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The slight movement behind Liza MacDonough was reflected on the window, momentarily catching in the prisms of raindrops splattering the glass. She whirled around, facing the door across the room. She could swear she had heard it close with a soft click.
But no one had come into her office. She was alone.
Heebie-jeebies, Liza told herself. She'd had them a lot lately. And today she was suffering from sleep deprivation as well. That was it. Her vision was affected by insomnia, seeing motion where there was none. Not a good sign, considering her state of mind over the past year.
She tucked an unruly strand of hair behind her ears. Even her thick mane of natural waves was not cooperating these days, and as she turned back to the window her older sister Jean's childhood admonishment popped into her head. "Stop poking at your hair, Liza. It looks as wild as Medusa's."
Liza smiled, wryly. Messing with her curls had been her nervous reaction to stress when she was ten and Jean was twelve, and now, twenty-one years later she had resumed the bad practice. Damnable habits die hard, she decided.
The thought was sobering. Her position as an in-house counselor for International Air had recently brought back her own childhood insecurities and fears. Liza understood all too well the anguish of her clients who were coping with the aerospace company's downsizing and the loss of their jobs. Once her family had faced a similar predicament, with tragic results.
She stared out over the glistening Seattle cityscape south of her, scarcely noting the street lights that were flickering on to brighten the approach of another long winter night. Herthoughts lingered on the words of her last client, a divorcée with a young child to support, a woman without family.
"You don't know what it's like to go begging for a job! Damn it all to hell, I can't even afford a babysitter so I can look for one!"
I've never known the desperation of being totally alone, Liza reminded herself. Even during the tough years after her dad's death, when she was still in grade school, she'd had Jean and their mother. Although her own childhood seemed bleak to outsiders, full of secondhand clothes, cheap casseroles and her mom toiling at a minimum-wage job, the three of them had quickly developed a sense of humor about the insecurities of poverty.
"Hey, Babes," her mom would say. "The bank needs their mortgage payment -- we have to tighten our belts."
She would prance across the room, her tired face animated by her deadpan of the banker, her altered voice exaggerating a pompous male tone, "'Your house is your one asset?security for your daughters.'"
Liza and Jean would giggle, for the moment overlooking what "tightening the belt" meant, getting into their mother's playacting as she pivoted, smoothed her hair and went on in a sotto voce.
"'Your girls are pretty, talented and will become responsible adults because the three of you worked together to keep the family home.'"
It was many years later that Liza realized how wise her mother's psychology had been -- her playacting therapy. She had kept open communications with her daughters without dumping the real burdens onto them.
Unknowingly, she and Jean had followed their mother's example -- lemonade out of lemons, as the cliché went. Jean's eye for style and talent with a sewing needle, encouraged by straight A's in her junior high-school home economics class, had motivated her to alter their Valu Village dresses into presentable garments. The remnants were recycled into clothing for their puppets.
Ah, the beloved puppets. Her and Jean's way to do their own playacting.
Absently, Liza smoothed her suit skirt over her hips, and the window glass before her reflected her image, backlighted by the desk lamp. Tall and slim, she looked the part of a sophisticated professional -- except for her untidy auburn hair that the light had burnished with a red sheen. She shook her head. Can't fool a mirror, she told herself. I'm really a blue-jeans kind of woman, even when I hide out in designer suits.
There was a knock on the door. Again she faced her office: her desk that was piled high with case files; the plaid cushions on the chairs in front of it that were vacant now of her desperate clients; and the ocean prints that hung on the off-white walls. Once she had been so proud of the promotion that had included her own ten-by-twelve-foot office. She had even been given the privilege of sharing a secretary with her boss, Al Stark. Now she wondered if she really wanted to be an in-house counselor. Helping terminated employees find new positions had turned into a nightmare.
The door opened and Al stepped inside. "Hey. What are you doing? Working overtime?"
Liza shook her head. "My last client only left a few minutes ago." She shrugged. "I'm just digesting the complaints."
"About the company?"
"Yeah. You must be hearing the rumors, too."
He hesitated, his blue eyes peering at her from behind the thick lenses of his glasses. Abruptly, he glanced away to drop several file folders on her desk. "You realize that there are always negative rumors when there are layoffs, don't you Liza?"
"Of course." She bristled. They'd had this conversation before. "But the current situation seems different. There are just too many people saying -- "
"That the company is being unfair -- that something is fishy." His sharp words cut her off. "I thought you were a professional." His tone hardened. "But frankly, Liza, lately I'm beginning to wonder. You're letting these people get to you."
"That's not true." She flushed. "But when everyone is saying the same thing I find as a professional that I have to take it seriously."
"Just what is it they're saying now?"
She ignored his sarcasm. "That they're confused, that they'd been overworked, doing the job of two people at the time of being terminated. They say it has to be discrimination because the work is there."
"Hey Liza," he said, sharply. "Remember? The company is downsizing. Jobs are going away."
"But what if these people are right? What if something is out of sync? Isn't that part of my job description to make sure that -- "
"See," he interrupted again. "That's what I mean." He hitched up his trousers, pulling them over the roll of fat that circled his waist. His balding head gleamed in the lamplight and sweat glistened above his thin upper lip. "I think you're losing your objectivity." He hesitated. "I've made allowances for your fragile feelings, uh, your sense of loss that you're unknowingly transferring onto your clients." He sucked in a labored breath. "But it's been a year since -- "
"Since what, Al?" Her voice shook with sudden anger. How dare he use a personal tragedy against her. Whatever was going on at International Air had nothing to do with her husband's disappearance.
He held her gaze.
"What?" she prompted. "Say it."
He shook his head, unwilling to finish his sentence.
Silence dropped between them. Liza took a deep breath. Stay calm, she told herself. Remember Al is as frazzled as you are because of the layoffs.
"I have no intention of taking on the problems of the world," she said finally, ignoring his outburst about Martin. How could he know that her fear for her husband had turned into a feeling of abandonment. "I just want to do a good job for my clients."
"Good." He moved to the door. "We both know all this talk about a company conspiracy is absurd."
"I agree, to a point. It does sound crazy."
"Yeah." He hesitated before stepping into the hall. "People get a little nuts when they lose their jobs. Remember Liza, you have a good position here, especially for someone your age. Don't jeopardize it."
Liza stared at the door closing behind him. Was that a warning? A threat? She grabbed her raincoat off the hatrack and put it on, then scooped several files into her briefcase. She looked around for Nate Garret's file, which was high priority, then remembered she had taken it home last night. She hoped to work on his evaluation tonight, if she could ever get out of her office. At the last moment, she grabbed the tablet with the session notes from her appointments.
Her handbag strap over her shoulder, she flipped off the light, closed up her office and headed toward the parking lot behind the building. A half-hour workout at the gym might help her sleep later. Just what she needed most right now.
Windblown rain slashed across the blacktop, and as Liza ran toward her Miata convertible, her raincoat flew open to flap like a windsock behind her. She hugged her briefcase against her chest while fumbling to fit the car key into the door lock. By the time she climbed behind the wheel her hair was dripping water onto her face and shoulders.
The office complex of International Air was located next to the computer lab, a huge building restricted to authorized personnel. The main plant was many miles north of the city where the airplanes were assembled and tested. Slowly, Liza drove toward the street beyond the gate, avoiding the lab where Martin had worked.
She sighed. Martin had hated having a regular job; it had been his dream to be a rock star, to be recognized as a singer and guitar player. At thirty-five he had still hoped that his rock trio would land a record contract. Poor Martin. His talent had never matched his ambition, his passion for music. He had always been the Salieri to the more gifted Mozarts of rock.
Liza turned south toward the city center, trying to suppress her old guilt. Maybe she could have been more supportive, not pushed Martin to get a real job after they had been married four years. But she had been worried that the rejection of his music was depressing him and hoped that the structure of work might balance his growing sense of inadequacy. She had loved him so much, had only wanted him to be happy, to see his angular face come to life from other accomplishments besides music.
She parked on Olive Street in downtown Seattle, grabbed her gym bag, then hesitated. Was her briefcase and tablet safer in the car or in the exercise club? Car break-ins were common in the area, but then so was thievery in the club. Liza decided that the car trunk was best, and after securing them, hurried into the highrise where she climbed the stairs to the second-floor facility. Once in her sweats she looked for Alice Emery from Personnel at work, her exercise partner and spot person when she lifted weights. After Kristi, the young girl at the front desk, told her that Alice had come and gone, Liza decided to skip the weights. My fault, she thought. She'd missed Alice because of working late.
As she ran the treadmill for fifteen minutes and then rode the stationary bicycle for another twenty, Liza's thoughts lingered on the reason she had been late: a distraught client whose job had been terminated. Martin's gentle admonishment of the past surfaced in her mind, complete with a mental vision of his handsome face. He had been concerned that she was becoming too involved with her clients' problems.
"You can only do so much, sweetheart," he had said, pulling her into his arms. "I know you identify with these people because of your own childhood tragedy, because your father committed suicide and left your family destitute after he was fired." He had feathered her face with kisses, softening his reproach. "Your sensitivity for others is one of the reasons I love you, but I don't want you to lose your professional objectivity."
She had been touched by his words, by his realization of what motivated her choice of career. They had been so close. But after he had taken the job at IA, he had become preoccupied and spent his free time flying the old Cessna airplane he co-owned with two of his musician friends. It was as though he was trying to escape reality, trying to cope with a death -- the death of his musical career. And she felt responsible.
No, she instructed herself. Don't go into the whys, the maybes and the what-ifs. It's not your fault that Martin vanished off the face of the earth. He loved you; he would not have hurt you nor left you without saying good-bye. He did not commit suicide, as his friends suggested. He could not do that to you, knowing it would be the ultimate cruelty. Martin was a sensitive man, a dreamer, but never cruel.
Then what did happen to him? The thought lingered as she completed her exercise, got dressed and headed for the front entrance.
"Hey, Mrs. MacDonough," Kristi called after her.
Liza turned back into the club. "Yes?"
"I called to you twice and you didn't hear me." She smiled, defusing any censure in her tone. "I almost forgot. A man was looking for you a little while ago and I directed him upstairs. Did he find you?"
"You mean, tonight?"
Liza shook her head. "There were only a few people in the exercise room, and I didn't know any of them."
Kristi's round face looked puzzled. "I was reading and didn't pay much attention, but I saw him leave and assumed -- "
"What did he look like?" Liza asked, suddenly anxious.
The girl leaned forward, and her long straight hair fell over her face in a swath of black. "I'm not sure." She was momentarily thoughtful. "Fairly tall I think, brownish hair, dark eyes like yours, just average I guess."
"Did he give you his name?"
"Nope." She wrinkled her forehead. "I don't usually talk much to the old guys."
"Yeah," she said. "Men over thirty."
Liza smiled, trying to remember how it felt to be eighteen or nineteen. She raised her hand in farewell and strode back through the door. Mistaken identity, she thought. The man didn't fit Martin's description, her first thought when Kristi said someone was looking for her.
Get over this, Liza, she told herself. But as she walked along the sidewalk to her car she knew it wasn't possible. Not until she found out what had happened to Martin.
The rain had stopped and above her the clouds were breaking up, pushed by a high-flying current of wind. The night air smelled fresh and invigorating and she breathed deeply, remembering how she and Martin had loved driving with the convertible top down, winter or summer, so long as it wasn't raining. She hesitated after throwing her duffel bag into the trunk and retrieving her briefcase. Why not, she thought. Simple pleasures shouldn't stop just because Martin was gone.
With several quick motions Liza lowered the ragtop. It was only a short drive up First Hill to her condo, not far enough to experience windchill from the westerly breeze blowing inland off Elliott Bay. For those few minutes, with her hair flying and the cold air stinging her cheeks, she felt as young and carefree as Kristi. She could almost picture Martin in the seat next to her.
The ride was too brief, hardly enough time to clear her head. But she was anxious to get upstairs and free Bella from the kitchen where she had left her this morning. Her white Persian cat was recovering from an infection and still prone to losing her bladder control.
She drove into the security garage under her condominium, waited in the load zone for the gate to close behind her, then swung into her parking stall. For a moment she hesitated, her eyes darting over the quiet area of parked cars. Shortly after Martin's disappearance the building had experienced its first break-in -- her apartment. She forced the thought away. She didn't need to scare herself by remembering.
Quickly, she put up the convertible's top and secured it, then with her purse and briefcase in hand, hurried toward the elevator lobby. In seconds she was moving up through the building to the twelfth floor, suddenly exhausted from her long day at work.
Once in her apartment Liza dropped her things in the entry hall before stepping out of her shoes. Then she crossed the white living-room carpet to the floor-to-ceiling windows that faced west over the city and Elliott Bay. Below her the lights of Seattle twinkled like stars in a summer sky, sending a warm glow into the room. The overall effect was calming.
Without turning on a lamp, she padded into the kitchen and poured herself a glass of Chardonnay, her relaxation ritual after a hard day. Moving back to the windows, she sat down in an overstuffed chair and took a sip of wine. Bella rubbed against her ankles, meowing for food.
She'd momentarily forgotten the cat who had been shut into the kitchen.
But the kitchen doors had been open.
Liza froze in the chair, her body on full alert. Her glance darted to all the dark places in the apartment -- the dining room, the hall that led to her bedroom, office and bathroom.
Bella had been left in the kitchen. She distinctly remembered closing the pocket door to the dining room and the opposite one to the entry hall. How had Bella gotten out?
Who opened the doors?
Copyright © 2000 by Donna Anders