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Liz Mayfield had kicked off her shoes long before lunch, and now, with her bare feet tucked under her butt, she simply ignored the sweat that trickled down her spine. It had to be ninety in the shade. At least ninety-five in her small, lower-level office.
It was the kind of day for pool parties and frosty drinks in pretty glasses. Not the kind of day for sorting through mail and dealing with confused teenagers.
But she'd traded one in for the other years ago when she'd left her six-figure income and five weeks of vacation to take the job at Options for Caring MothersOCM.
It had been three years, and there were still people scratching their heads over her choice.
She picked the top envelope off the stack on the corner of her desk. Her name was scrawled across the plain white front in blue ink. The sender had spelled her last name wrong, mixing up the order of the i and the e. She slid her thumb under the flap, pulled out the single sheet of lined notebook paper and read.
And her head started to buzz.
You stupid BITCH. You going to be very sorry if you don't stop messing in stuff thats not your busines.
The egg-salad sandwich she'd had for lunch rumbled in her stomach. Still holding the notebook paper with one hand, she cupped her other hand over her mouth. She swallowed hard twice, and once she thought she might have it under control, she unfolded her legs and stretched them far enough that she could slip both feet into her sandals. And for some crazy reason, she felt better once she had shoes on, as if she was more prepared.
She braced the heels of her hands against the edge of her scratched metal desk and pushed. Her old chair squeaked as it rolled two feet and then came to a jarring stop when a wheel jammed against a big crack in the tile floor.
Who would have sent her something like that? What did they mean that she was going to be very sorry? And when the heck was her heart going to stop pounding?
She stood and walked around her desk, making a very deliberate circle. On her third trip around, she worked up enough nerve to look more closely at the envelope. It had a stamp and a postmark from three days earlier but no return address. With just the nail on her pinkie finger, she flipped the envelope over. There was nothing on the back.
Her mail had been gathering dust for days. She'd had a packed schedule, and it probably would have sat another day if her one o'clock hadn't canceled. That made her feel marginally better. If nothing had happened yet to make her very sorry, it was probably just some idiot trying to freak her out.
That, however, didn't stop her from dropping to the floor like a sack of potatoes when she heard a noise outside her small window. On her hands and knees, she peered around the edge of her desk and felt like a fool when she looked through the open ground-level window and saw it was only Mary Thorton arriving for her two-o'clock appointment. She could see the girl's thin white legs with the terribly annoying skull tattoo just above her right knee.
Liz got up and brushed her dusty hands off on her denim shorts. The door opened and Mary, her ponytail, freckles and still-thin arms all strangely at odds with her round stomach, walked in. She picked up an OCM brochure that Liz kept on a rack by the door and started fanning herself. "I am never working in a basement when I get older," she said.
"I hope you don't have to," Liz said, grateful that her voice sounded normal. She sat in her chair and pulled it up to the desk. Using her pinkie again, she flipped the notebook paper over so that the blank side faced up.
Mary had already taken a seat on one of the two chairs in front of the desk. Pieces of strawberry blond hair clung to her neck, and her mascara was smudged around her pale blue eyes. She slouched in the chair, with her arms resting on her stomach.
"How do you feel?" Liz asked. The girl looked tired.
"Fat. And I'm sweating like a pig," Mary replied.
Liz, careful not to touch or look at the notebook paper, reached for the open manila folder that she'd pulled from her drawer earlier that morning. She scanned her notes from Mary's last visit. "How's your job at the drugstore?"
Mary had taken the job less than three weeks earlier. It had been the last in a string of jobs since becoming Liz's client four months ago. Most had lasted only a few days or a week at best at the others. The bosses were stupid, the hours were too many or too few, the location too far. The list went on and oncountless reasons not to keep a job.
She shrugged her narrow shoulders. "I gave a few friends a little discount on their makeup. Stupid boss made a big deal out of it."
"Imagine that. Now what do you plan to do?"
"I've been thinking about killing myself."
It was the one thing Mary could have said that made Liz grasp for words. "How would you do it, Mary?" she asked, sounding calmer than she felt.
"I don't know. Nothing bloody. Maybe pills. Or I might just walk off the end of Navy Pier. They say drowning is pretty peaceful."
No plan. That was good. Was it just shock talk, something destined to get Mary the attention that she seemed to crave?
"Sometimes it seems like the only answer," Mary said. She stared at her round stomach. "You know what I mean?"
Liz did know, better than most. She leaned back in her chair and looked up at the open street-level window. Three years ago, it had been a day not all that different from today. Maybe not as hot but there'd been a similar stillness in the air.
There'd been no breeze to carry the scent of death. Nothing that had prepared her for walking into that house and seeing sweet Jenny, with the deadly razor blade just inches from her limp hand, lying in the red pool of death.
Yeah, Liz knew. She just wished she didn't.
"No one would probably even notice." Mary said, her lower lip trembling.
Liz got up, walked around the desk and sat in the chair next to the teen. The vinyl covering on the seat, cracked in places, scratched her bare legs. She clasped Mary's hand and held it tight. "I would notice."
With her free hand, Mary played with the hem of her maternity shorts. "Some days," she said. "I want this baby so much, and there are other days that I can't stand it. It's like this weird little bug has gotten into my stomach, and it keeps growing and growing until it's going to explode, and there will be bug pieces everywhere."
Liz rubbed her thumb across the top of Mary's hand.
"Mary, it's okay. You're very close to your due date. It's natural to be scared."
"I'm not scared."
Of course not. "Have you thought any more about whether you intend to keep the baby or give it up for adoption?"
"It's not a baby. It's a bug. You got some bug parents lined up?" Mary rolled her eyes.
"I can speak with our attorney," Liz said, determined to stay on topic. "Mr. Fraypish has an excellent record of locating wonderful parents."
Mary stared at Liz, her eyes wide open. She didn't look happy or sad. Interested or bored. Just empty.
Liz stood up and stretched, determined that Mary wouldn't see her frustration. The teen had danced around the adoption issue for months, sometimes embracing it and other times flatly rejecting it. But she needed to make a decision. Soon.
Liz debated whether she should push. Mary continued to stare, her eyes focused somewhere around Liz's chin. Neither of them said a word.
Outside her window, a car stopped with a sudden squeal of brakes. Liz looked up just as the first bullet hit the far wall.
Noise thundered as more bullets spewed through the open window, sending chunks of plaster flying. Liz grabbed for Mary, pulling the pregnant girl to the floor. She covered the teen's body with her own, doing her best to keep her weight off the girl's stomach.
It stopped as suddenly as it had started. She heard the car speed off, the noise fading fast.
Liz jerked away from Mary. "Are you okay?"
The teen stared at her stomach. "I think so," she said.
Liz could see the girl reach for her familiar indifference, but it had been too quick, too frightening, too close. Tears welled up in the teen's eyes, and they rolled down her smooth, freckled cheeks. With both hands, she hugged her middle. "I didn't mean it. I don't want to die. I don't want my baby to die."
Liz had seen Mary angry, defensive, even openly hostile. But she'd never seen her cry. "I know, sweetie. I know," She reached to hug her but stopped when she heard the front door of OCM slam open and the thunder of footsteps on the wooden stairs.
Her heart rate sped up, and she hurriedly got to her feet, moving in front of Mary. The closed office door swung open. She saw the gun, and for a crazy minute, she thought the man holding it had come back to finish what he'd started. She'd been an idiot not to take the threat seriously. Some kind of strange noise squeaked out of her throat.
"It's all right," the man said. "I'm Detective Sawyer Montgomery with Chicago Police, ma'am. Are either of you hurt?"
It took her a second or two to process that this man wasn't going to hurt her. Once it registered, it seemed as if her bones turned to dust, and she could barely keep her body upright. He must have sensed that she was just about to go down for the count because he shoved his gun back into his shoulder holster and grabbed her waist to steady her.
"Take a breath," he said. "Nice and easy."
She closed her eyes and focused on sucking air in through her nose and blowing it out her mouth. All she could think about was that he didn't sound like a Chicago cop. He sounded Southern, like the cool, sweet tea she'd enjoyed on hot summer evenings a lifetime ago. Smooth.
After four or five breaths, she opened her eyes. He looked at her, saw that she was back among the living and let go of her waist. He backed up a step. "Are you hurt?" he repeated.
"We're okay," she said, focusing on him. He wore gray dress pants, a wrinkled white shirt and a red tie that was loose at the collar. He had a police radio clipped to his belt, and though it was turned low, she could hear the background noise of Chicago's finest at work.
He reached into his shirt pocket, pulled out a badge, flipped it open and held it steady, giving her a chance to read.
"Thank you, Detective Montgomery," she said.
He nodded and pivoted to show it to Mary. Once she nodded, he flipped it shut and returned it to his pocket. Then he extended a hand to help Mary up off the floor.
Mary hesitated, then took it. Once up, she moved several feet away. Detective Montgomery didn't react. Instead he pulled his radio from his belt. "Squad, this is 5162. I'm inside at 229 Logan Street. No injuries to report. Backup is still requested to secure the exterior."
Liz stared at the cop. He had the darkest brown eyesalmost, but not quite, black. His hair was brown and thick and looked as if it had recently been trimmed. His skin was tanned, and his lips had a very nice shape.
Best-looking cop she'd seen in some time.
In fact, only cop she'd seen in some time. Logan Street wasn't in a great neighborhood but was quiet in comparison to the streets that ran a couple blocks to the south. As such, it didn't get much attention from the police.
And yet, Detective Montgomery had been inside OCM less than a minute after the shooting. That didn't make sense. She stepped forward, putting herself between the detective and Mary.
"How did you get here so quickly?" she asked.
He hesitated for just a second. "I was parked outside."
"That was coincidental," she said. "I'm not generally big on coincidences."
He shrugged and pulled a notebook out of his pocket. "May I have your name, please?"
His look and his attitude were all business. His voice was pure pleasure. The difference in the two caught her off balance, making her almost forgive that he was being deliberately evasive. There was a reason he'd been parked outside, but he wasn't ready to cough it up. She was going to have to play the game his way.
"Liz Mayfield," she said. "I'm one of three counselors here at OCM, Options for Caring Mothers," she added. "This is Mary Thorton."
The introduction wasn't necessary. The girl had been keeping him up at nights. Sawyer knew her name, her social security number, her address. Hell, he knew her favorite breakfast cereal. Three empty boxes of Fruit Loops in her garbage had been pretty hard to miss. "Miss Thorton," he said, nodding at the teen before turning back to the counselor. "Is there anybody else in the building?"
The woman shook her head. "Carmen was here earlier, but she left to take her brother to the orthodontist. Cynthia, she's the third counselor, just works in the mornings. We have a part-time receptionist, too, but she's not here today. Oh, and Jamison is getting ready for a fund-raiser. He's working off-site."
"He's the boss."
"Okay. Why don't the two of you"
Sawyer stopped when he heard his partner let loose their call numbers. He turned the volume up on his radio.
"Squad, this is 5162, following a gray Lexus, license Adam, John, David, 7, 4, 9. I lost him, somewhere around Halsted and 35th. Repeat, lost him. Keep an eye out, guys."
Sawyer wasn't surprised. He and Robert had been parked a block down the street. Sawyer had jumped out, and Robert had given chase, but the shooter had at least a two-block advantage. In a crowded city, filled with alleys and side streets, that was a lot. Every cop on the street in that general vicinity would be on the watch now, but Sawyer doubted it would do any good. Mirandez's boys would have dumped the car by now. He turned the volume on his radio back down.
"Why don't you two have a seat?" he said, trying hard to maintain a hold on his emotions. They hadn't gotten the shooter, but maybejust maybehe had Mary Thorton in a position where she'd want to talk.
The counselor sat. Mary continued to stand until Liz Mayfield patted the chair next to her.
Facing both women, he said, "I'd like to ask you a few questions. Are you feeling up to that?"
"You okay?" Liz Mayfield asked Mary.
The girl shrugged. "I suppose."