Carolyn stared in disbelief at the open glove box, and the papers that were scattered everywhere in the car. She ran a hand through her hair and sighed shakily. She must have forgotten to close the driver's window and her carelessness had allowed someone to break into her car and search it.
She reached into the open window and shuffled through the papers. Her car title and insurance certificate hadn't been stolen, nor had anything else as far as she could tell. Someone, probably a kid, had been looking for money, she decided, as she stuffed everything back into the glove box. Or had the tabloid reporters been snooping into her life again? A recent newspaper article honoring her father's philanthropic contributions to society could have sparked another flurry of interest in her, just as it had when he died a year ago. Whatever. She really hadn't needed this today.
After calling the company door guard from her cell phone to report the incident, Carolyn started her engine and headed for the interstate. The night commute into Atlanta from Marietta wasn't overly congested, a winter driving bonus for which Carolyn was grateful. As she turned south off I-75 onto I-285, she switched on the radio to easy listening music as she always did. It helped her relax after spending all day in front of the camera.
The haunting notes of Somewhere in Time filled the Volvo, bringing sudden tears to her eyes. She blinked quickly, wiping them away with her sleeve.
For God's sake, get a grip, she told herself. Stop wallowing.
She loved her job as a saleswoman at NNN, the National Neighborhood Network. It was a dream come true, her one anchor amid the losses in her personal life during the past several years. But after the stage lights snapped off and the cameras stopped rolling she sometimes felt drained, a letdown from the adrenaline high of performing before millions of television viewers across the country. And when her creative energy was at a low, Carolyn's memories crept in, like fingers of fog on a soggy night, relentless and all consuming.
Carolyn pressed a little harder on the accelerator, headed for a city exit. All she wanted to do was get home and close the door on the world, but she had a stop to make. Minnie was waiting for her.
And Minnie, her best friend in the world, was worth setting her fatigue aside for a few more minutes. Years ago Minnie had almost become her stepmom, but her dad, widowed since Carolyn was young, had married someone else. His sudden death had left Carolyn a thirty-year-old orphan.
Her father had died a year ago, today. She wondered if Minnie had remembered. The anniversary had loomed in Carolyn's mind for weeks, giving her nightmares. She had seen so much death. Her mother, her baby girl four years ago, and then her father. And her husband Rob might as well have died; he'd closed himself off completely after little Betsy died. Their divorce a year later came as a surprise to no one. Carolyn was startled out of her dark thoughts by the screeching of brakes behind her. Her glance shot to the rearview mirror.
"Oh, shit," she muttered.
A dark sedan, several cars back, had raced the caution light and nearly caused an accident in the intersection when it turned red.
"Stupid idiot," she told the vehicle as it caught up with her.
Steering onto a street that led to an area of dilapidated apartment buildings, another glance in the mirror told her that the dark sedan still followed her. Probably lived in the area, she told herself. A commuter anxious to get home and relax.
For the next few minutes Carolyn concentrated on finding the driveway to Anderson Youth House, a lane so obscured by shabby, 1920s-vintage apartment houses that she often missed it in the dark. She slowed her Volvo to a crawl, scanning the row of buildings that were cookie-cutter similar, down to the shrubs and flowers that lined the sidewalks.
She was almost on top of it when she braked and turned into the narrow blacktop approach to a small, poorly lighted parking lot squeezed behind the dwellings that fronted the street. Her headlights swept over the large two-story house, a pre-Civil War brick home that had been covered with stucco. Its square structure with its tacked-on addition looked like an albatross among the other buildings. The founders of Anderson Youth House had bought it dirt cheap fifteen years ago, saving it from the wrecking ball and converting it into a nonprofit facility for abandoned children and runaway street kids. Minnie donated her bookkeeping skills several nights a week.
Pulling into a parking place, Carolyn switched off the engine and lights. It was only then that she realized another vehicle had followed her into the shadowy lot. Her door was open and she had one foot on the ground when her gaze flew to the approaching car. Apprehension rippled over her.
It was the dark sedan. Was it following her?
Carolyn jerked her leg back into the car, slammed and locked the door. A moment later she felt stupid. The car circled the lot and headed back toward the street. The driver, hidden behind dark-tinted windows, had obviously made the same mistake she had in the past: taken the wrong driveway between old apartment houses. She watched the red tail lights disappear.
And -- it may not have been the same dark sedan, she reminded herself.
But Carolyn felt uneasy as she got out of the Volvo and headed for the door, a wrapped package of old trade beads in her hand, compliments of the famous Lilly Lawton, an aging, if famous, actress who was a regular on NNN. Lilly was the spokeswoman for a line of primitive jewelry, created by ethnic artists in the southwestern United States. While they'd been chatting before the camera last month, Carolyn had told her and their viewing audience about her friend Minnie's jewelry creations, influenced by her Native American background. After the show, she'd mentioned that Minnie preferred old trade beads from the Far East and Africa but usually couldn't afford them. Lilly had immediately offered her a supply.
Her handbag swinging from a shoulder strap, Carolyn quickly crossed to the front entrance, stepped into the foyer and pressed the buzzer. Seconds later, the door was unlocked and she went inside, heading down the hall toward the social room where she was to meet Minnie.
The scarred hardwood squeaked under her feet, but Carolyn's thoughts were on the beads, not the floor. She smiled, thinking of Lilly, a genuine lady behind her face-lifts, false eyelashes and on-camera fibs about her true age. It was typical of Lilly to help a struggling artist by giving the antique beads, especially since she knew that Minnie worked a full-time job to subsidize her art. Minnie's offer of payment had been waved aside.
"Then what can I do to repay her?" Minnie had asked later when Carolyn had called her with the news.
"Send her one of your creations, along with the legend that goes with it." Carolyn had known that Minnie was reticent about accepting the gift. "Taking advantage of an opportunity is how to succeed. Who knows, Minnie. One of these days you could be on NNN promoting your jewelry."
"Hey there girl! What you grinning about?"
Carolyn glanced up to see the object of her earlier phone conversation standing in the doorway to the social room, eyebrows raised in a question.
"Just feeling good about the end of the day, I guess." Carolyn smiled wider as she reached her. "And anticipating spring when it's not dark at five in the afternoon."
"C'mon, Carolyn. You can't fool me. No one feels that good in the middle of a work week."
For a moment Carolyn contemplated her friend: tall, slim, long straight black hair that was highlighted with streaks of gray, high cheekbones and wide, large brown eyes -- a beautiful woman whose appearance belied her fifty years.
Carolyn held out the package. "Guess I'm smiling because the beads are exquisite. You're going to love them. Lilly claims that some are hundreds of years old."
Minnie stepped forward, her long wool skirt swirl-ing around her black leather boots, and took the package, quickly unwrapping it to peer at the contents. "Jeez, Carolyn. They're beautiful, really special." She glanced up. "These have to be valuable. Are you sure Lilly won't let me pay her?"
There was a pause.
"Thanks, Carolyn," Minnie said. "For always being so thoughtful, for telling Lilly about me in the first place." She rewrapped the package as she talked. "I'll use a few of these beads to create something unique for her." She grinned. "And maybe a little surprise for you, my dear friend, something to emphasize those big green eyes of yours."
The moment was awkward, her praise reminding Carolyn of painful times in the past. Minnie had met Carolyn's father, a lawyer who was twenty-five years her senior and a well-known philanthropist in Atlanta, fifteen years ago when Anderson Youth House was being established in Atlanta. Minnie had been a board member; Arthur Langdon had taken care of zoning, licensing and certification issues.
Years later, after Carolyn's baby died, her dad had gently coaxed her into becoming active at Anderson Youth House, too. He'd believed that helping other babies would help her cope with her own loss. But since her father's death the place brought back sad memories. If it weren't for Minnie she might never have come back, even though she knew how much her father had believed in the place.
Thoughts of her dad triggered another urge to tear up, and she swallowed back a sudden lump in her throat. Silly, she chided herself. Get a grip.
Struggling for control, Carolyn told herself not to mention that today was the anniversary of her dad's death. Minnie was a private person who didn't share her feelings easily and had never revealed why Anderson Youth House was so important to her, although Carolyn knew from her dad that Minnie had been abandoned at age ten, and had lived in foster homes until she'd graduated high school. And Carolyn had never asked Minnie about her relationship with her father, sensing the older woman's pain. But she did know that Minnie believed that age shouldn't be a factor when you loved someone. Her dad had eventually married his secretary, Dolores, who was closer to his age and had taken care of all his everyday needs for many years. He never saw Dolores, who now lived in the family home where Carolyn grew up, as a fortune hunter, but as a caring, considerate woman. Carolyn had always suspected that it was Dolores who had undermined her father's confidence about marrying Minnie.
Carolyn gave herself a mental shake, bringing herself back to Minnie who stood watching, her beautiful eyes filled with affection, her full-mouthed smile revealing a perfect set of teeth. A natural beauty, Carolyn thought again. How could her father have been so blind, so closed to the one woman who had genuinely loved him?
Don't dwell on things you can't change, she told herself for the second time within an hour. Dolores was her stepmother, Minnie had become her best friend and her dad had been dead for months now. There was no changing the past.
"Hey, don't look so sad, Carolyn." Minnie stepped forward to hug her. For long seconds they stood embraced, Minnie's gentle pats on her back saying all the things that she would never put into words. "I know it's hard sometimes -- " She broke off.
Carolyn was the first to pull away. She smiled, tremulously, knowing her eyes were brimming. It was her day for tears; somehow the deaths of her dad and baby were linked in her mind today.
"Thanks for understanding," she said, knowing their shared feelings didn't need to be spoken aloud. "I'm just -- uh, a bit emotional tonight." She shook her head and quickly dabbed her eyes. "I shouldn't be so damned -- "
"It's okay, Carolyn," Minnie said gently, interrupting. "We can't predict when something may trigger our emotions."
But it wasn't okay. It was one of those sudden, overemotional states she'd found herself in during the past year when she was stressed from the job, or fatigued from a night of insomnia, or sad with remembering. It was during sleepless nights that she thought about her perfect two-month-old infant who just died one night while she slept in the next room, oblivious that her child was in trouble.
"Yeah, you're right," she said finally. "Bed is what I need." Carolyn managed a smile. "So I'd better get going and have an early night."
Minnie nodded, watchful.
Maybe what I really require is Prozac, Carolyn thought, having lowered her eyes to pull on her leather gloves. Or more grief therapy. Whatever. She needed to get it together. She couldn't afford her state of mind to ultimately affect her job. So far, while before the cameras, she'd managed to hide her pain behind the outgoing personality her fans had come to expect.
"You okay?" Minnie frowned.
" 'Course. Like I said, just tired. It was a busy day."
"I expect every day is busy at NNN." Minnie hesitated. "I was going to suggest wine and pasta at Pasta da Pulcinella. It's only ten or so minutes from your condo, but maybe next time?"
"You know I'd love to, Minnie." She paused. "But can I have a rain check for next week instead?"
"Sure." Minnie's smile was soft. "I understand, sweetie."
"How about a rain check for me?" A deep male voice spoke from a short distance behind them. "All of us Italians love pasta. Wine, too."
Minnie rolled her eyes affectionately before she and Carolyn turned to face Barney McGill who was striding up the hall toward them.
His pale blue eyes were friendly as always, but Carolyn felt something sharp move between them when she met his gaze. She shivered. God, the man was attractive, in a dangerous sort of way.
He's not dangerous, she reminded herself. Only jaded by years of working crime scenes as a homicide detective. Barney was one of the good guys.
"Italian? I thought you were Irish," Carolyn said lightly, as though she hadn't noticed how lean and muscular he looked in Levis and a brown leather jacket.
"Only half. My dad's side."
He was staring at her. Carolyn fought the urge to glance away.
"My mother is Italian." His craggy features softened. Carolyn saw the smile start in his eyes before it touched his mouth. "And she was the cook who influenced my taste buds."
Carolyn looked away. She'd first met Barney a year ago but knew little about him, except that he coached basketball and baseball for the Youth House's kids, taking them to see the Hawks or the Braves when his schedule permitted. She'd often wondered about his personal life; he didn't seem to have one.
"Well, we'll keep that in mind," Minnie said, breaking the tension between Carolyn and the detective. "If you're available next week you're welcome to come along." She turned to Carolyn. "Right?"
Carolyn pretended to adjust the strap on her handbag, feeling Barney's eyes on her. "Sure, Barney's welcome to our party."
"Great," he said, bringing her gaze back to his. "I'll plan on it." He was a model of seriousness, as though he hadn't invited himself to their dinner. "As a man with three older sisters, I'm used to hen parties."
"We call it girl talk," Minnie said, grinning.
"Whatever." Barney spread his hands, trying to look serious. "Gotta go. My guys are waiting for me." With a salute, and a final glance at Carolyn, he continued down the hall toward the gym, the addition that had been built onto the back of the building. "See you both next week for pasta," he added over a broad shoulder.
"He's kind of an enigma," Carolyn said, watching as his tall figure disappeared into the gym.
"I suppose so," Minnie said. "But then that's to be expected under the circumstances."
"The fact that he's a homicide detective?"
Minnie shook her head as they started toward the front entrance. "Because his wife and two little boys drowned. Remember, their boat capsized off Hilton Head two years ago last summer?"
"Yeah, I know that, but none of the details. You once mentioned that he never talks of it." Carolyn hesitated. "I figured that's why Barney helps the boys here, and why he seems reserved, closed off at times." She didn't add that he reminded her of her ex-husband in the way he never expressed his emotions. Not once had he mentioned his grief. And that same behavior in Rob had been fatal for her marriage.
"Uh-huh. By filling his spare time working with the kids he doesn't have time to dwell on what happened."
"What did happen?"
Minnie shrugged. "His wife and boys had gone for a visit with her parents, the grandpa took them fishing, and they all got caught in one of those sudden summer squalls."
They'd reached the door and Carolyn faced Minnie for her good-bye.
"You aren't leaving yet?"
Minnie flashed her toothy smile. "Since we aren't having pasta I'm going to catch up on computer entries."
"Not skipping supper because of me?"
"Nope. I'll eat later." She reached to open the door for Carolyn. "The trouble with volunteering my computer expertise here is that my knowledge is limited."
Carolyn gave a wry laugh. "We both need training, that's for sure." Neither her job, or Minnie's as a substance abuse therapist, required knowledge beyond basic computer skills. "Are we still on for that computer class?"
"Yep. Starts next week. Not soon enough for me if I'm to get this place on-line."
"Just let me know the time." Carolyn blew her a kiss and continued through the door, running to her car while Minnie watched. She was starting down the driveway when her cell phone rang.
She stopped at the street under a light pole and grabbed her phone. "Hello."
"Hey, Carolyn. Thought you'd be home by now."
"Not yet, Roberta, but I will be in a few minutes."
Roberta was her boss at NNN and she often called after hours if something important came up. Carolyn switched the phone to her other ear and waited.
"There's a vendor meeting in the morning and I'd like you to be there. Can you come in a half hour early?"
"Good." Her voice sounded relieved. "That's it then. See you in the morning." A pause. "And thanks."
"No problem." Carolyn was about to disconnect when Roberta said something else.
"What was that?"
"Oh, nothing really. Don't know why I mentioned it. Some wacko called the studio, said he was watching you."
"Yeah. Probably some guy with a crush. You know, we get those types from time to time. Okay, I'm going now."
Carolyn had the Volvo headed for home a few seconds later, but when she noticed the dark sedan behind her, a car that looked exactly like the one that had followed her earlier, Roberta's words about the phone call surfaced.
A wacko had said he was watching her.
She increased her speed, and turned at the next corner. The sedan followed. Her heart fluttered. She made two more right turns and the car behind her did the same. Clutching the steering wheel, she made a sudden left at the next intersection, her eyes glued to the rearview mirror. When the other vehicle kept going straight, she slumped in her seat and exhaled. Her legs felt like Jell-O. She pulled over at the curb until she could stop shaking.
She put her forehead against the steering wheel. I'm going nuts.
She stayed like that for a minute, then started home again, reminding herself that half of the cars in America were dark sedans. And the caller hadn't said he was following her. He'd said watching.
Of course he was watching her -- along with millions of other viewers. It was time for bed and some badly needed sleep.
Copyright © 2002 by Donna Anders