a mystery novel by Ann Lynes
"You don't have a sister," he commented, leaning back, setting his spiral pad on his lap.
I turned back to my computer, printing airline tickets for my travel clients. I had started Martin's Travel Agency ten years ago in my home. I had converted my garage into an office and hired the best travel agents in the Phoenix area. At first, business was slow, but now--thanks to a dedicated staff--we recently opened our fifth office. "She died ten years ago." Meeting his gaze, I frowned.
"I was in a very abusive relationship and was pregnant."
"What does that have to do with your sister?" He scratched his chin.
I licked my lips and took a deep breath. "My sister had been a leukemic child. She had taken a turn for the worst when I began to have complications." I rubbed my nose.
"We ended up in the emergency room together. Remember we lived in a very small town with only one doctor and one air-lift helicopter."
"What happened in the emergency room?"
I rolled my hands into tight fists, trying to hold back the tears. I drew a ragged breath as the tears flew down my cheeks. "Both of us needed to be air-lifted to the larger hospital. The air-lift would have been too crowded for all of us. She insisted they take me first."
"She died before she arrived at the larger hospital?"
The tears flowed even harder.
"Is that why you haven't left your house since she died?" He edged toward the end of the love seat.
I nodded. My twin brother was getting married, and I hoped Doctor Schmitz and I could work through this. I really wanted to attend Graham's big moment. There was something beyond that door that struck fear into my heart.
He scribbled something on his spiral pad. "Am I the first person you have told this to? Outside of your family?"
Smiling through the tears, I rose from my seat. "I haven't been out of the house for ten years. Who else--besides my family--am I going to tell?" I walked into the kitchen from my desk.
"Would you like something to drink?," I called to him from the refrigerator. "I made some lemonade, if you'd like some."
"I'll take a glass," he paused as I continued to hear him scratch his pencil against his pad. I wondered what he was writing. About how crazy he thought I was? "I suggest we start out slow. First we'll have you envision going outside, then we'll have you step out on the porch for a few days."
I came back into the living room, handing him the lemonade. "How long is all this going to take? Graham is getting married in four weeks."
He was silent for a few moments, ticking off something on his fingers. "I guess we can do it in that amount of time." He stood up too.
"I have to tell you these sessions will be intense."
"Fifty more dollars a session." I was already paying fifty dollars more than his normal rate for him to make these house calls. If I could actually leave my home to drive to his office, I wouldn't need to see him anymore.
"Being able to attend my brother's wedding means a lot to me."
"In that case, wouldn't you just like to go to dinner with me?," Doctor Schmitz asked me for the hundredth, maybe thousandth time since I had started seeing him in these sessions.
"I know of this new Internet cafe that opened a few months ago."
He knew I spent my nights "surfing the Internet." I considered his offer, maybe for the first time. It had the potential to speed up the process like kicking a smoking habit "cold turkey." However, overall would it do more harm than good? I decided I had to take the chance this dinner might get me from point A to point B more swiftly.
"I'll pick you up around seven." He called back as he let himself out the door, leaving a half full glass of lemonade.
* * * * *I walked into the bride's dressing room. I was surprise to find April alone, without her wedding attendants. Graham and I had known April since we were children. She had gone to our elementary and high school, not to mention her family lived next door to us growing up. Graham started dating her in high school. They were perfect for each other, had a lot in common, and were very much in love. No one was surprised when they decided to get married.
She smiled at my reflection in the full-length mirror. "Cassie, it is so good to see you. I know it means so much to Graham." She reached behind her to attempt to zip up her dress.
I promptly stepped in to help her. "You look so beautiful, April." She was a tall, thin, blond with the softest facial features I'd ever seen. Her eyes were the color of the sea.
"Tell me about this guy you've been seeing, Cass." She turned around to look me in the eye.
"I hear he's a doctor."
"A psychologist." I nodded. Richard and I had been together almost every night since that first date. He had taken me to the Spaghetti Company. We had a nice dinner, went dancing, and top the night off with a night cap. The next night we took in a movie, then there was the Psychology Awards Dinner where Richard brought home several honors.
"I was seeing him professionally."
"When are you two getting married?" She smiled, motioning for me to take a seat in one of the wicker chairs near the open window. The sun shining through, casting a shadow on the floor of the room.
"I met his parents and sister last week."
"Sounds serious." She folded her hands and crossed her legs. "Are you happy?"
I appeared to think about that a moment as I watched the children jumping rope in front of the church. I knew, though, something wasn't right between Richard and I. He was a wonderful man--kind, loving, thoughtful--but I didn't love him.
"There are no sparks between us. He could provide me with so much. Security, material possessions, and he would die for me, if I needed him to."
She was silent for a moment. "Is there someone else?" Her questions were deliberately thought-out. Her voice was soft, and her eyes were filled with concern.
"Come on, this is me you are talking to. We've been best friends since second grade."
"It's nothing like that." I took a deep breath.
"He keeps hinting about going to bed with him. I can't figure out why there is no magic with him."
She studied my face, leaning back in her chair. "I think magic is overrated." She glared out at the sun poking out from behind the dark clouds.
"Are you and Graham having problems?" I knelt beside her. I watched as the tears fell from her eyes and rolled off her cheeks. I touched her hand.
She turned to meet my gaze. "I know he loves me, but it's not the same. It's very routine. We have dinner at the same time. We never go out anywhere. He always comes over, and we watch television together."
I nodded. "You're bored, aren't you?" I smiled.
"I'm sure things get mundane after dating so long."
"But I can't get him to understand. The more I try to get him to listen, the more I end up yelling and listing off his faults." She glanced back at the window.
"I am so frustrated, and I hate myself for screaming at him."
"The only question is do you love him enough to continue this relationship?" From the pure fact that she was fretting about this, I was sure she still loved him. I would state my reputation on it, if I had one.
She stood up and reached for the maid of honor's dress--puffy pink, silk dress with a bow in the back--that hung on a hanger in the closet. Handing it to me, she had this far-away look in her capuchino-colored eyes. "I keep wondering what it would have been like to have been with Quentin. He was so..." her voice trailed off.
"So irresponsible, so unproductive, so absolutely wrong for you?" I had secretly been in love with Quentin myself. I think the fact he was totally wrong for me was the turn on. It was a purely sexual relationship. He was such an attentive lover, so gentle and conscientious. I still fantasized about the times we had together. Until I remember how I became another number on his list. And he did keep a physical list. He was in love with April--heart and soul.
"If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn't change anything." She folded her arms. "I love Graham, and I would never do anything to jeopardize that."
I striped out of the clothes I had on and jumped into the dress. The silk felt especially soft against my skin, so soft it sent a warm shiver down my spine. Everything seemed sharpened since I left my house. I was seeing things like I did the first time.
"Then it sounds as if you've made your choice."
A knock came upon the door. "We're ready for you."
We glanced at each other, giving each other a hug before making that trek down the aisle.
The wedding was beautiful. April looked fabulous in her Victorian-laced dress with a Cathedral train. Tears formed in my eyes as I watched Graham and April exchange vows. I kept glancing at Richard, wondering why I didn't feel anything for him. It ticked me off to think of all I would be losing if I were to break things off with him. At this point in my life, I wondered whether love was important or not. Wasn't security more important? Someone who worshipped the ground I walked on and would treat me like royalty? Maybe April was right. Maybe magic was overrated.
* * * * *Several months had gone by, and Richard and I had been doing more and more things together--attending his social engagements, my family events, shopping, movies,etc.
One night Richard was pretty secretive about where we were headed. He picked me up in his crimson BMW and was silent until we pulled into a huge parking lot of a large pale green building that appeared to be a hotel. Please don't let him expect me to go to bed with him.
"Where are you taking me?" I asked Richard, looking up into his eyes. He only smiled as he led me up the cement sidewalk to a large hotel with flower beds surrounding the double glass door. The roses were red, pink, and yellow lined up like soldiers at roll call. I repeated the question as we walked through the doors.
Again he only smiled. "It is a surprise." He walked me around the corner, then opened the doors to a conference room.
The room was completely dark. A surprise party was my first thought. I knew I was right when the someone switched the light on, and all my friends and family popped up from their hiding places behind the tables and chairs, shouting, "Surprise!"
"My birthday is not for another week," I said in a loud voice. I glanced around the people looking up at me expectantly. Graham. My parents. My grandmother. They laughed. Everyone rushed me, standing in a line to talk to me. I noticed most of the people in line were whispering among themselves, smiling and pointing. I hated social occasions. I was a loner. After all, I'd spend ten years locked up in my house.
After I finished the line, I made my way to a private table in the corner; Richard followed me.
The room was filled with balloons--silver, red, and blue. The centerpieces on the tables were long-stemmed red candles. I stared at the flickering flame.
Seconds later, my mother brought over a handful of multi-colored presents, covering her face partway.
"Happy birthday, sweetheart." Her hair had grown grayer, more creases had developed around her eyes, her fingers had curled up since the days when I was growing up, but she was still the most beautiful woman in the world. She turned to Richard. "Can you go get the other presents?"
She waited until Richard was out of earshot before taking his seat. "I like him, Cassie."
"I know you do." I touched her hand. "He's got everything you wanted for me. He's a doctor, has security, and loves me."
"Marry him, baby." She smiled brightly, showing her never-stained dentures. I looked into her emerald eyes, mirror-images of my own. "He'll be able to take care of you."
"I can take care of myself," I let myself say as I played with my red doily place mat.
She revoked her hand, putting it around my shoulder. "I understand that, but what if you lose your job or decide to start a family?" Oh God, not the "when are you going to make me a grandmother" speech. According to my mother, my daughter Allison--who I gave up for adoption--didn't count because she was created with my ex-, a man she never could stand. Even in the nine months he and I had dated, I had to sneak out to see him. That should have been a clue to how disastrous our marriage would be, but I didn't pay attention.
Just then, Richard returned carrying more presents. He gazed at me, motioning to the three large sheet cakes with a computer on each in blue, pink, and green frosting.
"It's time to cut the cakes, Cassie."
I stood up and followed him to the long center table. He linked his arm with mine. Richard grabbed the microphone from the stand, tapping it before speaking into it. "We are all here tonight to wish Cassie a wonderful birthday." Everyone froze in their seats, or where they were standing. A hush fell over the audience. "But I have gathered you all here for another reason." My pulse raced. What did he have in mind?
He turned to the band. "Play something slow." The band started playing "Blue Moon"--the soft tones of the piano, guitar, drums, trumpets, and cymbals. He knelt down on one knee; microphone in one hand as he took my other hand. Oh no!
"Cassandra Martin, I have loved you from the first moment I ever saw you." He smiled, squeezing my hand.
"Will you marry me?"
The audience waited with baited breath. My mother's words rang in my ears. Richard was a wonderful person. I cared a lot about him. I just didn't love him. The last time I married, I married for love. Maybe friendship could be the basis of a good marriage. I needed time to think.
"I don't want you to make a decision now. I'll give you a week to make up your mind."
I smiled, nodding slowly. Stunned, I picked up the knife and started by slicing a vertical line an inch away from the right edge. I barely realized it when Richard touched my shoulder. "Are you okay?"
I looked up, turning around. "Just surprised." I feigned a smile. "We hadn't even discussed marriage."
"I love you, and I want to spend the rest of my life with you." He lifted my chin and kissed me full on the lips.
"It feels right."
Maybe to him, but I didn't feel the same way. Oh God, what was I going to do?
That night, Richard stayed the night at my house. The rain was falling so hard that the thunder and lightning were making the house light up and shake at the same time. It almost had the special effects of a television alien abduction.
I watched Richard sleep. I was feeling extremely restless, wondering what to do, whether to say "yes" or "no." I slipped out of bed, sitting down in front of my PC. Turning it on, I moved my mouse to activate my Internet account. I automatically went into IRC. E-mail pals never lasted very long, so I only checked my e- mail once a week. I decided to join #chat.
At first, I just got the standard "Hi Cassie" greetings. Then Helter Skelter sent me a private message, asking me what I was doing up at this hour.
I glanced down, realizing I was only wearing an azure, silk nightgown that barely covered my backside. I really didn't know what to tell him. I didn't want to spill my guts to a perfect stranger.
"Contemplating life," I wrote back. I added, "And you?"
With a whois Helter Skelter command, I found out that Helter Skelter was actually J.D. Hoffman on Net Com in Washington, D.C. Two thoughts struck me--who would go by the nickname Helter Skelter, and what did the initials J.D. stand for?
He wrote back after a few minutes. "Trying to pass the time. My wife left me after I discovered she was cheating on me."
Oh God, I didn't want know this man's history. I didn't want to be obligated to this man, if he was a man. Sometimes men acted as women because women were treated better by Net users. It rarely worked vice versa.
"I'm sorry. I've been burned by marriage myself."
I kicked myself for telling him that. It would a direct invitation for him to tell me about his marriage. I didn't want to be depressed. I glanced back at Richard.
"What happened in your marriage?"
What the hell? This man was a perfect stranger, a person I most likely would never talk to again. "He was very abusive. We had a child together, but I put her up for adoption."
I walked into the kitchen, grabbing a glass from the cabinet. Pouring wine into the glass, I sipped it as I walked back to the computer, warming my insides.
"Do you ever regret putting her up for adoption?
I stared at the screen a moment. Putting the glass to my lips, I finished the wine. "No. She wouldn't have had a very happy home with me."
In my mind, I imagined what J.D. Hoffman looked like. I saw a tall, sturdy man with dark hair with chiseled features leaning against my doorway. Dressed in a navy blue suit, I envisioned him loosening his tie. Oh, those smoky gray eyes. I broke my reverie, chastising myself for fantasizing about a man I'd never met. Especially with Richard in my bed.
"I have a ten year old son. He lives with his mother." He wrote back.
I smiled. "That's how old my daughter would be," I typed, watching a tear plop onto the keyboard. I refilled my drink, bringing the bottle back to the desk.
"Would you like to join me in a private chat room?"
"Sure." Within a few minutes, we were on our own channel. No other users listening to our conversation.
"What do you look like?," he asked. I knew the question would come up, but I never expected it to come up this soon.
I twisted my mouth before typing anything. I decided to be brutally honest. "I am not drop dead gorgeous like Michelle Pfeiffer, or extremely ugly like a toad. I am a woman with classic features, dark hair, light complexion, tall and small built. More like Winona Ryder."
I frowned at my description, sending it off anyway. "What do you look like?"
I felt masculine arms wrap themselves around my neck. "I hope you aren't having cyber-sex with some man on there."
I looked up into Richard's eyes. He was kidding, poking fun at the time I spent on the Internet. I was under the impression if I pursued a relationship with him, the Internet may present a major problem. Moving his hands over my chest, he whispered, "Let's go to bed."
I quickly shut off the computer, allowing him to led me to bed.
* * * * *When I finally fell asleep around seven in the morning, I had a dream I had been corresponding with J.D. for two years. I went to answer the door one day to find a man in a designer Italian black suit standing on my doorstep. When I looked into his eyes, they turned a deep red. His knuckles and face slowly grew more hair. His teeth and nails became longer.
Screaming, I sat upright in bed. Richard had already sneaked out to attend to his patients. I assured myself I'd never meet J.D. again. It was an one-time deal.
After taking a shower, I put on a gray sweatshirt and jeans. I tried to put the nightmare out of my mind, but it wouldn't go away. As I was attempting to fix myself breakfast, I dropped two eggs on the floor before getting them onto the skillet. Yolks covered the floor. Reaching for some paper towels on top the refrigerator, I picked up the yolks. I dragged a bucket to the sink, filled it with water and Clorex, then mopped the entire floor.
Sitting down in front of my computer with a cup of coffee--black, I burned my lips as I tried to sip the coffee. Damn. Turning on the computer, I went into my Internet account. A woman's raspy voice said, "You have new mail."
Unconsciously, I moved into my e-mail file. In my box, there was a letter from J.D.
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Chapter Six · Chapter Seven · Chapter Eight · Chapter Nine · Chapter Ten
Chapter Eleven · Chapter Twelve · Chapter Thirteen
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