I'm Moving!


ISBN: 1411603230

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Faux English clubroom wasnt his favorite decor, never had been, but that changed quickly. It didn't take long, a minute maybe less. The change began the second she walked through the door. No, what she did was more like floated in, actually her walk was that smooth and effortless.

Yes, the minute she floated through the door, Gregory Quentin Walters knew that this was the woman destined to change his life. From across the room, he could see she was something else, something rare and special. Drop-dead gorgeous, all that beautiful black hair and golden skin she looked like the kind of woman a man would die for. Walters watched her poise and progress, and the way she moved piqued far more than just his curiosity. He adjusted his body on the barstool and gave a barely secret tug to his trousers to better accommodate that fit of pique.

Drifting closer, she hadn't spoken a word, but she would, and he already knew her breath would be sweet, her voice musical, and her words politely eloquent. It was the rest of her that he wanted to experience. Just over average height, her body had the kind of sway and swell that could keep a man happily occupied on many a night. His eyes had yet to touch hers and his mind was already imagining the many ways he wanted to touch the rest of her. Just watching her, the way she owned the space around her, made Walters mouth water.

Hermes silk, knotted at his throat, seemed a little binding and he straightened the tie with a crooked finger, but he knew without looking, that tie was the only thing about him that was even a little off. Time spent before and after work pumping iron in the hotel gym paid off in the admiring eyes of a dozen slowly passing women. A man blessed with female satellites, he knew that the glorious creature floating through the doors of the Raddison Hotel's oak walled bar would be by his side soon.

How could she not, he smiled at his dim but confident reflection in the mirror behind the bar. A winner, sharp enough to cut, he already knew he was the kind of man women spent their lives dreaming of and lusting for. From the broad, finely tailored shoulders of his suit to the bright signet ring on his finger, GQ knew he was nothing short of fine and if that beautiful woman had sight, she knew it too.

Hell, they didn't call him GQ for nothing.

Moving his shoulders beneath the elegant drape of Armani wool, he made sure his eyes were not fully on the mirror. Just enough to watch her progress as she let herself flow across the room. Burgundy silk chiffon moved teasingly across her breasts and hips, stopping to flirt just above her knees. The scarf and tiny evening bag she carried matched her dress and shoes, and God knew, she was wearing them well. GQ turned his glass, timing his movements to match hers as she slipped onto the neighboring barstool. He smiled as he faced her.

She smiled back.

It was as though shed come looking for him, the small talk was that easy. Almost before he knew it, Walters was confiding his nickname. "It goes back to childhood, because of my initials," he smiled again.

"That's funny," she breathed, giving him a heavenly smile of her own. "People have always referred to me by my initials, too." She let him take her hand. "They call me LK."

"LK, huh? Sounds lucky." He arched his brows conspiratorially. "Are you lucky?"

She smiled beautifully and whispered, "sometimes. Especially when I need to be."

A small movement of her shoulder set something simmering just beneath his skin. Bringing her hand to his lips, his eyes never left hers as he touched her with a lingering grace. "I like that."

"I won't need luck with you, though."

"Really?" The way he said it left no doubt as to intention.

"Really," she confirmed, touching his cheek and giving him a look that could have sent an issue of smoke billowing from the top of his head.

Yes, Gregory Quentin Walters congratulated himself, this woman was very special. And, as lucky as her name sounded, he had the distinct feeling that this pretty woman was going to change his luck and his life. Forever.


Chapter One

When it snows on Valentines Day in Atlanta, Georgia, nobody is surprised. The weather is known for felicity and would just as soon serve up sun as rain, with a dank side dish of wind.

When it snows on Valentines Day in Atlanta, Georgia, it makes little kids put aside the shorts theyve been scheming to wear to school over the past two warm weeks. Lovers exchange gifts, secret smiles and sweet kisses, then link fingers in promise, or just because its the right thing to do. Old men settle back in comfortable chairs and give each other lopsided smiles, then they tell lies and fables about other improbable snows in the glorious south. Old women hurry down to the curb market near Grady Memorial Hospital, knowing that theyll be able to get good pork and fine collards one more time before the weather breaks.

When it snows on Valentines Day in Atlanta, Georgia, homicide detectives turn up their collars, pull on their gloves, look up at the sky and wonder what else could happen on the city streets.

Detective Jasper William Ballantine wasnt wondering anymore. His answer came in a troubling phone call, and the rest of the world seemed to be doing business as usual. His little cubicle hadnt changed, the scribbled notes and messages on their pink "while you were out" slips and yellow "post-its" seemed to be everywhere. He stared down at his hands, dark, square and capable on his messy desktop. "Can't sit here all day," he mumbled mostly to himself. "Promised the old man I'd come. Best be on my way."

Standing, he passed a thick hand over his close cropped, side-parted hair before pulling the smoky gray felt fedora lower over his eyes. Ballantine blew out a sharp blast of air, already knowing that this was a different kind of Valentines Day. The telephone call confirmed that. Buying time, he ran his fingers across the sharp crease in the crown of his hat. Today, the hat he'd affected because he thought it looked cool was heavy, an accessory to his professional persona though he still liked to smile when he remembered how much Dhana liked the big hat.

Dhana. Ballantine sighed as he reached for his heavy gray overcoat. How was he going to tell his ex-wife what had happened? She would want to know, and she deserved not to hear the news over television or blasting on V-103 in traffic. Looking back at the telephone resting on the corner of his desk, he held his hand, and let reasonable sounding justification filter through his mind. Finally, he settled on one comforting thought Dhana is a Psychologist, a shrink at heart. She'll have more questions than I can answer right now.

He jumped when the huge shadow crossed him, blotting out much of the overhead light.

"Jaz. I'm sorry, man. I just heard about GQ." Six foot-seven inch Benny Lewis, a big bear of a man who'd once tried but never succeeded in pro football, clapped him on the shoulder and leaned down, bringing his square brown face closer. "Heard you were going over" At a loss, Benny stopped, the rich pink thickness of his full lower lip adding emphasis to the unasked question. His big knuckled hand dropped from Jasper's shoulder and rested heavily on the worn wood of his desk. "Old man Buchannan taking it hard?"

Jasper nodded slowly, shoving his hands deep into his pants pockets mostly because there was nowhere else to put them. "Yeah." The fedora dipped again as he continued to nod. "About like you'd expect. You know, GQ was like a son to him heck, he was his son." Jaz let his eyes rise, touching Lewis face briefly. His sniff was eloquent, and he closed his eyes. "GQ and me, we were all the old man and his wife had."

Lewis studied his fellow officer and tried to read more into what he knew of him. How come they never adopted you? the big cop wondered, but it really wasn't his business. Somebody said Ballantine was back in school, trying to get the last few courses on a Masters Degree. Georgia State at night, a class or two each semester. It was almost like he was sneaking up on a Law degree, should be ready for the bar soon, though. Lewis almost shrugged it off, Jaz Ballantine's education wasn't what really determined him as a man in Benny's eyes.

There were other things, more important things that made Ballantine a man worth watching. To start, he was six-two, and two hundred-twenty pounds of rusty brown skinned determination. Muscle and speed made him a contender back in the days when he was on the street a good eye and a quick mind made him a great detective. Top of his class at the Academy, gold shield first time he went up for it, Ballantine had more than a few commendations for bravery and performance.

On top of all that, he was a great right-handed batter when he wasn't killing them as a shortstop in league play. He was loyal and one of the best men in the world to have at your back when you needed it. Good looking brother, too. But he was decent about it, not a stuck up player. Not a lot to know about a man when your best intention was to offer sympathy and condolences. Benny Lewis tried again.

"Raised him from a little kid, I heard, and he's the one found him. Got to be hard, finding him like that," Lewis said, agreeing with himself. The big man moved his shoulders to swing his overcoat back, letting his hands find his pockets. He rattled coins and shifted from foot to foot. "You two were friends for a long time, I heard." Of course he'd heard. Every man and woman on the Atlanta police force had heard. They all knew about the fraternal relationship between Detective Jasper Ballantine, and the Chief's nephew.

"He was your Best Man when you got married, wasn't he?" Lewis continued. "Heard y'all had a pledge, something about, from womb to tomb?"

Jaz nodded, his lips lifting in a bittersweet smile. They'd made the pledge after Liz Buchannan forced them to sit through West Side Story when they were ten or eleven years old. Me an GQ were gonna be like the Sharks and the Jets. We were gonna be cool, be together, though thick and thin, friends forever. The smile slid from his lips. Hell, we were going to live forever.

"He introduced you to your wife, didn't he? Back when she was in undergrad school, at Emory, wasn't it?" Lewis was still talking. Now, he shook his head sadly and rambled on. "Heard when he first met her, he wanted her for himself, but the two of you had a whole lot more chemistry than the two of them did. He gave her up for you. Hell of a thing, man. Still, it was cool he managed to stay friends with both of you, even after the divorce." Encouraged, Benny Lewis bent forward and lowered his voice. "Heard he never even hit on her after the divorce, cause he was hopin' you two would get back together. That's cool, real cool."

"Yeah, man. He was cool like that." Jaz tucked his lower lip between his teeth and bit down hard before pulling his hands from his pockets to snag the leather gloves on his desk. "We went through a lot together." He blinked hard, swallowing over the thick lump in his throat. "I gotta go."

"Yeah." Lewis offered his fisted hand and was met in kind. He pushed his hands back in his pockets and watched Ballantine sweep from the room. "Lose your brother like that. Hell of a thing," he whispered to no one in particular.

Jaz walked fast through the old Sears and Roebuck surplus building that now housed a large part of the Atlanta police force. He wondered how any of what happened this morning was supposed to make sense to anybody. Thumbing the elevator button, he realized for the first time how cold and numb he felt. The only other time he could remember feeling like this was when he walked away from the Courthouse the day Dhana divorced him. I guess this is the way you feel when you lose people you love, he told himself, stepping aside for the two uniformed officers leaving the elevator.

On the main floor, standing at the head of the bleak gray stone stairs, he pulled his collar closer and decided to brave the unseasonably cold morning. Looking eastward, searching Ponce de Leon Avenue proved an exercise in futility. "Don't even know why I thought a Number Two bus would be running," he grumbled, ambling down the stairs and heading west. Guess I just wanted something to be going the way I wanted it to, this morning.

His eyes searched the leaden skies above. Maybe I'm trying to pray. Maybe I'm tryin' to pray GQs soul to a good, safe, happy place where you never hurt and the people who love you down here He stopped walking, suddenly aware that he was already at the corner of Boulevard and Ponce. Walking faster than he thought and thinking out loud, he was also aware that people were staring at him. The young guys in the fire engine red jeep parked at the pump of the corner gas station were eyeing him intently, obviously wondering if he was a particularly well dressed wino or not. Jaz raised a hand and forced a smile. Two of the young men gave fisted salutes and Jaz took advantage of the light to sprint across the street.

The orange and blue striped hulk of a white MARTA bus wheezed close and he climbed aboard. A dollar and seventy-five cents later, Jasper Ballantine sat in the molded blue plastic seat, watching people going about life. Watching people heading to Wendy's for burgers, into the Family Dollar store, or the Payless shoe store, where they all seemed to have business that had nothing to do with him. He marveled at the capacity of life to go on, no matter what the personal loss or tragedy and losing a friend like GQ was indeed a tragedy.

With a sigh, Jaz finally pressed the yellow strip along the wall of the bus, alerting the driver to his stop, and stood. Getting off the bus, he walked the remaining distance to his destination, the Fulton County morgue.

The radiant cold of the metal door handle was barely noticed as he entered the building. Catching hints of institutional green walls, Jaz refused to raise his head and look into the eyes of anyone passing. It would be too much to meet a familiar face and have to answer the inevitable question, "What are you doing here?"

He tugged absently at the buttons of his long coat and fixed his eyes on the elevator displays. Using a stiff thumb, he pressed the button0. Nothing happened. He removed the navy jacquard cashmere scarf Dhana had given him. Shifting his weight, he thumped his leather heel against the tiled floor. The silent bank of elevators remained closed in spite of his jabbing the button a dozen more times. Shifting from foot to foot didnt make things any better. Ultimately, standing still, waiting for the elevator was more than he could bear.

"Stairs," he muttered, moving deeper into the building. "Gotta be some stairs around here."

His long stride nearly carried him past the narrow stairwell. Hand on the rail, he began his descent. Head down, Jaz marveled that this was the first time in all his years as a homicide detective, in all the visits hed made to this building, this was the first time hed ever noticed the grooves worn into the center of the stone stairs. Black rubber treads, placed in the middle of each step were worn almost completely through at the center worn thin by the passage of people doing final duty to death.

Doing final duty to death. The thought made him shake. Jaz willed himself to find a composure he didn't feel and the trembling in his knees and along the ridge of his spine, began to ease. He had to stop moving, stand perfectly still. Gripping the brass wall fixture holding the wooden rail in place, Jaz reminded himself of why he was in this building, on these stairs. "I'm here for GQ," he whispered. "I'm here for GQ and the Chief."

Thoughts of Ed Buchannan, the Chief, seemed to be a steadying factor. A ranking officer on the Atlanta Police Force, Ed had risen to the rank of Lieutenant, but his commanding personality always made those around him look up. Nobody called Ed Buchannan, "Loo", especially not Jasper Ballantine, the man hed raised from childhood. Jaz always thought of his foster-father as the man in charge, the man with the plan, the Chief.

Jaz felt the cold crawl of nerves move along his spine again. The Chief was a good man, always had been, and no way did he deserve to have something this ugly fall into his life. In all his sixty-some years stunned Jaz paused, looking up at the ceiling counting. Could it really be sixty-two years? He quickly did the math. "I'm thirty eight," he ticked off three fingers, "and I went to live with the Buchannans when I was eight. The Chief would have been about thirty one or two, then yes, that would bring him real close to sixty-two, now." Jaz frowned. Funny, he thought, time really did fly. Didn't seem it had been that long ago.

Jaz saw the older man in his mind's eye. Still tall and broadly built, the Chief weighed in at the same two hundred twenty pounds he had on the day hed graduated the Police Academy no thanks to his wife's great cooking. A long distance runner, Ed regularly outran most of the younger men under his command. His eyes were still sharp and clear beneath the creased shelf of his bronze brow. Even if his hairline had begun a slow retreat, the Chief had a youthful vibrance, and you didn't want to disappoint him because it was such a pleasure to meet his approval. But, the fact remained. The Chief was getting up in years, and the only reason he should have been in this building today was well, it shouldn't be to identify the body of his nephew. It just shouldn't be.

Ignoring the general coldness of the sterile government building, Jaz moved down the stairs and into the deserted hall beyond. He found himself steady as he stopped for a throat-cooling sip at an ancient hip-high, white porcelain drinking fountain. Standing, looking down at the fountain that reminded him of something from a fifties schoolhouse, he used his thumb to catch stray drops at the corner of his mouth and smiled. "As much work as they've done on this old building, they kept this relic. Somebody must have been seriously nostalgic." A random, nonsense thought, it comforted him and got him moving down the hall again.

Finally reaching his destination, Jaz swore inwardly as he hesitated at the sight of the open doors to the waiting room. The Chief sat with his back to the doors, and Jaz watched his hunched shoulders and bowed head, and thought again of how old this man he'd always thought of as invulnerable, really was.

"Sixty-two's not old." Jaz already knew what the Chief would say.

It was as though some internal radar alerted him. Ed Buchannan, his ashen face sunken by despair, stiffened then turned to focus on Jaz. His slow smile was off by a beat or two, then he stood, his arms open at his sides. "Sorry to get you in here on something like this, son. I just didn't know who else to call."

Jaz was touched, knowing firsthand of the Chiefs legendary love and respect for his wife Liz. It was an honor to know he merited this man's trust and confidence. Standing a little straighter, he walked into his foster father's embrace.


Naked, on a cold metal tray in the county morgue, Gregory Quentin Walters wore the kind of arrogant grin that cops the world over hated. In life it was a roguish, get-over, hail-fellow-well-met kind of smile that swept both men and women up in the cleverly teasing fun of his persona. In death, it was a frozen baring of teeth, no fun to look at.

The two men looking at the body on the closed circuit television screen glanced at each other and winced painfully, not because the grin wasn't real, but because it simply wasn't natural. Bluish lips, drawn tight by the rictus of death, exposed orthodontically aesthetic white teeth and a far too wide expanse of once healthy pink gums.

Both men leaned forward, drawn by the blank spot left by the missing upper right canine tooth. Question struck them and brows furrowed in unison as Jaz Ballantine turned to look at the older man. Ed Buchannan raised his shoulders and turned his lips downward, gravely disavowing any knowledge of why this handsome man, his always impeccably groomed nephew, might be missing a tooth.

Jaz pressed a button set into the starkly white wall, darkening the screen between them, then rocked back to rest in the brown vinyl covered chair beside his foster father. "Forensics?"

"Still looking." Buchannan dropped his eyes briefly, when he looked up again he wore the friendless, woebegone continence of a Disney dog character. "You hear anything?"

Jaz could have kept the negative shake of his head to himself. The Chief sank a little lower in his seat. GQ had been found five hours earlier, and his uncle appeared to be aging at a rate of about five years per hour. Jaz felt something in his gut twist. Who knew if the old man could even survive something as rashly devastating, and senseless as the murder of this much-favored nephew.

Clearing his throat, Jaz focused on a spot somewhere over Buchannan's left shoulder. "They're still out there at his place in Lithonia," he said, knowing it did nothing for the older mans pain. "Last call I got, there was nothing on that single tooth. They've been checking the area in and around the stairwell where you found him."

The Chief shook his head again and sniffed. The back of his hand pressed his nose, then dropped to his lap. "It was so... there was so much" The man whod made a successful career out of resolving murder was having trouble getting the word out. He patted his pockets and finally dug out a wrinkled white cotton handkerchief. "Jasper, boy, there was so much so much blood... And the walls, it looked like he'd been running, maybe trying to get away."

Jaz nodded and let his eyes wander slightly, refusing to let himself grasp the single thought ratcheting through his mind. He didn't want to admit, not even to himself, that he didn't really want to know what kind of demon had pursued the man hed once called brother.

Buchannan patted his eyes and passed the kerchief over his forehead before refolding it several times. "They're not going to give me this one, you know. They'll try to tell me I'm too close, that I lack perspective." He looked down at the floor as he spat out the last word, not liking the bitter taste.

Still looking down, the veteran officer cleared his throat and spoke with difficulty. "This case is going to Emerson and I know he tries to be fair, but it's not the same as having this case in my own hands. They're going to let you in on it though, so I'm gonna ask you a favor, son. Not just for me, but for GQ. Especially for GQ." He managed to raise his eyes. "Jaz, I don't want this in the hands of the FBI, VICAP, none of them. The GBI can't have this one, and it's not pride, either." He thumped his chest, then pointed to Jaz. "I just want you to help me get him. Whoever he was, he did this locally and he did it to my boy. Emersons going to do his best on the investigation, but sometimes the best isn't enough." The finger shook slightly. "I want him. Whoever he is, whoever did this, I want him. Help me?"

"You got it."

Ed Buchannans face worked, creaky with suppressed emotion. "No, son. You're not thinking clearly, you're promising too quickly. I'm asking a lot, maybe a little outside of whats usual in the department, but I know you can do this for Liz and me. You were his friend and his brother, you're my other son, I know you're the man to help me."

Jaz nodded. "I'm there. I'll do whatever it takes."

"I believe you son and I'm trusting in you, but our time is short, and it's got to be done right. You know how touchy Emerson can be, so bear it in mind I don't want no comebacks on this, nothing that will legally mess this case up. I don't want nothin' to let this person, whoever it is, I don't want 'em to walk." Buchannans voice trembled slightly, registering the intensity of his emotion.

"I understand." Jaz looked into the Chiefs eyes and realized again that this was the man he'd sought to honor all of his adult life. He'd loved this man almost from the moment he walked into his home as a foster child. If he'd been able to paint a picture of the man he most wanted to call father, it would have looked like Ed Buchannan. Jaz folded a hand over the older mans and squeezed. "You have my word, Sir."

"Thank you, son." The Chief folded his shaking hand over the younger man's and closed his eyes in relief.

"I don't understand." The whisper came from the door behind them. "I don't understand how something like this could happen."

The two men turned to face Liz Buchannan. If GQs death aged Ed, then it strengthened Elizabeth. Her heavy red wool coat was still buttoned against a cold she'd never felt, and a red and gold printed silk scarf draped her shoulders. She stood tall and stoic, her artfully dyed hair pulled back in an intricate chignon to reveal high cheekbones and flawless black skin. Framed like a beautiful ebony statue in the doorway, she might have been of any age. Carefully applied makeup bore slight irregularities, stains and streaks, evidence of the tears she denied.

"How did this happen?" she whispered raggedly. Starting across the room, skirting a tobacco brown vinyl chair, she walked toward her husband. "We did all we could to keep him safe. Even after you two got out of the army. He moved out of the city a better neighborhood, he said." Her eyes were gray and haunted and eerie against skin so dark, and Jaz knew that he would see them in his nightmares for weeks to come. "GQ hated violence, hated it! Wouldn't even keep a gun in the house, said it was an invitation to trouble. How did this happen?"

"Aw, Lizzie," her husband groaned softly. " You shouldn't have come." Ed opened his arms to his wife and sighed against her face when he held her.

Standing safely within the confines of her husbands embrace, her cheek touching his. "Silly ol' man. You know I had to come." Rapidly blinking eyes lost the battle with her tears. "I had to come I had to be with my baby." Elizabeth buried her face on her grieving husband's shoulder. "I had to be with you."

Watching them together, feeling every bit the voyeur, Jaz envied the immediate intimacy of their grief, the soothing closeness of a love that had taken years to grow into, and wished he knew really knew how to share it. But, if I knew that, I would still be married.

That communication that Ed and Liz so easily shared, was the bottom line. Jaz knew it was the bedrock of their marriage, that innate ability to share an almost psychic level of communication. They were two sides of the same shining coin. Ed looked like he was absorbing Liz's pain, and she seemed to take what he couldn't express and form it into the kind of emotions that Jaz knew the man in him had no sounds or words for.

Pressing his lips together tightly, Jaz fingered his soft felt fedora and stared at the floor. He felt more alone than he had since hed lost his whole family at age eight. This loneliness, this sense of abandonment this was what brought him to the police force, in the hope that helping might fill the emptiness. This same loneliness was what drew him to Dhana and compelled his need for her, even when he knew that silence was not the way to hold her. Now, watching this couple, married for more than forty years, mated for life, and branded with continuing passion, Jaz felt cramped with the misery of loneliness.

Without someone like Liz to hold on to, Jasper Ballantine had no one. Oh, there were the other officers who would show up at the funeral, out of respect for the Chief. They would be decked out in their best and wearing black armbands. They would provide plenty good memories of GQ. Most of their stories would be raunchy and begin, "hey, he was a character"

There would be the guys from Dantes and OKelly's, the ones who sat back and played the cool blues and hot, sultry jazz that had earned Jasper Ballantine his nickname. They would tell all the stories about his brother, the stories that Jaz already knew. They would nudge each other, grin, and talk about GQ's prowess with a B-flat clarinet and the pretty women who followed him. "The boy was bad," they would all say, meaning he was the best of his kind.

There would be the inevitable cadre of beautiful women, all with their most choice and exquisite charms on display. Dressed for mourning, moving with the elegance of black swans, they would make their presence known. Each would claim closeness and an unforgettable memory of the man none had known well enough to hold or well enough to save.

Jaz watched Ed tighten his arms around Liz and wished. He wished hard, like a little kid. He wished for what Ed and Liz had. He wished for what he'd hoped for when he married Dhana. Dhana would know what to say, what to do. Holding her at a time like this, feeling the secure press of her warm body against the rigid tightness of his own, it might just be enough to feed the hungry thing that lurked in his heart.

Holding Dhana in his heart and mind like a talisman against the ugly things of life was too great a luxury for a man with a job to do. Dhana would know more than just the socially, politically right thing to say, to be included in the kind of grief that you needed to express before you could continue living after you lost someone like GQ.

Jaz sighed again. How was it Dhana Patterson was spending so much time wandering the twisted paths of his mind these days and nights? It was like fate, Karma, or an aggressive Universe had it in for him. Everywhere he looked, there was a lushly curved, long legged, longhaired, cinnamon skinned woman, just waiting to remind him of her. There seemed to be an abundance of thick-lashed winking eyes, the color of sweet melting chocolate turned his way, just a little too often these days.

Invariably, whoever the woman was, she had one of those throaty, suggestive voices like Dhanas. With the voices came the lips, soft and rounded, pouting and threatening to pulse at any second just like hers. And lately, maybe because he was looking a little lonely around the edges, those warmly feminine voices and alluring lips uttered enigmatic invitations that Jaz knew he would have accepted in a heartbeat had they come from the right source. If they'd come from Dhana Patterson, it would have been different. But they never did.

Jaz moved his hand across his face, bringing himself back to the present. Ed and Liz stood frozen in the center of the antiseptic room, holding each other like a life preserver. This isn't right, Jaz thought. Standing, putting himself between them and the door that would have made them witness to their nephews demise, he laid hands on both their arms. "I think you both need to head home. Go on, I'll stay with him."

Ed and Liz looked at each other, each prepared to stay if the other offered.

"Go on. I know you loved him, but there's not a lot you can do for him right now. I'll stay. I'll be his family. Go," Jaz ordered, his voice urgent and soft.

Ed stood very still, then bent to retrieve his coat. His hand on his wifes elbow, he looked directly into the mahogany depths of the younger mans eyes. "Anything happens, you'll call? You won't forget?"

Jaz nodded solemnly, accepting the charge. "You have my word."

"No matter what, you'll call?"

Jaz bent to accept Lizs kiss and sincere hug. "Yes Ma'am, Aunt Liz," he said obediently, slipping in the childhood name, pleased that it seemed to ease her suffering. "I promise I'll call."

"Boy, you know you're too old to call me that in public. People will be thinkin' I'm old enough to be your mother or somethin'." Placing her long fingered hand on his arm, Liz eyed his face closely. "Jaz?"


"Promise me one other thing?"

"Yes, my love. Anything."

"Jaz, baby" she licked her lips, aware that she was about to ask for a lot. "Jaz, I want you to call Dhana. She's good for you, and she'll be there for you. Promise me you'll call her, that you won't be alone."

His eyes flashed to the ceiling, the walls, then back to Liz. "I'll call her."

"Promise me?"

"I'll call her to tell her about GQ."

Liz reached across the brief space separating them, catching Jazs face in her long fingers. She tilted his chin until his eyes met hers and her gray eyes probed the depths of his brown ones. "That's not what I mean, boy and you know it. Jaz, nobody should be alone at a time like this and no matter what's happened between you in the past, you need her now. Call Dhana."

Her palm was warm against his skin before she released him. He dropped his eyes and silently kicked himself for the rash promise. "Yeah, Aunt Liz. I'll call her."

"Tonight, Jaz. Call her tonight."

"I guess I could call her for dinner or something." He shoved his hands deep into his pockets and averted his eyes. "Shes probly busy. Ill get her machine, but Ill call."

"Just remember, you promised," Liz insisted. Satisfied by his mumbled assent and tight nod, Liz gave his arm a significant pat. Turning, she followed Ed from the room.

You had to give it to her, Jaz thought with a small smile. Liz sure knew how to work a man especially her men. The indulgent smile lingered on Jaz's lips as he watched them leave the morgue, then died a silent death as he turned to face the door he could no longer avoid. Using his knuckles, he struck hard at the door, then waited for an answer.

"Why would a big guy like this be running from anybody?" The words boiled out of the room as soon as the door opened.

"Dave, Im tellin' you, these wounds, they all look defensive to me. He was runnin'." The white door opened easily and Assistant Medical Examiner Wendy Royals blocked access as she spoke over her shoulder. Suited in her green clinical garb, protective eyewear in place, she gave Jaz a quick nod and a wink as she moved to let him in.

"All Im sayin'," Wendy drawled, picking up where she'd left off, "all I'm sayin' is whoever did this was sure mad and he was tryin' to get out the way. Look at how they sliced at him, not even a clear left-right, right-left pattern. Jus' straight horizontal, deep vertical now, that's anger. An' his hands and arms, looka there, you can see he was blockin' somethin', or least he was tryin' to. Whoever did this, they was mad and he was gettin' out the way, is all I'm sayin'." Her index finger rose and vibrated, disturbing the air between them. "You know, when they brought him in with his hands all bagged an' stuff, wasn't nothin' under his nails. No skin, no hair, nothin jus' all them cuts."

"You talkin' about GQ?"

"That man, Walters? Yeah, we were lookin' at him"

Jaz hated the way his insides cringed at her words. He wanted to shout at the slender woman to quit moving her hands over his friends body like that. He wanted to yell loud enough to convince the world that his brother wasn't dead. He wanted to scream and rage at the injustice and indignity of death and he knew that it would do no good. The only real thing he could do was to live up to his promise to Ed Buchannan. Jaz swallowed the bitterness at the back of his throat and leaned his shoulder against the gray and white tiled wall waiting.

Wendy frowned, her broad nose wrinkling. "I'm not even sure why we got him here. He was done all the way out in Lithonia," she pointed with a sharp silver-toned probe. "He should have gone to DeKalb, not Fulton County. Its not like he was over on Auburn Avenue, or at the Underground." She looked over her shoulder, raising an eyebrow to Jaz. "Was this a favor for the Chief?"

"I don't know," Jaz replied.

Wendy realized her mistake and looked away. "I'm truly sorry, Jaz. I heard he was a friend of yours, that y'all was raised up together."

"Thanks, but I'll feel a lot better if you can tell me what happened to him."

Wendy adjusted the overhead mike and looked at Jaz. "Your friend here was clearly the victim of misadventure. We've already noted he's an African-American male, late thirties, in good health, no surgical scars, excluding the recent excision of his right upper incisor."

"Excision of his?"

"Yes, Jaz. His upper right incisor," the M.E. interrupted.

"Wendy, do you really want to say excision? That sounds like it was done intentionally." David Carrol was a stickler for details, one of the reasons Wendy Royals liked working with him.

"Yes, Dave. I do."

"Okay, you're the doctor."

"Yes, Dave. I am."

"Can I ask a question here?" Jaz moved away from his place against the wall. "Are you saying you think someone, like a dentist, removed that tooth?"

Wendy looked up, her brown eyes distorted by her heavy-duty eye protection. "He wasn't that lucky, Jaz. I did some checkin' and there're traces of metal on his gums, no indication of Novocain or anything and a large amount of tissue abrasion. There wasn't a dentist involved in this." She used a gloved finger to tap the dead man's lower lip. "Somebody took that bad boy out by force."

Searching her face for some sign of amusement, or hints of a really bad joke, Jaz found nothing. "You're kidding right? Somebody took his tooth? Why?"

"They didn' teach me to read minds at Meherry Medical, Jaz."

"I'm not questioning your medical expertise, Wendy," Jaz soothed. He looked from the M.E. to her assistant and back. They looked at him blankly. "Someone doing this to him though Taking a tooth It just doesn't make any sense. Anything else?"

"You mean besides the fact that he's here?" Wendy raised her eyebrows and shrugged. "I haven't finished yet, but the only thing that occurs to me is that this is kind of like another case we got, back 'bout two-three months ago. Member Dave?"

Dave looked down at the slate counter where he was making organ measurements. His gloved hands slowed, then stopped moving and he furrowed his brow before looking up. "Now that you mention it that the guy from out in College Park, or was it Riverdale? Seems like it was around Halloween we had him in here." Dave tipped his head like he was listening to a faraway sound, then he blinked and stood straighter. "Yeah, I remember it now. Yeah, he was cut the same way and missing a canine tooth, too."

"Two men? Same thing?"

"Well, yes, best I can recall." The medical examiner used the back of her gloved hand to push the small black microphone farther from her face. Her eyes suddenly appeared to narrow behind the plastic lenses. "Jaz, you know, in Staff we review the cases weve covered, and I don' rightly know who had 'em, but there was a case almost like this over in Morningside and another in Decatur. They've all been pretty recent, like in the last calendar year"

"All with the canine teeth missing?"

Wendy smiled. "They was all men, they was all African-American, they was all cut, and they was all missin a canine tooth. What's that tell you?"

"Four cases, similar circumstances," Jaz scratched his head and looked directly at Wendy. She was giving him a headache. "I guess my next step is to review your records, cause this sounds like a serial"

"Ooh, boy! Don't you say that!" Wendy threw her hands up in the air and moved her head with an almost gospel fervor.

"You're right," Jaz said thoughtfully. "It's too easy."

"Lord," the M.E. moaned.

"No, think about it. The Crime Analysts are still working, the final results haven't come in yet and when they do, who knows what they'll turn up?"

The lab tech leaned his elbows on the counter in front of him. "What if it is a serial thing," David asked. "You gonna turn it over to the..."

"No! This one is mine!" Turning sharply Jaz made for the door.

"Detective Jasper Ballantine, you scarin' me. You makin' this sound mighty personal. Humph! An' the look on your face" Wendy stood away from the table with her arms crossed tightly beneath her breasts.

"Personal? You don't know the half of it! GQ was my brother all the brother I've ever had. We were raised together. When neither one of us had anybody else in this world, we had Ed and Liz Buchannan. Now I've promised them that I'll find whoever did this and that's a promise I intend to keep."

"You got on blue long-johns with a red S on em, up under that business suit?" Wendy tilted her head and pressed her lips together.


Dave Carroll snickered. "She's kidding, asking if you think you're Superman."

Jaz took a deep breath and placed the fedora atop his head. "Thanks for your help. I'll get back to you."

Though he shut the door quietly behind him, the click seemed to echo for long seconds after the man was gone.

"So, whatcha thinkin'," the Medical Examiner asked.

"That I'm real glad hes not coming after me," the lab tech answered.

Back to The Fitwryter?

Chapter Two

Finding the Westview Cemetery shouldnt have been that hard not when it was the largest cemetery in the southeast. It had been in the same place since 1884. She knew exactly where it was, right there at the I-20 and Westview Drive exit. It shouldn't have been hard, but when you were going there with Rena Patterson, in afternoon traffic, to bury a friend, who'd been like a brother to your ex-husband, it didnt add up to a good day, so it was no wonder she drove right past it twice.

At the graveside, Dhana Patterson looked down at her new mud spattered black suede pumps. They weren't badly stained, just enough to catch her mother's disapproving eye, just enough to earn an annoyed, I told you so, from Dr. Rena Patterson. Though she didn't say it then, Dhana knew it wouldnt be long in coming. Rena Patterson had that way about her.

Dhana knew Rena was nothing like Liz Buchannan, her ex-husbands mother. Liz wouldve laughed about the mud, suggested waiting until the shoes were dry and then attacked them with a metal bristled suede brush. Liz was a special kind of woman, though. Dhana bit the inside of her lip to keep from smiling and let her eyes roam the crowd surrounding the small piece of ground where GQ, or at least his mortal remains, would spend eternity.

Tall and statuesque never lost in a crowd, Liz stood near the funeral bier. Dhana found her easily, and it broke her heart. Liz stood so close to Ed that, in their funereal black clothing, it was hard to tell where one began and the other ended. Liz appeared to be both leaning on and supporting Ed. Their faces reminded Dhana of the tragi-comic masks she always found in every flea market she'd ever happened upon. The only difference was that their dark faces were cast in sadness and loss. There were no traces of the laughter Dhana knew they both possessed in such abundance. Ed's eyes seemed to be leaking, and his black-gloved wife used her tiny, lace trimmed handkerchief to touch first his eyes, then her own, before dropping her hand to his arm and her eyes to the ground

At least they have each other, Dhana comforted herself. Not like Jaz. Jaz had nobody to lean on, to share his grief with, except me, and he seemed more than just a little reluctant to accept that. She thought of his voice on the telephone when he'd called to tell her.

"It's GQ," he said, and Dhana was immediately irritated that he'd caught her in the middle of grading exams to tell her another story of the madman's exploits.

"Well, you know how GQ is. He's your brother, and", she stopped. There was something just beyond his words, something somber, sober and weighty, and it crossed the telephone line ahead of Jaz's husky voice. It made Dhana pause, knowing that she really didn't want to know the rest of his message. Goosebumps rose inexplicably along her arms beneath her creamy cashmere sweater. Holding the telephone with both hands, Dhana pushed her chair away from the desk and stood, not bothering to push her orange wool skirt lower on her thighs. "What is it, Jaz? What's happened to GQ?"

In the milliseconds before his answer, everything ran through har mind. Some woman hes been with is pregnant, he'll say. Or, no, he'll say GQs gambling again, and can you believe how much he lost this time? No, that's not it. He'll say GQs firm is transferring business to... And, for every explanation she could come up with, there was no reason for that to generate this kind of anxiety in her, or to infuse Jaz's voice with that much pain. GQ led a charmed life, what could be wrong? She willed herself still and waited.

"GQ's gone," Jaz said simply.

"Gone?" That's the big fat reason for this call? "Where did he go, and why didn't you go with him?"

"You don't understand." The words were too slow and made Dhana's stomach writhe. "GQ is really gone, Dhana. He's dead."

Standing in the February cold, Dhana sort of remembered dropping the phone from her nerveless fingers, but not how she found her chair, or managed to find the phone later.

"Dhana! Look at your shoes," Rena hissed.

"Hmm," Dhana looked down but refused to take the bait. Bet she never talks to any of her little patients like that. Dhana knew it was a bet she would have won. Rena Patterson was an acclaimed and much lauded pediatrician. The only kid shed ever had trouble communicating with was her own.

Trying to avoid her mother's eyes, which she could already feel appraising the damaged Botega Venata shoes, Dhana's eyes touched Jaz's. She instantly, almost unconsciously gave ground, dropping her eyes again to the too-green fake grass carpet at her feet. We've been divorced for almost three years, now. How is it after all this time that it still hurts to see pain in his eyes? How is it that I know I would have no problem walking right up to him and holding him close and promising to make it all better?

She crossed her arms, then made herself release them; the body language gave away too much of what was in her heart. How is it I once thought I knew him better than anyone else in this life or the next? I know him not that he ever really talked to me, but I do know him and I don't understand how he manages to hold it in.

And he has to be hurt, she reasoned. GQ was everything any man could want in a friend or in a brother. Dhana looked again at the silvery blue casket and sighed. It must have been audible, because it earned her a nudge in the ribs from her mother and a sympathetic glance from the man on her other side. Dhana shifted a safe step or two away from Dr. Patterson and her full length Blackglama mink. It seemed Rena Patterson had always owned at least one full-length mink coat for all of her daughters life. Dhana tried not to giggle. Mink, her mother believed, was enough to socially insulate any woman in time of sorrow or Neiman-Marcus sale.

Reverend Howard bowed his head and began a solemn prayer Dhana barely heard. Lifting her head, she found Jaz again. She found herself wishing that she was standing at his side, and couldnt stop herself from tracing his profile with her eyes, noticing his tightly curling closely barbered hair, and lingering on his pouting lower lip.

The minister stepped to back. Standing near him, Liz and Ed parted briefly to let Jaz stand between them, each resting a hand on his arm. Handsome in a dark suit and overcoat Dhana recognized as the ones she'd chosen for him shortly before the divorce. She was surprised hed kept them. Jaz was tall and slender, with broad shoulders, but his taste usually ran to jeans and sweats.

The subdued dark silk tie at his throat was probably a gift from Liz, she thought. Left to his own devices, the Jaz she had once married would have worn a polyester clip-on from Kmart. But, Dhana knew she had to give him credit today. He looked good really good.

Dhana watched his gloved fingers play along the curving brim of his black fedora. He nodded silently to his foster parents, then passed his black hat to Liz. Stepping forward, he plucked a single bright bud from the vase near the head of the casket. His lips moved in silent farewell and Dhana felt her heart pull when he placed the long stemmed rose atop the casket. It looked like a blood red tear to her, and Jaz looked like the loneliest man in the Christian world.

Jasper Ballantine needs something, she thought, refusing to let herself admit that she really thought what he needed might be her. Admitting that would have meant stepping back three years and accepting a man who loved her so much that he could never let her fully into his life. "You can't compartmentalize your life like that," she'd told him time and again. "You can't shut me out and still have me in your life."

And now, I dwell on it every chance I get. I need a life, she cautioned herself. Hoping no one near her was telepathic, Dhana fixed her gaze on the single red rose. It didn't make sense to divorce a man based on incompatibility, then first chance that arose, try to seduce him back into your life. How dysfunctional is that?

Closing remarks were made, and the witnesses to GQ's "going home" began to disperse. Dhana tried to shake her mood of gloom. Clearing her throat, not quite sure of her next step, she was mildly surprised to find Alora Roberts at her side.

"Saw you come in with your mother. She looks gorgeous, as usual."

"She wouldn't have it any other way." Dhana didn't try to hide her sarcasm.

Alora touched the gold hoop in her ear and looked to the sky. "You ought to be ashamed of yourself," she teased. "Are you going to the house? If you are, can I hitch a ride?"

"My mother is riding with me," Dhana whispered.

"Aw, darn it! And all my formal wear is at the cleaners." Alora brushed a gloved hand over the taupe leather of her long coat. The crooked grin that spread across her round face made Dhana think this day might yet work out.

"Are you coming to the house?" The soft voice behind her made Dhana turn immediately.

She closed Liz Buchannans hand between both of hers and brought her cheek to touch the cool velvet of the older womans. "I can if you want me to," Dhana answered.

"I wish you would. There'll be so many people that, well, Ed and I would love to see you again. We don't see much of you lately." When Rena Patterson moved closer, Liz forced herself to look cheerful. "Bring your mother, if you like." She smiled and drifted back to where Ed stood waiting.

"I'm going to the house," Dhana said, inclining her head to her mother, but speaking to her friend. "This is your last chance to back out."

"Oh, no. You know me," Alora whispered, hazel eyes dancing. "I'm a thrill seeker. I'm going, too."

"Going where?" Rena asked casually.

"To the Buchannans."

"Their home?" Rena shifted her mink over the black and white Donna Karan suit and frowned disdainfully. "You sat through that dreary church service, participated in this dismal burial rite, and now you want to traipse all the way over to their home?" She huffed, stepped over a crack in the asphalt, and rolled her eyes toward the gray expanse of sky above her. "This is the very reason your father..."

"Probably plans to work late tonight." Dhana pulled her car keys from her pocket and pressed a tiny black button. The car responded with an odd burp of electronic noise, then obediently unlocked the doors. Pulling her door open she slid into the drivers seat, and smiled when Rena scuttled through the car door.

"Are you sure you want to do this?" Rena asked from the passenger seat, plucking at the fingers of her black wrist length leather gloves. She wanted to be supportive, but there were limits "Yes, I am." Dhana kept her eyes on the road, giving I-285 South far more attention than it merited at this time of the afternoon.

Moving the small, Champagne colored BMW across three lanes of traffic, she headed for the Cascade Road exit. A cool, vaguely unnerving finger stroked the nape of her neck, then tipped along her shoulder, disturbing the hairs that had slipped from beneath anchoring hairpins. Alora Roberts' laughing eyes touched hers in the rearview mirror before she looked away.

"Dhana, sweetheart," her mother continued, "I'm just speaking out of concern for you. Remember it was Margaret Mead, in On Death and Dying, who said that funerals are for the..." She was interrupted by the wide swing of the cars turn onto Cascade.

"Sorry, mother," Dhana said, with barely suppressed glee.

"Are you all right, Dr. Patterson?" Good old Alora reached across the seat to press her hand against a recovering Renas shoulder.

"Thank you, Alora. I'm fine," the good doctor huffed, patting the supportive hand and rolling her eyes at her daughter. "I just think you should know that you've met your social obligation by attending the service and the burial. You sent flowers. This call at the home is entirely..." Rena was again swooped within the confines of her seatbelt as her daughter made the right hand turn onto Lake Harbin. "I guess that means you don't want the rest of my opinion," she finished, sullenly.

Dhana took the high road and kept her comment to herself as she made one last swooping turn into the Buchannans drive. Rena climbed out as soon as the car stopped moving. She was already slinging her mink through the front door by the time Dhana and Alora reached the front stairs. By the time they reached the living room, Rena having accepted a glass of sherry and a seat on the gold brocade sofa, was well on the way to recovery.

"She looks happy," Alora whispered. "I think I'll join her."

"You do that," Dhana smiled. Looking around, scanning the crowd for a familiar face, she spotted Jaz watching her from the dining room. Languid, comfortable within the walls of his childhood home, he leaned against the white painted doorframe. Lifting a plastic cup to his lips, he crooked a finger at her and Dhana prayed no one else had seen him do it.

No such luck. Alora caught the tiny motion. "He sure does look good in that suit, doesn't he? It fits so well, I'm sure he couldnt possibly be carrying that big gun of his under his jacket, so I'll bet he's not on duty." Her round face turned sly. "He's calling you, and I know you're going over there to find out what he wants. What's in it for me if I keep your mother occupied?"

"My eternal gratitude and a ride home if youre lucky. Now, go keep my mother busy."

"So you can go over and get busy helping Jaz to cheer up?"

"I didnt say anything about Jaz."

"Humph, you didn't have to." Alora took a step back and looked up at her friend, cunning written all over her face. The subtle bones and muscles sculpting her high brow and round cheeks shifted, bringing her pretty mouth and hazel eyes into play. One golden eye closed and opened in stealthy complicity. "That's what I thought. Sistergirl, we both know you've got a weakness for that man, whether you want to admit it or not. Just be aware, I know where youre going," Alora sang in her ear.

"You and your songs. That's enough."

"Humph, the song in my mind would be more like, "Never Too Much"."

"Just think of all the fun you could have if you invested some of your energy in your own life."

"For the record and because I'm a real friend," Alora smiled. "I'm going to ignore that, and find your mother."

"Thank you." The words had scarcely escaped Dhana's lips before she found Jaz again. His eyes telegraphed something she couldn't quite read, but wanted desperately to be closer to. And, Alora was right, the only way Jaz Ballantine could look any better in that suit was if he was taking it off.

A weakness? Oh, yeah, Dhana thought, shifting her eyes away from her waiting ex-husband. That was something else Alora might be right about. Dhana debated the wisdom of moving her feet. All I need now is for him to think I would come running just because he crooked his little finger.

A weakness? Maybe that was the polite name for the salty kind of heat that trembled through her veins and nestled in unpredictable places when she heard his voice. Or worse, it was the quiver that climbed her spine and made her look around every time she heard the bluesy jazz ridden rift of a slow, spirit-driven piano. No, truth be told, a weakness was what had her standing here in the middle of a crowd, pressing her knees together and clenching muscles hidden by her demure and polite black woolen skirt all because he crooked his finger. Now, here he was, looking at her like that, crooking that finger, exploiting that attraction, that weakness.

"Alora is right, it is a weakness." Dhana whispered to herself, smiling innocently when elderly Mrs. Evans looked at her with serious misgiving.

"Talking to yourself, dear?" The septuagenarian used a black gloved hand to straighten her hat, then sipped delicately from the cup in her hand. "The late Mr. Evans used to do that, too."

"Talking to myself? Oh, no ma'am. Just thinking out loud." Dhana hoped her smile was answer enough as she turned away.

"Yes, dear. That's what the late Mr. Evans, bless his soul, used to call it, too."

Dropping a quick look over her shoulder, Dhana smiled and kept walking.

Feeling to the bottom of her own soul that it was the wrong thing to do, Dhana found Jaz again. Crossing the space between them, feeling his eyes on her, she wished that his mere glance didn't make her wish that she'd worn something other than the staid little black wool crepe with the little Catholic School pleats her mother chose for her. The way he was looking at her, all she could think of was lingerie and as little of it as possible.

Thanking God for the spike heeled Botega Venata pumps, she let her slow walk become more emphatic. Liz Buchannan drifted closer, touching the hands and arms of people she passed. She gave Dhana a wink and a pat and Dhana wondered what she was thinking.

"I'm glad to see you. I was hoping you would come by," Jaz said when she reached his side.

"Really?" Her smile seemed to encourage and embolden him and his hand caught her elbow. She looked down at his hand, then up at his face. "Why?"

"I need..." his brows lifted slowly and the corners of his eyes changed slightly. "I need to tap into your technical expertise."

The voice he used was one Dhana had heard before, but she didnt like it now. The tone was rigidly controlled. Tight and low, stubborn and stronger than she liked to think, the sound of his voice made her more than a little uneasy. Looking into his face was hard. "Jaz, I don't know what you have in mind, but I'm pretty sure this isnt the place to talk about it."

"You're right," he said. His hand tightened and he steered her through the crowded room and around a broad cherry dining table. He dodged a group of his parents church members with a modicum of civility, but little more. In the kitchen, he snagged a soft drink for Dhana and kept walking. Piloting her silently through another door, he stopped at the rear of the house when they came to the sunroom.

"I think we can have a little privacy in here," he said. He closed the door silently behind them.

"Privacy? Why do we need privacy?" Surrounded by sturdy green, thick leafed plants, wicker furniture and chintz floral cushions, Dhana wrinkled her nose. "I thought you said you were glad to see me?"

"I am and you look great."

"Thank you, I think." She looked around the glass-enclosed space and made a face at him. "Care to explain this behavior?"

"Uh." He looked around, then patted the cushion of the chair next to him. "Sit down. We need to talk."

"You brought me all the way back here just to talk?" Pulling the chair back farther, Dhana sat and crossed her long legs. "I guess that's an improvement over when we were married. At least youre talking to me now." The can of Coke hed handed her was still cold, she snapped the tab open just to have something to do.

Jaz brought both hands to the glass top of the wicker table and folded them. "Okay, Dhana. I guess I deserved that. When we were together," he shrugged. "That was a long time ago. Three years is a long time to be apart."

"Well, don't feel bad. It took us three years to tear it apart," she returned, accepting a share in the blame.

"Maybe we've both done a little changing and one of my changes is talking."


"And, we're still friends, right?"

"Okay." Dhana toyed with the Coke. Knowing she couldn't hide behind the can forever, she set it down, but continued to hold it within the tight circle of her fingers. When Jaz leaned forward, his eyes fastened on hers, Dhana held her breath and waited.

"I meant it when I said we needed to talk. I've always thought we were friends, even when we couldn't get the rest of it right."

It was silly, but his words put a lump in her throat. "We are friends, Jaz."

"As a friend, then, I guess I want to ask your professional opinion."

"Professional?" Her eyes snapped up, locking on his face. "What are you talking about, Jaz?"

She watched his expression close by degrees. The rich mahogany of his eyes hardened, forbidding everything but shadow and his thickening anger. Dhana heard it in his voice.

"I'm talking about GQ. Things are not right."

"You mean within the department?" Dhana felt her interest slipping. Not even helping GQ could get her willingly interested in the comings and goings within that boys club even if the Chief of Police had once been a woman. Jaz reached across the narrow intervening space. His finger touched hers, and Dhana felt the Coke can dent beneath her hand. Okay, she told herself, I'll listen to him, for GQ.

"No, the force is fine. Its just what we have to work with. " His finger moved over hers again. "We've got next to nothin' and something tells me theres more."

"What do you mean, more?" Her intelligent eyes explored his familiar face and Jaz knew she was looking for clues.

"I talked to Wendy. I don't know if you remember her, Wendy Royals? From the Medical Examiners office? Anyway, she seemed to recall several similar cases and I've been going through them, but its slow. Then theres my old man. He says Charge Officer has already told him that he's too close to the case and asked him to back off. I figure I'll hear it soon, too, and I can only ignore it for so long."

"Is that where I come in?"

It was as though someone flicked a switch. His face calmed and his eyes cleared. Jaz Ballantine looked more like himself as he nodded. "I was thinking, back to when we were still married. You used to study all that stuff about why people do the things they do. You remember?"

He brought his chair closer, and Dhana immediately jerked her knees from his trying to look unperturbed. She shrugged, slightly confused. "Jaz, that's kind of what I do. As an Abnormal Psychology professor, you know I teach the study and theory of the development of personalities and their responses to stress, within environmental..."

"I got it," he declared, "I got it. I also know you." His emphatic finger tapped the table, driving the point home.

"Know me?" Her lips pressed tightly and she cocked her head to the side, narrowing her eyes in challenge. "What do you know about me?"

"I know that when you decided to complete advanced degree work at John Jay University up in New York, there wasnt a class you didnt ace. I know that your thesis concentration for both your Masters and your doctorate were..."

"Forensic psychology," Dhana finished for him, dropping her stubborn chin in surrender.

"Exactly. I also know that every time you give one of those seminars of yours, those departmental presentations, the room is filled with men who respect your knowledge. Men come to see you because of what you know and what you can teach them not just because of your legs." He raised one brow independently of the other and waited.

Coloring slightly, Dhana crossed her legs at the knee. "Let's leave my legs out of this, Jaz. I've got a feeling I know where you're going, and I dont think I'm the right one. You need to talk to"

"Who?" His lips tightened and his dark eyes held her with a force like iron. "Who else should I talk to, Dhana? You knew GQ as well as almost anyone could. You care about the same people he cared about, the ones who cared about him." Jaz shrugged. "Who else am I going to ask for help?"

"There's a whole slew of people you could talk to," Dhana blurted nervously, watching his hand pass over hers again, feeling the solid reality of his skin against hers. Her ankle rotated and her top leg pumped a time or two before she got it under control. She took a deep breath. "The police force has people who do this sort of thing for a living."

"Already told you, none of them knew GQ the way you did. None of them care." Jaz dipped his head slightly, his brown eyes touching hers and rubbing at something soft near her heart. "Is that why you dont want to do it? 'Cause you knew him so well?"

"Its not that I don't want to," she replied slowly. "Lecturing is one thing and field work is something completely different. There's so much responsibility. I wouldn't want to miss something important, lose something irretrievable"

"That's sounding suspiciously like a lack of confidence on your part," Jaz whispered. "Excuses are not your style, Dhana, never have been." When her lips parted in protest, his finger left her hand to touch her lips, silencing her. "Dhana," he said softly, "I've missed you so much. I could listen to you talk forever, Baby. If time wasn't so short and I didn't need this so badly, I could listen to you read the phone book and love every name on your lips. But, right now, I need your help."

"You're daring me to do this, aren't you?" she whispered. "You think I can't pass up a dare, don't you?" Nodding, he removed his finger and Dhana had to call her lips back to keep from following. Covering his hand with hers seemed to make the loss a little easier to bear, but just a little. "How can I help?" she whispered.

"The Crime Analysis team has come up with zip. The house was clean, no forced entry, and except for some eye irritation that they're at a loss to explain, there's nothing else."

"Eye irritation? I thought he was..."

Jaz nodded and noisily sucked in a lungful of air. "That's what the coroner's preliminary external examination shows."

"Really? Eye irritation? From what source?"

"You'll know when I know," Jaz answered.

Dhanas eyes narrowed. "How can I help?"

"I was thinking, sort of remembering how when we were together you used to go over all those old odd cases I brought home, looking for clues. I mean, I remember you gettin' so caught up into them, sittin' up in bed with your reading glasses there on the end of your nose, falling asleep with your face in the files sometimes. How you said that individual minds move in definite ways and if you looked closely enough, there was always a pattern."

"Thats what the GBI and the FBI are for, Jaz."

"No, I promised the Chief I would help him with this."

"How did that happen?" Dhana looked surprised. "I would have thought he would have been considered too close to the victim," the words seemed to trip her tongue, and she swallowed hard. "I would have thought GQ..."

"Emersons in charge of the investigation," Jaz interrupted.

"Oh, then I know that my participation would be a mistake. Charles Emerson hates me."

Jaz grinned and shook his head slowly. "Emerson doesn't hate you, he just doesn't see murder as a woman thing."

Dhana leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms. She fought her own grin and pressed her lips together in the effort. "That's not what he said the last time. As I recall, he called me a lanky, pseudo-scientific, intellectual"

"Let it go, Dhana. Let it go." Jaz let his hand touch her cheek before falling to her hand again. "You'll be welcomed on this investigation, no two ways about it. Forget about your differences with Emerson. Worse comes to worse, this is all mine because GQ's case is not going to wind up marked unsolved I wont let it. No GBI, no FBI on this case not officially just me and you if you'll help." His eyes bore into her with a previously unknown solemnity. "I need your fresh eye and your open educated mind to help me find the pattern."

"Forensic Psychology?" She shook her head. "That's a very precise field, Jaz. I was a good student, nowhere near an expert," she said.

"'Ive already told you, excuses don't suit you. Anyway, it doesn't matter, you're a very talented amateur, or at least that's what the Mayor thought when he appointed you to the Citizens Committee and you haven't let him down yet. Its not like you don't have the right credentials, and God knows you're stubborn to a fault. I think you've got what I need. You're the only one who can help me."

"You could call Tom."

"Hey. He's a former partner and a good friend. Pulling him into this is not what we want not me and not the Chief, either."

"You're not going to call on Tom because he's with the FBI, right?"

"Right. Well, that and I think you're the right one to help me with this."

"Jaz," she hoped her smile was gentle enough to calm him, "what you want and what you need are two very different things." They always have been, she refused to say.

"Nope, its exactly the same. I trust you and your expertise youre the friend I need. Everybody needs something, especially friends, and we are friends. You said so yourself." His eyes held hers, waiting for a reaction.

His expression was surprisingly serious, but Dhana saw a softly compelling vulnerability she'd never noticed before. She had a strong desire to reach out and touch him, just with the tip of her finger much as he'd touched her lips earlier. She could imagine drawing closer, putting her head on his shoulder, her arms around the solid wall of his shoulders, touching him, and having him touch her. If I only had the courage, she thought. "We are friends, Jaz. Let me know what you need."

He smiled, gracious in victory. "I'll call you by Wednesday. I want you to go to a couple of crime scenes with me, take a look at what we've already come up with. I'll pull together some information, too. I know you like to be as prepared as possible." His words slowed and he touched her fingers again. When her fingers moved beneath his, he noticed the small gold and diamond accent ring she wore on her left hand. "This new?" His finger tapped the ring lightly.

Extending her finger, studying the ring, Dhana shook her head. "I bought it right after the divorce. I planned to replace my wedding band with it," she shrugged. "Then, I didn't have the heart to wear it."

"But youve got it on now?"

"Look at which finger, Jaz." She extended her hand. The ring sat firmly on her left index finger.

"First finger, left hand. Does that mean this ring is not connected to your heart?" He grinned and let his hand rest atop hers.

Dhana lifted her shoulder in a barely considered shrug and watched him through the veil of her lowered lashes. "I've pretty much given up on things connected to my heart, Jaz. How about you?"

Something like a shadow crossed his face. "Not me. I've learned a few things over the past few years, besides I've never been one to give up easily on anything."

Does that include me? Us? Dhanas breath caught in her throat and she tried to swallow around it. In the three years she'd been apart from this man, she knew she loved him no less, but was she prepared for him to feel the same? "I wonder if we could be thinking the same thing," she asked.

"I don't know." He looked away, then back at her. "You might not like what Im thinking."

The demure smile that curved her lips was as evocative as it was teasing. "You never know," she said slowly, "try me."

#   #   #

Back to The Fitwryter?

Chapter Three

"I love spandex." Aloras fingers played at the band of her black tights, pulling it higher, placing it at its best angle against her waistline. Dhana giggled and dumped her oversized nylon bag on the hardwood bench between them. Pulling her shirt free of her jeans, she ripped at the snaps.

"Okay, sisterfriend," Alora cast envious gray flecked hazel eyes at her friends taut, exposed midriff. "You can laugh if you want to, but if you had to cope with congenital softness of the body, you'd appreciate the short-term girding effects of this space-age non-girdle stuff, too."

Dhana opened her mouth to speak, then thought better of it. Swallowing her laughter, she tugged hard at the zipper of her gold lettered gym bag and pulled out her own collection of spandex and lycra.

Using her blue and white Etonic running shoe as a pointer, Alora made a face. "All I know, is that it must be witchcraft. That's the only way you could keep your stomach that flat and the way your butt keeps defying gravity. I happen to know for a fact that you still eat your fair share of cheesecake." She humphed far back in her throat and bent to retrieve her other shoe. "I'm not angry or anything, but considering we do the same kind of workouts, share a trainer, and I try to eat right sometimes, it ought to get easier."

"Alora, I keep telling you, that it's all about body composition. It has to do with the distribution of fat to..."

"Yeah. Right. The ratio of fat to lean muscle mass," Alora interrupted, cutting off the threatened diatribe. "I take it back. I am mad at you." Perching daintily on the edge of the bench, she bent and jammed her foot into her shoe, then blinked innocently at her friend. "Do you have any idea how much I hate it when you get all clinical on me? You could be honest and just say it ain't in my genetic cards to be tall and slim. Willowy is not meant to be."

At five feet three inches, Alora had never made her vertical aspirations a secret. There were a lot of things she would have happily and willingly traded about her body, but with a workout partner and the therapy of aerobic exercise, she was gradually coming to terms with her body image. "Willowy is just not meant to be," she repeated with longing scrawled across her round face.

Dhana pulled her purple accented sports bra into place and dug into her massive bag in search of a band for her hair. She succeeded in finding a green elastic ponytail binder and combed her fingers through the length of her hair.

"You know that doesnt match," Alora teased. "Dr. Rena's gonna 'plotz' if you wear that in your hair."

"Probably," Dhana said lightly, twining the band around the collected thickness of strands. "I just wish I had the nerve to cut it all off and go natural like yours." She eyed her friends closely shaven locks.

"Oh, yeah. Then she'd not only 'plotz', shed have a bona fide heart attack and probably blame me. Where is Dr. Rena, anyway?"

"She got here early this morning." Dhana turned to finger the built-in lock on the wood fronted storage unit behind her. When the locker door finally swung open, she hoisted her bag inside and slammed the door closed. Meeting Aloras smirk, she tipped her head and tried not to smile. "Dr. Rena's out there on the treadmill, walking her five miles and keeping an eye out for Jaz, no doubt."

It took both hands crossing her lips to keep Alora from laughing out loud. "Guess that's what you get for splitting that lifetime membership with him in the divorce. And, speaking of Jaz, I saw you two with your heads together after the funeral. Brother was looking good, and you my sisterfriend, you were looking awfully hard for someone with no real interest." Aloras face lifted. "Does Dr. Rena have reason to worry?"

"Reason to? Oh girl, you are so silly. Besides, weren't you supposed to be keeping my mother company?"

"Yeah, well"

Dhana bent to collect her fingerless weight lifting gloves from the bench and snagged a towel from the fresh stack in the corner. Alora was dead on her heels, so close that she collided with her back as Dhanas step faltered when she slowed to open the door. "If you don't get off me," she fanned the towel at the other woman.

"All right, all right." Alora ducked behind her hand, but persevered. "You didn't answer the question." Heading for the weight room, Dhana tossed a glance over her shoulder. "Actions speak louder than words," Alora whispered to only one woman in particular, "and your actions say..."

Stopping only when she reached the wall-mounted barre in the weight room, Dhana treated her friend to a grimace. "No way, okay? What I had with Jaz, what we had together, what we were to each other, that's ancient history."

"Not so ancient, as I recall. That history the two of you share, its strong enough to keep you from letting other men into your life. He has his job and his music, you have your job, your workouts and that makes me wonder, what kind of changes would it take from both of you or either of you to bring you back together?"

Supple and long-limbed, Dhana began a series of stretching exercises. Ignoring the admiring glances her movements garnered from the pair of muscular dark-skinned giants moving free-weights across the rubber mats, she scowled at Alora. "You know better."

Bending her arm, moving it across her chest in an effort to stretch her triceps, Alora returned the frown. "Do I? Do you?" She moaned softly from the effort of extension, then changed the stretch to her other arm. "What next?"

"He asked for my help."

Alora rolled her eyes and silently mouthed Dhanas words. "And, of course hes going to get it." She used her hands to get her questions asked. "Is this about GQ? And where's it going to take the two of you? What do you expect to have happen? What about when it's over because you know it would be wrong to have somebody going around killing folks just so you two would have a reason to spend time together."

"Yes," Dhana hissed, smiling distractedly at the tall man who raised his hand in greeting and headed toward the two women.

"Yes, what?" Alora demanded.

"Good morning, pretty Dhana." Michael Alwyn closed the distance in the weight room to be close enough to carry on what he'd already decided was going to be a conversation.

Dhana groaned, the sound a bitter accompaniment to the radiant smile gracing her lips. What a day this one was shaping up to be first, Alora and "Twenty Questions", and now, Michael Alwyn. Not that there was anything wrong with a man like Mike, sexy as the day was long and smelling of Fahrenheit. He was just so damned persistent. One dinner, a movie and a couple of Atlanta Hawks games, and the man was trying to fence her into some kind of gilded emotional cage. "Good morning, Mike."

He waited expectantly, then smiled appreciatively when she didnt continue. "Dhana, Dhana, Dhana. A woman like you, a special woman like you, deserves to be treated well, special. You know I'd like to do that."

He managed to say the words with a straight and handsome face and the voice of infinity and Dhana rankled under his attentive stroke. Where did he get off trying to smooth talk her into his bed? Because that was certainly his planned destination and frankly, watching him go through his moves was almost enough to make her rethink her decision.

Every step he took was like a collection of all the most graceful moves made by black men since the day of Creation and that should have been enough for him, but it wasnt. He had a need to corrupt her life in his process. Looking at him, knowing his underlying game and lurking insincerity, Dhana tried to be objective.

He wore long dark gray runners leggings with parallel white stripes that molded themselves to long thick-muscled calves and thighs, making his stride an athletic strut. The red banded white shirt he wore seemed to screech, "Man In Here", as it took to the diligently worked curves of his body. Butterscotch skin, and a smile sweet enough to reduce resolve to cinders were his only tools this morning, but then, they were all he would ever need. He was a one-man parade that made nearby women suck their teeth in pride and whimper with desire.

"You dont see anybody standing here, but Dhana?" Coy might have been Alora Roberts middle name. Parking a hand against her hip seemed only natural as her eyes telegraphed availability. Pursing her lips, she lifted her other hand to him.

Michael accepted the hand she offered, and bent over it apologetically. "Forgive me, Ms. Roberts?" Alora simpered and Dhana tried not to smile. It would only encourage the madness.

Releasing Aloras hand, Michael turned his attention to Dhana. "Do you have an answer for me yet? I'll take anything from breakfast to dinner, but I will not take no for an answer." Alora looked from his face to Dhanas.

"Michael, my schedule's just gotten incredibly complicated, you know how it is. Will you let me call you when it gets a little less tight?" Openly flirting, Dhana wrinkled her nose and allowed him to take her hand.

"Of course." Placing gentle fingers on her shoulder, Alwyn brushed her face with his lips, leaving behind a kiss that just missed her lips. Dhana smiled and enjoyed the pleasant sight of his departure. Lord knew, that man did have his faults, but he did do a lot of squats and in those tights they showed. Thank goodness.

"Um, um, um," Alora appreciated. Dhana slapped at her shoulder.

"Ow! What?" She rubbed at the sore spot.

Dhana crossed her arms and shook her head. "You know, you could have been a little more supportive." Another shake of her head and she cut her eyes at Alora.

"You say Jaz means nothing to you, and you just let a man like Michael Alwyn walk away?" Alora broke in, managing to tear her eyes from the man as he rounded the corner. "I don't get it."

"Jaz was my husband and I'll always care about him, but that's all there is to it." Dhana pulled on her weight lifting gloves, fastening the black elastic bands at her wrists. "Besides, you were the one who said that there was something wrong with men named Michael," she added mischievously."

"Maybe, but not when they look that good. Sistergirl, now you know that man is a total package. He's got it all: hes intelligent, articulate, got a great practice, and he's more than willing to adore you!"

Dhanas ponytail bobbed as she shook her head. "All that glitters is not gold. Don't believe the hype."

"Dhana," Alora stamped her size seven foot in frustration. Girl, please! That man is not about hype. Not even your mother could find anything wrong with that man."

"What are you, on Mike's payroll or something?"

"No, but, you know, now that I think about it, Jaz doesnt seem to be all that interested in other women. Have you two got something going on in secret? Sure you don't have something to tell?"

Fitting her body into the leg extension machine, Dhana debated ignoring the question, then decided dignified denial would be safer. "If anything, I am the least interesting of any woman in Jaz's life."

Nonplussed, Alora crossed her arms. "Honey please! I'd like to see the woman Jaz Ballantine would find even almost as interesting as he finds you."

"Maybe if she were a murderer."

Alora lifted her brows thoughtfully. "Maybe, just maybe."

The woman sat impatiently in her tight little economy class airline seat. Considering the money she'd saved Atlanta Pro-Tech on this trip, the least they could have done was provided her a first class upgrade. She moved her hips farther back into the seat and pressed her hand tightly to her stomach. The dry sandwich and half cup of lukewarm coffee that passed as a snack had been a definite mistake and her body was already telling her why. The plane tilted and her stomach moved with it. Dry, pressurized cabin air crawled and scratched its way across her skin, and she hated it. She'd always hated air travel really hated it, but it couldn't be helped this time.

Besides, this time there was a personal payoff. Dipping the fingers of her left hand into her jacket pocket, she found the card immediately. Squared edges, softening from her handling let her know without looking that the card was the right one. Fine linen, a subtle grayed shade of beige, the innocuous business card carried the usual information, and something more: his home address and telephone number scrawled boldly across the back. This one had been almost too easy to come by. He'd volunteered it, hadn't he? Flipping the card easily with deftly nimble fingers, she read the name, Paul Johnston. Her lips moved across his name, tasting each of the syllables in turn. It was sweet, knowing what she must do, how easy it would be, his name made her smile.

"Meet somebody special on your trip?"

Startled, the woman's head jerked upward. It took a second to regain enough composure to meet the smiling green eyes of the blonde, blue uniformed cabin attendant. She wondered if the airline made their stewardesses with cookie cutters. This one had the same red lipsticked, plastic, officially fake smile as the other one the one who'd instructed her to return her seat and tray table to their original upright position, oblivious to the crumbs that bobbled across her lap and trickled down her legs. She blinked up at the woman.

"Oh, come on," the uniformed woman winked, inviting confidentiality. "Is he nice?"

The passenger let the actress in her soul take over. "Oh, yes," she smiled back. "Hes very nice, indeed. In fact, I'll be seeing him again. Very soon, and I can't wait."

Propping her blue gabardine elbow on the back of the seat ahead of her passenger, the stewardess fingered the scarf at her throat, and grinned. "Sexy?"

"Yes," the passenger purred, closing her eyes to let a picture of him play across the inside of her lids. Seeing him clearly, too very sleek, too well dressed, almost hearing the voice of the man she'd met, brought a smile to her hungry lips.

"Whats his name?"

"Mike." The passenger pressed her lips together, shading her face with a secretive tone. The name came easily, even if it wasn't the one on the card in her pocket. Mike, for lack of a better term was the right thing to call a man like this one.

"Where is he from?"

The question came right out of left field, and it took a second to shape her lips into the proper sort of answer. "Right here in Atlanta," she managed. "That means I'll get to see a lot of him, really soon. As a matter of fact, he's on a flight right behind mine."

"Oh! So, youre going to meet his flight?"

"No," she straightened in her seat, smoothing her hands over her gray skirt. "I'm going to meet him at his house We're actually old friends and I'm going to make things right for his arrival, for his homecoming."

"You've already got it planned. I can see it in your eyes." The woman straightened, and squeezed her passengers shoulder. "He sounds like a lucky guy."

"Oh, no. I'm the lucky one." The seated woman let her tongue trace the white line of her teeth, and her smile grew broader, implying something that made the stewardess wink again in sly complicity. Her smile remained fixed as her face moved to the cloud-shrouded window. I really am the lucky one, she reminded herself, passing her dusky fingers across the raised print of his card.

Her ears popped as the plane made in-air maneuvers and began descent. Pushing the card into the tailored pocket of her gray jacket, the woman swallowed hard, then drummed her fingers against the metal clasp of her seatbelt. The quickening of her heart had nothing to do with the encroaching grip of gravity. It had everything to do with the man who was now the primary reason for her return to Atlanta.

The ride hadn't been long, but having to sit still and wait for landing could make even a woman used to traveling very nervous. The plane bumped solidly, skipping along the landing strip, making her swallow hard again to clear her ears of the pressure buildup, but that was all right, they were on the ground.

Pulling her briefcase from beneath her seat, the eager woman rose to her feet and had to duck to avoid hitting her head on the bottom of the overhead compartment. A fat man sitting across the aisle shifted his softly wide hips, effectively damming the aisle. He took his own sweet time collecting his belongings, oblivious to the backup of passengers. Shrugging into his dark suit jacket, he tucked an old copy of People magazine beneath his arm, then gripped his carry-on bag. He finally started to move, his gait rolling, his bulk shifting, and the waiting woman released the breath she'd barely known she was holding.

Stepping from the rank of seats, pulling her short skirt straighter, she gave her pocket a light pat. The young fancy man's card was still there. Stretching as she walked, feeling the rightness of her path, she moved with the rest of the urgently deplaning passengers. In the cool almost fresh air of the airport, she shook the kinks out of her neck and legs, shifting her tote bag to the other hand. This was no time to be tired, she had work to do before this night was over.

Her eyes passed over her watch. A quarter past midnight that gave her time. His plane wouldnt even get here until two, in the morning. She bit her lip and began to see the plan more clearly. "It'll be simple," she whispered to herself, "just like always."

Taking the train back to the main terminal, passing through Hartsfield-Jackson International airport as she always did, the woman was almost totally oblivious to the appreciative glances she garnered along the way. The rhythm of her step and the confident swing of her hips made her impossible to ignore and she knew it. The knowledge made her smile, it was all right if they looked it was only when they tried to touch that any of them reminded her of Mike, and stood any chance of making her list. If any of the watching men had known what she knew, how much like Mike they really seemed to her, they would have been more than glad not to act on impulse. She walked faster.

Oh, Mike.

The man who'd been so glib when he handed over the business card to a pretty woman in the Stouffer Inn bar back there in Cleveland, Ohio didn't know what he was letting himself in for. He didn't know she was coming. He wouldn't even reach Atlanta for several hours, so there was no point in looking around for him, though she knew that he wasn't far away. She could feel him. Drawing a deep breath, she resisted the urge to fold her arms around her own body. Logical conclusions always gave her warm fuzzies. Instead, she allowed herself the small guilty pleasure of palming the business card again, reminding herself to keep walking, not to run, to keep moving with the crowd like a normal person.

Meeting a man like Mike always had a tangible, physical effect on her. The attraction was always immediate and electric, telegraphing something hot that sparked and twisted like peppermint tinged cayenne to her very core. Thinking about it now, her skin was warm and tingling, with the fine hairs rising along her arms in excitement. She fingered stray strands of curling hair from her neckline, pressing them back into place along the curve of the French roll she wore. Deep in her groin, something warm lurched and gripped deeply, causing an audible gasp. Being with a man like Mike could be such a good thing. It never changed.

Nearly blind with haste, she navigated a final turn, exiting the airport. A line of dark suited, briefcase wielding men suddenly became gentlemen and fell back to offer her the next taxi in line. If she'd learned anything over the years, it was how to work a smile and she did so now, accepting graciously. The phalanx of men, an automatic unit, grinned back. One even waved.

Watching them, twinkling her fingers in coquettish farewell, nothing else mattered, not even a little bit because she was so much closer to Mike. Oh, he was using the name Paul Johnston this time, but she knew him for who and what he truly was. He's the destination of my heart, she mused poetically, dropping her hand to her pocket. "Michael. My Mike." She licked her lips, tasting his name again. Every woman wanted a man like Mike.

"Where to, miss?"

Looking up, realizing the driver was talking to her, she was gripped by an oddly familiar emotion. It was one notch short of panic, making her eyes flash to the dashboard and the drivers city taxi permit. Charles Griffin, it said just above the terrible black and white mug shot. Staring hard at the back of Charles Griffins large head, the woman tried to think. Her lips parted as she met his eyes in the rearview mirror.

What was the street name? Staring down at a business card, trying to read it in the low light of an ending day would be too obvious, and obvious was the last thing she could afford to be. She closed her eyes and could see him writing it out. He'd plucked the card from the pocket of his well-tailored suit, laid it against the mahogany bar, made a gold Cross pen materialize, and written out his address with aplomb. She tightened her eyes and tried to see the letters he'd written.

Swallowing hard, she hid behind feminine charm. "I'm going to Roxboro Rd.," she told the driver. She fluttered her lashes and reached for her purse. "I'm going to visit the one man I want to have die in my arms, my Mike." she gushed, girlishly, hoping Roxboro was right. She twisted the straps of her black leather bag while glancing shyly at the driver.

"It's like that sometimes, when you get with the right person," the driver nodded conspiratorially.

The pretty woman's hand dropped to her lap and fingered the business card again. It flipped from her fingers, as she looked up to catch the drivers eyes in the rearview mirror. He was still nodding, waiting for an answer. "Oh yes," she said, "I'm definitely the right woman for him, and he is definitely the right man for me. In my heart, I know I'm the woman he deserves."

"That's real nice." Still facing front, the cabby waved the dispatcher off with his left hand, rocking the steering wheel gently with his right. "What's the address on Roxboro? The house number? Cause there's all houses in that part of Buckhead."

The damned card was somewhere on the floor. Plunging her hand into darkness, fingers scraping the gritty floor of the taxi, she could have slapped herself. Why didn't I look at the street number? That was the kind of slip-up that could get her into a world of trouble down the road.

"Need some light back there?" The cabby fumbled with the light in the ceiling.

Blinking at the floor, the woman dipped her hand into the depths and shadows of the taxi. Looking flustered, a lovely shade of rose spotting her dusky complexion, and her eyes refused to look at Charles Griffin. "He just moved," she improvised, biting at her full lower lip, her hand moving across the gritty floor. "About how long will it take us to get to Buckhead?"

"This time of night, not all that much traffic. I spect its bout forty minutes, maam," Charles Griffin smiled into the worried, uptilted smoke of her gray eyes and wondered what her parents were maybe something like Black and Indonesian, with that gold skin and all that pretty, black, wavy hair. His smiled broadened.

Her fingers closed on the card, and she sat back in her seat. Raising a hand, her index finger plucked at the silver chain circling her throat, lifting it away from the slickly moist skin. "I have the address here," she said softly, reading the numbers off, six short of the real address. Her bright teeth flashed, and Charles Griffin offered his own before he shifted into drive and pulled smoothly into the flow of traffic and away from Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

Charles Griffin moved his car with practiced ease through the early evening traffic, managing to avoid the downtown snarl as he headed north. "You said he just moved. You know the neighborhood?"

"Not really. I know the mall is"

"Just like a lady, knowin all the malls," the cabby teased, grinning into the mirror. "Were gonna pass Lindburgh, and on up through Buckhead, just past Lenox. He know youre comin? If you want to stop and give him a call try a pay phone?"

"Lenox," she decided suddenly, wishing the driver would just shut up, drive, and let her think. Lenox sounded good. It was the kind of china she planned to buy someday when she got married when she found a man worthy of marriage. She lifted her chin and smiled, knowing that she would never marry a man like Mike. The man she married would have an innate understanding of things like fidelity, respect, and honor: things men like Mike could never accept, let alone live up to. "I think the streets off Lenox," she said, "in fact, I'm sure it is. I'll know it when I see it."

Griffin pulled the cab right, onto the Druid Hills exit, then left onto Lenox.

Leaning forward, narrowing her eyes to watch through the light shimmered windshield, the woman read the signs as the cab twisted and turned along the road. She tried to remain calm in spite of her excitement. When she came to his house, she would recognize it for what it was. The house would be his lair, and it would be just like him; deceptively refined, quiet, hiding surprises. It would probably be built of something solid and permanent appearing, like brick, very traditional. Everything about him was like that on the surface, from his clothes to his manners everything looked right. Everything.

"We're close," she breathed. "Were very, very close. I can feel him."

Charles Griffin let his eyes move to the mirror, taking in his pretty passenger again. He shook his head slightly. Must be nice to have a woman like that feel so good about you, he shook his head again and tried not to imagine what a fifty-seven year old man could do with a good looking, long legged, built-up woman like this one. He guessed her age as being around thirty, and she was nothing at all like his wife of twenty-five years, his warm comfortable, Evelyn. Not that Evvy hadn't been a pistol back in her day and she still could fix up real nice. But Evvy was Evvy, he sighed heavily, besides, a man could dream...

In the cab, the woman's eyes squinted against the nighttime glare of passing headlights as she stared intently from the back seat of the cab. She knew she'd find him soon, and have just enough time to check out his den, and that was half of what she needed to know. Reaching across the back seat, she found her case, and pulled it closer to her side. All the tools she'd need were inside, and the solid feel of the leather case in her hand eased her nerves. Reading the house numbers, anxiety quickening her breath, she thumbed the card again, feeling the edge bite into her thumb.


Charles Griffin jumped high in his seat and practically stood on the brakes when her hand slapped the seat at his back. Her hand beat feverishly against the warm gray-green vinyl as she screamed for him to stop. He pulled over to the curb, and the lovely woman let three tens fall over the seat back as she all but kicked the door open. The last he saw of her was her fingers fluttering in farewell, and the elegant brass colored curve of her calf beneath the short gray skirt as she hurried away from him, slinging the black purse over her shoulder and gripping the double sized briefcase. She sure was in a hurry as she scooted across the tree lawn to the sidewalk on the street where he lived, looking for the man she wanted to have, "die in her arms".

"Some guys have all the luck," the driver grinned as he turned the corner.

From the curb, she watched the taxi disappear from the corner of her eye. She crossed the street and backtracked to the address she sought. There were lights shining through curtained windows. Ivy traced brick, neat red and white painted trim with a well-tended lawn, it was definitely his kind of house. It was almost exactly like the one that the original Mike brought her to for their date that night.

As she watched, one light went off in a downstairs room and seconds later another came on in an upstairs room. Timers, she thought, still watching for movement. She angled her watch beneath a convenient street light. Twelve fifty-five, she had lots of time.

She walked into the darkened carport and nothing happened. There was no motion detector to shine an intimidating light where she stood, but there was a new convertible, small, fast, expensive, and waiting, and she smiled. That was about right. It was his kind of car. Crossing quickly to the outside door, she found it locked: a flimsy brass, uncharacteristically cheap lock, it served the purpose when she slipped her bare hand into her jacket pocket and turned the knob. It kept her out until she found her nail file.

Opening her case, the woman plucked surgically sheer rubber gloves from a conveniently placed package and pulled them on. Mike was slipping. There was no alarm and no dog, and nothing else to keep her out. "Man like this? He ought to take more care," she whispered to the night. Lips folded into a slight moue, she angled the pointed instrument and smiled when the lightweight tumblers clicked into place, the door swinging open.

Timed light shone from the door opposite where she stood. It painted the modern, heavily brass appointed kitchen with a warm, almost familial glow. Stepping deeper into the kitchen, the woman was able to pick out small personal details of Paul Johnston's life. There were little things like the grocery list on the refrigerator door, a message pad with doodles near the black wall telephone, and newspapers to be recycled in a plastic container near the door; all normal things. Depressing the small plastic clip at the base of the phone, she disconnected the tiny cord and tucked it into her pocket no use taking chances.

He liked nice things and he kept them well, that much was obvious. Ceiling mounted, an iron rack held pots and contrasted cleverly with the stylish black range, dishwasher, and refrigerator. A massive black wrought iron bakers rack squatted against one wall. Carved, polished wooden goblets and plates sat on a glass shelf above a virtual library of cookbooks. Using the tip of one finger, she traced the titles everything from classic Cajun and savory Creole to Epicurean French. It made sense that he would know about food and the intricacies of its preparation just another way to inveigle and disarm his prey. What woman wouldn't give her right pinky for a man who not only could but would cook?

"Seduction through the sensuality of taste. Well, why the hell not, Mike?" He was not above using his myriad charms to get what he wanted, and that just proved she was in the right place, didn't it? Nodding to herself, the woman took her time examining the kitchen. His counters were laden with just about every small appliance any woman could imagine, some she had difficulty identifying.

Grudging approval crossed her face when she noted his spice rack, complete right down to marjoram and thyme she cast a suspicious eye back to the bakers rack. He probably did know how to cook, and really well, at that. The hardwood table with the four cushioned seats sat in the center of the room, an eccentric, homey touch, complete with four ready place settings. Unable to stop herself, she ran an incautious finger across the surface. The tip of her glove came away clean, and she smiled.

"Seems you pay a good housekeeper, Mike if nothing else."

A large, leafy green plant hung in the window across from her, and a single glass rested in the stainless sink. Crossing to the window, it was easy to see the large brass lock that was supposed to keep the rest of the world out. She fingered it lightly and chuckled at the silliness. Granted, this device was more expensive than the one on the door, even if it only guarded the darkened expanse of Paul Johnston's backyard. This man might have been a bit of a carnivore, but he either had no idea or no intention of keeping someone out of his home. Maybe, and she narrowed her eyes at the thought, maybe he thought no one would ever dare to assault him in the privacy of his lair.

She shrugged. Its fine with me if this man considers himself invincible, she thought, as she prowled the main floor of the large house. The timers were neatly placed, hidden from unsuspecting eyes and geared, no doubt, to his residential habits. She followed their progress through the lower levels of his home.

Laid out for convenience and showmanship, the main floor featured a formal dining room with curtain draped double doors opening onto the landscaped back yard. A bath with golden fixtures, and a great room with an imposing natural stone fireplace, were the only other rooms, and all done in strong masculine shades of brown and burgundy. The great room was filled with overstuffed creamy textured leather furniture. A sigh escaped her as her hand stroked the carefully crafted and matched skins of the sofa. Expensive and certainly not bought by the room, even the feel of the leather was seductive enough to capture an unsuspecting woman.

Hand crafted stone and clay pottery filled corners and decorated the hearth and mantle of his fireplace. Carved frames, in a variety of rich and splendid dark woods, held tapestries and sketches from places far beyond the insulated Buckhead community of Atlanta, Georgia. She remembered something from his elegant little business card. He was a specialist in North American Real Estate acquisitions, but looking around, she knew instinctively that none of this came from North America let alone Atlanta. She lifted a small statue and peered at the tiny letters. Dahomey was stamped on the bottom. Dakkar was the origin of another piece. Perhaps he collected his art while on vacation.

Men like Mike always had great taste.

Returning the statue to its place, she sighted a corner table holding an assortment of what she guessed were family photos. One particular brass trimmed frame caught her eye. Lifting it, holding it closer, she stared at the older woman pictured there. "Probably his mother," she guessed, checking the smiling hazel eyes and dimpled white smile. "He looks like her." Setting the photo back atop the dustless table, she wondered if this mother had tried to give her boy something besides good looks and the smarmy manners he used to seduce unsuspecting women.

Beside the photo of the hazel-eyed woman was a second, matching frame. This one held an enlarged snapshot, probably taken on one of those exotic vacations, obviously taken on a beach. Closer inspection showed a petite doll of a young woman in a red scrap of a bikini. She made no effort to hide her curves, even as she smiled over her shoulder. It was hard to tell whether her eyes or her lips carried a brighter sheen as she played up to the camera. A tiny inscription was inked into the lower right-hand corner of the photo. "With all my love, Felicia".

"Good luck, Felicia," the woman whispered, "cause he's not an all my love kind of guy. I'll bet you believed him, though. I'll bet he's told you a thousand times that he loves only you, that he'd never betray you. Then, when you're not looking," she shook her head. "When you're not looking, he gets into the most amazing kinds of things but, don't worry about it. I'm going to take care of the problem for you, Felicia. My treat." She replaced the photo, still taking in the room around her.

Oh, this Mike, he had great taste. He was a classy guy all right, but then when you had the money and obvious means this guy had, you could do pretty much what you wanted to no matter what your mother taught you, and no matter who gave you all their love. And, that, was the thing about a man like Mike, wasn't it? He would always do what he wanted to, unless someone stopped him.

And that's where I come in, the woman silently applauded herself. In the mirrored hall, she caught sight of herself. Time did indeed bring about a change, she noted turning slightly to disconnect the gray cordless telephone. The woman reflected in the smoky glass as she straightened was proof of that. In her precisely tailored gray suit with its perfectly partnered lavender blouse, she looked exactly like what she was, self-assured, capable, and ready: More than a match for a man like Mike.

She was no longer the victim. She was no longer the too chunky, too different, scholarship girl in the thrift store clothes. She was no longer an overworked, underpaid easy mark, especially not for a man who thought he could take what he wanted without regard for consequences. Closing her eyes, catching the corner of her lip between her teeth, she tried to still the quick anger that threatened to overwhelm her.

She'd been a kid, back then, when it happened. Ten years ago, she was every inch the born victim, too scared and limited to fight back. A "PK" they'd called her, even before Mike barged into her life, taking what he wanted from her. Preacher's Kid. Her father, the struggling minister of a storefront church, trying to raise too many kids on too little money, told her to hold her head up high after the rape, after what they called, "an alleged assault".

He told her that she was different. She could still hear the good Reverend's voice when he thundered, "but so was Jesus Christ, and look how badly people talked about Him". In the end, difference was the real turning point for her.

They'd been so different, she and Mike, if she hadn't been so young and needy, maybe she would have seen through the thin veneer of his too easy words and soap opera affection. Maybe she would have seen through to the parasite lurking beneath his sleek surface. If she'd had the time to grow a little self-esteem, learn the right words, maybe she would have had the courage to walk away from the young man who looked to her, like all her dreams combined and walking around on two legs. How could she have ever expected them to last?

Bringing a gloved finger to her lips, she bit angrily at the nail sheathed inside. Okay, maybe there was never a chance for them, but if he'd at least given her a chance, treated her like a person, she could have changed. And if not changed, at least they could at least have passed each other on the street and shared civil exchanges. Instead, he changed. Mike changed, losing his gentility, he became cruel. He took unfair advantage of a young woman who had no defense against his kind of assault.

And the system, of course, backed him up didn't even give him a slap on the wrist because boys like him, from good families like his, with future prospects like his, could never commit rape. A good boy like him, well, he would never even consider a thing so common and crude as forcing himself on a young woman. In fact, it was only girls like her who came up with the nasty little words to even accuse a promising young man like him. Which left her on her own, and she was the one who took the flack, the one who was labeled.

The only good thing to come to her had been the truth. Yes, she had taken their county paid therapy and done the requisite soul searching, convincing them of her inner healing, and in the end she'd learned. There really was something she could do about a man like Mike, something very elemental, very basic, and that was why she was here tonight.

Bringing her fingers together, she noticed the glove, the torn tip of the finger shed bitten. "Darn." She'd managed to gnaw the foolish plastic almost entirely in asunder, it hung from her finger like a dispirited rag. Irritated, she snapped her hand free of the glove, almost dropped it where she stood, then jammed it into the pocket of her jacket, deciding she was better off safe than sorry. Going back to the kitchen for a replacement, she had to remind herself not to touch anything as she passed through the dining room.

"It's always like that," the woman muttered in the kitchen as she knelt by her case. "For some people, the world is full of don't. Don't touch, don't say, don't go but for others, life is just one long green light." She pulled the new glove snugly over her hand, fitting the latex neatly between her slim fingers. "Well, Mike, as of tonight, you don't pass go, you don't collect two-hundred dollars, and there are no more green lights for you."

The realization of purpose made it easier for her to swallow her anger. "I've got a job to do," she reminded herself straightening and snapping her replacement glove into place. Crossing the kitchen, making one quick turn off the living room brought her to the stairs. In the space of her turn, she found herself facing the beautifully proportioned handcarved figure of an Ibo woman. The life-sized figure was lovingly crafted, perfect right down to the graceful wrap and fall of the dress crossing from breast to hips. The expression on the statues face was serene, almost tender, and it touched the observer deeply. Unable to stop herself, the woman traced the lines of the statues face.

Of all the artwork he'd collected and secreted here in his lair, this one statue was the most beautiful. Inspired, she blinked, warmed by epiphany. That had to be it, he saw himself as a collector, not as a parasite living off the love, hopes, and dreams of innocent women. If anything, maybe he saw it as a symbiotic relationship, quid pro quo, tit for tat. "Tit for tat," she repeated aloud, laughing at his obvious error, she patted the statues shoulder. "I've got your back, sister." Placing a gloved hand on the rail and her foot on the bottom step, she began to climb, but had to stop for a random thought.

Memory, is a lot like cookies.

Stepping thoughtfully, she liked the sleek correctness of her thought. "Cookies" on a computer drive tracked the path of the user. Memory of an individual, well that took care of all those too human "what-ifs" and "why-nots". "Men like Mike, like Paul Johnston, they know exactly what they're doing and doing what I do, just keeps the drives clean and the scales balanced so that in the end, everything simply works better," she promised. It was the right thing to do. She skipped up the stairs.

Hand on the white painted banister, she waited at the head of the stairs, wondering if the timers were on in this part of the house as well. Paul Johnston did not disappoint her as a small light clicked on across from where she stood.

His bedroom was the first one, at the head of the stairs. The door was already open, and she didn't touch it as she slipped through. Once inside, she paused to admire the large, mostly blue bedroom. Immense and airy, it overlooked the expanse of his broad back yard. The view from the triple set of clear paned windows was probably stunning in spring and summer, and she wondered if Mike had ever taken the time to appreciate it. "Probably not," she whispered to the emptiness surrounding her. She wondered who had purchased the tall stand of palms fronting the kente hangings that curtained the windows. She wondered if it was "Felicia", the woman who gave him all her love, or some other woman he'd ensnared.

It didnt surprise her to find another photo of "Felicia" on the nightstand, or the lacy pink size four peignoir hanging in his closet. She fingered the pale lace and laughed gently, "that's right Mike. Make her feel at home". Pressing the closet door closed, the woman felt a small annoying uncertainty. Paul Johnston had no alarm system downstairs, but what if... Kneeling, she duck-walked, making her way around the baseboards feeling for wires. Beyond the telephone, there was nothing. Relieved, she felt for the clip and pulled that did it for the telephone, though she would have to remember to replace it before she left.

In the surrounding gloom, she made out an odd shape. Skirting the king-sized bed, she found one of his beautifully tailored silk and wool suits thrown casually across the back of a chair, rumpled from previous wear. Maybe he'd forgotten to instruct the housekeeper to deliver it to the cleaners.

Lifting the jacket, holding it to her nose, closing her eyes, she remembered how he'd smelled in Cleveland. He'd approached from the rear, circling her like the predator he was. Planting an arm just over her right shoulder, breathing down her cleavage, he'd been intentionally ingratiating, deliberately closing her in a curtain of expensive cologne and sensuality.

He didn't miss a beat when she shrugged him off, slid from the barstool and made her way past him. Interception on the dance floor, his carefully choreographed move caught her off guard. That was when he led her back to the bar and offered her his Atlanta address and a bed for the night. She accepted the address, left him to fill the bed on his own, and here she was.

Another deep breath and a sense memory of that first Mike tickled her nose. The scent, the frank, too-close, man-smell of him was still there in the back of her mind, lingering even on the closed air of this house, so many years later. The ten year old memory had a flavor all its own. It was sweet, good and comforting when he was kind, and salty, tangy and bitter with his threat, scary the other times.

Suddenly, stroking the jacket wasnt enough she wanted, needed to know him better. Nudging off her own jacket, she slipped his suit coat over her bare arms to rest on her shoulders. Heavy and substantial, the garment closed over her blouse, wrapping itself around her with intent. What would it feel like, she wondered, pulling the jacket closer, what would it feel like if he'd just taken this off?

It would be warm from his body. His heat would seep slowly into her skin, possessing her with the impression and assumption of his possession, and it made her dizzy to imagine more. That dizziness was the reason she was here tonight, to stop this from happening to anyone else. Reluctantly, she dropped her arms, allowing weight and gravity to separate the cloth from her body. She watched the jacket pool into a heap on the floor, then walked from the room. Someone had to protect the innocents.

Adjoining the bedroom was a marbled dressing area and bath, etched and veined in gold. Lighting was subtle and designed to make anyone standing under it look romantically beautiful. Typical. A large, thick-napped Mediterranean blue bath towel was tossed casually atop the vanity beneath the seductive lights. She clenched the towel in both hands, and brought it to her face. She could smell clean soap and see the tiny bristles left over from his shaving.

"Just like a man," she whispered to herself. "He leaves the house in a mess, and hires some woman he underpays to clean it. That's the way a man like Mike always treats women, it's the reason he deserves what he'll get." Gloved fingers rubbed at the towel, and the woman grimaced at the tiny hairs that fell free. "It never occurs to him how hard these little things are to clean." She let the towel fall from her fingers. It brushed the counter, leaving a whispering echo on its way to the floor where it finally rested in a heap. She stepped over it.

His toothbrush stood at attention in its gold-toned stand beside the sink, the rim of its matching cup glittering in the light. Looking at it, she shook her head at the empty affectation. Reaching forward, hesitating fewer seconds than she cared to count, she seized it. Her thumb swept the stiffly dry bristles, and the inflexibility made her frown. "This is hard, Mike," she said, her tone disapproving. "The American Dental Association recommends soft bristles."

She gazed at the toothbrush for long seconds, deciding, then licked at it. In her mouth, drawn forth by her own fluids, she tasted its minty toothpaste flavor. No cavities for Mike. Of course he would follow an appropriate routine of regular dental hygiene. His toothbrush. She licked it again, and imagined she tasted him. How personal.

The toothbrush didn't taste all that different from the flavors and tastes she recalled from Mike's kisses. That night.

She removed the brush from her mouth and rinsed it beneath the golden tap. Carefully, she shook it, watching the water droplets fall back into the clean sink. A scrap of easily flushed tissue cleaned the water. No use leaving extra clues for the police who would eventually show up. It would only confuse them. Besides, a quick glance at her watch told her that her preparation time was growing short.

"I don't want Mike to make it home and catch me unprepared." A quick look around, and she settled on an answer to her unvoiced question. His bedroom was the logical place. It had been the scene of the original crime, hadn't it? Besides, she thought, kicking off her black leather pumps and heading for the stairs, by the time he's walked through all his timer-lit rooms, he'll never expect me. She laughed softly to herself. That was the good part, they never expected her.

Returning to the kitchen, she found her case next to the door where shed entered. It wasn't heavy enough to slow her down, but it contained everything she would need to make this night memorable for a man like Mike.

Unbuttoning her blouse as she climbed the stairs, the woman remembered the black leather bag she'd carried in with her. It hung by long straps from the back of one of the wooden chairs in the kitchen, near the wall. "He won't notice," she prayed as the sound of a passing car touched her ears. "He won't notice," she promised herself.

Setting the bag aside in his darkened bedroom, she freed herself from the sleeveless blouse and went to work on the clasps of her shimmering white Venetian lace bra. Stepping free of the gray skirt and her pantyhose, the woman folded them neatly before jamming a still-gloved hand into her briefcase. This was the moment she always dreaded, the very second she learned whether she'd prepared fully or not. So far, she'd never failed herself.

Drawing a relieved breath, she pulled the clear plastic raincoat free and unfolded it in the half-light. The plastic was cool, cold really, as she pulled it on over her naked body. It quickly warmed against her skin as she reached into her bag again. Small pliers designed fit a technicians skilled hand went into the pocket near her right hand. Digging, unearthing the small blue can of FDS, she pocketed it, then withdrew a final item for her pocket a lasting token of her fathers pledge and dedication to grooming.

Just looking at the razor in her hand, she could almost hear the sound from childhood, the whicking sound of the razor hitting the strop, growing sharper with each stroke. She smiled. It still sounded that way when she sharpened it some things never changed. Thank Goodness.

She pushed her case behind the bedroom door, out of harms way, and sat down to wait. The timed light on the nightstand clicked on as she heard his foot hit the bottom stair. Impeccable timing, she congratulated herself, crossing her bare legs, closing her fingers on the small can of FDS.

"What?" His voice came from the doorway. "Who are you? What are you doing here?"

He stood openmouthed, with his hand braced against the doorframe, and his eyes searching. His voice held a slight quiver, a tremor of uncertainty. Funny, he didn't sound anywhere near as confident as he had in that bar in Cleveland. The woman tilted her head and smiled warmly. "Hello Mike," she let her voice go low and throaty, "I've been waiting for you."

"Mike?" His brows rose and a tight muscle throbbed along his jawline as his mind raced. His mouth dropped and he blinked. "I know you," he started, "from that bar." Something like fear flowed from him in waves. "What are you doing here?"

"How very kind of you to remember me this time, Mike."

The wet spray of FDS hit his eyes, and he never heard the rest of her words.

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