Honest to God, would the woman never die? All the years of listening to her yapping day in and day out was more than any human should be expected to endure. Never measuring up to insane standards. Always coming up short. A person could listen to that bullshit for only so long before the big snap. Well, dearest, that day was today, and the snap was loud enough that the whole county could have heard it.
It should have been easier to put the old girl on the ground, yet she showed surprising resilience when it got right down to the deed. Hitting her in the back of the head with the heavy cast-iron skillet had been an action borne of pure instinct. One bitch too many falling out of her lipstick-enhanced lips and that was it. The frying pan was winging through the air to connect with her head without any conscious memory of even picking it up.
The sound of the iron crashing against her skull had resonated with a most satisfying crunch, and the douche bag had toppled to the floor in a big pink pile. The flowing shirt, always some god-awful shade of pink that she thought was sexy, was spotted with red, and that was at least some consolation. Never having to see that color again was a huge unanticipated bonus.
The moaning that had been going on for at least fifteen minutes was not. It might have been more humane to simply hit her another time or two with the skillet and put her out of her misery, but really, where was the fun in that? After all the years of making life miserable for anyone unfortunate enough to be stuck in her orbit, the opportunity to relax and watch her life slowly flow away held a certain amount of karmic justice.
Besides, there was a fresh pot of coffee, and letting it go to waste seemed wrong. It was better to sit here, enjoy the fresh dark brew, and wait her out. It wouldn’t be long before even her feeble efforts at clinging to life would fail. She was on a slow train to hell, and it was enjoyable to sit in a club car and watch the ride.
At first it seemed like all the fun was over once she finally gave it up and died. But the game grew even more exciting after there was a body to dispose of. How to make her disappear was something her dreams were made of.
So many options. Only one body.
Given she was the first, it seemed appropriate that she be given a place of honor. That goal in mind, it wasn’t all that difficult to figure out the rest. Everything she needed was in the garage, and the first push of the shovel into the ground proved how perfect the plan was. The ground was soft and yielding, and it didn’t take long to prepare her final resting place. Out here where not a soul ever came to sit and enjoy the sunshine and clean air, she would be isolated and alone. No one to be with her and most certainly no one to hear her shrewish voice telling anyone and everyone what to do and how to do it. She would be alone forever. It was a perfect purgatory for a perfectly awful woman.
Rolling her into the deep hole and then shoveling dirt onto her flabby white face until it was completely obliterated was an indescribable ecstasy. It was hard to fathom why it had taken so long to reach this point. The moon was full and showering the area with buttery light. It was a sign declaring the rightness of this action. It was a guiding light showing the way to greatness.
It was the beginning.
For nineteen years, three hundred and sixty-three days, Liz Boone walked through the front doors of the federal building without incident. Right in the middle of downtown Spokane, Washington, it was a great example of nineteen-sixties architecture enhanced by a courtyard with a water feature and raised beds planted with decorative trees and colorful flowers. Walking through there always made her feel tranquil and happy to begin her day as part of a great organization. That all changed on day three hundred and sixty-four, the day she took a bullet to the chest. On that bright, sunny September morning, when the air held a hint of crispness and a light breeze sent leaves fluttering to the ground, Anthony George Washington brought a rifle to the courtyard of the federal building and opened fire. He left one dead and four wounded. The last thing she could remember about that morning was lying on her back, the concrete cool through the fabric of her blouse, and watching a single leaf flutter to the ground.
Nine months later, Liz now stood looking around her new house, five miles north of the courthouse in distance but about a hundred miles away in character, and feeling more than a little lost. Her palm flat against her chest where beneath her shirt a scar was still angry red, she felt her heart race. Everything was all so different, and that was exactly what she’d been hoping for, even if it was frightening.
For the better part of twenty years her life had been structured and dependable. She understood what she was doing, where she was going, and who she was going to see. It had worked for her, and she’d gone along, as her mother liked to say, fat, dumb, and happy. That was no longer the case. These days she knew precisely jack.
And that was the beauty of it. Her life was finally hers to guide. No longer did she have to worry about those who felt disenfranchised taking out their frustration through the barrel of a rifle. No longer did she answer to a government that sometimes she agreed with and sometimes she didn’t. She was free to speak as she wished, protest as she desired, and spread her wings. She was free to be the person she wanted to be, except for one small detail: she was scared shitless.
Even now in this sanctuary she was creating, brand-new to her and without any reminders of the past, panic floated just beneath the surface. Would she ever feel safe again, she wondered for the thousandth time. She constantly worried that she wouldn’t. Maybe choosing to stay in the city hadn’t been her best idea, and perhaps moving to Seattle might have been better. Except the stubborn streak that had gotten her into trouble more times than she could count wouldn’t let her give in to the knee-jerk reaction to flee. Why should she be driven away from the city that had always been her home?
Attila picked that moment to race through the living room. The six-month-old German shepherd slid on the hardwood floor and almost flew into the sofa. Instead, he gently bounced off the front of it and then collided with her legs, tail wagging. It was exactly the diversion she needed. “You’re crazy,” she told him on a laugh as she reached down and rubbed the top of his head. His fur was soft, his big ears standing up tall.
The collision with the sofa didn’t faze him, and he allowed her only a few seconds to pat him before he began to run circles around her. The move to the new house wasn’t as traumatic for Attila as it was for Liz. He was adapting extremely well and having a grand time checking out the house and the big fenced yard. The yard, one of the reasons she bought the house, seemed made especially for Attila. He’d marked every corner of it as soon as they arrived and then marched happily back inside. He had Liz, his bed, and his favorite toys, so as far as Attila was concerned, this was home. She loved that about him and wished she could be more like him.
A knock at the door made her jump and her heart start to pound again so hard it was almost painful. She started to run to the bedroom, where she could lock the door and hide. She sure hoped that instinct faded in time, though that seemed unlikely right now. Instead of running for her bedroom, she took a deep breath and turned toward the front door. After checking the peephole, she opened the door to her smiling friend, Meg Zimmer. Meg’s smile faded as she looked at Liz. “What’s wrong?” Meg didn’t even try to hide the concern in her voice. Good friends were like that, no hiding or pretending.
Liz shook her head and gave herself a second before she answered. She wasn’t trying to hide or pretend either. She just needed a couple seconds to get her emotions under control. The rapid beating of her heart was slowing, the panic sliding away. No wonder she’d lost so much weight since she’d been shot. Her body probably burned at least two thousand calories every time she went into fight-or-flight mode, and that was just about every day. At this rate she’d be skin and bones before the year was out. “It’s okay. I just wasn’t expecting anyone.” She was proud of how calm she sounded.
Meg’s eyes narrowed, and she studied Liz intently before giving her a little nod. Her smile returned as she held out a bottle of sparkling wine and a big dog bone. “I stopped by to celebrate the new digs with you and Attila.”
A different type of emotion welled up inside Liz, and this time it was the good kind. It was exactly like her childhood friend to be this thoughtful, and the bone for Attila was beyond nice. She was a truly kind and wonderful person. Meg had been looking out for her since she woke up in the hospital ten days after the shooting. Everyone had been worried, but Meg, a teacher, was particularly concerned. She supposed it was the caretaker part of her personality combined with the fact that they’d known each for a very long time. Even though a part of Liz wished everyone would stop worrying, another part of her appreciated the care. Well, if she was being really honest, a lot of her appreciated the care, especially from Meg. Recovery would have been much slower without her.
Liz smiled. “The bubbly is nice, and you know Attila is going to be your best friend forever now.”
“We’re already friends forever, aren’t we, big boy?’ She gave the bone to the tail-wagging Attila, who took it gently from her outstretched fingers and then trotted to his bed. The wine she handed to Liz. “Our little prize is nice and chilled. Come on. Let’s blow the cork and christen this place. Oh.” A look of concern darkened Meg’s face. “You’re not still on meds, are you?”
A legit question actually. She’d taken pills, lots and lots of them, in the weeks after the shooting. Some were to dull the pain, some to keep infection away, and some brought her a welcome numbness that she had not been reluctant to embrace. Some days even now she almost regretted giving up the latter. The doc had offered to give her a new prescription, and as tempted as she was, she’d declined, because for the most part she wanted to be clear-headed. Just in case.
She returned Meg’s smile and spread her arms wide. “Clean and sober.”
“Great. Let’s do something about that sober part.”
Drinking wine sounded really nice, although she refused to allow herself to take any substance that would dull her senses enough to let her defenses drop. No pills. No drinking to excess. She had to be alert all the time. On the other hand, a glass or two of the sparkling goodness wasn’t a bad idea. Relaxing and getting out of control were different. She looked around at the unopened boxes stacked against the walls. Hands on hips, she said, “Just let me figure out which box the glasses are in.”
Meg smiled and held out her free hand. “Come on. We’ll tackle those kitchen boxes together and polish off this baby while we’re doing it. Geez. It’ll be just like when we were younger and moving into our first apartments. Mine was that old house up on the south hill and yours…”
This time she laughed. “Mine was that shoebox-sized one-bedroom with the dripping shower. It was such a bitch to make that driveway in the winter. I don’t know how many times I got stuck on the hill in the snow trying to make that turn. My dad was so happy the day I decided to move out of there and he didn’t have to come rescue me anymore.” Sharing memories like this was exactly why having Meg as a friend was a gift.
They were both laughing as they walked to the kitchen and, with what felt like destiny, found the box with the wineglasses immediately. They poured the wine and started in on the boxes. The fizzy goodness was wonderful, and for the first time today, she could almost relax even as she dug into box after box, a tedious task under any circumstance. By the time Meg left, they had not only finished the entire bottle but ordered and devoured Chinese takeout as well. Ever the teacher, Meg even insisted on breaking down the boxes and stacking them in a tidy pile in the garage. It was the most fun Liz had had since before Washington put a bullet through her body.
Once Meg was no longer there, however, silence seemed to hang uneasy over Liz’s little house. Attila, with his new bone tucked under one paw, was sleeping soundly on his bed by the fireplace. The month of June around here could be cold and rainy or sunny and warm. This year it was turning out to be one of the nicest she could remember. In short, it was a perfect night for the doors to be open to let in warm summer air. Hers were closed and locked. The beauty of gas heat and central air meant she didn’t have to open doors and windows to keep the house warm or cool. Perfect for her wants and, more importantly, needs.
The biggest selling feature that had tipped the house in her favor was the alarm system. Ten seconds after she closed the door behind Meg, it was engaged, and the little light on the panel glowed a solid dark red. It was fully armed, and how she wished it made her feel safe. Perhaps someday it would. Today wasn’t that day.
Before Meg could be as much as a block away, the relaxation that the wine, good food, and good company had brought on faded. It was the story of her life these days. She didn’t even try to fight the melancholy that draped over her like a cape. Instead, she sighed and decided to give sleep a try. Before she left the hallway, she double-checked the alarm panel. It still showed a steady red for all the door and window connections. Liz walked through the house checking everything again anyway. She stopped at each window and closed the blinds, if they weren’t already shut. Like someone who suffered from OCD, she wouldn’t be able to even try to rest until she had walked every inch of the house at least once and most days, two or three times. That was her world these days.
It took effort not to repeat the exercise. Maybe she really was becoming OCD, and frankly, on top of everything else, that was about the last thing she needed. As soon as she’d sort of convinced herself all was well, she went to her bedroom. And seconds after that she dropped to the bed. Attila came in and jumped up next to her.
“You have your own bed, you know.” He ignored her, as was his custom, made three circles in the middle of the bed, and then lay down. Despite having his own really nice new bed, they both knew she wouldn’t kick him off hers. Like double-checking doors, windows, and the alarm panel, his presence made her feel better. Honestly, if she’d known how much comfort a dog provided, she’d have gotten one a long time ago.
She lay back against the pillows and told herself that tonight she’d sleep for more than a couple of hours. Here in this little house in the nice neighborhood surrounded by good and kind neighbors, she was safe. Only her family and closest friends were aware she’d even moved. Attila, her companion and protector, was next to her. The house was buttoned up. She slipped her hand beneath the pillow and touched the cold metal of her handgun. Yes, she was safe. Slowly, as she watched through the open bedroom doorway to where a tiny light glowed softly against the hallway wall, she relaxed, but she didn’t close her eyes.
Willow Blue turned and smiled at Edie Cahill, her favorite student. Eighty years old and a perfect-attendance student, Edie was a class act. Not only was she dependable, but she was also a ball of pure energy. She put many students in the class who were more than half her age to shame. It wouldn’t surprise her to see Edie hit the big one-zero-zero. She was the last one to leave the final class of the night, and the fact that it was now after ten didn’t seem to faze her. Most of her class members worked in the nine-to-five world and had to fit their classes in after they completed their work day and attended to their family obligations. But not Edie. She seemed to simply love life no matter what time of day or night. Willow wondered if she ever slept.
“It’s Willow, Edie. How many times do I have to tell you that? Call me Willow.”
Edie smiled, and she looked at least five years younger. “Just doesn’t seem right, you being the teacher and all. In my day, it was only proper to address teachers respectfully.”
“You are the most respectful person I’ve ever met, and you know that we’re friends too. So even though I’m your yoga teacher, promise me you’ll call me Willow and not Ms. Blue.”
Edie nodded and her eyes sparkled. Her white hair hung down her back in a long, thick braid. Would her own hair be that lush and beautiful when she was Edie’s age? Somehow she doubted it. “I will do my best. Willow.”
“That’s good enough for me. Now, Edie, what can I do for you?”
“Well, my grandson, Stan, is coming to town and I thought…” The sparkle in her eyes increased to almost Fourth of July volume. Spunky little grandma.
Hugging Edie, Willow laughed. This woman always made her feel great. “Oh, Edie, you’re such a romantic, but I have to tell you a little secret.” She released her and stepped back. “Between you and me.”
Edie’s smile grew as she rubbed her hands together. “I love secrets.”
“All right then, I’ll share mine. Here’s the thing. I don’t date men.”
Edie’s smile faded as she studied her closely. “You don’t date men. I don’t understand. I know you’re not married.”
“Think about it, Edie.” This lady was sharp, and she had no doubt she’d ultimately get it.
She waited her out in silence. The eighty years she’d been on this earth hadn’t dulled her mind one bit. Willow smiled when understanding dawned on her face. “Ohh.” Edie drew out the word. “So if my granddaughter was in town…”
Her smile returned, just as bright as before. She gave Willow a brief hug before she tucked her mat under her arm and started for the door. “Well, you can’t blame a grandma for trying.”
“No, I can’t, and if that granddaughter of yours comes to visit, let me know.” She winked.
“That I will,” Edie called out cheerfully as she walked through the front door and toward the little orange hybrid she drove to class. No big grandma cruiser for this lady.
She laughed and watched as Edie got into her car and then left. The parking lot was empty now except for her own vehicle, which was sitting right up front beneath a big light. All she had to do was pick up a few things and be on her way. The cleaning crew would come early in the morning, and the studio would be sparkling clean for tomorrow’s classes. She loved it here and was still confident she’d made the right decision to move to Spokane from California.
The air was fresh with just a hint of coolness, which with each passing day was fading more and more. The weather was lovely in Spokane, the Eastern Washington city so different from her hometown. Her college friend Meg had also been a guiding force with her promise that, in this place, she’d heal. That she had, and the healing process had brought her more than she’d imagined.
She was just getting ready to turn around when the lights in the parking lot flickered. The disturbance lasted only about ten seconds but struck her as strange. They’d never done that before. She’d have to ask the landlord to check them. She couldn’t have Edie or any of her other evening students walking through a dark parking lot. Tomorrow, she’d give him a call.
Eldon Spicer was worried about Liz. He’d hoped between her retirement and a move to the new house, Liz would return to her old self. Or, at the very least, a bit of her old self. What had happened to her would shake even the toughest, and he’d always considered Liz to be one resilient woman. That she didn’t bounce back like a powerful racquet-ball serve shocked him. After nearly a year, she was still suffering, and that wasn’t like his Liz.
He wanted to help but couldn’t figure out what to do. It hurt him that his friend was in crisis—and there was no other word for it—while he stood around like a lump. The shooting had been tragic, the aftermath a true crisis. When she didn’t wake up immediately after surgery, everyone had been terrified she never would. The doctors weren’t a whole lot of help either. He’d wanted them to tell him with certainty that she’d recover fine, but they couldn’t. It drove him nearly mad.
When she did wake up, everyone rejoiced. At first anyway. It took a few days for the reality to sink in that, while she was back with them, she was different. More than having been a victim of a senseless crime, it went a whole lot deeper. He couldn’t put his finger on the exact nature of the change. He only knew it was there. And the fright she lived with day in and day out broke his heart. No one should have to live in constant fear. What could he do? He floated every idea he could come up with, and she shot down everything he suggested while leaving no room to revisit any of it.
That didn’t mean he was giving up. Not when it was someone he loved. It simply meant a change in strategy on his part. During the last nine months, Eldon had evolved into a stalker. Not his first choice for the best way to help Liz, but given how stubborn she was, it was the most productive alternative. He intended to keep eyes-on until she was back to the strong, confident Liz. At first it was easy to skulk about and keep her in his sights because she’d been recovering from her physical injuries, and he’d been there to help with no questions asked. As she’d healed, she’d pushed him away, correction, pushed all of her family and friends away. Too many people in her personal space seemed to send her spiraling into a panic attack. Day by day he’d watched in silence as she’d built walls around herself that were difficult, if not impossible, for anyone to break through. It was so unlike her that it made him sad.
Not willing to turn his back on a friend so obviously in crisis, he’d been sneaking around ever since to make sure she was okay. If anyone was watching and didn’t know the story, they’d absolutely believe he was a certifiable stalker. In a way he was, but it wasn’t the way that required arrest, hospitalization, and a good psychiatrist. All he needed to cure what was afflicting him was for his buddy to find her way back.
Tonight, he’d sat in his car down the block and watched as she’d finished bringing in boxes. It was the last of the move, and for that he was grateful. He’d wanted to help, and she’d let him when it came to the heavy things like furniture and appliances. When it got down to boxes, she’d sent him, and everyone else who’d shown up to make the move as easy as possible for her, on their way. It was just Liz and Attila.
He liked that dog and was thrilled that he was devoted to Liz. It was the one thing that let him leave feeling that she was somewhat protected. He wasn’t worried about outside forces harming her but that she would simply give up. Attila wouldn’t let her. He was going to have to take that boy a steak one day soon.
He’d been pleased when he saw Liz’s friend Meg show up. She was the one person Liz allowed to stay close, and he understood why. The gentle aura that surrounded her drew in everyone who came in close contact. She was a teacher, and probably made a difference in her students’ lives. He’d noticed that about her the first time they’d met and had wanted an opportunity to get to know her better.
The timing had never been right, especially not when they’d all been gathered in the hospital waiting room worrying as Liz lay on an operating table. Even then, in that environment so charged with worry and despair, her energy had filled that little room, and he was sure everyone there felt it. It wrapped around him like a warm blanket. Friends and family alike held a vigil until the doctor came out and gave them the good news. She was going to pull through without any serious lasting complications, he’d predicted.
Physical complications, at any rate. What the doc didn’t add was that mentally it might be a long time before any of them glimpsed the fun-loving, quick-witted Liz again. God, how he missed her. She was the one person who made life in the office bright. It wasn’t that the rest of the staff was bad. Quite the contrary. By and large, they were all great folks. It was an honor to be part of such an important piece of the government. The Third Branch was unique, and it always made him feel special to know he’d been chosen to be part of it.
It was just that Liz was a particularly bright light. She brought life to a place that could often be deadly serious. She took her duties to heart and gave all that she had to her job. At the same time, she never lost her sense of identity. For her that meant joy, and she brought it with her every day she walked into the office. None of them realized how important that was until she was gone. They were getting by and learning to adapt to her absence. It wasn’t the same, however, and it never would be again.
That didn’t mean she shouldn’t find the same joy in her new reality, and that’s what had him concerned. That bullet appeared to have pierced more than her flesh, and when they took it out, they took out the light along with it. He was determined to find it again. That was what a person did for a friend.
He just had to figure out how. At her house, the lights in the front room went out. Eldon turned the key in the ignition and drove away. He couldn’t do anything more tonight and hoped she would sleep. He wondered if he would.
That last flight had been a piece of shit. Turbulence had made it feel like a roller-coaster ride for at least five hundred miles. Drinks had fallen off trays, people had puked, and not less than ten had sent complaints to the cockpit. What exactly they were supposed to do wasn’t clear, but that didn’t stop the dumb bastards from sending the flight attendants to the front of the plane. It would be so nice to have a quiet, peaceful, and smooth flight. It rarely happened and sure didn’t today.
Home wasn’t much better. One hour of peace and quiet. Was that too much to ask for? Apparently the answer to that question was a resounding yes, because it had been a house of chaos since she walked through the front door and hung her jacket in the closet. Field-trip slips needed signing. Soccer shoes had to be found. Homework finished. Clothes readied to be dropped off at the dry cleaners.
She would appreciate as little as five minutes of peace, but it took hours before that became a reality. The whole time that feeling kept building inside her that didn’t want to be ignored. It had been this way for months, and soon, nothing would stop it from bursting forth. That was all right because it was time. All she had to do was be patient, play the game a little longer.
When everyone was finally in bed and peace descended, it brought with it a hyper-awareness of what was to be. The computer hummed quietly in the dim light of the office, and the treasured pictures slid slowly across the screen. Weeks’ worth of surveillance provided all the necessary information. She uncovered patterns, and plans evolved from there. It wouldn’t be easy, but then again, if it were, where would the fun be? Danger held its own allure that fed the hunger inside her. But with each passing day the hunger grew larger, more demanding. Insatiable. With each passing year, the need became greater.
It wasn’t a problem really. No one had ever caught on, and no one ever would. Some were special, and it was what made them untouchable. Stealthy and lethal, like a jaguar. Yes, just like a black jaguar. It seemed a fitting moniker, a rare and threatened species with incredible power, compact and well-muscled. A hunter. Worth a check to see how it felt on the tongue.
“I am the Jaguar.” Her soft laughter broke the silence in the office. It was perfect.
Now all the Jaguar needed was the certainty that the rest of the household was in deep sleep. Hunting when darkness cloaked the world held its own allure. People tended to be more alert at night, and it made it more fun to snag them when they thought they were being very careful. Most were so stupid. They didn’t recognize danger when it came in a familiar package. They trusted what the wrapping told them and didn’t bother to look any deeper. No one seemed to recognize her carefully crafted façade. That took the entertainment level quite high, almost intoxicating.
The house was quiet when the Jaguar finally slipped out. Everything she needed was in the expensive designer messenger bag that garnered frequent compliments. Little did anyone realize exactly what she carried beneath the smooth leather flap. The drive wouldn’t take long. Wednesday-night traffic was pretty light and, as expected, a fairly empty parking lot once she arrived at her destination. She pulled the car to a stop in a spot where the black paint let it blend into the shadows.
The Jaguar glanced at her Rolex and smiled. It wouldn’t be long now. Her intended rarely deviated from her patterns. She was ready when she heard the distinctive click click click of heels against asphalt. She opened the door and stepped out of her car. A little smoke and mirrors, and in the space of a minute, her prey was in the backseat twitching from the charge of the Taser. Loved that little toy.
Now the fun really began.
Liz loved the feel of the sun on her face as she jogged. The warmth spread across her skin like the kiss of warm honey. Attila ran in front of her, happy to fly through the grass without a lead to slow him down. It was a beautiful, quiet day for a run. So perfect. Why was no one else out? But it was okay if everyone else decided to forego the beautiful morning. She liked having this time to herself.
The solitude didn’t last long. Not far ahead of her, a young woman was sitting on a bench, her head bent and her tangled hair hanging down to hide her face. She wasn’t a fellow runner, that much was clear. Her defeated posture and unkempt clothing told a different story. It wasn’t unusual to see homeless people resting on the benches that dotted the path. Liz didn’t intend to stop, but something about the lone figure drew her close. It was then she noticed the debris in the long hair, the torn jeans, and what appeared to be blood on a shirt clearly not a thrift store buy. For one of the homeless, that was unusual.
“Are you all right? Do you need help?” She had no idea how she could possibly provide assistance, but the air of helplessness that surrounded her compelled Liz to ask.
The girl brought her face up, and Liz gasped. Her lips barely moved as she whispered, “I need your help.”
“Oh my God, what happened?” Any preconceived notions of homelessness vanished. The serious injuries were impossible to dismiss. Someone had hurt her, badly.
“I need your help,” she repeated.
“What do you need?” Liz fumbled at her waist where normally she carried her cell phone in a runner’s belt. That she didn’t have it on today confused her. She always put that thing on. By the looks of this girl, she needed some EMTs right now. Liz needed her phone.
“Okay, I’ve got you. Where are you hurt?” She was still grabbing at her waist, hoping to touch the phone. She didn’t have anything beyond basic first aid, and that wasn’t what this girl needed. Where was the damn phone?
“I’m not hurt,” she whispered.
Her frantic search for the cell phone stopped. “Sweetheart,” she said in a gentle voice. She understood that shock could often trick a person into believing they weren’t injured severely. That was most likely what was happening here. “You have blood all over you. Let me do what I can until help can get here for you.” She reached toward the injured young woman, knowing that sometimes the warmth of another’s touch could be soothing.
She shook her head, her long hair swaying back and forth as dirt and twigs broke free to scatter around her feet like raindrops. “It’s too late for that.”
“No, it’s not too late. I can help you.”
This time the girl nodded. “Yes, you can.” She took Liz’s outstretched hand.
Liz was screaming as she sat twisted in her bed sheets. Sweat popped out on her forehead, and her heart was rat-a-tatting like a machine gun. She sat up and blinked. The room was shrouded in darkness broken only by the tiny light plugged into the hallway outlet. She could make out Attila, who was on all fours in the middle of her bed, the hair at the nape of his neck standing up, a low growl emanating from his throat. His eyes were focused on the open bedroom doorway. The tiny light glowed steady in the hallway.
She pressed the back of her hand against her lips to stifle the screams that still rumbled deep in her throat. When she had that under control, she reached out and patted Attila. “It’s okay, big boy.” She could hardly talk and was pretty sure Attila could hear the fear still lingering behind her words.
His growl didn’t quite stop, though his body posture relaxed. “It was just a dream,” she told him and then managed a little laugh. Despite the terror, the situation was kind of funny. Here she was, an adult woman mostly well-adjusted, explaining herself to a dog. The docs might want to rethink that medication thing.
Her heartbeat calming at last, she swung her legs over the side of the bed and sat with her head in her hands. At the moment, her scars ached, just as they had when she’d been released from the hospital. As the months has passed, so too had much of the pain. They hadn’t really bothered her for a while now, so why tonight? Why would a random nightmare cause a physical reaction like that? Dear Lord, she really was finally losing it.
The thing was, she didn’t feel crazy. Of course, did anyone who was losing their rational capacities think they were descending into mental illness? She suspected they didn’t. Except the dream, if it could be called that, was pretty clear. Especially after the girl had taken her hand. It felt so real, she could swear she’d been running along that path and had touched her. No dream she’d ever had, even when she was filled with drugs, had been so physically real. It was more like altered reality than hallucination.
Oh, she knew who the woman was. Reggie King. Anybody who had watched the news or read the paper over the last two years would recognize Reggie’s face. She had been the bright and beautiful local newscaster who went in search of a story and never returned. With her long, curly dark hair, bright-green eyes, and cheerful demeanor, she had clearly had a bright future in front of her.
Until she disappeared. Law enforcement searched for months, and nothing ever turned up. Not a single lead that would help find her. With no leads and no suspects, her case went cold.
Liz wrapped her arms around herself and breathed deeply. What she’d seen shook her deeply, and she blinked hard against the tears that suddenly threatened to spill. She hadn’t known this young woman personally, though she had seen her a time or two in the courthouse. Still, knowing what she did now, her heart ached. What she’d seen left her with a firm conviction as to the fate of the beautiful newscaster.
Reggie King didn’t get lucky as Liz had when someone tried to take her life. Reggie King was dead, and Liz sensed that what she’d seen held the clue to where she would be found. But how could she tell law enforcement? She couldn’t tell them she’d had a dream and Reggie had come to her. Especially after what had happened to her. They’d just pass her explanation off as a result of her own trauma, and she certainly couldn’t blame them for that. In their shoes, she’d feel the same way.
Somehow she had to let someone know what she was sure deep in her heart to be true. Reggie’s family deserved to have her brought back home. The killer deserved the electric chair.
Attila nuzzled her neck as she sat there with her head in her hands. Why she’d never gotten a dog before was beyond her. He was so much more than her protector; he was her heart. His simple touch was as healing as anything proffered by modern medicine. Actually, she thought, it was more healing.
“Okay, buddy. I’ll figure this out.” He nuzzled her again as if to tell her she would indeed do just that.
Her chances of going back to sleep were somewhere between not likely to happen and not a chance in hell. This wasn’t the first time since her incident that sleep had run away, which was precisely why she didn’t even bother to lie back down. Fruitless endeavors weren’t her thing. Instead, she stuffed her feet into her slippers, pulled on a sweatshirt, and headed to the kitchen, turning on lights as she went. Might as well enjoy a cup of tea.
She was holding the tea cup between her hands when she had decided it wasn’t too early to make a phone call. Meg was, after all, the kind of friend she could wake up, so that’s what she did. She had to tell someone, besides Attila, that is, what she’d seen, or she’d go nuts. She was jumpy enough without sitting here stewing about what to do. It was the old “misery loves company” thing. Meg picked up on the third ring.
Willow was drinking her second cup of tea and reading the morning news on her laptop when her phone rang. She was surprised that anyone would call at this early hour and pretty certain good news wasn’t forthcoming. When she looked down at the display, she was alarmed. “Meg? What’s wrong?” She chatted with her all the time, though typically not before she even had a chance to take a shower.
“Hey, Willow. Really sorry to bug you at this ungodly hour. I figured there was a good chance you were rolling so decided to go for it.”
“You know me so well.”
“Even when we were partying college freshmen, you were always the first one up and outside going for a run or some other crazy thing. In fact, I’m surprised I caught you inside. I don’t think you’ve changed that much. Have you already run half a marathon and baked a cake?”
Willow laughed. Meg really did know her. “You hit that nail on the head. Still a morning person, and yes, as a matter of fact, I was thinking about going for a run. Not a half marathon, mind you, and I definitely haven’t baked a cake this morning or any morning. So what’s got you on the phone this early? You, my sweet friend, were just about the last person to get out of bed any day of the week, and I don’t think you’ve changed that much either.”
“Trust me, if it wasn’t for the day job, I’d still be that person. Unfortunately, real life took away all the fun of those carefree days. But my call isn’t about me…”
Willow listened as Meg explained about her friend Liz, her shooting, and the subsequent issues, including a dream last night that Liz seemed convinced was a vision that required action. Her heart ached as she listened. The story brought back memories she’d prefer to have left in the past.
“I hate bringing this all back up for you,” Meg was saying. “I just don’t know what else to do. She needs somebody to help her, and you’re the only person I know who’s been through something similar. If anyone has a prayer of understanding what she’s experiencing, it’s you.”
Just the mention of that awful day in LA made a cold chill slide down her spine. After all this time it shouldn’t still have power over her, but it did. Meg wasn’t wrong in her belief. Willow had most definitely walked a mile in those shoes. She’d experienced what it was like to have a perfectly great life crash and burn without any kind of warning, and as much as she loved her friend and was willing, on most days, to help where she could, she didn’t really want to dig those days in her life back up again. One thing she’d learned since then, though, was that life didn’t always play by the rules. Just because she wanted to leave it all behind her didn’t mean it was going to happen that way.
“It sounds like it was a disturbing dream, yet a dream just the same. It happens after traumatic events.” She said the words even though her heart was telling her something quite different. Calling what was happening to Meg’s friend simple was about as far from reality as she could get, and that truth was born of first-hand knowledge. Because of it, her urge to end the call right now was strong. She didn’t, though her hand gripped the small device so tight her fingers almost ached. It had taken a long time to get her life back, and while she had no desire to revisit the aftermath of her own shooting, she couldn’t turn away from someone in need either. With her free hand, she touched the scar that still marred the smooth skin on her neck. Beneath her fingertips it was rough and ragged. If she gazed at it in the mirror, the redness that had paled somewhat over time would still, at least in her eyes, make it as noticeable as a streak of crimson lipstick. It was only one of the scars that daily reminded her of a moment that had forever changed her.
“I know it does, and I told her the same thing.”
“She doesn’t believe it.” It wasn’t a question. A vision and a dream were quite different, another lesson the tip of a bullet had driven home. It was hard to explain to anyone who hadn’t experienced a vision. She’d stopped trying a long time ago.
“I gave it my best effort to reason with her.” Meg sounded distressed. “You know all about sustaining a life-threatening injury, being out of it for days, being traumatized, and, to top it all off, moving to a brand-new house. I mean, think about it. Moving is one of life’s biggest stressors, even without all the other stuff. I told Liz how it could add up to really vivid, powerful dreams. It could happen to anybody even if they hadn’t been through what she has.”
Meg’s logic was sound. “Same thing I would tell her.” It wasn’t a lie. Despite her own experience to the contrary, it was exactly what she’d do. She was all about healing and not following dark paths. It was entirely too easy to get sucked into the darkness and too hard to claw back out.
“I pretty much heard your voice in my head as I said all that. She kept coming back to me with how she could tell the difference between a dream and a vision and insisting that it wasn’t a dream. I’ve never heard her like this before.”
It all sounded so familiar. One thing that had come out of her own incident was the distinct change in her psyche. She’d become far more in tune to the world around her and to the people she let into her life. It was like becoming a psychic. Not that she really believed that’s what had happened, but sometimes she’d come to discover she just knew things and couldn’t explain how. She’d never experienced anything like it before the shooting, only after. “What do you want me to do?” She hadn’t told anyone about her enhanced senses and didn’t plan to now. Some things were just better kept quiet.
“Could you talk to her? Like this morning? I’m afraid she’s going to pick up the phone and call the Spokane police. I don’t want people to think she’s losing it. If you talk to her, maybe she’ll move more slowly. You know, let it sink in a little and make sure she’s not overreacting to an episode brought on by stress. She doesn’t listen to me or anyone else because she doesn’t believe we can possibly understand. She won’t be able to say that to you.”
Willow didn’t particularly want to call a stranger and kick-start a difficult conversation. Not because she was uncomfortable talking to people she’d never met. No, it was more a conversation like that would open old wounds. Didn’t mean she wasn’t going to do it. “Okay. I’ll give her a call. I don’t know that I’ll be able to help, but I’ll chat with her.”
She could almost feel Meg’s relief, and a whisper of guilt tickled at her for wanting to stay uninvolved.
“Willow, thanks so, so much. You have such a good heart, and you have to understand that I do grasp this is hard for you. I’m asking an awful lot. I also know, deep in my own heart, that you’ll be able to help her. Even more, I’m positive you’ll like her too.”
“Amicus meus. Amicus tuus.”
“Seriously? You’re throwing Latin at me this time of the morning? I might be a kick-ass teacher, but Latin was never my strong suit. I wasn’t good at that crap after three shots of espresso, and you’re throwing it out at me before I’ve even had one.”
“Your friend is my friend.”
Meg laughed. “Of course that’s what you said. You know I love you.”
Willow smiled. “Love you too. Now give me Liz’s number, and then quit bugging me and go get ready for work. You have young minds to mold.”
“And you have bodies to sculpt. I’ll text you her number and address. Namaste.”
Willow put down the phone and stared at the text Meg had fired off as promised. She tapped the display as she studied it. She was accustomed to meeting new people. It was part of her business. Every new class cycle brought both the old and the new to her studio. She met them all with ease and good cheer. None of them asked about the scars. She didn’t offer to tell them. Her students were like the majority of people once the redness had faded, most likely quite curious, yet their respect for her kept their questions at bay. She appreciated that more than she could ever convey.
She didn’t know Meg’s friend Liz, but she understood her. Her body was healing. Her spirit and her soul were not. Willow put a hand over her left breast and closed her eyes. Against her palm, the steady beat of her heart was comforting. Things could have easily turned out much differently for her, and that fact was not lost on her. She had been gifted with a second chance at life, and now karma was asking for payment in return. She would never turn her back on karma.
Eldon had slept terribly, and now he felt like he was carrying a soggy sack of cement on his shoulders. The shower had helped, just not enough. How he felt didn’t matter much, considering he was expecting the next eight hours to be busy at the court, which translated to the impossibility of being at less than one hundred percent. Every judge in the district would be at the courthouse today, and that always made things a little crazy. Big doings, and he had to make sure every bell and whistle was working, or there’d be hell to pay. Normally he enjoyed a good challenge. Right now it felt more like a burden.
Granted, he had help. Stan, Karen, and Caleb would be all-hands-on-deck with him, so the entire systems support team would be there. Still, he was the go-to guy, and the ultimate responsibility for all the IT systems fell in his lap. His father would say something corny like, “With great power comes great responsibility.” He didn’t know exactly how much power he actually had, but he was the IT manager for the district, and the job sure as hell carried a lot of responsibility.
Occasionally he wished he could chuck it all and walk away just like Liz. Not that he wished a near-fatal injury on himself. More like trot out those front doors and never walk back in. That sounded bad, considering it really was a great job. Most everyone was super. Still it had its political side, and that’s what he grew weary of. If he could just do his job and call it good, it would be fantastic. That wasn’t the way it shook out on most days. So much more was involved than simply running the infrastructure of a modern court.
Oh, well, it served no purpose to whine about it, even if his whining was confined to his brain. He knew better than to vocalize any of it. He just had to get through the day, make sure the courtroom being used for the ceremony of their most senior judge, retiring at the tender age of 92 was flawlessly functional, and it would all be good. Yes indeed, he was up to the task despite his fatigue. Once he got going, the adrenaline would kick in, and he would be in the zone. It was where he felt most at home: his brain whirling, his fingers flying across keyboards, his eyes taking in every element of the puzzle that was running a courtroom. He loved the work. The ceremony should be done by four, and then he could make like a hockey player and get the puck out of there.
He wasn’t in that zone yet, and that meant he was focused elsewhere. He looked down at his smart phone and debated what he should do versus what he wanted to do. The feeling of tipping over into stalker land hit him again, but damn it, the whole reason he couldn’t sleep was because of Liz. Something was way off; he felt it clear across town. He’d never thought of himself as psychic until this thing with Liz. Ever since the shooting it was almost like they were twins. He felt calm when all was going well. Not so much when things were going sideways.
“Screw it,” he muttered, and touched her name in the contacts list. It rang three times before she picked up.
Liz sounded as tired as he felt. “What happened?” He wasn’t going to pretend he didn’t hear it in her voice or feel it in his soul. They’d known each other too long to play games. All of a sudden guilt added weight to his weariness. He should have gone by her house this morning instead of heading directly into work. This is what happened when he didn’t listen to the little inner voice warning him of danger. He could kick himself.
Right, and he was tall, skinny, and handsome. “Don’t bullshit me, Liz.”
“I’m not. Really.”
“Then what are you? Really?”
The breath she blew out was clearly audible. “I had a dream.”
A dream? Sure, and he’d slept like a baby. “What else is going on?”
“I’m calling bullshit again.” He was going to get it out of her one way or the other.
She was silent for an unusually long time. He waited her out. “All right. I thought it was a dream at first. It wasn’t a normal dream and it wasn’t a nightmare. I know the difference.”
“So what exactly are you trying to tell me?”
“I had a vision.”
Nope. He wasn’t buying that either. “A flashback maybe?” That whole shooter thing was bound to tear anybody up, and if a flashback had dragged her out of sleep, it would be natural for her to sound defeated. She might misinterpret either a dream or a flashback as a vision.
“No.” Her response was immediate and firm. “It had nothing to do with me. Absolutely not a flashback. Trust me. It was a vision.”
A chill slid over him that was far from comfortable. He wanted to argue and didn’t. He owed it to her to keep an open mind, especially if he really wanted to help her heal. “Tell me about it.”
“Don’t you have work to do? You know, judges’ needs and all.”
He didn’t give a good goddamn about anyone, judges included, at the moment. What he needed was to hear what had happened to her. Until he did, he wouldn’t be able to concentrate. “They can wait. Besides the whole staff is here. Things won’t fall apart without me in the time it takes you to tell me.”
This time there was no pregnant pause. Instead she said, “Meg thinks it’s post-traumatic stress raising its ugly head.”
Meg wasn’t entirely wrong, and the same thought had already crossed his mind. It could very well be PTSD, but if that’s all it was, he figured the rock in the pit of his stomach wouldn’t be there.
The Jaguar flipped from channel to channel, catching every news broadcast in the area. As anticipated, not one reported the discovery of a body. That was good. Not unexpected but good nonetheless. Besides, it had only been a few hours, and not enough time for anyone to be considered missing. Sometimes it took a very long time for the absence of some to be noticed. Sometimes no one ever noticed. Sad commentary on their lives. Great reminder of how skilled the Jaguar was in choosing her victims.
The house was blessedly quiet at the moment, and she appreciated that. Everyone was gone, to school and to work. Quiet didn’t happen often around here, and it was more than nice. It was invigorating. It also meant no one was around to question her intense interest in the local news. No questions were the best questions. Besides, it was great to be able to drink a cup of coffee and reflect on last night without constant interruption.
The gold cross that had been around her neck now lay warm and comforting against the Jaguar’s skin. It was a beautiful piece of jewelry, and she could see no sense in leaving it in the dirt for who knows how long. Waste not, want not. Besides, a little souvenir from a night’s fun and games was always welcome. Each one became a portable reminder of how easy it was to make someone disappear. Of how easy it was to kill without recompense. Each year it got a little more effortless and the thrill of it endlessly enticing. It was something the Jaguar could do every single day and never tire of it.
The only problem was that issue of enticement. It was like developing a drinking problem. One glass of wine was good. Two was better. A whole bottle fantastic. Yes, it was just like that. The first kill had been euphoric. The second thrilling. Each subsequent event held its own special allure that thrilled to the core, and she wanted more. The whole damned vineyard.
In the beginning it was easy enough to space the adventures out. A simple trinket taken with her when she left was all that she needed to recreate the event in vivid recall. Some might need photos to recapture the thrill. Not the Jaguar. She could recall each and every detail with ease. Over time, the span between them began to shorten as she realized the thrill brought on by touching the souvenirs was fading quicker and quicker. Focusing on the day-to-day routine of everyday life was a drudgery that threatened to destroy the Jaguar’s very sanity. It was only the intoxication of the next project that made continuing with the pretense worthwhile. She needed more, and she knew how to get it.
Putting on a mask of respectability was fine as long as the promise of her next night out waited. No one figured out that beneath the shiny, well-cut hair and impeccably pressed suit was a predator. No one guessed that behind the crystal-blue eyes that so many found fascinating lived a jaguar, strong, stealthy, and deadly. It was so easy to fool them all and satisfying to deceive the stupid people who hovered around like a swarm of bees. They all believed they were smart. They weren’t.
The coffee grew cold, and without any other distractions, the itch began to set in again. As much as she wanted to give in, she had to ignore it. At least for now. Even the Jaguar recognized that the time was not right. It was far too soon, and that’s where danger existed. Pity, really. A new prospect had presented herself just
this morning as the Jaguar had driven the youngest to school. Perhaps a touch close to home, but that made it all the more interesting. Why not take someone nearby? It wasn’t like anyone had a clue or ever would. It was like being a preternatural creature. By day, respectable, responsible, and loving. A face all recognized and found comfortable in its friendliness. By night, morphing into an unrecognizable predator with a face that struck fear into all who gazed upon it. Like a werejaguar. Human in the light. Jaguar when darkness fell upon the city. That thought brought a genuine smile.
The cold coffee dumped down the sink, it was time to move on with the day. Secure in the knowledge that last night’s unwilling yet highly entertaining participant still remained beneath piles of dark, black earth, the Jaguar grabbed the just-cleaned suit jacket and slipped it on. It was snug and well-fitted. In the full-length mirror that graced the front hallway, the image that stared back at her was one of authority and trust. Perfect.
She tugged at the jacket to smooth out nonexistent creases and sighed. Turning away from the mirror, she mentally prepared herself for what the rest of the day would bring. She couldn’t ignore family obligations. Work pressures waited. Leather case in hand, the Jaguar stepped outside and breathed in the fresh morning air. The sun was warm, the air clear, and the sky blue. It was going to be a good day.