Read an Excerpt
By John Dunning
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1995 John Dunning
All rights reserved.
SHE WAS NERVOUS. IT was the first time in years that she'd felt even the slightest lack of self-confidence or poise. Her grace under pressure was a local legend, as the boys in the competing agencies liked to describe it. To not be nervous was as much a part of her persona as the understated touches of makeup she wore. But today she was fighting the jitters, and the strangest part was, nothing was at stake.
Nothing but my life, she thought wryly.
She was forty-four years old, and people said she looked ten years younger. She knew she could dismiss some of that as flattery, smart talk by men who hadn't yet learned that she never responded to that kind of thing. She didn't need men any more, not for that. Her mirror told her all about her exterior self, and she could view the evidence with the same objective detachment that had been her greatest asset as she rebuilt her world. The flatterers were right, she decided: she could pass for thirty-five without breaking a sweat. She was pretty and her face bore a certain vulnerability that men soon learned was indeed skin deep. Dreamer was anything but vulnerable.
She had honed a natural ability to see through people, and had sharpened the instincts that had led her to success. She never went against her instincts any more: they had taken over from the detachment as her finest tools. Let a thousand statisticians point a different way: if Dreamer's hunch said no, darling, do it this way, that's what she did. Nine times out of ten, she was right and the consultants were wrong. At worst, the tenth time was a draw.
She didn't use consultants any more, for just that reason. Her heart was the best consultant she'd ever find, and she didn't have to pay for it. Heart and brains and guts were all there was to this business: if she needed looks, she had that too, but she had never needed it. Dreamer never played the sexual game. It gave her a small flush of pleasure as she stepped from her shower and looked at herself in the full-length mirror across the bedroom. This was simple human vanity, the conditioning of the female to count beauty as one of life's success standards. She hated women who played that game, but it wasn't a crime that her body was still fine, her belly flat and hard, her breasts as firm as those of the twenty-year-old office girl she'd hired last week. Dreamer worked at her fitness: she jogged three times a week, did situps every day, and had frequent epic handball battles with one of the younger men in her agency. She was a good lover, so she thought. But it was getting harder to separate the personal Dreamer from her business identity. She was ever the young executive, even in bed, and it bothered her not to be able to forget the agency even for an hour or two with a man she liked.
The problem manifested in strange ways. Lately she'd begun to suspect that Peter Nelson had been letting her beat him on the handball court. She wondered how she looked to a twenty-eight-year-old hustler whose rise, at least at this agency, depended solely on her approval. The term "ballbreaker" went through her head and made her flinch. She was anything but that, in her own view, but who knew what others thought? One should never get on a personal level with one's employees, and she knew that, but she hadn't climbed to the top by following the rules. When she learned that Peter was a handball player, she invited him to her club. He'd beaten her that day, though not by much, and she'd run him ragged and evened the score next time out. But lately she had begun thinking suspicious thoughts. Peter never turned her down when she proposed a game: never. Not once did Peter Nelson have a previous engagement, a conflict, or even a cold. It just wasn't natural. Wasn't it possible that what she saw as off-hour recreation Peter Nelson saw as business? As an extension of his workday? Once that thought got into her brain, logic drove it on. Peter Nelson might be a much better handball player than he'd ever let on. Then why not just say so? Listen, Dreamer, I need to tell you something. This is really my game. I just missed being world-class. So let's just play for exercise, okay? That would've been okay with her, that would be fine. They might not play as often, but there wouldn't be this damned suspicion on the court between them. She saw his face in her mind and tried to breach his eyes. Honesty was one thing she absolutely demanded, and God help young Mr. Peter Nelson if she ever caught him dogging it just to butter up the boss.
Today she had more important things on her mind than a handball game. Today there was the matter of Bobby Shields.
All week long he'd been trying to see her. She had had her receptionist return his call but he would not be sluffed off on an underling. Still she resisted: she had seen all the gimmicks and knew all the tricks. But at the end of her workday his message was there, on the bottom of the pile of miscellaneous letters and callback requests. He had left his number for the fourth time, and she could almost hear a voice in the plaintive request, underlined twice by Delia as she'd taken the message. Please call back. Please.
Impatiently she punched in the number. It was a cheap hotel on the west side of town. When the switchboard rang his room, he answered at once, like he'd been sitting there all week waiting for her call. "This is Dreamer Calhoun," she said abruptly. "You left word for me to call you."
"Yeah," he said.
There was something between them from that first word. She couldn't define it, but she had felt it before, long ago.
"I left several words," he said.
"I'm sorry. If you want a fast response, you should learn to tell people what your business is."
"This isn't easy," he said. "I'm not exactly sure how I should say it."
"Look, if it's a job you want ..."
"No. Nothing like that."
"What, then?" Dreamer said. "Please, I'm very busy. If you have something to say to me, just say it."
"I think it's possible you may be my mother."
I knew it, she thought. Knew it, knew it, knew it. It had to be. Her hand trembled on the telephone. She looked down at the memo sheet: she had forgotten his name.
"Well, Mr. Shields, I think that's quite unlikely," she said. "Now if that's all you want."
"Wait a minute! For God's sake, don't hang up!"
There was something about him that made her listen. She held the phone loosely while he struggled to catch his breath on the other end.
"I've come a long way," he said. "All the way from the east coast. At least take a look at me. Listen to what I've got to say."
"Mr. Shields, please ... don't do this. It won't work, you know."
"Whatever you're thinking, you're wrong. Look, even I don't know, you hear what I'm saying? All I know is I want to see you. What'll that cost? An hour of your time ..."
"Do you have any idea what an hour of my time is worth? Let me give you a hint: if I billed you for it, it'd cost you more than you spent to get here from the east coast, wherever you came from. And if I saw everyone who came here with that cock-and-bull story, I'd never get any work done. That's not much of an exaggeration. This has been more or less a constant annoyance, ever since that newspaper article ..."
"I don't know anything about any newspaper article. I swear to God, I give you my word, I never read anything about you. I never even heard your name till a month ago." He was talking fast now in his effort to hold her. Again she tried to beg off: again that damned unnamed something held her there, listening to his voice. He sounded almost familiar, like someone she had known a long time ago.
"Enough, Mr. Shields," she said, and hung up.
She might never know why she called him back. Suddenly there he was in her ear again. Bobby Shields. She let a long moment play out while she took a breath. "I'll meet you tomorrow at eleven-thirty," she said. "It's right in the middle of my workday. I don't take lunch any more, but maybe we could meet and have coffee,"
"That'd be dandy." There was a slight twinge of impudence in his voice, or maybe she was misreading him. It was hard when you couldn't see him, when he was only a voice on the telephone. He said, "What do I do, come to your office?"
"No, there's too much going on up here. I'll meet you at Monte's; that's a restaurant not far from here. Just ask for me at the door."
That was yesterday and she still couldn't imagine what had possessed her. He was nothing to her, a faceless drifter who'd blown in from the east. The minute they saw each other they'd both know how absurd this was. And yet ... yet ... there was a son ...
But how do you relate the memory of a curly-topped two-year-old you hadn't seen in two decades to the sound of a grown man's voice on the telephone? That was a lifetime ago, a time she had relegated to her dusty personal archives. There were no ties to those days in her current life: there were no friends who spanned the years, no relatives who might remember even what she'd been then. Her husband of those days was far away, she knew not where, or what he might be doing. She hadn't seen him since 1968.
She dressed slowly, took the elevator down and stood in the lobby, looking at the day.
It had rained that day too, a gray, bleak day like this one. But everything else about that day, and that time, had been different. She wasn't living in a luxury apartment then: there were so few luxuries of any kind in her life in the summer of 1968. What there was was a two-room shack near the town of Beaufort, in South Carolina, a few miles from the garage where Verne worked as a grease monkey. There was an outhouse and a hand pump for drawing water. The house had never been painted. People along the road said it had always been used by crackers, poor white trash, as far back as the War of the Rebellion. You could stand in the front yard and see through the cracks, all the way through the house to the back yard.
She hadn't been surprised, years later, when the New York Times did a study on poverty in America and found the back country around Beaufort to be one of the three poorest places in the country.
The child had had a cold: she remembered that now. A snotty-nosed sickly infant he'd been and a snotty-nosed sickly toddler he'd become. But he was hers and she loved him. He was her world, her life; there was nothing to compare with the feeling she got holding him, loving him, letting him burrow his face between her breasts. When she thought of him now, she never thought of his name, it was too painful even today. Michael. She made the effort and paid the price. Michael. If he'd lived, how different her life would be today. If he'd lived. She had no real reason to think he hadn't lived, did she, but it comforted her—especially after those two desperate years when lead after lead had failed to pan out—to think of him that way. Dead and gone.
I really hit rock bottom with that thought. I had to crawl out of the pit and start over.
Get away from the South, get away from Verne, go someplace where the air tasted fresh and she could smell the grass again.
To the West.
The rain beat down relentlessly. She asked the doorman to call her a cab, so she wouldn't have to walk the block from her parking lot to her office.
Her office. How possessive we get over a suite of rooms and a jumble of filing cabinets and a collection of furniture and people. Her people. How ridiculous. It seemed even more ridiculous when she remembered how she'd hit town in 1969, with twelve dollars cash and the clothes on her back. How little I knew. But in a way, she'd known everything: she'd been born knowing everything, born whole, with complete inner vision and a self-awareness that was indestructible. She would not know defeat because she had been to the pits and tasted the earth, and she had absolutely nothing to lose.
Two years of assembly-line jobs. Night school. Another stretch of time in an office. Five years of money-grubbing and a loan from the Small Business Administration had put her on the road to freedom. She'd paid back the SBA in four years and become something of a local star in the process. The press began writing stories about her. They discovered things: that she'd gone only through eleven grades of school; that her life hadn't always been so rosy. They found out about Michael and wrote about it: one of them even found Verne and got a gee-whiz nothing quote on his ex-wife's success. He was somewhere in the South, with a new wife and a litter of kids. All this was covered in an upbeat way, good for her, good for the company. The press liked her, and what they liked best of all was her style. She was sassy and quick and honest. She could tell a client or a bank president to go to hell if they crossed her, and if she didn't like a product, she wouldn't represent the company, no matter how much money they might have.
Life was good again.
Now here came Bobby Shields, to disrupt all that.
HE WAS LATE. That was the first thing she didn't like about him, but there would be other things, tiny little annoyances that were magnified in her mind until there were vast gulfs between them. She'd been sitting in Monte's almost fifteen minutes when he came sauntering in. He was a young man with dark hair and an impressed suit. She knew him at once, but there was something about him that continued to defy her. If she expected to see herself or Verne in his face, she could forget that. But there was nothing about Bobby Shields that branded him an impostor, either. Her own features were fair but Verne had been dark. Bobby Shields was dark. His arms and chest were hairy, like Verne's: a great tuft of black hair exploded over the top of the shirt he wore, which was open at the neck. He hadn't shaved since sometime yesterday. He looked like a hobo, like he'd ridden the rails from wherever he'd been and had slept in the suit three nights running. This irritated her, but she told herself it didn't matter. She wasn't interviewing him for a job in her company.
The waiter left him with a backward glance. He sat across from her and they looked at each other.
"So you're Dreamer," he said. "I wondered what this would be like."
"What is it like?"
"I don't know."
He looked at her until it irritated her. "You're late," she said.
"I had to walk. Thought I knew where I was going, then found out I was going away from here instead of toward it. You gotta remember I wasn't born here."
His tone was arrogant. Gone were the conciliatory manners he'd used on the telephone. That had accomplished its purpose, to get her here, and now he had something else in mind. She wanted to get up and leave him there, but again something powerful held her in her chair.
"Now what?" she said.
He gave a small laugh. "I was hoping you could tell me that."
"You might start by telling me something about yourself. Where you came from would be a good place to start."
"Jacksonville, Florida. What kind of name is Dreamer, anyway?"
"It's a Charleston name," she said. "South Carolina. Where I was born and raised."
"People sometimes have different names there."
"So where's your accent?"
"I got rid of it."
"That's the only way you do something like that."
"Why'd you want to dump it?"
"An accent types you in people's minds. I don't want to be typed."
"So much for the accent. What about your family?"
"I thought we were going to talk about you."
"No, now." She felt the need to assert herself and get the upper hand back.
But Bobby Shields went on as if she hadn't spoken. "Calhoun's a big name in the South. Maiden name, I take it."
"What's the other name?"
"My married name was Willard."
"I like Calhoun better. That's got more elegance, if you know what I mean. Like John C. Calhoun, you know what I mean? He was from South Carolina, wasn't he?"
"So they tell me."
They sat for another minute.
"We don't seem to be getting anywhere," Bobby Shields said.
"I made a suggestion a while ago but you ignored it." She looked at her watch. "The clock is running, Mr. Shields."
"So what do you want to know?"
"Why are you here?"
"I told you that."
"Mr. Shields ..."
"Call me Bobby." He smiled, fresh and maddening. "I think that's only right, don't you?"
"Mr. Shields, listen to me. If you're going to keep this up, we'll never get anywhere. I'm very close to walking out on you. I want to know specifically, right now, why you came here."
"Believe it or not, it was a psychic."
"A psychic. You know, one of those people ..."
Excerpted from Dreamer by John Dunning. Copyright © 1995 John Dunning. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.