Ellen leaned forward over the sink and took a last, critical look at her makeup in the bathroom mirror. She could see that the eyes were good. The way to look trustworthy was to look trusting, and her eyes seemed big and blue and wide-open. The color on the cheeks was good, too: she could tell it was clear, smooth, and natural, even though the mirror was pocked with black spots, and the light in here was harsh and yellow. But she intended to be there early enough to slip into the ladies' room, do a recheck, and make any necessary revisions before she was seen. She had been training herself not to take anything for granted since she was nine years old, and she was twenty-four now. Not to anticipate problems was to invite them.
She went back into her kitchen, picked her purse off the table, and slung it over her shoulder, then opened her thin leather briefcase to be sure she had everything. She always carried a small kit consisting of the brochures and forms necessary to commit a customer to one of the common policies: term life, whole life, health, home owner's, auto. Before she had left the office last night, she had added some of the more exotic ones to cover art, jewelry, planes, and boats. The application forms she carried always had her name typed in as agent, with her telephone extension and office and e-mail addresses in the other boxes, and her signature already in the space at the bottom. She never left the home office in doubt about who should get the commission.
Clipped to the inside of her briefcase she carried a slim gold pen that felt good in a customer's hand when he signed his name, and she kept an identical one, never used, out of sight below it so there could never be a moment when she was ready to close on a customer and couldn't. Taking a few simple, habitual precautions was usually enough to keep her from lying in bed at night worrying about lost opportunity, failure, and humiliation.
She reached into the other side of the divider in her briefcase, pulled out the claim forms she had prepared, and examined them. She was not proofreading the entries. She knew there were no mistakes. She had been up late, studying the files, filling in the blank spaces on the forms with a typewriter, so there would be no real paperwork left to do. This morning
she used the forms to test her memory of family names, addresses, dates.
She had no illusion that she was engaged in anything but an act of dissimulation. It was conscious, studied, and practiced, and anything less than a flawless performance would be a disaster. When she had all the personal details by heart it made her listener feel as though she cared about him. Having them wrong was to be caught out as a hypocrite and a fraud. If she convinced her listener that she cared — really had his interests at heart — then she was not halfway there, she was all the way.
Ellen made sure the coffee was unplugged and the lights were all off before she went out the door and locked it. As she turned, she heard a sudden noise over her shoulder and jumped. She stared in the direction of the sound, and decided it was nothing — just an orange falling from the tree in the corner of the yard. But it was still an hour before the sun would
be up, and even Pasadena could be a bit creepy in the darkness and silence.
She knew that if she screamed, she couldn't expect the other four girls who lived in the small apartments in this building to come to her rescue, but they would at least wake up and look out their windows to see what was
going on. If somebody grabbed her, she must not rely on her neighbors altruism. She must yell "Fire!"while she fought. She had read that this was what the experts advised, and so that was what she would try to do.
She wished she weren't feeling so jumpy. For the past two days she had been increasingly anxious, and the discomfort seemed to have gotten more vivid this morning. She had to remind herself that this was not something to be afraid of. It was an opportunity. If she used it well, it was a step toward getting everything she wanted.
She looked down the empty driveway at the street, then stepped toward the open garage where her car was parked, and took the time to check and be sure the car was locked. This compulsion to check everything made her a bit ashamed. She had not just been worrying about accomplishing what she had to do this morning. She had been having feelings that something was wrong. At times, she had detected the sensation that someone was watching her. Yesterday she had been walking down the street in Old Town, looking in shops not far from the office, and had sensed eyes on her. She had
stopped abruptly, pretending to look in a store window, and studied the sidewalk behind her in the reflection. She had waited until the other pedestrians had walked past her and had determined that they all appeared harmless before she moved on. She had told herself that she had just sensed some man staring at her. They did that, after all, and they meant
no harm. But she had not convinced herself: when they meant no harm, they were always easy to catch. They wanted to be caught.
She made her way down the driveway to wait for the cab to arrive. She glanced at her watch. It was still not even five a.m. There was no reason to feel impatient. The cab wasn't late; she was early. Probably she had been spending too much time alone lately.
She defended herself from her own accusation. The isolation had not really been her fault. Even after a year here, the people in the Pasadena office were still the only people she knew in southern California. She had seen at the beginning that none of them were likely to become close friends. At best they were allies, and at worst they were obstacles, fixed objects she
would have to work her way around. To get what she needed, she would have to deceive them about her feelings, keep certain information she picked up away from them, and use it to her advantage, all the while smiling and evading. She had done that. No wonder she was nervous.
She stared up the dark street, searching for headlights. In the heavy stillness of the residential neighborhood, she could hear distant engine sounds at the far end of the next block, where the street met Colorado Boulevard. Every few seconds, a car or truck would swish past the intersection, but none of them made the turn. The faintness of the sounds reminded her of how alone she was.
She had read an article in a women's magazine that said if a person had a feeling — an uneasy intuition that something was wrong, that a man she was with made her uncomfortable, that a place made her feel vulnerable — she should not ignore it. Her eyes had probably seen something, her ears had probably heard something, but her mind was trying to brush it aside and explain it away because denial was easier than facing the danger.
Ellen caught herself forming a clear mental image of John Walker. She could see his dark brown hair, his calm, wise eyes. She was sure it was the uneasiness that had brought him back. When she had been with him, she had always felt safe. It was not just because he was tall and broad-shouldered and physically fit. He had a quiet, thoughtful manner, and he was reliable. She felt a sharp pang that surprised her. She could have been with him — maybe not married him, because that would have ruined everything, but at least had him nearby. Driving over here before dawn to pick her up was exactly the sort of thing he would have done, and she would have known — positively known — that he would be here on time. She made an effort to push him out of her mind and obscure his image in her memory. The worst thing for a person to worry about was some decision she had made in the past.
From the Hardcover edition.