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Matrimony and firefighting. They ain’t for cowards.
—Pete McMullen, shortly after his first divorce
I hadn’t known Larry Hunt thirty-five minutes before he popped the question. But the fact that he was scowling at me as if I were the devil’s handmaiden suggested our relationship would never work. The fact that he was sitting beside his wife also posed a problem for our connubial bliss. Weighing all the signs, I guessed they’d been married for about twenty-four years.
But I’m not a psychic. I’m a psychologist. I used to be a cocktail waitress, which paid about the same and boasted a saner clientele, but kept me on my feet too much.
Two weeks prior, Mrs. Hunt had called my clinic to schedule a therapy session. My practice, L.A. Counseling, is located on the south side of Eagle Rock, only a few miles from Pasadena, but hell and gone from the glamour of New Year’s morning’s Rose Bowl Parade.
As a result of that call, Mr. Hunt now seemed to be wondering how the hell he had landed in some shrink’s second-rate office, and had decided to fill his fifty minutes by probing into my personal life. But I suspected what he really wanted to know was not whether I was married, but what made me think I was qualified to counsel him and his heretofore silent wife.
“No, Mr. Hunt, I’m not married,” I said.
If he hadn’t been a client, I might have told him it was none of his damned business whether I was married, ever had been married, or ever intended to be married. Ergo, it was probably best that he was a client, since that particular answer might have seemed somewhat immature and just a tad defensive. Not that I secretly long for matrimony or anything, but if someone wants to lug salt downstairs to the water softener for me now and again, I won’t spit in his eye. Even my thirty-seventh ex-boyfriend, Victor Dickenson, sometimes called “Vic the Dick” by those who knew him intimately, had been able to manage that much.
“Larry,” Mrs. Hunt chided. She was a smallish woman with sandpaper-blond hair and a lilac pantsuit. Her stacked platform sandals were of a different generation than her clothing and made me wonder if she had a disapproving daugh- ter who had taken it upon herself to update her mother’s footwear. Her eyes were sort of bubblelike, reminding me of the guppies I’d had as a kid, and when she turned her gaze in my direction it was pretty obvious she’d been wondering about me herself.
It’s not uncommon for clients to think a therapist has to be half a couple in order to know something about marriage. I soundly disagree. I’ve never been a lobster, but I know they taste best with a pound of melted butter and a spritz of lemon.
I didn’t have a lot of information about the Hunts, but I knew from their client profiles that Kathy was forty-three, four years younger than her husband, who worked for a company called “Mann’s Rent ’n’ Go.” They both sat on my comfy, cream-colored couch, but to say that they sat together would have been a wild flight of romantic fancy. Between Mrs. Hunt’s polyester pantsuit and Mr. Hunt’s stiff-backed personage, there was ample space to drive a MAC truck, flatbed trailer and all.
I gave them both my professional smile, the one that suggests I’m above being insulted by forays into my personal life and that I would not murder them in their sleep for doing so.
“You’re an okay-looking woman,” Mr. Hunt continued. “Got a good job. How come you’re still single?”
I considered telling him that, despite past relationships with men like himself, I had managed to retain a few functioning brain cells. But that might have been considered unprofessional. It might also have been untrue.
“How long have you two been married?” I asked, turning his question aside with the stunning ingenuity only a licensed psychoanalyst could have managed. It was five o’clock on a Friday evening, and I hadn’t had a cigarette for five days and nineteen hours. I’d counted on my way to work that morning.
“Twenty-two years,” said Mrs. Hunt. She didn’t sound thrilled with the number. Maybe she’d been doing a little math on her way to work, too. “This May.”
“Twenty-two years,” I repeated, and whistled with admiration while chiding myself for overguessing. It was her pastel ensemble that threw me. “You must be doing something right, then. And you’ve never had any sort of therapy before today?”
“No.” They answered in unison. By their expressions, I had to guess it was one of the few things they still did in tandem.
“Is that because you didn’t feel you needed help or because—”
“I don’t believe in this crap,” Mr. Hunt interrupted.
I turned toward him, brilliantly even-tempered, which shows how mature I’ve become. Five years ago I would have taken offense. Twenty years ago I would have called him a wart-faced turd head and given him a wedgie. “Why ever are you here, then, Mr. Hunt?” I asked, my dulcet tone a soft meld of curiosity and caring.
“Kathy says she won’t . . .” He paused. “She wanted me to come with her.”
So ol’ Kat was withholding sex. Uh-huh.
“Well,” I said, “as I’m sure you’re aware, you don’t have to tell me anything you’re uncomfortable with.”
I glanced from one to the other again. Mr. Hunt beetled his brows. Mrs. Hunt pursed her lips. They didn’t really look like they’d be comfortable with much. Maybe a noncommittal, how-was-your-day kind of exchange—if no prolonged eye contact was required.
I cleared my throat. I hadn’t gotten much of a bead on the Hunts yet. But the law of averages would suggest that he wanted more sex and she wanted, well, maybe a nice facial and a one-way ticket to Tahiti. She looked tired. She also looked stressed enough to blow her lacquered curls right off her head.
My current forms don’t ask whether or not my clients have kids, but in the Hunts’ case, written confirmation was about as necessary as soft drinks at a bachelorette party. She had that old-woman-who-lives-in-the-shoe look about her. They’d probably spawned a good dozen of the little buggers.
“And of course,” I continued, “everything hinges on your own specific goals.”
“Goals?” asked Mr. Hunt, and rather suspiciously. As though I were trying to trick him into mental health and conjugal happiness.
“Yes.” I swiveled my chair a little and crossed my legs. I was wearing a ginger-hued sleeveless sheath and matching jacket by Chanel. Buying clothes secondhand at a little consignment shop on Sunset Boulevard, I’m able to dress marginally better than your average L.A. panhandler and can still afford my flax-colored sling-back sandals for $12.95. The shoes matched the ensemble’s piping and did good things to the muscles in my lower legs. I looked fantastic. Who needs a husband when you’re wearing Chanel and look fantastic? “What are you hoping to accomplish with these sessions?” I asked.
Mr. Hunt stared at me with a mixture of irritation and absolute stupefaction. I turned toward Kathy, hoping for a bit more acumen.
“What is your main purpose for coming here, Mrs. Hunt?”
“I just . . .” She scowled and shrugged. I got the feeling she might have had quite a bit of practice at both. “I thought it couldn’t hurt.”
Ahhh. A ringing endorsement. Someday I’ll have that embroidered and framed above my desk.
“So you’re not entirely content with your current relationship.” It was a guess, but judging by the anger that rolled off them like toxic fumes, I felt pretty confident about it.
“Well . . .” She throttled the strap of her beige handbag. It was the approximate size of my front door. “No one’s completely happy, I suppose.”
I gave her an encouraging smile and turned to her husband. “And what about you, Mr. Hunt? Is there anything you’d like to see changed in your marriage?”
“Things are okay,” he said, but he was still glaring at me.
I gave him my “Aha” smile, as if I knew something he didn’t. Maybe I did, but chances were, he didn’t care where my house key was hidden or how to wax his bikini line without screaming out four-letter expletives.
“So you’re here just to make your wife happy,” I said. It was a charitable way of saying I knew she’d dragged him in kicking and screaming. Nine times out of ten, that’s how it works. Men tend to think everything’s hunky-dory so long as the little woman hasn’t put a slug between his eyes within the past seventy-two hours. “It was extremely considerate of you to agree to come, then. Is he always so considerate, Kathy?” I asked, and turned toward the little woman.
The change was instantaneous and marked. Her lips flattened into an almost indiscernible line and her eyes narrowed. For a second I wondered if she’d brought a handgun with her. God knows, her purse was big enough to house a cannon and the man o’ war that carried it. Ol’ Larry might want to sleep with one eye open.
“He leaves used Kleenexes in the family room,” she said. Her tone was cranked tight, her knuckles white against her mammoth satchel—as if she’d caught Larry sans pants with the woman in charge of weed whacker rentals.
To the uninitiated, Kathy’s statement might seem like a strange opening gambit, but I’d been around long enough to realize it’s not the sordid affairs that most often end a marriage. It’s the toothpaste left in the sink. Psychology Today says, “The human psyche is a complex and fragile phenomenon.” Personally, I think people are just funky as hell.
“I have a sinus problem,” Larry said, apparently by way of defense.
“So you can’t put your Kleenex in the wastebasket?” His wife’s tone had risen to drill sergeant decibel. I glanced from one to the other like a Wimbledon spectator.
“You leave the orange juice out every damned morning. You don’t see me making a federal case of it.”
“That’s because you don’t give a crap!” she countered. “I could leave dog doo-doo on the counter and you’d just march off to work like everything was sunshine and roses.”
“I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” he said, his voice rising. “I’ve been bringing home paychecks twice a month for twenty-two years. You think I’d do that if I didn’t care? You think I give a damn how many floor grinders Mann’s rents out per week?”
“Yeah, I do,” she said, cheeks red and eyes popping. “I think you care more about floor grinders than you do about me.”
The room fell into abrupt silence. I refrained from grinning like a euphoric orangutan. The first half an hour had been the conversational equivalent of pabulum. But this . . . this was something I could sink my teeth into.
Fifteen minutes later I was ushering the Hunts out the front door. They still looked less than ecstatic, but they had agreed to try a couple of suggestions. He would pick up after himself on a regular basis and she would make him breakfast on Tuesdays and Sundays.
I waved congenially, then turned with a sigh and slumped into one of the two chairs that faced the reception desk. My receptionist was behind it. Her name is Elaine Butterfield. We’d bonded in fifth grade, agreeing that boys were stupid and stinky. In general terms, I still think they’re stupid. But sometimes they smell pretty good.
“Want to pick up some Chinese?” I asked.
Elaine stuffed a file in the cabinet and didn’t turn toward me. “Can’t,” she said. “I have an audition tomorrow morning.”
Elaine is an actress. Unfortunately, she can’t act.
“So you’re not going to eat?”
“Chinese makes my face puffy.”
Elaine’s face has never been puffy in her life. At ten she’d been pudgy and buck-toothed; at thirty-two she’s gorgeous enough to make me hate my parents and every fat-thighed antecedent who had ever peed in my gene pool.
“What are you auditioning for?” I hadn’t heard a single hideous line in several days, which isn’t like my Laney. Usually she spews them around the office like pot smoke at a Mick Jagger concert.
“It’s just a little part in a soap.”
“A soap opera?” I asked, managing to shuffle straighter in my chair. “You love soap operas. They’re steady work.”
“Yeah, well . . .” She shrugged and stuffed another file. “I probably won’t get the part.”
“Laney?” I tried to see her face, but she kept it turned away. “Is something wrong?”
“No.” She was fiddling through the V’s. The only file left out was Angela Grapier’s. Elaine has an IQ that would make Einstein look like a shaken-infant victim. I was pretty sure she knew Angie’s name came before “Vigoren.”
I stood up. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. I’m just tired.”
“You don’t get tired.”
“Laney,” I said, rounding the desk and touching her shoulder. She turned toward me like a scolded puppy.
I blinked, unable to believe my eyes. Her face was puffy. And her nose, flawlessly shaped and perfectly pored, was red. “What?” I said.
“It’s . . .” She shook her head. “Nothing. Don’t worry about it. I just—”
“Jeen?” I parroted, but then the truth dawned. For a few weeks now, she’d been dating a myopic little geek named Solberg, to whom I’d had the bad manners to introduce her. It had been patently cruel on my part, but I’d been in a bit of a bind. Some people call him J.D. I could only assume his real name was Jeen, since Elaine isn’t vindictive enough to think of such a nasty nomenclature on her own. Unfortunately, the same obviously couldn’t be said of his parents. He was short, balding, and irritating, but he had a cushy job at a place called NeoTech, and a really kick-ass car. “What about him?” I asked.
She shrugged, but her eyes were still puppy-dog sad.
“What about him?” I asked again, and suddenly I was imagining the worst. “He didn’t . . . Oh God, Laney! He didn’t touch you, did he?”
She didn’t answer.
Anger exploded like firecrackers in my head. Some people think I have a bit of a temper. My brother Michael used to call me Crazy Chrissy. But he’d earned every purple nurple I ever gave him. “Damn that nerdy little troll!” I cursed. “I warned him not to—”
“No.” Elaine shook her head, scowling. “That’s not the problem, Mac.”
I winced. Dear God, did that mean Solberg had touched her? Did that mean she’d liked it? Did that mean the world was crumbling beneath my very . . .
“Damn it, Laney,” I said, quiet now with awful dread. “He didn’t hit you, did he?”
“Of course not.” She lifted her bottle-green gaze forlornly to mine. If I weren’t a raging heterosexual I would have begged her to marry me on the spot.
I relaxed a little. “Then what’s the problem?”
“He just . . .” She shrugged again. “He hasn’t called me, that’s all.”
I waited for the bad news. She wasn’t forthcoming. “And?”
She gave me a disapproving glance as she shoved the Grapier file somewhere in the XYZ group.
“I haven’t heard from him much since he left for Las Vegas.”
“Oh, yeah,” I said. I remembered her telling me about NeoTech’s esteemed presence at a big-ass technology convention. J.D. was supposed to be some kind of geekmaster there. I should have been paying more attention, but I’d been trying to deal with a few issues of my own. My septic system, for instance. It had been installed sometime before the Miocene Epoch and kept threatening to spill its venom down the hall and into my antiquated kitchen.
Then there was my love life. Well, actually, there wasn’t.
“He’s probably just busy,” I said.
“We were supposed to go to the grand opening of EU last weekend.”
I shook my head, not understanding.
“Electronic Universe,” she explained. “State-of-the-art-electronics store. The only one in the country, I guess.”
“You can go next weekend. It’ll probably still be open.”
She glanced down at her hands. “I don’t care that we missed it, of course. I mean, if you’ve seen one gray piece of plastic, you’ve pretty much seen them all, but . . . he was really looking forward to it and . . .” She shrugged as if to dismiss the whole situation. “He’s been gone almost three weeks.”
“Well . . .” I began, then, “Three weeks?” It hadn’t seemed like nearly that long since I’d seen the little Woody Allen look-alike. “Really?”
“Seventeen and a half days,” she said.
I winced. She’d been counting. A girl has to be pretty loopy to count.
“You said it was a really big deal,” I reminded her. “He’s probably just tying up loose ends. That sort of thing.”
“He said he’d call every day.”
“And you haven’t heard from him?”
“I did at first. He phoned every few hours. And e-mailed. Sometimes he’d fax me.” She gave me a watery smile. “Left text messages with little hearts.”
Yuck. “Uh-huh,” I said.
“And then . . . nothing.” She shrugged, glanced at the desk, and shuffled a few papers around. “I don’t even know if he won the Lightbulb.”
“It’s an industry award. He was really jazzed about being nominated when he left, but now . . .” She cleared her throat. “I think he met someone else.”
I blinked. “Solberg?”
“He was in Las Vegas,” she said, as if that explained everything. It didn’t. She continued as if she were lecturing a retarded duckling. “There are more beautiful women per capita in Vegas than in any other city in the world.”
She scowled a little. Somehow it didn’t create a single wrinkle in her rice-paper complexion. I would hate her if I didn’t love her to distraction. “It’s tough to compete with a hundred topless girls juggling armadillos and breathing fire.”
“Armadillos?” I asked. I couldn’t help but be impressed. Those armadillos are tough.
“He’s got a lot going for him, Mac,” she said.
I kept my face perfectly expressionless, waiting for the punch line. It didn’t come. “Have you heard him laugh?” I asked.
She gave me a sloppy little grin. “He sounds like a donkey on speed.”
“Whew,” I said. “Then we are talking about the same guy.”
She tilted her head in a kind of unspoken censor. “I’ve dated a lot since moving out here, you know.”
I couldn’t argue with that. Laney got marriage proposals from guys who hadn’t yet exited the womb.
“But Jeen . . .” She paused. I didn’t like the dreamy look in her eye. “He never once bragged about how many push-ups he can do or how fast he can run a mile.”
“Well, that’s probably because he can’t do—”
She stopped me with a glance, which was probably just as well. Sometimes tact isn’t my number one attribute. I’ll let you know when I figure out what is.
“I don’t even know his astronomical sign,” she said.
“He’s a Scorpio.”
Sadly, I did.
“Laney,” I said, taking her hand and trying to think of a nice way to inform her that her boyfriend was a doofus, “I know you like him and everything. But really—”
“He’s never tried to get me into bed.”
My mouth opened. Solberg had propositioned me approximately two and a half seconds after I’d first met him. I would like to think that’s because I’m sexier than Elaine, but apparently I’m not brain-dead, despite the five days and twenty hours since my last cigarette.
“You’re kidding,” I said.
“Does he call you Babe-a-buns?”
“Stare at your chest till his eyes water?”
“Pretend he stumbled and grab your boobs?”
She nodded. “I thought he really cared about me. But . . .” She laughed a little, seemingly at her own foolishness. “I guess he just wasn’t interested. You know . . . that way.”
I raised a brow. Just one. I reserve two for purple extraterrestrials with wildly groping appendages. “We’re still talking about Solberg, right?”
“Geeky little guy? Has a nose like an albatross?”
Now she just looked sad, which made me kind of ashamed of myself, but really, the whole situation was ridiculous. Solberg would sell his soul for a quick glimpse of an anemic flasher. He’d probably auction off his personal computer to hold hands with a woman of Elaine’s caliber. And she actually liked him. What were the odds?
“Listen, Laney, I’m sorry. But really, you don’t have to worry. Just call him. Tell him you . . .” I took a deep breath and tried to be selfless. “Tell him you miss him.”
“I did call him. In Vegas.”
It was my turn to scowl. Laney generally doesn’t call guys. All she has to do is play the eeney-meany-miny-mo game and snatch a suitor off her roof. “No answer?” I asked.
She cleared her throat. Emotion clouded her eyes.
“Laney?” I said.
“A woman answered.”
“A woman? Like . . .” It was inconceivable. “Someone like one of us?” I motioned between us. “Human?”
She wasn’t amused.
“Well . . .” I chortled. “It was probably housekeeping.”
“Or . . .” I was floundering badly, but my faith in Elaine was undaunted. “Maybe it was . . . his great-aunt come to visit her favorite . . . nerd nephew.”
She looked away. Were there tears in her eyes? Oh, crap! If there were tears in her eyes I was going to have to find Solberg and kill him.
“Did you ask who you were speaking to?” I asked.
“No. I . . .” She shook her head. “I was so surprised. You know. I just asked if he was there.”
“She said no.”
“I was . . . I don’t know.” She shrugged, looking unsettled as she chased a few more papers across the desk. “I called back later.”
“Did you leave a message?”
“On his cell and his home phone.” She glanced at the desktop again. “A couple of times.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, reeking sincerity. “But I’m afraid the answer is obvious.” She raised her gaze to mine. “Our dear little geek friend is dead.”
I couldn’t help but laugh. “Listen, Laney,” I said, squeezing her hand, “you’re being ridiculous. Solberg is wild about you. He probably just got delayed in Vegas.”
“He probably got laid in Vegas.”
I stared. Elaine Butterfield never uses such trashy language.
“Maybe I should have . . .” She paused. “Do you think I should have slept with him?”
I refrained from telling her that would have been a sin of biblical proportions. There’s a little thing called bestiality. I was sure even Jerry Falwell would think it made homo- sexuality look like petty theft by comparison.
“Elaine, relax,” I said. “I’m sure he’ll be back in a couple days. He’ll bring you tulips and call you Snuggle Bumpkins and Sugar Socks and all those other disgusting names he comes up with.”
“Angel Eyes,” she said.
“He calls me Angel Eyes.” She raised the aforementioned orbs toward me. “Because I saved him.”
“From what?” I hated to ask.
“From being a jerk.”
Holy crap. If I had never met this guy I might actually like him. “He’ll be back, Laney,” I said.
She drew a careful breath. “I don’t think so, Mac. I really don’t.”
I laughed. “You’re Brainy Laney Butterfield.”
“I’m trying to be practical about this.”
“Elaine Sugarcane. No Pain Elaine. The Sane Lane.”
She gave me a look.
“Butterfeel?” I suggested. “Nutterbutter?”
“I hated the last one most,” she said.
“Yeah.” Middle school had been a challenge. “Simons was a creep of major proportions.”
She nodded distractedly. “He could rhyme, though. Which is about all you can ask of—”
“A WASP whose brain is bigger than his balls,” I finished for her. It was a direct quote from my brother Pete. I’ve always been afraid he meant it as an insult.
Elaine only managed a weak smile.
“Listen, Laney.” I sighed. Twelve years at Holy Name Catholic School had taught me a lot of things. Mostly how to sneak boys into the rectory for a little uninterrupted heavy breathing. But I hadn’t known until that moment that I’d learned to be a martyr. “I’m going to find Solberg for you.”
She shook her head, but I hurried on.
“Because I know . . . I’m positive he’s just been delayed.”
“Mac, I appreciate your faith in my appeal. Really.” She squeezed my hand. “But not every man thinks I’m God’s answer—”
“Don’t say it,” I warned, and backed away. “I don’t want to hear any self-effacing crap coming out of your mouth.”
“Quit it,” I warned again. “If you say one negative thing about yourself, I’m going to blame it on Solberg. And then . . .” I dipped into my office and grabbed my purse from beneath the table by the Ansel Adams print. “When I find him, I’m going to kick his skinny little ass into the next solar system.”
“Mac, you can’t blame him just because he doesn’t find me attractive.”
“You shut your dirty little mouth.”
“He dumped me.”
I turned toward her with a snap. “He did not dump you!”
“What are you talking about?”
“Listen!” I pulled open the front door. “He might be a stunted little wart, but there’s no reason to think he’s gone totally insane. Well . . .” I corrected, “there’s not conclusive evidence that he’s gone totally insane.”
“I’m going to go find him,” I said.
And when I did, I was either going to whack him upside the head . . . or give him a nice Irish wake.
If money don’t buy happiness, what the hell does?
—Glen McMullen father, husband, and homespun philosopher
Solberg lived in La Canada in a sterile, New Age kind of mansion that overlooked San Gabriel’s grandeur to the north and Pasadena’s flashy wealth to the south. I knew, because I had driven him home not three months earlier. He’d been drunk and gropey. I’d dumped him on his bed, kicked him in the shins, and borrowed his Porsche to get myself home. Well, maybe “borrowed” isn’t quite the right term, but my point is, I knew how to get to his place. I can’t cook worth refried beans, but I have a kick-ass sense of direction.
According to the digital clock on my dashboard, I arrived at his house at 10:17. I was working on the maxim that there’s no time like the present. Maybe there isn’t, but the present was damned dark and kind of stormy. If I was one of those girls who had watched horror flicks as a kid, I would have been spooked. Unfortunately, I was. I’d seen A Nightmare on Elm Street three times and ralphed four.
But I was all grown up now, with a Ph.D. and enough panting credit cards to prove it, so I parked in front of Solberg’s three-car garage and got out. My little Saturn dinged at my exit. It’s kind of paranoid about having its keys left in its ignition, but I figured it wasn’t in much danger of being jacked in a neighborhood where residents pay more for their cars than I had for my education. Besides, the LAPD likes to hide out in that part of town. There was probably a cop in every donut shop between Montrose and Glendale.
Still, I felt a little breathless as I strode up the inclined concrete and glanced to my right. The sprinklers were sprinkling, sweeping an arc across the smooth expanse of Solberg’s immaculate lawn. Illumined by his security lights, it looked to me like it had been mowed recently, but I suspected that was no clue to its owner’s present whereabouts. He probably had a posse of twelve come every Wednesday and Friday to prevent crabgrass from making a move on his pedigreed turf. Over in Sunland, where I call home, I would have welcomed crabgrass with open arms and three-in-one fertilizer. Almost anything is preferable to thistle and dust.
I rang the doorbell. It played a tinny techno song inside the bowels of his house. I waited. No one answered. I tried again. The same tune played. Glancing around once more, I placed the edge of my hand against my brow and peered through the window beside the door. The foyer was lit by a gigantic chandelier made of dangling bits of rectangular pieces of glass. The entrance marched off in monochromatic sterility in every direction. There was not a wall within thirty feet. Neither was there a scrawny little geek nerd.
Wading through his prickly shrubbery, I checked the next window. The view was pretty much the same, but darker. Traipsing along the side of the house while trying to avoid his overzealous sprinklers, I checked every possible architectural orifice. Not a door had been left open or a window unlatched. Hmmf.
By the time I’d reached the far side of his house I was perplexed. Where was the little weasel? It seemed to me he’d been breathlessly waiting his entire pathetic life for a woman who didn’t want to exterminate him, and when such a girl comes along—voilà! All of a sudden, he’s gone.
Of course, Elaine’s father is a minister, I mused. Maybe he’d heard all about Solberg and had been praying on his daughter’s behalf. Maybe Solberg had been sent straight to purgatory without passing Go. Maybe the Methodists had more pull than the Catholics. According to my mother, she’d prayed for her offspring every single night since our conception. Judging by the current state of her progeny, I figured Mom better stay on her knees, because my nicotine habit was one of the lesser evils in a clan that accumulates DUI citations like other folks collect coins.
I’d reached the front door again and I was out of ideas.
Scowling through the darkness, I spotted Solberg’s mailbox at the end of the drive and eyed my surroundings. All remained quiet, and I figured, Why not.
It was a ridiculously long walk. At my house, I can reach out my window and fetch my morning paper. Holding my breath, lest Krueger be lurking in the bougainvillea and hear me wheezing like a fat guy on a stress test, I glanced down the street again. No one appeared to be lurking, so I opened the box with slow uncertainty. It was crammed to overflowing. I took out the contents, closed the lid, and marched nonchalantly up the drive.
I quickstepped into my Saturn and power-locked the doors. Snapping on the interior light, I creaked my neck to the rear and checked the backseat. Krueger wasn’t there, either. I took a few fortifying breaths and rummaged through Solberg’s mail.
There was a bill from the electric company, three notes from credit card people, and several letters from environmental organizations asking him to help save everything from amoebas to sea lions.
But not a lot of clues. And regardless how concerned I am about the plight of the sea lions—I mean, God knows we don’t want to lose a species that makes me look svelte—I was a little too curious about the whereabouts of the little geekster to give them much thought at that precise moment.
So I flipped through the rest of his mail. There were two periodicals that looked like they came to his house whether or not he wanted them to and a postcard from his dentist, saying he was due for his semiannual checkup. Nothing too intriguing there. But the final circulator did catch my interest.
It was a magazine called Nerd Word. I pulled it out from the bottom of the pile and stared at it agog. J. D. Solberg, hitherto and rightfully known as “the Geek,” hadn’t picked up his preferred techno mag. I knew it was his favorite because Elaine had told me he’d been featured in it on more than one occasion, and if I knew anything about J.D., which, sadly, I did, he would adore any publication that didn’t make him look like a half-witted jackass on—
A rap sounded at my window. I shrieked like a startled spider monkey and jerked toward the noise.
A woman stood beside the Saturn, slightly bent, just drawing her hand away. I eased my heart into a sedate gallop and wondered if it was too late to hide the mail. Stealing from the USPS is a federal offense. Isn’t it? Or maybe—
The stranger was still standing there, but her smile was starting to droop a little and her brow beginning to furrow.
I took a steadying breath. She was about my age, slim, and neatly dressed, and as far as I could tell, there wasn’t a single razorlike implement attached to her fingers. So far so good. Then again, she was wearing gardening gloves.
She brightened her smile a hopeful notch and motioned for me to roll down my window.
Polite Catholic upbringing insisted that I do so. But for all I knew, she might be hiding a bloody trowel behind her khaki-colored capris. Then again, it seemed unlikely in this neighborhood. Anyone who could afford the house payments probably had the wherewithal to hire someone to slice unsuspecting psychologists to death for them.
And she was still staring at me.
After some deliberation, I pressed the window button. Nothing happened, as is always true when the car isn’t running. So I hit “Unlock” and opened the driver’s door. The Saturn dinged, its usual insecurities still intact. I pulled out the key. “Can I help you?” I asked, and managed, I thought, to imbue my tone with a nice blend of arrogance and courtesy. As if I had a God-given right to be rifling through Solberg’s mail like some weird-ass stalker.
“Hi.” She gave me a dazzling smile. Her teeth were aligned like so many perfect little pearls. I decided then and there to try one of those over-the-counter whiteners.
“Hello,” I said. Psychologists are paid to listen. Sparkling repartee is not my stock-in-trade.
Her capris, I noticed, were almost big enough to fit Barbie’s best friend, Midge, and her cropped, salmon-colored top didn’t quite reach her waistband. I noticed, too, that there wasn’t an ounce of cellulite to save her from the loathing of the rest of the female populace.
“I was working in my backyard.” She motioned vaguely toward the east. “When I saw your car in the drive.”