at least fifteen pounds heavier than the top 'ideal weight' for a Doberman, let alone a female. She resembled an onyx statue only better. Gracie was a living work of art.
Ears now up, tips pointing to each other, she glided down from the bunk, muscles rippling under velvet skin. She never took her eyes off Rudy as she reached the kennel gate in three steady strides.
"My God, you're magnificent." He turned to Steve, admiration clear on his face and nodded. "I've never seen an animal in better condition. You talk about fit."
Pride filled Steve's voice. "I think the DHS guys will think they got their money's worth. She does look good, doesn't she?" He chuckled, nodding at the light puff of dust indicating a car on the driveway. "Company."
"Okay. You said you two had issues, so I'll take it from here. She seems slightly happy to see me. Tell the guys in the warehouse to be ready for some real stuff."
Steve nodded and walked up to the driveway as three people got out of the animal transport unit.
"Gracie, you are a sight for sore eyes. I hear you're giving Steve the hairy eyeball." Rudy began to hum under his breath as he drew on the heavily padded gloves that hung outside her door. He shifted the vest on his shoulders, feeling the more than twenty pounds of insulated padding that covered both arms and his torso. He picked up her leash and said, "Sit, Gracie."
Rudy opened the gate, closing it behind him. "You are so pretty, it's a shame you're such a bitch." He pushed her jaws away from his hand and snapped the heavy duty chain onto the ring in her collar. He wrapped the chain around his hand several times. "Let's go meet your new team mates. Party manners, right?"
Gracie snapped at his wrist again, settled for chewing the ends of his fingers for a moment then gave up. She raised her baleful eyes to his and sighed.
"One for me, huh?"
Two men and a woman met them at the outside obstacle course, each garbed with protective equipment like Rudy's.
Steve made the introductions, including Special Agent Georgia Stein, K9 division, DHS.
Rudy took the dog to the staging area in the pasture and removed her collar and leash. Through hand and voice signals, he put the dog through her paces, the performance as flawless and obedient as ever. Rudy called her to his side, replaced her collar and then indicated that Agent Stein approach.
She stopped about six feet from them, her eyes drilling into Gracie's. She raised a cautionary finger to Rudy as he began to speak, and maintained her gaze.
The dog returned the attitude with some of her own, giving back the stare with interest, ears sharp and perked.
Slowly Agent Stein drew two deep, audible breaths and softened her bearing somewhat, although maintaining clear dominance. From time to time, she'd drop her gaze and blink, only to bring it back again, unwavering. Her stance changed as she relaxed her shoulders, her posture visibly lighter. With body language clearly in play, the dog mirrored her actions.
Eyes still fixed on each other, Agent Stein closed the small distance between them, extended her hand and took the leash from Rudy. Snapping her fingers, she issued the command to heel and walked off across the pasture, her new partner at her side.
They returned twenty minutes later, ready for the second part of the test.
"Agent Stein, please put these on." Steve handed her a small pair of earphones. "We'll communicate with you this way. We can hear everything going on in the warehouse."
Agent Stein and Gracie entered the side door, immediately inundated with the silence, the utter stillness of the area. Stein removed the collar and leash, dropping them at her feet.
Gracie's hackles rose along her back including the ridges of fur on both shoulders. She took the lead unbidden, actually imposing herself into the demanding and deadly point position.
She lowered her head and stared through the gloom into the corners of the building; small, chittering sounds started low in her throat, alerting Stein. Before them, the huge space looked like the dungeon of a medieval fairy tale.
Gracie searched the room with quick, darting glances, muzzle raised to sniff each corner. The walkways overhead and inky dark spaces behind huge pieces of equipment drew her attention. Ever vigilant, she knew her job well, and prepared for attack from all sides.
She saw him first and dropped to the ground, silent. Her adversary crept along the darkened walls, silent, turning from side to side as he checked out the area, listening to the voice inside the headphones in his helmet. He could not see the dog.
"She sees you," the voice said. "She's heading for your left flank, be careful ... she's there, she, contact."
The dog leapt from the shadows, her jaws clamped on the upper arm of her opponent. She exchanged it for a point closer to his neck, snarling all the while.
A whistle sounded and the dog broke off attack, waiting for her next command.
From a distance of less than twenty feet, a body charged the huge dog, attempting to bowl her over and hopefully deliver a fatal injury, but it was not to be. She sprang at her foe, wrapped both forelegs around his neck and knocked him down. She rolled him over twice, and when the rolling stopped, Gracie stood over another downed enemy, snarling into his masked and protected face. She snapped twice more and continued to growl until Agent Stein told her to stand down.
They went through several more scenarios, one where they attempted to capture Agent Stein, causing one of the handlers to later joke about excessive use of force on behalf of the K9 unit.
Special Agent Georgia Stein removed Gracie's collar and replaced it with a new one. Not only did it have the Border Patrol insignia, it had an embedded tracking device and a large silver tag already inscribed:
K9 Special Agent,
846628-DHS, Texas Rangers
Well, if you're new, this could be a stand alone, I guess, certainly enough to figure out what's going on. For those of you who know this story, I only meant to write a teensy bit about this. Then, I don't know, the dog took over. I may put this in the beginning of the book, as it has no particular reason to be toward the end. We'll send Rudy off for something else.
Hope you enjoy!
Lenny shook his head, lips pulled into a thin line. "This is just ridiculous, you know. It's times like these when I wish I still had my badge. Crazy kids."
Jim glanced across at the car next to them and smiled.
Two young men sat in a black Porsche, the engine idling, alternately grinning at the Jag and offering a subtle challenge as they waited for the light to change.
A little Beemer sat in the right lane, filled with gorgeous twenty-somethings'. Long hair flowing and toothy smiles wide, they raised their thumbs at the Jag and waited. The driver hollered, "Great wheels!" while the other girls elbowed her, laughing.
The light changed and the Porsche and the BMW charged down the street to the next traffic light.
Lenny snorted under his breath and Jim waved goodbye as the girls sped off, their attention now focused on the guys in the Porsche.
Jim glanced at the paper he held in his hand. "18868 Ocean View. Should be coming up pretty ... okay, there it is ahead."
They took the next right, pulled into a small strip mall and parked in front of Seymor's Formals.
An hour later they emerged, laden with long, plastic garment bags and shoe boxes. Lenny muttered to himself as he attempted to lay his bags down on the narrow back seat. "This is the most useless, good-for-nothing little car."
Growling under his breath, he yanked the bags up, walked around to the trunk, and popped the lid. Surprised to see it empty and with much fuss and grumbling, he laid both bags in the bottom of the trunk, taking Jim's and placing it atop the others. He slammed the trunk closed, causing the little car to rock.
"You really don't like this car, do you?"
"What was your first clue?" Lenny ran a hand through his hair and shrugged. "Besides, I remember its origins."
"Ah. Bob. That's ancient history, isn't it?"
* * *
Rudy walked to the edge of the porch, turned and extended his hand to Steve. "Excellent job you're doing here. I couldn't do better myself." He started down the stairs, then turned and grinned at the man standing above him.
"You know what they paid for Max and Gracie, don't you? Ten percent is your commission. Check out the envelope on the desk. It has your name on it."
"Ten ... whoa, that's a lotta money."
"You made it happen, Steve. Buy something nice for Alice. See you next week sometime."
Rudy hopped into the Mustang, turned the key in the ignition and headed up the driveway. He glanced at his watch. 'Not even noon yet. I'll be there before three.'
* * *
Nathan paused on the ninth green, fascinated by the delicious scene before him. There stood Megan McTavish, the reigning queen of Hollywood, long red hair pulled back in a sleek, shimmering ponytail. A peppermint-pink visor shaded her beautiful face and large matching pink frames protected her eyes from the blazing sun.
Beside her stood a tall young man, blond, muscular and at least fifteen years her junior; a total unknown played the spoiler, cavorting in full view of the consort.
Her husband, Ron Caldera, a bit player on one of the more popular soaps, poised on her other side, watching her like a hawk, knowing full well his time had run out.
She stood between them, small and slender. Periodically, her right hand reached for the young man, fingertips caressing the small of his back. Brazen, she turned and glanced at her husband as if daring him to cause a scene.
Nathan made a mental note to be ready for fireworks tonight. He slipped the small camera from his pocket, focused quickly, and snapped a picture of the three of them.
'I wonder how much that one will be worth?'
He took three more photos just in case. The entourage moved to the next hole as the competition played through the course.
* * *
Arms outthrust, Rudy grinned, black eyes closed to slits as he smirked. "Oh, no. What a bummer. But I don't have a tux, guys; sorry. I can't go with you."
"Ha! Not so fast, my friend," Lenny said, lips quirked at the corners. "We're the same height and weight, or close enough. I rented one for you, too. Wouldn't want you to miss out and be disappointed and all."
The smile slid off Rudy's face. "Gee, buddy, how can I ever thank you? Sure wouldn't want to miss the evening's festivities, no sir. Sounds like a rousing good time. Rubber chicken, a bunch of pretentious golfers and snarky people I'd rather not know; what a blast."
Rudy capitulated in the end, of course. Defeat roared above his bowed head. He had no choice, especially since Cathy and the other girls had been holed up in the bathroom for the last two hours, primping.
"Not to change the subject, but you should have seen Gracie working with her new partner." He nodded several times and puffed out his chest. "Even more, you should have seen Special Agent Georgia Stein, DHS, Texas Rangers, yes Sir, Ma'am! And then some. Gracie met her match, I'm telling ya. A female agent even more alpha than the dog. It was something to see."
"So Gracie's gone, huh?"
"They took her last night. She's officially a Texas Ranger now. God help the drug runners is all I can say."
"I guess. Everything else fine at the farm? How about that batch of puppies? Did you get them weaned?" Jim grinned at Rudy in anticipation. "What are they like?"
They continued to talk business while Lenny made a pitcher of margaritas. He carried three frosty glasses down the hall to the girls, who took them with appreciation.
"Two hours, ladies."
They chased him out of the room with faux indignation and requests for another round of drinks sometime soon and perhaps a light snack would be nice; nothing too filling. Lenny harrumphed.
Ella turned to Cathy, nodding several times. "You look absolutely sensational, girl. Your hair came out perfect, if I say so myself, and that shade of peach looks great on you." She nodded at the simple silk dress hanging on the closet door and reached slender fingers toward Cathy's cheeks, tweaking the light spirals into place.
"This will be the first time Rudy's seen me with makeup. He won't recognize me."
Terry chuckled. "He'll probably tell us we gilded his lily. You're one of those women who can go without any makeup at all. It's that gorgeous skin."
Ella glanced at the clock on the wall and nodded at Terry. "We'd better drop a gear here. I'll get dressed first, then we'll do Cathy." She hurried into the closet, emerging shortly wearing a sleek raspberry-red number that hugged her curves. She twirled in front of the full-length mirror, a wide grin on her face. "Wow, I am lookin' good."
Cathy fussed at Terry. "My God, girl, I dress myself every morning. I can do this alone!"
"I know, I know, but that's not the point. This is like a coming-out party for you or something. I mean, how long has it been since we did this? Senior prom?" Terry lifted the dress from the hanger and unzipped it. "Here, now point your toes and step into ... good, wait, the damned slip is ... okay, there you go."
Ella's voice was almost a coo. "Oh, Cath. You look stunning. I can't wait to see Rudy's expression when he gets a look at you."
"I wish I could see it, too." She chuckled, a slight tremor in her voice. "This dress looks good on me, huh? Feels good. No straps showing or anything? You think he'll like it?" Cathy turned slowly so the girls could check her out. "If I haven't said it recently, thank you so much for bringing Rudy into my life. You are the best friends ever, absolutely."
* * *
Nathan stood behind a large potted palm, taking photos as the guests entered the huge foyer outside the ballroom. A three-piece band provided soft, subtle background music as the guests mingled, drinking champagne and sampling exotic tidbits offered by tuxedoed waiters who circulated the area, plying their goods.
The sight of Cathy coming in the door on Rudy's arm made Nathan blink in disbelief. He rocked back on his heels, jostling the palm. Before he could think about it, he took several photos as they paused, waiting for the others in their party. His heart beat so fast his throat hurt. He stroked it several times, trying to make the lump go away.
She looked incredible tonight, and so different from how he remembered her that he blinked again. The makeup and the new glasses changed her face substantially. For a split second, he wondered if he might not be mistaken. Rather than the large, wraparound dark glasses he remembered, she wore fancy designer frames of light gold wire with violet-gray lenses that concealed her eyes, yet seemed almost invisible on her face.
Sorely tempted to just go over to her and make his presence known, he hesitated. He felt fairly sure she wouldn't mind, but the man with her, the man whose car Norman had trashed, might not be so congenial or sympathetic.
His hesitation made the decision for him as two more couples joined them, leading the way into the ballroom. Nathan paused a moment, thinking. He knew what Donnie would say, no doubt about it. And yet, Cathy had testified on his behalf. Didn't that mean she understood, maybe even forgave him?
'Maybe I could just....'
'No, no maybe about it. Forget it, dude. Can't happen.'
Nathan pulled himself together, heart beating raggedly in his chest. He felt a tingle along his upper arms, drew a deep breath and waited to see what came next.
* * *
As always, Ella and Terry studied every morsel served. Small hand-written menus, rolled up like scrolls and meant to be a keepsake for the ladies, described the meal to come, complete with a personal option from three main entrees.
"Whoa, talk about taking a chance. Give a look at the dinners." Terry nudged Ella and nodded at the scroll.
"Sea bass encrusted with pistachio butter, broiled, served atop a bed of crisp greens and drizzled with sweet Wasabi dressing." Black eyes the size of saucers, Terry said, "That's for me. Mmm, my mouth is watering already."
"What else do they have?" Cathy shrugged. "I'm not sure about the fish."
Rudy chuckled. "How does a veal filet stuffed with king crab and finished with Bearnaise sauce sound? Now, that's your kind of fish!"
"Veal Robere at our place," Ella said with a snicker.
Cathy swallowed convulsively and nodded. "Outstanding. What's the third choice?"
"Roast duckling, clear from Long Island, I might add, with mint compote and couscous. Mmm, sounds good to me."
With a grimace, she shook her head. "Couscous, little gravel-like nuggets. I'll take the veal. Are there other choices?"
He read her the remaining assortment of soups, salads and desserts while waiters took entree orders. The first course arrived.
Ella and Terry sat next to each other, critiquing the fare, making comments into the little tape recorder and noting unusual garnishing techniques. The new ideas would be suggested to Chef in the most casual way, lest his ever-sensitive feelings be hurt.
The battle raged on as Nathan tried to moderate his impulses. He used every technique Donnie and Dr. Pritchard taught him to maintain control and dominate the alters, most specifically Norman.
'I need to stop watching her, for one thing. Donnie said the best way to distract myself is to leave the place where the problem is occurring. Okay, no problem there.'
Nathan turned on his heel and walked across the ballroom floor, heading for the lanai and some fresh air. He leaned against the railing, staring at the stars and taking deep measured breaths. 'I am in control. I have the power and I will not allow Norman to come out.'
He felt the familiar thrill in his stomach, that lightheaded feeling similar to tripping on something and then saving yourself at the last minute. Perspiration bathed his face and he thought he might gag.
'I am in the elevator and I'm going down. I see the floors passing as I descend. When the door opens, I will be in complete control.'
The door opened and there stood Norman. In one swift move they merged.
Norman blinked several times and laughed. "It sure feels good to be out," he said under his breath. "And I'm not going back again."
|Author Notes||See book summary below for additional details. For new readers, Nathan has DID and has just been released from three months of intensive therapy to control his alters.|
"The door was closed!" Norman rubbed his hands in glee, laughing in delight. "They couldn't stop me, no one can. It was closed, but I got it open anyway. Now I'm gonna close it permanently." He shut his eyes and leaned against the railing, trying to maintain control. He felt the alters raging inside, felt them rallying, trying to reopen the portal.
'Breathe in, deep steady puffs, hold a moment and exhale. Calm, calm, keep the door closed. Concentrate, that's it, deep, steady breaths. No more Nathan.'
Norman opened his eyes and glanced around, not wanting to draw any unnecessary attention. He needed to get back in the ballroom and see what Cathy and her friends were up to.
The waiters cleared the tables, ready to serve the main course. He had at least half an hour before dessert and coffee and perhaps another thirty minutes of speeches. He needed some time to put together a workable plan and he needed peace and quiet to do it.
Norman fished around in his trouser pocket and pulled out the key card. No room number. 'Damn. Now what? The hotel has hundreds of rooms. I've got to find out what room I'm in. Who would know?'
His heart began to pound, sending shoots of what felt like electricity up his arms. 'Okay, just relax now and think. I have plenty of time. No rush. Who would know the number?'
He glanced around the terrace and the ballroom in front of him, taking in the hotel for the first time. 'Where the hell is the front desk? They'd know what room he had -- I have. Absolutely. Besides, I can't go anywhere without the car keys and I need to make a plan, cover all the contingencies.'
Eyes down, he entered the elevator, barely glancing at the others in the car with him. The lobby button glowed orange in the panel. He moved to the back, making room as others sought ingress.
The young woman behind the desk greeted Norman with a grin as he approached her counter. She returned his nod with one of her own.
"Are you having a good time, Mr. Stanley? Getting lots of cool pictures?" A light flush turned her cheeks pink when he winked at her and chuckled.
"I'm having a great time, but I have to ask. Are you good at keeping secrets?"
Eyebrows elevated, she leaned against the counter and lowered her voice to match his. "So I've been told. Certainly in a professional sense, y'know, here at work. Why?"
"Well, this is a bit embarrassing, and I wouldn't want anyone else to ever know." He reached into his pocket and laid the room key on the counter. Tone both conspiratorial and inclusive, he whispered, "How many people forget their room number?"
She made a small, tittering sound in her throat, quickly extinguishing it. Voice a bit higher than before, she took the card and inserted it into the reader. "Room 204. And I promise I'll keep your secret." She placed an index finger to her lips and smiled.
"Thank you so much. I'm entirely too busy, aren't I? I need a vacation. Thanks again." Nodding, he turned and crossed the lobby to the bank of elevators.
He shoved the card in the slot, pushed down on the handle and entered the room. The mini-bar offered several individual serving selections of wine and top-shelf alcohol. Norman opened a bottle of Crown Royal, filled his glass with ice and poured. The whiskey rolled on his tongue, soft and vaguely sweet.
'Alright, now. First things first. Where the hell are the car keys?'
He searched in every logical location and some that were not, including the jacket hanging in the closet and the shaving kit in the bathroom. Five minutes later, he came to the only possible conclusion ... the valet had them.
Norman relaxed as the liquor calmed his nerves. He opened another bottle and refreshed his glass.
'I can't do anything here, that's obvious. I have to follow her home. But what if she's staying over at the hotel?' He shrugged and began to pace. 'Then I'll have to wait until tomorrow. Of course, they could be driving back to Del Mar tonight. It isn't impossible, but I have to know one way or the other and be ready.' He drained his glass and walked out of the room.
The guys at the valet station enjoyed the calm before the storm as all three gathered around a tiny TV, relaxing and watching films of today's tournament opener. A young man in his late teens saw Norman approach the kiosk. He rose, a wide smile pasted across his tanned face. "Hello, Mr. Stanley. Do you want your car?"
Norman reached for the man's hand, pressing several twenties into his palm. "I have a favor to ask. I need to have my car ready at a moment's notice. There are a couple of things cooking and I don't want to miss a great photo op. Is there somewhere you can park it right close by?"
"Yes, sir. I'll bring it around and park it over there." He gestured at a roped-off holding area to the side of the valet space and nodded. "Will that work out for you?"
"Excellent, and thank you. Be sure to leave the keys in it. I know toward the end of the night when the gala ends, you guys will be flying around and I don't want to have to wait. Put them in the console under the maps."
"Consider it done, sir," he said, pocketing the money and plucking the keys off the board. "I'll go get her right now. Ready when you are."
* * *
Norman walked back across the driveway and entered the hotel lobby. He made his way to the ballroom, eyes down, willing himself to melt into the background as the rich and famous wandered around. He did not want to be recognized.
Nathan wasn't particularly well-known, and he worked hard at keeping a low profile, but he had many acquaintances Norman did not know. This was not the time to get into a sticky situation that would surely occur if someone unknown recognized him and decided to strike up a conversation.
Resuming his place by the palm tree, he feasted his eyes on Cathy. Beautiful beyond words, she smiled at her companion, sending daggers of jealousy through Norman's heart as she kissed his rival's lips. The thought of them in bed together drove him nearly to frenzy and for a moment, he almost lost it.
'What are you doing, Cathy? It's me you love, not him. Once this night is over, you'll look at me that way. I'll be your love. I'll kill him, make him disappear once and for all. Then you'll be mine.'
Ella glanced at Jim and yawned. "I'm about ready to cash it in. What time is it anyway?"
"Almost nine, hon. I'm ready to go, too. It's been a long day." Jim leaned forward, nodding at Lenny and Rudy. "We're ready to take off. If you guys want to stay and dance some more, we're fine alone."
"I'm ready. Let's call it a night." Terry leaned into Lenny. "How about you?"
"I can't wait to get out of this monkey suit."
Ella picked up her scroll menu and tucked it into her purse. "The next banquet or wedding reception we book, let's do something like this. Very clever."
"Very." Terry chuckled at her twin. "We have to figure out a logo or something."
Norman watched Cathy's face as Rudy took her arm. She turned to him, as though looking at him, and laid a gentle hand on his cheek. He pressed it close and then kissed her fingertips.
Fury swept over him with such intensity he almost screamed. Unable to bear witness to another man touching her like that, he dropped his gaze and shuddered. He felt more than saw them head across the ballroom and into the lobby. He followed them out to the valet station, hiding in the shadows until their cars came around.
The valet arrived with the Mustang first, then the Jag, with Ella's BMW last.
Norman darted out of the shadows, opened the door to his car and slid behind the wheel. No one saw him, at least, no one who mattered.
Rudy settled Cathy in the passenger seat and walked to the driver's side, hand extended to the valet who held the door. He gave him the tip and smiled. "Thanks."
"Thank you, sir. Drive safely."
Rudy pulled away from the curb and started down the driveway, oblivious to everything but Cathy. "You were the bell of the ball tonight, sweetheart. Great dress and I love the new glasses. They're really nice."
She sighed. Her left hand reached for him, resting lightly on his knee. "I'm glad you like them. Terry saw them first, told me to try them on for fit. They're so comfortable, not heavy like the others. Ella says Gucci made them special, just for me; an early birthday present." She chuckled, paused a moment and tapped him. "I had lots of fun tonight. That's the first time I've danced since I lost my sight. It was wonderful. Funny how you never realize how much you miss something until you do it again after a long absence."
"Tonight is just the beginning. I love to dance, actually. We'll do it again real soon."
They continued to chat, engrossed in each other and the love they shared, unaware of the Lexus following them.
Norman moved over to the center lane as they approached the freeway exit for Dana Point. He expected Rudy to ease over as well and continue on the freeway south toward Del Mar. Instead, Rudy remained in the right lane, blinker indicating he intended to turn.
'What the hell?' Norman moved back into the right lane, now three cars behind Rudy. 'They must have rented a house down here.'
They accessed the coastal highway, heading into town. The Mustang signaled for an upcoming left and turned down a short lane fronting the beach. A sign at the bottom of the road said 'Not a Through Street' so Norman pulled the Lexus to the curb, partially shielded by a row of oleanders. He got out of the car, locked the door and hurried down the sidewalk. Concealed in the bushes, he saw the Mustang pull into the last driveway at the bottom of the cul-de-sac. The garage door opened, light flooding the front yard.
Moments later, the Jag passed Norman, followed by the BMW. They pulled into the garage and the door closed behind them.
'What should I do now? They're here for the night, probably for the rest of the weekend.'
The city strictly prohibited overnight street parking. Signs on both sides of the road warned that offenders would be towed and the fine would hurt. A wave of anger swept over him, making him sweat.
'How can I get to Cathy with all these people around?'
Norman climbed back in his car, his heart hammering, his breath coming in short, hoarse gasps. 'I have to kill him. I'll kill them all if that's what it takes.'
He saw the patrol car turn the corner and head down the street. Norman turned the key in the ignition and put on his lights and blinker, indicating he wanted to make a U-turn. The cop passed him and continued down the road to the end, stopping by the barrier that separated the beach from the street. He parked under a sign that read 'No Parking Any Time' and turned his lights and engine off.
Norman made the tight turn and decided to check out the neighborhood, get the lay of the land. He drove up a block and pulled into the parking lot of a strip mall. The lot was safe from any interference by the parking cops until the last store, in this instance a bar and grill, closed for the night.
Restless, he sat there tapping the steering wheel and coming to a decision. He wrenched the door open and turned toward the ocean.
'I gotta check it out. The car's fine here for several more hours. The bar won't close until three and I'll be back long before that.'
Keeping close to the shrubbery, he passed one dark residence after another, cutting across unfenced yards and beach walkways. Soon he lurked in the shadows at the top of the cul-de-sac, no more than fifty feet from Cathy's house. Dark like the surrounding homes, no yard lights would blow his cover this time.
He hurried across the sandy lawn, back now pressed against the side of the house. Flickering lights on the lanai indicated the possibility of people as did one dim light on the second floor. Other than that, the house was dark.
Over the pounding surf he heard low, subtle sounds, voices coming from the back of the house and maybe from inside his head, but more than just voices. The sounds, at once common and alien, washed over him. An immediate atavistic response raised the hairs on the back of his neck while his mind whirled, trying to pin down the sound, the feeling, and where it came from.
He crept along the edge of the house, noting hurricane lamps on a lanai facing the sea. The volume of the sounds increased and his heart stopped. 'What the hell is that sound?'
Finally, Norman glanced up at the large expanse of lanai and blinked. Not ten feet above his head crouched a dog so black it blended into the shadows. Only its outline, bared teeth and menacing snarls made it real. It was surely a demon, some fiend that had followed him from the pit, hell-bent on thwarting his plans with Cathy.
Kip growled deep in her throat, ears laced tight to her skull, every tooth in her head visible.
Norman blinked, an ugly grimace twisting his mouth. "I remember you! Oh, you bet I do, you bitch." His gun, safely stowed away in the trunk of his car, was no help now. He looked around on the ground for some kind of weapon, something to defend himself with should she decide to jump off the lanai.
Kip continued to stalk him, creeping across the top of the lanai as he inched toward the back of the house.
The sounds of a sliding door, just audible to Norman, caught his attention, followed by the musical notes of Cathy's voice, calling for Kip.
The dog whined once, snapping her teeth at Norman. She disappeared into the darkness. The door closed and the last light in the house went out.
Norman was alone and he knew just what to do. He started for the steps.
While this is a contest entry, it is also one of the closing chapters in a full-length novel.
Nathan has DID and one of his alters, Norman, has a fixation on Cathy Abbott, a blind sculptress who lives in the building adjacent to his. He's stalking her, hoping to kidnap her again and convince her to love him and no one else.
After three months of intensive treatments for his DID, his doctors release him. Nathan takes a photo gig at a famous golf tournament, never expecting to see Cathy. Her presence sets up a power struggle with the alters and Norman wins. He's out now and he's staying out.
Norman drew a deep breath as the voices began to clamor, yelling at him, demanding release. A thrill of electricity raced through both arms and his heart pounded, causing his ears to ring and adding to the cacophony in his head. He leaned against the wall of the house, shaking.
'That damned dog. Next chance I get, she's history.'
He continued to pant as he crept through the darkness, weaving his way around shrubs, careful not to make any noise. The side of the house provided ample cover. Deep shadows cloaked the entire area until he reached the cul-de-sac.
Freedom beckoned from the paseo and the path beyond.
Nothing out of the ordinary about a fellow taking a leisurely stroll along the beach walk. He stepped out of the shadows and proceeded down the path, his steps steady and relaxed.
By the time he got back to the parking lot, he'd regained full control, banishing the other alters to the deepest recesses of his mind. A quick scan of the area ensured no one would see him or remember him later, and ducking down, he scurried for the car. The trunk unlocked with ease and he jerked a leather satchel from the depths, closed the trunk and hopped in the car.
Such extreme and sustained tension always gave him the jumps and for a moment, he couldn't breathe.
'Stop it! Knock it off.' He pounded the steering wheel in anger. 'You're in control and you have plenty of time. Don't do this, don't blow it now. Relax, stay cool.' He drew deep breaths to the bottom of his stomach, quivering. 'Don't add to the stress this way.'
Once calm, Norman pulled the Beretta out of the bag and checked to see it was fully loaded. With a grimace, he attached the silencer and glanced around the quiet parking lot again, concerned for his privacy.
'If I can't make you love me, Cathy, I have no reason to live. We'll die together, and if there's any justice, I'll take that frickin' Rudy with us. Bastard. If he hadn't come along, we'd be together now. I was just getting ready to talk with you, introduce myself. Oh God! Cathy! Why couldn't you have waited for me?'
He sat there, mind whirling, trying to come up with a plan, some way to get to Cathy. He practiced the new breathing ritual as threads of a plan came together.
Tomorrow was Saturday. No doubt they would take advantage of the wonderful weather and explore the area shops and eateries. At least he hoped the others would.
Maybe Cathy would opt to stay home, perhaps walk on the beach or lay out for a tan.
'I wonder how busy this beach gets right now. The whole area is private, but there's not a light or a car in the neighborhood. Maybe it'll be quiet enough that I can sneak up on Rudy and get off a quick one he won't hear coming.'
The silencer on the gun would muffle any sound the sea winds didn't disguise.
'If I can catch them on the sand, say, sunning, drowsy, it'd be a piece of cake. Unless they have the damned dog with them, only Rudy will matter. Cathy would be oblivious. My approach would mean nothing to a blind gal.'
Being a proficient marksman made distance or location a relatively minor consideration, but a host of possible witnesses did. What mattered the most was privacy, the ability to get to Cathy without interference.
Rudy was an obstacle in his path, no more or less than the dogs and equally superfluous. All Norman needed was a chance to isolate them, get them alone.
'There's nothing left to do tonight. I sure as hell can't go into the house while they're all there, backed up by that miserable mutt. Tomorrow might present better opportunities anyway, and I need a clear head. A good meal and some sleep is a must. I gotta find a local motel where I can park this damned car, get some dinner and a little rest.'
A bit farther down the road a Vacancy sign flashed in weary monotony, indicating peaceful if uninspired respite. The tavern next door boasted of the best burger west of Kansas and man-sized drinks.
He pulled into the parking lot, choosing the end slot under a large shade tree. Five minutes with the night clerk garnered him an end room and a five dollar certificate off dinner at the place next door.
Grateful, Norman took the keys and the coupon and thanked the desk clerk.
The room filled his needs, beginning with a decent shower. He turned the faucet on full blast and stepped under the hot water, wincing as he adjusted the temperature.
Lightheaded from lack of food, he leaned against the shower wall as a wave of nausea washed over him. Helpless, he waited for the sensation to pass. The feelings came from more than an empty stomach. The alters mounted another assault and a barrage of hatred swept over him. They screamed for release.
Norman struggled for control and won again, finally able to step out of the shower to towel himself off. He opened the small overnighter he kept in the trunk for just such emergencies and pulled out a fresh shirt and slacks.
'Now if only the place next door delivers.' His stomach turned over as he read the news. Either starve or walk over to the tavern. They had carry-out but no delivery.
The sign at the empty cashier's stand told him to take a menu and find a seat. He picked a spot near the bar and smiled hopefully at the waitress.
"I can get something to go, can't I?"
"Sure thing. If it's on the menu, you can take it out. Just so's ya know, tonight's special is beef stew. Honest, it's to die for. $9.95 with salad or soup. Can I get ya a drink?"
"I'll take a ... say, if I order a carafe of wine, can I take it over to my room?" He placed the coupon on the table and shrugged. "I've been driving all day and I'd sure like to get out of these clothes and relax."
"Sure, no prob. I see the coupon, and don't worry about the glass and all. The maid will bring it over in the morning after she cleans your room. We got a reciprocal thing goin' here. Works well for everyone."
"Wow, that's great. Okay, then. I'll take a full carafe of house merlot now and a deluxe sirloin burger plate to go. I'd really like that medium rare if your cook allows it, and extra of everything you put on it. I'm famished. Thanks."
"If you're in the mood for chocolate, the cook just pulled a batch of brownies out of the oven. With nuts or without, how's that sound?"
"Delicious. I'll take two, without."
"You got it." She smiled at him, turned and headed to the kitchen with his order.
Norman returned the smile and leaned back against the comfortable cushion. A moment later he shot forward so hard he bumped the table with his chest.
'What the hell am I doing, flirting with a waitress that could later identify me? I'm getting ready to kill a man and kidnap Cathy again and I'm acting like a total moron. Remember why we're here, idiot. The last thing we need is to be memorable.'
It was the unexpected and totally unfamiliar response that gave him fits.
'That's not a nice way to talk to me. I wasn't flirting. I was conducting polite conversation with a person of the opposite sex. It seems you don't recall, but we spent a good deal of time learning about social relations and how to act with people. Donnie devoted his efforts on it and we must succeed if we ever expect to live normal lives. Didn't anything register?'
Norman's jaw dropped open and he gazed furtively around, aware of the few people seated nearby and wondering if he'd said anything aloud. No one seemed at all interested in him and he drew a ragged sigh.
'Who the hell are you? I've got the door closed. How did you get out?'
The waitress approached his table, placed the carafe, a glass and a basket of hot, homemade chips down and grinned.
"The kitchen's still backed up so I thought you'd like something to munch on while you wait. Catsup?" She pulled a bottle from her apron.
Norman nodded, eyes down, pretending to write something very important in a small notebook. "Thank you very much. I'm starved." He scooped up a handful, stuffed his mouth and kept on scribbling. In the background, the kitchen bell rang.
"Okay, well. Enjoy the chips. Your dinner won't be too long now."
Norman placed the bags, carafe and glass on the table and closed the door behind him, slipping the safety lock across the hasp. Talk about learning a lesson the hard way. Tonight reinforced what he'd always known was right for him, namely staying away from other people.
That waitress, she might not have come right out and said it, but he knew, oh yeah. She wanted to go out with him, get to know him. Well.
He pulled his dinner from the bag, unwrapped the foil and began to eat. The wine went well with the medium rare meat, and he relaxed as the first food in hours arrived in his stomach. Topping off his glass, he leaned back in the chair, lips pursed. He sighed.
'Damn it, Cathy, why didn't you wait for me? That gal found me attractive and so would you. You just never gave me a chance. I can't give up on you loving me, of us being together forever. It's gotta happen.'
'Well, see, there's the thing. She doesn't return your feelings, obviously, since she is involved with another man. That's why you need to forget her, broaden your horizons and open up to meeting new people. You don't even know Cathy, so you aren't in love. We've never been in love. It's just a crush, like a kid gets. I'd rather meet someone who'd love us without having to be kidnapped first.'
'I'm really startin' to get pissed, here. I asked ya before. Who the hell are you? How did you get out?
'I'm you. My name is Nadia. I'm what is good in you, and in what you can become. You might think of me as your twin. More than any of the others, even Nathan, I am you.'
'Jiminy frickin' cricket.'
'Crude, I'm sure, but close enough. I'm here tonight to save our lives because the path you're on will be the end of us. We will not survive.'
'Big deal. I already know that, Nadia. I have nothing to live for without Cathy. I'd rather be dead.'
'Tell me a bit about this great love of yours. How does she take her coffee? Is she liberal or conservative? Her religion, what? You don't have a clue how she likes her steak, and yet you are ready to surrender our freedom and take lives for love of this woman? What are you using for a mind these days? Oh, please, spare me another stanza of poor me. What an unmitigated ass you are. How dare you? What gives you the right to ruin so many lives?'
'I won, that's what. I'm out, they're in, and you can shut your frickin' mouth or I'll get rid of you, too.'
'Think about it, Norman. So far you've done nothing illegal. You had a job at that hotel, you weren't stalking her. They never even saw you. The restraining order requires you have no contact with her, physical or verbal and so far, no violations. You have the opportunity to drive back tomorrow morning in time to catch the first round. Why not continue your job, take some great pictures and maybe meet someone who can love us back? Just try it, see how....'
The contact ended abruptly.
He poured the last of the wine into his glass and switched off the light. Fluffing the pillows against the headboard, he leaned back and allowed the wine to soften the edges.
The other alters had not made an attempt to get out in a while and with each hour of unchallenged control, his confidence grew. Only Nadia broke through, although it wasn't hard to switch her off once he figured out how. Her comments bugged him mostly because they made him think.
Okay, so maybe he didn't know much about Cathy, he couldn't deny that, but what little he knew appealed to the depths of his soul. Beautiful and talented, independent yet so vulnerable, she needed to be protected and cared for like a precious jewel.
'How could I give her up? My first love. Who could possibly fill her void?'
'My dear, you are thirty-four. Does it not strike you as odd that Cathy is your first love?'
'What! Why are you doing this to me, Nadia? Deliberately pissing me off, y'know. Go away and leave me alone.'
'No, I can't and for good reason. If you can face reality like the rest of us have, life could be wonderful. We will find a girl to love us, we'll make friends. We could have a family. Donnie taught us all about that, how to take baby steps at friendship, like I did tonight.'
'That's what you call friendship? And those were baby steps? She was wantin' to jump my bones!'
'How quaint. I seem to be out of practice ... let's see, oh, that's right. It's my first time. I'll do better. So, did it make you feel good, excited to know she found you attractive? Anything special? Happy or anything, Norman?'
'Well, it was nice, I admit. Made me feel good, like I could have a friend.'
'And so you can, so you can.'
He slept the sleep of the damned, his nightmares causing him to cry out or whimper, depending on the unending activity. The battle raged between Norman and the alters, each in their way exerting as much force as they had, often working in concert, reinforcing each other. Norman stood alone.
"I'm not going to prison for you, Norman. It was different when we were kids, when you were little and so afraid, so innocent. This time it's all on you, man. If you kill anyone or kidnap that lady again, you're toast. They're gonna catch you and you're goin' to do your time all by yourself." Michael raised his voice to be heard over the low-level din going on in Norman's head.
"Silence! No more! Shut up!" Nicholas's voice, shrill and piercing, rose above the commotion the other alters caused.
"Norman, we will leave you and we will take Nathan with us. If you don't give up this insane idea of kidnapping Cathy right now, right this very minute, you will learn the meaning of something you've never felt. You will be alone. Utterly and completely alone, Norman. Think about that.
"No Nathan to hide behind, leaving him to clean up your mess. No one but you to take the pain, no more Michael to take your punishment. When the cops get you, if the dogs don't tear you apart first, there won't be a Michael or a Nathan, at least not one you can reach. You've screwed up the DID defense so good they'll never believe you again, so you are stuck right in the middle of a state prison for the rest of your life."
"That's a pile of shit, Nicholas. You can't do that and you know it. I can turn off any time I want and Nathan will have to deal with the consequences."
"Try it, Norman. Go ahead, right now; try it."
Norman closed his eyes a moment, willing himself to recede into the communal. After several unsuccessful and very concentrated attempts, his eyes opened, expression both wary and fearful. "What the hell is going on?"
"I told you, we're free. You can't come back, not any more. Never again. Dr. Pritchard told us that whenever we want to exclude you, leave you out, all we have to do is band together and do it."
The taunting voice continued. "Michael, take Nathan's hand. Ollie, Nelly, take my hands and let's show him what we can do." Mental fingers reached out, touched and grasped each other in a gentle hold. Like a mantra, very similar to how Dr. Pritchard started his hypnotherapy sessions, they all began to chant.
"Norman is no more. No more. We're cutting off all contact to us, his power supply is closed. We are shutting him down, eliminating him...."
Norman closed his eyes again in a vain attempt to retreat into the collective. Some wall, some barrier separated him from the other personalities, but their chants came loud and clear as they shut him in, imprisoned him in the body. Try though he would, he could not make Nathan take over.
Panicked now, he began to blubber.
Norman, in a struggle with the other alters, now has control of the body. His obsession with Cathy resurged when he happens to see her at a social event. He follows her and her friends to their summer rental and begins to plot another kidnap.
Cathy sat on the deck, coffee cup in one hand, fingertips of the other rippling the delicate fur of the dog by her side. The sea smelled strong today and she felt the lightest of mists as the sun fought to dispel the coastal fog. The sad, lonely cry of seagulls searching for breakfast, punctuated by the pounding surf as it slammed down on the sand, filled her senses.
The fingers stopped their stroking, causing the dog to slip her long muzzle beneath the now-quiet hand and nudge. The fingers moved again, fondling the sharp, perky ears; the dog sighed.
Rudy poured the last of the coffee into his cup, rinsed out the container and prepared a fresh pot. He pushed the button and moments later the machine started to gurgle. The sight of Cathy sitting there just steps away, sea breeze ruffling her hair, took his breath away and he paused a moment, watching her and remembering.
'I used to think my life was pretty good. Working with the dogs was so fulfilling, bringing out their special talents was a blast. I guess living alone on the farm suited my needs at the time, de-stressing after the SEALS and the disasterous affair with Anita Crawford. But happy? No, not until the day I met you, my love.'
With a chuckle, he patted his jacket pocket and the small black velvet box it contained. Knowing how well she could see by touch, he'd taken special care that the ring-picture would be clear. The two karat, heart-shaped diamond was big, no two ways about it. She'd have no trouble knowing the shape either, as the stone sat in a raised pronged setting on the wide gold band.
Rudy wanted to run out there right now and ask her, slip the ring on her finger and make the date. He already knew what her answer would be and shivered in anticipation. His wife.
He couldn't stand it and turned for the door, tapping his pocket again. He glanced down the hall then, hearing sounds, muffled but clear.
'Well, that settles that. The girls will be here any minute, searching for coffee and the guys will be right behind them. How do I make a romantic proposal with an audience?'
Rudy shrugged and joined Cathy on the deck.
* * *
Norman watched the sun lighten the sky. The shards of light coming through the sides of the curtains glowed with golden glints.
His last nightmare did him in and he'd given up on sleep. Propped against the pillows, knees tenting the covers, he tried to make a plan.
He might be in control of the body forever; at least, that's what Nicholas said. Try as he would to break through, the door remained closed and he could not rejoin the collective.
'You all think you're so frickin' smart. Well let me tell ya something. I will still win and there's no prison in my future. If I can't have Cathy, I'll kill us all.'
'I thought we'd made some progress last night, Norman, but here you go again.'
'How the hell to you keep doing that, Nadia? Get away from me. I have nothing to say to you.
'Oh, yes you do, because we both know you won't kill yourself. Oh, in a fit, you'll kill Rudy and probably Cathy as well, but you're too much of a coward to kill yourself. Besides, how can you pretend to love someone and take her life?'
'Because I, she - she belongs to me. She'd love me if she gave me a chance.'
'Except you keep forgetting she's in love with someone else. Face facts for once, Norman. You couldn't kill Cathy if you really loved her. Do you know what that means?'
'No, but you're frickin' going to tell me, aren't you?'
'You don't love her. You have a crush on her, but nothing more. And how could you be in love with her? You don't know her. And yet, you're ready to do murder and ruin our lives just to do what? Win?'
'That's crap, Nadia. I've watched her for almost a year and I do love her.'
'So now I understand. You will kill her because she doesn't love you back. Is that so? Like a spoiled child. You're disgusting.'
Norman jumped out of bed, sloshing his coffee on the sheets, and began to pace. Much of what Nadia said was true. Killing Cathy would be impossible no matter what. The thought of it made him nauseous and he shook his head several times in reinforcement.
'Okay, you're so smart, have all the answers, so what? What do I do, Nadia?'
'First of all, stop pacing. This is a good day even though it doesn't feel like it now. Cathy was, well, like your first love or something, but that emotion never lasts. It's for kids, puppy love. But you're all grown up now. You're handsome and talented and believe me, if you give her half a chance, she'll run to you.'
'Who? Do you know someone who loves me?'
'I was speaking metaphorically, of course --whoever she might be. We don't know her now, but....'
'Not that waitress! I want a girl like - like Cathy.'
'Sounds fine, but you won't meet her here. Pack up your things, take a shower and let's head back to the resort. You have a job to do.'
By the time Norman packed the car and showered, he had a new plan. He'd go back to the resort and he'd get his pictures, but he had to see Cathy first, just one more time.
The street slept, along with whatever residents inhabited the shadowy houses. He parked where he had the night before, thought better of it and made a u-turn, his car now facing the main boulevard.
The battle he had with Nadia, once she learned of his plan, took a lot out of him. He won, but for the first time ever, he knew what it meant to be alone -- wide awake, walking around, alone.
Shunned and rejected by the alters, by himself, he understood what Nicholas meant, but the best word wasn't alone, it was isolated.
'Alone is like when no one is around. Isolated is feeling all alone even when lots of people are around.' But it was even more than that. They hated him and they made sure he felt it.
'Nadia? You can come out now.' She did not answer.
He closed the car door, pocketed the keys and headed down the beach-walk. Pulling the brim of his cap low on his forehead, dark glasses hiding his eyes, Norman strolled along the shore toward the last house on the block.
Sandpipers ran ahead of him in the low-lying mist, scurrying to beat the lapping waves, digging deep for their breakfast.
He stopped near the back of the two-story house, glancing up at the wide deck. Above him, next to the white wooden railing sat a solitary figure he recognized instantly. His heart raced and he stared at her, drinking in her presence, confident in his anonymity.
Her hair blew about her face, trailing across her cheeks and catching in her glasses. With slow, deliberate moves, she took them off, placed them on the table and then ran her fingers through her hair, gathering it into a pony tail. She pulled a band from her wrist, wrapped it around several times and tilted her beautiful face to the intermittent sun.
Her freckle collection had doubled, Rudy informed her yesterday, chuckling as they strolled down the boulevard after lunch. It seemed he had some kind of thing for them, hers for sure. So far, they'd confined themselves to sprinkling her nose and cheeks. He'd pulled her in for a kiss, ending with the tip of her nose.
"I love the ponytail," he'd said, reminding her that he'd first suggested it as an alternative to cutting her hair short again. He thought it made her look like a teenager.
"As long as I don't have to act like one," she'd quipped, secretly pleased that what little she could do with her makeup and hair was enough for him.
As though he read her mind, Rudy took her in his arms and kissed her tenderly, murmuring in her ear how beautiful she was and how much he loved her.
When he'd finally turned her loose, she whispered, "Please tell me we're not standing in the middle of the street causing a scene. I have no idea where we are, exactly."
Chuckling at that memory and so many others they shared, she realized what a miracle he'd brought to her life. Just then, she heard the screen door slide open and caught the aroma of fresh hot coffee.
"Hey, Cath, ready for a refill?" He placed the carafe on the table and flipped the spout open, filling both their cups. He took the chair next to hers and stretched.
"I just talked to Terry and Ella and they've got a busy day planned. They're dragging the guys down town to some outlet store that has individual glasses and plates, fancy stuff for the restaurant. They've got a list a mile long. They figure they'll be back around five, so Lenny made reservations for us all at that Chinese place up the street. Seven good for you?"
"Oh, yes, seven's great. Sounds like Chef will be happy to see them get back. Ella mentioned last night that he's demanding a full-on cappuccino maker." She held up her index finger, mimicking. 'No restaurant worth its salt tells its guests no when they request a cappuccino!' He's such a prima donna, runs Ella all over the place. Terry, too."
"Well, I guess he's worth it. Ella says she has his wish-list in one hand and her credit card in the other."
They sipped their coffee and listened to the birds and the surf for a while, lost in the sea and each other.
Suddenly, Ella popped her head out the door, hollered she'd see them later and waved goodbye.
Rudy patted his pocket again and almost chuckled. "So, you getting hungry, sweetie? How about we have a special romantic brunch right here on the deck, just us? I have some stuff ordered and I thought afterward we could take a walk on the beach or whatever you'd like. How's that sound?"
"Oh, Rudy, great idea; I'm starved. You can't hear it over the waves, but my stomach is just growling up a storm. 'Sides, how could I turn down an invitation like that? Anything I can do?"
"Nothing really. I'm already dressed and ready to go. Let me refill your cup and I'll head on out. I'll be back in a couple of minutes and we'll have the rest of the day to ourselves."
"I can come with you if you'd like. It won't take me long to dress."
"Oh, no, that's okay. You'll hardly know I'm gone."
Rudy kissed her and virtually ran from the deck. He had the champagne in the fridge along with a seafood platter he'd prepared himself and a fresh fruit and cheese arrangement from the little bistro on the boulevard. All he needed were the flowers and a loaf of crusty Italian bread and he knew right where to get both.
He attached the leash to Tony's collar and headed for the door. Long strides carried him up the street to the boulevard and the shops he needed.
Norman continued to watch her, lost in some sort of trance. He never made a move, even when Rudy came out to join her.
He stood there considering his options, his heart breaking and healing at the same time. With deliberation, he turned to face the sea, allowing the cool breeze to soothe his weary soul and hopefully calm the frantic voices in his mind. Heart pounding in his throat, he drew deep breaths and sighed.
'I'm just going to say goodbye to her, that's all. She has to know how sorry I am and that I only wish her the best.'
He eavesdropped on them, heard about Rudy's trip up to the shops. He wouldn't be gone long, but it was all the time Norman needed. Enough time to obtain forgiveness and then get on with his life. Nadia was right.
Rudy leaned down and kissed Cathy and then hurried into the house. Moments later, Norman saw him rush up the street toward the boulevard, a large black dog at his side.
Norman headed for the steps leading up to the deck, relieved that the dog was gone. He hesitated on the top step, lost in her beauty, not wanting to scare her. Finally, he spoke.
"Cathy, don't be scared, it's Norman. Can we talk?"
Her body went rigid in the chair and her grip tightened on the harness as she felt Kip rise.
"What do you want, Norman? You know you aren't supposed to be near me. How did you find me?"
Amazed, Norman stared at Kip a moment, remembering the dog at Rudy's side and then shrugged.
"That doesn't matter, Cathy. All I want to do is tell you how sorry I am that I did those - I'm sorry I scared you so bad, but I need your forgiveness. Please."
Cathy tried to swallow, her throat clamped in some kind of vise. "I told you in court I forgive you, Norman, but that's the end of it. You should leave now, go right now. Far away. You know about the restraining order."
He crossed the deck to her side, wringing his hands together, pleading.
"I know and I'll leave right away if you'll come with me." He placed his hand under her elbow and pulled her to her feet.
"Norman, please don't touch me again." She flung off his arm. "You said you needed my forgiveness and now you have it. Please go away and leave me alone."
"I can't! If you would give me the time, I know you'd love me, too. Don't you see? It's part of why you're able to talk with me right now. As short as our time was together, you cared about ... oh God, please."
He reached for her, one arm across her shoulder, trying to hug her, pleading with her to go with him.
Without warning, Kip jumped, rigid forelegs drilling into his chest as she lunged for his throat. Norman slammed backward and felt the railing give way as eighty pounds of furious dog snarled and snapped at his neck, her body pressed to his. Balance gone, he snatched at the air, pushing the dog, arms flailing.
Hand clamped on the harness, Cathy followed them through the broken railing like a kite.
Their screams, mixed with the calls of the seagulls, ended abruptly as they hit the rocks and sand.
The birds continued to cry and the surf pounded the sand. No other sounds disturbed the morning.
Cathy lay in the hospital bed, unconscious, as though refusing to wake up. Her lower right leg wore a plaster cast and the tape across her bruised ribs made breathing labored, but the consensus was that she should already have awakened.
Rudy sat by the side of the bed where he'd stayed since they brought her in more than a week ago, leaving her only for trips to the restroom. Terry and Ella came each day bearing meals from the restaurant and all the love and support they could muster.
Terry bent over and kissed Cathy's cheek, murmuring in encouragement. Ella did the same, then turned to Rudy.
"No change, huh? Have the doctors been in yet?"
"Not yet. Usually more like ten." He glanced at the brown bags and nodded. "Thanks so much for the food. I really appreciate it."
They continued to chat about everything but Cathy's lack of progress and the fear they couldn't express, that she might remain in this state for the foreseeable future.
Terry perched on the edge of Cathy's bed, face solemn. "I think we have to come up with some answer for the doctors. She's in no physical danger and Dr. Sing wants us to find some kind of facility, y'know. He says there's nothing more...." Her lower lip began to bob as she glanced from Rudy to Ella.
Rudy groaned and took Cathy's hand in his, kissing the tips of her fingers. "God, I can't believe this. She's had such misery to bear and we love each other so much, it's just not fair. I'll take her back to the farm with me. We'll get fulltime nursing care, whatever it takes."
"God, I can't stand it." Terry ran a tissue under her eyes, catching tears.
Fingers plucked her shorts, causing her to turn toward Cathy.
"Hey, Terry." Cathy gazed at Terry a moment and then turned, eyes coming to rest on Ella. "Hey, El. Where am I?"
Her voice sounded woozy and disconnected, and she winced as she shifted her weight to her side.
Amazed and delighted, the girls almost cheered. Nothing for so long and now this?
"Thank you, Lord," Terry cried, giving way to the tears she'd been holding back. "Oh, God, this is wonderful."
"Cathy! Oh man, it's so good to hear your voice. How are you feeling?" Ella sat next to Terry, their identical faces filled with happiness as they stared at their friend, tears streaming down their cheeks.
Cathy's gaze continued to circle the room as if hesitating, afraid. She stared at the man in the chair beside her, a man who seemed ready to dissolve into tears of bliss. He cradled her hand to his cheek, gulping for air, unable to find his voice.
Her breathing continued to build and strengthen; she blinked. "Rudy? Oh, dear Lord, it's you, isn't it?"
He nodded several times, still unable to speak. Finally, he murmured, "Sweetheart, yes, it's me. I've been right here all week. Are you okay?"
Cathy pressed herself into the bed, retreating as deeply as she could. She closed her eyes tight, waited several seconds and then opened them fast.
"Oh, my God, it's true."
"It sure is, Cathy. You're fine now, but we've been so worried about you. We were afraid...." Terry dissolved into gales of tears, giving noisy vent to the fears they'd all lived with since the accident. She lurched from the bed, shaking with relief. "I need the restroom."
"Go if you must, but hurry back. I have something exciting to tell you."
Luminous golden eyes shifted from Terry to Ella, finally settling on Rudy.
Her hand began to quiver as she stared into the face of her beloved.
"My God, you're beautiful."
Rudy blinked several times, a light smile quirking his trembling lips. He leaned forward and took her in a light hug, afraid to hurt her bruised and broken body.
"Oh, Cathy." Tears wet her neck as he held her close.
A gentle hand pushed him away, not far, just enough that she could see his face. With index finger raised, she brushed it lightly under his eyes, gathering his tears. She glanced at her wet finger and shuddered. "It's really true."
With a sharp intake of breath, Rudy grabbed her hand, staring at her finger. He held up three of his own.
"Three, darling. Three fingers, the most beautiful, exquisite fingers in the world."
Terry rounded the corner of the room just in time to hear their exchange.
"Three?" echoed Ella, her voice a strangled squeak. "Fingers? You, my God in heaven, you see three fingers?"
Both girls burst into uncontrolled tears, hugging Cathy, each other and Rudy in wild abandon.
Just then Jim entered the door, accompanied by a very happy dog.
Cathy pulled away from Rudy's embrace long enough to call, "Kip? Is that really you?"
Kip pulled on the restraining leash, almost jerking Jim off his feet. She rushed to the side of the bed, worming her way between Terry and Ella and literally threw herself on Cathy. Streams of doggie delight flowed as Kip talked and laughed and cried, her emotions so clear to everyone, they brought on a whole new bout of tears that ended in giggles, especially when she let out a bay that sounded suspiciously like a beagle.
An outraged nurse burst into the room, unable to believe her eyes, let alone the noise audible down the hall in both directions.
A huge dog, a Doberman, yet, lay across the bed, busily licking the face of her patient. Two women seemed in the throes of full blown hysterics, with one man trying unsuccessfully to pull the dog from the bed while the other held the patient in what appeared to be a bear hug.
Cathy peeped over Kip's head long enough to smile at the nurse.
"We're all fine, really good. Would you please get my doctor and let him know that somehow, wow, Kip, ouch, oh, my poor leg." She shifted the dog a bit and grinned. "I don't know how or why, but I can see again."
I hope you all enjoyed this book. Thanks so much to everyone who encouraged me through this one. Love you all,
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