Authors: Kate Watterson
A Tom Doherty Associates Book
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Love truth, but pardon error.
It felt like he was in a dream. The kind where one moment you fly free-form through blue skies and white perfect clouds, and the next you have lost the magic and are plummeting to the earth at screaming, flesh-splattering velocityâexcept he didn't wake up in time to save himself.
Standing in the glare of a simmering July sun, he felt the emergence of nightmarelike sweat coating his skin. He could taste it bitterly in his mouth and feel the essence of it seeping under his armpits. Like some menacing bird, the day had taken wing into the fantastic and the macabre.
The body was facedown in the dirt. Using his sleeve to wipe his face, he blinked rapidly, trying to focus. Her perfect profile was toward himâthe delicate arch of her nose superimposed in the powdery dust, the gentle protrusion of her chin, the sightless, staring eyes. A small trickle of blood trailed languidly from one nostril, crusting against the small opening and coiling wetly on the ground.
She was undeniably dead. As much dust as the spot on which she lay.
Ashes to ashes â¦
He could barely think. Everything seemed to merge into one long moment of heat, acrid dust, and stale blood. Fumbling with the reality of the moment, his mind rejected that stark, limp image in the road even as his stomach knotted in acknowledgment.
A crow screamed from a nearby post. Like some outraged shrew, it poured abuse into the sultry air, the sound painful against the ringing in his ears. Jolted into action by the sudden noise, he opened and closed his hands, swallowing hard.
He had to hide the body. The idea floated to him in a continuation of his nightmare illusion, a disembodied notion born of panic and necessity. It was done and now he had to compound his crime by hiding the body.
Bury her deep
. The idea became a silent chant in his brain.
Bury her so deep that no one would ever find her and know the truth.
The awful truth.
She had been mugged, right there on Michigan Avenue with hordes of people passing by and paying absolutely no attention.
Victoria Paulsen struggled back to her feet and stared at the broken strap of her purse dangling uselessly from her hand. It had happened so fast. One minute she was slogging along in the infernal drizzle that had plagued the city all week, and the next she was skidding down on one knee, her shoulder half jerked out of its socket as some teenage kid in a sodden sleeveless shirt and baggy shorts disappeared into the crowd with her purse.
It was the icing on a perfectly horrible day.
No one stopped. She stood, mouth open in protest and affront. People flowed past, in tailored suits with newspapers on their heads, in skimpy skirts and cropped tops, in nylon shorts and jogging shoesâuncaring, hurrying, self-absorbed citizens who huddled under umbrellas and raincoats and swept right on by.
She hadn't even shouted. There had been no time.
A warm stream of water slowly seeped down her neck. Her knee was bleeding, her panty hose were torn, and she had lost her driver's license, credit cards, and address book. Trembling, she groped at the side of her raincoat. The metallic lump was a relief. Thank heaven her keys were in her coat pocketâone blessing among a thousand curses.
The street smelled oily, exhaust mingling with gasoline and insistent rain. A well-dressed man bumped her shoulder and darted away without an apology, waving for a taxi. Not knowing what else to do, Victoria started walking again, clutching the broken strap as the one piece of physical evidence she had to prove the assault.
It took twenty long, miserable minutes before she was trudging up the steps of her apartment building. Twenty minutes to reflect on calling the police and reporting the theft. Not to mention the lost file at the office that had consumed her morning, her inadequate, expensive, and stone-cold lunch, and a completely unproductive afternoon.
A thumping headache began to knock suspiciously at her temples. She'd never had a migraine; maybe today would round itself out nicely and oblige her with a first.
Trailing up two flights of stairs, Victoria tiredly shoved her key into her front door. A soothing bath and some cold pizza would finish the evening. Anything else sounded far too exhausting.
She took two steps inside and knew the nightmare wasn't over. A faint scent hung in the air, frightening by its presence where it wasn't expected. She stopped dead, arrested by the unfamiliar smell, her stomach clenching into tight knots.
Her brain raced, registering more disturbing impressions. God in heaven, it was too dark, even with the rain. Surely she'd opened the drapes this morning before she left for work? She simply stood there, frozen in place, coat dripping, keys dangling, trying to explain to herself that the scent of aftershave and the persuasive gloom did not necessarily mean a strange man was in her apartment. Her heart seemed to move up in her chest, impeding every effort she made to breathe.
She jumped a foot and let out a small cry of alarm.
Lights came on, illuminating the tiny living room. A man stood by a small table located where her couch normally sat, his hand on the light switch. He was of medium height, well built, with trim brown hair and expertly tailored dark slacks below an immaculate sport shirt.
“Michael!” The name exploded forcefully from her lips
Anger and relief replaced the white-hot knife of fear in her veins. “What the hell are you doing here?” She stood, knees quaking, willing her breathing back to normal.
Michael Roberts' eyebrows shot together as he took in her disheveled appearance, focusing on her shredded stockings and the trickle of blood on her leg beneath her short, dark skirt. A welcoming smile faded into concern. “Making you dinner,” he said slowly. “Surprising you. What happened?”
“You scared me half to death, that's what happened. Is that a new cologne?” Maybe it was wrong to snap at him, to take the frustrations of the day out on him, but the words tumbled out. “Why are you off so early anyway?”
She knew his schedule very well, as they worked at the same office. Of course, she was just a secretary and he was an attorney.
Still shaking, Victoria jerked at her soaking raincoat, dropping the lonesome strap of her purse onto the floor.
His face stiffened slightly, but Michael was not one to let a childish outburst interfere with his line of questioning. He moved across the room quickly to take her raincoat, holding it carefully away from his beautiful trousers. He said evasively, “Your leg is bleeding.”
“Believe me, I know.”
“Did you fall?”
“No, I was pushed.” Victoria felt the squish of sodden leather as she shifted her weight. One heelâthe heel of her new, expensive pumpsâwobbled as it separated depressingly from the sole. She swiped at her wet hair, shoving it off her forehead.
She knew what she must look like after a sprawl on the sidewalk and blocks and blocks in the soaking rain. It didn't help to have Michael so immaculate and relaxed. Beyond his shoulder, she could see that he'd taken the liberty of rearranging the furniture to accommodate a table in the center of the living room. Snowy white linen, candles, and opulent red roses in a vase met her gaze. There was also the gleam of crystal that certainly did not belong to her.
“Pushed?” Michael prodded, forehead wrinkling. He absently shook her coat. A rain shower littered the floor.
“He stole my purse.” The memory was infuriating. Her eyes smarted with unwanted tears. “Grabbed it and pushed me. Hard. I fell. No one helped me. Not a soul even stopped, Michael.
“I swear it, sometimes this city gets to me, it really does. There were no policemen around either. I guess I'll have to call from here and report it. Not that they'll ever catch him. My license, credit cardsâall gone. Good thing I didn't have much cash with me.” She ended in a small sob, the enormity of the catastrophe overwhelming. Being wet and injured and tired did not add up to dealing with feelings of intrusion and assault.
“Are you hurt?” Michael's tone was soothing. It sounded a shade too professional, his expression just properly concerned. Her coat had made a small puddle on the linoleum by his feet.
She shook her head. The ache in her temples had spread and concentrated. God, what a terrible day! She put a hand to her right temple and rubbed. Her blouse was clinging gelatinously to her skin, soaked from the long walk in the rain. Outside, the storm still blundered on, tapping at the shuttered windows of the living room.
Michael said calmly, “Good. Tell you what. You go clean up; I'll get you a glass of wine. We'll worry about things like police and credit cards later, okay?”
“Can I do that?” she asked doubtfully. “Don't I have to report it right away?”
“I'm a criminal lawyer, sweetheart, remember? I'll take care of everything.”
It sounded good. Michael was that way, even tempered, practical, infinitely in charge at all times. The dictatorial air was occasionally too close to pompous for comfort, but now was not one of those times. The last thing she wanted was to fill out a police report and hear how futile it was to try and catch her assailant.
Michael stepped closer, still mindful of her dripping coat, and touched her chin, looking into her eyes. The subdued lighting did nice things to the chiseled line of his nose and softened what could be an uncompromising mouth. “Go on,” he urged. “Dinner is going to be delivered at seven thirty. Chilean sea bass from that little bistro you love downtown. It won't wait, darling.”
She should have known, she thought wryly as she headed for the bedroom to shower and change, that with Michael the phrase “making you dinner” simply involved making arrangements to have someone else make you dinner. Still, he had gone to a great deal of trouble. Stopping short at the door of her bedroom, she suddenly wondered if she knew why.
, she thought, groaning inwardly. She couldn't deal with it.
Please â¦ not tonight
* * * *
The wine was wonderful. The fish was superb, the ambience very carefully orchestrated. Into the background faded the purse snatcher, the screeching paralegal actually responsible for the missing file, the warm, dark droplets flooding the skies. As incessantly as her woes had built up during the day, Victoria felt them bow diffidently away.