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“Yes.” She meant it. She hadn’t intended to lead him on; she’d just wanted to be careful, to make sure this time.
“Then I suppose you don’t want me to be your escort at that benefit you’ve been talking about?”
“The auction for the Boucher Center,” she said wincing when she remembered she’d brought it up to him months ago. “No, I think it would be best if I went alone.”
He didn’t immediately answer, as if he expected her to change her mind. She didn’t and the tension on the line was nearly palpable.
“Well,” he finally said. “I guess there’s nothing more to say. Take care of yourself, Samantha.”
“You too.” Her heart twisted a bit. She hung up and told herself it was for the best. It was over, and that was that.
All of her friends thought she was nuts not to marry him. “If I were you, I’d set my hooks in him and reel him in faster’n you could say prenup,” her friend Corky had confided over shrimp bisque less than a month ago. Corky’s eyes had twinkled mischievously, almost as brightly as the three rings she wore on her right ring finger-prizes from previous relationships and marriages. “I don’t know why you’re so uptight about the whole thing.”
“I’ve been married before, and I believe in the old once burned twice shy routine.”
“I thought it was once bitten.” Corky had broken off a chunk of bread as she glanced out the windows of the restaurant to the slow-flowing Mississippi, where a barge covered with gravel was chugging upstream.
“The point is you’ll never find a better catch than David, believe you me.” Corky had nodded, her short blond curls bobbing.
“Then you take him.”
“I would. In a heartbeat. But he’s in love with you.”
“David’s in love with David.”
“Harsh words, Sam. Wait til you get back from Mexico, then you tell me,” Corky had said with a naughty smile. As if hot sand, even hotter sun, and, she implied, far hotter s.e.x, would change how Samantha felt. It hadn’t. The sand had been warm, the sun hot, the s.e.x nonexistent. It had been her problem, not his. The fact of the matter was that she just wasn’t in love with the guy. Period. Something about him grated on her nerves. An only child, a brilliant scholar, David was used to having things his way. And he always wanted them to be perfect.
Life wasn’t supposed to be messy, which, of course, it always was.
“All men are not Jeremy Leeds,” Corky had said, wrinkling her pert nose as she mentioned Samantha’s ex-husband.
Corky had signaled to the waiter for another gla.s.s of Chardonnay, and Sam had absently stirred the soup while trying not to conjure up images of her ex-husband.
“Maybe you’re still not over him.”
“Jeremy?” Sam had rolled her eyes. “Get real.”
“It’s hard to get over that kind of rejection.” “I know about this,” Sam had a.s.sured her. “I’m a professional, remember?”
“Jeremy’s flaw is he falls in love with his students and doesn’t take his marriage vows very seriously.”
“Okay, okay, so he’s yesterday’s news,” Corky had said, waving the air as if she could push the subject of Jeremy Leeds out the window. “So what’s wrong with David? Too good-looking?” She’d held up a finger. “No? Too eligible-never been married before, you know, so there’s no baggage, no kids or ex-wife.” She’d wiggled another digit. “Oh, I know, too rich…or too ambitious. Too great a job? Lord, what is he, CEO of Regal Hotels?”
“Executive vice president and director of sales for the eastern United States.”
Corky had flopped back in her chair and thrown her hands over her head as if in surrender. “There you have it! The man’s too perfect.”
Hardly, Samantha had thought at the time. But then she and Corky, friends since second grade in LA had always had different views on boyfriends, courtship and marriage. One lunch hadn’t changed anything, and the trip to Mexico had convinced her-David Ross wasn’t the man for her, and that was just fine. She didn’t need a man, didn’t really want one right now. She shook herself out of her reverie and stared through the sweating windowpanes to the lake…where she’d imagined a mysterious man on the deck of his sailboat, binoculars trained on her house in the middle of the night, no less. She grinned at her folly. “You’re jumping at shadows,” she told herself, and with Charon trailing behind her, hitched her way to the bathroom, where she tied a plastic sack over her cast, sent up a prayer that the d.a.m.ned thing would be cut off soon, and climbed into the shower. She thought about David, about the man on the sailboat in the lake, about the seductive voice on the phone and about the mutilated picture of herself-the eyes gouged out. Samantha had thought at the time. But then she and Corky, friends since second grade in LA had always had different views on boyfriends, courtship and marriage. One lunch hadn’t changed anything, and the trip to Mexico had convinced her-David Ross wasn’t the man for her, and that was just fine. She didn’t need a man, didn’t really want one right now. She shook herself out of her reverie and stared through the sweating windowpanes to the lake…where she’d imagined a mysterious man on the deck of his sailboat, binoculars trained on her house in the middle of the night, no less. She grinned at her folly. “You’re jumping at shadows,” she told herself, and with Charon trailing behind her, hitched her way to the bathroom, where she tied a plastic sack over her cast, sent up a prayer that the d.a.m.ned thing would be cut off soon, and climbed into the shower. She thought about David, about the man on the sailboat in the lake, about the seductive voice on the phone and about the mutilated picture of herself-the eyes gouged out.
Shivering, she turned the spray to hot and closed her eyes, letting the warm jets wash over her.
“What the h.e.l.l happened here last night?” Eleanor’s voice shook with rage, her face was set in a hard mask, and as she followed Sam down the aorta of WSLJ, she was h.e.l.lbent for an explanation.
“You heard about the caller?” Sam set her dripping umbrella in a corner of the compact room, then placed her crutch over it.
“The whole d.a.m.ned town heard about the caller, for Christ’s sake. It was on the radio! Remember? Who was he, and how in the h.e.l.l did he get past screening?”
“He tricked Melanie-we were talking about vacations and he said something about Paradise-“
“This much I know,” Eleanor said, her lips pursing, as Sam shrugged out of her raincoat. “I have it all on tape, and I’ve listened to it half a dozen times. What I’m asking you” “-she pointed a long, accusing finger at Sam as she tucked her coat into a closet-” “is do you know who this guy is and what he wants?”
“But there’s something more.” Eleanor’s dark eyes trained on Sam’s face. “Something you’re not telling me. Does this have anything to do with your accident in Mexico?”
“I don’t think so.”
“What about your ex? I remember him from when we worked in Houston together.”
“I don’t think Jeremy would bother with crank calls. It would be beneath him.”
“But he still lives here, right? Got that professorship at Tulane.”
“Give it up, Eleanor, okay? Jeremy’s remarried-what we had was over a long, long time ago,” Sam said.
“Well, somebody somebody around here made the calls, and I want to know who. Don’t I wish we could trace calls from here. I’ve suggested it, you know, but George is so d.a.m.ned tight he squeaks.” around here made the calls, and I want to know who. Don’t I wish we could trace calls from here. I’ve suggested it, you know, but George is so d.a.m.ned tight he squeaks.”
Sam smiled with more than a trace of cynicism. “Maybe we’ll get lucky. Maybe John will call back.”
Eleanor chased her down a jagged hallway to the kitchen area, where coffee was brewing, and the lingering smell of chili from someone’s lunch permeated the air. The room was utilitarian, remodeled half a dozen times in its two-hundred-year history, with three round tables, a few scattered chairs, microwave and refrigerator. Whatever charm the area once embraced had long ago been covered with layers of Formica, vinyl, and glaring white paint. The only hint of the building’s original charm was in the French doors, surrounded by original, ornate grillwork that once opened to a small verandah seven stories above the street. Now the doors were locked and double bolted.
Sam clomped her way to the coffeepot and poured herself a cup.
“When do you get the cast off?” Eleanor asked, her temper seeming to be under control again as Sam poured coffee into Eleanor’s favorite cup, one that read, I hear hear what you’re saying, I just don’t what you’re saying, I just don’t believe believe it! it!
Sam wasn’t lulled into thinking the subject of the crank caller had been dropped. It wasn’t her boss’s nature. Eleanor was like a pit bull with a bone when something bothered her. She never gave up.
“I should get rid of this thing” “-she lifted her leg and cast-” “tomorrow morning, if I can convince the doctor that I’d be better off without this extra five pounds to lug around. I have an appointment with my orthopedic guy at eleven.” “Good.” Eleanor scooted out a chair and waved Sam into a seat. “Now, I’ve got to tell you that ever since that nutcase called last night, the station has been besieged with calls and e-mails. Be-frickin”-sieged. I mean, we’ve had listeners call in all day.” Her dark eyes gleamed as she wrapped long fingers around the chipped ceramic cup. “George is going bananas.”
“George would,” Samantha said, thinking of the owner of the station as she slid into her chair. Tall, dark and handsome, born with a silver spoon shoved decidedly between his teeth, George was forever worried about the bottom line, about losing a dime. He would do anything to increase the audience and the ratings. Sam considered him one step up from pond slime.
Leaning on the small of her back, she cradled her cup, blowing across the steamy surface. “I guess I’d better come clean with you,” she said, wondering if she was making a major mistake.
“What do you mean?”
“Last night wasn’t the first time the guy contacted me.”
“Come again.” Eleanor’s coffee was forgotten. She pinned Sam in her gaze.
“He left me a message on my recorder; I thought Melanie would have told you.”
“She hasn’t come in yet.”
“Okay, well, he did. And then there was this letter and a marred publicity shot.”
She gave Eleanor a quick update and watched as the animation left her boss’s dark face. When she’d explained about returning home and discovering the message and letter, Eleanor reached across the table and wrapped bejeweled fingers around Sam’s wrist. “Tell me that you called the police.”
“Didn’t I say I did? Don’t worry.”
“It’s my job to worry. So what did the police have to say?”
“They said they’d send more patrols around the area.” Eleanor’s eyes narrowed. “Did they come out to the house?”
“Not yet,” Sam said. “Why not?”
“I haven’t been home much.”
“Jesus H. Christ…” Eleanor sighed loudly. Her neatly plucked eyebrows slammed together. “Since the Cambrai police don’t have jurisdiction here in the city, tell me you’re going to haul your a.s.s into my office and pick up the phone to tell them about the calls coming into the station here, cuz, honey, if you don’t, I sure as h.e.l.l will.”
“You bet you will.” Eleanor wasn’t taking any excuses. “As soon as you finish your coffee, you use my office.”
“I’d planned to call tomorrow,” Sam said. “Why wait?”
“I just want to see if the creep calls back tonight,” Sam said. “Make sure it’s not a onetime thing.”
“I doubt it. Considering what’s gone on at your home.”
“You said yourself that the station was being inundated with calls. That should mean a larger audience,” Sam argued. “Isn’t that what we all want?”
Eleanor tapped a fingernail on her cup. “Yes, but I think you’re playing with fire,” she said, but she was warming to the idea.
“Maybe. It’s true, he’s scared me. But I’d like to find out what makes him tick. So far the threats have been pretty vague. And I’d like to find out what’s going on with him.” She finished her coffee in one swallow. “Bet my listeners do, too.”
“I don’t know about this-“
“If I get another call, I’ll run straight to New Orleans’s finest, I swear,” Sam said, raising two fingers as if she were a Boy Scout.
“Cross my heart and hope to die-“
“Don’t even say it,” Eleanor cut in. “And for the record” “-she thumped a finger on the Formica table-” “I don’t like this. Uh-uh. Not one little bit.”
“Don’t like what?” a gravelly voice demanded. Ramblin’ Rob, dressed as if he were planning to attend a cattle drive rather than sit in a booth with a presorted stack of CDs, swaggered in. He smelled of smoke and rain, the brim of his Stetson dripping.
“Sam, here, wants to go on the air again without talking to the police about her own private nutcase.”
A grin stretched across Rob’s weathered features. “Not so private. Seems like half the d.a.m.ned city was listening to her last night from the number of e-mails. I’m surprised the cops haven’t called you.” He laid a leathery hand on Sam’s shoulder.
“I think they have more on their minds,” she said.
“Okay, okay, enough of this.” Eleanor glanced at her watch. “I’ve got a meeting in ten minutes. Just promise me you’ll be careful.”
Eleanor rolled her large eyes. “Yeah, and I’m Cleopatra. I mean it, Sam, don’t bait this guy. Who knows how dangerous he is. He could be hopped up on drugs, or have a hair trigger on his temper. Just, please” “-she spread her hands expressively-” “take it easy.”
“I’m a psychologist, remember? I’m used to this kind of thing.”
“Yeah, right,” Eleanor muttered under her breath as she bustled out of the room.
“She’s right, kiddo.” Rob sat down. Tipped the brim of his hat back, pinned Sam with blue eyes that had seen it all. “Don’t do anything foolish, okay?”
With mock severity, Sam said, “I’ll try my best, Cowboy Rob. Honest I will.” She said it lightheartedly, but the truth of the matter was that she intended to be very careful with the guy should he phone in again. If she got any hint that he was dangerous, she’d phone the police. p.r.o.nto.
That night as she walked down the hallway, a cup of coffee in her hand, the offices seemed darker than usual. The shadows in the corners, deeper, the corridors more crooked than before. It was stupid, of course. The old building in the heart of the city hadn’t changed at all, but despite her bold words to Eleanor earlier, Sam was edgy. She’d gone home last night and nothing had happened. She’d thought she’d heard someone outside, but as she’d stepped onto her back porch, she’d seen nothing through the curtain of rain and only the whistle of the breeze and the clink of wind chimes had disturbed the night. Later, she’d spied the lone boat on the choppy waters, or at least thought she had. She’d shut her blinds and pushed him out of her mind. What was happening to make her so jumpy?
It wasn’t as if she was alone, for G.o.d’s sake. Melaniewas manning the phones, Tiny was about, making sure that the equipment was working and that the preset programs for later in the night were ready to roll.
Nothing was out of the ordinary.
Except that someone out there-in the city-wants to scare the devil out of you.
And it was working.
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