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It began around two-thirty on a spring afternoon, in an affluent, suburban New Jersey cul-de-sac, with the sound of screaming tires.
Allie was working in her studio on her latest painting, and the noise yanked her rudely back to reality. It also startled Nikki, eight, who sat at her mother's computer playing with a simple paint-and-draw program. The little girl's head snapped around and she asked, "Who's that…Daddy?"
"Shouldn't be. Not this early."
Seized with youthful curiosity, Nikki sprinted off to see what was up. Allie tried to call her back, and when that failed, darted after her daughter. She had no idea who might be outside, but the squealing tires didn't reassure her.
The front door hung open, letting in a blaze of sunshine. Allie could hear Nikki scolding someone in her high but firm voice. "You should be careful. Mom and I planted flowers over there, near the driveway, and you ran over some of 'em!"
In response, Allie heard a harsh, male laugh–not David's. Reaching the doorway, she saw Manny Rodriguez, the grown son of her housekeeper, Carmela. Stocky and broad-shouldered, Manny squatted in front of Nikki and stared at her in mock sympathy.
"Ooh, I'm sorry. Which flowers?" He sprang up and paced back toward the driveway, where he'd crushed a few tulips under the wheels of his silver Corvette. "These?" He yanked out three more tulip plants and threw them onto the lawn in a gesture of cold contempt.
"Stop that!" Nikki screamed at him, close to tears.
Allie charged forward and grabbed her daughter protectively by the shoulders. She remembered how proud Nikki had been of planting thoseflowers, and the idea of someone hurting the little girl's feelings so callously raised Allie's motherly hackles. She demanded sharply, "Manny, what's the matter here?"
The creepy laugh again. "Here? Nothing's the matter here." He spread his arms as if to include the whole, well-manicured cul-de-sac. "Everything here is perfect, isn't it? Right down to the damn flowers! You'd never know there was so much nasty shit goin' on in the rest of the world!"
He isn't making any sense, Allie thought. He didn't look well, either. Even though the May afternoon was pleasantly cool, Manny's face was flushed and his gray T-shirt was matted to his body with perspiration.
Allie had met the young man only twice before, briefly, when he'd come to give his mother a lift home after work. Both of those times he had acted friendly and pleasant, never like this. She grew afraid for Nikki. In a quiet voice, she told the little girl to go inside and keep her younger brother company upstairs.
As Nikki disappeared into the house, she passed Carmela coming out. The curly-haired little Cuban woman, still wearing a flowered apron, cocked her head in confusion at her son. "Manny, I thought I heard you…Why on earth you hollerin' like that?"
The sight of his mother galvanized him and he caught her by the arm. "I'm getting you out of this house, Ma. You're never comin' back here again!"
"W-what're you talkin' about? Let go of me! What's the matter with you?"
"Get in the car–I'm takin' you home."
"No, you're not. I'm not finished my work yet, and when I do, I got my own car. Besides, I'm not goin' anywhere with you after the way you drove up here! Are you drunk?"
"I'm fine. Just seein' things clear for the first time, that's all. These rich people, they're just usin' us, Ma! We don't mean shit to them."
Carmela stared at him. "How dare you talk that way about the Constantines! They pay me good, an' they don't ask me to do half the crazy things some people do. Mr. C. even gave you a job a few months ago…until you went an' messed up!"
That's true, Allie thought. At her request, her husband David had gotten Manny a low-level maintenance job at David's company, the Genesis Group. He'd done it as a favor to Carmela, who kept hoping steady work would settle her son down a little. But about two months back, Manny had gotten fired for absenteeism and sloppy work.
Allie wondered if that had anything to do with his irrational fury this afternoon. If so, it seemed like a delayed and extreme reaction.
Copyright © 2004 by Eileen F. Watkins