The Book Lover

by

Kim Bellard
Copyright © Kim Bellard 2002 All Rights Reserved

The Book Lover

Prologue The man stirred when the first signs of light came over the horizon. He had been sitting at the window of the high-rise apartment for the last several hours, staring absently out at Lake Michigan. It matched his mood. No lights showed, nothing moved, and the borders of its darkness seemed to extend forever, just an empty void with nothing to hold on to, nothing to navigate by. Now, finally, the new day was beginning. The sounds of traffic on Lake Shore Drive far below were picking up as the city awoke. It was time to go. He stood up and strode resolutely to the hall. He moved silently, a tall man with the grace and power of a large cat – a lion or a tiger, cats of prey. He picked up the small bag that he had packed hours ago and slung it over his shoulder, ready to go. Then, for no apparent reason, he stopped. His eyes showed uncertainty, or sadness, or both. For a moment he stood, willing himself out the door, yet he did not move. There was a struggle within him and no one could have predicted the outcome from observing his face. Finally he took a deep breath and turned around. Walking as though he were fighting against gravity, falling towards someplace he did not want to go but was helpless to resist, he moved slowly towards the door of the master bedroom He stopped in the doorway and put the bag down, again without making a sound. He did not go in to the room; he just stood there watching. A woman lay on the bed, asleep. The darkness did not hide the fact that she was lovely. The early rays of light lit her face with a soft glow. Even in sleep one could see the intelligence and determination that characterized her waking hours. Sleep did not appear to be giving her either rest or peace. Lines of worry, of fatigue, showed on her face -- perhaps the result of a bad dream, or perhaps reminders of a life that she could not escape even in sleep. She was still, with only the motion of her slow and even breathing indicating that she was not at final rest. It was like Prince Charming coming across Sleeping Beauty, except this prince was not rushing towards her to awaken her but to leave her. Still, he could not take his eyes off her.

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The expression on his face, or, rather, in his eyes, was complex. He stood motionless, trying to not make a sound, simply watching her sleep. There was a longing there, for a past that had been or maybe for a future that might have been. Standing in the darkness, it didn’t really seem to matter, because longing was all it was going to be. And one could not really tell if he was afraid that she would wake up and see him standing there – or if he were afraid that she might not. It might have been a minute, or it might have several hours, that he stood there watching. He would have been content to stand there forever, in the dark and in the quiet, just watching her and listening to her breathe. He thought about the times he had come home late from a long night at the office, or perhaps a business trip, and paused to watch her sleep. He would watch her like this, taking immense pleasure in just the mere sight of her. He would watch until he could bear the wait no more, then shed his clothes and slip into bed with her. She would usually snuggle close to him, still sleeping, then gradually wake to his presence and welcome him properly. The man had to shake himself from those memories. He was no longer the husband she loved; he was now just a man becoming someone she used to live. And this he could not bear. So, it was time to go. The light from the window and the increasing sounds from the streets below were invading the nighttime world. Soon she would wake, and he had to be gone before then. He sighed silently, picked up his bag, and turned to leave. There were tears in his eyes as he closed the door behind him. The woman opened her eyes as soon as she heard the door close. At first she simply continue to lay there, listening closely for any sounds that would indicate he was still present – as she had been listening all night. Only now there were no more sounds, no more signs of his presence. Now he was gone. She got out of bed and put on her bathrobe. She walked into the living room and went to the windows, standing not far from where he had sat all night. She pressed her face

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against the window to look down at the street below. Of course, it was much to far to actually make out the figures below, but she had foolish hopes that she could identify him even at this distance – through the way he walked, the way he carried himself, the connection that they had once had so indelibly had between them. Was that him getting into that cab? Was that his stride on the man walking up the street? There were not many people out at this hour, but she soon realized the futility of her vigil. She would not see him. She hadn’t thought that he would go through with it, that he would actually leave. She’d hoped their recent tensions would pass and that their happier life would resume, but she’d misjudged everything; she’d played it wrong, and now he was gone. She leaned her forehead to the glass, and did something that until this moment she had not done. She started to cry.

Chapter One My name is Sean Meil. I work in a bookstore. The bookstore is in a pleasant midwestern city of moderate size; you’d know the name if I told you, but chances are you haven’t actually been there. I have a small apartment in a building and a neighborhood that have seen better days. I walk to work and I don’t socialize much. I do my best to keep life simple, in hopes that life will reciprocate. My life wasn’t always so. I used to live in Chicago, where I worked for a large bank. Frankly, I had a great life – a prestigious job, a supportive boss, a lakefront condo, more money than I knew what to do with, and an exciting and active social life. And, let us not forget, a beautiful and intelligent wife whom I loved very much. Life was good. I walked away from all that. It was surprisingly easy. One day I quit my job and before I knew it I was on a bus here, my old life gone. I had one suitcase, a small amount of safety money, and the clothes on my back.

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I didn’t start out that fateful day thinking my world was going to change. It all seemed to happen in slow motion. The events just happened, like a comet floating implacably in space leaves gravitational waves in its wake. The gravity just starts pulling at you, getting you moving in a different direction, slowly and slightly at first, but soon you’ve drifted out of the normal orbit and there’s no going back. You’re headed off into uncharted space. I jumped off from the heights of my old life into the dark, unknown waters below. I jumped without thinking, without caring. I didn't know if there were shoals or sharks, or if I could cope with the undertow. Perhaps I secretly hoped it would pull me down. The tides washed me ashore here. It is large enough to be anonymous in but not so large as to be lost in. I could have caught a bus to five or ten other equally suitable destinations, but the one to here happened to leave first. So it goes. I didn’t really have a plan. I knew I didn’t want my old life, but mostly I just didn’t want to think or feel for a while. You can only plan if you believe in a future, and I no longer did. I spent the first few days just riding buses around the city, getting a sense of place. When I got tired of riding I’d get off and wander around in neighborhoods off the bus routes. I liked discovering neighborhoods, areas that defined themselves distinctly somehow from other places. I liked stopping in unusual shops, seeing how the owners proudly displayed their wares. I liked to sit quietly in newly discovered parks. And I especially liked to walk down quiet residential streets. It was like exploring an alien world, for I no longer recognized the lives of the people who lived there as anything that had any connection to me, or that could have any connection. I didn’t ever feel too concerned about safety. Perhaps I didn’t care anymore or perhaps I decided that any criminal stupid enough to try to rob a bus carrying a handful of almostbroke riders probably wasn’t anyone I really needed to worry about. Then again, I’ve never been too afraid of physical violence; I grew up knowing how to take care of myself. Usually when I’ve gotten into trouble it has been because I was looking for it.

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It was fairly easy to choose this neighborhood to live in. Once one of the nicer areas of town, it now enjoys a more fluid, shall we say, existence. Nested between the university and the business downtown, pulling from both areas but also reflecting populations that don’t have much to do with either. The streets were wide and tree-lined, and most houses had lawns, of varying degrees of neatness. Many of the houses were large and sometimes were still well kept up, with periodic flowerbeds indicating the owner’s optimism (or concern for resale value). Other houses were already well on their inevitable downward cycle, with yards bare of grass or filled with clutter. There was a small shopping area nearby, with a few stores, a small mom-and-pop deli, and even a couple restaurants and bars. There was a local park, containing a playground -- not too large but with swings to swing on and grass to run around on. The children playing, and their watchful mothers, seemed a good socio-economic mix, reflecting the neighborhood and pretending, at least for awhile, that there is hope for the next generation to get along better than previous ones had. I liked the feel of it, the diversity and the lack of pretensions. And rooms were cheap. I found a small furnished apartment in what appeared to be a post-WWII apartment building. Typical of the era, the building had enough flourishes to indicate a sense of optimism but not enough to hide that it would always be a place for people with no more than modest budgets. My apartment was small, with one room, but with its own bathroom and a tiny kitchen. I didn’t figure to be doing much gourmet cooking, and I certainly didn’t expect to be entertaining. It was a small place, my apartment. I wondered if people in the era this was built were actually smaller, so that these rooms seemed full-size to them. More I think it is that they simply expected less, and were glad even to have this little space of their own. I could see veterans with their young spouses, pleased just to be together, pleased to not be in a foxhole or in a parent’s house somewhere, pleased to feel like an adult with the whole world ahead of them. And it probably was; they’d have lived here awhile, worked their way towards a suburban house and a station wagon full of kids, had their backyard grills

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and perhaps even a pool -- above ground, of course. Of course, then later they would have despaired as their kids rebelled against them and their dreams, only to see those rebellious kids eventually recast their parent’s dreams as their own, on a more opulent scale, once they had their own kids. The contrast between their optimism while living here and mine couldn’t have been sharper. My neighbors weren’t much in evidence initially, but it wasn’t the kind of building where you would have a lot of parents with young kids running around the halls. My sense was that there were several elderly couples, trying to preserve a world that had unaccountably passed them by, along with loners like me, all of whom probably had their own stories and their own reasons for keeping those stories to themselves. When I moved in I asked the super what the tenants were like. He gave me a blank look, as though I was asking him for their shoe sizes. “I dunno,” he puzzled, afraid to give anything away and yet reluctant to just ignore my question. “They’re just people who ended up here.” Indeed.

Chapter 2 Next came the job search. I just wanted something to help fill my days and to pay the rent. If that sounds like I was aiming too low, well, perhaps I wasn't really aiming at all. I was just trying to survive to the next day, carried by some primitive instinct stronger than my apathy. So I hit the malls, looking for part time jobs. Several store managers were skeptical, wondering what this clean-cut thirty-something-white male was doing looking at parttime jobs, especially since I was available to work in the day (so obviously I didn’t have a “real” job. From their perspective, they could see that I was too old to be starting off in entry level jobs, yet too young to be retired and just looking for extra income. I did not have a way to tell them that I was adrift, just looking for something to act as a life

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preserver. So I tailored my story to sound as though my banking career was uneventful, a career filled with no scandals but no real accomplishments either. Sometimes I thought that was accurate, for all the things I used to think of as my achievements were as distant and as meaningless to me as though they never happened, or had happened to another person. I thought that young, confident, hard-charging executive was another person, but I didn’t know who, nor did I know who this person was now. My first break came at Busy Books, a regional book chain that was in most of the local malls. The store I interviewed at was in the downtown mall, an easy walk for me. My world had become constrained by where my feet, or the buses, could take me. It didn't feel too small; the smaller, the better. Small I could deal with. I interviewed with Dan, the manager. Dan was the kind of guy whose life history and future you could figure out at a glance. He was only in his late twenties, I judged, but already balding and with a noticeable potbelly. I figured him for a junior college graduate, perhaps working on his bachelor’s at night, as he struggled to support his plain wife and their x number of kids -- "x" being anywhere from one to ten; I was afraid to know. He took his role as manager seriously, proud of having achieved so much. I think I was more depressed about his life than I was about my own. “You say here that you worked for United Bank in Chicago,” he said, eyeing my application suspiciously. “What brings you here, and why a bookstore after all those years in a bank?” When in doubt, I decided it might pay to go on the offense. “Does it really matter why here?” I asked. Evidently my evident virtues hit home with him, or perhaps he was the type who liked to give chances to people in hopes that he could take righteous pleasure in firing them when they fell below standards. I didn’t really care. I figured that I could handle whatever Dan was going to throw at me.

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“Hmm,” he pondered, as though there was really a decision to make. “OK, you can start Friday. I’ll post your shifts. Figure on twenty to twenty-five hours a week. Since you have the low seniority, you’ll probably be bouncing around a lot.” So I had a job. I quickly got a second job working at a movie complex, also located in the downtown mall. I was able to juggle the two jobs pretty well, work forty or fifty hours a week between them, and have enough to pay my bills. I was never going to get rich, and I didn’t have any benefits, but my expenses were pretty low. It took a few weeks to get to know the other workers at the bookstore. Sarah was a plucky grad student, supplementing her meager financial aid from the university as she labored on her thesis. I had no real idea what she was studying, but she struck me as the English lit kind of girl – serious, intense, smart. She was mid to late twenties, medium height, cute face with dark hair that flopped into her eyes at inopportune moments. She was thin, almost too thin but in an athletic sort of way, and unconsciously used to her body. Despite this, she reminded me of nothing so much as a young colt; emotionally she seemed eager to gallop at the world but not yet sure her legs would hold her. Her schedule matched my own the closest, so I ended up getting more of a chance to observe her than the others. Michelle and Ted were high school students, who tended to work in the afternoon and weekends. They went to different schools but knew some of the same people; Michelle had apparently recommended Ted for the job. She was the more vivacious of the two, blonde and perky without being quite a cheerleader type. Ted was a definite adolescent, with his body and face still growing in. He was almost painfully shy. Ted especially avoided contact with Dan if at all possible, and rarely made eye contact with any of the rest of us. He had a slight stutter that came out when he got really nervous. But he was a hard worker and he worshipped Michelle. I wondered why Michelle went out of her way to help Ted, and liked her better for doing so.

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We didn’t really get much chance to interact. Usually there were just a couple of us in the store – not counting Dan, who usually was struggling in the back trying to figure out the sales reports. The work wasn’t hard, ringing up sales, replacing or moving books, and chasing down particular books for customers. The store was a vehicle for moving merchandise; there was no calling to transmit great literature to the masses here. We might as well have been selling detergent. I didn’t think our customers minded much; they weren’t really looking for classics here; they just wanted something to take their minds off their own lives for a few minutes. Not a bad idea, I thought, and started to do the same.

Chapter 3 Much to my surprise, I quickly got used to this life. For example, I discovered that I quite enjoyed walking to work and often back, unless the weather or a tight schedule precluded it. I tried to vary the route at least slightly every day, exploring new streets or paying more attention to the streets I had walked on before. I took some excitement in spotting a cornice or other architectural detail that I’d not seen before, pleased that some builder years ago had hidden away a small gem for a careful onlooker to find and claim as their own. It became kind of a game -- what was I sharp enough to spot? -- and I thrilled at each new discovery like a birdwatcher catching a glimpse of a new species. I also discovered that my building had a roof that one could sit on. There was a low wall surrounding the roof, and it was perfect to put your feet up on, or to stand by and brood. The view wasn’t spectacular, but even at that height the omnipresence of trees started to be visible, and the city noises were muffled enough to pretend that the city was far away. On a good night, you could even see the lights of downtown’s skyline. Even though it was still cold out, I’d often go up there and sit, reading a book or just sitting, drinking a beer and just looking out. I rarely ran into anyone up there, and I suspected most of my neighbors would have been surprised to hear that there was a roof that they could visit.

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I found I was reading more than ever before, as well as getting more exercise. I’d never really had much time to just read for fun, and it was delightful to find authors and devour their works. Reading the masters -- like Margaret Atwood, Lawrence Block, or Isaac Asimov -- gave me a real appreciation for the craft and the power of storytelling. Finding a lesser known but gifted author -- a Michael Z. Lewin, an Iain Banks, a Mark Salzman – was like finding a nugget of gold. I read at breaks, in the mornings, and during whatever evenings were left after I came home from work. I would read several books a week, varying genres and authors. No longer interested in creating or exploring my own worlds, I took refuge in theirs. The funny thing was how easy it had been to slip into life here. Not that long ago I’d been at the top of the food chain, passing people like me while riding in a cab or a limo or my BMW. I’d have looked at me and not thought twice, never even thought we were in the same world. And I suppose we weren’t. Perhaps that was the hubris I’d acquired over the years, forgetting where I came from and how fragile life is. The really funny thing is that when people like the old me passed me now, I didn’t think twice about their life either. We were on different, at best only slightly overlapping, worlds. Solitude is such a curious thing. It grows like a weed in an untended flower garden. You start spending time by yourself, and if you are not careful pretty soon that’s all you do. You develop routines that don’t involve other people, and then other people become disruptions in your routine, in your life. I had always been a sociable person. I had liked talking to people and meeting new people. Here, though, I was ducking my head, not wanting to draw attention or talk about myself. You get out of the habit of making idle conversation with the sales clerk, with your neighbors, with the people that life just puts in your path. You just avoid them, and in doing so become invisible. You slowly fade from view, become just part of the background. Sometimes I just wanted someone to look at me and stop me, then tell me. “You don’t belong here!” Surely they could tell that I’m not just a poor book clerk, that I’m a more important person, that I have so much more to offer. How could I slip from sight and not

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have someone notice? You think you’re so important in your job, to the people around you, to the world, and then you find out that you were barely a blip on anyone’s radar screen. Oops -- he’s gone? -- now let’s move on. This simple life, this unchallenging life: I lived it. When I got up I thought not about what I might have been doing if I were still in Chicago, but what I would wear on my walk to work, how my schedule was that day, what I needed at the store. My days filled up with this kind of minutia. My little brain accepted far too easily the change in my circumstances. It should be harder; I should protest more. The old life might as well never have been. It could have been a dream. I didn't miss being a big-shot executive. I didn't really even miss the money or the lifestyle; my little world sufficed for all that now. But I did think about my wife -- my dear Renee -- at times: walking home, sitting up on the roof, sometimes in bed as I lay waiting for sleep. I thought of her, and what we'd had together. That life was gone and there was no looking back. Our time together was unreal, like dreams or like something from someone else's life. Mostly I just wondered how she was, figuring she was better off without me. Although my old life was clearly over, I didn’t think of myself as starting a new life. I was more just waiting. It was a kind of purgatory, if you will. I’d come through hard parts in my life and I’d lucked into a kind of heaven during the happy part of my life with Renee, but I’d blown it. Now I was just waiting for some judgment to pass. I hadn’t committed some mortal sin; nothing as dramatic, or as redeemable, as that. All I’d had to do was to be the man Renee had fallen in love with and had married, yet I’d proven myself to be incapable of even that seemingly simple feat. So I’d given up, and I had to just exist like this until…I didn’t know until what. Just until… I probably was in a kind of shock for much of those first few months. I'd amputated my old life, and those nerve endings had stopped sending signals to my brain. Stupid me; I thought that meant it had been a clean cut, and that there would be no pain. I'd not

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realized that the first reaction to such a drastic break is the shock that blocks feeling; only later does that wear off and the pain begin. Amputation it might have been, but even amputees still are often tormented with pain from their phantom limbs. That was yet to come for me.

Chapter 4 I was not too happy with the movie job. I thought it would be easy, and it was, but it was also frustrating. For one thing, I didn’t end up getting to actually see a lot of movies, at least not in a coherent manner. I usually ended up catching enough bits and pieces of the movie to figure out what was going out, but it was like reading a book by catching a random page periodically. You may eventually get the whole story, but something is lost in the translation, and it ends up being more effort than it is worth. I also didn’t particularly like my coworkers, and I came to actively dislike the movie patrons. The other workers tended to be a lot of teenagers, who were not high on the motivational scale but were keenly interested in slipping their friends in without tickets or in flirting with members of the opposite sex. Fortunately, with the high turnover, I didn’t end up getting to know many of them. On the other hand, the patrons seemed to be trying hard to prove what slobs humans could be. They came late (I gathered that they viewed the movie listings more as a guide than as actual start times), talked during the movie, and left an appalling amount of trash when they departed. It made me wonder if they simply left their manners at home or if that is how they acted there as well. So I was receptive to career changes when I discovered Authors’ Corner on one of my walks home. I’d been in town three months or so. Life at Busy Books had settled in to a predictable pattern. Just come in, do the simple tasks, ring up sales; no active thought required. I could entertain myself by actually trying to thinking about what people were buying -- and why! -- but even that got depressing after awhile. We didn't get a lot of refined tastes. But the movie job was just plain deadening; I hated coming in.

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Authors’ Corner was just on the outskirts of the downtown area, and was a short detour from my usual route home. I say “discovered” because I wasn’t actively planning to find it, but I had been aware of its existence. It was one of the best known and longest-lasting independent bookstores in town, and had an excellent if quirky reputation. If an out-oftown visitor came in and wanted you to show them a local bookstore with character, you’d take them to Authors’ Corner. Apparently not a lot of people had visitors like that, since it was never all that busy. I wandered in, immediately entranced with the place. Books, books, everywhere, but they were neither jumbled in an overwhelming mass nor scientifically arranged to maximize purchasing. Rather, they were laid out in a non-obvious manner. You knew there was some scheme to it, but weren’t quite sure what it was. It was more like the books were friends sitting around with other friends than that they were pieces of meat out for display at the grocery store, as I often felt at Busy Books. I almost felt bad buying a book, as if it would miss sitting with the others. I took to stopping in every few days, buying a couple books each time. I’d spend far longer than necessary just to buy the books, soaking in the atmosphere and treasuring the range of reading options that lay ahead of me. I didn’t have much money so I had to choose my purchases carefully. This wasn’t an on-the-way-to-the-department-store kind of place; people here had decided to stop just here, so most were taking their time to savor it. They defied easy categorization. I think all they had in common was love of books. You’d think that working in a bookstore would inure me to books, like the working in an ice cream store supposedly makes you sick of ice cream. It wasn’t having that effect on me at all. The more I was around books, the more I loved them. I loved their look, their feel. Hardback, paperback, clothbound, leather bound -- I didn’t care. I loved to start a book and get to know the people in it. I couldn’t wait to pick it up again so I could see what happened to them. I stayed up much too late many nights finishing something gripping. As my life grew more solitary, people in books became more real to me than

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many of the people I saw daily. Opening a new book was like opening a Christmas present. And I was increasingly fascinated to watch other people’s choices. At Busy Books I could officially help guide customers -- not that they listened to my suggestions: just get me that new Stephen King, please! -- but I found that even at other bookstores I sometimes couldn’t resist making unsolicited suggestions to an undecided purchaser. I don’t know what they thought. Authors’ Corner seemed particularly fertile for this -- the customers seemed more open to talking, and definitely more open to suggestions. More than a few mistook me for an employee, an error I didn’t always work too hard to dispel. It was probably after coming in to Authors’ Corner for a month or so that I met Catherine Frank, who owned the place. I’d read a profile about her in some guidebook or magazine, so I had recognized her on previous visits. Of course, I’d made no effort to talk to her or to admit I knew who she was; that would have been out of my new character. It was up to her to initiate something, and she did. I was buying a few books when she smiled at me from behind the counter. Catherine was fiftyish but still young looking, with a Catherine Denuvre or Jacqueline Bisset kind of ageless grace and an inner beauty that shone. Her figure and especially her smooth face belied her age. Only the laugh wrinkles around her eyes gave her away, but they also had the effect of comforting me. This was a woman with a sense of humor. I immediately liked her quiet confidence, her apparent openness with a stranger. “Hi, I’m Catherine Frank. You have an interesting taste in books,” she said boldly. “I’ve been noticing what you buy.” “Do you notice what everyone buys?” I asked, surprised. I thought only I did that with customers.

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“Of course – part of the fun of selling books is to see which books fit with which readers,” she told me matter-of-factly, fiddling with the glasses on top of her head. I was silent, trying to imagine Dan doing the same thing, then I gave up. Instead, I asked what was interesting about my taste in books. “Well, for one thing you pick very good authors, and seem more interested in reading good authors than sticking with single genres,” she said. “And I’ve noticed that you like to help other people find books, which is unusual. But what I really like is that you show great respect for books when you look at them. I like how you pick up a book. People can always learn to pick good authors, but it is harder to learn that respect.” We chatted for a while, comparing notes on authors that we liked, and I eventually admitted that I, too, worked in a bookstore. I think she was underwelmed by my choice of a bookstore, but she was too polite to say anything of the sort. In a lame attempt to change the subject, I joked that at least I could get her in free at the movies. “I don’t get to too many movies, and when I do I usually go to the Fine Arts,” she said seriously. The Fine Arts is what passes for an art theater in town. “That’s OK, I’m probably not going to be working there much longer. Perhaps I’ll see if the Fine Arts is hiring.” “Let me know,” she laughed goodbye. As I walked home I thought about her. She loved the books; that was clear. She also didn’t seem too concerned with maximizing revenue growth or tie-in product sales, as Dan often would spout off about (I’d grant that he probably knew what the individual words meant, but I never quite believed he knew what the combinations actually meant). Whatever her drive was, she seemed at peace, and I found myself wishing that I knew why.

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Chapter 5 Not surprisingly, I ended up spending lots of time hanging out in the mall, either on breaks or killing time between the two jobs. I liked watching the people, even more than I did dealing with them at work. I found that they mostly made sad. I’d first see them as teenagers, aging from gawky youngsters in the early teens to those supremely confident invincible youths of the later teen years. They would strut around the mall, believing that theirs was the first generation to have attractive bodies, to have friends, to shock their parents, or to have ideas about how to live. If their blind faith wasn't so heart-breaking it would have been insufferable. They thought they were ready to take on the world. You can have it, I wanted to say. Fast-forward to older shoppers. They’d learned that they could no longer get by on looks and enthusiasm, hopes and dreams. Most had changed jobs or careers, and not a few of them had been fired at some point. They were no longer invincible, and they didn’t know what to do about that. The optimism had turned to a nagging fear of failure. In those crowds I felt alone but not quite so different. I used to enjoy people watching, especially around Renee. We’d go to parties or other events, mingle sociably, but part of me always kept an eye on her. Not because I didn’t trust her, but because she was such a joy to watch. She was so animated, so enthralling to everyone around her. When she toured past me I’d sometimes whisper in her ear: “You’re the most beautiful woman in the room.” She would look at me with that amused expression that indicated she didn’t believe me, but believed that I believed it, which is even better. Occasionally she’d protest, and ask me what would happen when I found someone more beautiful than her. I assured her that would never happen, and it still hadn’t. .

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Now I didn't have her, or anyone else, to share my observations with, but I still watched on my own. It didn’t amuse me so much any more. Other people were even more a mystery to me now than ever. For a while, Sarah and some of the others took turns trying to engage me. They would offer to get lunch or a snack for me when they were going out for themselves. “No thanks, I’m fine,” I’d say, and they’d walk away – at first wondering, later on relieved. I’m not sure why I was so stubborn about it; what was the harm in being friendly? I liked them well enough, but just didn’t feel any desire to be any more involved with them than I needed to be. I was the same way with the customers; I’d answer their questions, would help them, and would be polite, but I didn’t engage them the way I saw Michelle or even Brad do. Another time, another place, I’d have been chatting them up, getting their life’s histories and amusing them with quips, but I no longer had it in me. I wasn’t interested in having fun. Fun was part of that old world that I'd left behind. After a while the others stopped trying to include me; they were still friendly, but there was a frost, and I had put it there. It was a Thursday, I’m pretty sure, when Catherine surprised me while I was browsing in the science section of Authors’ Corner. I was trying to decide if I was more interested in evolutionary biology or chaos theory (and hoping I could understand either of them!) when she tapped me on the shoulder. “Still going in for that light reading, I see!” I heard her say. “Well, I think it makes mysteries more mysterious if I know the science behind them,” I parried. “Any recommendations?” She took her reading glasses down from the top of her head and looked at the books I was debating between. Then she pronounced one of them too dense, another too pompous,

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and the third highly readable. She also pulled another title from the shelf, told me it read like a mystery, but without the happy ending, at least if you were a dinosaur. “Sort of a noir motif,” I quipped with a deadpan expression, “At least if you were a dinosaur.” I started to thank her, but she interrupted and said, “Listen, I’ve been thinking about your movie career. I don’t think the Fine Arts is hiring, so why don’t you quit the movie job and work here? ” She took her glasses off and perched them back on the top of her head. I was startled beyond words. “This is kind of out of the blue. I don’t know what to say," I managed to blurt out. “Say yes, then. Some of our customers seem to think you work here already, so I figured you might as well be on the payroll officially. Frankly, it is easy to find book clerks but hard to find book lovers. What do you say?” In that moment she reminded me of someone I knew, with her easy confidence and disarming friendliness. It was like looking through a fog through which I could barely make out Renee saying something nervy like that. For a second a longing to have her in my life again threatened to overwhelm me. But just for a moment, then the fog thinned and I was back holding some books and looking at Catherine again. Holding her frank gaze with a calm stare of my own, I took a long few seconds, and with the brashness of the old Sean I surprised both of us by saying, “OK, then. When do I start?”

Chapter 6

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I liked Authors’ Corner right from the start. Catherine introduced me to the other workers -- John and Jessica, both of whom had been there for several years, and Andrea, who had only been there a few months. They were polite to me but seemed slightly amused by my presence; I suspected that I wasn’t the first “stray” that Catherine had hired. John was of some indeterminate age; he could have been anywhere from twenty-five to forty-five. He had a serious case of hippie-envy: the long, thin ponytail, the granny glasses, the worn clothing, even the Birkenstocks. In my khakis and button-down shirts, I felt like an Establishment spy next by comparison. Still, he fit the store, being colorfully eccentric. John was very outspoken, but not all that friendly. Jessica was more down to earth, probably late thirties, sort of stout and with a mass of braided hair. She was cheerfully outgoing in that easy earth-mother manner, and did her best to make me feel at home. I liked her right away. Andrea was bland, thin and mousy. I’m not sure she even realized I was there. It was fun being around people who both actually knew books and liked them. Catherine was a benevolent dictator; she ran the store her way, but listened seriously to other people’s suggestions. She loved to engage in discussions about the merits of a book, and she had a great sense of humor. She could poke fun at any scared cow, including herself. I kept out of most of the discussions, just listening. Part of it was this chasm I’d created by not talking much, and part of it was feeling I didn’t know enough yet to talk. Still, I was mentally tallying up the preferences and prejudices of the others, and starting to believe maybe I could run with this crowd. I just didn’t care enough yet to try. Still, Catherine continued to look at me in case I wanted to add something. I’d just let her glance slip by, but I appreciated her trying. Sarah heard I’d gotten a job at Authors’ Corner, and was immediately envious. She demanded to know how I’d done that, asked if I’d actually met Catherine Frank. Apparently she was well acquainted with both the bookstore and Catherine, at least by

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reputation. I didn’t quite know what to say. I shrugged and told her it was just a fluke; I must just have wandered in at the right time. I didn’t tell her of the hours I’d spend there pouring over books and soaking in the atmosphere. She didn’t seem to expect much more of an explanation from me, used to me being taciturn. I did notice that she viewed me more curiously after that, as if I presented a mystery of some sort to her. I just kept my head down and did my job.

Chapter 7 It was a pleasant spring afternoon when I met my down-the-hall neighbor. I had a rare late afternoon free at home, and was sitting on the roof with a book, a beer, and my thoughts. There was a slight breeze, the sky was a bright blue, and I was feeling pretty content. From the street I could hear kids playing in the playground down the street, whooping it up and scaring their parents with their daring. In the months I’d been coming to the roof I’d never run into anyone else, so I was surprised to hear the door open. A pretty woman and her even prettier daughter burst out of the doorway. The mother was maybe thirty, at most, and still had that vibrant mother-glow that usually wears off with fatigue. She was of medium height, kind of compact yet voluptuous, especially in her jeans and tight cable sweater. Her hair was dark and short, framing her face with its full lips and dark eyes. The daughter was perhaps five, and had a bounce and sparkle to her that was visible even from a distance. They were so joyous, and so in love with each other and with life, that I felt like a voyeur -- I couldn’t take my eyes off them. They were chasing a ball, which rolled over towards where I was sitting. Because they were paying attention to the ball, and clearly were not expecting to see anyone, they were thunderstruck to realize I was there. The change in their faces was immediate and drastic. Down came the masks, joy was replaced by caution and, I thought, by fear. I was dismayed at the effect I had caused.

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I stood up. “I’m sorry to disturb you -- I was just leaving,” I said, although it must have very obvious that I had not been getting ready to leave. “That is all right,” the mother said tightly. “We can come back another time.” “No, really, I’m already late for work, but I was enjoying the sunshine too much,” I told her, standing up awkwardly about ten feet away. “My name is Sean. I live in 4B.” “We’re neighbors, then,” she told me. “We live in 4A. I don’t think I’ve seen you around,” she added with a slight air of suspicion. “I keep to myself a lot,” I explained, adding apologetically, “I’ve only been here a few months.” I noticed the ball had rolled to near my feet and the girl was eyeing it nervously. With a trick from my basketball playing days, I bounced it up to my hands using only my feet. She was delighted, and the smile came back out. “Do that again,” she commanded. So I did, adding a few flourishes, ending with twirling the ball on my finger, and handed her the ball. I always was a show-off for girls. She took it like I had just given her a present, then shyly hid in her mother’s waist. “I’m Angela,” the mother told me, as if I had passed some sort of test. “This is Connie, my daughter.” “Pleased to meet you,” I told Connie formally, shaking her hand for good measure. She giggled, then hid again in her mother.

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“I think she likes you,” Angela said unnecessarily. She still hadn’t reopened that lovely smile. “She’s adorable,” I told her enthusiastically. Despite the brief exchange, I could tell they weren’t going to be comfortable with me there. I gathered up my things and told them I had to be going. They accepted this and settled in as I walked away. I thought of how happy they seemed together, and a pang of loss hit me so hard that it almost staggered me. I’d been happy like that once too.

Chapter 8 Renee and I never had children. It was always in the master plan, but our careers and social lives had taken precedence. Renee was a few years younger than I was, still in her early thirties, so we always assumed we would have time for kids later. I met Renee in business school, where we had a couple of classes together. I had been at the bank for a few years and was strengthening my credentials, while Renee was fresh out of Northwestern. She came from old North Shore money, and wore her life of privilege like a familiar coat -- not flaunting it, but definitely there and comforting. I was drawn to her immediately. She stood out in the class because she was so full of zest. She wasn’t like that in a teacher’s pet sort of way -- indeed, she was as likely to take on the teacher as to go after any of us -- but because she was so alive, so curious. Of course, it helped that she was great looking, trim and blonde, with great eyes and a sparkling smile. All the men were smitten by her and all the women wanted to be like her. She could charm the most cynical professor, persuade the most stubborn student, and do so in way that they felt she had done them a favor. In any work groups we formed in class she naturally took the lead, even when some of the other students were years older and were established professionals. The kicker was that she really was good, and was a good choice to be the leader.

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She was the leader except, of course, in groups that I was in. I didn’t talk much in class. I was working my normal long hours at the bank, so I tended to cruise through the classes in low gear. I was more likely to speak up only to say something funny. I did well on tests and papers, and I’d never had much trouble having people recognize that I was bright. I could see that Renee was beginning to wonder who the hell this guy was -- he didn’t raise his hand much in class, joked rather than competed for correct answers, yet still had the professors and the some of the older students listening to him. We were assigned to a work group together after about a month. I think we’d both noticed each other previously, but this gave us a chance to talk a little more. After class that night she asked me to go for coffee to discuss the project. One thing led to another and soon we were dating. Six months later we were engaged and we were married a year after that. Not quite love at first sight but the electricity was there early on. Renee attacked everything in life full force. We were a good match. She spurred me to do things I might never have done otherwise -- from white water rafting to art gallery openings -- while I helped her be more playful, to just enjoy things and to laugh at life. She did have a tendency to take herself too seriously at times, or to dive in too fiercely. More than once I had to temper situations with a kind word or a quip. It seemed so natural between us; we learned from each other, we complimented each other well, we knew what the other needed. Her parents weren’t sure what to make of me initially. I didn’t fit Renee’s usual social circle or their hopes for her. I was a poor Scotch-Irish kid from the south side. I’d gone to Catholic prep school and a small private university -- good schools but not prestigious. Not the kind of schools her friends had gone to.

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My mother had died when I was seven. I missed her terribly, but my dad and I rarely talked about it much. Even when I was young I could see it was too sensitive a subject for him to think about. So I learned to keep my memories to myself, even then. Dad was a self-employed CPA his whole life, doing taxes for neighbors and handling the books at lots of the neighborhood businesses. He never lived further than a mile from where he grew up, rarely even came downtown. We never had much money and lived in a small apartment above one of the taverns dad kept the books for. I’d been a rebellious kid for much of my teens, running with a tough crowd without becoming actually felonious -- I mean, we got in lots of fights, drank, and generally raised a lot of hell, but never were into drugs or robbing people. School was not a high priority, much to my dad’s dismay. He would periodically chide me about wasting my life, but would lose interest after we would fight about it for a while. He could see my life sliding towards the low common denominator of some of the neighbor men, good for a drink and odd jobs but not much else. It saddened him, but it was just part of the sadness he lived with since my mother died. He didn’t expect much from his life and now he was ready to give up on mine too. My life changed in my junior year of high school. We got a new principle, Sister Theresa, a nun who had been one of mom’s neighbors growing up. No-nonsense but caring in that nun sort of way, she scared me a little, although I’d have died before admitting that. I found myself envious that Sister Theresa had so many years to know my mom that I hadn’t had. I longed to hear stories about my mom as a kid, but couldn’t bring myself to ask; tough guy indeed. She looked at my grades, my IQ scores, and my personnel file, and sat me down for a stern chat. “Are you making you mother proud?” she asked directly. “My mother is dead, in case you hadn’t noticed,” I insolently replied.

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“Your mother may be dead, but she is not gone,” she told me, with the conviction that only a nun can have. “Don’t dishonor her or disappoint her.” It might sound trite to someone else, but it really hit home with me. My mom had died young enough that she still was sort of a perfect angel/mother figure for me anyway, and the thought that I was disappointing her was unbearable. So I cleaned up my act, went on to become valedictorian of my class my last two years, even was captain of the basketball and baseball teams. I got a scholarship to college, where I graduated summa cum laude. And, yes, along the way Sister Theresa told me lots of stories about my mom. She was as wonderful as I remembered, or so Sister Theresa told the stories. A few times I’d go home and try to talk to dad about them, but it was too hard on him. He had no place to put his grief; it just built up. So I kept the stories to myself. At my college graduation Sister Theresa pulled me aside, and whispered into my ear, “You’ve grown into the man your mother would have wanted. She’d be very proud of you.” I cried like a baby. I fell into banking without a great deal of foresight, just sort of operating on the Willie Sutton theory, but I did very well there. I soon attracted lots of attention, and got a great mentor. By the time I married Renee I was a full vice-president, one of the youngest in the bank, and was doing well enough that Renee’s parents not only didn’t hold my background against me, they eagerly told the story of my rise to success to their friends at cocktail parties. Meanwhile, Renee attacked her career with her typical fervor, and was matching me, success for success. Our lives revolved more and more around our work and our resulting lifestyles. We were a golden couple. It was the old Horacio Algiers story, the American dream. So I thought; it was heady stuff. It seemed too good to last – and it didn’t.

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Chapter 9 My goal was to keep out of other people’s lives, avoid entanglements. It was working pretty well so far. I didn’t know many people, and the people I had to know I made a point not to get too close to. Catherine was probably the only exception, because I was so fascinated by her and because she didn’t take no for an answer, but we mostly talked about books and the customers. It didn’t take long to pick up that she was well connected. She seemed to know everybody, especially in the local arts community. Artists and dealers were always dropping by, and she always had posters in our window advertising some festival or opening. She also seemed socially well connected. It was fun to match up names I saw in the newspaper with phone messages for her or visits from friends of hers. I knew she was curious about my life, but she observed my boundaries, never pressing me for details about my life. We mostly stuck to books, and to readers. “Do you think people read to learn, or to escape?” she asked me out of the blue one day. I hadn’t given it much thought, so I stopped for a few seconds to sort through my impressions of the shoppers in each store. I had lots of impressions from working at both stores. The customers were different but did seem to fall into types, even if those types fell across all social, economic or racial lines. You had to see how they were with books to tell. “I’d say there are three types of readers,” I started cautiously. "The first are the sheep; they buy what Oprah tells them, keeping up on the best seller list but not really able to tell what is good on their own. You don’t get so many sheep here, but Busy Books has mostly sheep. They like it that way. The second kind are the escapers. They plunge into books for the escape it offers them. There may not be anything really wrong with their

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lives, but books offer them a chance to pretend to belong to other, more interesting worlds.” I looked over at Catherine, trying to judge if I was telling her more than she expected. She seemed interested, appeared to be weighing what I was saying. Of course, Catherine was the kind of person who probably got stuck with the social rejects at cocktail parties, because she would patiently listen to them and make them feel as though they were witty. I hoped she wasn’t mentally compiling her grocery list while I was talking, and plunged on. “The last kind are the people who read to explore. Their world isn’t big enough to show them all the things they want to see, so they use books to explore other worlds. It’s kind of like using a waldo to handle objects you can’t reach directly.” It was beginning to sound pretentious even to me but her eyes just drew me out. “Now, a lot of people get the escapers and the explorers confused, but they are quite different. Escapers want the books to take them to places where they can pretend for awhile that they are somewhere other than here. For explorers those worlds are real. Books just increase the number and types of worlds they can experience.” I halted, letting us both absorb that monologue. It was probably the longest I’d spoken to Catherine, or anyone else, in the last few months, and I think we were both surprised at my exposition. I was pleased to see her mentally weighing what I had said. She stood, staring off at a row of books on the shelf, and finally nodded slowly. “That’s good,” she said thoughtfully. “I like the explorers and the escapers distinction; I’ve never quite thought about it in those terms.” She looked at me, and told me, “You are right about the real worlds. A good book paints a picture for me that is as real as the one I drive to work in -- sometimes more real, depending on how the traffic is that day!” She looked at me, serious yet smiling. It was as though she was taking my measure, and she was pleased to have judged me correctly. I felt obscurely proud.

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“Of course,” she added wryly, “It does make it hard to separate explorers from schizophrenics!” “You can tell by the medication,” I quipped. We laughed about that, and then got a little silly. We agreed to assign numbers to each type, so we could evaluate people and flash each other fingers or say a number, without being too obvious. It was our little secret, and we had fun with it. John and Jessica, and an occasional shopper, would sometimes catch us at it, but we didn’t ever explain. Privately we’d just laugh. I found myself wondering what I was doing, being silly with Catherine. She was not someone who people would expect to be silly, although I’m sure people would describe her as having a good sense of humor. She had a lightness about her that the old Sean would have dearly loved, and that the new Sean was strongly drawn to. I'd have to confess that assigning the numbers was my idea, but she quickly seized the idea and went along whole-heartedly. Sometimes she was so much like Renee that it worried me -- or maybe I was projecting, trying to pretend that I still had some of the things I used to have in my life. I worried that it was dangerous to let her see even this much of my personality; I’d worked hard to suppress myself, and to keep my life separate from everyone. And this sense of fun was dangerous, like letting a prisoner out for a conjugal visit. That old cell just isn’t the same after that.

Chapter 10 The reserve slipped harmlessly with Catherine, but really broke down one day at Busy Books. I guess I’d been working there six months or so. It was early evening, so there were three of us on duty and a decent crowd of customers browsing. I was putting stock

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on the shelves, Sarah was at the cash register, and Ted was setting up a display. Dan was somewhere in the back, useless as usual. I heard a commotion from the front of the store. Someone was yelling. “You don’t know where it is? Don’t you work here? What kind of idiot are you? You must be a loser to work in a crummy job like this, in a crummy bookstore like this. And you can’t even do this crummy job right!” I walked closer to the scene, curious about what was wrong. A well-dressed, middle aged man was addressing this rampage to Ted, who was terrified. The man was powerfully built and he towered over the hunching Ted. He had an air of authority and power about him. He also looked like he was pissed as hell. Sarah was frozen at her register, torn between her desire to help Ted and her fear of getting in the middle of the tirade. Poor Ted was trying to respond -- I couldn’t even tell what the man wanted -- but was so nervous that he started stuttering. This set the customer off again, making fun of Ted’s impediment. That did it. I never did like bullies. I walked up to the man, put myself between him and Ted. “What seems to be the problem here?” I asked calmly. We were about the same height, and he was a little startled that I’d invaded his space. He’d been using his size and proximity to intimidate Ted, and he moved back a few inches before realizing that I was doing the same to him. He stopped, worried it might look like he was backing off, then went on the offensive again. He wasn’t going to let me ruin his fun. “Who the hell are you?” the man challenged. “Another imbecile employee of this pissant store?”

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“I’m the assistant manager,” I embellished, hoping Sarah would keep quiet and that Dan would stay lost. “How can I help you?” I got him to explain what he was looking for, quickly found what he wanted, and headed us towards the registers. “Let me ring you up,” I offered, moving him in front of a line of by now very interested shoppers. Sarah was gaping at me, not used to seeing me step out for someone like that, especially when she had not. Now, at that point I thought the crisis was over. He’d gotten what he was looking for, and had blown off some steam. I’d even let him cut in front of some other, more polite customers. We got jerks in every so often and it was no big deal; cost of doing business. But he wouldn’t let it drop. “I assume you’re going to fire that idiot,” he declared icily. “These programs of hiring the mentally handicapped don’t work. It just drives customers like me away.” Not that that would be a bad thing, I mused to myself. He noticed Sarah was covertly eyeing him. “What are you looking at, you bimbo? Is that your retard boyfriend back there? Maybe I’ll get the manager here to fire your ass too!” The old Sean would have defused things with a funny comment, or perhaps would have set the guy straight politely. The Sean that had been working in Busy Books the last few months would have just kept quiet and let all this go by, not make a big deal about it. There was no point in getting any more involved than I was; this was the kind of guy who could get me fired. The safe thing to do was just ring him up and let him get out of there, regardless of how offensive what he had to say might be. I don’t know why on this day I couldn’t do that, but somehow this guy just didn’t sit well with me. I’d lost that lubricant of social grease that would have allowed me to handle the situation smoothly, and I felt my temper rising. I knew I was going to do something rash, and there was a certain freedom in that, like jumping off a building is fun for a short time. Until you hit. “Your card, sir?” I asked politely.

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He gave me a credit card, platinum of course. I turned my back to him, and deliberately ran the card through the swipe machine incorrectly. This caused Sarah’s already wide eyes to bulge even further; she couldn’t figure out what I was doing. “The stripe on this card isn’t reading right; I’ll have to call it in,” I told the man. I punched in the number for the credit card company, again using my body to shield the fact that I was holding the receiver so that I couldn’t get a dial tone. Sarah was now about to pee in her pants. I solemnly read the card information to the imaginary listener at the credit card company. I made sure my voice was loud enough that the other shoppers would overhear. “Are you sure? Oh, I see…that is a problem. Yes, Mr. Black is still here.” I paused a moment for effect. “No-o-o-o, I’m not sure that is a good idea. Yes, I can do that,” hanging up the phone. “What the hell is that about?” he immediately demanded. “Sir, there seems to be a problem with your card,” I told him with an air of apology. Smiling sweetly at him, I pulled out a pair of scissors and cut the card in half. By now Sarah was hyperventilating, the man was boiling, and the other shoppers were enjoying the show. They had heard him yell at poor Ted, had seen him get preferential treatment in line, and so now they were taking no small pleasure at his problems. “They asked me to destroy all your cards and restrain you until the police arrive, but I think you should just leave,” I told him in all seriousness. He was beginning to come out of his shock. I could almost see the seam rising from his head, like in the cartoons. I tried to keep from smiling at the thought of it. “I’ll have you fired for this, you stupid son-of-a-bitch. I’ll find out who owns this store and I’ll get all of you idiots fired. And I’ll sue you for every penny you have or ever hope to have for destroying my cards and making me wait.” He said all this with an air

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of cold menace, not in the belligerent tones he had used before. “I will not be treated like this” He glared at me with the full wattage he could muster. I’m sure it had melted many a subordinate, and many peers, in his day, but I wasn’t having any of it. I was tired of this, and of him. I leaned forward, and suddenly grasped his tie. He jerked back slightly, but I reeled him towards me using the tie like a fishing line. I spoke in low tones into his ear now, so that only he could hear. “Listen to me carefully. We don’t want you as a customer. Ever. I want you out of here. And I am not a person you want to fuck with.” I contemptuously released his tie, causing him to stumble backwards slightly before he could regain his balance. I could tell he realized he had lost control of the situation and was trying to decide how to play it. He was seriously considering throwing a punch, and I so wanted him to. Normally my Irish and Scottish characteristics balance each other well, but when my Irish temper gets backed up by my Scottish stubbornness, it is like a pit bull – you have to kill it to get it to back off. He was a bully, no doubt, but like most bullies he was mean but not tough. At that moment, with my blood up, I was prepared to go as far as he wanted – hit him, throw the cash register at him, burn his house down, hunt his family to the ends of the earth, whatever. I had faced down lots tougher guys than him in bars and in boardrooms and I had no doubt whatsoever that I could take him. After a few moments of him puffing up to determine if I was bluffing, I saw his shoulders sag and knew he had mentally surrendered. “Just walk away,” I urged in a reasonable tone of voice. He paused a moment, then gave in and started to move towards the door, moving stiffly like he’d been vaguely injured or was in shock.

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“But,” I added, leaning over and grabbing his bag of would-be purchases, “leave the books.” As he tottered out, I turned to Sarah and asked, “Could you take care of these customers?” I went back to stocking the shelves as the stunned customers started to applaud.

Chapter 11 I didn't know what to think of the little run-in I'd had. I went home that night and spent a couple hours on the roof, drinking my beer morosely and wondering what I'd become. Pushing around mean shoppers, working in a dinky little bookstore. Was I protecting Ted, or had I just been looking to release my own aggressions? I hadn't reached any conclusions yet. Renee would have liked what I'd done, I consoled myself. Not that she liked violence, but she knew when to take a stand and which side to take it for. I thought she'd have approved of not letting the guy get away with being a jerk. But, of course, she wasn't here. I could be wrong about her reaction; my being here was proof enough that I wasn't always a good judge of what her reactions were going to be. I didn’t see much of Sarah for another couple days. Our work schedules were a little off and she seemed to be avoiding me when she was there, not that she had usually gone out of her way to see me when she was there previously. I could tell that everyone but Dan knew about the ruckus, but no one actually said anything. Poor Ted even made eye contact with me a couple of times, but he still seemed uncertain about me.

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I was taking my break in the food court, having a soda and reading the paper, when Sarah came over. She was off her shift and should have been on her way home, but instead asked if she could sit down. “Sure,” I said. “Help yourself.” I put the paper down and looked at her, waiting for her to start the conversation. She was nervous, didn’t know what to do with her hands, and wasn’t sure where to look. “I -- we -- all wanted to thank you for what you did the other night. That man was terrible to Ted.” I waited to see if there was more, then said, “Forget it. It was nothing.” “No, really, Ted needs people to stand up for him, and I just didn’t know what to do.” Sarah was wringing her hands, feeling bad because she had not been able to help out. “Well, perhaps cutting up a perfectly good credit card wasn’t the way Tom Peters would have handled the situation,” I admitted, “but I figured it beat knocking him out.” I could see she had no idea who Tom Peters was, so I added gently, “That’s a joke.” She smiled quickly, then looked downcast again. “I should have done something. I’ve handled angry customers before; I should have been able to handle this. That man just scared me, and I didn’t know what to do.” She looked at me for a few seconds, then said, “He didn’t scare you at all, did he?” Now I was slightly uncomfortable, and tried to lighten things up. “The guy was just a jerk. He wasn’t going to cause trouble -- he had too nice a suit on to want to get into a fight.”

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She still wasn’t sure if I was kidding or not, and I didn’t elaborate. She didn't seem to know what to say next, so we sat in silence for a while. It felt oddly comfortable, and I started to think about how curious that was. I barely knew Sarah. “So, did you know there are a couple theories about you back at the store?” she offered after a few minutes of the quiet. I was intrigued but not too happy at the prospect of the other employees sitting around speculating on my life. “You mean as a result of this?” “No, we’ve been wondering about you for awhile. This just increased our curiosity.” She paused for a moment to see if I’d bite. When I didn’t, she breathlessly asked: “Are you interested in what the theories are?” I actually was starting to be interested. Lord knows I had my own theories about what I was doing, at thirty-eight years old, working in a bookstore, but somehow I doubted their ideas and mine would match. And if they did it would really be scary. I bit. “Do tell.” She warmed to the prospect of telling me secrets. “Well, there are two main schools of thought,” she informed me. “Some are convinced you are a narc. They think you are too old and too smart to be working in the bookstore unless you are an undercover cop. Maybe police, maybe FBI, maybe DEA, he’s not sure, but they are convinced you are a detective of some sort.” She looked over at me seriously, “You do watch people, you know. I can see you sizing people up all the time, so his theory isn’t so far-fetched. You certainly handled that jerk like a tough guy cop might” “And the other theory?” I asked when it appeared she wasn’t going to continue on her own. I thought she was disappointed I hadn't reacted to the theory. “The other school of thought is that you are a man with a past, running from something.”

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“Like the Fugitive,” I said with light sarcasm. It was funny -- and not altogether wrong. She colored slightly, but defiantly said, “Well, it isn’t so impossible. You are too smart to be working in this kind of job. You don’t like to draw attention to yourself or to talk about your past. And when you and that man were staring at each other, I thought I saw the potential for real violence in your eyes. You scared me a little.” I was sad that Sarah had seen the violence, and found myself not wanting her to think the worst of me. I’m really a nice guy, I wanted to say. But, the more I thought about it, the more I decided that the potential for violence attracted her; it fit into some romantic story she was creating. I had the clear sense that the author and main proponent of the second theory was Sarah. But I didn’t really want to get into a discussion about my past or my present circumstances. This pleasant little interlude had gone far enough. “Sarah, listen to me,” I said, leaning forward to make sure I got her attention. “I’m just a guy who works in a bookstore. Nothing special about me, so you can forget about your theories and just get back to working.” “Of course,” I couldn’t resist adding, “that is exactly what I would say if either one of those theories was correct, isn’t it?” That broke the tension, and she laughed, in effect admitting that she’d been too dramatic. “Why am I always attracted to the strong silent types?” she sighed, sending me a message at the same time, then covering it with a laugh so she could always deny it if I shot her down. Now, there was a new piece of information for me to process. I honestly hadn’t given any thought to Sarah, or to any other woman for that matter, as someone who might be interested in me or vice-versa. I’m a good-looking guy and never have had a problem getting women, but in these last few months I hadn’t thought at all about dating. I hadn’t thought about being friendly, much less getting involved with anyone. I was no expert

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but I was pretty sure there was no dating in purgatory; what would be the point? They wouldn’t be Renee. I knew that this was potentially shaky ground. Sarah was intelligent, attractive in an enthusiastic academic way, and probably one of those women who give their passions infrequently but totally. I can’t say that the idea was without appeal, but the thought of getting involved and having to explain my life was more than I could deal with right now. “Sarah, trust me. I’m just a guy who isn’t going anywhere. Nothing mysterious about my life. I’m flattered by the attention, but you guys should develop more meaningful theories, like how Dan keeps his job despite not knowing anything about the book business.” The last comment got a pained smile from her; she didn’t have too much use for Dan, especially because he liked to keep her working late when he had to stay late, and stood too close to her at every opportunity. I think she was glad to divert the conversation. She tapped my hand briefly to alert me that the conversation was ending. “Well, it’s just fun to speculate on people’s lives sometimes. Anyway, I really appreciate what you did for Ted. He already looked up to you and now you are definitely his hero. Mine too!” She said the last part lightly, while standing up with that slightly gawky nervous energy. With that she excused herself and headed off. I watched her walk away, admiring the sway in her hips, so I caught the glance she shot back at me to see if I was watching. I think she moved with even more bounce when she saw me looking, and once again I began to wonder what I had started to get myself in for.

Chapter 12

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I gradually established a wary truce with Angela over Connie. Now that the weather was nicer, we’d now run into each other perhaps once a week, usually on the roof, occasionally on the sidewalk or in the park. Connie was never alone; Angela watched over her like a hawk. The two of them were very close, and I got the feeling that neither one of them had many other people in their lives. It was them against the world. But you can’t keep kids from wanting more friends. I fancied that perhaps Connie saw me as one of the few potential male figures in her life. If we were on the roof she would sometimes wander over to ask what I was doing. Sometimes we’d play ball, sometimes we’d chat for a few minutes until Angela called her away. She was fascinated by any books I had with me, looking at them with awe. One day I brought home a couple children’s books from the discount bin at the Busy Books. I’d chosen carefully, picking some classics that were well illustrated and had happy endings. I took them with me each time I went to the roof until I ran into Angela and Connie again there. “Here, Angela, I thought Connie might enjoy these,” I offered while Connie was playing hopscotch at the other side of the roof. She was immediately tense. “I can’t accept these.” I'd expected a response like that. “It’s OK: I work in a bookstore and they were going to get rid of them anyway. I thought better Connie get some use out of them than the garbage man.” That wasn’t quite true; the bookstore would have remaindered the books, so I had purchased them. But it was a small price and a small lie. I could tell she was torn, knowing I was right that Connie would love them but afraid to incur any obligations to me. In the end, she couldn’t refuse Connie anything, so she called her over. “Connie, see what Sean has brought you. Picture books, just like school!”

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Connie’s eyes got wide and she looked from the books to Angela to me, and then, irresistibly, back to the books again, afraid to believe they were actually hers. “Mine? For me really?” she asked plaintively. When Angela and I both nodded, she took the books and clutched them tightly to her chest. I smiled in spite of myself, unable to hide the pleasure her joy gave me. “All yours. I bet your mom would help you read them sometime,” I told her. “No, you! I want you to read them to me,” she insisted. Angela nodded her approval imperceptibly -- and slightly reluctantly. So I spent the next hour or so reading both books a couple times, as her eyes gazed longingly at the magical worlds in the story. She mouthed the words along with me, sitting in rapt attention as I read the stories aloud, and occasionally reached out to touch the pictures reverently. Angela watched the scene longingly, although I don’t think she was listening much to the stories. She was watching the two of us enjoy each other. I’d suspected it before, but now I was pretty sure that Angela was, as Sarah would say, a woman with a past. Her furtiveness in public, her vigilant watch over Connie, and her intensely close relationship with Connie made me believe she was hiding out from some abusive and controlling lover. That would explain her deep reluctance to let me into her or Connie’s life; men had probably caused her enough problems. Angela was pretty, but it was a fine china kind of pretty -- forged under too hot a fire, leaving her hardened but fragile. I could see her withering away or simply breaking in the wrong life. I hoped she could find her way to safety, where she could open up like the flower she was. She was stunning in those moments with Connie when she dropped her guard and just enjoyed her daughter. She could shine so brightly. I didn’t know if

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she wasn’t actually safe here or just didn’t feel safe, but I knew that I loved the joy they seemed to feel together when they forgot their burdens.

Chapter 13 “Why a bookstore?” I finally worked up the nerve to ask Catherine one evening when things were a little slow. The other workers didn’t seem to just talk to Catherine. They’d ask her opinions, and would listen to her and laugh at her stories, but they seemed a little, well, in awe of her. I didn’t know what to make of her. She seemed like a real person, very accessible. All I knew was that she was the most vibrant person I’d met in this quiet life. I was drawn to her like the metaphorical moth to a flame. I don’t think the other workers, particularly John, liked the idea that I’d actually engage Catherine in conversation at times, or that she even initiated them with me. Their initial amusement about my being there was slowly turning to something else, more like suspicion or concern. Perhaps I was not just a stray, or perhaps I was Rasputin out to seduce the queen. I don’t know what they thought. “Oh, gosh, what else would I want to do?” she said in mock astonishment. “Long hours, fickle customers, low profits, marginal neighborhood. Should I go on?” I wasn’t sure if she was teasing or putting me off. “You could work in McDonalds and get all that,” I observed. “It must be the great employees and the chance to enrich their lives…” “Point taken,” she said, laughing. I loved her laugh; it was throaty and full-bodied and gave me a thrill down to my stomach. In idle moments I wondered if she smoked or had smoked in the past, since she had that sexy slightly raspy voice some lucky women smokers get. While I started to get lost thinking about it she continued with her story.

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“Well, a long, long time ago I was married to a very successful businessman. We both came from money and got married shortly after college. I dabbled in the usual society girl pursuits – the museum, the symphony, various charities. Then I found that the cad had been screwing his secretary and at least one of my “best” friends. I divorced him, got a decent settlement, and found myself at forty with no gainful employment history or skills.” “And your point is….” I said leadingly. “I’m getting to that!” she exclaimed. “I wanted to be in business for myself. So -- I always liked books. My dad used to yell at me for spending too much time in my room reading, and my husband wasn’t much happier about it. I figured devoting my life to something that annoyed my father and my ex-husband couldn’t be all bad.” She sounded pleased at this logic, but it still seemed slightly glib to me. There was more to this story and she wasn’t ready to share it. Catherine was a puzzle, sometimes intensely private, sometimes an open book. I’d learned more about her past than I had expected to, so I decided not to press her further. “And your story, mystery man?” she challenged. I should have known I’d not get away that easily with asking her a question. “Same story,” I said. “ I did it to annoy your father and ex-husband too, the bastards!” We laughed and went back to the books, knowing each other a little more and wondering even more. Renee would have liked her, I found myself musing as I walked home. And Catherine would have liked Renee too. They both had that spunk, that fire, that confidence. I tried to imagine the two of them together, chuckling at potential situations and how they'd be together.

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Of course, that was unlikely. That sobered me up, and I glumly wondered if maybe I was going to end up failing Catherine as well. That kept me up much of the night.

Chapter 14 I’d developed a nice little, predictable routine. Most days it was walk to one of the bookstores, work a few hours, usually kill some time people watching, walk to the other bookstore, and walk home. If I had an afternoon or a rare evening free I might take in a movie or a concert. I started scouting the papers for inexpensive or free events to do. Some evenings I’d go to a student production, a reading, an outdoor concert in the park, or just to a small club to listen to a band. Most evenings I ended up working at Authors’ Corner, but I was managing to get in an event of some sort each week. This was a thin throw-back to my old lifestyle, where Renee and I often were out at least four or five times a week, taking advantage of Chicago’s rich cultural life. That wasn’t easy given the hours we both worked, but we were burning the candle at both ends and enjoying it. We used to tell each other we’d sleep when we were dead. Sometimes I would catch Sarah noticing when I was looking at the papers for things to do, and thought she seemed envious. She did start taking some of her breaks at similar times as I did, when possible. The first few times I kept reading my book or newspaper, so we would just sit quietly with a snack or a soda. She would pull out a book or work on her thesis. After a while we started to chat more, pointing out unusual things in what we were reading. Later, we progressed to people watching, finding a similar sense of humor about the mall people. I was still guarded with her, careful not to let details of my past slip. That may have been a mistake, feeding her fantasy that I had some deep, dark secret. In any event, she respected my silence, and seemed to just be comfortable hanging out together.

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I liked Sarah. She was -- oh, what is the right way to describe her? -- very earnest. I mean that in the nicest way. She was serious but not stiff, thoughtful but not judgmental. She liked to laugh, but did it sparingly. She was the kind more likely to smile than to laugh, and she did have this warm smile. When she smiled, her face gradually warmed up like the morning when the sun comes up over the horizon. From Sarah I’d pick up little snippets of gossip about the others. Ted was a very bright kid, aces in math and science but weaker in subjects where social skills were more essential. Michelle and Ted’s older sister had been lifelong best friends, and the sister had died last fall in a hit and run accident. Ted was almost like a little brother to her, especially after the accident. Sarah told me Michelle struggled every day over how to thank me for what I’d done for Ted. “It’s just that she doesn’t know how to talk to you, for some reason.” Michelle apparently was going off to college in the fall, so Ted would be on his own. Sarah said Michelle used to worry about it until I got there, but now felt he’d be in good hands. “So I guess I have to stay,” I said with mock seriousness. “No, I don’t think…” she started, before she caught my tongue-in-cheek. “I think he’ll be OK.” One day Sarah walked up to me, visibly excited. I was minding my own business, catching up on the day's news in the food court. I kept wondering who these people were eating full meals at mid-afternoon. They probably thought reading the paper -- The New York Times, no less -- was even more unusual. They were probably right. “Guess what?” she beamed. “Lottery winner?” I speculated, lowering my paper.

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“Nope,” she said happily. “I made it through my orals yesterday. I’d like to celebrate. How about if we go out to dinner?” I’d been waiting for something like this to happen, half hoping she liked me well enough to ask, and half fearing that she would. I tried to stall. “Don’t you have friends or a boyfriend you’d rather celebrate with? You barely know me.” “I know enough,” she said firmly. “Look, it’s no big deal. I’m not asking you to marry me or anything. It doesn’t even have to be a date. We’ll go dutch, just two colleagues celebrating something.” Put that way, it would have been churlish to say no. I'm no churl, whatever the hell that is. And I was ready for some social company, I decided on the spot. I agreed, as much to her surprise as to mine. I suspected she'd anticipated more resistance on my part. She went back to work, bouncing happily. The colt was finding her stride, so it would appear. I needed to figure out how to keep from hurting her. I didn't want to regret my moment of weakness in agreeing.

Chapter 15 I met Paige Atkinson under more unusual circumstances, to say the least. It was a day or so after Sarah had asked me out. I’d worked late at Authors’ Corner, so the streets were pretty quiet when I finally headed home, despite the fact that it was a warm summer night. Authors’ Corner had had a moderately busy night, spurred by a high school teachers’ convention that was in town. Going to a bookstore was the highlight of their night, far enough out to be exotic but still within the lifeline distance from the Convention Center and their hotels. Catherine and I enjoyed the chance to rate the teachers, pleased to find that there were several threes in the crowd. We considered it a success on any day when the number of customers who were threes outnumbered the

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staff’s. Actually, we considered it a success any weekday when the customers outnumbered the staff. I wanted to get home to finish a new Pete Dexter book I’d started, and so I took a more direct route than I usually did. That carried me through a couple of blocks that I usually felt a little uneasy about at night, but I calculated that the risk was not too great and, as I’ve said, I always felt capable of taking care of myself. I saw the three teens hanging around on the corner a couple of blocks away. Probably mid-to-late teens, no more than seventeen or eighteen, but drinking openly and smoking in one of the stairwells. I wasn’t scared of them, but immediately thought they were looking for trouble. I’d been there myself and knew the look. Before they saw me, I crossed the street, so I lessened the chances they’d spot me, and kept an eye on them. I planned to turn at the next block, so if luck was with me I’d avoid running into them. Just as I was getting to the corner I saw the kids’ attention perk up. They heard the sound of one of the brownstones' doors closing. Several small law firms, some architects, and other professionals used these for their offices, and in the day the neighborhood is generally fine. But evidently someone had worked late and was now taking a risk that the world was still safe. They were wrong. Both the teens and I saw the woman come out at about the same time. We were each about a half a block away, but they were on the same side of the street as she was and so were closer. She came out of one of the buildings, stopped to double lock the door, and trooped down the short stairway to the street, clutching her purse tightly and making a beeline for one of the cars, a black Mercedes. Even from a distance I could see she was attractive. She was tall, blonde, probably upper twenties or early thirties -- it was dark and she was a half block or so away, so it was hard to be sure. By the way she dressed, she was a professional of some sort, no doubt

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working late and now rushing home. The lighting wasn’t good enough to make out much about her clothes, but my sense was that they were stylish and expensive. The boys had started moving as soon as she’d come out of the door, sauntering down the street so as not to scare her prematurely. She got to her car just as they reached her. They surrounded her, standing in a semi-circle around her, with her back to the car. I watched from the distance, trying to see which way this was going to go, but already I was starting to drift closer to the scene and at the same time was looking around for a phone. It appeared that first they asked her a question, perhaps for a cigarette or maybe already demanding money. The woman looked startled at first, then confused, and then frightened. It happened quickly. They grabbed her and half-pulled, half-carried her to the nearby alley -- her no more able to resist them than a mouse with a pack of cats. Cursing my luck, I ran to the pay phone, and dialed 911. “This is 911. What is the emergency?” the operator calmly asked. “I’ve just seen three teenagers abduct a woman. They dragged her into the alley,” I told her, describing the location. “Send help now.” “I’m dispatching squad cars right now, sir,” she informed me, “They should arrive within five minutes.” I mentally worked out the timing. Five minutes is a long time for three teenagers. “I can’t wait,” I told operator sadly, “I’m going in after them.” I hung up the phone and started across the block.

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Chapter 16 I was trying to figure out how to play it. They were only teenagers, but big enough and tough enough that one or two of them was probably more than a match for me, even without weapons. I had to figure that they had at least knives, maybe a couple guns. Plus, they had the woman to use as a shield or a hostage. They probably knew the alley and the neighborhood, they had a head start. I didn’t have a lot of cards here. The one advantage I’d had was having grown up in a tough neighborhood. I knew the value of audacity, especially if they were a little uncertain. Maybe they were jumping into the kidnapping/rape business for the first time. I couldn’t let them intimidate me. I decided the best angle to play was to let them think I was a cop. I’d known lots of tough cops and I tried to remember how they acted. Putting myself in those shoes, I made myself get emotionally cold, let my eyes go hard, and walked with utter confidence, like I owned the streets. It was dark in the alley, with the occasional dumpster overflowing with old garbage. The few dim lights cast weird shadows. Rats scurried as I walked by. I'd been in places like this before, and I could still choose to walk away, yet I still was uncomfortable. I could only begin to imagine how the woman felt. The kids had not gone far into the alley, and I heard them before I saw them or they me. It sounded like they were still toying with her; no screams yet, just the sound of her pleading with them to let her go. They were laughing at her and telling her to chill, that they just wanted to show her a good time. I didn’t think their idea of a good time sounded like much fun to her. I let them hear me coming just before I stepped slowly into view. They were standing under one of the few lights in the alley, no doubt so they could have a better look at their new prize. I stopped while still in the edge of the circle of light. I kept my right hand down and behind my back. To them, it looked like maybe I was resting it there, but more

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importantly, maybe I was holding a gun. I wanted them to be unsure. I quickly scoped out the situation, not liking what I saw. One of them was behind the woman, holding her with his left arm around her shoulders and a knife in his right hand pointing at her throat. Another was standing in front of her, stroking her face with mock tenderness. The third stood slightly apart, watching the scene and rummaging through her purse. I revised my previous hope about this being their first time; they knew what they were doing. They were obviously surprised to see me, even more so than the woman. She almost seemed to expect someone, perhaps because in her world there was usually someone to come in and make things OK. The kids automatically seemed to assume I was a cop, as I’d hoped. In their world, when a big white guy comes strolling down a dark alley towards them, he’s a cop. I looked at them with those cop eyes that watch and don’t give away much. They stood still, slightly defensively, not moving away but not taking action either. The kid with the purse made a slight movement, as though to grab a gun stuffed in his waist, but I shook my head slightly, to remind him of my hand that he couldn’t see, and he refroze. “What’s up, guys?” I asked pleasantly, acting like I knew I was in charge here. They mumbled inaudibly, but didn’t respond to what had been, in fact, a rhetorical question. “Well, you’ve got yourselves into a situation here, haven’t you?” I said. “Who’s the man here?” I said this looking at the teen who had been touching the woman’s face. I guessed by his body language, and by the looks they had exchanged when I came on the scene, that he was the leader of the trio. Dealing with one of them would be easier than with three of them, if he could in fact control the other two.

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“We’re not doing nothing, man, ” he said scornfully. “Nothing you can do here.” “Can’t do that, my man,” I said with a tone of disappointment. “I’m here now and we have to play this out.” The five of us stood eyeing each other for a few seconds. They were trying to figure out what I was holding behind my back, how quickly I could or would use it, and if I had a partner or other backup nearby that was making me so confident. The woman was panting, terrified that her rescue was so in jeopardy -- one man against this posse? I avoided looking at her, not wanting to get caught up in her fear. “So -- I’m on my way home from my shift, looking forward to having a beer and watching SportsCenter when I see you guys grab the girl,” I filled them in conversationally. “If I’d gone home, that’s one thing, but once I’m in this alley, I’m here. Now, I figure you got three options.” I looked to see if they were buying it. So far, they were; I think as much as anything they were now curious about having three options. I continued, stalling for time. “First, we can have it out. Maybe you guys are good and you take me down, maybe get the girl too, but you better figure I’m going to take some of you down too. Not so good for either of us. Second, you surrender. I’ll arrest you, and we all spend the night doing paperwork and getting you processed. You know the drill. Again, not my idea of fun and I bet you’re not too keen on it either.” They were starting to look at each other and I started to think this might work. I continued as pleasantly as if we were talking about basketball. “Third, and final option: you let the girl go unharmed, and I let you walk of here.” I could see the last idea startled them. I don’t think they had seen a good way out of there either, so a chance to walk away appealed to them, at least if they could do so with some

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sense of dignity. In the distance I heard the sounds of sirens. I prayed they were coming here, but wouldn’t come at the wrong time and cause a gunfight. “Here’s the thing, though,” I told them, lowering my voice conspiratorially. “Once those squad cars get here you lose option three, and option one looks a lot worse for you as well. Be smart.” They weren’t scared of me, I knew that. But they didn’t know what to make of me not being scared of them. They were used to owning the street and scaring everyone with how bad they were. Now here they were, in a situation where they should be totally in control, and I was the one calling the shots. The back two were simple gangbangers and just wanted something, anything, to happen, preferably something involving them hurting someone. I was going to have to count on their leader to contain them if the woman or I were going to get out of here. The leader stared hard at me, gauging what I could pull off. I stared right back at him. In that moment, I knew I could die, and my eyes were telling him that I knew it and didn’t care, but if I went I was taking him with me. He weighed the odds cunningly, playing out the percentages and what losses he’d take each way. In the end I think the sounds of the sirens decided him. He straightened and turned slightly to the one holding the woman. “Let the bitch go,” he said in a taunting tone. “We’ll go get one with some meat on her.” “Ah, man, he’s bluffing,” the one holding the woman said, emphasizing the knife. “Let’s pop him and do the girl.” The leader seemed to be expecting this. He turned his head to face the objection more directly -- but not letting me out of his sight either. “Maybe we’ll come back and get her some other night, when Popeye here isn’t around. Or maybe we’ll get him first,” he told them, a sneer in his voice. “Let her go.”

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The kid holding her pushed her towards me, causing her to stumble. I reached out with my left hand, grabbing her and pulling her to my left side. I kept my right arm back, still holding my imaginary gun in reserve. They were watching for that, waiting to see if I’d drop my guard. I wasn't sorry to disappoint them. “We’re out of here,” the leader announced, and they started off towards the far end of the alley. “Not so fast,” I said. The teens stopped. Both the leader and the woman looked at me in amazement. I felt very sorry for the woman; she must have felt like she was on a roller coaster -- first safe, then in danger, then safe again, now back in danger. “He’s still got her purse,” I told the leader, nodding towards to the teen who was holding the woman’s purse. “He has to give it up.” All four of them -- the woman included -- looked at me in amazement. I’d gotten this close to cooling things off and now I was going to risk it for the contents of a purse? But in my heart I knew it was the right thing to do; the tough cop I was pretending to be might let them off, but not with the purse. “Man, I’m not giving up no purse,” the kid with the purse said defiantly. I looked at the leader, and told him softly, “It’s you he’s disrespecting, not me. Are you going to allow that?” The leader looked at me, then at his buddy, and back to me. I’d put respect into the equation and he stood to lose face if he wasn’t careful. Either he was the leader or he wasn’t. Without looking back at the third teen he said, “Give Popeye the purse.”

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The teen started to protest, and the leader suddenly whacked him on the head. “Don’t be arguing with me,” he commanded, grabbing the purse himself and tossing it over. “Let’s book.” They headed off. I put my arm around the woman’s waist. “Can you walk?” I asked urgently. “We need to get out of here.” She nodded and we set off in the other direction towards the street. I could feel her trembling, but she wasn’t yet able to talk. I told her it was all right now, but had to steel myself not to look back to see if they changed their minds. By the time we reached the street the police had arrived. There were four or five cars, an ambulance, and, it seemed, scores of cops. They quickly put blankets around her and separated us, while starting to take our statements. I told them where the kids had headed and they sent two of the cops on foot down the alley, while radioing for more cars to check the other end of the alley. By the time I looked up, the ambulance had taken the woman away. I didn’t get her name.

Chapter 17 They took me to the local precinct station. Now, the local police department had recently gone in a big way to "community policing," and as part of that initiative had spruced up many of their outposts, and opened up several community outreach centers. Their goal was to make the police force good citizens, and their stations part of the neighborhood. They wanted to be citizen-friendly, accessible and inviting to their non-criminal neighbors. This was not one of those stations. This was a place for criminals and the men and women who fought against them. This was a little fortress against the kind of people you and I never want to meet.

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It was a drab, two-story brick building that looked like it had been a police station since the 1930's. The surrounding buildings had once been proud neighbors, but had fallen on hard times. The police station had endured, but at a cost. The outside looked grimy and worn, yet its brick exterior had fared much better than the interior. Inside, the patina of all that people traffic over the years had worn off. Left behind was an air of despair, anger, frustration, and even evil that was palatable. I didn't know how the cops working here managed to avoid being infected by the moral diseases that seemed to lurk everywhere; perhaps they hadn't. I was at the police station for several hours. The first interview had been pretty polite, sitting out by one of the detectives’ desks. The desks were bare bones, institutional desks, and were filled with papers, cigarette ashes (even though this was supposedly a no smoking office), and stains from long-ago coffee. They didn't inspire confidence; if anything, they conspired with the walls and the clientele to just assume that crime surrounded us, and everyone was guilty to some extent. I felt like a criminal just sitting there, and I hadn't done anything. They left me alone a while, then took me to an interview room to wait almost an hour. The interview room made the detectives' area seem like a plush hotel lobby. It was not a good sign that they'd brought me here. I could picture my predecessors sitting here, and didn't like that company. A second set of detectives finally came in and walked me through the sequence again, plus now they wanted to know more about what I’d been doing out walking that late. I wondered what had happened to the original set, but dutifully repeated my story. I was slightly exasperated, but I kept my cool. I explained about Authors’ Corner and working late. They started asking me what I’d one with the gun, so I had to explain to them that there had been no gun, at least I hadn’t had one. I could see they didn’t believe me, and I could see their point. Only a fool would have walked in that alley unharmed. A fool or a man who no longer cared about walking out. After another hour or so of this, they told me they’d be back. I was starting to get annoyed. I was tired, hungry, and I was starting to crash after my adrenaline high. I

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knew that they were watching me from behind the one-way glass, though, so I kept my face calm and sat patiently. After twenty minutes or so an officer came in and introduced himself as Lieutenant Collins, the night station head. I didn’t like him from the start. He was cocky and spitshined, and I bet he was one of these people whose desks were spotless when he left his shift. He’d have made a great Nazi. “So, Mr. Meil,” he sneered, pronouncing my last name with a tone of distaste. “What kind of name is that, anyway?” “What is this, a nationality test?” I challenged right back. “What I’m more interested in is why I’m still here, two and a half hours after I come in from saving a citizen from an attack. You should be thanking me, not interrogating me.” “Yes, buddy, let’s talk about that,” he spat out, leaning in close. He jabbed a finger towards my chest. “Who the hell do you think you are, putting your life and the woman’s life in danger? You could have gotten killed and probably put her life in more risk. If we hadn’t responded to the 911 call when we did, you’d both be dead or worse.” “Hey, Sergeant, who do you think called 911 in the first place?” I asked defiantly. I honestly believed he hadn’t realized -- or had momentarily forgotten -- that I’d called it in, despite the fact that I’d told that to both earlier sets of detectives. “It’s ‘Lieutenant’,” he barked. I made a gesture that implied ‘whatever.’ “Why didn’t you just let us do our jobs, rather than making the situation worse? You just had to be a hero, didn’t you?” He was losing a little confidence but increasing his bluster.

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“Look, Lieutenant,” I said, emphasizing the "Lieutenant" and leaning forward to match his pose, “I figured that the woman didn’t have the luxury of you and I sitting around waiting to see when the cars would come.” That silenced him for a second. He’d wanted to intimidate someone, anyone, and evidently I was the only one around. This wasn’t going at all like he wanted. “There’s also the gun and impersonating an officer to consider,” he pretended to consider, making a steeple out of his fingers. I looked at him in amazement. He just was not going to give up. “Are you going to charge me?” I asked. “If you are, then book me and get out of my face. If you aren’t, then let me get home.” We glared at each other for a few seconds, then both of us looked up with the sound of the door opening. A detective I’d not seen yet came in. He was in his fifties, and looked like a veteran. He was strongly built, with short hair that had turned to gray. He had the world-weary, I’ve-seen-it-all look of many cops of his generation. “Hey, Lieutenant, I promised Mitchell and Arthur that I’d give this guy a ride home,” he said carefully. “He lives on my way home.” I was immediately struck by his presence. He had an air of quiet dignity that allowed him to walk into clearly a hostile situation, and do so with neither arrogance nor apology. There was a gravity about him, one that gave me a sense of solidity, not heaviness. If it was going to be a battle of wills between him and Collins, I figured the Lieutenant would be going into the battle severely overmatched. The lieutenant looked at him in surprise. No one had told him anything about this, and he was reluctant to let me go while I was still being so stubborn. I thought he was hoping

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I’d give in and apologize, and didn’t want me to go until I had. I was surprised as well; no one had said anything to me about a ride. “I’m not done with him yet,” the Lieutenant said with an annoyed tone of voice. “I’ll send him home in a squad car when I am.” The detective and the lieutenant looked at each other guardedly. I sensed that there was no love lost between them either, and that I was watching a power struggle of some sort. “He’s done here, Lieutenant. Let me take him home,” the detective said quietly. The Lieutenant was silently furious, but knew he’d lose face if he argued or postponed a decision in front of me. “All right,” he said tightly, “Get him out of here.”

Chapter 18 The detective and I walked out together, and got in a shabby unmarked car. He started the engine and asked, “Where is home?” I looked at him, puzzled. “I thought you told the Lieutenant that I was on your way home. If you don’t know where I lived…” “OK, I lied,” he said with no embarrassment. “Want me to take you back to the station?” Put that way, it did seem like a bad idea. I told him my address, then sat back as we cruised in the dark night. I didn’t feel like talking and I wasn’t sure how to read him, so we were both silent as we rode along. I was beat, and not sure if I should be grateful to him for “rescuing” me or if this was another test of some sort.

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“How is the woman?” I asked suddenly. I’d been re-running events in the alley in my head and realized no one had told me what had happened to her. He looked over at me, showing a hint of surprise. “No one told you anything?” he asked. “That son-of-a-bitch; Collins was supposed to thank you for her. She’s fine. EMS took her to the ER, and she was shaken up but not hurt. The boys got a little excited when they heard her story and thought you had a gun, but they just wanted something to do.” He paused to swerve around a double-parked car, muttering slightly as he did so, then continued. “The girl’s boyfriend or fiancée or whatever came and took her home. She was still pretty shaken up, so I hear.” We pulled up in front of my building. “That was a pretty cute trick, giving Mitchell and Arthur a post office box as your address,” he said, smiling. “I can’t believe they let you get away with that. Why didn’t you give your real address?” His mouth was smiling but his eyes were serious. I stared at him. “That is my real address. This is where I live,” I said matter-of-factly. “I don’t like people dropping by.” I started to open the door. “Listen, Meil,” he said sincerely, “we got off on the wrong foot. I’m Joe Elmore.” He reached over to shake hands. “Don’t let the Lieutenant get to you. He’s a jerk. A lot of us think you were a hero. I don’t know that I’d have gone in there alone, especially without a weapon. You’re pretty brave, and you can be sure that girl is better off than if you hadn’t gone.” We looked at each other a few seconds, sizing each other up. I’m pretty good at staring but he might have been better. Finally, I nodded at him. My intuition told me he was a good cop, and was now trying to make amends for what I’d gone through with Collins. “Why do I get the feeling you’d have gone in there too?” I asked on a sudden impulse.

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He laughed, and noted, “Let’s hope we don’t have to find out.” I got out of the car, and leaned in to the open passenger window as he called me over, sounding serious. “Meil -- one thing. I’m betting you are a stand-up guy. But I want to know: if I looked into your life would I find anything I’d not be happy about?” he asked, looking me square in the eyes. “I don’t want to be giving rides to a serial killer or anything.” I was quiet, matching his stare. This time I might have won. “No, no trouble. I’m just a guy,” I finally said. “Thanks for getting me home.” He read my face, then drew his own conclusions. “No problem. Hey, a tip -- watch out for those damsels in distress. They’ll get you into trouble every time,” he said, pulling away. I walked to my apartment and slept for ten hours.

Chapter 19 In the morning, it all seemed unreal to me, like something from a nightmare. Maybe I'd seen it on TV, except I didn't have a TV. I replayed the events over and over, wondering what had possessed me to take such a chance -- but wondering even more what would have happened had I not. Any way I cut it, I knew I hadn't really had a choice. At work and the rest of the day, I acted as though nothing had happened. There wasn't anything in the paper, and I had no unexpected visits from Collins or anyone else. Perhaps this was just going to be a one-time blip in my quiet life; I could go back to the uneventful routine I thought I'd craved. But somehow I just didn't think so.

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It took a couple days. I looked up and there she was, standing awkwardly in front of the register at Authors’ Corner. It was early evening, and I’d just come on duty. “Hi,” she said nervously. “Remember me?” She looked better than the last time I’d seen her, but then again you usually don’t meet someone wide-eyed with panic and disheveled from being assaulted. She was tall, nearly as tall as I was, and very attractive. I noticed her great skin and bone structure, not to mention those legs. I’d been right about her being stylish; her clothes were a perfect ensemble and tres chic. I pegged her for twenty-eight or twenty-nine. She could have been a model; maybe she was. “Sure, the girl from the alley,” I said lightly. “That outfit fits you better than the police blanket I saw you wearing last time.” We stood in silence, her working up the nerve to say whatever she’d come to say and me waiting her out. “I’m Paige Atkinson,” she finally said. “Could we talk somewhere?” We went around the corner to a small diner for a cup of coffee. It was kind of a dump, but there weren’t a lot of choices in the neighborhood and the coffee was passable. We sat in a corner booth. Some of the regulars looked at us in amazement; they’d seen me in there a few times, but it was pretty rare that someone like her graced the premises. I felt secretly pleased to be seen with her, a feeling I recalled from being with Renee. She wasn’t Renee, though. Despite her standout beauty, she didn’t light up the room like Renee did with her energy and life force. I had a wave of nostalgia for being in crummy diners late at night with Renee, bubbling with joy about someplace we’d just been, or just enjoying the moment together. No more. I sighed under my breath. She cradled the coffee cup with both hands, staring into the coffee as though reading tea leaves. Now that I was looking more closely, I saw the fatigue around her eyes and mouth.

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“I wanted to thank you,” she started. “If you hadn’t come along when you did…” She stopped herself, eyes suddenly filling with tears. I took a napkin from the dispenser and handled it to her. “It’s OK. I did come along when I did and you are safe now. Just let it go,” I told her gently. She cried silently for a minute or two, her shoulders shaking visibly. She gradually regained control. “I’m sorry,” she apologized. “I promised myself I wouldn’t do that.” She took a deep breath, exhaled a short laugh, and went on. “It’s just -- how do you thank someone for something like that?” she asked with an air of bewilderment. “Especially a total stranger who risked his life for you?” She looked at me as though I might actually know the answer. I felt pressured, knowing that nothing I could offer would give her what she was looking for. I was almost uncomfortable as she was. “You do what you did: just say thank you,” I told her. “It was just blind luck that I happened to be there and that things worked out OK. You’ve probably gone your whole life without something like this happening to you before, and you’ll probably go your whole life without it happening again.” I patted her hands reassuringly. “It’s hard to imagine it now, but this will all fade to a comfortable level and make a good story to tell your grandchildren.” She looked at me gratefully, and looked back into her coffee cup, eyes tearing slightly. She didn't quite believe me, and neither did I, but we could both pretend it was true. We sat for a few more minutes, but didn’t talk more. With unspoken mutual agreement we silently got up and I walked her to her car, the late model Mercedes I’d seen before.

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“I’m glad you came by. I was wondering how you are,” I told her honestly. “You’re going to be fine.” She got in the car, started it, and put down her window. She sat for a second, hands on the wheel and staring fixedly forward, as though she were deciding something. She turned to me. “I’m glad I came too,” she said in a small but firm voice. “I’d like to see you again sometime, if that is all right.” I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t think it was chemistry and I didn’t feel she was coming on to me, but didn’t know what she did want. Her world and mine had collided by chance, and I wasn’t sure it made much sense to test chance again. She could sense my hesitation, and no doubt wasn’t used to men not jumping at opportunities to be with her. “Please,” she pleaded, putting her dignity on the line. That got to me. Against my better judgment I agreed. What was I getting into? We left it vague, as it seemed enough for her to know that she could see me again. She drove off and I wondered why I’d agreed. Gosh, first Sarah, now Paige. If I were paranoid I’d have thought some women’s club was having a scavenger hunt for down-on-their-luck guys, sort of a “My Man Godrey” for the 90’s. I told myself it was harmless, that it was just something she said as a polite good-bye. I’d probably never see her again; her world would re-form, and she’d forget about the book clerk who’d saved her. Then I remembered the desperation in her eyes and knew she’d come again. When I walked back into Authors’ Corner Catherine gave me the once-over, then glanced outside to indicate Paige’s wake. If I had been less confused I'd have thought the smirk on her face was funny. “Nice looking girl,” she murmured. ‘Neighbor? Car salesperson? Girlfriend?”

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“I’m not sure yet,” I said slowly.

Chapter 20 Catherine didn’t bring up Paige again, letting me stew about it on my own. I thought about her off and on, hoping she wasn’t steeling herself to make things up to me in some way she didn’t really want to. I was uncomfortable with even the idea of going out to dinner; my little world was expanding without me intending it to. Paige’s visit did start me thinking more about something. Authors’ Corner was in a great if slightly run-down old building, set among similar if even more dilapidated buildings of the same vintage. The square it was in was at one point the center of a bustling middleclass neighborhood. You could almost see those people in the 1930’s or 1940’s going to the neighborhood butcher, walking to work, kids running around playing stickball. There was even the ubiquitous neighborhood theater, now shuttered (when some struggling church wasn’t trying to make a go of it). Now, of course, there were more “For Rent” signs than storefronts, and the stores that were there were not draws. The diner that Paige and I had gone to was one of the few restaurants around, and it didn’t exactly offer fine dining. Adventurous dining, perhaps, but more unintentionally daring than bold cuisine. There was an antique shop that actually had some good stuff; the owner was a friend of Catherine’s. Otherwise, not much that someone visiting the neighborhood might want to sample. I was finding that I cared about Authors' Corner. Busy Books had started out, and had remained, as just a job. I didn't know what Authors' Corner had started off as for me, but it was becoming more than a job. I was starting to become infected by Catherine's unspoken sense of mission, by her zeal to share good books with the world. Plus, I liked her more and more the better I got to know her. It wasn't just that she reminded me of Renee a little, although there was that. She was just a remarkable woman.

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I never was very good at minding my own business. “You know,” I said carefully to Catherine, “It kills me that Busy Books does more business than we do. I mean, we’ve got more books, a more diverse selection, a better reputation…” “…a better staff…,” she added dryly. “I wasn’t going to bring that up, but now that you mention it…” “And despite that, we still struggle,” she finished. “Life sucks, doesn’t it?” We contemplated that silently. I broke first. “Are you happy with things the way they are?” I challenged her. She thought for a minute, actually thinking about it rather than giving me a pat answer. “I’d say I’m mixed,” she said slowly. “I like the store, I like the personality of the store, and I like our customers. I don’t want to ever be some mall store, but I have to admit we could use more business.” I looked at her. I’d hit a nerve; this was something she’d agonized over. The store was her baby, her love, and it’s always tough when a child disappoints. You may still think they are great, and can be happy for the success of other people’s children, but part of you is still envious of that success. “It’s not your fault, it’s not even the store’s fault,” I observed. “It’s the neighborhood’s fault.”

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“I know, I know,” she said regretfully. “I knew it was a gamble when I located here, and the neighborhood was better then than it is now. But I liked the ghost of the old neighborhood that was, and the rents were affordable.” “It’s not so much the safety issue, although there is that,” I pointed out. “It’s that there is no real reason other than Authors’ Corner for people to come here. People are by-andlarge lazy; they like event shopping. Where else are they going to go once they are here?” “It’s worse than you realize,” she said quietly. “Our landlord is raising our rent; he wants ten percent more. I don’t know how we’ll cover that without raising prices, which will drive away some customers.” A germ of an idea occurred to me, but I needed to think about it more and do some homework. “We’ll think of something,” I said, before catching myself using the plural. I looked at her, nervous that she might think me presumptuous. I didn't know what I was thinking. This was the old Sean, trying to solve everyone's problems. Wasn't I supposed to be staying out of peoples' lives? Wasn't I trying to keep to myself? Hadn't I decided to try to be content in my little clerk's life? “You know, she said, looking at me thoughtfully, “I think we just might.”

Chapter 21 For our celebration dinner, Sarah suggested we meet at Franco’s, a small Italian restaurant near the university. It was kind of a hole in the wall place, but popular with students. The food was good, the portions were plentiful, the atmosphere was quaint, and

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the prices were cheap. There was a decent weekend crowd there when I got there. I spotted Sarah in a booth. She’d dressed up for the dinner, at least in a starving grad student sort of way. She had on a nice pair of what looked like designer jeans, and a silk blouse that was unbuttoned perhaps one buttonhole lower than I was used to seeing from her. I caught a glimpse of cleavage when I sat down, although her chest didn’t have a lot to offer, and saw a slight smile when she noticed me noticing. She’d done her hair up somehow, and I thought I detected some evidence of make-up. I began to feel shabby in my old khakis and faded polo shirt; good thing I’d shaved. “I’ve never been here before,” I admitted, looking around the room. “Is this a favorite place of yours?” “Actually, I’ve never been here either,” she confessed. “I asked a few of the people in my department for someplace fun and not too expensive.” She seemed highly pleased at her planning, and I had the sense that she had given the evening a lot of thought. That's when I should have realized I really was in trouble. We ordered some wine and an appetizer, chatted amiably about things at the bookstore. She was not too happy with the job, and really thought Dan was creepy, but liked it for some of the same reasons I did: flexible hours, access to books, and decent wages for part time work. She’d have preferred to work in the university library but couldn’t afford the pay cut. And a job at Authors’ Corner would be heaven to her. I almost thought of quitting and giving my job to her, but I didn’t think Catherine worked that way. “What are you studying?” I asked while we were waiting for our entrees. It seemed like I should know.

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“Sociology,” she said, evidently surprised that I didn’t know. “I’m doing my dissertation on the development of some of the downtown neighborhoods, from the turn of the century until now.” “Why that?” I asked, more curious than I’d realized. “I’ve always liked cities. I grew up in the suburbs, and I just loved to go downtown. My parents grew up in Brooklyn and they would tell me stories about their neighborhoods. I wondered why I didn’t have a life like that. Instead, I had school buses, car pools, soccer teams…I felt I missed out on such exciting experiences.” She told me all this quite seriously; if she realized how many city kids would trade for her life, she didn’t show it. Of course, most of them wouldn’t have admitted it. I learned she was an only child. Her parents lived in St. Louis, where he dad had been transferred before she was born, and she’d got her undergraduate degree at Vanderbilt. She came here for the urban studies department, which was one of the better ones in the country, she felt. She lived near the university -- not that far from me -- in a small house she shared with three other graduate students. “Typical graduate student hovel,” she laughed. We talked about her research. Or, rather, I started her off and she went off to the races. I gathered she didn’t have many people she could talk to about it -- either because she didn’t know many people or because she’d already talked them to death; I couldn’t tell. I suspected the former more than the latter. In any event, she loved to share her knowledge with an interested listener, and I could see the makings of a great teacher in her. She told me history, key individuals, architecturally significant buildings, and mundane details of everyday life thirty, fifty, even a hundred years ago, until I had to remind her to keep eating her food. The history was real to her; she could feel what places would be to live in during those times. The neighborhood that Authors’ Corner was in was one of the neighborhoods she’d studied.

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There was a mutual silence as the waiter cleared our plates and brought us coffee. This was the point of the evening where people decide what the evening was about. “I feel like I’ve done all the talking,” she said guiltily. “I get so carried away with talking about my research that I forget not everyone cares as much as I do. It’s your turn to talk; I promise I’ll be quiet.” “Well,” I hedged, “I live a pretty simple life. Not much to talk about.” I didn't think I was going to get away with that but I was game to try. “How did you end up at Busy Books?” she asked, before realizing that might sound like it was something I’d fallen down to, like a drunk heading inevitably towards a gutter. That might not have been such an inaccurate perception. “I mean, why there?” “Simple,” I told her. “I needed a job and they hired me.” I still think she was hoping I was, after all, a man with a past, or that I secretly was a struggling author writing the Great American Novel. But she was gritty and wasn’t going to give up that easily. “Are you from here?” she asked. “No,” I said, leaving it at that. There probably wasn’t any harm in telling her where I grew up, but that would be followed by questions about my childhood, my college, what I did after college, and so on. My past was past; it was no longer connected to me. I didn't want to go down those roads. I could see she wrestled about if she should try to dig more despite what was clearly not an invitation to her. Her tact won out over her curiosity, but I could I’d only won a victory in a battle; she hadn’t given up the war.

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We stood to leave. Outside the restaurant we paused, awkward about what to do next. She was suddenly very uncertain but determined. “Look, I know it’s a Sunday night, but it’s not too late. Would you like to do something else?” she asked hopefully. “What do you have in mind?” I responded cautiously. “My place is a mess and I’ve got those roommates, but I was thinking maybe we could rent a video and go to your place,” she suggested. “I don’t have a VCR,” I told her. “No VCR? You do live a simple life!” she exclaimed. “Well, there’s a movie on cable I was hoping to see sometime this month. It starts in about a half hour.” “Umm, I don’t have cable,” I said sheepishly. “No cable either?” she asked in surprise. Then, suspicion catching up with her, “you do have a TV, don’t you?” I shook my head silently. “CD player?” I shook my head again. “Tape player,” she asked incredulously. Once again I had to say no. “It’s worse than that,” I finally had to say. “No stereo. No microwave. I don’t even have a telephone.” We both contemplated that in silence. “I do have a toaster oven,” I offered by way of apology. “So what do you do when you are there?” she asked, still grappling with such a life. “I’m not home all that much,” I said, getting uncomfortable with the attention. “I read a lot.”

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"But don't you --" she began. I didn't really want to go further into it. "What's the point of having things?" I interrupted, my words coming out with more bitterness than I'd intended. She was taken aback, both at the sudden interruption and at the tone. I looked off in the distance, perhaps staring off at the trees, perhaps seeing nothing at all. Maybe I was picturing the image of a lonely condominium in Chicago. I continued, my words softer now. "You can lose things. Things can get taken away. Sometimes they just slip away." Sarah looked at me pensively. I felt shy and embarrassed; what was I doing telling her these things? "You're a funny guy, Sean Meil," she finally said thoughtfully. "Oh, yeah, hilarious," I replied sarcastically. "A million laughs." She just smiled fondly, and impulsively took my arm in hers. I was simultaneously startled, soothed, and excited by this casual intimacy of hers. She led me into motion, and started us strolling, in the general direction of where I believed her house was. As we walked through the neighborhood towards her house, she started to tell me stories about the neighborhood’s history that I hadn’t realized. I felt like I was walking with a native, showing off her homeland. I wasn't sure if she had done it consciously or not, but the implicit message of her stories to me was that, as long as you remember the history, you don't have to lose things. It was something to think about. Outside her door we paused. She offered to have me come up for coffee, but I told her I needed to get heading home. This was the first truly social evening I’d had in months. Hell, it was the longest social time of any sort I’d had since Chicago. She was attractive, attentive, and warm. I liked her. She liked me. Why was I feeling so unsure of myself? It hadn’t been that long since I’d been on a date. I'd dated a lot before I was married. Some women just for fun, some with women I knew weren’t good for me, but I enjoyed the game, the teasing out people’s lives as you get to

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know them. And the sex, yeah, I enjoyed that; no one ever accused me of being a monk. Yet here I was, standing stupidly like an eighth-grader. I’d known she hoped this would be a date, I’d known at some point in the evening we’d be in the position of getting closer or saying goodnight. Yet I’d just avoided thinking about it, and now I didn’t know what to do. Worse, I wasn’t even sure what I wanted to do. Maybe my hormones had gone bad. “Listen” she said shyly. “I’m really bad at this stuff. I don’t meet many guys, and when I do they seem to be geeks or jerks, or both. This was the nicest time I’ve had in months, maybe longer.” She searched my eyes for encouragement or at least acceptance. “I like you a lot. I have for a while. I like the way you deal with people. I like how you listen. You don’t say much but when you do it counts. I think you’re really a good person. And I can’t figure you out at all.” “Sarah, I like you a lot too.” I told her honestly. “You’re smart, intelligent, and very attractive. It’s just not a great time for me.” “Are you involved with anyone?” she asked quietly, fearing the answer. I looked away for a moment, so that she might miss my eyes tearing up slightly. Was I? My past was past; I liked to try to convince myself I didn’t have a past. Renee was out of my life. My whole life was out of my life, in a manner of speaking. I had no strings holding me. But, as Faulker once said, the past isn’t past; it’s not even gone. “No, there’s no one in my life now,” I told her, wondering if that was true or not. But I felt as though I’d be unfaithful to myself and unfair to Sarah if I let things go further. I thought about what Renee would have said about this situation a few months ago. She never worried about other women. She’d look at Sarah and, as cute and as smart and all that as Sarah was, Renee would just look at me with that little smile of hers and roll her

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eyes. It wouldn’t really be a fair test. Maybe in a few years Sarah would have the confidence to at least make it a fair fight. Renee never lacked for confidence. She usually got what she went after and kept what she wanted to keep. I guess my leaving was, at least in part, a test to see if she still thought I was worth keeping. I hadn’t passed. Sarah was still, and I could almost see that answer bounce around like a pinball in her brain. She gathered up courage and took another shot at things. “This isn’t like me at all, but how about if you come in for a while?” she said. It was pretty bold of her. We both knew what she wasn’t saying, and what would be the likely outcome of me coming in with her. I wondered at that, admired her for her courage in suggesting it. But it would make things worse, not better. Sarah wasn’t the kind of girl who deserved a one-night stand, especially with a guy with too much baggage. I smiled sadly, and touched her face gently. “Sarah, I really enjoyed the evening too. I’m just not ready for anything more. I’m not even sure if I’m ready for a friend.” I said in a low voice. “But I’d be willing to try to find out about the friendship, if you are.” She smiled a smile with no joy in it, and nodded her head to indicate agreement. We said our good-byes and I watched her walk in her house. I walked home, through the streets that she had helped make more alive for me. For once, their past wasn’t the only history I was imagining. Even more surprising, now the future was something I was starting to have to think about.

Chapter 22 I’d been doing lots of thinking about Authors’ Corner’s rent plight, and had gone down to City Hall and to the library to do a fair amount of research. It’s amazing what you can find out if you know where to look and what to ask. Sarah’s description of the

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neighborhood’s history fit in to my thinking in ways that I hadn't expected; it's funny how when you are thinking about a problem, pieces come together from unexpected sources. At first I tried to tell myself that I was just killing time, that it was just an amusing little project that I'd do and not do anything about. It was just practicing some of my old analytical skills -- no harm in that. The more I got into it, though, the more excited I became; my initial hunches were right, and my germ of an idea was blossoming. I warned myself against sticking my nose in other peoples' business, tried to convince myself that Catherine could take care of herself, and I should just keep my thoughts to myself. I couldn't. “So, tell me about this rent increase,” I asked Catherine a few nights later during a slow stretch at Authors’ Corner. “Have you agreed? “Agreed? They sent me a letter telling me what the rent will be,” she responded, slightly surprised. “They didn’t ask my permission.” “Are you locked into the lease, or is this a renewal?” I asked. “Well, I’m not locked in, but I haven’t thought about moving anywhere --" she said, eyebrows furrowed slightly. “Then it’s a negotiation,” I interrupted. “The rent doesn’t increase until you and they reach agreement.” She was puzzled. “But I don’t really want to move; it’d cost me more in moving expenses, lost business, and advertising than it would to just pay the increased rent,” she pointed out.

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I was patient with her; for an otherwise sharp businesswoman, she seemed too nice. “Look, you know that, and they may suspect it, but they don’t actually know. That’s to your advantage.” By now she was really lost. “What are you suggesting I do?” she asked. “Do you know Fred Beluth?” I asked. She nodded. “How about George McClure?” Again she nodded, even more uncertainly. “Why do you ask?” “Beluth owns First Realty, the realty company that manages this building, as well as several other buildings in this neighborhood. McClure is the majority owner of the holding company that actually owns those buildings, and hired First Realty as their agent,” I told her. Noting the surprised look on her face, I continued, “I’ve been doing some homework. Tell me about them.” She still wasn’t sure where I was going with this, but she was going to give me some rope, as I expected she would. She thought about it, and said, “Fred is kind of a jerk, to be honest. I know his wife more than him, and I always thought they put on airs. I wondered how he had accumulated all that real estate; I didn’t think he was that sharp. I thought First Realty owned all their buildings, not just managed them.” She stopped to think for a moment and shifted gears. “George, oh, I’ve known George thirty years. Very sharp, tough – but fair. I don’t know that I know him well enough to say I like him, but I’ve always thought he was an honest businessman.” I nodded in agreement. “Both of those descriptions fit with what I’d come up with. Now here is what I want you to do…”

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Chapter 23 “Hi, Sean,” Michelle surprised me one day at the food court. I was taking my usual break. I was kind of hoping it would be Sarah; we hadn’t really talked since Sunday night. I was beginning to think I’d hurt her feelings worse than I’d wanted to, and was brooding over what to do about it. Perhaps we were both better off if I left her with the rebuff and didn’t try to patch things up. But I sure hated to hurt her feelings like that. Now Michelle pops up, looking pert and chipper. “Hey, Michelle, what brings you here?” I answered, lowering my magazine -- The Economist; now, that's a newsmagazine. “I don’t know if you heard this or not, but I’m going away to college in a couple of weeks,” she said. “I’m having a going away party a week from Saturday and I’m inviting some of the people from here. I’d really like it if you could come.” I looked at her deadpan, trying to read her expression. She seemed sincere. I said gingerly. “Thanks for inviting me to the party,” I said gingerly, “but you probably are going to have lots of your friends there. You don’t want an old guy like me.” I figured I was almost as old as her parents, and was trying to imagine going to a party with a bunch of high school and college kids. Scary thought. “I never got a chance to thank you for helping Ted out that time,” she said seriously, coming from another angle. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there to see it. You know, he tells that story all the time; that’s the nicest thing anyone has done for him. He really looks up to you.” She took a breath, then added, “His family, my family and I would all like you to come; this is one way we can thank you.”

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I was nonplused. Their families should be worried about Ted looking up to someone my age scraping out a living as a clerk in a bookstore, not trying to encourage it. “I don’t know why he’d look up to me,” I shrugged, not trying to be modest. “I’m nobody.” She looked at me in amazement, with an innocence that she would only be able to get away with for a couple more years. “We all look up to you,” she exclaimed. “You’re always so…calm and in control. Nothing fazes you. Plus, and this is why Ted especially likes you, you really listen to people and treat them like equals. You don’t judge anybody.” I frowned at her without realizing I was doing it, then leaned back and exhaled. More involvement; how did this get started? This was a bad idea, but perhaps she had hit me in a moment of weakness. Perhaps I was surprised that someone looked up at me; I’d no longer thought that was possible. If Renee had still looked up at me I wouldn’t have been here. “What time is the party and where is it?” She told me the details, then stood up to get going, on her way home. I walked with her back towards the bookstore. Just before we separated in front of the store, me going back to work and her leaving to join some of her friends, Michelle turned to me and whispered, “Why don’t you come to the party with Sarah? I don’t think she’ll come otherwise.” I wondered briefly if that was Michelle’s thinking or if Sarah had put her up to it, then dismissed it -- it didn’t matter whose idea it had been; it was a good idea. I caught up to Sarah later in the shift. “How have you been?” I asked, trying to seem natural. “I haven’t really had a chance to talk with you since Sunday night. Despite what you might think, I did have a nice time.” I smiled encouragingly at her.

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She looked at me, radiating an odd mixture of caution, hope, and discomfort, but with hope winning out. A small smile flickered across her face. “I’ve been wondering if I was going to hear from you,” she admitted. “I was afraid I’d scared you off forever.” “No way,” I said. “I’d have gotten around to talking to you soon anyway, but now I’ve got a good excuse. Michelle invited me to her party. Would you like to go together?”

Chapter 24 It’s funny, but I always kept looking for familiar faces in the crowd. I’d scan the crowd, mentally doing the quick elimination scan. It’s amazing, if you think about it, how quickly you can look through a forest of people and rule out if you know anyone or not, especially if you are looking for a particular person. The shape of their body, the angles in a face, a gait -- I guess those years of hunter/gatherer evolution taught us subtle tricks of rapid identification of friends and foes. I’d periodically register a familiar face, and suddenly refocus on that person, surprised they’d be here. It always turned out that it wasn’t the person I’d thought, of course, just someone who shared some key trait, but I was still constantly thinking I’d recognized someone. I tried to remember if I’d always done this or not. I supposed I had, thinking of how often I’d run into someone unexpectedly on the street or at a restaurant. But my vigil seemed both more pronounced and more ludicrous here. Maybe I was getting paranoid. On the other hand, it was possible I’d run into someone I knew. People from Chicago do get to town here, and there were lots of contacts I’d made over the years, any one of whom might pop up unexpectedly. The thing is, I wasn’t sure if I’d register them in my primitive little brain as friends or foes. Was I looking forward to a familiar face, or did I fear my old life discovering my new life? What could I say if I did see them? I wasn’t sure which would be worse: if

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they brought news of Renee – who I presumed was happy in her life without me – or if that world reminded a mystery. I was walking home from Busy Books one day, a Wednesday, I think. It was a late summer/early fall day -- cloudless sky, warm but not hot, the trees and grass still green and alive. It was the kind of weather that makes people forget that bad weather wasn’t long ago and that worse weather is not far ahead. It was the kind of day that made people leave work early so they could be outside. I hadn’t left work early but I didn’t have an evening shift at Authors’ Corner, so I was done for the day at a relatively early hour. I was going to grab a sandwich at the corner deli and go up to the roof. Add some chips, a big pickle, maybe a cookie or two, and a beer. It was as inviting as a dinner at a five star restaurant. I think I saw the car before I saw Connie. It looked like a rental car, just a nondescript sedan, but it was sitting in the wrong place, in front of a fire hydrant, and it there were two guys sitting in it. The motor was running. It seemed odd to me. I was coming up the street on the other side, so their backs were to me. They seemed to be watching the deli, which was on my side of the street. Then I realized that the little figure playing by herself in front of the deli was Connie. For once, Angela had left her alone; I could only assume she was in the store making a quick purchase and had given in to Connie’s pleading to let her play outside the store. Connie was playing some complicated hopping game, for which I’m sure she had a complete if undisclosed set of rules. I had a bad feeling about this. Maybe they were watching the deli. Maybe they were waiting for a friend inside the deli. Maybe they were even friends of Angela. Maybe a lot of things, but two guys sitting in a running car watching a lone child doesn’t look good. It’s not such a bad neighborhood, but you have to be careful, and you do hear about kids getting snatched even in the best of neighborhoods. I didn’t know; I could explain it with lots of likely explanations, but I still had a bad feeling about that car and its occupants.

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I passed parallel to the car, glancing quickly at the guys inside it. That was about all I could tell; they had on baseball caps and sunglasses, and their faces were shadowed. I caught a vague image of their faces, but not much. They gave me a quick glance, discarding me as unimportant. Sometimes this invisibility of mine was good. They focused again on Connie, and again my little hunter/gatherer brain was hard at work, telling me they were getting ready to pounce. I was about twenty yards from Connie when the car started to roll slowly forward. I figured they could reach her before I could at my current pace, but that running would scare Connie. So I yelled, “Hey, Connie, it’s Sean!” in a friendly voice, trying to get her attention. She looked up, slightly annoyed at breaking her hopping concentration, then squealed at me, “Sean!” Her face lit up. As I’d hoped, she started to run towards me. This put her in a less good position for the mystery car, as they were moving in the opposite direction. Plus, now they knew there was an interested witness. After a brief period of apparent indecision, the car suddenly gunned its engine and roared off down the street, momentarily causing Connie to look over in surprise. “What’s in the bag? Is it books for me? Can I see?” she babbled. I was indeed carrying a bag with some books, but unfortunately none of them were for her. “Not this time. These are grown-up books,” I explained, adding tantalizingly, “But I’ll bring you some new books soon.” We chatted excitedly for a couple minutes, walking back up to the store. Angela was hurrying out of the store, looking around frantically until she spotted us. She was vastly relieved yet not at all pleased to see Connie walking up with me.

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“Connie! I told you that you had to stay right in front of the store,” she chided Connie sternly, hugging her tightly at the same time. “You scared me to death when I looked out and didn’t see you!” Connie was crestfallen. “But I was only just down the street, saying hello to Sean,” she said pitifully. “I’m sorry,” I said, looking unabashedly at Angela. “It’s my fault. I said hello to her down the block and she ran to say hello back. I didn’t know she was supposed to stay in front of the store -- but I was watching her the whole time.” Angela was slightly mollified, but kept her stern look. Still hugging Connie, she kissed the top of her head and told her, “Young lady, you know better. Next time you must do exactly what I tell you to do.” I was not sure if I should tell her about the car. It may have been nothing, or it may just have been some random creeps that would never come around again. It seemed pretty clear that there weren’t going to be many times when Connie would be alone again. I decided Angela had enough to worry about, so I kept quiet. Still, their behavior bothered me, especially that there were two of them. I thought predators usually worked alone. I hoped I wasn’t going to regret not saying anything.

Chapter 25 Catherine and I were closing up a couple of night later when she looked out the window. “What is that Mercedes doing sitting outside this late at night?” she asked. She turned towards me inquiringly. “Isn’t that your new lady friend?

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It was, of course, Paige. “Paige, what are you doing out here?” I asked, tapping on her closed window. Although she’d watched me come out of the bookstore, she still jumped at the sound of my voice. I could see she was a ball of nerves, trembling slightly. “I was waiting to see if you would come out,” she said, her head downcast. Then, looking up quickly, she asked, “Could I buy you a drink or a cup of coffee? I’d like to talk to you.” “Why didn’t you just come in the bookstore?” I asked. “That’s why we are open, so people can come inside.” She looked guilty but just shrugged her shoulders. It was almost closing time at the store anyway. I didn’t really know if this was a good idea, but I couldn’t leave her out here in her car, so I sighed and told her to wait. I went in, explained to Catherine, and left. Paige unlocked the passenger door and I got in. “Where to?” I asked. “I don’t really know what is open around here,” she said, looking around as though she were lost. I gathered she hadn’t really thought this through. I suggested a bar I knew, in one of the livelier neighborhoods a couple of miles from my apartment, and we drove there. We didn’t talk much in the car, aside from the occasional direction. We pulled into the bar’s parking lot and got a booth in the bar. Even this late at night she looked like a fashion plate. She was wearing some expensive looking slacks and a silk blouse, and had her hair pinned up. She looked delicious, and quite out of place -- a debutante slumming in a slightly seedy bar. I could tell that we'd perked up the interest level of the bar's patrons -- the men looked hungrily at this new

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vision of loveliness, and women just looked at her resentfully. Meanwhile, once again I felt scruffy in comparison to Paige, and at the same time kind of proud to be with her. Maybe I wasn't such a loser, at least not for an hour or so in this bar. That was worth something, I supposed. “How have you been?” I asked after we’d settled in. Sitting in her side of the booth, she seemed smaller, and frailer, than I’d remembered. She ordered a martini and I asked for a beer. “Oh, all right, I guess,” she said unconvincingly. Now that she had me someplace where we could talk she didn’t seem to know how to start. We sat nursing our drinks for a few minutes. “How is your boyfriend?” I asked helpfully. “I didn’t get a chance to meet him.” She looked up, surprised I knew she had a boyfriend. I remembered now that it was Elmore who had mentioned the boyfriend, so no wonder she was surprised I knew of his existence. “He’s been…attentive,” she said, searching for the right word. “I don’t think I’ve been very nice to him.” I let that one pass. “What does he think of you having drinks with me?” I asked, curious. She laughed nervously. “He doesn’t know, but he’d hate it. I’ll probably have several messages on my machine when I get home, wanting to know where I’ve been -- if he doesn’t page me first. I’m sure we’ll have a big fight about it.” She seemed pretty calm about what looked like some uncomfortable consequences. It was risky ground, but I asked anyway. “Why are you here then?” She again just shrugged, overwhelmed by the enormity of explaining it to me. We sat in silence for a while longer. I tried breaking the ice by asking what she did for a living.

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With some coaxing, I found she was an interior designer, in business with a partner. They’d both started out working for a larger firm, then three years ago had split off and formed their own company. The business apparently was doing well, as she admitted to owning a house in one of the newer posh suburbs. Oh, and the boyfriend was a lawyer. She’d known him growing up, but they only got involved after his law firm helped get her business incorporated. More silence. I was about half way through my beer and none too anxious for a second one, even though she’d downed her drink. I suggested we order some coffee. I took mine black, while she loaded hers with cream and sugar. “Doesn't that defeat the coffee part of the coffee?” I kidded, getting a meek smile in return. She took a deep breath, and asked, “Why did you come in the alley?” She looked up and stared at me directly for perhaps the first time. “I really need to know.” Now I was the one to shrug. “You know, you just get caught up in these things,” I said blandly. “At the time you don’t think much about it.” “You were thinking enough to call 911. You could have just waited for the police. That’s what most people would have done. But you didn’t,” she said wondering. “And if you had I probably would be dead or raped or worse.” She said the last with a hardening of her voice that showed some of her pain. “I wasn’t anyone to you. I wasn’t your friend, your girlfriend, or your sister. You could have been killed,” she said, her voice urgent with pleading, needing to understand. “But you came anyway.” I didn’t know why, but a great sadness and fatigue came over me. I hadn't given it much thought at the time; there just hadn't been time. I'd known then it was a bad idea, known that the risks were high. But I had thought about it enough to know why I'd gone in. “No,” I acknowledged quietly. “But you were someone’s friend, girlfriend, or sister. I couldn’t just walk away.”

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We pondered that in silence for a while. I drank some coffee, trying to not let the trembling in my hand show. “Did you think you might be killed?” she asked finally. I thought back, remembering. Oh, yeah; I had thought I might be killed. “I thought there was a good chance,” I said succinctly. “That didn’t matter to you?” she asked. I paused before answering. She was pulling things out of me that, perhaps, were better off buried. “I suppose not,” I said with a voice drained of emotion. Talking about it made me relive those feelings of potential death, and how fatalistically I had been prepared to face it. Maybe I'd been looking for it in some strange way. But I wasn't going to admit that to her, not to this suburban princess. “I needed to believe that I could die and that it didn’t matter. I needed to believe it so those kids would know I wasn’t afraid to die. I just had to try to also make them believe I wouldn’t die easily.” She was intent. “What if they’d called your bluff? Could you have killed them?” I smiled tolerantly. It was almost funny. “No, they probably would have killed me. There were three of them and they were armed. This isn’t the movies.” We laughed about that, the nervous laughter of release that survivors of terrible accidents have. We had dodged the bullet, we had survived the fall, we had lived to tell the tale. We were entitled to some laughter. She did seem better; it was the first time I’d really seen her relax. It was nice to see. Her beeper went off.

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She checked it, looking annoyed. “Right on schedule,” she said tiredly. “It’s Ben.” She excused herself to go use the phone to call him. I sat in the booth, now wondering why I was in a bar late at night with the girlfriend of another man, with a woman I didn’t really know and who lived in a world far, far away from mine. Maybe I was a loser after all. She walked back to the booth, smiling tightly. “He wants to meet you,” she said. “He’s going to meet us here in about twenty minutes.” She didn’t sound too happy about the prospect. I wasn’t all that thrilled either. I wasn’t sure if he was jealous or just protective, but I didn’t think he was going to be too happy about meeting me under these circumstances. Plus, I’d just as soon go home and get some sleep. Now I was stuck. I wasn’t all that sure how I was going to get home; it was getting late enough that catching a bus might be problematic. We sat and drank our coffee. The moment of relaxation was over; she was tense again. She jumped slightly every time the door opened and someone came in, which fortunately wasn’t all that often. Every man that came in gave her the once over, and several of them gave seconds and thirds after they got settled. I wasn’t too happy about some of the looks, especially because I could tell it made her uneasy. But she’d look over at me, smile and seem comfortable, so I didn’t get too concerned. I wondered if she was jumpy because it was strangers coming in and staring, or if she feared it was the boyfriend. He came in around midnight. Even at that hour he looked impeccable -- his casual clothes carefully put together and neatly pressed, his hair slicked back. He didn’t even have a hint of five o’clock shadow; I wondered if he had shaved coming? He was a good match for her -- good looking, exuding confidence and prosperity. I wondered again why she was in the bar with me. “Ben, this is Sean Meil,” she introduced. “Sean, Ben Stone.” I stood and we shook hands politely, sizing each other up. I was slightly taller and a bit larger, but I suspected

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he worked out, probably with a personal trainer. I didn’t know what he saw, but I suspected he wasn’t too threatened by me. I was just one of the little people to him. He slid into the booth next to her and gave her a proprietary peck on the cheek. “Now, Paige, you must be out of your mind coming to a bar this late at night without people you know,” he scolded her. Then, turning to me, “no offense, Mr. Meil.” Stone thought he was a prince of the city, and he probably was, in this city. In another life, maybe we would have been friends; I didn’t know. But in this life I wasn’t much impressed. I’d been a lion on the plains of Chicago, and I’d eaten guys like him for breakfast. I might well be a serf here, but I wasn’t his serf, and it rankled me that he was going to treat me like I was. I also wasn’t too keen on how he seemed to regard Paige as an accessory, or as chattel. I inclined my head to neutrally acknowledge the remark, but Paige was not so forgiving. “Remember, dear,” she said pointedly, emphasizing the ‘dear,’ “I think we can trust Sean to look after my well-being.” Stone recovered quickly, and smoothly turned to me. “Of course, of course,” he lied in his lawyerly way. “I can’t tell you enough how grateful Paige and I are for your help the other night.” He put his arm around her, as if to emphasize their togetherness, or at least his possession of her; he was marking his territory. She seemed to shrink slightly from his touch, but he didn’t seem to notice. “We were hoping there was something we could do to express our thanks. Perhaps a monetary reward?” He removed his arm from around Paige and took out a checkbook, pausing dramatically with his pen over the space for the amount. “That’s OK,” I said, more amused than insulted. “I’m not expecting any reward.” That slowed but didn’t stop him. “Nonsense,” he commanded. “Paige is priceless to me. It may be insulting to try to attach a figure to her, but you have to let me do something. If

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not cash, then perhaps you could use a car or a bike. I understand you walk everywhere.” The condescension was visible through the sincere sounding words. “You know,” I said with my best sincere voice, “knowing she is safe is all the reward I need.” He was getting on my nerves. We stared at each other. I bet he was real good at this, and I bet he was used to getting his way. He didn’t really care about me getting a reward. He was showing Paige what an important guy he was. I kept my face impassive and stared at him without blinking. He broke off first. “Well, the offer is still open if you change your mind,” he finished, looking over at Paige. “Come on, Paige, let’s get you out of here.” They stood up, Paige looking uncertain and frail again. “Do you have a way home?” she asked worriedly. “I drove you out here.” “I’ll be all right,” I replied, “but thanks for asking.” I looked directly at Paige. “Will you be all right?” She nodded. We all shook hands politely and he escorted her out. She seemed to shrink with every step, and she looked around nervously as she walked out. It was sad. I finished my coffee, and walked home in the light rain.

Chapter 26 The party at Michelle’s was that weekend. Sarah picked me up at the bookstore after work in her very used Escort, and we found Michelle’s house with only a few wrong turns. She was a white-knuckled driver, gripping both hands rigidly to the wheel and looking desperately around before making turns or lane changes. It was kind of funny. “Are you laughing at my driving?” she noticed.

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“I’m not laughing, I’m smiling,” I said. “So, they let you have the license back, eh?” “You’re mean,” she mock-snarled. “Just wait until I see you drive. Then we’ll see who makes fun of who!” We arrived safely; I didn’t know how. I would have closed my eyes but Sarah needed help with the directions and the map. We gave each other grief comfortably like an old married couple. When we arrived there were maybe thirty or forty people there, a mixture of Michelle’s parents’ friends and her own. Those of us from Busy Books didn’t fit well into either category. Most of the crowd congregated in the back yard, where Michelle’s father had been grilling. It was a nice house, with a good-sized yard. Someone had done a nice job with the yard and landscaping, putting in flowerbeds and trees and keeping them well tended. These people were grounded, both literally and figuratively, in this kind of environment. Michelle’s mom was as perky as she was, while her dad was a good-humored, easy-going guy. Michelle’s two younger sisters were also hanging around, thrilled to be at a party with the adults. Dan was there with his wife, who was much as I expected. Dan kept eyeing Michelle’s friends greedily. His wife sat stiffly in a lawn chair, pretending not to notice. Somewhat to my surprise, even Ted had a date. He introduced her to me as Julie, telling her that I was the one he’d told her so much about. She seemed unimpressed. I stood around and mostly watched. Sarah and I speculated on the mini-drama playing out between Dan and his wife. I felt sorry for Dan; he was going to pay for this evening. On the other hand, if I were married to his wife, I’d be willing to pay for any diversion too. Of course, had it been Renee I was with, other people probably would have been talking about us. Around eleven I wandered into the house, looking through the various rooms. I was surprised at their lack of books. Evidently they were not readers, unless they had a

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hidden library behind some trick wall. They did love photos, and had lots of collages and individual pictures scattered around the house. It was as though the photos were proof of their lives, that they really had done those things. My own pictures I had to carry in my head, and it was getting harder to keep them dusted off. Sarah found me in the family room, looking at some of the family photos. “Hey, big guy,” she said lazily. “Having fun?” She plopped on the couch, slouching with her legs stretched out on the floor. It was a warm night and she’d worn a short jean skirt, so I had a nice view of her smooth legs. Her sweater rode up slightly as well, exposing a nice midriff. Yes, definitely an athlete. “Big guy?” I questioned humorously. “Exactly what are you referring to?” I said with my best Groucho Marx imitation. She laughed and patted the couch next to her, indicating I should sit next to her. I did, keeping some space between us. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to bite,” she said coquettishly, “at least, not unless you ask nicely.” I gave her a parody of a shocked look in return. She’d brought me a new beer, so we sat and drank for a little. She was drinking wine coolers. I felt like I was the age of Michelle’s friends, in a situation where you’ve got the girl alone, she seems willing, but you’re still not quite sure what to do next. In my case, though, I knew what to do next; I just didn’t know what I wanted to do. “I’m a little drunk, I think,” she said unsteadily. “If I say or do anything improper I can always deny it Monday.” I smiled quietly. “Unfortunately, my dear, I’m not drunk, and I’d never take advantage of a woman who was.”

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“Boy, strike two for me,” she complained mildly. “I guess I’m being too subtle. My roommates told me I should trap you in the bathroom and just jump you. Good plan?” “Depends on what I was doing in the bathroom at the time,” I kidded, trying to dodge. She pouted and said, more seriously, “don’t you find me attractive at all? It IS a party and you DID bring me…” “There are probably twenty guys out there who would kiss you in a second, Sarah,” I told her. “You are very attractive and very appealing.” “I don’t want to kiss any of them,” she told me, looking meaningfully at me. “You don’t want to kiss me either,” I corrected her. “You just think you do.” She lost her seductive pose like a punctured balloon. “I’m so bad at this,” she wailed in pseudo horror. “Would it be so bad to just give me one little kiss?” I patted her knee paternally, or trying to be. Maybe an uncle, or a cousin. Maybe just a good friend. “One kiss would be very nice, but it would lead to a second kiss, and it would go from there,” I admitted. “You’d be irresistible if we got started. I’m trying to avoid getting into that situation.” She was quiet for a while. I don’t think she expected me to kiss her; it would have surprised her more than me. Sarah didn’t think of herself as the girl who got the guy, and it was probably that lack of attitude that kept her from doing so. She really had no idea how cute she was, or how many guys would love to be with her. I wished I could be one of them. “I wonder what Meg Ryan would do in this situation,” she speculated idly.

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“My God, you’re an almost-Ph.D. in sociology and you’re taking dating tips from the movies,” I said in mock despair. “This is what is wrong with America.” She looked smugly at me. We were back on familiar ground now. “As a sociologist, I can tell you with complete assurance that Americans have been taking dating advice from the movies as long as there have been movies.” “I didn’t say it wasn’t true,” I pointed out. “I just said it was what was wrong with America.” We laughed, then she changed the subject. “You know, I couldn’t believe the thing about you not having a phone, so I checked with directory assistance. You really don’t have a phone,” she said in amazement. “I really don’t have any of the things I told you I didn’t,” I admonished her kindly. “What if someone wants to call you?” “I don’t think anyone wants to talk to me,” I said lightly. “I might.” She gave me a look that was meant to be seductive and beguiling, and almost was. I smiled and said, “You see me almost every day. Talking to me hasn’t been a problem.” “What if it was late at night and I needed to see you for some reason?” she asked. “I don’t even know where you live.” I was getting a little uncomfortable with all this. She wanted to get too close. It was tempting, but I knew better. “I’m sure you’d manage to get by,” I said soothingly.

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“I even peeked at the personnel records for your address,” she confessed. “You listed a post office box, not an address.” It was true; I used the P.O. box to help make sure my tracks were covered in case anyone wanted to look for me. Same with not having a telephone, and having utilities included in the rent; fewer records. I didn’t use credit cards, and didn’t even have a bank account here, just a safety deposit box. “I’m very private,” I finally said. “And you’ve been a very busy girl.” “You think of me as a child, don’t you?” she suddenly asked. “I’m the same as Michelle to you, aren’t I?” I looked at her levelly. I certainly didn’t think of her as a child, or even as a teenager. She was just -- well, just not the right woman. Not for me, not now. All I would do was damage her. I had to stop this. “Sarah, you’re definitely a woman. But I’m a thousand years older than you. You’re got your whole life ahead of you. My whole life is behind me.” I said this in a quiet tone of voice, admitting more than I’d intended to. It wasn’t the years, I wanted to say; it was the scars, or rather, her lack of them. She looked at me seriously; she wasn’t getting the answers she wanted but she was getting something, and she wanted to strike while the iron was hot. “Who is she?” she wanted to know. “Who broke your heart or holds your heart or whatever power she has over you?” I stared into space. Decision point here; did I really want to be pouring out my story in a paneled family room in suburban ranch house? I kind of wished I had some good story to tell her, some Lord Jim epic of great loss and shame. The kind of tragic loss that people

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tell in bars late at night even everyone has had too much to drink, and which inspires sympathy. Last call stories. Well, I had a story I was ashamed of, but nothing I could take any real pride in. I hadn't even failed in a significant way. I had slunk out of my old life with my tail between my legs like a lost dog. “No one broke my heart except me,” I said at long last. She nodded, as though that made complete sense to her. My answers seemed to have made her sadder, but wiser. We sat a little longer, each of us in our own little world, then she leaned over, kissed my cheek gently, and said, “Well, when it heals, you let me know, OK?”

Chapter 27 “What if they want to see some financial projections?” Catherine fretted. It was the morning of our meeting with McClure and Beluth, and she was getting anxious. “I don’t think they will at this meeting, but just in case I did these,” showing her some pro formas I’d done, using several assumptions and techniques. She stared at them a while, taking in both the numbers and the craft behind them. She looked at me with that furrowed brow look. “You’ve done this before, haven’t you?” she accused me. It was a nice package, I had to admit. “Hey, I’m a book clerk,” I said lightly. “I just play a financial whiz on TV.” The rest of the day went fairly uneventfully, but I could tell that Catherine was still a little distracted. I guessed she wasn't entirely confident about our plan yet, and wasn't looking forward to the confrontation it might entail with Beluth and McClure. But I suspected

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that, when push came to shove, she'd be solid. As for me, I was looking forward to the meeting. It was something different from the everyday routine, yet something familiar. I wanted to do a good job for Catherine, and I had really begun to get emotionally invested into pulling this off. We rode over to Beluth's office in Catherine's car, not talking much. Outside his office, she took a deep breath, look at me with slightly narrowed eyes, then broke into a big smile. "Let's go get them," she said lightly, punching me softly in the arm. I laughed back. Beluth’s office was what I’d expect. Nice leather furniture, a wall full of important looking real estate and legal books, some maps showing locations and properties. He was medium height, mid-forties, with dark hair that probably had some help. He was dressed in a hand-made shirt and a colorful tie, but had kept his jacket off -- the better to show off his braces, I thought cynically. McClure sat to the side. He was a few years older than Catherine, and fully gray. Although he was slightly below average in height, he still somehow seemed imposing. He dressed well, but was more subtlety elegant that Beluth. The most distinguishing thing about him, though, was his intelligence; it was evident from the way he watched everything through shrewd eyes. Beluth needed to illustrate his standing through his clothes and trappings, but McClure didn’t need anything. “George, Fred, how are you doing?” Catherine said politely. “This is Sean Meil, my advisor.” We all shook hands and settled in. Beluth sat behind his big desk, which was spotless. McClure sat down in his previous place, off to the side and slightly behind Beluth. His face was expressionless. There were two leather armchairs in front of the desk, and Catherine settled into one of them. I remained standing, perching one leg on the ledge of one of the build-in bookcases. Beluth seemed momentarily annoyed at my casual use of his furniture, and he didn’t like looking up at me, so he decided to ignore me. He turned his attention to Catherine.

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Catherine looked the part of the successful small business owner, elegant and appropriate, as always. She fit this office and this company; I was clearly the outlier. “So, Catherine, what’s all this about not paying the rent increase?” Beluth began, patronizing her. “We’re just reflecting our costs of doing business. We can’t afford to subsidize you any longer.” He looked at her with undisguised amusement and made a show of his tolerance of her silly idea. “I just don’t think that location is worth the extra rent,” Catherine said, following our script. “I’ve been looking around at some other locations that have cheaper rent.” “Catherine, Catherine,” he laughed expansively. “I’d have thought Henry taught you more about business than that! Why, moving locations would kill your business for months; it makes much more economic sense for you to just pay what is a fairly minor market adjustment in rent.” Henry was her ex-husband. I could see Catherine steel herself with that comment, and noticed a very brief look of dismay cross McClure’s face when Beluth brought Henry’s name up. Catherine leaned towards him. “Tell you what, Fred,” she said calmly. “Instead of worrying about my business falling off, I think you should worry about who you are going to rent all that space to if I do leave. With all the other vacant locations in that neighborhood, I think you’ll have more cash flow loss than I will.” Now Beluth was nervous. She'd hit a soft point; he really did need us as much or more than we needed him. I'd been counting on that. “Catherine!” he said jovially. “No need to get upset.” He was slightly nervous, and a small trickle of perspiration formed on his forehead. With a quick glance to McClure, he tried to regain control. “I’ll tell you what. Given our long history together, I could see

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my way to keeping your rent the same for, say, another six months. We can revisit this issue then.” He offered this magnanimously. Catherine just shook her head no, smiling tightly. Now she was the one who looked amused and tolerant. I took a quick look at McClure, who still wasn't showing anything. “What do you want, then? Keeping your current rent isn’t enough?” he asked incredulously. Catherine looked at me, and both Beluth’s and McClure’s eyes followed. So far, it was going exactly according to plan. “We want a ten percent reduction, effective for five years,” I said confidently. “We want the entire first and second floors. There would also need to be some incentive reductions based on any additional tenants you get through us. And we want some future purchase rights to the whole building, at a favorable price.” Beluth was speechless. When he recovered, he sputtered, “Are you nuts? Who the hell are you to come into my office and make such outlandish demands?” He turned to Catherine, affecting outrage. Or maybe it was real outrage; it didn't matter. “Catherine, I don’t know who this Mr. Neal is, but I think he should go back to whatever asylum he came from.” “It’s Mr. Meil,” Catherine corrected him icily. “Sean, please continue.” I addressed McClure. No point pretending Beluth's opinion mattered now. “There is no market price for this rent, because there is no market for this property without Authors’ Corner. It goes, the neighborhood dies. With it, who knows?”

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He looked at me, studying me. I looked back just as frankly. This was the moment of truth. He was either going to roll the dice on us or cut his losses. Beluth was out of it. He studied me, then Catherine, and swung his gaze back to me. “So, exactly what are you two proposing?” McClure said, the smallest flicker of a smile passing his lips.

Chapter 28 Catherine was exuberant. “We did it,” she whooped. “I can’t believe we got away with it!” “Catherine, we didn’t get away with anything,” I told her. “We made them a sound business proposition and McClure was smart enough to realize it.” We were sitting in her office in the bookstore after our meeting. Catherine was giddy. I suspected she’d never had to do much tough negotiation, and was experiencing the thrill that winning one can bring. To be honest, I was pretty giddy myself, and I’d been through this countless times. It was this rush that had made banking fun for so many years -- the art of putting together a good deal, a deal that everyone comes out ahead on. If we had had champagne we’d have broken it out. We were going to redevelop the neighborhood; well, with McClure’s help. Through my research, I’d figured out that McClure wasn’t in it for the rents; those just covered taxes and a few remaining mortgages. He had bought most of the buildings for a song, and was holding them on the chance that the neighborhood would come back. He’d make a fortune if real estate values picked up. The hard part was working through the incorporations and holding companies to find McClure’s hands behind everything. Once

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I did that, the property tax and property transfer records gave me a pretty good idea of their cash flow, and it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the rest. Of course, we couldn’t guarantee success. All we could do was to change the current waiting-for-chance mode to an appearance-of-momentum mode. And in real estate, sometimes that is all you need. We were going to create more reasons for people to come to Authors’ Corner, which would draw more people and thus make the neighborhood seem more desirable. That’s why we needed the extra space. More important, though, were Catherine’s friends. We needed her to talk some of her arty friends into moving their galleries, stores, whatever, here. We didn’t need a lot, but we needed at least two or three other good draws. She had stared at me skeptically when I’d told her all this. “A restaurant or two would be nice,” I had added casually. “Of course,” she had conceded dryly, and only someone who knew her sense of humor could have detected the gentle mocking tone in her voice. There was lots of work yet to do. We had to hammer out the exact details of our agreement, finalize the numbers, and get working on recruiting other businesses, but that was just clean-up: we had a deal. This was the time to savor our breakthrough. It was more than a business breakthrough. We’d bonded at some personal level, and our relationship wasn’t going to be the same. And I thought maybe I was ready for that. Catherine gingerly tested some of the new boundaries. “So, how did you get so good at this?” she asked. I paused, trying to formulate what version of the story I could tell. “I told you on my application that I’d worked for a bank for a long time. You pick up things over time,” I said, downplaying it.

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“You know,” she said, “I did call one of your references shortly after I hired you. I was curious about what led you here.” I’d listed my former secretary as a reference, swearing her to secrecy about where I was and asking her to just confirm my employment without giving details about what I’d done. “The woman I talked to was very glowing about you, but didn’t really tell me much about your job there.” “Don’t you miss the bank?” she asked sincerely. “Whatever you did, you must have been good at it. Look at how much you enjoyed pulling off this deal. Working part time in bookstores can’t have that same thrill.” I thought for a moment for the appropriate reply. “I did enjoy it,” I admitted, “but I enjoyed doing this to help a business I cared about and a person I like and respect. I don’t miss the rest.” I had known that I didn’t miss the bank, but until that moment I didn’t fully understand why. The last several years there, it seemed I spent my time going to internal meetings, managing my people, or wining and dining corporate clients and would-be clients. Unlike the earlier part of my career, I no longer had a chance to get to know a business, get involved with the owners, and help them make changes to improve their business. That was the fun of it, like this deal had been fun. As I had risen at the bank, my ability to actually accomplish specific changes had become, ironically, more limited than ever. Trying to influence my corporate clients was like a small child trying to turn a battleship -- it’s possible, but it takes an awful lot of time and effort to make even small course corrections. Or you fire off the big guns, and they hit targets so far away you can't see the impact. This kind of deal, where you sit down with people and come up with things that will make something new happen, that’s what I liked to do. No, I didn’t miss the bank. She nodded, satisfied for now. Continuing to pump, she asked, “and what’s the story with Ms. Mercedes? True love?”

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I sighed; now we were really going off the ranch into the wilderness. I told her the story of how I’d met Paige, and the times I’d seen her since. Even to me the story sounded unbelievable, but Catherine seemed to have no trouble accepting the notion of me facing down the three hoodlums. “Are you interested in her?” she asked when I’d finished. “No,” I said, searching to make sure that was true. “I don’t know why, but I’m not.” “You know she’s got to have this hero thing going for you,” she explained. “I think it’s not unexpected. You saved her, now she wants you to watch over her whole life.” She paused, then added, laughing, “no wonder the boyfriend was rude to you!” Getting more or less up to date on my life here, I told her about Sarah as well, how I kept her at arm’s length despite liking her so much. “Gosh, you’ve just got all these women after you, don’t you?” she teased. “If I were ten years younger…” We laughed, although we both realized it wasn’t age that was the issue between us and that the neither of these women in my life was the mystery that I kept from her. Renee loomed over us; Catherine didn't know it was her shadow, but she knew there was a shadow. “What about you?” I asked, gesturing about to indicate the bookstore. “Are you happy with this as your life?” She smiled at me, a Cheshire cat smile if ever I saw one. “It’s funny. I grew up expecting the world to be at my feet, or my feet to be all over the world. And it was and they were. I traveled everywhere, went away to school, spent money on whatever I

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wanted. I knew glamorous people; hell, I was a glamorous person. I spent forty years of my life looking out and thinking the world lay out there.” She paused, thinking how to describe the rest. “Then the divorce, and that world I’d built up in my head wasn’t there. I didn’t care about all that. I struggled to get my hands around something that meant to me. I struggled and struggled and then, thank God, I found this.” She waved her hand around, mimicking my earlier gesture. “In the last fifteen years my world has closed in more and more to just here. The old friends, the old interests, the old desire to flit about -- they seem like another life. I still see people from that life, but my life is here. I know some of my ‘friends’ laugh at me for putting my heart and soul in this bookstore, but it’s real, it’s mine, and to a lot of people it means something.” She breathed deeply, a little embarrassed for exhibiting her passion so openly. “Do you think that is silly?” she asked, more curious than vulnerable. She knew what she wanted, and it didn’t really matter if I understood or not. But I knew that she hoped I would. I smiled sadly at her. How could you not love a woman like this? “It makes more sense to me that I can tell you.”

Chapter 29 The next couple of weeks went by quickly. I helped Catherine try to figure out who might make good neighbors for us. I took the lead in finding a coffee house or cafe that wanted to co-locate with us. Catherine thought if we were going to do it that we should own it outright, but I was more inclined to franchise it to one of the coffee chains and take some of the profits. “I don’t care if we don’t make a dime off the cafe directly,” I told Catherine. “It’s just a way to help draw a crowd a far as I’m concerned. Why tie up our capital?”

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Busy Books was becoming less and less of my life. I was down to about ten hours a week there. That was fine with me except it meant I didn’t get to see much of Sarah. We took breaks together when we had the chance, but I sensed that she was getting itchy for more time. Michelle had gone off the college. Ted seemed older. He looked up more, was more willing to talk to people. He took Michele’s replacement under his wing, enjoyed showing her around and acting as her mentor. He would even occasionally talk to me, usually about sports – male bonding, I guess. Boy, they do grow up fast. “Why don’t you just work here full time?” Catherine asked in exasperation once. “It’s silly for you to keep pretending to be a part-time worker.” She was right. I was averaging at least forty hours a week there, and between that and some hourly raises she’d given me, I could have done fine without the Busy Books hours. But I kept stalling, for no good reason. Part of me tried to persuade the rest of me that I was trying to not abandon Sarah and perhaps even Ted, but when I really thought about it I suspected it had more to do with not wanting to belong to just one job again. It was with all this going on that I was sitting home reading one night. It was about one in the morning. I didn’t usually stay up that late, but I’d worked late at Authors’ Corner and didn’t feel like sleeping yet. I had a book I had gotten into, and I wanted to see if I could finish it. If I’d been asleep I’m not sure I’d have heard the noise. One nice thing about living in an older building like this was that the walls and doors were pretty thick. I first heard the banging, then loud voices. It sounded like it was coming from the hall. I put on a pair of shoes and got closer to the door to listen. “Open up the door, Angela!” a voice yelled. “God damn it, I’m her father and I want to see her!” I couldn’t make out the muffled reply from Angela’s side of the door, but it didn’t sound like she was too enthused about the idea.

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“If you don’t open this door I’m going to knock it down,” the loud voice threatened. “You know I can do it. It will better for you and Connie if you just open up now.” I definitely didn’t like the sounds of this. I peeked through the eyehole and could see there were two men standing in the hall. Big guys. I liked the idea of a strong door between them and Angela. I liked the idea of a big door between them and me. “Last chance, Angela,” the voice said, not as loud but much more menacing. “If I have to break in there I’m going to hurt you bad.” Oh, Christ, I thought, not this again. I looked quickly around the apartment, and grabbed my flashlight. I figured the flashlight made me look more like a concerned neighbor. More importantly, I’d purposely bought a Mag-Lite, a big, heavy metal flashlight, so it could serve as a pretty effective blackjack if need be. I went out into the hall. “What’s the problem, fellas?” I asked innocently. It was the duo from the car a couple of weeks ago. I didn’t think they recognized me but they stopped the banging long enough to give me the once over. The guy with the voice, the alpha male, was about my height, but a little less well built. Baseball player, not football. His friend had a couple inches and maybe forty pounds on me, and it wasn’t fat. They filled up the hall pretty well and they knew it. “No problem, buddy,” the noisy one said, trying for calm but getting sneering. “Go back inside and mind your own business.” It was risky but I moseyed up and got between them, leaving the bruiser behind me and the alpha in front of me. The lead guy was closer to Angela’s door than I was and wasn’t going to back off. They’d been drinking, of course, and had enough to make them reckless but not enough to make them sloppy, unfortunately.

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“Well, friend, it’s kind of noisy out here,” I said, not taking umbrage at his tone. “I’d kind of like to get to sleep. It doesn’t sound like the lady wants to open the door.” He was not pleased. He leaned his face in towards me. “Listen, it’s personal business!” he said hotly. “No one needs your help. I told you to go back in your apartment and mind your own business.” I didn’t like the sound of that. “Tell you what,” I said reasonably. “Let’s go outside and talk about this. That way people can get some sleep.” “Hey, asshole,” the bigger guy said, trying to get my attention by tapping me on the shoulder, not too lightly. “Get the fuck out of here.” I ignored him. “Tell you what yourself,” the leader said, mocking my tone. “That’s my wife and my daughter in there, so just leave us alone.” I waited a beat, then asked, “do you have custody of the kid?” He looked blankly at me. “I didn’t think so. How about let’s call the cops and we’ll let them sort things out.” This didn’t sit well with him. “Hey, wait, there’s no reason for us to argue about this, pal. I got a better idea,” the alpha said cunningly, with the gleam in his eyes that is due to the kind of idea that only seems great when you’ve had too much to drink. “Stick around. We’re going to get in the apartment. Then I’m going to fuck my wife, let her know she should have opened the door when I told her to. Then Carl is going to fuck her, just for fun. You can have what’s left of her after that. If she doesn’t want to be with me then she’s got to see how life is. She’s a nice piece of ass.” The idea seemed to turn him on, picturing Angela getting abused by so many people.

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That didn’t sound like much fun, especially not for Angela. I wasn’t too thrilled with it either. And I’m pretty sure Connie wouldn’t like it. “Yeah, I can see you are really thinking of your daughter here,” I said sarcastically. “That’d be real good for her. Are you going to let ape-man here fuck your daughter too?” The leader looked at me, his expression hardening visibly. “Are you fucking Angela?” he asked heatedly. “Are you her boyfriend? Mister, she’s still my wife so you better just forget about her. She’s mine and I own her life. Get it? I own her. I can do whatever I want with her and Connie.” I looked at him calmly. Now, I’ve been in enough bars in my life to know when there is going to be a fight. You have to quickly size up if something is going to happen, who is going to be the first to move, and what the people standing around are going to do when that happens. Then you have to act. These guys were itching for a fight. It could be Angela, it could be me; I didn’t think they really cared. It might be Connie. But they weren’t going to get talked out of anything. I didn’t think I could bluff my way out of this like I had in the alley. The alcohol, anger, and thought of sex had their blood up, a combination that tended to result in violence. I didn’t see a good way out. I suppose I could have just walked away, tried to find a neighbor who would call the cops, and hope they lost their nerve in the meantime. But the thought of Angela and Connie cowering behind that door while these jerks pounded on the door yelling obscene things…well, I wasn’t going to let that happen. “You guys are in way over your heads,” I said regretfully, looking sympathetically at the leader. “I’m giving you a chance to walk away.” The big guy tapped my shoulder again, harder. “We’re going to fuck you up,” he said contentedly, glad to know what the plan was again.

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Although the alpha had been doing most of the talking, I figured the bigger guy was the real problem. For one thing, he looked like he could kick the crap out of me, so I had to deal with him first. The leader might do the inciting, and would gladly get his licks in once he knew which way the fight was going, but he wasn’t going to start anything. Not unless I had my back turned to him, anyway. I was willing to bet that he was probably used to hitting punching bags, but he wasn’t used to people hitting back. But first I had to neutralize the big guy. This time I looked at him, acting like I was registering him for the first time and then dismissing him. “What are you?” I asked insultingly. “The B team?” With that I started to turn back towards the leader. As expected, that enraged him, and he started towards me, closing the little space we had between us. What he couldn’t see, though, was that as I turned away from him I was switching the Mag-Lite from my right hand to my left hand behind my back, and getting some momentum with it. It arrived at his head about the time he got to me. I think he was more stunned than hurt, although immediately a scalp wound opened up and started bleeding. Stunned was OK with me. I took the flashlight in both hands, and used a full force upward baseball-bat swing to hit him in the groin. That hurt him. He doubled over. I walked calmly around to his back. The leader was standing still, a little stunned himself. He seemed to finally realize this wasn’t WWF, that he was supposed to have a role here, and he made a tentative motion towards me. I was expecting that, and I just glared at him, raising a cautioning finger. He stopped, a dog obeying his master.

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I turned my attention back to the goon. I tapped him behind the knees, bucking them and sending him to his knees. Then a couple of vicious hits across his shoulders and lower back drove him to the ground, moaning. It had taken less than thirty seconds. I looked at the leader. “What is his name?” I asked, although I’d heard him once. He was speechless, so I hit Carl on the back again, eliciting another groan. I repeated the question. “Carl,” he sputtered, lost as to why I wanted to know. “Is he left handed or right handed?” I asked. The leader looked at me in amazement. I whacked Carl again to help prod an answer. “He’s right-handed,” he said quickly, not sure where I was going with this line of questions. “OK, Carl,” I said calmly. “Put out your hands.” He was moaning softly, and had his arms curled beneath him. I hit him a couple more times to remind him of my request. He put them out grudgingly, laying flat on his stomach. His face was bloody from the scalp wound, and he looked hurt and dazed. “Here’s what is going to happen,” I told Carl, standing over him with a foot placed hard on his back. “I’m going to break your left hand. I’m a nice guy, so I’ll leave you the right one.” His eyes goggled in disbelief, then gasped as I suddenly swung hard at his left hand. I could hear the small sounds of bones cracking, and let him gather his hand up with his right hand. He was moaning again, struggling for breath. I leaned closer to Carl. “Now listen, Carl,” I said softly. “I want you to remember that your friend got you into this mess, then stood aside when you got the shit kicked out of

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you. Whenever your hand hurts, think about that and maybe make some better choices about listening to people.” I stood up, and looked at the leader. “And what is your name, friend?” I asked. “M-M-M-Mark,” he sputtered, terrified of what I might do next. “Listen, Mark,” I said. “I’m not mad. I’m not even annoyed. I just wanted some peace and quiet. But let me tell you. If you come back here, if you bother them again, if you bother me again -- well, then I’m going to get mad. And you don’t want to see me mad. Understand?” He looked at me in utter bewilderment. He was in an alien world, where his normal rules of behavior were useless. None of his plans for the evening had pictured this turn of events. “Understand me?” I repeated patiently, like you would do with a slow child. He nodded. “Now take Carl here and get him some help. If anyone asks you, you two got into a fight. I don’t want anyone showing up at my door asking me what happened. That would make me mad, and you don’t want that, do you Mark? He shook his head like a small child chastened by his father. He helped Carl up, and draped Carl’s arm over his shoulder. They limped off, Mark turning his head every few steps to make sure I hadn’t changed my mind and was coming after him, Carl just moaning. I watched them go down the stairs, and waited for the sound of the outer door to close. I went up to Angela’s door and knocked. “Angela, it’s Sean,” I said through the door. “They’re gone. Are you and Connie OK?”

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She opened the door a few inches, peering worriedly around the hall to confirm that they really were gone and that this wasn’t some sort of cruel trick. She looked like hell. She’d had tears flowing down her face and was emotionally spent. Connie was clutched to her waist, sobbing as well. “It’s OK, it’s OK,” I said soothingly. “They’re gone. I don’t think they’ll be back tonight. Lock your door and try to get some sleep.” She looked at me, trying to determine if she should believe me, and, if so, what to say. In the end, it was too much for her; she simply nodded and closed her door. After twenty minutes or so I heard footsteps in the hall, and rushed to my peephole to make sure Mark and Carl hadn’t come back with a gun or more friends. But it was the police. They knocked on Angela’s door, talked briefly through the door, and then she let them inside. They were in her apartment for several minutes. I waited, expecting them to knock on my door next. I was picturing another night at the station; no doubt Lieutenant Collins would have a field day with this. Mark and Carl weren’t some teenage hoodlums; despite their behavior, I bet in daylight they were solid middle class guys, maybe white-collar professionals. Assault and battery, coercion, failure to call 911, perhaps littering; the list was endless. I steeled myself, holding the image of Angela and Connie laughing together on the roof in happier times as a reminder of why I’d gotten in to this. But they didn’t come. I heard Angela’s door close, and the cops walked out. I waited for a few minutes before deciding Angela must have heard what I’d told Mark and Carl to say and had left me out of her story to the police. I finally went to bed, tossing and turning the rest of the night.

Chapter 30

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For the next couple days I was even quieter than usual. Both Sarah and Catherine commented on it, and I just shrugged in response. No, nothing is wrong, I told them. But I kept wondering how I’d come to be so tangled up in strangers’ lives and how at my age I was back getting into brawls. I didn’t think the story with Angela was over yet, and I was right. A couple nights later I got home from Authors’ Corner around eleven. I was still up reading an hour or so later when I heard someone knock at the door. It was Angela, dressed in a robe. I opened the door quickly, worried something was wrong. “What’s up Angela? Is everything OK?” I asked. She smiled uneasily. “Things are fine,” she said nervously. “Can I come in?” That was strange in itself, but I wasn't going to say no. I let her in, and she stepped tentatively in my apartment, looking around. “Oh, this is smaller than ours. I thought you had a one bedroom like we do.” She seemed puzzled, as if I’d hidden the bedroom somewhere. “No, this is all there is,” I replied inanely. “What can I do for you?” She seemed to steel herself. “I just, I mean, I never got a chance to thank you for the other night,” she said doggedly. “Mark gets so crazy when he drinks. It’s why I had to leave him.” She stopped, hesitant to reveal so much. “He would have hurt me, you know,” she continued. “And he would have taken Connie and kept me from her. I couldn’t bear that.” She started to sob silently, her shoulders jerking.

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I was torn about how to respond. I didn’t really know her very well and she always had seemed so nervous about people getting close, so I was reluctant to touch her. But she was in my apartment crying, so it seemed heartless to just stand there. I put my arms around her in a hug, and murmured that it was OK. She let go and started to cry harder, and hugged me tight in return. “You don’t know, you just don’t know. He’s crazy,” she cried. I made more soothing noises and eventually she calmed down, wiping her eyes with a free hand. But she didn’t let go of the hug. “No one has ever stuck up for me like that,” she said shakily, her eyes tearing up again. “Most of the men in my life are like Carl, happy to go along with whatever Mark wants to do.” She looked up at me, still hugging me tight. Her eyes were bright with the tears. “I don’t know how to thank you…” I separated myself a few inches, not fully breaking the hug but at least getting some distance. “Angela, it’s all right. You know I think the world of Connie and I didn’t want to see anything happen to either of you two.” She looked at me silently, trying to read me, then stepped back, her hand at the waist of her robe. “Sean, I don’t have much to give you, but perhaps there is something I can do for you,” she said, her red eyes and teary cheeks at odds with that great body. She moved towards me again, and leaned her face up for a kiss. Grant me strength, Lord, I prayed silently. “Look, Angela, I appreciate that, but it’s not necessary,” I said, averting my face from the kiss and holding her a few inches away. “You’re very attractive and when you leave I’ll have lots of regrets for not taking you up on this, but if I do I’m not much better than Mark.” That silenced her; she stepped back and appraised me. “I can’t figure you out at all,” she said in a small voice. “You can be as violent as Mark and his friends, or you can be so gentle with Connie.”

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I put my hands on her shoulders, and looked into her eyes. “I’m nothing like Mark, and not all other men are like him either,” I said convincingly, hoping it was true. “You just need to find a nice one.” She looked back, searching to see something, I’m not sure what, in my eyes. Behind it all, though, I thought she was still scared of me. She worried that I was just like her husband and it was just taking longer to come out. I hoped she was wrong, but it added to the long list of reasons why I shouldn't take her up on her offer. “Go home and take care of Connie. Keep her safe,” I advised softly. “That’s the best reward you can give me.” She stood still, deciding, then reluctantly tied her robe up and walked to the door. She paused, her hand on the doorknob. “He’ll be back, won’t he?” she said in a dead voice. I stared at her, and finally just nodded. “I’m going to have to leave again. But I do thank you for giving me some time,” she said slowly. “He won’t be back right away, but he’ll be back,” I conceded, feeling like a failure. Some people’s lives you can never save; you can only postpone some of the bad things. “You should see the police, or get out of town if you can” She smiled wistfully, knowing neither of those was going to happen. I might as well have told her to go to the moon. “Well, thanks again,” she said, trying to sound cheerful. She left. I went to bed and imagined her robe falling open, but I couldn’t get the scared look in her eyes out of my head.

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Chapter 31 The other shoe dropped a few nights later. I got home around nine, an early night. As I was walking up the sidewalk to the door I hear someone get out of a parked car. “Hey, Meil, wait up,” the voice said. I tensed and turned, half-expecting Angela’s husband. It was Joe Elmore, the detective from the night I’d helped Paige. “Detective Elmore,” I said, surprised. “What brings you around here?” He walked up and we shook hands. “How about a beer?” he suggested, again catching me by surprise. “Sure,” I responded nonchalantly, as though this was the most natural request in the world. “Tell you what. I’ll get a couple from my refrigerator and we can go up on the roof.” He agreed, so we trouped up and settled in on the roof with our beers. It was a nice night, still semi-light and warm. The night sounds were subdued and calming. We sipped our beers. “I was in the neighborhood talking to one of your neighbors,” he informed me. “Thought I’d see how you are doing.” He seemed comfortable, just a neighbor stopping by. I suspected he could seem comfortable in any situation he wanted to. I allowed as to being fine, nothing much new. We considered that in silence awhile. “Do you ever see Paige Atkinson?” he asked casually. “She stopped by the bookstore a couple of times,” I admitted. “We had drinks. She still seems kind of shaken.”

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He nodded. “Yeah, I figured it would take her a while to deal with this. Nothing in her life prepared her for being a victim. I don’t imagine that boyfriend of hers is much help. Things like this just don’t happen in their world.” I shrugged, not wanting to get in over my head. We drank more of our beers. “Anything going on between you two?” he asked conspiratorially, giving me a knowing, we're-all-guys-here look. I was taken aback by his directness, as he’d expected. “Not my type,” I responded. “Besides, she’s got a boyfriend.” He snorted, giving me his opinion about Ben Stone. We stood in silence again, listening to the sounds of the kids in the playground and the occasional car driving by. “Funny thing,” he started again, acting like it just occurred to him. “There was a similar situation here the other night.” “How so?” I asked, pretending to be surprised. “Well, it seems one of your neighbors, an Angela Meyers in 4A,” he started, consulting a small notebook to make sure of the name, “has an ex-husband that gets kind of violent when he drinks. Then he takes it out on her and the kid.” He paused to take a sip of beer. “He’s got a long list of priors, mostly domestic abuse, and she’s got a restraining order against him. The court gave her sole custody, the whole bit.” I waited, but he seemed lost in thought. “How is this like Paige?” I finally asked.

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“Oh, yeah, I got sidetracked,” he said patiently. His sense of self-possession was almost unnerving. He used silences to lure people out, waiting for them to fill in gaps and reveal something. I had an idea of what he wanted to know from me, but I was going to make him work for it. He continued. “Well, this ex of hers came by the other night with a friend, and was yelling, pounding on the door, threatening her. One of the neighbors -- a Mrs. Rowan from the third floor -- heard him and called 911,” again checking his notebook for the name. “By the time the squad car got here, though,” he continued, “they found the ex and his friend out on the sidewalk. The friend was beat all the hell up, busted hand, cracked ribs, head bleeding, bruised all over. He apparently really looked like shit. They took him to the ER.” He waited, letting us both picture the scene before going on with the story. “Now, they both say they got into a fight, and the ex beat the friend up out on the sidewalk. The patrolmen checked with Ms. Meyers and her story was the same.” Again, a long pause. So,” I hazarded, “the theory is that ex beat up the friend to save the wife from him?” He nodded slowly. “That’s the theory,” he said skeptically. He turned to me. “The thing is, I don’t buy it.” He waited for my reaction. I tried not to give him one. “Why not? They all seem to agree.” He pursed his lips and looked thoughtful. “Couple things. First,” he counted off, “it’s not the guy’s MO. He’s never refrained from beating her up -- or worse -- before. Second, if you saw the two of them you’d know there’s no way the ex is going to beat up this other guy. The ex is kind of a pretty boy, and the friend is a big guy, kind of a tough customer, so I hear.”

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This time I nodded. “I can see the problem,” I said neutrally. “Is this your case, Detective?” He grunted in derision. “There is no case. Nobody is pressing any charges, no one really wants anything done,” he said. “No, I just got interested when I saw the address, so I went and talked to Ms. Meyers. Nice lady, but scared as shit, with good reason.” We looked out over the edge of the roof, drank some beer. We'd gotten to what he had come here for. “What’s your theory, Detective?” I finally asked. “Call me Joe,” he instructed. “That’s what reminded me of Paige Atkinson to begin with. I’m thinking maybe there was some do-gooder that saved the damsel in distress. You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you, Sean?” His tone was light and slightly chiding. We looked at each other, measuring. “Are you looking for the guy?” I finally asked. “Maybe he doesn’t want to be found.” He took a long last look at me, then looked over the edge of the roof again. “No, I’m not looking for him,” he considered. “I just want to get a better picture of what kind of guy steps into these situations for women he isn’t really involved with.” We were quiet a few minutes. What kind of guy indeed, I thought wearily. Maybe someone who doesn't care anymore. Or maybe, just maybe, someone who cares too much. “Maybe he does it because he hopes someone will do the same for someone he does care about,” I said quietly at last. “Maybe he feels guilty about what he’s not able to do for someone else.”

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Where that came from or why I told it to Elmore, I’m not sure. But he considered it, bounced it around in his brain awhile, and seemed satisfied. He nodded his head like he was agreeing with me and making a decision. “Yeah, maybe that’s it. Well, I better be going,” he said, crunching up his beer can and standing up. “We’ll have to do this again sometime.” “But,” he said meaningfully, “let’s hope there aren’t any more damsels in distress.”

Chapter 32 The lease signing with McClure and Beluth turned into a big deal. We’d actually worked out the details a week or two before, but I suggested we wait for the official signing until Catherine had lined up a couple new tenants in the area, then make a splash of all the signings. McClure loved the idea, and had arranged for a full press conference. A representative of the Mayor’s office and City Council was there. There were even a couple local news cameras, desperate for film on what must have been a slow news day. Catherine and McClure did most of the talking. Catherine emphasized that Authors’ Corner was making a long-term commitment to the neighborhood, and mentioned the new cafe as a further example. McClure introduced the owners of the other new businesses, and spoke glowingly on how this was really the start of the revitalization of the neighborhood. The Mayor’s staff praised Catherine and George for their commitment to the neighborhood all these years, and cited the Mayor’s own efforts to make the city more livable. Yeah, sure. George was comfortable in front of the crowd, but Catherine was the real natural -smooth and assured, answering questions with her typical wit and candor. The press loved her. They actually seemed interested, took copious notes and asked softball questions. None of them really pressed on how thin all this was.

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“Pretty impressive,” I kidded Catherine later. “What do we have to do to get the Mayor to come herself?” “Give more political contributions,” she shot back cynically. “Besides, she’s probably out revitalizing some better neighborhood.” “You know,” I responded equally cynical, “by mentioning it in your speech you just raised the starting franchise fee for the cafe by a few thousand dollars. Maybe more if we get on the news at both six and eleven.” We laughed about that. I’d invited Sarah to the press conference, but she had a conflict and I'd let it go. I hadn’t thought the television people would show up, and wondered if she’d see it on TV. I hadn’t told her a lot about what we were up to, but thought she’d love the idea of trying to make the neighborhood come back. I should have pressed harder on her coming. McClure pulled me aside after the press had dispersed, with Catherine in tow. “Nice work, Sean,” he praised. “This is really starting to come together, and you have to get a lot of the credit for it.” I thanked him noncommittally, looking at Catherine to see if she’d give me a clue about where this was going. Her face was humorously expressionless, enjoying my skepticism. “I’m going to kick things up a gear, and start renovating some of the buildings into condos,” McClure continued. “I’ve got an appointment with my bank tomorrow, and I’d like you to come with me.” I looked again at Catherine, who still showed no reaction. “Why not take Catherine?” I asked. “It is her store and her reputation.” They shot each other a quick glance, Catherine showing a small sign of satisfaction, as though she’d won that bet. “Catherine and I talked about it,” McClure answered. “She

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wants you to go and I’d like you to as well. No one knows this deal and the potential as well as you do.” I considered this a few seconds. “You don’t even have to wear a suit,” Catherine chimed in. “That’s part of the mystique.” “I hate bankers,” I said with a serious expression, my tongue firmly in cheek. “Me, too,” McClure replied seriously. “But that’s where the money is.” Catherine just smirked. I agreed to go, and we talked about the logistics. “This was a nice organizational job, Mr. McClure,” I told him, gesturing around us to indicate the press conference. “Who did all the work?” “I hired a PR firm for a one shot deal,” he answered. “I’m thinking of hiring them for a longer term contract to help promote the neighborhood." “Listen, I’ve got another idea…”

Chapter 33 “…So you’d be executive director of the neighborhood civic association,” I explained to Sarah. We were sitting in a downtown park, watching the river flow by. I’d told Sarah I had something I needed to talk to her about, so we met between one of my shifts at Busy Books and my evening shift at Authors’ Corner. I didn’t know what she expected we’d talk about, but I was pretty sure she hadn’t expected this. “McClure will bankroll you for the first two years, then we’ll need to raise some philanthropic grants, and have neighborhood businesses kick in an annual fee. McClure and Catherine Frank would

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both be on your board, and they know other people with money. I ran some estimates and think it is pretty do-able.” Sarah was still in shock. “Tell me again why they are doing this?” “It’s a good example of how different agendas can come together,” I said. “Catherine really likes the neighborhood, and wants it to be a thriving area. McClure will make a bundle if the property values go up. The city looks good if downtown neighborhoods actually have people in them. And you, my dear, get to promote a historic neighborhood and tout city living, city lifestyles.” Pretty good deal, I thought; I was pretty pleased with myself. She was still processing everything. “Don’t they want someone with more of a public relations background? This seems like a big deal.” “It is a big deal,” I admitted. “We talked about the PR issue at length. That was George’s original thought. I convinced him that the worst thing we could do was make this look like it is just a real estate scam with some shills behind it.” I studied her, then added firmly, “This is for real. I know Catherine and she really believes in the neighborhood. You’ve got the credentials and the conviction to promote the neighborhood and the lifestyle. You’ll need to talk to McClure and Catherine, and you’ll have to convince them that you can write and talk and chew gum, but I know you can. Just tell people the story of the neighborhood the way you told me that night at Francos. No one is going to mistake you for a shill.” She laughed at that. “It does sound great, and I am basically done with the dissertation,” she pondered aloud. “I was expecting to have to go to work in some low rent teaching job anyway…” She glanced at me curiously. “Can I sleep on it?” she asked.

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“Nope,” I told her, enjoying her surprise for a brief second before adding, “just kidding. Yeah, just let me know, but don’t take too long.” We walked along the river awhile. It was late afternoon on a sunny fall day, still warm but with a hint of chill in the air. We nodded to the occasional other walkers, sympathized for the laboring joggers, and dodged the speeding cyclists. Sarah was uncharacteristically quiet. “I can’t believe that this great job is being, well, almost handed to me on a platter,” she said uncomprehendingly. “I’m starting to convince myself that I actually could do the job, then I get overwhelmed at the thought of all the other people who are much better qualified and would kill for it.” This was typical Sarah; talented yet uncertain. We stopped and I put my hands on her shoulders. “Listen, kid,” I said sincerely. “Here’s two little secrets about the world for you. First, nothing personal but there’s always someone that could do the job better than you. They’ve probably got some other job, and there’s probably someone else who could do that better than them. Second, I like you a lot, but I wouldn’t recommend you if I didn’t believe you’d be good at it. I don’t want to put either of us in a position like that.” She flipped her hair out of eyes nervously and smiled. Her cheeks colored slightly at the implied praise. We walked some more, then headed back towards the mall. “Can I give you a ride?” she asked when we got to the parking garage. I waffled, but she seemed insistent, so I let her drive me to Authors’ Corner. She was curious to see the neighborhood and the bookstore another time anyway. “Thanks,” I told her as I started to get out. “Sean,” she stopped me. “Tell them I’d love the job. I don’t need to sleep on it.”

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“Are you sure?” I asked. “Yes,” she said convincingly. “I couldn’t have designed a more perfect job for me. I just need to be confident about it. Knowing you believe in me helps more than I can say.” I smiled at her and shrugged it off. “You like to take care of people, don’t you?” she asked piercingly. I tilted my head slightly as I considered this. Yeah, I liked to think I did, but with Renee as my baggage I couldn't brag too much. I’d walked away from my own damn wife, and certainly hadn’t taken care of her. “I like to solve problems,” I said deliberately. “Sometimes that helps people; sometimes it doesn’t. You don’t need taking care of, but this organization does need a person like you to head it.” She gave me a look of appreciation, and we said our good-byes. I told her I’d talk to Catherine and have her arrange a time for Sarah to come in and talk to Catherine and McClure. She smiled again, like a little kid who just got a new toy, and drove off. As she drove off and I started towards the bookstore, Paige came out. “I’ve been waiting for you. Could we talk?”

Chapter 34 “Paige,” I said in surprise. “You’re early, and in the wrong place!” She looked puzzled. “I’m teasing you,” I told her. “Last time you waited for me after hours and in your car. This is a breakthrough.” We stood awkwardly on the sidewalk. I didn’t want to go back into the bookstore to have the conversation, and out of the corner of my eye I thought I saw Catherine smiling at me through the window.

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She smiled shyly, not sure how to respond to the teasing. “I got out of work and thought I might catch you before you started,” she said quietly. “I want to invite you to dinner.” “I’m working tonight, and it will be late when I get done,” I said, again uncertain about the wisdom of doing something with her. “No, not tonight,” she said hurriedly. “I want to do this for real, invite you over to my house and cook you a meal. That way you can see my house and we can just, umm, talk for awhile without being disturbed.” She sounded like she’d had to work up some nerve to say all that. I considered the invitation. “Is that you, me, and Ben?” I clarified. “No, just you and me,” she said tightly. “Ben won’t be joining me for dinner or anything anymore.” “Oh,” I said. “Sorry to hear that, I guess.” She just grimaced in the form of a smile. I supposed I was going to have to do this, good idea or not. I could tell she wasn't going to give up on it. “When were you wanting to do this?” “I asked the woman in the store what nights you worked, and she said you were off tomorrow night,” she said. “Would that work out?” In fact, I was scheduled to work tomorrow night, and now I was going to have to kill Catherine for trying to organize my social life. “Sure, sure, that’d be fine,” I said reassuringly. She gave me a big smile of relief, and asked me to walk her to her car, which was in the parking lot around the side. I did and then went into the bookstore. Catherine was at the cash register pretending to read a book. “So,” she said archly, “girl number one almost runs into girl number two. Quel disaster!”

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“Yeah, and thanks so much for rearranging my work schedule,” I said crossly. “Are you my social secretary now?” “Come on,” she said sweetly. “Most men would kill for a date with that. I was just acting in your best interests. Just go, eat, get laid…” “Stop it,” I commanded. “It’s not like that.” “It should be,” she said with a small leer. “That girl thinks your shit don’t smell, pardon my french.” We had a tiny staring battle before she broke off. “Besides, you could use a night off. I’m just looking after my own interests.” “I’m not sure what interests those are,” I said primly, and let it drop. I went on to bring her up-to-date on other events. “Well, girl number two wants the job. You’re going to have to meet her and see what you think. Try not to fix me up with her too, thank you very much.” It was the day for a staff meeting, which Catherine tried to do at least twice a week to compare notes on authors and new books. The other staff still wasn’t quite sure what to make of me. John had been with Catherine for at least ten years, and used to have her ear. His tastes were a little too refined for me; he knew authors I either had no interest in or had never heard of. It felt like there was a little of the new-dog-in-the-yard syndrome going on; every time he spoke he was marking his territory. Jessica had also been with Authors’ corner several years. She knew her stuff but didn’t speak up as much as John did. I think she had a family and they were more of her life than Authors’ Corner was. Andrea, I hate to say it, struck me as a mousy bookworm who was happiest just stacking books.

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John wanted to feature some obscure Eastern European poets in the front of the store. I was not so keen. “No one reads them,” I said undiplomatically, drawing a sharp glance from him. “Well, perhaps they read them, but they don’t buy them, at least not here.” “We have a duty to help elevate our customers’ tastes,” he informed me smugly. “We have a duty to stay in business, too,” I countered. “Let’s do a test. All those who have read any of them Eastern European poet in the last month raise their hand.” John immediately raised his, while mine, Jessica’s, and Catherine’s stayed in place. Andrea looked puzzled, a not uncommon response. “I’m not sure,” she said uncertainly. “I’ll take that as a no,” I ruled. Catherine just looked amused, wiping the smile off her face as John turned fiercely towards her. “Catherine, is this how we make decisions nowadays?” he complained. “You’ve always listened to me in the past.” Indeed she had. I thought one big reason he had stayed so long was because he got to indulge his sometimes eccentric tastes. Catherine knew better but often let him have his way, knowing he’d pout for days if he didn’t. With Catherine’s support, we ended up compromising -- highlighting them in the poetry section and taking Jessica’s
idea to put some of the new political books out in time for the elections. John seemed slightly mollified, while Jessica seemed thrilled; usually John overrode her suggestions.

Catherine had had inquiries from more of her friends with stores looking to relocate here. “You know,” she said, sounding slightly baffled. “This actually could work.” “Tomorrow we should call the realtors for some of the other buildings with commercial space and see if we can convince them to offer special introductory rents as well,” I thought out loud. “I’ll mention it to George when I see him at the meeting with the bank.” “Good idea,” she approved. “I’ll get you a list of the people I think are serious about moving and what they are looking for. Where do we stand on the cafe?”
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I told her of the discussions I’d had since the press conference with potential franchisers. As I’d predicted, their interest had taken a turn upwards after the television coverage. “I’m pretty sure we’ll get a serious proposal from a couple of them,” I concluded. “You’ll just need to decide on build-or-buy.” “Gosh,” she said humorously, “I feel like I’ve gone from running a small business to running an empire! Hmm, if I’m the empress, what does that make you?” “The eunuch?” I asked innocently. “Tell me after tomorrow night’s dinner,” she said, roaring with laughter.

I caught up with John later that evening. “Look, John,” I started. “I feel like we got off on the wrong foot today. I wanted to tell you I didn’t mean to criticize your ideas, I’m just trying to get more business for the store.” He looked at me, deciding between ignoring me or responding. He couldn’t hold his tongue. “Oh, yeah? What was that little vote you took today? If that wasn’t designed to make fun of me I don’t know what was.” I sighed. “You’re right, it was probably kind of mean, but it did make my point. I mean, if we’re not reading them, then how many customers are?” “Things have never been the same here since you came,” he said sternly. “A coffee shop? What’s next, children’s books?”

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“As a matter of fact,” I said bluntly, “I think a children’s section would be a great idea. Children mean parents, who buy books and also love to spend money on their kids. You can get a two-fer.” He looked astonished, and flipped that damn little ponytail of his like a cow brushing off a fly. “You have no respect for history. This is not a children’s bookstore. It’s not Busy Books -- oh, yes, I know all about your other job. This is a serious bookstore. It’s a crime if you turn this store into a mall store.” He spat the last few words with the utmost disdain. “Well, I think it’s exciting,” Jessica broke in. She apparently had overheard us and had come up behind me. “That press conference was so cool. It really feels like things are happening around here.” John and I both looked at her. John just rolled his eyes. “Don’t just roll your eyes at me, John Snoddy,” she said sharply. “You’ve looked down on me and the others for years, and you’ve had your nose so far up in the air that you couldn’t see that the store was dying a slow death. If Sean can bring some new blood in here, more power to him.” “Jessica’s right,” I said quietly. “I’ve seen the books -- no pun intended. We’ve been bleeding for years, just making ends meet. We can’t get people to read good books if the store isn’t here.” John was ready to burst. Why does she do everything you tell her?” he asked fiercely. “Everything is different since you came.” I calmed down. “I like Catherine a lot, and I think she has come to trust me,” I said carefully. “But things are changing because they have to. If I hadn’t been here something else would have started them. But it’s still Catherine’s store, and she still makes the decisions.”

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He was only slightly mollified. “We’ll see about that,” he shot, and stomped off. Jessica and I looked at each other. “Win some, lose some,” she said philosophically. “Keep at it.”

Chapter 35 The meeting with the bank’s loan committee representatives went pretty well. I wore my now customary casual but serious business outfit, and George acted nonchalant about it. They took their lead from him; he did a lot of business with the bank and they liked to go along with him. I didn’t have to talk too much. I told them about how the ideas got started, explained Catherine’s passion for the neighborhood, and told them of the interest from other businesses we’d already had. George and I had discussed bringing in other realtors for the rent discounts, and he agreed. “A rising tide lifts all boats,” he said cryptically. George outlined an ambitious program of renovating several of his buildings, some for use as condominiums, others as office buildings. He wanted the bank to help put together the funding consortium, and he was willing to commitment a sizeable amount of capital himself. This was a preliminary meeting, so he didn’t bring all the details, but he had absorbed the material I had prepared in our initial meeting and had added to it. I saw him noticing that I noticed some of the charts I’d developed, and he gave me a surreptitious wink, quite out of character. The concept was impressive, if I do say so myself. George wasn’t just going along for the ride; he seemed really bought into the idea and was getting more and more enthused. He was good. The bankers loved the idea of an independent civic association, and I told them some about Sarah and her background. They also liked the feedback George had from his meetings with the police department and the mayor’s office. It looked like we had all the bases covered.

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“I don’t know, George,” one of the bankers said skeptically, “putting money into fringe neighborhood commercial/residential space. If you’d told me that a year ago I’d have just laughed at you.” “Me too,” McClure agreed. “Thank Mr. Meil here for opening our eyes to the potential.” He nodded his head towards me, keeping his face serious. At the end of the meeting we were saying our good-byes, and one of the bankers looked at me curiously. “Your name sounds very familiar to me, Sean,” he said thoughtfully. “Are you from around here?” “No,” I answered. “Have you ever done business with us before?” he pressed. As a matter of fact, I had. In my earlier life we’d worked with them on a fairly large commercial loan that we were the lead bank on. Before the meeting I’d asked George whom we were meeting with, to ensure that it was no one I knew, but you never know who knows who. “You know,” I said innocently. “I get that all the time. It’s a common name.” He looked confused, but let it pass. I saw that McClure didn’t miss any of the exchange. In the hall he told me, “I do wonder sometimes why you are working in a bookstore. I’d hire you today if you wanted another job. Of course, Catherine would kill me…” “I’m happy doing what I’m doing,” I responded quickly. We looked at each other and he finally just smiled that small smile of his. “Let me know if that changes,” he said. “You’re going to help make me lots of money as it is, and I don’t even have to pay you, so I can’t complain.”

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After the meeting I told Catherine that McClure had vaguely offered me a job, and asked if he had mentioned hiring me. She looked at me incredulously. “Are you kidding?” she exclaimed. “He wanted to hire you after the first meeting. He just was waiting for all this to get far enough along.” She looked seriously at me. “So, are you considering it?” “No, I’m not,” I said honestly. “I don’t have any interest. I thought we’ve had this discussion.” She studied me, faintly amused. “You know, I’m not sure I see you working in this bookstore the rest of your life,” she said. “It may happen, but somehow I doubt it.” “You see me as a big tycoon, like Beluth or McClure?” I asked, more dismayed than I’d intended. She was taken aback, but recovered almost immediately. “No,” she said thoughtfully, studying me even more intently. “You could be, and you may even have been one at one time, for all I know. But I don’t think you want to be anymore. I’m just not sure what you do want.” We eyed each other. “Me either,” I told her.

Chapter 36 Paige picked me up at the mall around six, on her way home from work. She lived in one of the ritzier suburbs, with lots of huge new houses dotting the roads, with big yards and long driveways. Her house fit her. It was new, and ultra modern in design, split-level, with sharp but unexpected lines, and lots of windows and skylights. The lawn had been landscaped and lit to highlight the house to its best advantage. I could see that the back yard had been terraced and had a lovely view of the valley below. The house wasn’t large for that neighborhood, but it had a simple elegance about it. The houses of her more traditional neighbors looked dowdy by comparison.

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“Did you help with the design?” I asked, indicating the house when we pulled in the circular driveway. She laughed proudly. “Yes, it took a while to find an architect that would work with my ideas,” she said. “I knew what I wanted and made sure I got it. I usually do.” She took me on the tour. Four bedrooms, four full baths, a large entertaining area, a study/office, formal dining room that would seat up to twelve, a kitchen straight from a culinary magazine -- I could go on and on. My entire apartment would fit comfortably in the master bath, I think, and still had room left over. Still, it looked more like a showcase than someplace really lived in. I saw lots of art, but few photographs or even books that would give clues to the owner. “Very nice,” I complimented her. “How long have you lived here?” “About two years,” she said, looking around as though to make sure it was still there. “I got it a year or so after my business got going.” “You must be doing well to afford all this,” I indicated expansively. She shook her head back and forth. “We do pretty well,” she admitted. “My parents helped some with the house. They thought it would be a good advertisement for the business, and it has been. I bring prospective clients here to give them a sense of my tastes.” She excused herself to change out of her work clothes, and returned wearing a long, loose fitting dress that emphasized her height and hinted at the body underneath. I may have stared longer than was polite, but Paige pretended not to notice. We settled into the kitchen as she started to prepare dinner. I sat on a barstool at the island in the middle of the kitchen while she pulled together pots and pans and food. I offered to help but she

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shooed me off, saying she enjoyed cooking. She seemed comfortable in the kitchen, relaxed in a way I hadn’t seen. Still, she did things more like someone well trained than like someone for whom cooking came naturally. I thought of my little toaster oven and thought that it would be envious of all this equipment. We made idle chitchat, and after a bit I got up to wander around the house more. In some ways it reminded me of Renee’s parent’s house. The style was very different, but the effect was much the same -- that sense of comfort with expensive things, everything just so. I was hoping I’d find a closet full of jumbled shoes or clothes thrown haphazardly to show that Paige had more of a wild side. I started to wonder if Renee’s and my condo had looked like this to visitors. “The maid came today,” she said dryly, catching me snooping in closets. “She’s very particular.” “Sorry,” I said. “I just wanted to see if you had any dirty laundry.” She opened her eyes in mock surprise. “Why, Mr. Meil,” she said, “is this a fetish of yours?” Then, dropping her eyes demurely, she continued, “I think the only dirty underwear I have are the ones I have on…” We laughed. “What time is dinner?” I asked, changing the subject. I was pretty sure I’d just had an invitation. “I don’t want the food to get cold.” “Dinner is ready, sir,” she said with a half salute. “Follow me.” The food was great, and even the presentation of the food was elegant. During dinner she told me more about her business. I was curious about how much of the jobs ended up reflecting her tastes, versus the tastes of the client.

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“It is a difficult balance,” she said thoughtfully. “I like to think that I reflect their tastes, but through the prism of my own. Each job looks different, based on the individual client, but a good interior designer could look at several jobs and tell which were mine.” We went through a bottle of wine at dinner, but switched to coffee after dinner. She suggested we move into one of the smaller rooms for the coffee. She put on some music, and dimmed the lights. I sat on a loveseat. Paige slipped her sandals off and curled up on the nearby couch, legs tucked underneath her. We sipped our coffee. “You know,” I said. “Maybe we should think about me leaving. It’s getting late and I need to get back downtown.” It was only about ten, but I was wondering how I was going to get home. I hated to have her drive me home too late, but I was pretty sure there were no bus lines. It looked like a long cab ride home; I started mentally counting how much money I had with me. Perhaps I was in for an even longer walk. “Don’t go,” she implored. “It’s early yet. I’ll get you home. I was enjoying just talking.” I agreed to stay for a while longer, and the conversation moved in fits and starts. She had interesting musical tastes, soothing but neither classical nor new age. I thought I recognized Everything But the Girl, Julia Fordham, Sarah McLaughlin, even an occasional Jane Siberry. We compared notes on favorite singers, finding some common interests and suggesting some favorites to the other. That line of conversation soon dwindled. “So,” I finally asked. “What happened to Ben?” She nodded like she had been expecting the question, and hung her head down slightly. “What indeed?” she wondered aloud. She let out a long sigh. “It’s complicated. I’ve known Ben forever, and we seemed, well, well suited for each other. I guess our parents

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and friends assumed we’d get married, and I suppose Ben and I did as well. Then this whole thing with you happened.” It was interesting that she referred to it as the thing with me, not the thing in the alley. “Why did that matter?” I asked softly. Another long sigh. “Ben hated the fact that someone else had to take care of me, and he hated that he couldn’t just buy you off afterward,” she said, more talking to herself than to me. “He got more and more possessive of me.” I waited her out, sensing she had more to say. She did. “That was part of it. I think I knew in the back of my head that I didn’t want to marry Ben,” she said. “He never really liked my tastes,” indicating the house. “He couldn’t wait to move me into his house and be a good little corporate lawyer’s wife.” She laughed in amazement and added, “he thinks of my business as dabbling, just a sideline.” She stopped and looked up at me. “But that’s not why I’m not with him,” she confessed in a small voice. “I didn’t feel, umm, safe around him.” I must have looked surprised, and she hurriedly added, “I wasn’t afraid of him hurting me. I…didn’t…feel...like…he…could -- protect me.” The last two words came out like they were ripped from her. She started to cry. “I get nervous when I hear noises, get scared when I see strangers, get frantic when people start to come towards me. I shudder when people touch me. I wouldn’t let Ben touch me or hold me, even that night.” I let that sit in silence, looking at her sympathetically. She dropped her head again and said so very quietly, “I never feel safe anymore -- except when I’m with you.” I felt the weight of that upon me. It’s like the proverbial Chinese belief that if you save someone’s life you are responsible for them the rest of their lives. I didn’t want to be responsible for her. I didn’t want her to think that I, and only I, could protect her.

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“Paige, look at me,” I told her tenderly. “That’s not fair to Ben, it’s not fair to me, and most of all it is not fair to you.” I paused and gauged her attention, which was high. “The world is a heartless place. Bad things happen for no reason. Good people have bad things happen to them. It doesn’t mean anything. You had something bad happen to you. OK; it’s done. It doesn’t mean bad things will always happen, or that you need someone around to protect you.” She was listening intently, but I wasn’t sure I was getting through. I tried again. “Paige, it’s just luck that I was there; it’s luck that they didn’t kill me. I’m not superman. I couldn’t always be around and I couldn’t always protect you if I were. You’re doing yourself a disservice to think you need someone like that.” She had stopped crying, but her eyes still were brimming with tears. “I don’t like feeling like this,” she rasped, “I hate being weak and helpless and a victim. I just can’t help it.” Tears begin dripping from her eyes again, and she made no move to wipe them off. I got up and sat next to her on the couch. I put my arm around her, felt her snuggle up against me like she was warming herself. I wiped again the tears on her face, although I felt like the boy with his finger in the dike, helpless to stop the flow. “I don’t know you very well,” I began, “but I know you are a smart, strong, independent woman. You need to believe that and get your life back.” She buried her face in my chest and I held her for a while, until the crying subsidized. She finally pulled her head up and excused herself. I sat by myself, listening to the music, until she came back a few minutes later. She had changed into jeans and a sweatshirt, had washed her face, and her hair was pulled up. She looked somehow younger and more vulnerable. “I’m better now,” she said apologetically. “I’m sorry you had to see all that. I’ve been wanting to tell you all that for a long time. I am seeing a therapist about my fears, but she

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says it will take a while.” She was sitting on the edge of the couch, close to me but not touching. “Would you do me a favor?” she asked tentatively. “If I can,” I responded cautiously. She looked shy, then murmured, “I’d like you to stay for the night.” I looked at her curiously. She saw my look and stared levelly at me. “I don’t feel up to driving you home and I hate to make you take a cab,” she said steadily. “But mostly I just want you here for the night. I want to feel safe for a night. You can sleep in the guest room if you really want, but please stay.” I exhaled and ran my hands through my hair as I thought about it. I really didn’t think she was making a pass at me, although it was on the table if I wanted it. What did I owe her? Did I want to get any more involved than I'd already gotten? Then again, was a night feeling safe so much for her to ask? “The guest room would be fine,” I said reluctantly. I thought she looked slightly disappointed, although she hid it bravely. We put the coffee cups in the kitchen, leaving them for tomorrow. She took my hand and silently led me to the guestroom. From somewhere she scrounged up some pajamas, a toothbrush, even a razor. She looked gratefully at me and thanked me for staying. I kissed her lightly on the forehead and said goodnight. I don’t know what woke me, but around one thirty I became aware that I wasn’t alone in the room. I looked around the room and saw Paige sitting in the big chair by the dresser. She was in a silky white negligee, long and not especially revealing but sexy nonetheless. It looked like the kind of thing Claudette Cloubert might have worn in the movies in the thirties; I didn’t think people really wore them outside of movies or catalogs. On her it looked good. She sat in the same curled up position she had been in on the couch, legs folded beneath her. When I saw her she was just looking silently at me.

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“Paige, what are you doing?” I asked, now fully awake. “Is something wrong?” She just shook her head. “Did you have bad dreams?” I asked, feeling like a father talking to his five-year-old. “I just couldn’t sleep,” she said simply. “I wanted to watch you sleep.” I paused, and told her softly, “you should go back to bed now, Paige.” She roused herself and stood up. She walked over to the bed and put her hand on my face gingerly. “Who are you?” she asked in wonder. I didn’t understand what she meant, and she saw my confusion. “You’re such a good man. I feel so safe around you. We could be good together.” “No, Paige,” I said sincerely. “I barely know you; it wouldn’t be right.” “It would be,” she insisted, “because I want you to. Don’t you want me?” She said the latter plaintively; again, I doubted she’d had much experience with men not wanting her, or about not getting what she wanted generally. I reached up and covered her hand, still touching my face, with my own. This seemed too easy, like a trick question. She was a beautiful woman, she needed comforting, and she wanted me to comfort her. What could be the harm in that? She wasn't asking for, or expecting, love or commitment. With a great sadness I told her, “any man would be a fool to pass you up, but I can’t be with you. As beautiful and desirable a woman as you are, you’re not my woman.” I might have lost my wife, but I still knew what the right thing to do was. I was telling myself more than I was telling her. I might have lost my direction in life, and

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Now, I don’t want anyone to think I’m some sort of saint. In my past I flirted with more than my share of women, and flirted harder than I should have on occasion. Only once did it get me in deeper than I could glibly escape from. It was about four years ago. I was in New York closing a complicated deal. One of the people I was working with on the deal was an old friend with whom I’d worked periodically for years. We’d always had a strong sexual tension between us, and enjoyed the dance of flirting. In that particular situation, though, the electricity of the high-pressure deal, the late hours, and the alcohol somehow led us into a torrid two day affair. She was married, I was married, and we both threw caution to the winds. I regretted it even before it was done. I never had seen myself as someone who would be unfaithful, yet I had always flirted in ways that kept me balanced on the razor’s edge between propriety and impropriety. That time I fell off the edge, and it cut me deeply. I didn’t like the person it had caused me to become, and I hated what I had done to Renee, even without her knowing about it. Maybe she figured out later on that something had happened, maybe she hadn’t, but I knew then that I wouldn’t hurt her like that again. Leaving was possible; that kind of betrayal wasn’t. So why was I rejecting Paige? Renee was no longer my woman; I no longer could hurt her. I didn’t have a woman. Paige was available and interested, if only for comfort. All I knew was that her offer made me hungry for something else, like being offered a snack when what you really want is a meal. I guess I didn’t want to spoil my appetite. Paige nodded her head, and looked disappointed. She asked if she could just sleep on the chair the rest of the night, and in the end I agreed. I offered to leave, I offered to let her have the bed while I took the chair or the floor, but she insisted. It was weird, knowing she was right there probably watching or listening to me, so I only slept fitfully the rest of the night. I don’t think she slept at all.

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Chapter 37 The next morning Paige drove me home. We didn’t talk much, both a little uncomfortable after the night. I wasn’t sure I liked her knowing where I lived, but it seemed like it would be too complicated to tell her to drop me off elsewhere. When we pulled in front of the building she looked at it dubiously. “I love these old apartment buildings,” she said sturdily. “Are the apartments nice?” “They fit,” I said ambiguously. She smiled, equally ambiguously. There wasn't much else to say. “Take care, Paige.” “You, too,” she said sadly, sounding like a real goodbye. I watched her drive off, wondering if I’d see her again, or if I wanted to. I hoped she would be all right. I was walking in the foyer when Angela and Connie came out, Angela holding Connie’s hand firmly. “Hi, Sean,” Connie chirped. “Want to play after school?” I think she thought I went to school rather than to work. I looked at Angela, whose face darkened as Connie asked me. “I don’t know, Connie,” I told her regretfully. “I think I’m going to be late tonight.” I didn’t look at Angela. Connie bubbled her good-byes as Angela dragged her away, Connie trying to skip at the same time as her mother was trying to stride purposefully, but it didn’t work too well. Connie was such a sweet kid, so happy and carefree, despite the things she had been exposed to. I was sad that Angela seemed to now view me as a menace. Or was she just feeling rejected? It was too complicated for me; I went upstairs, changed my clothes, and napped for a couple hours before going to work at Busy Books. The next couple days were a blur while we continued to talk to potential neighbors. It took me about that long to notice that Sarah seemed to be avoiding me. Our schedules didn’t overlap much, but I noticed she was being more distant than usual. At first I let it go, figuring she had a lot on her mind and it probably wasn’t me, but after a few too-

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pointed situations where she seemed to avoid me I decided I should see what was on her mind. I caught up with her at the food court. “Hi, Sarah,” I said brightly. “Mind if I join you?” She nodded noncommittally. “Have you talked to McClure and Catherine?” I asked, knowing she’d talked to Catherine. “I met Catherine yesterday, and I’m meeting McClure tomorrow,” she said woodenly. I waited for more details but they weren’t forthcoming. “Sarah, is something bothering you?” I asked. “You’re not your usual sunny self.” She smiled wanly at that, and looked away. “Is she your girlfriend?” she asked forlornly. “She’s beautiful.” I was confused. “Catherine?” I asked in surprise. “No, of course she’s not my girlfriend. She’s my boss.” She looked at me scornfully. “Not Catherine. She’s too old for you,” she informed me. “I’m talking about the tall girl I saw you with when I dropped you off.” So she had seen Paige. I thought about how to explain Paige, especially after I’d just spent the night at her house, innocent though it might have been. “No,” I answered carefully. “She’s not my girlfriend. She’s just someone I know.” “Is she in love with you?” Sarah asked, still making big assumptions and clearly not wanting to have the answer to be yes, but fearing that it would be. “I don’t know,” I said truthfully. “I think she thinks she has feelings for me that she doesn’t really have…”

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“You know, I would understand you wanting her over me,” she interrupted me, gushing out. “She’s tall and she’s beautiful and she’s probably rich. I don’t stand a chance against someone like that.” Tears started welling in her eyes. Yes, I thought; Sarah definitely never saw herself as the girl who gets the guy. “Listen, Sarah,” I said, taking her hand. “Paige is someone I helped once and she’s grateful to me. I’m not in love with her, I’m not interested in her.” I brushed a solitary tear from her cheek, feeling reminiscent of the night with Paige. “Do you just have this stable of women?” she said fiercely. “You help them, they fall in love with you, and you just go on to the next one.” She paused, taking a deep breath and looking straight at me. “Why aren’t you interested in any of them?” I let go of her hand and looked at the fountain. It is fascinating to really look at a water fountain. If you watch very closely you can see the separate waves cascading. Sometimes you can even see individual drops falling. Then your attention shifts and it is one long stream of water again. “I don’t go looking for people to help,” I confessed, my voice low. “I just end up in these situations. I don’t want women to fall in love with me. I try to discourage it.” I smiled humorlessly at her. “I don’t think I’m very reliable when it comes to love.” Her eyes searched mine, trying to read truths I don’t know if I possessed. “You’re still in love with her, aren’t you?” she asked decisively. She didn’t know who “her” was but she knew that person was there, somewhere. I looked at the fountain again, and felt my eyes tearing up. It was too much. You can only bottle the past up too long, then it wells up and over the defenses. I looked back at her, and simply nodded. “Does she still love you?” The question floated out there like a dirigible, large and iconic but beyond my grasp.

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“I don’t know,” I said, lost. “I left her and she probably doesn’t even care if I’m dead or alive.” There must have been people sitting around us, walking around us. There must have been noise and movement and light. But none of that registered, just Sarah’s voice and my thoughts. “Why did you leave her if you loved her so much?” she asked, brow furrowed as she tried to understand. I was silent a long time, trying to work out how to tell her what happened, indeed, whether I wanted to tell the story at all. I’d never told anyone, not even Catherine, and I'd rarely let myself reflect on it too much, even to myself. “How much time do you have?” I asked.

Chapter 38 How to tell what happened, even now? I barely knew that person anymore, could barely imagine that life. I’d occasionally think about that long ago life in isolated flashes -while walking, while shaving, before going to bed. It didn’t seem real to me. I might have seen that life in a movie, or read about it in a book. To make a long story short, I failed my wife. I suppose I failed myself too, but it was failing her that really hurt. She didn't say so, not in so many words, but I knew it anyway. Like life itself, though, the story of my failing Renee was not a short story, and I had to go back a few steps in order to tell it right. I’d already said I had been a senior vice president at the bank when I left. My long time mentor was Bob Brant. We’d crossed paths early in my career, when I was doing a stint in small business loans. I’d been sent out to foreclose on a loan that was well overdue. It

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was a small business, just getting going and struggling with cash flow problems. The only thing was, when I talked to the owner I really started to believe in him and thought his business had terrific potential. So I took a chance -- I ripped up the original loan, and we negotiated a new agreement on the spot that gave the bank a share of the business. In return, he agreed to several operational and marketing changes that I thought would help get him over this current crisis. I was pretty dubious that I had the authority to do all that, and the owner was pretty amazed that his stodgy old bank was taking such a different approach, but I wanted him to have something in writing in case I went down in flames. Well, as fate would have it, Bob was sitting in on our next staff meeting, when my boss first heard what I had done. Bob was the division head, so my boss was pretty nervous about him being there as it was. Not surprisingly, he went ballistic when I admitted my transgression. He was ready to fire me on the spot. Bob cooled him down, and had me explain my rationale. Long story short, I not only wasn’t fired, but Bob took me under his wing, and as he’d risen in the organization he continued to watch out for me, either taking me with him or installing me with another key executive. Now he had reached executive vice president, and was rumored to be next in line to be president. The current president and CEO was retiring, and the board had done an active search for a successor, interviewing several internal and external people but settling in on Bob and one other external candidate as the finalists. Bob was a popular choice within the bank. He was an outgoing guy, and he had protégés, disciples, and fans scattered everywhere. I was just one of the earlier and more successful of his troop. That fateful morning I’d heard from Bob’s assistant that he was supposed to meet with the CEO. She was all excited, telling me this was very confidential but she knew I’d want to know. She knew if he rose I’d go up too, and of course she’d be the queen assistant in the company. We both figured the fix was in, that Bob was going to be appointed. It was hard to imagine anything else. Our lives were on the move, up. I was distracted all day. I admit, I was hungry for even more success -- an executive vice president at my age would be quite astonishing, and would set me up as a real candidate

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for the CEO job in a few years. I was already spending the new income and planning my organizational structures when Bob stopped by my office and shut the door. “It’s not me, Sean,” he said simply. “They’re going outside.” I was stunned. Initially, I didn’t know whether to believe him or not. Surely I must have heard wrong, surely he must be joking. But I looked closely at him and knew that this was no joke. He had the expression of a man who’d been told he only had a few months to live. And he probably did, at least within this company. The new CEO would not keep around the other pretender to the throne; Bob would have to go. “I’m sorry, Bob,” I managed to get out. “It should have been you.” We exchanged a few more condolences, and he left my office, squaring his shoulders to face the world. I sat at my desk, looking out of the window. It’s a great view of the lake and the Chicago skyline, and it almost never failed to cheer me up. On that day it was unreal, like watching television. The clouds, the wind, the patches of blue sky were all surreal. I could see the cars moving in fits and starts in the snarled downtown traffic; I could see pedestrians walking vigorously. On their way where? What was the point? They were like little wind-up toys, pretending to have a place to go but in the end it was just a silly game played by children. After awhile I left me office and wandered the halls, wanting some companionship but not really feeling like talking either. It didn’t take much of a detective to start noticing the clumps of people, in the offices, in the cubicles, at the vending machines. Efficient as ever, the grapevine had gotten the word out. I soon realized that many of those clumps of people were already taking stock of the news, figuring out how this affected them, and how it could be turned to their advantage. Some of them were also probably thinking about how it affected me and how that effect could be used to their advantage too. In horror, I realized that there had been too many

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other situations where I had been one of the ones coolly calculating how someone else’s heartbreak could help me, and often had. Is that what my life had become, I wondered. Renee wasn't surprised when I called her to tell her the news. We chatted briefly, and promised to talk more later. I dully made my way through the rest of the day, but my heart wasn't in it. I avoided discussions about Bob or the future CEO when people stopped by to talk about it. Normally I'd be right there, reading the tea leaves and looking for the white smoke to emerge, metaphorically of course, but I had no heart for it today. That night at dinner, Renee and I continued our conversation. After so many years together she knew the bank’s people and politics pretty well. She’d been expecting Bob and I to move in lockstep as well, but she was pragmatic about this turn of events. “So what now?” she asked when I’d finished. “Get your name out on the street for another job?” I hesitated. “I don’t know that I want do this anymore,” I said slowly. That had been brewing in my head slowly all day, and it scared me to say it aloud. It made it too real, like something that might not only be true, but could also actually happen. I think it scared Renee a little too. “Sean, Sean, you’ve had a very trying day,” she said soothingly. “You’re upset about Bob. No wonder you’re confused. You should just try not to make any rash decisions right now.” She was right, of course. We made love that night -- an effort to soothe me, I suspected -- but it didn't take. I had a restless night, tossing and turning with my thoughts. At breakfast Renee asked me what my plan was, and I had to confess I lacked one. She frowned slightly but let it pass. Instead, she suggested I talk to our CEO. Taking Renee's suggestion to heart, I managed to get a few minutes of our CEO's time that morning. I didn't know what I hoped to come out of the meeting with or even what I

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wanted to talk about, but he clearly seemed to be expecting my visit. “Sean, thanks for stopping by,” he said warmly. “I known you’ve heard the news about Bob. It’s a tough break for him; you know I’ve always been a big fan. The board and I just felt getting some new blood in here was critical to our future.” It came to me in a rush, one of those revelations that you don’t know what part of your brain triggered it, but which immediately feels right. I interrupted him. “I’m out,” I said flatly. We talked for a few more minutes. He didn’t really seem all that surprised by my announcement; I actually think he’d been expecting it. He tried to persuade me, very logically, not to make any rash decisions, to at least give the new CEO a chance to talk with me about his ideas and how I might fit in. I let him talk, but mentally I was determined not to be one of those guys at the coffee machine, turning my friend's eminent departure into his advantage. If anyone had asked me the previous morning, I’d have told them I loved my job, my work, my career. Apparently I had been wrong. The relief of being out of it all was like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders, a weight I hadn’t even known was there until it was gone. I said my goodbyes, packed up a few things, and left. Renee got home about an hour after I did, surprised to find me home so early. I’d been pretty restless, going over things again and again in my head, wandering around the apartment aimlessly. I felt dislocated, needing an anchor to keep me from drifting off course. The apartment didn’t feel right to me. It seemed like someone else’s home. What was I doing there?

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“So, how was your day?” I asked dryly when she came in. I was sitting on the couch with a beer, relaxing. She put her briefcase down carefully and took stock of me. “Fine,” she replied cautiously. “Anything exciting happen to you?” I took a drink. “Well, I resigned. Aside from that, it was pretty quiet.” Renee sat down across from me. “Resigned? I nodded. "That's kind of sudden, isn't it?” “It seemed like a good idea at the time,” I tried to joke. She looked at me in surprise. “I know you're kind of upset, but resign? I’m sure the bank would be happy to give you a leave of absence to sort through things.” What she said was very logical. I knew all that. I’ve have told her the same thing if the situation was reversed. But I also knew in my heart that I was done with the bank, knew it in a way that was final and not subject to discussion. It had become all about politics and personalities, about power and prestige. I had my fill of it, like eating that one bite too many can turn a perfectly lovely meal into something that you’re sick of. I was suddenly sick of it. Once Renee had accepted that I really had decided to quit, in her normally endearing, relentlessly optimistic fashion she proceeded to try to fashion new careers for me. She kept suggesting people I should call, jobs I'd be good at, things I could do now. I tried to play along, but after awhile she realized my heart wasn't in it. “You're right,” she judged. “You just need a little time off.” The first week or so was fine, almost like a vacation. I slept late and watched daytime TV. I took long walks. I started to read -- real books, not just business reading. The life actually was nice; very comfortable in a lazy kind of way. I gave my future precious little thought, just cocooned in my little non-working world.

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After that first week, though, things began to get different. It was no longer a vacation; I'd be returning to work by now if it were. Other people took longer vacations -- two and three weeks -- but not people like Renee and I. After a week we would normally be rested, relaxed, and eager to get back at it. This time I not only wasn't ready; I had nothing to get back to. I'd done what I suspect most working people fantasize about at some point: going in to the boss's office and just quitting. That fantasy probably keeps people going on many a tough work day. The trouble is, usually the fantasy ends there, unless it is accompanied by a win-the-lottery scenario. Well, I hadn't won the lottery, and I hadn't thought past just getting out of that job. At first I pretended to think about what else I might do, whom I should talk to about what happens next. I could find a good job with a phone call, I knew, and great jobs would come my way soon enough -- if I wanted them. That was the trouble. I didn't seem to care. I didn't update my resume. I didn't start networking. I didn't return calls from the many recruiters who called, and I made vague excuses to the friends who called to set up lunch plans. I didn't know what I was doing, but it was pretty clear what I wasn't doing. Renee watched with ever-growing concern about my apathy. She really knew she was in trouble when she noticed I'd stopped reading the Wall Street Journal. To her credit, she really tried hard to be understanding. I'm convinced that it was that she secretly hoped I did have things in the works that I just wasn't ready to share with her -Bob and I were doing a start-up, or I was playing hard to get with some persistent corporate suitor. I'm pretty sure if she had realized sooner that I not only lacked a plan, but also lacked the desire to make a plan, then she would have done something sooner. This is a girl who liked to have a plan, who liked to be moving. Put her in a traffic jam and she's itching to turn on to a side street, preferring the motion to the risk of getting lost. Even on vacation she liked to have a schedule of what to see when. Those weeks that I was just floating; she'd never have done that if it had been her. She'd have

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networking like crazy, and reviewing all of the job offers she'd undoubtedly get. I didn't even know if I had any job offers, since I'd stopped answering the phone. Things grew more tense. There wasn't much of my day to tell her about -- what interest would she have in my daily walk, or what happened on the episode of “The Andy Griffith Show" I'd seen? What she wanted to know was what I was going to do with my life, and I had nothing to tell her. So I talked less, and she reacted in turn. Our evenings stretched into periods of long awkward silences; unfailingly polite, but increasingly distant. You have to understand the kind of people we were. I'd been working hard since high school trying to make something of myself, and had done a pretty good job of it. Renee had started further along in the world and so had less far to go, but perhaps more to prove -- that she wasn't just a pretty face, that she was more than her father's daughter. The circle we moved in considered ourselves the best and the brightest. We believed we were tougher, brighter, and harder working than anyone else. Sure, we'd seen friends of our slip off the pace, fall behind in whatever race we were in. We regarded them with -well, if not scorn, then at least with pity. That's what I started to see more in the faces of the few friends we still saw. I thought I saw flashes of it on Renee's face too, and it just about broke my heart. I thought it must have been breaking hers too. The thing about being on a treadmill is that it is hard to gracefully get off. You have to gradually slow down, so you can step off safely. The treadmill I'd been on had been moving fast and sloping upwards -- so jumping off while it was at full speed propelled me far off. The physics of it are pretty unforgiving. Perhaps if I had the agility of a gymnast I could have made a graceful landing, even with some sort of flourish, but grace was the last thing I had now. Our social life suffered. We'd go to dinner, and people would pretend to be happy for me. Maybe they were happy for me, but I'm pretty sure that at least some of the people I had considered my friends were actually gloating that they'd hung on longer than I had. Of course, they had to be nice to me as long as they thought it possible that I would get a

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great job again soon. Soon the conversation would get past the pleasantries, and someone would ask well-meaning questions about my prospects. Renee didn't understand -- and liked it less -- when I'd lightly brush aside these inquiries. No prospects, I'd report, while trying to sound cheerful about it. I think our friends were even less sure what to make of me than Renee was, and soon enough the invitations slowed down. Renee suffered it in stoic silence. I cannot remember what I was thinking during those days. It was as if I was in a fog. The future was the furthest thing from my mind, and the present wasn't much closer. It wasn't fair to Renee, to my friends, or to me, but I didn't really think about that either. It was as though the fall from my world had left me stunned and disoriented. Sometimes I'd try to rouse myself with a pep talk. Giving up without a fight? I'd never walked away from a fight in my life. I'd always loved challenges, took them on headfirst. The bigger the better. And now -- now I was sitting back doing nothing, just giving up. The trouble was, it didn't feel like a fight. I couldn't see who the winners and losers were. There were only victims here, especially me and even more Renee. The life of leisure may have been easy, but it didn't fit. I'd never been freer in my life, yet I don't think I'd ever felt more weighted down. I could do anything I wanted, but there didn't appear to be anything I really wanted to do. There were just things I didn't want to do. My new skin didn't feel right in this kind of life, but I had a pretty good idea that it wouldn't go on over a new job any better. So I kept on doing nothing, just floating along waiting for something to happen. It did. It came to a head one night. It was cold and snowy out, the kind of winter day Chicago is famous for. The darkness falls too soon, and makes the natives hurry home to their warm houses. Everything is grey and gloomy, and once Christmas is over there isn't much to look forward to. It fit my mood exactly.

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Renee worked late -- as she was even more likely to do those days, undoubtedly trying to avoid those awkward evenings with nothing to say. We ordered in. I don't remember what we had, but I do remember the silence that pervaded the dinner, and that Renee had been drinking more than she usually did. It was late by the time we finished, and she'd polished off most of a bottle of wine. She wasn't drunk by any means, but she was more frank that she might have otherwise been. “So,” Renee challenged me suddenly. She looked up at me with those eyes that could be welcoming or frightening. They were scaring me right now. “Did you do anything about a job today?” I was startled; at this point, I'd come to -- well, not welcome the silence, but at least it was safe. I longed to really talk to Renee, to get close to her again, but I knew that any conversation these days had more prospects for danger than for opportunity. I had to confess I had not, feeling guilty. “And do you plan to do anything about one tomorrow?” She enunciated the final word very carefully -- I wasn't sure if it was for emphasis or just to offset the effects of the wine. I knew what she wanted to hear. Even worse, I knew what she expected to hear. I should have just lied to her, avoided the situation until we were both ready to face it. But I still loved this woman, and I was not going to start lying to her now. “Probably not,” I admitted frankly. She nodded at that. I imagined what was going through her head. The snippets of conversations her friends were having, with each other and, for the more daring of them, with her directly. “Sean's become a deadbeat.” “He's lost his nerve.” “He just mooches off of her, doesn't even care about getting a job.” “What does she still see in him? He's a lost cause.”

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Since I no longer provided her with much in the way of conversation, these internal conversations with people who had become strangers to me became her only other points of view. In fact, I couldn't argue with those voices; I kind of agreed with them. Her eyes downcast, she watched her wineglass sadly, moving it slowly with he fingers. “You know, it's ironic,” she said, still looking down. Her face was slightly flushed. In another woman, I might have expected to see tears, and I feared seeing them in my Renee's eyes. Not because I'd never seen them before, but because there was nothing I could do to help her stop crying once she started. “What?” I asked, not really wanting to know. She paused, evidently deciding whether to tell me to forget it or to proceed. Other nights she must have passed on saying anything further. Not this night. She looked up at me, and I had a funny feeling that she was not going to be the one I needed to worry about crying. “Here I fell in love with you -- married you -- thinking: this was a man who could always take care of himself.” Her eyes dropped back down to her glass, not wanting to say this final thing directly to me. Her voice was soft, yet curiously torn. “Who could always take care of me, too.” She took a last drink of the wine, tossing it down defiantly, and stood up from the table. She stared me straight in the eyes, and her voice hardened. “Now I'm taking care of you.” I had no response. Renee went to bed after that, citing an early morning meeting. I stayed up, not moving from the table. It wasn't about money. We missed my income, to be sure, but we had plenty of money. That was one problem we didn't have, thank goodness. No, I didn't think Renee was talking about money. Renee had always been so fearless, but now I scared her. She hadn't expected me to be an anchor dragging her life down, and I had

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never expected anyone to think of me as one. That was not the deal; that was not what either of us had signed on for. A great weight fell on my shoulders, and a greater sadness permeated me. “Maybe I’m not the man you married,” I said quietly to the empty room. “Maybe I’m not the man you fell in love with.” Renee had one thing wrong, though. It wasn't ironic that she had realized that I could no longer take care of her, or even myself. It was ironic was for me to realize it, since I, too, had always expected to be able to do so. No, her realizing it wasn't ironic; it was tragic. I slept on the couch that night, or tried to anyway. When I realized sleep was not coming I pulled a chair over to the window so I could look out and think, or at least have a focus to my not thinking any longer. It was the first time we’d ever chosen to sleep apart, and it signaled that things were over between us. I knew I’d failed Renee in a way I could never forgive myself for, and I couldn’t be the husband she wanted. The few feet between me in the living room and Renee in the bed in our bedroom seemed like a distance longer than I could imagine. Somewhere in the night I knew what I had to do, and packed my one bag. I sat back by the window and delayed doing anything until it started to get light, and I watched her sleep until I couldn’t bear it any longer. I was going to leave a note for Renee, but what could I say? I hadn't had the right words for her during these last few weeks, and I didn't know them then either. Then I caught a bus here.

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Chapter 39 “Sean, Sean,” Sarah exclaimed. “That’s quite a story.” I hadn’t told her all of that, of course. Some things you just can’t explain. But she had the abridged version. I sat, feeling vulnerable and slightly embarrassed for sharing such a tale. I couldn’t even look at her, just watched the fountain intently, as though I was expecting a submarine to pop out at any time. It’s funny how a part of your life that defines you, that scars you permanently, just becomes a story to other people. Your parents die, your sister is raped, your house burns down -- people will listen, say all the appropriate things, even feel very sympathetic. But in the end they are thinking, “I’m glad it wasn’t me!” and move on. They’ll think about it for a while, then it will gradually just fade to a lower and lower level of consciousness. It’s human nature. If we all felt everyone’s pain fully there would be no space for our own. “I’m so sorry,” Sarah continued seriously. “I just don’t know what to say.” “You don’t have to say anything,” I replied. “There’s nothing you can do. I’m OK. I just wanted you to know what the deal was.” Sarah looked at me, eyes searching mine. I always had liked her eyes; they were very alive. Now I saw even more in them, saw the deep affection she had for me. “I knew you weren’t just some guy working in a bookstore,” she teased, trying to lighten things up. I must have looked a little hangdog. “Well, as you can see I don’t just go around taking care of people,” I tried to joke. “I do my fair share of damage too.”

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Sarah thought for a minute. “I still don’t understand why you left her, if you loved each other so much,” she confessed with a confused tone. “Isn’t love supposed to conquer all?” Poor Sarah; she really was young. Perhaps she’d loved and not been loved in return, that most usual hurt. But I doubted she’d ever suffered a real loss. And she’d certainly not experienced the loss of letting someone you love down like I had, making them believe you were a different person than they had thought. Call it macho, call it realistic, even call it cowardly, but realizing that I couldn't take care of the woman I loved -- or myself -- had just been more than I could take. More than I thought Renee could take, too. I'd always been someone to listen to my gut instincts; they had generally served me well over the years. As hard as it was to explain to a third party now, my gut had told me that it was over, that it was time to move on, without Renee. There was no going back, and there wasn't much point in looking back. “No, Sarah,” I said simply. “It doesn’t. Sometimes it just allows you to hurt people more.” She looked at me again, trying to take my measure, trying to understand the world through my heart, through my losses. Then, to my surprise, she just smiled enigmatically and put her hands on top of mine. “I didn’t know you then, and I don’t care what happened before,” she said very deliberately. “You’ve helped me, and you’ve brightened my life more than I can tell you. When you need a character witness, you call me.” With that she stood and said her good-byes. I was left by the fountain, again lost in the flow of the water. Soon the flow of the shoppers and their conversations returned, and I was back in the world. I had things to do.

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Chapter 40 The next several weeks passed quickly. There was lots going on. Sarah met with McClure, and he offered her the job. She accepted, of course, and was thrilled to find out he was willing to pay what she thought was an obscene amount of money for something she would have done for almost nothing. “No more grad student living!” she chortled. “I can buy real plates!” I helped her look for an apartment, and we found one near the bookstore. It was still a bit iffy, but had potential. There was lots of space, which she immediately started to fill up. We hit numerous yard sales and a few estate sales, picking up inexpensive used pieces, and soon the apartment started to look like an adult’s. An eccentric adult, perhaps, but definitely not just a student. Sarah and I also turned in our resignations at Busy Books. Dan was very upset, especially about Sarah. He tried to talk her out of it, but she just laughed at him. Ted was more sorry to see us go. He gave Sarah a big hug and me a very manly handshake. I couldn’t help thinking that a few months ago he’d have been a wreck, but now was standing on his own. No wonder the world blooms anew, the way kids grow up and become adults so quickly, with that vigor and optimism that take years to lose. Paige stopped in a few times, but our visits were more casual and brief; there were no more invitations to her house. We never spoke of that night. I could tell that she was doing better; if it was light out she didn’t even have me walk her to her car. Once or twice Sarah would run into her coming or going. I don’t know if Paige really paid her any attention or not, but I could still see Sarah’s fur ruffling slightly each time. Sarah and Catherine hit it off really well, and they had to spend a lot of time together working on the civic association planning. I sometimes caught them looking at me with that look, like I was something that they had mutually adopted. “I’m beginning to be

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sorry I ever introduced you two,” I groused once at them. “I feel like you think I’m a puppy or something.” “I love puppies, don’t you Catherine?” Sarah said playfully. “Once they are trained, anyway,” Catherine replied. “You just have to break them in.” I was most surprised when Detective Elmore started coming in. “Detective Elmore,” I said, taken aback. “Business or pleasure?” “Pleasure,” he said, slightly embarrassed. “I’ve read enough about this place and wanted to see it for myself.” Catherine took him under her wing herself, Elmore giving me a helpless look as she whisked him away to see the store. We had been getting some good press, starting with Sarah’s appointment and continuing with some other shops starting to either actually move in or to at least announce their relocation. We did a deal with a franchiser for the cafe, and they had the franchise up and running in a few weeks. It helps to have connections, I guess. We narrowly beat the opening of Brewed Heaven II, a spin-off from a very successful local coffee house in the kind of neighborhood that we aspired to become. Things were looking up if they wanted to join the bandwagon. I suppose I was happy. There was no reason for me not to be. But the conversation with Sarah had raised some old pains that I’d been keeping blocked for a long time, and I was having trouble blocking them again. Even weirder, I started thinking I saw Renee. I was catching a glimpse of Renee’s face, or the shape of her body, or her walk. I’d look again and it would be gone, but it was as if I was seeing a ghost. I rationalized that telling the story to Sarah had just reawakened all these thoughts. I knew she’d never been far from my consciousness, and now she was just popping up at will. These were the pains from those phantom limbs, from that life I'd tried to amputate, now come to hit me with full force. Sometimes I longed to chase after the ghost, run yelling her name, but I’m too

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grown-up for that, I reminded myself. So I’d just keep an eye out for the ghost -- and, in the way of ghosts, I was half thrilled, half scared to see it.

Chapter 41 John and Jessica started to get more enthused about the changes. Catherine suggested that John program a series of poetry readings on Monday nights in the cafe. That was our slowest night anyway, so we didn’t stand to lose much business. Damned if John didn’t manage to dig up several interesting poets or would-be poets, and even attracted some people to come listen to them. I came just to hear, and couldn’t follow most of the poems, but John noticed I was there. “Sean, I’ve got a great idea!” he exclaimed after one of the programs, fairly bursting with energy. “Jessica and I were talking about her kids, and she was telling me how they do poems in English class. I thought of this for the opening of the new children’s section: a series of children poets! What do you think?” I must have looked nonplused. He looked momentarily crestfallen. “I thought you’d like the idea,” he said dejectedly. “It’s a great idea, John,” I said earnestly. “I wish I’d thought of it. Promotes the children’s section, promotes the coffee shop, brings in children and their parents, and promotes something creative for kids. It’s fabulous.” Catherine also immediately latched on to it, and soon was talking to the Board of Education about a citywide contest. “How did you do that?” Catherine wanted to know. “He’s turning from a reactionary purist to an impresario.” “Show business,” I replied matter-of-factly. “Once it’s in the blood…”

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Catherine planned to use some of the extra space to let each of us have our own areas to highlight authors. We’d still have to coordinate things in our staff conferences, so we wouldn’t end up duplicating each other, but it gave us more chance to think for ourselves. I’d been holding my own in planning meetings anyway, so it didn’t matter that much to me, but Jessica, long under John’s shadow, really was excited. “Oh, I thought of this great sci-fi display we could do,” she informed us at a staff meeting. “We’ve never had one! And there is some great women's fiction…” Now if only we could ramp up Andrea, but Rome wasn’t built in a day. Catherine informed me on day that George was considering hiring a marketing consultant for the entire project. “A marketing consultant,” I repeated, just to get the feel of it. “George must really be getting big ideas. Where did he find this person?” “I’m not sure,” she replied. “I think he said that she actually approached him. She’s going to interview him, Sarah, me, some of the other owners in the neighborhood on her own dime, then come up with a proposal for what she could do. I imagine she’ll want to talk to you as well.” “You have to hand it to George,” I complimented. “When he commits to something, he really goes for it.” “Yeah,” she said tartly. “I just wouldn’t want to be against him. I think you’re the only one I know that ever came out of a negotiation with George getting what they intended!” Now that even free lance “consultants” were attaching themselves to the neighborhood revitalization, how long could it be before self-proclaimed neighborhood political activists would come in to decry the changing of the community?

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That night, shortly after I got home I had a knock on my door. It was Angela. This time she wasn’t in a robe; she had on worn jeans and an old sweatshirt. She looked tired and slightly smudged, as though she had been cleaning or doing manual labor. “Angela, this is a surprise,” I said. “Is anything wrong?” “No,” she replied. “Could I come in for a minute?” I let her in, and she sat tentatively on the arm of my chair, either afraid it couldn’t support her weight or worried about getting too settled. “Connie and I are moving tomorrow,” she said, not looking me in the eye. “I’ve been packing all day. But I didn’t want to leave without letting you know what happened.” I considered this. “Can you tell me where you are going?” I asked gently. She shook her head. “It’s better if no one knows,” she said sadly. “That will make it harder for Mark to find us again.” She snorted bitterly. “Maybe he’ll find a new punching bag and leave me alone.” “Has he been leaving you alone lately?” I wanted to know. She looked up for the first time, a look of faint surprise on her face. “He has,” she said firmly. “This time he must really have been scared off.” But her face clouded over again, and she added in a more subdued tone. “But eventually he’ll drink enough that he’ll forget he was scared, and he’ll be back.” All I could do was nod sadly in agreement. “Could I say goodbye to Connie before you leave?” I asked. I really had enjoyed Connie; seeing her young energetic face always gave me a small if foolish sense of hope about the world.

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Angela started to just shake her head no, her eyes tearing up. It cost her to say anything, but she eventually choked out, “Connie really likes you, and you’ve always been so good to her." She paused. "But…" I prompted her gently. She couldn't quite look at me, but she continued. "But you’re not part of her life, you’re not going to be part of her life, and it’s better if she doesn’t kid herself into thinking you are.” We let that lay out there, both hurt by it but knowing it was true. I finally nodded in agreement and Angela got up to leave. At the door she put a hand on my chest and looked at me intently. “I can’t ever thank you enough to what you did for me,” she said firmly. She leaned in to kiss me gently on the cheek, then added, “And gratitude was not the only reason I came here that night.” She walked out of the door. I watched her from my doorway as she went back to her apartment. She was something, and I liked to believe she stood a little taller, walked a little more freely, because of what I had done for her. It made me feel cleansed somehow. As she unlocked the deadbolt and put her hand on the doorknob, she looked back at me, something suddenly occurring to her. “There was someone here the other night, asking questions about you,” she said, concern spreading on her face. “Detective Elmore?” I hazarded a guess. “No,” she said slowly. “This was a woman. She claimed to be doing a survey of people living in apartments but she got awful curious about my relationships with my neighbors. I thought maybe you’d like to know in case she comes asking you questions.”

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I didn’t know what, if anything, to make of that, but resolved to just put it out of my head. I’m sure market researchers would be fascinated by my lifestyle, but fortunately my lack of consumer spending and income would soon deter them. If she was a burglar casing the place, well, she was welcome to the toaster oven. “Thank care of yourself, Angela,” I told her genuinely. She looked again at me, and that conversion happened again. She flashed me that stunningly joyful smile I’d first seen on her, on the rooftop months ago. “You too, Mr. Sean Meil,” she said warmly, then closed the door. And she was gone.

Chapter 42 December was an exciting month. The Christmas season was the first real chance to really illustrate what the neighborhood was becoming. Catherine had done an outstanding job recruiting other businesses there. In just a few short months, we’d expanded the bookstore, with the children’s section opening the day after Thanksgiving. Our cafe was doing a good business, and it definitely was having a positive impact on the book sales. Brewed Heaven II was also doing a great business, especially in the evenings. There was a new antique shop, joining the one that had already been there, two gift shops with unusual gifts by local and regional crafts people, and two art galleries. There was even an artist’s collective in one of the old warehouses, with public hours on the weekend. The local diner had been bought by some enterprising restaurateurs and upscaled, getting rave reviews from local critics. A Korean deli had started up, giving everyone much better lunch and dinner choices than before. In the works yet were a couple of ethnic restaurants, and renovation of the old movie theater into a movie/dinner place. The new

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owner told me, “It’s won’t be a great pure movie experience, or a great dining experience, but it’s a great combination.” It was scheduled to open New Year’s Eve with “Rocky Picture Horror Show,” although the wisdom of serving food to that audience in particular escaped me. Sarah had organized a Christmas theme for the neighborhood, getting all the stores to put up lights and to extend holiday hours. She had scheduled a series of local choirs to carol in the streets during shopping hours, and had done some advertising in the alternative newspapers about Christmas shopping here. The main local paper ran a nice story as well, hailing it as a new shopping experience. George had done his part, too. Signs were up for his forthcoming condo conversions, which helped to create a buzz. I started to notice in the property transfer listings that more of the surrounding old houses were also getting bought up -- either by individuals or by real estate holding companies. Prices were already starting to creep up, but more was to come, I suspected, and soon. The police department had agreed to a foot patrol from eight in the morning to midnight, and increased squad car drive-bys. Between that and the increased volume of people shopping and working, the area was starting to actually feel safe. Authors’ Corner was having record sales. We had to add some temporary workers to help us cover, and we were all pulling long days. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, Catherine announced she was taking a long overdue vacation the week following Christmas. “I think it has been ten years since I’ve had a decent vacation,” Catherine said, sounding somewhat astounded. “You’ll be in charge while I’m gone, of course.” “Are you sure you don’t want John?” I asked politely. “He’s been here much longer.” She just gave me one of her looks, reminding me not to be an idiot. “Everyone but you seems to know you’re the manager of the store,” she said tartly. “I’m just the owner.”

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“And CEO,” I added. She smiled. “So, who are you going on this vacation with?” I teased her. “An island vacation -- sun, sand, romance?” The truth was I didn’t know anything about her romantic life. She worked most of the time, and still went to many of the city’s important social functions, but I wasn’t aware of any particular romantic interest. “Well,” she said, embarrassed, “if truth be told, I’m going on a cruise with Joe Elmore.” I had to take that in. “Joe Elmore as in Detective Joe Elmore?” I asked, flabbergasted. “The same,” she said, enjoying my surprise. “We’ve been seeing each other for a few weeks. Neither of us want to spend Christmas with family, so we thought this would be a good chance to really get away and find out if we do like each other.” “Does he like books?” I asked, still stumbling for some ground to stand on. “He’s never been a big reader,” she admitted, “but he’s starting to get more interested. ” She flashed me a smile of a teenager telling a friend about an illicit thrill, and I had to laugh and give her an affectionate hug. I had noticed Elmore coming in to the store more, even to the occasional reading, and in retrospect I realized that he and Catherine did seem to be chatty together. But it’s like your parents: the thought of them being romantic together took some getting used to. “That’s great, Catherine,” I told her, meaning it. “He seems like a good man.” She beamed at me. Catherine wasn’t alone in pairing up. Paige stopped by the bookstore a week or so before Christmas. As luck would have it, I was talking to Sarah and Catherine about something when she walked up. I quickly made brief introductions. “Hello, Paige,” Catherine said familiarly. “I know your parents.”

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“I thought I recognized you,” Paige replied politely. Paige and Sarah eyed each other suspiciously, giving the “is-he-yours?” look. I took Paige’s elbow and escorted her safely away. “I just wanted to say merry Christmas and all that,” she said awkwardly. “I didn’t know what to get you, but I thought you might like this.” She handed me a small package. “Paige, I don’t know what to say,” I told her. “I didn’t get you anything.” “Oh, that’s all right,” she laughed. “I think you could go another, say, thousand years of me giving you gifts and I’d still owe you.” I unwrapped the present. It was a small drawing of her. She was smiling sweetly and looked very happy. It was exquisite. “This is how I wanted you to remember me,” she said seriously. “Not that wreck you’ve been having to coddle.” “You’ve always looked beautiful to me,” I said gallantly, “and any coddling that was done was my pleasure.” “I’m seeing someone,” she said suddenly. “I thought you’d want to know.” “I’m happy for you,” I offered, sincerely. “Does he make you feel…safe?” She nodded happily. “I wish you lots of luck and much love.” She gave me a big hug, and said goodbye. Sarah made a point of stopping by, pointedly avoiding looking at the present in my hand. “It’s a portrait,” I admitted. “Of her. She wanted me to know she was OK...” “Uh-huh,” she grunted suspiciously. “...and that she’s seeing someone,” I added.

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“That’s so sweet,” Sarah gushed. “I’m so happy for her.” Sarah and I managed to take in a few holiday concerts. She loved Christmas like a little kid, and her enthusiasm was contagious. She left for her parents’ house on Christmas Eve, so we exchanged presents the night before. I got her a couple things to help decorate her apartment -- some framed old photographs of the neighborhood and a statuette of a young woman stretching. “This is how I imagine you getting up in the morning,” I told her, indicating the statuette. “Don’t ask me why.” “Yep, that’s pretty much me,” she said sardonically. “I have better legs, of course.” She winked laviciously and I found myself wondering anew. She told me it had been hard to think of ideas for me. “What do you get the man who prides himself on having nothing?” she asked rhetorically. “Can’t get CDs or videos. Not enough room in your place to get much in the way of decorations. Kitchen tools -- I think not.” “This is leading up to you telling me you just got me a card, isn’t it?” I accused her humorously. “No, I got you something,” she said silkily. She gave me a wrapped object about the size of a book. “Let me guess,” I speculated. “Washer and dryer?” She sternly told me to shut up and just open it. It was a hard cover edition of The Little Prince, with beautiful colored illustrations. “It’s my favorite book,” she informed me seriously. “I think of it whenever I get too concerned with ‘matters of consequence.’” I had never read it, and had thought of it as a children’s book, but I promised to read it over Christmas. We exchanged hugs.

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“You’ve given me so many presents,” she said. “Not the least of which is my great job. But the best is just knowing you.” She started tear up and I have to confess that my eyes got a little misty as well. “Good thing you’re going away for a few days,” I kidded to break the tension. We laughed and I walked home. It was snowing lightly, enough to be pretty but not enough to be a concern. There weren’t many cars out, so the snow spread evenly across roads and grass alike, momentarily blurring the artificial distinctions. It was lovely, and very peaceful. I spent Christmas alone.

Chapter 43 The bookstore was closed on both Christmas and New Year’s Day, and business slowed down considerably in the week between. Sarah and Catherine were out of town. So I had lots of time to reflect on what a year it had been. Certainly I couldn’t have predicted the changes in my life. A year ago I was flush with success and ready for more. I think my credit card bills for last December alone were more than my annual income here. I thought Renee and I were very set, very settled, and very happy. I never seriously considered leaving Chicago or giving up my lifestyle. Then it was all gone, all changed. To make matters more confusing, my life had even changed since I’d come here. Despite my best intentions of not getting involved in my jobs or in other people’s lives, I’d somehow built up this little circle of people, and found I really cared about the success of the bookstore. I guess you can’t totally teach old dogs new tricks after all.

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But I would be fooling myself to believe that my life was the same, only smaller. Despite Sarah and Catherine and some of the others, I was still fundamentally alone. Nothing I did caused me to think of a “we” in planning for the future. I went home alone every night. I didn’t share many of my thoughts, and still found myself guarding my past. A good evening was a long walk and a good book, alone. Did I feel alone? To a large extent, yes. Sarah and Catherine hovered on the edge of my life, but I was not central to their lives or vice versa. Was I lonely? No, I don’t think so. The aloneness was something I accepted as my due; it was my penance. I was in purgatory, after all. It was comfortable in the way that a toothache can be -- a pain, but a familiar one, one you can manage. It was hard to see the trajectory of my life from here. I couldn't see where it could go. I started to think about whether I should vanish from this life as well. It was getting too settled. People had expectations of me, people were relying on me. I may not have been planning for the future but I had the sense that other people were counting on me for things in the future. It was flattering, but not wise. They couldn't count on me. If only I’d done better at keeping my distance from people. True, I’d not have gotten to really know Catherine or Sarah or Paige, but I wouldn’t have been able to hurt them either. I’d stopped seeing my Renee ghosts; perhaps ghosts get Christmas off, or go home to their relatives' houses to haunt. Maybe my subconscious was turning over a new leaf, ready to start truly clean in the New Year. I was partly glad, but more sad, to not see those occasional flashes of Renee. False though they may have been, I liked the reminders. I wondered what ghosts might be next. My mother?

Chapter 44

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After this kind of brooding for a week, I was glad when New Year’s was over and life got back more or less to normal. Catherine and Sarah both returned, rested and ready for the year. Catherine boasted of having a good time with Joe, and expected things between them to continue. Sarah had developed a schedule of neighborhood events for the rest of the year, and busily set to work fleshing them out. “My parents are so thrilled about my new job,” Sarah told me shortly after she got back. “They say you can come stay with them anytime you are in St. Louis.” “What did you tell them?” I asked curiously. “And why might I be going to St. Louis?” “Oh, I told them that you were the nicest guy I’d ever met and that you pulled strings behind the curtain to make everything happen for me and this neighborhood,” she explained, smiling peaceably. “They think you’re pretty cool. Maybe you’ll come to St. Louis with me sometime to visit them.” “Maybe when the World’s Fair returns," I said cynically. “And, by the way, I think your description sounds more like the Wizard of Oz. Look what happened to him…” Both Sarah and Catherine reported having appointments with George’s would-be marketing consultant, although I’d not been contacted. Evidently book clerks didn’t rate in her world. Sarah was particularly excited. Her job was so different from both her student life and any job she had imagined. I could tell she loved being connected with movers and shakers like George and Catherine. Sarah was the first to actually meet with the consultant, a couple days later. She bopped into the store after lunch. “I met George’s consultant,” she reported. “She’s pretty neat.” “That’s nice,” I replied. “I’m sure that’s the criteria George used. What did you guys talk about?” Sarah shrugged. “I don’t know. She asked a lot of questions, and let me do a lot of the talking. She wanted to know how I got interested in the history of the neighborhood, how

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I ended up here, what I thought about the people, and so on. I told her some of my ideas about what the association could do and she seemed very interested.” “But you liked her?” I asked. “Oh, yeah,” she said definitively. “She’s just one of those people you trust right away. She's smart and funny and very nice, and she's a good listener. I found myself telling her even personal things.” “Like what?” I asked, curious as any man to find out what women talk about when we weren’t around. She blushed slightly. “Well, I told her how you’d thought of me for the job, then I told her how we’d met and so on.” “Will this all be in her report?” I asked in mock horror. “I’m sure she’ll only use the juicy parts, not that there are many,” she said drolly. Sarah reported a few more tidbits from their conversation, and said the consultant had said Catherine would be in a couple days. George stopped into the bookstore a few days after that. He stopped by periodically, checking out his properties and the renovation. Plus, I think he regarded Authors’ Corner and the neighborhood association with an almost proprietary manner. He thought Sarah was a find and had complimented me more than once on her. Catherine speculated that this little project had been a nice break from his normal, boring office developments. I’d gotten to know George a little from our various contacts. In addition to the more mundane business meetings, George usually made sure he got a chance to talk to me when he was at the bookstore. He’d ask what was going on in the neighborhood, how the other businesses were doing, or how our business was. Occasionally he’d ask me about a

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book display I might be working on. I don’t think I ever had a meal with him, or spent longer than fifteen minutes talking to him. He was not one to make conversation casually, and never used two words where one would do. But I suspected beneath that business-like mien was a kind man. He always had this faintly amused expression, at least when I saw him. I think he especially regarded me in that manner, unsure what this apparently hardheaded businessman was doing working for peanuts in a bookstore. But he left his speculations as to my possible motives to himself. As usual, he idly pressed me on going into business with him. “When you’re ready, Sean,” he told me. “When you’re ready.” I demurred, as was also usual, protesting my happiness where I was. He just looked at me with that amused look. “It’s been quite a year for you, hasn’t it, Sean?” he said in a fatherly tone. “We’ve done some interesting things. You’ve done some interesting things. I think this year will be a good year for you.” I wasn’t sure what to make of this sudden paternalism, but figured he was one of those people who let their innate sentimentality seep out at the holidays. “Let’s hope it is a good year for all of us,” I said. “Have you met the woman who wants to do marketing consulting for us?” he asked casually. I indicated that Sarah had and that Catherine was scheduled to do so soon, but that I’d not met her. He nodded, still with his unflappable expression. “I think you’ll like her, “ he indicated. “Very impressive young lady.” From George, that was pretty high praise. I was getting more curious about this mystery woman that everyone seemed to be meeting but me. Catherine was having dinner with the consultant, so I took a solo break for dinner, eating at a new Thai place that had recently opened. I wasn’t sure the neighborhood was ready for it but I loved their noodles. When I came back to the store John told me that

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Catherine was looking for me. “She’s up in her office talking to that consultant,” he said cheerily. Somehow I’d become John’s buddy, and it worried me a little. Once everyone becomes a capitalist, who is there left to convert? I walked up the stairs with an eerie sense of foreboding. I didn’t know why, but I took my time getting up to her office. There wasn’t anything a consultant would ask me that I couldn’t handle, but I wasn’t used to Catherine calling me up to her office. She usually conducted business down on the floor, where she could watch what was going on. Perhaps I felt like I was being summoned to the principal’s office. Perhaps I felt my string of good luck was due to end. Catherine saw me coming. “Sean, come into the office,” she said warmly. “There’s someone I want you to meet.” I walked in to the office and got my first glimpse of the marketing consultant. “Hello, Renee,” I said calmly.

Chapter 45 “Hello, Sean,” she replied, equally calmly. She was cool and composed as a cucumber. You’d have thought we’d just seen each other a few minutes ago. Catherine looked at us, confused but her smile only faltering slightly. “You two know each other?” she asked politely. We both nodded, continuing to look at each other with reserved expressions. “I thought your name was Elizabeth,” Catherine said to Renee. Renee smiled a half smile, as though admitting to being caught in a small lie.

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“It’s Renee Elizabeth,” I volunteered. “Renee Elizabeth Meil.” Catherine’s confusion increased, but she gamely kept her smile on. “That is,” I added, “unless you’ve dropped the Meil since the divorce.” Catherine looked from me to Renee, and back again to me. In her typical quick decisionmaking mode, she stood up. “I can see you two have a lot to talk about,” she declared, and left the room. We didn’t watch her go out. I continued to stand near the door. Renee was sitting in her chair, across the desk from Catherine’s chair and half turned to face me. Neither one of us seemed to know what to say next. She looked great, as usual. She had on a blue pantsuit that fit her perfectly. I was sure it emphasized her long, lean body when she stood up, and I mentally sighed. Her hair was shorter than I remembered, and it made her look younger somehow. Whatever you might say about her, she was always stylish. You could drop her on a desert island and Cosmo would want to stop by to see what she was wearing. Despite the thinking I’d done about Renee over the last few months, I’d never prepared for this. It never really seemed an option that I might actually be face to face with her. My seeing her “ghost” periodically had been a useful metaphor -- I could keep her in my life without her being able to really confront me. With her sitting there so looking beautiful, so Renee, I had to fight against rushing over and kissing her. I wanted to hug her, I wanted to run, I wanted to cry. It was all a jumble. The flood of feelings threatened to overwhelm me, and I had to sternly remind myself that this was no longer a woman who returned these feelings. Having her here was especially jarring. If I’d gone to Chicago and met her on that turf, that would be one thing. I had a context for dealing with that; I knew her in that world. I knew who I used to be there. But she didn’t belong here. Seeing her in the bookstore, in Catherine’s office no less, was wrong somehow. This wasn’t her world. These weren’t

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people she knew. I’d taken such great care to separate this life from my old life, yet here she was, big as life and twice as beautiful.

She seemed to be waiting for me to say something, watching patiently. At least she didn’t seem angry. She watched me like a zoologist might watch some new species she had acquired, prepared in case it tried to bolt but mostly wanting to study how it would react to new stimuli. I couldn’t tell what she was thinking. She was a good poker player when she wanted to be. Usually we could play this game pretty well, but we’d only played it for small stakes. I wasn’t sure what the stakes were now. I finally broke the ice. “What are you doing here, Renee?” I asked softly, unsure whether to be worried, mad, scared, or pleased. “I’m thinking about doing a marketing study for George McClure,” she said matter-offactly, still not showing her hand. “I assumed you knew that.” “I knew someone was, but I never expected it to be you,” I replied, still fishing. “Since when are you a marketing consultant? Last I checked you worked for a pharmaceutical company.” “Last you checked I did work for a pharmaceutical company,” she said somewhat tartly. “A lot has happened in my life since then.” She looked around at our surroundings. “As I gather is true for you as well.” We were silent while we regarded each other warily. “How come no one mentioned your name to me?” I asked. “They can't think there are lots of Meils running around.” She shrugged, dusting off the inconvenience with no hint of apology. “I’m using my maiden name for my consulting business. I’m going by Elizabeth McKinney in my

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projects. It’s just cleaner that way,” she explained. Not just the maiden name but even dropping the first name; talk about wiping her identity with me clean. “So of all the bookstores, in all the towns, in all the world, what brings you into mine?” I asked, consciously parodying the famous line from Casablanca. The old Renee would have noticed and laughed. The Renee I’d loved would have dropped into her own parody. Maybe we could slip into our old rhythms again. “I read about the neighborhood revitalization project,” she said, staring back directly. “It sounded interesting. So I met with George, and one thing led to another.” Apparently she wasn’t doing the Ingrid Bergman role. I mentally sighed again -- in relief or in disappointment, I wasn't sure. “Small world,” I said ironically. She let it go. “What now?” I asked. She smiled, at long last. “How about lunch tomorrow?” she said. “We can talk about the project.”

Chapter 46 I sat in Catherine’s office after Renee left. We’d agreed to meet at the diner for lunch tomorrow. I was suddenly exhausted, as if I’d been doing hard labor all day. If I had thought the world was closing on me too fast before -- with Catherine and Sarah getting too close, the bookstore getting too important -- then it really was wrapping tightly now. I couldn’t believe the irony of Renee deciding to go into consulting, and ending up here, of all places. Part of me was egotistical enough to think that she had engineered this whole thing somehow just to see me again, but the rest of me knew it was just an unlucky coincidence. Fate had thrown me some good breaks, so I was due for some upsets.

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I was starting to think about my options. I was seriously considering pulling up stakes again, catching the first bus out in the morning. I’d run from Renee once and I had a lot more at stake then. I could disappear from here much easier, I thought, and surely I wouldn’t run into Renee again. I’d been wondering if life was getting too involved here anyway. I could just make this whole thing go away, if I just went away… But I liked the bookstore; I liked the people. Renee would lose interest in the project, or get mad and leave, or maybe just finish up the project and go back to Chicago. She wasn’t going to hang around some rundown bookstore in a rundown neighborhood with her rundown former love. I could just keep drifting along here. Still, maybe her showing up was vindication of my earlier thoughts that I was getting too settled here and needed to leave. Maybe the fates were telling me to leave now, while it was still easy. Catherine came up after an hour or so, creeping timidly upstairs. “Sean,” she called softly. “Are you still there?” “Yeah, I’m still here,” I said. She came into the office. I was sitting in the chair Renee had been sitting in, soaking in her fragrance, feeling the shape she’d left in the chair. Catherine leaned again the desk, her hands in her lap. “Do you want to talk?” she asked sincerely. I shook my head sadly. “I’m not sure what to say,” I said. “I assume you figured out that that was my wife.” I laughed ruefully, “Or ex-wife, I don’t even know.” She nodded sympathetically. “I kind of guessed that. What does she want?” I shook my head again, this time wearily. “I don’t know. I suppose to do this stupid study,” I said. “I just never thought she’d turn up here…” I stared at the wall, while she studied me. “We’re supposed to have lunch tomorrow so she can interview me for her project.”

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“She’s a good interviewer,” Catherine noted thoughtfully. “But in retrospect I’m wondering what she was interviewing me for.” I looked at her. “What do you mean?” I asked. “Well,” she said uncomfortably, “she does have a knack for getting you to open up with her. We talked quite a lot about you and the role you played in getting things going here. She never let on that she knew you, but just kept encouraging me to talk.” “Sarah told me the same thing,” I said. It was true that neither Catherine or Sarah could have told the story without including me, but I wondered how hard it had been for Renee to hear about me and not acknowledge our past together. She was pretty brave to not let it show, but brave was something I always expected from Renee. Then it occurred to me. “Did you tell Sarah about Renee?” I asked. If Sarah had been upset about Paige, I couldn’t imagine how she’d react to this. She indicated she had. “I was a little flustered, and Sarah noticed. I’m sorry, I should have let you tell her yourself.” “It’s all right,” I said tiredly. “I’m sorry to get you in this mess.” We looked at each other steadily. “Well, I think it’s all very exciting,” she said brightly.

Chapter 47 Catherine suggested I leave early that night. I was tired and distracted, and I think she was worried about me. Despite my fatigue, I wanted to walk home. I thought the cold air might help me clear my head. But first I wanted to stop in at Sarah’s apartment.

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“Hi, Sarah,” I said as she opened the door. “It’s me.” She let me into her apartment. The loft had been pretty well decorated by now, and it was very homey. It wasn’t fancy like Paige’s house, but it definitely reflected a lot of Sarah’s personality. Lots of books, lots of pictures -- vacations, family, graduations, her whole life in snapshots. Every time I came here I felt as though I knew her better. Sarah was dressed in old sweats, and her hair was pined up. She didn’t look surprised to see me. She took my coat without protest from me, and I settled onto her couch. “Have you eaten?” she inquired politely. “Can I get you something to drink?” I told her I’d eaten a couple hours ago but took her up on the drink. She sat down on the couch next to me. “So, big guy,” she said lightly, “what brings you my way this time of night? Looking to go out?” Now that I was here I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say. We had carefully skirted the subject of my past since I’d told her my story, and it was no easier to bring it up again than it had been to tell it the first time. Too bad she didn’t have a fountain I could stare at. “I know you and Catherine talked,” I said deliberately. “So you must know that the would-be marketing consultant is my wife, or was my wife, whatever.” She was still a moment, then nodded once gravely. “I don’t know how she ended up here, or why. I’ve had no contact with her since I left, and thought there was no way she could find me. It looks like this is just a fluke.” She nodded again, took a slow sip from her soda. I had a sip of my beer. “How do you feel?” she asked intently. “It must be pretty weird to see her again, especially so suddenly.”

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I smiled slightly, indicating more that I’d heard than that I was amused. “I feel pretty… unsettled,” I declared. “I don’t really know how to feel.” We sat and listened to the background music for a few minutes. I think it was Aimee Mann, and, boy, did that fit my mood. Finally, someone more depressed than me. “I’ll give her this,” Sarah said. “She’s a hell of an actress. I mean, there was nothing on her face to indicate she knew you. I’d be talking about you in pretty glowing terms and she acted like you were just some name to her.” “Maybe I am just a name to her now,” I speculated. “She’s not using her married name or even her own first name anymore. Maybe she’s writing those off to the past.” Sarah considered this, turning it over in her mind. “Maybe. Maybe she’s still deciding what she wants. What do you want?” The sixty-four thousand dollar question. Leave it to Sarah to come right to the point. I stood up and wandered in the apartment, restless. I picked up the statuette I’d given Sarah at Christmas, smiling at the memory. She watched me move around, her face serious. “I want my life to be simple,” I said. “It just keeps getting complicated.” She stood up and came over to me. She put her hand on my forearm. “Life does that; you know that,” she said with a kind tone. “You’re not a person who can just let life go by.” The hand stayed on my arm. I abruptly broke off and threw myself back down on the couch. “I’m thinking of leaving,” I admitted. “I think it’d be better for everyone.” I didn’t look at her when I said this. She stood for a moment where I had left her, then flowed back towards the couch gracefully. She sat on the floor at my feet so I couldn’t avoid her while I looked down.

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Putting her elbows on my knees and resting her head on her hands, she asked softly, “better for whom? Not better for me. Not better for Catherine or the bookstore.” She looked deeply into my eyes. “I don’t even think it’s better for you.” I looked back at her, deeply touched by her concern. I almost left it unsaid, but I couldn’t resist. “Does it bother you that she’s here?” I asked tentatively. I wasn’t sure what a good answer was or what I wanted to hear, but it mattered to me. She sighed from the heart. “Of course it bothers me,” she told me. “My god, she’s beautiful! And smart, and full of life, and all that. I can see why you were in love with her, and why you married her.” She paused, checked me again. “What I don’t yet see is if you’re still in love with her.” She stood up and repositioned herself on the couch, taking one of my hands into both of hers. “You know I’m in love with you,” she informed me calmly. “I have been for months. But she’s been in the way of you figuring out how you might feel about me. I couldn’t compete with her ghost. Maybe I won’t be able to compete with her real self either, but at least this way we get to know.” She kissed my hand tenderly and gave it back to me. At that moment I wanted so badly to be in love with Sarah. She was so sweet, so good to me. I’d already hurt Renee once, and had yet to really hurt Sarah. I’d have given almost anything to not hurt her now. If I knew that I was over Renee, my life would be easier, and maybe Sarah and I could have a future. Maybe my whole life could have a future, not just a series of days strung together after the fact. But not yet. Sarah was right; I had some things to figure out, and I had to do it here. I looked at Sarah. “I guess I’ll stick around for awhile, and see what I can figure out.” She nodded gravely in agreement. We gave each other a big hug and I walked home.

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Chapter 48 So I didn’t catch a bus the next morning. I didn’t even pack, although I did eye my belongings, taking stock of what I would want to take if I had to leave. I walked to work, and busied myself all morning. “How are you doing?” Catherine inquired casually. I told her I was fine. We made conversation for a few minutes, but neither of our hearts was in it. I was thinking ahead to lunch, she was trying to look behind the words to what was going on with me. I don’t think either of us was successful. We’d finished the accounting for December, and were pleased beyond words. The trick was how to keep the momentum up, and we resolved to talk about that at the next staff meeting. I arrived at the diner before Renee, and got a booth. The place certainly had changed. They’d put in more booths, with better upholstery and even table jukeboxes. The counter had been scrapped and replaced, and the menu was new, brighter and more varied. The lighting was bright enough that you could actually read the menus. Best of all, I didn’t have to check for evidence of rodents when I sat down. The clientele had also been upgraded. The new breed was well heeled. I wondered where the old customers had gone. None of these patrons looked like they’d been drinking, for one thing, although that may have been more of a function of time of day than of the customers themselves. No, I have to withdraw that; some of the old customers would have been drinking no matter what time of day it was. Most of these people looked like they’d been shopping or were taking a break from an office job. White collars and snappy outfits. Some of them looked at me like I was the one who didn’t belong. I began to resent some of the changes I’d help bring about.

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Renee came in about five minutes late. She whisked in like a force of nature. She was again wearing pants, but this time with a blouse and short vest, all under a sleek long leather jacket. Her face was slightly flushed from the cold, and she looked as vibrant as a five-year-old coming in from playing. She slipped into the seat across from me in the booth, flashing me a warm smile that caught me off guard. I could see some of the overt and covert glances from some of the men in the diner, and inexplicably felt some of the old rush I used to get being around Renee. “Sorry I’m late!” she exclaimed. “Did you ever expect that parking around here would be a problem? No, I thought not.” She ordered some coffee and gratefully warmed her hands around the cup when it arrived. We buried our faces in the menus and pretended we were indecisive about what to order. Falling into old habits, I ordered a burger, fries and a shake, while she asked for some sort of yuppie salad. “So, working in a bookstore?” she said casually. “How do you like it?” “It’s fun,” I conceded. “I like books, and I like people who like books.” She asked how I ended up there, trying to draw me out. Unlike Catherine and Sarah, though, I knew the game and I wasn’t going to give away too much. I told her it had all been a fluke; Catherine just took a liking to me and hired me. I didn’t mention Busy Books or the movie job. She looked at me curiously, knowing I knew she was hoping for more and trying to figure out another angle of approach. “Sounds like you’ve been pretty involved in this neighborhood revitalization project,” she commented. “Your name comes up from everyone I’ve talked to.” I demurred. “Catherine and George deserve all the credit, and now Sarah, of course. I just work in the book store.” I don’t know why I wanted to downplay my role, but I did.

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I guess I didn’t want her to make fun of my efforts; compared to my old job it was pretty small potatoes. She smiled demurely in response. “Well, I think you’re being modest,” she said. “I’ve heard the rent increase story from a couple different places. Both George and Catherine still get a kick out of your nerve in coming up with that. Only Sean Meil could have pulled that off.” Her smile widened in anticipation. I looked at her seriously. “I’m not the old Sean Meil, Renee,” I told her flatly. “We both know it.” That silenced her, and her smile faded like a punctured balloon losing air. We sat quietly, eyeing the table, but fortunately were rescued by the arrival of the food. We each busied ourselves with our plates and arranging the food. We started to eat without talking. I could see her covertly looking at my fries, and finally just told her to help herself. She snagged a couple quickly, and chewed them gratefully. It was an old pattern. Giving in further, I handed her a straw so she could take sips from my milkshake. The tension gradually eased. “You look good,” she offered. “Lost some weight?” I nodded agreement. “Twenty pounds or so, without really trying,” I bragged. “I’m eating more healthy -- despite the junk you see me eating now -- and exercising more!” She laughed. “You look good, too,” I responded. “Your hair is shorter, but it’s very cool.” The ice now broken, we made some idle chitchat. She told me about her family, and mentioned that Bob Brant had landed a CEO job at a large bank on the West Coast. “See?” she said. “Things worked out OK.” I chewed reflectively.

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“How about you?” I asked. “How did you end up on your own?” She shrugged. “I was kind of, well, distracted after you left,” she said slowly. “It just seemed like a good idea to not work for someone else for a while.” She told me business was good; she had several good clients that kept her busy enough and paid the bills. “What happened to the condo?” I asked curiously. “Did you sell it?” She shook her head no. “I haven’t decided what to do about the condo. It’s worth quite a lot more now than what we paid, but I wasn’t ready to get rid of it yet.” I was oddly glad to hear it; it wasn’t home to me anymore, but it was home to many good memories. I hoped it still brought her good memories as well. “And the divorce?” I added. “Where does that stand?” She took her time in finishing her mouthful of salad, then took a long sip from my shake. She looked frankly at me. “It’s still pending.”

Chapter 49 All in all, the lunch went well. We weren’t the old Sean and Renee, and we didn’t feel like a married couple. But whatever rage or bitterness I had been fearing from her didn’t seem there either. I felt terribly guilty about that -- she had every right to have both -- but was relieved. We’d parted awkwardly from the diner, me to the bookstore, her to her car. Neither of us knew the correct protocol for saying goodbye: a hug seemed too familiar, a handshake

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too impersonal, and not doing anything too cold. We settled for a quick kiss on the cheek, and agreed we’d get together the next time she was in town. We smiled, but shared a wistful look, perhaps both remembering the last time we parted – her asleep and me slinking out like a dog. Then, with a small wave, she turned and walked to her car. Amazingly, life settled back into its routines. Catherine and Sarah watched me closely for a few days, just to make sure I wasn’t suicidal or anything. Neither pressed me about my lunch with Renee, but they both were relieved to not notice any differences in my routine, such as it was. Catherine was spending more time with Sarah and the civic association board. They started attending city council meetings, and were becoming more vocal about city services, in our neighborhood and others. Catherine was becoming an ambassador to the outside world, including the school board, local foundations, and even some of the corporate types. I asked her why she was still working the school board, after she’d gotten the very successful “kids poets’ society” off the ground. “In the end,” she explained, “the neighborhood isn’t viable if the schools aren’t there.” The public schools were a mess, but she’d gotten involved with the local parochial school and was also getting involved with some parent groups that were pushing magnet schools. She was hoping the neighborhood would get one. All her time away from the bookstore left me as the de facto manager of the bookstore and café, which I kind of liked, yet kind of felt nervous about. It seemed an obligation, tying me here, but I had to admit it was fun. Business was still strong. Both the cafe and the children’s section had been unqualified successes so far, with spillover effects on the rest of the store. We just worried that the novelty effect would wear off. Sarah started to come to weekly staff meetings, and was proving to be creative in suggesting outreach programs or tie-ins to other neighborhood businesses. A couple of national magazines had been nosing around about doing stories on the neighborhood, and Sarah and George

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had worked with a local PR firm to develop some nice print materials to help sell the neighborhood. I was surprised, and more than a little disappointed, when George told me that Renee – or Elizabeth, as he knew her -- had called to say she wasn’t going to proceed with her project. She told him that he and Sarah had things well in hand, and didn’t think she could add enough value to justify the costs of her involvement. George didn’t seem to mind. “It confirms that we’re doing the right things,” he said briskly. “Still, I was looking forward to working with her. Did you ever get a chance to meet her?” He looked at me closely, and I confirmed that I had. I assumed Catherine or Sarah hadn’t told him the news. “Well,” he concluded, “maybe we’ll end up working with her on something else.” I was noncommittal. Joe Elmore stopped by my apartment one weekday afternoon. He’d checked with Catherine and found it was my nominal day off, although I expected I’d go in later. “Detective Elmore,” I said in surprise, “come in. Beer?” He took a soda and looked around my small apartment. It sure seemed smaller with him in it. “You need to nag Catherine about a raise,” he joked. “You need a bigger place.” “I like it,” I told him. “It suits me.” He didn’t respond, just looked around, and quickly spotted Paige’s portrait. “This looks like Paige Atkinson, if I recall correctly,” he noted. I explained it was a thank-you gift from her, as he looked at me with a smile. “She certainly is an attractive woman,” he added, “and she sure has a lot to thank you for.”

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He asked after Angela, and looked skeptical when I told him she’d moved out to unknown places a couple months ago. He shook his head sympathetically. “It’s got to be tough, raising a kid under that kind of shadow.” “It’s got to be tough with that kind of shadow even without a kid,” I responded, remembering her husband’s rage. He agreed, seemed saddened by her plight. I still didn’t know why Elmore had stopped by, but knew him well enough by now that he’d get to it eventually. “I prefer the rooftop,” he said. “Too bad it’s so cold out.” I nodded in agreement. “I suppose you know that Catherine and I have been seeing each other,” he said calmly. “Yeah,” I admitted. “I knew that.” “I just wanted you to know it doesn’t have anything to do with you,” he said. “I like her. I’m not checking up on you. And I didn’t tell her about Paige or Angela Meyers. That’s your business.” “I already told Catherine about Paige,” I replied. “But I appreciate your tact.” I paused, then added, “Catherine is a classy lady. I hope you guys are good for each other.” He grinned. “I don’t know if we have much in common,” he said, “but she’s a special person. I’m lucky to have her in my life.” That seemed to remind him of something, for he sheepishly told me, “I heard about your wife showing up. Bad luck, I guess.” I sighed. “I don’t know if it’s bad luck or not. It went much better than I could have expected. It was just hard having her back for a little bit.” I thought for a bit, then said quietly, “I don’t think she’ll be back again. She backed out of the project she was going to work on for McClure.”

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He studied me with those detective eyes, waiting for more, but I’d said my piece. “Win some, lose some, some are called for rain,” he finally pronounced philosophically. “Whatever,” I said.

Chapter 50 “Would you be interested in coming for dinner next week?” Paige and I were having coffee in Authors’ Corner’s café. She’d stopped in after work, and I was taking a break. It was nice to not have to go outside in order to get something to eat or drink. Still, whenever I took a break I couldn’t help but watch the cafe and the store with a parent’s eye. I always worried about something going wrong and was ready to step in and try to smooth things over. She looked great. The bags under her eyes were gone, and she had a bounce that she hadn’t had before. Spring was still a ways off but she made me feel like it was coming. “What’s the occasion?” I probed lightly. She laughed, and told me, “no special occasion. I’d just like to have you over, and you can meet Jason.” “Jason?” I asked innocently. “You know, my new fella,” she teased. “I thought you should give me a thumbs up or down on him.” “If he makes you this happy,” I said honestly, “then he’s got my blessing already.” She blushed and looked at me with shiny eyes. She told me a few more tidbits, like the fact

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that Jason was an ER doctor. I gave her a raised eyebrow and kidded that her mom must be thrilled. We agreed on the logistics, which weren’t easy given my schedule at the bookstore, her social life, and his job in the emergency room. “Oh, and bring a friend,” she said firmly, tossing it out over her shoulder as she walked out. I was convinced she did it that way so I couldn’t decline. I thought about who to invite, or whether to bring anyone or not. I suspected Paige would feel more comfortable, and certainly Jason would, if I came escorted. I didn’t really have a lot of people to choose from, so in the end I invited Sarah. She was surprised and flattered. “The tall girl? What should I wear? Is it sit down or casual? Should we bring something?” she pressed me for details. I had to admit I didn’t know the answers, and she looked at me scornfully. “Men!” I was already beginning to regret it, but I could see that Sarah was quite pleased at getting to see the house of her one-time perceived rival, especially since she was coming with me. I consoled myself that at least we’d have a doctor present if there was any bloodshed. Later that week I had a late start to work, since I was working the late shift, and was starting to walk to Authors' Corner. I was surprised to see a familiar duo leaving the deli, walking hand-in-hand, with the shorter version skipping merrily along. “Angela,” I said in surprise. “What are you doing here?’ Connie shouted my name, broke free from Angela, and sprinted towards me, throwing herself at my legs. I pulled her off, laughing, then wiped the laugh from my face when Angela firmly re-established her grip on Connie’s hand. She scolded Connie for running away like that, and once again I felt guilty for causing Connie to disobey Angela. Finally, Angela looked up at me and tried to smile.

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“We were just in the neighborhood,” she said unconvincingly. I made a skeptical face, indicating I wasn’t buying it. She breathed deeply, and looked sheepish. “OK, OK, we didn’t move far,” she admitted. “I figured Mark wouldn’t expect me to stay around here, so it seemed like a good hiding place.” In fact, it wasn’t a bad idea -- sort of a purloined letter technique. But it depended on how quickly Mark gave up on looking around for her and believing she’d gone. “Have you seen any signs of him?” I asked cautiously. “Nope, no signs,” she said quickly. “I really think maybe he’s gone this time.” We made conversation for a while. She’d changed jobs, left no forwarding address, and moved to another block on the next street, but they hadn’t gone more than a couple hundred yards from our building. She was still the tough shell Angela, but I thought maybe some lightness was beginning to come through. Maybe it was just the sunshine trying to break through the clouds. At least there were no visible bruises. After some coaxing from Connie, I promised her I’d come and play with her in the playground when it got warmer. Connie told me proudly they liked to go there after Angela got off work in the afternoon, and that she had lots of friends. I was touched, but still vaguely uneasy. Angela didn’t protest or shoot me with silent daggers when Connie suggested playing together, so I took that for tacit agreement. Everyone in my life was getting more mellow, including me. It worried me.

Chapter 51 “Renee called this morning,” Catherine informed me when I got to work. “You should get your own phone. I’m not running an answering service here.” I gave her a look of

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indignation. “As if you of all people can complain about getting personal messages at work,” I countered. We smiled in a standoff. “Well?” I finally asked. “What did she want?” “She’s going to be in town this week, and wanted to know when you might be free. I told her we could work it out whenever fit her schedule,” she said sweetly. I rolled my eyes at her. “We picked day after tomorrow.” Once again, the social expert was acting as my social secretary. I didn’t quite like it, but I knew she meant well. “Do you think I should see her?” I asked seriously. “Maybe I shouldn’t press my luck.” Catherine studied me frankly. I was beginning to see how Joe was rubbing off on her; this studying thing was unnerving. I hoped Sarah didn’t pick it up too. “Yes, I think you should see her,” she said firmly. “You need more of a life outside here. She’s not trying to hurt you.” “How do you know?” I asked, surprised at her blithe assurance. “I know,” she said in a no-nonsense tone. “Besides, who would want to hurt you?” I rolled my eyes again. She just laughed that laugh of hers. “You’re so smart about some things, so dense about others!” I wasn’t as confident as she was, but I let it pass. Renee was my problem and, truth be told, I’d have agreed to see her even if I knew she did want to hurt me. I deserved it. Trying to change the subject, I told her that my social life wasn’t quite as desolate as she thought, that Paige had invited me to dinner. Sarah had already told her. “Hmm, Paige and Sarah together,” she said, rolling it around like she was tasting a fine wine. “Oh, I’d

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pay to see that!” We laughed, and I informed her it was Jason I was worried about. She agreed the presence of a doctor might be wise. “By the way, if Joe stops by, tell him to come see me,” I said casually. About ten thirty Joe found me loading books. I was moving some sections, trying to see if we could create some new circulation patterns that might prompt customers to find some different interests. I figured mystery readers would find the mysteries wherever we put them, but it wouldn’t hurt them to see some current affairs along the way. Elmore sat down on the arm of a chair. “Catherine told me you wanted to see me?” he asked, looking amused at my loads of books. “At least no heavy lifting in my line of work.” “Yes, but at least when I go home I’m not carrying these,” I replied. “Touché,” he admitted. “It’s about Angela Meyers,” I started. He looked at me blankly. “My ex-neighbor.” He nodded in recognition, then asked, “what about her? Is she back?” The thought didn't seem to surprise him. “She never really left,” I told him. “I ran into her at the deli today. She moved like a block away, didn’t even change schools for the kid. I’m worried about her” He grunted in agreement. “What do you want me to do about it?” I shook my head in frustration. “I don’t know. Maybe tell the squad cars to watch out for the husband. I’m just don’t know that he’s given up so easily.”

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He made a face, and exhaled wearily. He stood up. “I don’t know,” he said with his old cop voice. “I’ll spread the word, but there’s no active complaint, there’s no sighting. It’s not going to get much priority.” He started to walk away, then stopped and turned. “Don’t you go playing the brave knight again,” he warned softly. “It’s like Russian roulette; it will catch up with you eventually. I’d hate to see that.” We stared at each other briefly, then he turned and walked away. I called it a night.

Chapter 52 Renee picked me up at the bookstore around one. It was warming up outside, with temperatures in the forties and some sun. Not spring, but compared to Chicago’s typical late winter weather it felt positively balmy. She was wearing jeans, a form-fitting sweater, and a short leather jacket. She had a baseball cap on, with her hair pulled through it in a ponytail. It was the most casual I’d seen her in years. She looked like she was in her twenties. She looked great. “Aren’t you here on business?” I asked, surprised at her casual clothes. I gestured to her attire. “Unless you’re in some new business.” She flashed me a conspiratorial smile, then said, “I didn’t have any meetings today. I decided I’d just play this afternoon. OK?” I indicated agreement, then asked where we were going. “Have you eaten?” she inquired. I told her no, and she suggested, “I hear you guys have a fun city market. Let’s go there.”

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We walked to the city market. It was bustling with lunchtime workers, as well as locals doing their daily grocery shopping. We walked up and down the aisles, commenting on what looked good and making fun of certain mid-western delicacies (Blood sausage? Scrapple? I think not). I got a big sandwich, some fruit, and a monster pickle, while Renee got a bowl of soup and some bread. We sat down to munch away. It was delicious. Renee always had a good metabolism, and it was refreshing to eat with a woman with a hearty appetite. “Now I either need a nap or a walk,” she said with relish, wiping off her face and hands as she finished. “I think they discourage naps in public places,” I replied. “C’mon, let’s walk around. I’ll show you downtown.” We walked around the downtown for a couple hours. I showed off some of my newly acquired historical and architectural knowledge, while she refrained from critiquing or asking too many detailed questions. She dragged me into a few stores to look at things that caught her fancy -- some vintage clothes here, some shoes there, even some antique watches. To add some refinement to the afternoon, we even politely whizzed through a museum. I think the guards were suspicious of us due to the speed with which we toured. I murmured to Renee that I thought they suspected we were casing the joint, which just caused her to giggle, then to make faces at the security cameras. We were silly. It reminded me of one of our early dates. I guess we'd been dating two or three months, and were already pretty crazy about each other. She took me to the Art Institute. I was just a poor kid from the south side, and I had never been; that kind of culture wasn't too big in my upbringing. We walked around looking at the Impressionist collection, her giving me the art history tour.

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Afterwards we got some passing tourists to take a picture of Renee and I perched precariously on the famous lions in front. Renee was laughing fervently and I was smiling happily, and you can see the onlookers -- random tourists gaping, Chicago natives trying to look indifferent. Our new friends promised to send us a copy of the photo, which they later did. Renee kept it on her desk at work, a reminder of our impetuous outing. We ended up as patrons of the Art Institute, and went to lots of fundraisers and other events there, but it had been awhile since we'd either necked there or acted childishly. I didn't know what some of our friends would have thought of that photo, whether they would disapprove or pass it off as a youthful indiscretion. Being silly in the museum reminded me of that long ago picture, and made me sad for that young couple in it. There were rough waters ahead that they didn't know about. Several miles, some ice cream cones, and a few hours later we were back at the bookstore. I was surprised at how quickly the afternoon had gone, and at how easy it had been. We hadn’t brought up Chicago, her job, or what I was doing here, and seemed to have fallen into a comfortable truce of sorts. We hesitated at Authors’ Corner. “Want to come in for some coffee?” I asked, unsure about the correct protocol here. Was the outing over with or not? “It’s pretty good, if I do say so myself.” She smiled in appreciation, then put a hand on my arm. “I have a better idea. I’d really like to see your place. I’d like to know where my husband sleeps these days.” She said this lightly, but it was tinged with a sadness and a seriousness that I couldn’t miss. I hadn’t invited anyone to my apartment. Angela had seen it, of course, but she’d lived across the hall and wouldn’t think twice about what these apartments were like. Elmore had seen it, but it was all part of the job to him; he’d seen worse. I’d resisted Sarah’s multiple entreaties to visit, and had let Paige only drop me off in front of the building. Neither Catherine nor George had crossed that line, respecting my privacy. So I was

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hesitant about letting Renee come. It could only confirm what she must already think, would remind her how far in the world I’d fallen. I hadn’t liked to have her visit my father’s apartment in Chicago, and that was much nicer than this. She sensed my hesitation, and smiled teasingly. “Oh, come on,” she said. “You can go in first to pick up any underwear that is on the floor. Unless they are women's!” I laughed. Well, it would be rude to just refuse. I agreed. We took her car to my building. I would have been happy to walk some more, but I didn’t want to end up with her in my neighborhood later with no transportation. She pulled into a space on the street, eyeing the building carefully but not saying anything. We walked up the stairs to my apartment. “It’s very…tidy,” she offered, looking around at my personal space, such as it was. “I didn’t know you were so neat.” I was a little embarrassed. “Well, you get used to doing things,” I replied lamely. “A mess in such a small space is just more noticeable. Can I get you something to drink?” She asked for a beer, and moved around the apartment idly while I got it. She liked to pick things up and look at them. “Where’s the phone?” she asked curiously. “Do you have one of those cute phones that looks like something else?” She peered at the toaster oven as though, perhaps, someone made a phone that looked like one. “No phone,” I said apologetically. “Well, there is, but it’s at the deli down the street.” She looked at me with amused reproach. “I knew you were unlisted, but to actually have no phone…” she trailed off. She continued her inspection.

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“So who is this?” she asked neutrally, holding up Paige’s portrait. “She’s just a woman I know,” I said quietly, feeling slightly sheepish. She studied the portrait carefully, holding it very delicately all of a sudden. “You must know her well indeed to get a nude portrait,” she said lightly, “but if I looked like that I think I’d be naked all the time.” She put the portrait down reluctantly, taking a long last critical look at it. I may have neglected to mention that the portrait was a nude. It was very artistic, and you really couldn’t see much, but there was no mistaking that Paige was, in fact, naked and looked fantastic. “It’s art,” I answered, feeling defensive. “It was a Christmas gift. You’d look just as great.” She smiled at both my discomfort and the compliment, and started looking around again. She picked up my copy of The Little Prince, and looked at me quizzically. “Also a Christmas gift,” I told her. “From Sarah -- you met Sarah. It’s a great book. You should read it sometime.” She smiled tolerantly and said maybe she would. By unspoken consent, we sat down at my small kitchen table, holding our beers. “I’d suggest some music, but I didn’t see any way to put on music,” she said. “Unless that toaster oven is also a CD player.” I laughed but told her, no, it just toasted and baked. She looked at me curiously again. “It’s very quiet here. Does that bother you?” I shrugged. “It took some getting used to,” I admitted, “but now it seems pretty natural. I mostly read when I’m here anyway.” She nodded, as though she was gaining understanding, but didn’t say anything. We sat sipping our beers and not making eye contact for a few minutes. “Want to see the roof?” I finally offered, wanting to break the conversational silence.

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“Sure,” she said, standing up and getting her coat. We climbed the stairs to the roof. It was growing dark, but it was a clear night. The moon was out, and the stars were bright. The cool afternoon had grown cooler now that the sun went down, but it felt brisk and invigorating. We still had our beers, and leaned over the edge of the wall to see the street. If you looked carefully you could see the downtown skyline through the bare trees, lights appearing magically in the distance. It was quiet up here, with just the breeze and the sound of cars driving by periodically breaking the silence. “I like to sit up here when the weather is nice,” I told her. “It’s like a little private getaway.” “No one else comes up here?” she asked, continuing to lean over the edge of the wall. “Not usually,” I replied. “I think most people just like to stay inside. I did have a neighbor with a little girl who sometimes came up here, but they’ve moved.” She pursed her lips thoughtfully. Again the conversation went quiet, but this time I sensed something was on her mind. I let her draw her thoughts together. “Bob Brant called the other day,” she said with careful casualness. “He asked after you.” “How is he doing?” I replied equally carefully. “You say he’s out west?” Of course, I’d seen in the papers when he’d been named to his new job, and wondered when he’d come calling. “Yes, in San Francisco,” she said, turning towards me. “He’s called about once a month since you left the bank, wanting to know if I’d heard from you.”

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“And now you have,” I finished for her. “And now I have,” she repeated. A pause, then she added, “what do you want me to tell him?” I had figured Bob would try to track me down. Aside from his long-term support of me, I suspected he’d feel responsible for my having left the bank. Getting me a new job would help assuage any guilt he felt. Plus, I’d be good: I would be able to help him. In a way, his new job would be a better situation for both of us. His new bank was bigger and better positioned for national growth. We could do some interesting things there, I mused. I carefully kept looking out towards the street, even though I knew Renee was watching me closely. I kept my face impassive. So this was the game, I thought. For some of the day I’d actually started to feel like this was the old Renee, the impetuous, adventurous one. We’d gotten along like the early days, and for me the pleasure of it was like a rush. I'd missed her more than I dared admit. Now I was discovering that she’d come to deliver a message from Bob, wanted me to jump back on the horse and get our lives back to normal. I was a little disappointed but not really surprised. If it were different, we’d not have been apart all these months. We’d had a nice day together but that’s it; our ships were just passing in the dark. I sighed silently. The trouble was, I wasn’t ready to come back to the world, at least to that world. I wasn’t sure I was ever going to be. I turned towards Renee. “Tell Bob thanks for checking in, and to keep in touch,” I said firmly. “But I’m not interested in going out there, not right now.” I gazed at her with concern.

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Her face didn’t react; still the poker player. She stared back, reading my eyes and face for any clues. Finally she started to nod slightly and turned towards the street. She smiled slightly. “I thought not,” she said calmly, “but I thought I’d ask. I’ll tell Bob what you said.” Renee got a curious look on her face and faced me again. “Do you really like working in a bookstore that much? Or is it the chance to get to work on the neighborhood project that you like? There's got to be lots of interesting financing deals involved with that.” I smiled at her, partly embarrassed, partly proud. “Yeah, I really do like the bookstore. The neighborhood stuff is fun but it’s gravy. The book part is the meat of it.” Renee didn't react much, but had to be surprised. Books over juicy deals? Not her Sean. She probed further, still on the offense. “I just never pictured you as a bookworm. You were more of an action type. We both were.” “That’s true,” I conceded. “I always was more likely to just jump into things. I used to think reading books for fun was trivial, an escape. I don’t look at them that way anymore. They help me see the world in different ways, and I needed that. A life without them is like living in a building without windows. I guess I’ve gotten used to the view.” Pretty deep, eh? I didn't know what had possessed me to try philosophy on Renee, if you call that philosophy. Renee cocked her head, and turned to look thoughtfully out in the distance. I didn’t know if she could understand my new passion for books, and it felt like another big gap between us. I could add it to the list, I thought ruefully. We stood on the roof for a few more minutes, then agreed it was getting too cold. Renee said she needed to get going, so I walked her to her car. We paused before she got in.

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“I had a nice day,” Renee said with a quick grin. “I forgot how much fun it is to be with you. Want to do it again sometime?” This took me by surprise. I'd expected that once I’d blown off Bob she’d fade away too. And the discussion about books must have thrown her for a loop. Still, perhaps she thought I’d come around eventually; Renee could be singularly persistent. “Sure,” I told her cautiously. “Let me know when you’re in town next and we’ll do something.” She leaned in and gave me a friendly peck on the cheek, her hand resting on my arm for a moment longer than it needed to. She got in the car and drove away, waving a quick good-bye. I still didn’t understand my own wife.

Chapter 53 It wasn’t very late, and I was restless. I had the evening off but found myself walking back to Authors’ Corner. The cold was refreshing, but the stars and the moonlight now reminded me of being on the roof with Renee. It felt bittersweet. Catherine greeted me when I walked in. “Hey, I thought you were off today,” she said in surprise. “What are you doing here?” “Oh, just wanted to make sure the place hadn’t burned down,” I replied gamely. I sat down near her, fidgeting slightly. She just looked at me. “OK, out with it, what’s on your mind?” she prodded. “So -- I spent the day with Renee,” I told her. “It was very nice. We got along really well, relaxed and basically just goofed off all afternoon.”

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“And that bothers you?” she asked with upraised eyebrows. “No, that confuses me,” I clarified. “At the end she told me my old boss was looking for me. I’m thinking he wants me to come back to work for him, and I’m also thinking she wants me to.” Catherine studied me -- damn that Elmore for teaching her that! -- and looked concerned. As long as she and the good detective were comparing techniques, she could teach him a few things about the concerned look. “What did you tell her?” she finally asked. “I told her thanks but no thanks,” I said. Catherine looked surprised, but I thought I detected some relief as well. Telling her made me feel better about what I’d done; it did feel like the right answer, despite what Renee might have been hoping for. “How did Renee take that?” she followed. “That’s the confusing part,” I confessed. “She didn’t seem surprised, or even disappointed. And she asked about getting together again next time she was in town. So I don’t know if she’s just being polite, or if she’s just going to keep trying, or if she’s got other motives.” Catherine sat down next to me. Then she did something really unusual. She put her arm around my shoulder. She hadn’t touched me -- except maybe to shake hands -- in all the time I’d known her. She smiled happily at me. “Don’t be too quick to judge Renee,” she cautioned me, with the smile still on her face. “Perhaps she doesn’t know what she wants yet either.” I looked back at her. “Do you know something you’re not telling me?” I questioned her suspiciously.

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She considered this judiciously. “I think she has taken more time than she needed to just to pass along a job offer. You have to decide for yourself what that means.” I wasn’t sure I agreed. Renee was pretty smart about how to work people into agreeing with her. I could easily see her spending the day, hoping to re-awaken some old feelings and in doing so soften me up. On the other hand, Catherine was pretty smart too. I’d come to greatly respect her intuition and judgment. For someone who scrupulously respected my privacy, this seemed a lot like advice. “I’ll think about it,” I told her.

Chapter 54 The dinner at Paige’s was a few days later. Sarah kept nagging me for details about the evening, until I couldn’t resist: I just started making stuff up. I’d worked her into a tizzy -- what would she wear for a fund-raiser for the crippled children’s fund held at the British consulate? -- before she realized I was teasing. After that I made up ever more outrageous stories, while she countered with descriptions of the equally outrageous outfits she’d wear in reply to each story. In the end I wore my normal khakis, while she traded her jeans for a simple dress that flattered her lean lines. She got some neat jewelry from one of the local stores, some metal figures in the shapes of little characters. Her earrings, pin, and necklace all told a story, although she was coy about what the story was supposed to be. I declined her offer to have me drive, and as a result I suffered through another driving escapade out to Paige’s house. I didn’t know what all Sarah did in her spare time but practicing driving didn’t seem to be part of it. We pulled in Paige’s driveway unscathed but not unnerved.

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“Whew,” I exclaimed, glad to be stopped. “Man,” she exclaimed, “that’s some house!” I’d warned Sarah about the house, but I think she had stopped worrying about it and now was intimidated again. This wasn’t Sarah’s world. “Come on,” I teased. “They put their pants on one leg at a time.” “Yes, but I bet they have servants to hold the pants,” she shot back with a murderous glance. “What did you get me into?” I sighed in exasperation. “Paige is very nice, and I’m sure you’ll like her,” I reassured her. “And she’ll be very impressed by you, I know.” I didn’t really know, but figured if she wasn’t, Paige would at least be polite about it while I was there. We rang the bell. A man answered the door. He was moderate height, probably just about Paige’s height, and thin. He wore wire-rimmed glasses and was dressed casually. By the pager on his belt, I deduced that it was Jason rather than the butler. “Jason?” I hazarded. “I’m sorry, I don’t know your last name. I’m Sean Meil and this is my friend Sarah Moyer.” “I’m Jason Mitchell,” he said warmly, shaking our hands. “Come on inside. Paige and I are so glad to have you here.” He walked us in the house. Sarah was gaping at the layout and the furnishings. She’d probably seen places like this in magazines but never expected to visit one. “Paige, dear,” Jason called, “our guests are here!” Paige came out of the kitchen, an apron still on. Despite that, she looked her usual fantastic self. She still looked like a model; today she was a model in a cooking shoot. Slacks and a cashmere sweater that probably cost more than my entire wardrobe. I saw

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Sarah do a quick inventory and involuntarily touch her simple dress; she must really feel that she was starting with two strikes compared to Paige. At least Paige was wearing flats so that she wouldn’t tower too much over Sarah. Paige smiled warmly and kissed me quickly on the lips, holding my arms at the biceps. “Paige, Sarah,” I introduced. “Sarah, Paige. I think you’ve actually met before, at Authors’ Corner just before Christmas.” They smiled warily at each other and acknowledged the meeting. I noticed that Sarah had stopped giving up ground mentally and now was protecting her turf, which seemed to be me. “What a lovely house,” she exclaimed. “Sean tells me you helped design and decorate it. What unusual taste!” Paige gave me an amused look. “Yes, that’s what I do for a living,” she told Sarah. “Would you like a tour?” Sarah gushed that she’d love a tour, and the two of them went off. Jason and I stood awkwardly where they had left us. “I’d have to bet on Paige if they get into a fight,” he finally said dryly. “After all, she’s got the height.” “Yeah, but Sarah’s scrappy,” I countered, liking him right away. “Are there any sharp objects in those rooms?” We adjourned to the kitchen, where we sat at the counter and had a drink together. He was a pretty nice guy. I suspected he came from money, but his time in the ER had apparently worn off whatever pretenses he might have had before. I thought Paige had chosen well. We talked about sports and such. The women returned after awhile, professing mutual admiration but each immediately attaching themselves to our sides. There may not have been a battle but this felt more like a truce than a peace.

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Paige had whipped up several courses, with the entrée being an angel hair pasta with chicken marinated in some mysterious sauce. It was very nice. We ate at her dining room table, with the proper china and all the amenities. Half the fun of the dinner was identifying all the neat utensils and gadgets she had. Paige regaled us with stories of some of her unnamed clients, and the constant struggle between their desires and her tastes. The stories had the air of cocktail party tales, with no heaviness or real fight in them. I enjoyed watching Paige put on her show. She was a good storyteller, drawing the crowd in with her casual intimacy and amusing them with her own amusement. She even managed to make her clients look sympathetic rather than pathetic. Somewhere behind all this, though, there were walls; the intimacy was for show, not for real. These were parlor tricks that she must use with clients and at dinner parties. I’d seen Paige at her most vulnerable and I didn’t think this was the real her. Still, Sarah was fully engaged, not wanting Paige to get ahead of her in any race. “So, Sarah, tell us what you do,” Paige commanded, playing the hostess. Sarah looked nervous. “I’m the executive director of a local civic association,” she replied. “It’s for the neighborhood that Authors’ Corner is in.” “Is that where you met?” Jason interjected. “No,” she said, shooting me a fond glance. “We worked together in another bookstore before. I was still in school.” “Sarah has a Ph.D. in sociology,” I commented, “with an emphasis on urban studies.” They looked suitably impressed.

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“You know, I’ve read about how that neighborhood is coming back,” Paige said thoughtfully. “I’ve got a client who is thinking of buying there.” Sarah smiled proudly. “Yes, we’ve gotten a lot of good press, and the neighborhood is really waking up.” We filled them in about some of the changes in the last few months, such as the new stores and restaurants. They vowed to come visit sometime. “Maybe the four of us could all have dinner at the diner,” Jason said excitedly. “Some of my colleagues have been there recently and they just raved.” Sarah and Paige gave polite but vague responses. We adjourned to the living room for dessert and coffee. Paige had made a chocolate and vanilla mousse that was light but very tasty. We settled in on her plush couches. “How did you two meet?” Sarah asked brightly. They exchanged looks that spoke of shared secrets. “I treated her when she came to the ER,” Jason said. "It turns out we know people in common." That didn't surprise me. “It must have been fate,” Paige added, reaching for and holding his hand gratefully. “Were you in an accident?” Sarah asked innocently. “Why were you in the ER?” This time Jason, Paige, and I exchanged more serious looks; they probably had assumed I’d told her the story. “Well,” Jason started, “she was assaulted and your Sean here rescued her, just in the nick of time.” Sarah looked dumbfounded. “What do you mean ‘assaulted’? Were you mugged?” Paige looked uncomfortable. “No,” she said in a tight voice. “We mean that I was grabbed by three hoodlums, who dragged me into an alley. They held a knife to my

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throat and were going to rape and kill me.” She showed no emotion, except for the effort of showing no emotion. Sarah was stupefied, speechless at this unexpected revelation. I wasn’t sure if it was the horror of the situation or the surprise at my role in it that so subdued her. There was dead silence. I tried to lighten the mood. “Yes, that counts as assault all right.” Only Jason smiled. Paige and Sarah were staring at each other, Sarah with the grim fascination people have by other people’s macabre stories. “How did you get out?” Sarah asked urgently. Paige broke the stare, and looked over at me. The bad part of the story over with, she now smiled broadly, proud of the rescue. “Sean here happened to be walking by, and called 911. Then the brave idiot came into the alley, and scared them into letting me go, unharmed.” Sarah was awed. She looked at me accusingly. “You never told me that!” she said fiercely. I shrugged. “It never came up,” I said pleasantly. Sarah did an involuntary double take, then we all broke up laughing. We laughed until the two women had tears in their eyes, the laughter being more relief about how things turned out than any inherent humor in anything I’d said or done. “The cops who were with her in the ER were very impressed,” Jason said when we’d calmed down. “They couldn’t stop talking about how he’d gone in there by himself, with no gun, no help, nothing. They talked about it for a couple days afterward. I figured you must be either nuts or superman.” He glanced over at me with a sly smile on his face. “I've been curious to see which it was.” “What’s the verdict?” I replied fliply.

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“Superman!” Sarah shot out immediately. “Superman,” Jason said affably. We all looked at Paige. “Nuts,” she said fondly.

Chapter 55 Sarah was uncharacteristically quiet on the drive home. I’d agreed to let her drop me off at my building, a first for us. She pulled up in front, and looked at it like she was memorizing it. She didn’t seem ready to have me go yet; something was on her mind. “She must have been very grateful to you,” she finally said, watching the steering wheel carefully. I looked out the windshield, then back at her. “She was,” I admitted. “I think she’s OK now.” Sarah looked over at me with a vulnerable expression on her face. “I’m glad,” she whispered, and hugged me tightly. I slept in the next morning. Catherine had told me to take the day off, and I was going to try. Business was still strong. We’d hired some additional staff to help us cover the evening hours, and she’d given me yet another nice raise. Despite that, we were still making lots of money. I felt I deserved a day off. I was feeling too restless to just sit and read. The weather was nice, and spring was definitely threatening to poke out. I decided to ride some buses and do some walking. I hopped a few buses, new routes to me, rode to some areas I didn’t know well. Riding buses was like being in the belly of a dinosaur, I decided -- well, a dinosaur with windows. They were big, dumb, kind of slow, and they're pretty predictable, but there

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was a sense of both safety and excitement being with them -- just because they're bigger than anything else. That was why kids liked to play with dinosaurs, I believed, that pack mentality of wanting to run with the biggest things around. For me, it was buses, for others it might be monster tractors or supertankers; we all have our own versions, I suppose. Anyway, I rode along cheerfully, intermittently tromping the streets, remembering all the times that I’d done this when I first arrived. As alone and uncertain as that period was, it had a certain simplicity to that that I’d lost, despite my best intentions. I didn't want to trade then for now, but part of me kind of missed that simplicity. I even wandered around the zoo. I don’t like zoos. Too many of the animals seem bored and caged up in spaces too small. Even the supposed natural habitats seem dull and confining. I don’t know; maybe I give animals too much credit. Maybe in the wild they’re bored too. Thinking of how people end up cramped in tiny apartments watching TV, maybe zoo animals are just the ones who can’t afford bigger places. They would probably turn up their noses at my place too. I did like the seals. They at least seemed to have a sense of humor about the situation, diving into the water and playing for all they were worth. I imagined them giggling at this gig -- free food, no hunters, and lots of people to show off to. They probably thought they’d pulled off the biggest con of all time. I loved their transformation from ugly, ungainly creatures on the ground to sleek, athletic jokesters in the water. I wished I could make such a transformation. Late in the afternoon I ended up sitting on a bench in the playground near my building. The kids were back out, emerging from their winter-imposed confinement to reckless abandon on the playground. I thought of those seals and smiled. Maybe being in a classroom is their equivalent to seals being on the ground.

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“Sean!” I heard. I looked around, and Connie bounding towards me, with Angela in close pursuit. Connie still was young enough to think it was a game, laughing at her mom running after her, but Angela wasn’t going to think it was one. I stood up and withstood the blast of Connie jumping into my chest. “Where have you been?” she asked excitedly. “You said you’d come play!” “Here I am,” I said, stating the obvious. Somewhat to my surprise, Angela didn’t berate Connie for escaping, nor did she shoot me nasty looks. She smiled shyly and exchanged pleasantries like a normal mother meeting a friend on the playground. Connie and I kicked the ball around, swung on the swings, even tested the teeter-totter. She didn’t quite get the physics of the latter but didn’t seem to hamper her enjoyment. Finally I pleaded exhaustion and joined Angela on the bench. “You look good,” I told her enthusiastically. Angela had always had that wary edge that kept her walled off from everyone other than Connie. Today she seemed like a normal suburban mom. She was relaxed in a way that I hadn't seen her be. It suited her. She fairly glowed with satisfaction. “You too,” she said simply. We watched the kids play in shared contentment, not speaking but glad of each other’s presence. “How are things?” I ventured finally. She looked over and smiled her warm smile. “Things are good,” she said peacefully. “My apartment is bigger and nicer. I like my new job. Connie is doing well in school.” We considered all that in silence. “Any other…problems?” I said delicately. She stopped smiling but didn’t look upset. She just looked serious. She turned away from child-watching to look me deeply in the eyes.

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“No,” she said with obvious relief. “Still no sign. I’m starting to believe that maybe the nightmare is over.” Her smile was huge. I looked at her. “That would be nice,” I said sincerely. I felt proud of her, like I had been responsible for some part of this transformation. It put a nice ending to my quiet day. I wasn't going to ruin it by pressing her for dinner or asking where she lived or anything. Angela was a woman who guarded her privacy; when she wanted more from me, she'd let me know. Then I'd have to think about how good an idea that would be, given all the other complications my life was facing now. But that was in the future. Right now, we'd just shared some nice moments on a park bench. I was going to quit while I was ahead. I stood up to go. “I hope I run into you again soon.” She smiled again and patted my hand affectionately. “I hope so too.”

Chapter 56 Catherine was sitting with George in the cafe already a few days later. I was just getting in for the day, but George beckoned me over. They were a well-matched couple, I thought, both from their background of money and even more from the satisfaction they each had with what they had built during their lives. I wondered what George’s wife was like. “Sean,” he said with his faint smile, “we’d like your opinion about something.” Catherine looked amused, gave me a wait-till-you-hear-this look. “Shoot,” I replied.

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“I’m trying to convince Catherine to run for city council,” George said. “I think she’d be elected in a breeze.” Catherine now gave me an I-told-you-so look, and I tried to keep from laughing. “City council?” I asked. “I didn’t think you were much interested in politics, Catherine.” “I’m not at all interested in politics,” Catherine replied. “George is trying to convince me I can best represent the interests of the neighborhood if I have city council as a power base.” It actually did make sense. City Council definitely had some bozos on it, and Catherine would stand out like a star. It would be a great bully pulpit for her ideas. Whether she could stomach the internal backstabbing was another question. “What kind of time commitment would it be?” I asked. Catherine and George exchanged glances. “That’s one thing we’ve been discussing,” Catherine offered. “George thinks it really wouldn’t be much more than I’m already doing, between attending a lot of the meetings as an observer and my various other outside meetings. I’m not so sure.” “The city council position would give even more weight to you in those same meetings,” George pointed out calmly. “You’d be standing for exactly the same things.” “What about campaigning and financing?” I thought aloud. “The financing would not be a problem,” George assured us. “Campaigning? Well, that’s what Catherine does almost every day now, when you think about it. For example, think about how this work/learn program would play to the voters.”

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Catherine’s latest idea, which she’d been negotiating with the school board on for the last month or two, was to have neighborhood businesses commit to hiring a specified number of honor students from the local high school. We’d already hired two, as part of a deal Catherine had made with the principal, who was fast becoming her best friend. Catherine and Sarah were working the other business owners to do the same, and wanted to school board to give credits and recognition to the kids. “What does Joe think?” I asked Catherine. I couldn’t imagine he had much use for politicians. “He says he’s all in favor,” Catherine said with a straight face. I raised my eyebrow suspiciously. “Yes, he says he’s always wanted to do to a politician what they do to other people!” She laughed uproariously, with that sexy laugh of hers. George and I just looked at each other, him just slightly more amused than usual. “Well, that’s a fact about your relationship I didn’t really need to know,” I drawled when she’d stopped laughing, only to set her off again. Even George smiled. “Seriously,” George prompted, looking at me coolly. I looked in turn at Catherine. I wasn’t sure which way she was leaning, but I figured this wasn’t the time to start pulling my punches with her. “I think it’s a good idea,” I told them. They smiled. “I agree,” Catherine said. If George was surprised at her agreement, he didn’t let it show. “But we’ll have to figure out what this does to my time here, and it would mean I’d need you even more to run the place while I’m gone. So you need to think about things too.” I promised that I would, a little reluctant about what I’d be committing myself to. More strings…

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I didn’t see Joe until a couple evenings later, when he stopped in to take Catherine out to dinner. “Out to the diner?” I asked. He nodded. We talked about her running for office, and I told him I’d expected him to be more against it than he was. “We don’t have that kind of relationship,” he said. “I’ll tell her what I think, but she’s going to make up her own mind. It’s not going to change what I think or feel about her.” That was a long speech for him, especially on relationships. I told him that was nice, and he glared at me in case I was teasing him. I assured him I wasn’t. “By the way,” I mentioned as he started to walk away. “I ran into my ex-neighbor Angela Meyers again the other day. She seemed really good, not looking over her shoulder anymore. I thought you’d want to know.” Huh,” he said distractedly. “That reminds me I’d asked someone to check on the husband. I’ll have to follow up on that.” I didn’t think any more about it.

Chapter 57 “Sean,” John called out, “phone call!” I was in the back one evening, checking on inventory against some of our printouts. Books were flying off the shelves, a good problem to have. It was Renee. “Hi, Sean, Mr. No Phone man,” she teased. “Listen, I’m in town and wondered if you’d want to go out to a jazz club tonight.” She named a club I’d been to once with Sarah, a nice place that usually had a good trio playing.

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“I’m working till ten,” I told her reluctantly, surprised at the sudden invitation. I thought that would dissuade her. I wasn’t really looking to go clubbing, and I still wasn’t sure what Renee wanted from me. I’d forgotten who I was dealing with. “Perfect,” she replied. “I’ll pick you up then.” She hung up before I could protest. True to her word, she came up to the store a little before ten. She had her hair done up, which just highlighted her lovely neck. The sleek, short dress she had on didn’t show much skin, except for her mostly exposed legs, but the hidden parts weren’t too disguised. It was not the sort of outfit Authors’ Corner got a lot of. Not exactly a bookworm kind of look. She was perfectly natural in it, of course, and chatted comfortably with John for a few minutes while I was closing up. It was as though we’d done this a thousand times. Of course, we had done it a thousand times -- just not here, and not under these circumstances. Those times were in a past life I thought was gone forever. John was ready to fall on the ground and worship her, and I suspected I was going to get the third degree tomorrow. Our relationship had evolved from adversaries to fairly collegial. He had no interest in managing the store and seemed to now welcome me in that role. He’d always been a man of great enthusiasm, if perhaps misguided at times. Now that he was seeing some of our efforts pay off in terms of more people in the store, he had turned his enthusiasm towards my ideas about the store. Funny how sometimes time together can soften feelings. Now he’d really want to be my friend, if only in hopes of getting more chances to see Renee. Renee had a sporty little rental car; leave it to her not to get the standard boxy four-door. We went off to the club and spent the next couple hours listening to some smooth jazz from the house band. It was a nice, intimate setting. The atmosphere was smoky and cozy, the crowd small but not sparse. People were appreciative of the music, listening

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attentively behind their drinks and cigars. I might once have belonged in this world, but it seemed alien to me now. As always, though, Renee was my ambassador, guide, and translator, even though I was the one who had been there before. We got a primo table and the waiter kept stopping by to make sure we were happy. Like most things, it was a different experience with Renee along than without her. The music was livelier, the mood more intense, the potential for unexpected things to happen greater. “Not quite Blues Alley,” she judged, naming one of our old Chicago haunts, “but not too bad.” We mostly just listened, but between sets she told me stories about some of her assignments. Life as a consultant seemed to be working out well for her. She was doing a lot of work telling companies how to reach retail customers, and was branching out to lots of different industries. “It’s amazing -- they all seem to think I know what I’m talking about,” she said modestly. “I’m sure you do,” I told her. She looked at me confidently. “I do,” she said brassily. “You seem to have a lot of clients here,” I told her. “I’d have thought more would be in Chicago, given your connections there.” “Luck of the draw,” she shrugged. “This business is really word of mouth, so one thing really does lead to another. Next quarter it could be Atlanta.” She was delighted by the prospect of Catherine running for office. Catherine had made a big impression on her. “She’ll really shake things up!” she exclaimed. “Maybe Mayor next!” She also asked politely after Sarah and George, completing our circle of mutual acquaintances. Well, not quite.

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“Any word from Bob Brant?” I asked carefully. I was reluctant and yet drawn about bringing it up; I’m not sure I wanted to know how she’d react about the topic again. She gave me a measured look, and took a long drink from her martini. “We talked,” she said succinctly. “He’s disappointed but didn’t press.” And she left it at that. At some point in the evening the trio drifted into some slow songs -- some sad, some lulling, all romantic. As a few of the other couples started to head to the small dance floor, Renee gave me a challengingly look. “What about it, sport?” she said. “As I recall, you used to be a pretty fair dancer.” I took a final drink for courage. “Why not?” We danced for two or three songs. At first, we held each other tentatively, like kids in a formal dance class. Soon enough, though, the rhythms of the songs and our old rhythms kicked in. She moved closer, and my arms held her tighter. I held her close against me, feeling her body and remembering how well we fit together. I’d always told her that we must be meant for each other because our bodies fit so well. Dancing, walking down the street, sitting in a movie, cuddling on the couch -- we always found ways to slide our bodies together in new and fun ways. It wasn’t about sex or even lust. It was about intimacy, feeling we were part of a whole. Or so I thought then. She rested her head on my shoulder, a familiar habit from our closest days. I’d always loved that, loved the feel of her and knowing she was totally trusting herself to me. It was wrong to be doing that now, I thought, I should gently move away and break the spell. But I didn’t. I closed my eyes and thought of other times, in other places, wishing…

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When the set ended, we held each other for a few seconds longer after the music stopped, then moved away like teenagers caught in an embrace by their parents. We both looked guilty and didn’t make eye contact. By now it was around one in the morning, and we agreed to call it a night. I asked her where she was staying, and she just vaguely said “downtown.” She insisted on driving me home, against my protests. “You’d just walk home if I don’t drive you,” she sternly told me. “I’m not going to have that on my head.” So she drove me to my building, and pulled in front. I didn’t get out immediately, trying to think of what to say. I didn’t think she should stay but I didn’t want her to go. She sat patiently in the driver’s seat, evidently in no hurry to leave and waiting for me to say something. “Want to go up on the roof for awhile?” I offered. "We can look at the view." It was the safest thing I could think of that would keep her here. She smiled approvingly and turned off the engine. Up on the roof we didn’t have much to say either. It was too late in the evening for much conversation anyway. The stars were out and the streets were silent. Every so often we’d hear a noise from the alley or from an apartment, sounds of people or creatures getting comfortable. Otherwise the world was ours. I stared off in the distance, lost in thoughts, until I noticed her looking at me with some amusement. “Earth to Sean,” she said. “What’s on your mind?” It probably wasn’t the right time to bring it up, but it was what I had been thinking about. “I was wondering,” I said slowly, “how you felt about my not calling Bob.” I looked at her. Her reaction surprised me. She laughed. I watched and listened closely to see if there was any artifice behind it, but I couldn’t detect any.

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“I told Bob when he called that I didn’t think you’d be interested,” she replied, still smiling. “I just offered to pass along the message.” “That doesn’t tell me how you feel about it,” I pointed out. She nodded, acknowledging my clarification. She smiled again, this time tinged with some sadness. She turned and looked out over the wall. “Do you remember what made me know I was in love with you?” she asked, a curious diversion from my question. Despite myself, I smiled slightly and nodded, remembering times past. “Tell me,” she commanded. “We were sitting at the North Avenue Beach, near the chess boards,” I said, the memory of that day as vivid as if it were yesterday. I must admit my eyes got a little misty at the memory. “It was in the evening, and the lights along Lake Shore Drive and Michigan Avenue were just coming on. The lake and the buildings were beautiful, as were you.” She was looking at me, entranced by the memory. “Go on. What were we talking about?” “I think we were arguing about politics,” I continued. “Or, rather, you were arguing. I was just baiting you, since I didn’t really care about the election. I was just disagreeing with everything you said just for the hell of it. I loved getting you worked up.” We stood silent on the roof, in our minds reliving that warm Chicago summer night. “I must have been about ready to endorse the Nazis -- or the Republicans, same thing to you North Shore liberals -- and you were just sputtering in rage. I couldn’t take it anymore; you were so engaged, so beautiful. Then I told you that I loved you because you were so ferocious.”

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I waited and watched her. I could see the traces of her smile turn up the corner of her mouth. It was a memory she cherished too. I added softly, “You told me that you loved being thought of as ferocious, in a good sense, that is.” She turned to fully face me. “And I told you that what I loved about you was that sparkle in your eye,” she said quietly. “You lighten up the world around you. I’d never met anyone like that." A pause, her eyes searching mind. Then, so quietly as to almost be imagined, she added, "I still haven’t.” We studied each other from across the space of a few feet. My wife, my one-time lover. The woman I’d expected to spend the rest of my life with. Now we were going over the past on the roof of a run-down apartment building in a far off city, strangers. “I knew then I’d marry you,” she said matter-of-factly. “No one else could make the world so alive for me. Every time with you was a smile. You made me laugh so much.” She paused, and looked away from me to the lights of this city. “But somewhere along the way things changed. We didn’t laugh so much. I went from being ferocious to thinking you had to take care of me -- and kind of liking knowing that you would. I think we both lost something of the qualities we loved about each other in the last few years we were together. I don’t understand why,” she said thoughtfully. “I see you here and I can see that look in your eye again, and it makes me happy for you.” We stood in silence, her looking out over the street and me just watching her, trying to piece the puzzle together. “And you?” I asked softly. “Are you ferocious again?” She turned back towards me, with a devilish smile on her face. “Oh, yeah,” she breathed in a sultry voice. “Oh, yeah...”

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Chapter 58 The next day I was corralled by John and Catherine. “Who was that?” John demanded. “A friend,” I attempted. John gave me a derisive look. “That was that marketing consultant, wasn’t it?” he asked. “What was she doing, going out with you so late? Are you dating her?” I looked at Catherine for some help. She was failing at keeping a straight face. “That was Sean’s wife,” she said helpfully. I shot her a dirty look. “You’re married to her?” John asked incredulously. “Relax, John,” Catherine soothed. “They’re separated.” John clearly was puzzled, not understanding how we could possibly be married, especially with me a lowly book clerk just like him. “They didn’t look separated,” he muttered as Catherine steered me away. I should have told him that meant maybe he had a shot too, but it would have been cruel. “Thanks,” I said, with only mild sarcasm. “Did you purposely get me into trouble just so you could bail me out?” She laughed, untroubled. “Sean,” she advised, “if you have a complicated life you’re going to run into complications.” I gave her another dirty look, not sure if she knew how acutely aware of that I was, or how much trouble I’d gone to in order to avoid having complications in my life. Catherine just looked serene.

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“So you and Elizabeth -- sorry: Renee -- went out last night?” she asked. “Yeah, she came by at closing and we went to a jazz club,” I said glumly. “I’m no more clear about what she wants than I was before. And we had another really good time.” “Sorry to hear that,” she replied sarcastically. “Why not just relax and enjoy it?” She let that sit for a few seconds, then followed. “Listen: George and I are planning to formally announce my candidacy for City Council on Thursday. I know the timing kind of sucks, especially with Renee popping up like this, but I need to ask. Have you thought about the impact of my being a candidate on life at the store, and can I count on you?” I really hadn’t been thinking much about it, although I never had much doubt that George and Catherine could pull it off. To stall, I asked, “How did George get things moving so quick?” Catherine waved her hand. “You know George. He just gets things done. He’s got an exploratory campaign committee formed, has raised a few thousand dollars in contributions, and got the minimum petition signatures. All in just a few weeks. But quit stalling. If you’re not ready to tell me, just tell me that.” I had a hard time fooling Catherine. “I’m sorry,” I told her. I felt like I was standing in front of an open airplane door, waiting for my first parachute jump. I was technically ready to jump, but still had butterflies. Time to jump anyway. “Yes, I suppose I’m in. I’m not ready to say I’ll be here forever but I won’t leave without giving you enough notice to do what you need to do to keep the store doing OK.” There it was. No more leaving at the last minute on a bus; now I'd promised Catherine.

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She looked relieved. “I can’t tell you how glad I am. This store is like my kid, and you’re the only one I could think of trusting it to. We can work out the necessary details about your role over the next few weeks, so keep thinking about it.” Catherine started to walk off, then paused. “You know, Renee called me the other day, asking for some book recommendations. You must be making another convert.” I didn’t know what to make of that. Later that morning, Sarah grabbed me after our staff meeting. We’d had a fairly productive meeting, coming up with some ideas to fill around a historical walk Sarah was organizing. She’d even come up with some cool facts about our building, like the fact that it was used as a speakeasy in the twenties and a brothel in the mid-thirties. We had lots of creative ideas on how to capitalize on those facts, but none were, of course, legal. They were good for a laugh anyway. “Want to do dinner and a movie at the cinema grill tonight?” she asked. “Jackie Chan movie…” I was supposed to be in the store till closing, but it had been awhile since I’d spent an evening out with Sarah. I was pretty sure I could get John or Catherine to cover for me, especially since I’d only be a few doors away. I told her I’d meet her there at seven. We had a good time at the movie. It was a weeknight, so the crowd wasn’t too full, but that let us stretch out and put our feet up. We also kept a running commentary on the movie’s implausible action and even more implausible dialogue. I think we got more amusement from each other than from the movie, but that was pretty typical. Sarah had matured a lot in the last few months. Not being a graduate student was part of it, as was dealing with heavyweights like George and Catherine. She had lost some of that innocent seriousness and gained some edge, especially in her sense of humor. The

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real change, though, was her new worldly confidence, gained by doing well in her job. It was like her having been thrown a fastball, and having hit a homerun with it. I walked her home after the movie. We took our time, meandering by the stores in the neighborhood, looking in the windows. Sarah the perfectionist was noticing things she’d want to talk to the owners about, while Sarah the young woman was preening about how well things were shaping up due to her influence. We chatted comfortably, or walked equally comfortably in silence. “I hear Renee stopped by last night,” she said casually. She scrutinized a store window. “John says she looked really hot.” I waited to see if she’d ask more, but she was letting me decide how much to tell her. “We went to that jazz club we’ve been to,” I told her. “We talked, drank, danced some. It was fun.” We strolled on, both being politely silent. “So,” she said, standing at the door to her building,” what’s up with you and her?” I ran my hand through my hair, brushing back non-existent bangs. I exhaled heavily. “I don’t know, Sarah, I really don’t. I have to admit we’ve had a couple of really nice times lately, just relaxed and fun. She knows this is my life, and she seems to accept it. But we both know it’s not her life. I just don’t see where it could go. I still figure at some point her work here will end and that will be that.” Sarah looked at me curiously, with that look women give men that indicates surprise at how dense men are. “She wants you back, you know,” she told me softly. “You don’t know that,” I said defensively. “You haven’t even seen us together. How can you say that?”

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She just smiled mysteriously, and put her hand reassuringly on my arm. “Because if I were her I’d want you back. Trust me; she does.” We called it a night.

Chapter 59 The press conference for Catherine’s candidacy went well. We held it in the bookstore, symbolizing her commitment to the area. She had become a popular media figure in the last few months, with her good looks, impressive pedigree, and quick wit. Plus, with neighborhood revitalization efforts she was seen as being on the side of angels. Both the broadcast and the press reporters were there, as well as a crowd of friends, neighborhood business owners, and other locals. She told the assembly that she didn’t have much interest in politics, but she loved the neighborhood and she loved the city. She vowed to continue to find ways to reinvigorate the city and to create jobs, noting her record as a small businesswoman for the last fifteen years. The booming bookstore around her was nonverbal testimony to her success. The press ate it up. George sided up to me late in the conference. “Pretty impressive, isn’t she?” he said analytically. “I’m telling you, she’ll be elected by a landslide.” “She should,” I agreed. “She’s the class of the field.” We watched her handle some more softball questions from the fawning reporters.

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“Do you ever worry that ties to you might hurt her?” I asked. “Big money, fat cat real estate developer -- you know the kind of crap they could throw. You know someone will try to make something of it. Some crusader could claim she’s your stooge.” He shrugged and smiled his half smile. “I know. It’s a shame, but politics get dirty. She hasn’t done anything improper or unethical, and neither have I. We’re both just trying to make something of this neighborhood. I think she’ll handle anything they say. And no one is ever going to convince voters she’s anyone’s stooge.” I nodded, and then something occurred to me. “Hey, George,” I kidded. “How come you didn’t ask me to sign the petition for her candidacy?” He looked at me owlishly. “Why, Sean, I rather imagined you weren’t a registered voter.” Leaving me with that, he walked off to work the crowd further. I wondered why he assumed that -- but he was right. I watched Catherine wrap things up, and talked a while to Sarah. Sarah had brought Ted to the rally. I hadn’t seen Ted in a few months, and we exchanged warm hellos. He’d grown a couple of inches and had grown up more than that in other ways. We talked about where he wanted to go to college, and got caught up on the happenings at Busy Books. Dan was still there, but losing hair daily. No wonder; Ted had heard another child was on the way. What do these people think, I wondered to myself. Michelle was good; he’d seen her at Christmas and she was doing well at school, having fun and meeting boys. Grades were decent. “Ted’s going to work on Catherine’s campaign,” Sarah proudly said, putting her arm around his shoulders in a sisterly hug. He looked embarrassed, furthering the resemblance to a sisterly embrace. “He’s volunteering but he’ll get some community service credits for his school.” I congratulated him and told him Catherine was worth it.

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Sarah and Catherine had some photos taken together by the press, Sarah beaming. I could see those clippings heading straight to the folks. Sarah was having the ride of her life. Ted watched her, a little of his old crush still showing. Every time someone greeted her or took a picture, he beamed in pride as well. It was like a love fest. I felt left out. I felt a heavy hand on my back. It was Joe Elmore. “Joe,” I said. “Did you catch the press conference?” “Most of it,” he acknowledged. “I was waiting to see if she’d work my name in.” If I hadn’t known him I’d not have realized he was kidding. “Me too.” We both smiled. Joe looked at me seriously. “I mostly came to see you,” he said somberly. “Why?” “You remember you mentioned Angela Meyers?” he asked. I nodded silently, suddenly worried. “I asked someone to check in on the ex. I heard today that he called in quit his job yesterday.” I thought about that. “Has he done that before?” He shook his head. “Nope, never. He’s a stockbroker. He lost a lot of money by walking away on short notice like that. People don’t usually do that.” Well, I had -- but look what had happened to me. “Maybe he just got tired of work.” Joe shook his head. “I stopped by his house a couple times; no sign.”

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I cocked my head thoughtfully. “Could he just be out of town, or at a girlfriend’s?” Joe looked balefully at me; he’d have considered this, of course. “He could be, but my gut is telling me he’s not.” I was now very concerned, so I asked him for the bottom line: “Do you think he’s after Angela?” His face was impassive. “He may not even know where she is,” he replied. “But, yeah, I’d worry. Do you know where she lives, or where the kid goes to school?” “No, I didn’t ask because I didn’t think I should know.” I was kicking myself in frustration for not having pressed her for that. “All I know is that they still live somewhere near my building, and that she and Connie go to that playground sometimes.” “I guess we better check out the playground,” he said, still impassive.

Chapter 60 Joe and I quickly made a plan. He spread the word to the precinct squad cars to watch for Meyers or his car, although we thought it was a long shot. He offered to call in some markers and recruit a few of his buddies who had a particular distaste for domestic crimes. Depending on how many of them we could get and how much time they could afford, that could cover the area for a few hours. We had a mug shot of Meyers from a prior complaint, but the only photo we had of Angela was one of her after the beating that led to the complaint. It would serve as an additional incentive for the others cops, but might not be too helpful in having a new set of eyes identify her in a crowd. “Too bad that picture in your apartment isn’t of Ms. Meyers,” Joe growled. I agreed halfheartedly.

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We thought about checking out the local schools, but we didn’t know whether she was in a public or private school, what neighborhood the school might be in, exactly what grade she was in, or what name Angela might have enrolled her under. With more manpower or some publicity we could have pulled it off, but we didn’t have those luxuries. The bulk of the responsibility was going to have to be Joe’s and mine, doing the timeconsuming watching and waiting. We both thought we could spare a few hours each afternoon and early evening to be on the lookout -- the peak playground hours. The real question was how long we could keep doing it. True to form, Catherine immediately told me to take whatever time I needed to help. I felt especially bad asking about time away from the store right after promising her to be there for the store during her candidacy, but she pooh-poohed my concerns. “You’re helping Joe and hopefully preventing some poor woman getting hurt,” she chided me. “There’s no way I could say no.” Joe and I quickly settled into a routine. We’d cruise around the park and nearby blocks just before school let out, looking for anyone suspicious. Once the kids got out and invaded the playground, we’d go on foot. We worked out a pattern of sitting and walking, so we maximized the area covered, without losing sight of the other. Every hour or so one of us would cruise the streets again. I’d never done anything like this before. It’s amazing how many people look suspicious when you are looking for suspicious people. I didn’t see Meyers but I pointed out several lurking candidates, a couple of whom Joe either rousted himself or had a squad car chase off. Joe and I didn’t talk too much, but the hours of watching led to some conversation.

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“How go things with Catherine?” I asked, watching some kids on the swings. It had been three days and there was still no sign of Angela or Connie, much less Mark. “Good,” he said. “We’re living together.” I reacted with some small degree of surprise. “Your place or hers?” “Her place,” he commented nonchalantly. He pointed out a lone man walking up to a bench across from us. I shook my head no. It wasn't Meyers. "I’m not giving up my place, but hers is nicer and bigger. I don’t think she could fit her stuff into my bathroom anyway.” We watched the kids playing near the newcomer, and after awhile Joe went over and told the man to move along. The next day we were cruising in the car, and talking about the election. The papers had been expectedly complimentary, and only the fact that his involvement with Catherine was not widely known prevented Joe from intense ribbing at the station. “She thinks the world of you, you know,” he remarked casually. “She loves that book store and you are the only person she’d ever let run it besides her.” “I think the world of her too,” I replied openly. I looked at him. “Are you feeling me out for you or for her?” He grunted what may have been a laugh. “Catherine doesn’t need me to take care of her.” We parked the car and strolled for a while. It was getting later in the evening and we were about to go off our watch. The number of kids out had dramatically dropped, most inside somewhere eating their dinner or playing video games. A few diehards were still

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out, their parents either yelling loudly for them from their apartment steps or watching tiredly. “I hear you and your ex-wife have been seeing each other,” he commented, eyes sweeping the playground constantly. "How do you feel about that?” I stopped and made an excuse to tie my shoe. He waited patiently. He physically always had that stillness about him, like a lion – usually resting but still but ready to pounce at a moment. His eyes, on the other hand, were always alive. Usually they were watching the person he was talking to, but now they were constantly searching the playground for a possible sighting. “It’s weird. I never expected to see her again, and here she shows up. And then we get along really well the couple times we’d gotten together, like old times.” We started walking again. “I have a confession to make,” he said finally. He stopped and leaned against the fence, arms crossed and looking at me seriously. “She didn’t just show up out of the blue.” I looked at him curiously. I was tired, frustrated and worried about looking for Angela or her ex with no success. I was dreading picking up the morning newspaper and seeing her dead. This was not a conversation I’d been prepared for. “What do you mean?” I asked cautiously. He looked uncomfortable, at least as much as he could. He made a face. “After you rescued Paige Atkinson a private detective showed up,” he said, staring hard at me. “Don’t ask me how he heard your name. He must have had a source in the department. Anyway, because of the P.O. box you listed for your address on the report he had to come to me to find out where you lived.” He bounced off the fence. “Come on, let’s walk.” We started walking again, completing our circuit of the playground. I was thinking furiously, trying to see where Joe's comments were leading. It had seemed like a big

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coincidence, Renee turning up. But I still wasn't getting Joe's connection. Who was this private investigator? He started again after we’d walked a few yards. “I didn’t like just turning you over to this guy, so I stonewalled him. He told me that you weren’t in trouble, the wife just wanted to know where you were. But I liked you and didn’t want him to find you just because you’d been careless enough to help Atkinson.” We walked a little longer. By now the kids were pretty well gone and it looked like it was another wasted night. Joe's story was starting to come together, but I needed to hear the rest of it. “So what changed your mind?” I finally asked. He smiled unexpectedly. “Your wife showed up herself. She told me she was worried about you and wanted to make sure you were all right.” “So she turned the charm on and you told her where I lived?” I was disappointed, but not really surprised. He gave me a dubious look, implying amazement that I thought anyone could charm him into doing something he didn’t want to do. Granted, he was pretty stoic, but Renee would be a good test for anyone’s powers of resistance. He shook his head. “Nope, not right away. I still figured you had a right to disappear if you wanted to, even though she seemed sincere enough. No, I didn’t tell her until after we talked on your roof that night after you’d helped Angela Meyers.” I was stunned. “You mean she’s known that long?” I said incredulously. He nodded in acknowledgment. “Has she been watching me all this time?” “I don’t know,” he replied. “I didn’t hear from her again until she turned up again, at the bookstore. Catherine told me about her and something just sounded like your wife to me

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-- hey, don’t look so surprised; I am a detective, you know -- so I stopped by the store once and caught a glimpse of her. Sure enough, same woman. Pretty clever, I thought.” I was still digesting that Renee had been in my life for several months without me knowing about it. She must know about Paige, and perhaps about Angela. Now all those ghost images I thought I’d seen of her took on new meaning. Maybe she’d been following me all fall. There was one thing I wanted to clear up. ‘Why did you decide to tell her after that night on the roof? Why then?” He looked at me sympathetically; it should be obvious, he seemed to be thinking. “Remember what you told me on the roof about why someone helps all these damsels in distress?” I nodded slowly. He leaned forward towards me. “Those weren’t the words of someone who wanted to stay lost.”

Chapter 61 Several days went by this way. I’d go into Authors’ Corner for a few hours, then Joe would swing by and we’d cover the playground for a few more hours. He sometimes had to take care of some official business during that time, so he might leave me watching alone for periods. I borrowed a cell phone from Catherine so he and I could stay in touch. After dark I’d head back down to Authors’ Corner, work a couple more hours. Then after work I’d often wander more through the streets near my building, looking for Mark, his car, or any signs of Angela. I was growing both weary and frustrated, and that just made me want to look more.

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Meanwhile, other people’s lives went on. George stopped by, asked as always how business was. I didn’t take my usual pleasure in telling him that it was good. The store was doing well, and, from what I heard, so were the other stores. The weekdays were comfortably busy, but the weekends were packed. Our evening business had picked up the most, as there was now foot traffic even on weekday nights. The cafe was doing well and sending us not just business but a tidy share of profits each month. George was pleased because the condos had already started to sell, even though they weren’t quite finished. He hadn’t even had to offer introductory prices; he was getting asking price or more, indicating the strong demand. His negotiations for some of the renovated office space were also going well. “I’m already starting to buy up some more properties,” he added. “I may have to consider moving here myself if all this keeps up.” “Or retire to Florida,” I quipped sourly. He just looked amused. “People like us don’t retire, Sean,” he told me. “We just find new things to do.” Sarah heard from Catherine about my role in the stakeout, and immediately rushed to confront me about it. She was both proud of me and scared for me. “What if the guy has a gun?” she asked nervously. “You could get hurt. Haven’t you done your good deed for the year already?” “Sarah, she was my neighbor,” I declared. “I know what she looks like better than any of the cops. Besides, if you knew this little girl you’d probably be out there too.” That seemed to mollify her, but I saw her flinch every time I left and not relax until I got back to the store. She made excuses to be there when I got back, working late in the

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evening or coming back after dinner. Once or twice I’d let her walk the streets with me after work, against my better judgment. Fortunately for her, although not for Angela, we weren’t any more successful than by myself or with Joe. Renee called me at work, told me she’d be in town in a couple days. She inquired as to my availability. Again against my better judgment, I told her that I had some things going on, but I did want to see her and to call me when she got in. I was going against my better judgment a lot. Either worrying about Angela was warping my judgment or I’d just gotten too connected to too many people again, or both. It was more than I could handle at once. I started to worry Paige would want something too. On the other hand, Catherine didn’t say much. She was campaigning, but stretching her time to cover for me as much as possible. She never complained. “I really appreciate all this,” I told her wearily one evening. We were sitting in the cafe after another fruitless day watching. I’d seem hundreds of kids, it seemed, and scores of mothers and other people hanging out, but none were the ones I was looking for. It was very tiring. “I know I can do this because I have such an understanding boss, but I can’t figure how Joe is able to make so much time for it.” She gave me a frank look. “You know it is personal with Joe, don’t you?” “Personal how? I thought he just met Angela the one time.” “It’s not about Angela for him,” she said. “It’s about his wife.” I’d never heard of Joe having a wife, and certainly the fact that he was living with Catherine made a wife’s existence more improbable. I gave her a questioning look.

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She exhaled slowly. “I didn’t think he’d told you the story. It’s a bad one. It was years ago. Joe helped investigate a series of rapes. They broke the case, caught the guy cold. It turned out that the rapist was married. Ann -- that’s the wife -- knew nothing of her husband’s extracurricular activities, so when they arrested him she was pretty surprised, to say the least.” She drank some coffee and shook her head. “Her marriage hadn’t been too good before all this, and this was the icing on the cake. The husband got thirty years to life, and she divorced him while he was in prison.” She watched the surface of her coffee, swirling the liquid around. The waves were hypnotic. It was like holding a muddy little lake in your hands, sending storms down and shaking things up. She seemed to be listening to her thoughts and reliving the story, deciding how to tell the rest of it. She plunged back into it, still playing with her coffee. “Anyway, it’s an old cliché, but along the way Joe got to know Ann pretty well. He talked to her, consoled her, and got to know her. They fell in love, and got married a few months after her divorce went through. Fast forward eight years. The bad guy gets out early, for good behavior. Only no one tells Joe or Ann. It was a screw-up; whoever was supposed to notify them just didn’t get to it. The guy shows up at Joe’s door while he’s at work. To make a long story short, he raped and beat Ann mercilessly. Eventually some neighbors came home, heard her screams and called 911, but that was after a few hours. She died in the hospital. He went back to jail, again for life.” She looked up at me, making sure I’d taken this all in. “Every year at Christmas the jerk sends Joe a Christmas card, with both Joe’s and Ann’s names on it. Only he crosses out her name.” The fatigue I’d formerly felt suddenly felt like nothing. I was bone crushingly weary, like the gravity had suddenly increased several times while we were sitting there. “Joe never remarried?”

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She shook her head. “No, he pretty much became a loner. Kind of like you. But he is unrelenting about getting guys like this off the street, regardless of whether it is his official duty or not.” We were silent for several minutes, soaking all this in. The cafe was quiet. We must have looked like we were having an intense conversation, because none of the other employees bothered us, as they usually would have. Perhaps they thought one of us was quitting. “How do you feel about all this?” I finally asked. “Not about what a terrible tragedy it was, but how you fit into all of it. That’s some pretty big cross for a new relationship to bear.” Catherine smiled sadly. Her smile traveled across her face like a liquid, replacing the pain, concern, and sorrow with something beatific. She had never looked more beautiful, like an angel come to soothe someone’s soul. “Joe is the most solid person I’ve ever known. I love him. If I can help him with this, or anything else, I will. He’s hurt for long enough.” "I wouldn't have thought Joe liked being taken care of," I noted, but I was really thinking more about Renee and me than the two of them. "Not the kind of guy who likes to be a burden on anyone." Catherine eyed me curiously, and I suddenly wondered exactly what she knew about why I'd left. She smiled warmly. "You know, when you love someone, taking care of them is never a burden. It's a privilege." I nodded slowly, the truth of it sinking in, then roused myself to go back to the streets to look for Angela and Connie.

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Chapter 62 The next day Joe and I were driving around at the start of our stint. It was an overcast day, and the forecast was for rain. I was still tired from yesterday, depressed about the increasingly slim odds of finding Angela, and just generally not in a good mood. Joe seemed his usual phlegmatic self, which didn’t help my mood. I had a new appreciation for him, but also felt awkward around him in a way that I hadn’t before. It was like sitting with a martyr, not a person. True to his detective nature, he noticed. “Cut it out,” he told me sternly. I ignored him. “Catherine told me she told you about my wife,” Joe said gruffly. “It’s OK. It was long ago.” “I’m sorry for your loss,” I offered. What do you say? There are no words. He shrugged it off, and kept scanning the streets. “I’d have told you but there wasn’t a good time to do it. It didn’t seem relevant.” Not relevant? Unlikely. It did explain why he kept going out of his way for me, and why it mattered to him that I’d gone out of my way for Paige and Angela. We completed our rounds and parked the car, splitting up as usual. I walked through the playground in crossing patterns, while he patrolled the perimeter of the park. We hooked up every few passes. There weren’t many kids out today. The weather wasn’t terrible yet, but it wasn’t a joyful looking day. The children probably didn’t care but lots of the mothers were probably keeping them inside for fear it was going to rain. I hoped we weren’t going to get wet.

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I sat and watched some of the few kids who were out. They were playing on the swings, the mothers huddled on one of the other benches. They were probably catching up on neighborhood gossip, or comparing hair-raising experiences with their kids. Maybe they were complaining about their husbands, boyfriends, whatever man was in their life. I wondered why they didn’t think it was suspicious that they kept seeing Joe and me. Either we didn’t look like perverts or they were oblivious to outsiders. For Angela’s sake I wished they were more observant about strangers. A few of the mothers were now noticing me, casting covert glances my way, then ducking their heads and talking with the whole bunch. Perhaps they were getting worried. No, now a couple of them smiled encouragingly at me. They were flirting with me! Great. No wonder men like Meyers always seem to find new victims. People are so trusting. Don’t they realize there are monsters in the world after them and their kids? I got up and walked around more. Joe and I regrouped at the car. We had some of the coffee we’d stashed in the car, and compared notes. Neither of us had had any luck. We stood there trying to think of bright ideas, and decided to walk down to the deli. Joe asked the deli owner if he’d seen Angela, flashing his badge and describing her as best he could. The owner was visibly nervous, but confirmed that Angela came in sometimes. It had been a week or so since she was last in. He didn’t know where she lived or when she might come in next. “Has anyone else been around asking about her?” Joe asked. I’d told Joe about the long ago attempt for Connie outside the deli; clearly Meyers knew she came here. Joe thought he might be playing detective himself.

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No luck; according to the owner, we were the only people who’d asked him about her. We hit the street again, walking on a couple of the surrounding streets to complete the sweep. We ended up back at the car. “It’s going to be a long evening,” Joe said. We watched the playground for a few minutes. “Catherine says your wife called again,” he said, not taking his eyes off the playground. “Are you going to see her?” I considered this. “It will be tough unless we find Angela first, but, yeah, I’ll see her if I get the chance.” “Is that what you want?” he asked seriously. I considered this. “I haven’t known what either one of us wants since she showed up. Hard as I worked to get out of her life, now that she’s here, all I know is that if I have a chance to see her I want to.” He ruminated on that, cryptic as ever. “How long have you been single now?” I asked. As long as we were discussing wives I figured I might as well get the full story. He looked at me patiently, letting a beat go by before answering. “You mean how long since my wife was murdered?” I nodded meekly. “Let’s see, it’s been ten years.” “Anyone serious since then?”

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He scowled, not any happier to discuss his personal life than I was to discuss mine. “I’ve basically been alone since then. I mean, sure, I had some flings, bounced the sheets every now and then, but nobody got close. That’s the way I wanted it.” We agreed to do our sweep of the park, me on the inside, him on the outside. I suspected he was using this as an excuse to break off the conversation, but I needed some time to think anyway. When we rejoined we concluded that there wasn’t much point in staying much longer. The park was empty and we doubted Angela would bring Connie out now. “Why Catherine, why now?” I asked curiously. “I know she’s one in a million, but I doubt she’s the only good chance you’ve had in the last ten years.” The stone face cracked into an ironic smile: I’d scored a point. “You’ll make a detective yet,” he complimented me. “I could say it was just time, but that’s not it. There’s never enough time to get over something like that.” He looked at me somberly. “It’s a myth, you know. Time doesn’t heal all wounds. Some wounds just keep festering, and time makes them worse. They eat you up, and either kill you or kill parts of you.” I nodded to encourage him. I had a feeling where this was going. He picked up his coffee cup again and took a drink. “I run across you and I can see you’re hurting. I didn’t know why then, but I knew jumping into the middle of the situations with Paige and then Angela was not something well-balanced people do. Very admirable, but it took a definite disregard for your life that I recognized.” We continued to scan the cars out of habit, but there was still nothing. The clouds were getting thicker, and it was getting dark early. He continued with his story. “Then your wife shows up. I like her. She has a real presence about her. And when I talked to you on your roof I knew there was still something there. That’s why I put her

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on to you. But it starts me thinking too. I thought how stupid it was that you weren’t with her. I thought it was stupid for people to be alone when they could be together. What a waste! Then I realized that’s what I’d done with my life since Ann died.” He straightened up and brushed himself off. I just stood there; I didn’t have any lines here. This was either a confession or a lesson, or maybe a bit of both, and I was just here to listen. “I didn’t rush out and place a personal ad or anything, but when I met Catherine I didn’t keep her at a distance. She’s way out of my league but I figured if she sees something worthwhile in an old man like me, who am I to argue?” He finished his coffee, and threw the cup into a garbage can. He looked at me expectantly. I still didn’t know what to say. He started again, ever the patient teacher. “I thought that not having anything meant I couldn’t lose anything,” he said flatly. “It took me ten years to realize that all not having anything meant was not having anything.” He walked around to the driver’s side of the car and opened the door. Before he got in, he finished his thought. “Don’t let ten years go by before you realize that.” He drove off, leaving me to myself. I sat in the park another hour. I had too much to think about.

Chapter 63 We found them the next day. The morning had gone pretty normally. Catherine was at a teachers’ union meeting asking for their support, so I conducted the weekly staff meeting. I started by apologizing for being out of the store so much. They were curious but didn’t ask for an

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explanation. Sarah watched me like I was a patient with a fragile heart condition, afraid I could die or collapse at any minute. It was unnerving. Somehow we managed to come up with some good ideas for book displays. Even the work/learn students were getting into the spirit. Joe picked me up a little before three, and we staked out the playground. Yesterday’s overcast weather had transformed into a gloriously sunny day. All the kids who missed getting to go to the playground yesterday were out today, and it seemed like they’d brought friends. We did our normal initial reconnaissance of the streets, found nothing, and then split up on foot to patrol. It was an hour or so later when I saw a familiar hop, tugging on a slower stride. I had just completed my walk around the edge of the park and was crossing through the middle. I did a double take to make sure; it was indeed Connie, leading Angela by the hand towards the swings. I hurried over to intercept them by the benches. I yelled out a greeting to them, with more urgency than they could have realized. They both looked up at the same time, their faces brightening in recognition. Angela’s face lit up like the sun, smiling broadly. She was casual, in jeans and a T-shirt, and she looked as sunny as the weather. Connie had on a little jumper with those little brightly colored plastic sandals. Just a normal mother and daughter out to the playground, with no fears or worries. Then Angela’s gaze flickered over to one of the neighboring benches, distracted momentarily by the movement of someone standing up abruptly. The smile died, fading away slowly from her mouth. The happiness on her face crumbled like Humpty Dumpty falling from that wall, shattering forever. I’ve played the scene over a thousand times in my head, and I’m sure I’ll go to my grave replaying it. After all the watching for Meyers, all the thinking about being on guard, why didn’t I see him sooner? He had grown a beard, was wearing a cap and sunglasses,

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and was dressed in baggy clothes. But I’d suspected he’d look different; I was supposed to use that dumb hunter/gatherer pea brain of mine to spot this foe. It worked well enough to find my friends’ gaits among crowds of strangers, but wasn’t it more important to detect foes first? Meyers stood, grinning fiendishly at them. He didn’t seem to have realized yet who I was. He pointed a big gun at them. “There you are,” he said cruelly. “I’ve been waiting for you.” Then, finally, he noticed me still heading towards them. He swung the gun my way. It was a big gun; looking down that barrel looked like the highway to hell. “Well, well, well,” he said gleefully. “Look who’s here, Angela -- your boyfriend. Perfect! That’s far enough, just stay there.” I halted. I wasn’t close enough to get to them before he could shoot me or them. I held my arms out beseechingly. “Be cool, Mark, just put the gun down.”

He laughed wildly. “I don’t think so. You just stay there and watch.” With that he swung the gun back towards Angela, keeping an eye on me. Angela had swept Connie behind her, and was trembling visibly. I was frozen, wondering where Joe was and if anyone else would see what was happening and get help. We were standing in the middle of a busy playground, with lots of mothers and kids, and here is this guy holding a gun on three people. Why doesn't anyone notice? I wanted to scream. Looking at Mark, I knew we didn’t have much time. “You’ve got some choices, Angela,” he said reasonably. “Do I kill Connie first, so you can watch her die? Or do I kill you first so you die wondering what I’ll do to Connie. Or maybe I should kill your boyfriend first, so you both can watch that?” He flicked the gun in my direction briefly to emphasize the latter choice.

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“He’s not my boyfriend,” Angela protested feebly. “Shut up!” he roared. “I’m not stupid!” He leveled his gun at her, then at me, then again at her, struggling to keep control. I thought we were goners right then, but he calmed down marginally. “I told you, Angela, you have to choose,” he told her coldly. “Who dies first?” I was trying to edge in closer without him noticing. He was about twenty feet from me, while Angela was maybe fifteen feet away, in a rough triangle. Before I’d moved even a couple of feet he caught the movement and pointed the gun at me. “Stay still, you asshole. You’re dead already, but you can make it worse for them.” “It doesn’t have to go this way, Mark,” I said in my best soothing voice. “Let’s just talk about it. You’re scaring Connie.” I thought he was going to shoot me then, but he just smiled thinly. “Connie should be scared. That’s what her mother tells her, isn’t it, Connie?” Connie just whimpered behind Angela’s back, peering around Angela’s hips at this nightmare in her playground. “Mark, please don’t,” Angela pleaded. “Just don’t hurt Connie. I’ll do whatever you want…” It broke my heart to hear her say that. That’s why he had come to her, I suppose, to see if he could break her spirit. She’d been through so much, and had thought she’d escaped. To face a life with him again must have cost her soul. I couldn’t imagine the magnitude of her loss.

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We stood still in our little tableau for a few seconds. Angela and Connie were waiting forlornly for whatever fate Mark chose to deal out. I was racking my brain feverishly for some angle. Mark was savoring his triumph. Then I saw Joe. He’d snuck up on Meyers’ blind side, but still was some twenty feet away. He had his gun out and he looked as dogged as I’ve ever seen anyone look. Somehow Meyers sensed him, and quickly glanced over. “Don’t move or I’ll kill them!” he shouted. Joe stopped, his gun dead center on Meyers. “Put the gun down!” he commanded. “Police!” Meyers squinted, calculating this new variable. For a half second my heart was in my throat, thinking we had a chance. If only he’d put the gun down or keep it pointed away from Angela long enough for me to get to them. Then he smiled again and I knew all was lost. “Bye, bye, Angela” he said cheerfully and turned towards Angela. It happened so fast but at the time it seemed like slow motion. Before he’d finished turning I was already moving towards them. I was in the air in a flying tackle when I heard the gun go off. The gun went off again about the same time I hit them and knocked them to the ground, covering them with my body. The bodies were too quiet. I felt moisture soak my shirt and looked down to see red. But I didn’t hear any more shots. I quickly glanced over and saw Meyers on the ground. He looked like a rag doll thrown away, arms akimbo. Joe was kicking the gun from Meyers’ hand. The second shot had been Joe’s. I sat up and took Angela in my arms. Her face was waxen, and blood was coming out of her nose and mouth. Even worse, it was all over her chest; she’d been hit dead center.

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Connie cried out suddenly, startling me. She was lying beneath Angela and me. I grabbed her and quickly pulled her out; there weren’t any wounds that I could see. She started crying for her mommy, holding onto Angela’s limp body with all her might and wailing like a banshee.

Chapter 64 The world caught up with us after that. Within seconds, it seemed, we were surrounded by police, emergency crews, and onlookers. The EMTs worked on Angela briefly, then quickly put her on a stretcher and rushed her away in an ambulance. They took Connie with them. Meyers' body was left where it had fallen, with some new detectives and technicians already dissecting the scene. The fascinated crowd gaped at the scene behind the police lines that had been hastily put up. At first the emergency team fussed over me, until they realized that none of the blood on me was mine. Then they left me alone. I sat on the ground, arms on my knees, and watched the scene dully. I couldn’t believe Angela was dead. I was desperately tired. I just wanted to go to sleep and wake up refreshed, to find that none of this had happened. Joe did most of the talking, explaining what had happened. He looked over at me every so often, his concern increasing. Finally he broke away from his fellow detectives. “Come on,” he said, helping me up. “Let’s go to the hospital and see what’s going on.” On the ride to the hospital I began to entertain hopes that Angela wasn’t dead after all. Maybe they had gotten to her in time. I shared this belief with Joe in a dumb babble. He just listened to me sympathetically, but didn’t say anything.

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We settled into a waiting area in the ER. Once again my bloody appearance at first generated a flurry of activity, but once they were satisfied that I didn’t need their help they left me alone. Soon the police had rejoined us and asked Joe and I for our versions of what happened. I gathered that it didn’t look too good for Joe that he was on a rogue stakeout, but he seemed unruffled. I gave a statement. Joe kept looking over at me. After an hour or so Jason Mitchell appeared. As fate would have it, he was on duty and had looked at both Angela and Connie. “Sean,” he said with the calm air of someone who has to deliver bad news a lot, “I’m so sorry.” Angela was dead, of course. She was dead before they left the playground. I was stupid to think that she could have survived that big hole in her chest. On the other hand, Connie was physically unharmed, but she was in shock. They had had to sedate her. The hospital was trying to find some next of kin to notify but wasn’t having any luck. I wasn’t able to help them. Before the evening was out the cavalry arrived. First Catherine and Sarah, looking very concerned for us both. Jason must have called Paige, because she showed up and gave me a big hug. There was lots of crying. But you didn’t even know her, I wanted to say. You didn’t know how much joy they had with each other. And you don’t know how close they came to escaping. Even George showed up, and immediately started conferring with Joe and the other policemen, taking charge in his typical understated way. I was numb. The people and the activity around me were blurs, just noises and shapes without substance. It was like looking through a long tunnel, which was getting smaller and smaller. The tunnel was the only connection to the outside world, only now it was too small for the world to come to me and I was too tired to go out to the world. I just sat.

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Then at the end of the tunnel Renee appeared. At first I thought I had starting to hallucinate and was imagining her. Why would she be here? She seemed to be speaking to me but I couldn’t hear anything. After all, how do you hear a hallucination? Gradually the tunnel receded, noise and light and other people came back into my world, and I was again in the ER. It was Renee, sitting beside me. She was holding onto me tightly, with a determined look on her face. When I finally made eye contact she breathed a huge sigh of relief. “I thought I’d lost you,” she said. “You were far away.” I looked at her numbly, unsure what she was doing here. The others were sitting across from us, watching. Catherine was holding Joe’s hand; Joe looked calm but completely drained. Paige was standing nervously, watching me but also trying to catch periodic glimpses of Jason to reassure her. George was sitting by Sarah, giving her some paternal comforting. Sarah looked the most upset. She gave me deeply concerned looks, but she couldn’t keep from watching Renee with a special fascination. “Let me take you home, Sean,” Renee said softly.

Chapter 65 I woke to the sounds of the coffee maker and the shower running. I was disoriented. I had no memory of getting home or going to bed, and I couldn’t understand why the coffee and the shower were on. I had to take visual inventory of my surroundings to confirm that I was indeed in my apartment. Now I waited curiously to find out who was taking a shower in my apartment. Oh, yes, of course. Renee emerged, wearing one of my shirts and drying her hair with a towel. She noticed I was awake.

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“I was wondering how long you’d sleep,” she said. “Feeling better?” I was not feeling better. Seeing her made me remember the events of yesterday, and why she was here. Angela was dead. I had failed to protect her. What was the point of anything? I sat up in bed. “What are you doing here?” She smiled. “Taking care of you, of course. Why don’t you get cleaned up and I’ll get you some breakfast.” There didn’t seem to be any point in arguing. I made my way to the bathroom, and took a long hot shower. It relieved some of the pent-up tension but I knew it would only be a temporary solace. Still, I had to admit that once I’d dried off and shaved, I did feel better. Renee had set up a light breakfast of cereal and fruit. “Not a lot of pickings in your kitchen,” she observed lightly. “Here I was hoping to make you a big breakfast with pancakes, eggs, and bacon.” I just looked at her skeptically. She had never been a big cook. We sat down and started to nibble at our food. It was an odd juxtaposition, Renee here, us eating breakfast, Angela dead. The variables just didn’t fit well together. We didn’t talk. I felt I had lots to ask her but just didn’t have the energy. We were startled by a knock at the door. Renee and I looked at each other, as though to silently ask if the other was expecting company. Neither of us was. “I’ll get it,” she volunteered. It was Joe Elmore. “Hello, Detective Elmore,” she said politely. “Ms. Meil,” he responded calmly. If he was surprised to see her in my apartment, wearing one of my shirts, he didn’t show it. Renee let him in.

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“I thought I’d come by and see how you are doing, Sean,” he told me. “Catherine told me to tell you to take a few days off. You need the rest and you’d just spend all day talking to the media anyway, so it’s best if you lay low.” He was carrying a newspaper under his arm. I looked at it with a dull fascination. He noticed I was staring at it. “Do you want to see it?” I sighed. “I don’t know, do I?” “They made us out to be heroes, you know. Two brave guys trying to save a woman and her kid from a stalker ex-husband.” Joe sounded disgusted. I took the papers. It was as bad as I’d feared. The story was the lead on the front page. Some enterprising photographer had caught a picture of me holding Angela and Connie after they’d been shot. You couldn’t tell that Angela was dead but there was blood everywhere. Joe was visible standing near us, still holding his gun and looking concerned. The look on my face was indescribable, which I suppose was why they used a picture. Someone was going to win a Pulitzer. “It was all over the news last night,” Joe said. “It even hit CNN.” I felt sick. The reporter had got it right that Joe and I had been on the lookout for Angela to warn her that Meyers might be looking for her. He’d even dug up Meyers’ record of abuse towards her, and located the police photo of Angela after a beating. Joe and I were portrayed as valiantly trying to save a woman from her past. I guessed that the police department had decided it was better to make Joe a hero than a goat, given that he’d tried to get the department to look for Meyers earlier. The story didn’t tell me what I really wanted to know. “How’s Connie?”

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Joe sat down at the table across from me. “She’s still in the hospital. She’s still sedated but should be coming around today. They’re going to hold her a few days. Physically, she’s OK, but emotionally -- it’s going to be tough.” Renee sidled around behind me. I could feel her presence but she was keeping quiet. Joe ignored her and watched me. “What will happen to her now?” I asked softly. I tried to imagine her world -- already so tough but now about to get infinitely harder -- and it made me sad beyond words. Poor Connie; my failure weighed even heavier on me. Joe shrugged. “We haven’t been able to find any next of kin, but we’ll keep checking. Her school contacted us, so we’ll talk to them about any relatives they know of. We’ll see if we can find a will, that sort of thing. Mark may have family. Personally, though, I think she’s going to end up in a foster home.” He looked glum about that prospect. We sat at the table for a few minutes. Renee offered Joe some coffee but he demurred and said he had to get going. He was going to the hospital to talk to Connie. Until the Department had officially concluded its review of his shooting, he was off duty anyway. I told him I’d stop by the hospital later. “Maybe I’ll see you then,” he said, standing. “Good to see you too, Ms. Meil.” “Renee,” she corrected him automatically. He smiled briefly and showed himself out. Renee rejoined me at the table. We sat quietly, looking at each other. I couldn’t read what she was thinking; she was just waiting patiently, and gave every indication that she’d wait there forever if she had to. “Don’t you have places you need to go?” I asked. “I appreciate your taking care of me last night, but I’m all right. Really.”

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She smiled thinly, not showing any teeth. “I’m just going to be with you for a little while,” she said matter-of-factly. “I think it’d be good for you.” “What if I want to be alone?” “Then you can be alone,” she said coolly, before adding determinedly, “but I’m still going to be with you.” The logic of her last statement escaped me, but the meaning didn’t; Renee had decided I needed a guardian and she wasn’t taking no for an answer. I was too tired to fight with her about it, and, anyway, I wasn’t sure I was opposed to the idea. I told her I wanted to walk for a while, so we got dressed -- primly, each of us in separate rooms. The apartment felt too claustrophobic, and knowing Angela’s apartment was just across the hall was especially daunting. We went outside into the late morning sunshine.

Chapter 66 “Where to?” she asked, putting on her sunglasses. She was dressed in yesterday’s clothes, except she had borrowed one of my shirts and a baseball cap. Despite the improvised nature of her outfit, she looked a hell of a lot better than I did. “I want to go see Connie,” I said absently. “But let’s walk.” We meandered towards the hospital. It was only a mile or two away, but I took a somewhat circuitous route there. As much as I wanted to see how Connie was, I had no idea what I’d say to her.

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Renee was very good about keeping quiet. She would reply if I commented on something, but otherwise was a quiet angel on my shoulder. If it hadn’t been for the novelty of her presence, I might have forgotten she was there. I didn’t feel like talking much, so we mostly ambled along. We got to the hospital about eleven. We went in through the emergency room entrance, since we saw a couple of television vans parked out front of the visitors’ entrance. I figured it could be a coincidence, or they could be staking out the entrance for possible interviews relating to the story -- especially me. Talking to them was the last thing I wanted to do. We snuck our way to the children’s ward, and found out where Connie was. She was off limits to visitors, but the nurse realized who I was and told me she was awake. She would let me see her for a half an hour. “Hi, Connie,” I said shyly, entering her room. “Can I come in?” Connie sat propped up in her bed. The television was tuned to a cartoon channel, and she was dressed in a cute set of pajamas rather than a hospital-issue pair. But she was drawn and listless, and from the looks of her breakfast tray, she wasn’t eating much. She looked at me gravely. “Hello, Sean,” she said in a small voice. “I don’t feel too good.” I sat down on her bed and stroked her hair from her forehead. “You’ve been through an awful lot, Connie. You’ve a brave little girl. You need to get some rest.” She looked at me with her big brown eyes. “Mommy’s dead,” she informed me seriously. She trembled slightly as she said this.

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I stroked her hair again. “I know, darling,” I replied. “I’m so sorry.” Her eyes started to brim over with tears and she bent forward to hug me. I held her for a few minutes, brushing her hair and making soothing noises. I couldn’t think of anything really soothing to say, so I lied to her and told her everything would be OK. But for the life of me I couldn’t see any way that it would be. “I’ll come back later,” I promised, “and maybe I’ll bring some books to read. Would you like that?” She somewhat unenthusiastically said she would, but clung to me as I stood to go. “I promise I’ll be back later, Connie. You get some rest.” I patted her head and left the room. Renee appraised me carefully, but didn’t say anything. “That was not the easiest thing I’ve ever done,” I admitted. “Let’s go to Authors’ Corner. I want to see Catherine and pick up some things.” We walked to Authors’ Corner, grabbing a hot dog from a street vendor on the way. We sat in a small park munching on them, not talking but seemingly comfortable in each other’s presence. My mind was elsewhere, but I’m not really sure where. It probably was just disengaged, not thinking about all the next steps I’d have to face eventually. A bus went by and for a second I thought about how good it would feel to just hop aboard and keep riding, going away from all this. I wanted to start over again, start clean. But I knew I couldn't and wasn't going to. The bus went off without me. Renee just watched me, not saying anything. Catherine seemed surprised to see me, especially with Renee tagging along with me. We adjourned to the coffee shop to talk, leaving Renee to browse. Out of the corner of my eye I saw John tentatively approach her to offer her his assistance, which she amusedly but politely declined. She wandered over to one of the bookshelves and started browsing.

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I told Catherine I was OK, but wouldn’t mind a day or two to regroup. She didn’t say anything, but her eyes shifted to Renee and back to indicate her curiosity about Renee’s presence. “I don’t know,” I admitted. “She wanted to come along for the day.” Catherine was noncommittal, and I wasn’t sure if she was happy or worried about Renee’s presence. Maybe both. I told her I was going to go back later, and wanted to bring some books for Connie. I expressed to her Connie’s love for books. Catherine and I went over to the children’s section to pick out a few. It helped distract us from the situation, gave us a specific task to focus on. We knew how to pick out good books for people, even for little girls. We just didn't know how to console little girls whose mother -- and father -- had just been killed in front of her. At least, I didn't. The rest of the afternoon was pretty aimless. Renee and I walked a lot, sat outside some. What we didn't do a lot of was talking; it was just enough to not be alone. We stopped in at the hospital in the late afternoon, running into Joe on his way out. Joe flicked his detective eyes at Renee again, asking me a nonverbal question, and I silently shrugged in return. I don’t know what it meant either. Connie seemed a little livelier, and was openly happy about the books. I read one of the stories to her for about an hour, until the hospital staff shooed me off so she could get her dinner. Renee and I got some dinner ourselves, and on impulse I asked her if she felt like seeing a movie. Movies were always a good escape for me. You don’t have to talk, you don’t have to have a life; for an hour and a half or so you can watch other people’s lives get

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messed up and -- usually -- repaired. Life never looks as complicated, or as simple, as in the movies. She agreed as placidly as she’d gone along with everything else, and we caught something at the Fine Arts. I wasn’t sure what it was supposed to be about when we went in and I wasn’t all that much more sure when we left. It was a love story of sorts, I suppose, but the plot twists and turns left me somewhat confused and more than a little frustrated. Late in the movie Renee again put her head on my shoulder, like she had while dancing. It was an old habit from previous, better times. I don’t think she meant to imply anything by it; I believe it was an unconscious reflex on her part. She often had done this in movies or at concerts. The closeness of that connection had never failed to thrill me in the past, and it did on this day as well. I was already confused enough about what we were doing, and this intimacy in a dark theater worried and confused me even more. Still, sitting there watching the twenty foot tall images move on the screen, I found myself melting into that pseudo embrace, grateful and longing. We walked back to my apartment, talking a little about the movie. Renee had picked up on a few things I hadn’t, as usual. It was the closest thing to a real conversation we’d had all day. When we reached my building we stopped, unsure what to do next. Renee just looked at me. “Thanks for hanging around me today,” I said. “It was…nice to have you with me. I’m sorry I wasn’t better company.” In fact, I was realizing that it had been incredibly helpful to have her with me. Her presence was a warm comfort, silent or not. I was glad she hadn’t listened to me at breakfast and left me alone. She just smiled tenderly and reached up to pat me softly on the cheek. "I thought we split up because you didn't like having to take care of me," I said carefully. I floated it like it was a joke, but of course it wasn't.

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The words she had said to me -- not in anger but in the truth as she'd seen it -- at that last dinner in our condo had stuck with me all these months. My failing to take care of her, and myself. Her dismay over my helplessness. I tried not to think about them, had done my best to block out that whole sad scene. But it was like trying to hide a deep wound under a temporary bandage. You can pretend it's not there, even hope that it is healing if you don't look at it. But then something comes along and jabs you, and you know it is still open and bleeding. "Hey, just for the record: you left me," she surprised me. I stood there stupidly, feeling suddenly hurt, and then I caught her smile. "But all right -- just this once I'm making an exception." We stood silently for a moment, exchanging frank looks. I didn't know what she saw, but I saw the woman I still loved, and there was nothing I could do about it. She leaned up on her toes and kissed me gently on the lips. “Get some rest yourself. I’ll be thinking about you.” That psychic wound all of a sudden didn't seem so bad. There might always be a scar, but nothing I couldn't live with. It was healing. I fell asleep with lots of dreams, tossing and turning for hours before falling into a deep stupor.

Chapter 67 The gang at Authors’ Corner seemed surprised to see me the next day, but gamely tried to pretend everything was normal. Catherine gave me a maternal eye, checking me out to make sure I was OK, and I gave her a what-are-you-going-to-do look in return. John, Jessica, and the others tiptoed around me like I might break.

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Sarah stopped by and invited me to go to lunch with her. I was going to decline, feeling like being alone, but I caught Catherine giving me an encouraging look, so I changed my mind and accepted. We walked over to one of the delis. We both got soup and salad, and some fruit, and sat in on a bench in the neighborhood square. The weather had stayed good, so there was some nice sun and comfortable temperatures. We watched the shoppers walking around; not weekend busy, but nicely busy for a weekday. I caught Sarah observing with her civic association eye. There wasn’t much conversation. Both of us knew there were some big topics between us but neither of us knew how to broach them. We were usually comfortable being together even when we weren’t talking, but today it felt awkward. Sarah jumped in first. “How are you doing?” she asked with real concern. I shrugged. “Kind of crummy, to tell you the truth,” I admitted. “I can’t stop thinking about Angela. I wish I could change things to make them come out differently. And I’m really worried for her kid. Aside from that I’m peachy.” She put her hand on mine. “I’m really sorry. But you have to know you did all you could. You can’t beat yourself up about it.” “I know, I know. But you don’t know how sad it is for them. She just couldn’t get away from that jerk, and now Connie is going to pay the price for it.” I looked away and pursed my lips grimly. Talking about it just reminded me what a failure I’d been. I wadded up the trash from our lunch and threw it at the garbage can a few feet away. I missed. Grimacing, I walked over, retrieved it, and slammed it in the garbage. Sarah looked at me, barely controlling her smile.

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“Better?” I hesitated, then broke into a smile too. “Better.” We both laughed. We sat for a while longer, chatting about inane things. The tension was mostly broken. I still felt bad, but it was good to have a friend like her to console me. It was hard to be too down with Sarah around; that ineffable optimism and faith in me was always like a booster shot to my spirits. We walked back to the bookstore, her arm in mine. “I was surprised to see Renee at the emergency room,” she said delicately, careful not to look at me. “I hear she was with you yesterday too.” News travels fast, I guess. I sighed. “I was surprised to see her at the ER too,” I confessed. “I don’t know how she heard. Then she offered to spend the day with me yesterday, and it helped.” I looked at her. “I don’t know what it all means.” She nodded thoughtfully, then smiled bravely. “I’m glad she helped you.” With that she said her good-byes, kissed me lightly on the cheek, and we both went back to work. She was quite a woman. The rest of the day was uneventful. I stopped in to see Connie a couple of times, reading her a story in the afternoon. She seemed to be regaining her appetite and her spirits, but still was subject to mood swings. I ran into Joe and he told me he'd found Angela's sister, and she and her husband were coming to get Connie. So that was a huge load off my mind. I asked him when they'd get here; I wanted to make sure Connie was going to be in good hands -- not that I would have any say about it. A couple days went by. The press furor gradually died down. I had refused all interviews, and they were getting tired of talking to the same people. Another murder took place that grabbed the headlines.

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I met Connie's new parents at the hospital. Angela's sister was an older version of her -not as pretty, but with some of the sparkle. Her husband seemed a solid citizen. They had two kids and were glad to take in Connie. "I wish Angela would have listened to us and come to live with us years ago," Angela's sister said, with tears in her eyes. She looked like she hadn’t slept in a couple of days, and perhaps she hadn’t. We were sitting in a waiting room getting to know each other. Mark had forbid Angela from being in contact with them for most of her marriage, and even after she'd left him they had not talked as much as they'd wanted. In some ways, I might have been the one who had been closest to her in those last few months, which made me even sadder. "Mark was such a jerk," the husband muttered vehemently. "I just wish I…" His voice trailed off. Amen, brother, I thought. They took me in to see Connie so we could say our good-byes. We both cried a little, and I promised I'd come see her. I wasn't sure how I was going to keep that promise, but I'd find some way. She'd be better off there, in a family with relatives and other children, than she could be staying here -- but I'd miss her. I started walking down the hall, but stopped when I heard someone call my name. It was Angela's sister. I stopped and waited for her. We stood facing each other. It was odd, seeing this different, and still living, version of Angela. I didn't bear this woman any ill will -- but I still wished it were Angela and not her sister. "I'm really sorry about things," I started. The weight of my failure with Angela felt especially heavy right now. It reminded me of failing with Renee. At least Renee wasn't dead.

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She put her hand up to stop me. "Don't," she commanded. "We owe you so much." I looked down the hall, at all those busy people rushing around helping other people. She had it wrong; I owed her -- I owed her a sister that I could never, ever repay. She shook her head, with a curious look of tenderness on her face. She smiled at me. Looking at her face, so like Angela's, I felt for a moment that it was really Angela speaking to me, from wherever she now was. Letting me know that it was all right, that things had worked out in the only way they could have. “You didn’t fail Angela,” she said fiercely. “You saved Connie.” She was right.

Chapter 68 I got my next surprise the next morning. George stopped by the bookstore in mid-day. I was talking with Catherine about some issues, and he came up to us. “How’s business?” he asked in his typical inscrutable manner. We talked for a few minutes, bringing him up to date on the store and some of the other businesses. George always liked to keep his pulse on everything. I hadn’t seen George since the emergency room, and hadn’t talked to him even then. Neither of us brought it up. “Sean, take a walk with me,” George suggested when he got ready to leave. Catherine nodded her head imperceptibly to indicate it was OK, so I agreed.

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We walked out by the square. It was a busy day, especially for a weekday. I could make out small groups of what looked like people from a convention, exploring on their break. I sometimes played a game of trying to guess the organization by the appearance of the attendees, but I rarely succeeded. Today was no better. Even aside from them, there were couples coming out for lunch, young mothers out shopping, and other eclectic examples of people coming to the neighborhood. All drawn by what we'd done. George pointed out some of his developments, which were coming along very nicely. The buildings were those great old buildings, with lots of character and flourishes. They had been well built, just not well maintained. George’s people had been able to take advantage of the timeless architecture and yet bring things up-to-date. Nice digs by any standard. They were going to make good homes. “Very nice,” I said. George looked around. "We did good work here. At this point of my life, what I want is to provide people with better places to work and to live. I’ve got all the money I need. This development really got me excited. And you know what? This whole project wouldn’t have happened without you. This whole neighborhood would have continued to languish if you hadn’t jump-started things.” I started to make some vague protestations, but he wasn’t done. “It’s not just me. Look at Catherine’s life and its new directions. Look at Authors’ Corner. Look at Sarah and what’s happened to her in the last few months. Look at all the stores that are thriving here because of your idea. Look at the people starting to move back to this neighborhood. Are you getting the point? You’ve helped an awful lot of people." I shook my head cynically. "You're not getting all sentimental on me now, are you George?"

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He flashed a rare big smile, acknowledging the point made. "Don't worry; I'm still going to make plenty of money from all this. But it occurred to me that maybe you're finally ready to come really work for me." I didn't say anything, just looked out at the busy square. "If you don't want to work for me, I'd be glad to make some calls for you about other lines of work," George offered. "I know lots of people. Even in Chicago." That got my attention. “What do you mean?” He smiled; it was maddening sometimes, that small smile of his. It always seemed like he knew things you didn’t and was enjoying it -- not making fun of you, but enjoying knowing things. “You certainly lived up to your reputation, Sean Meil." I stared at him. I knew what he was saying without saying it. “How long have you known?” I asked. "I like to know who I do business with,” he said cheerfully. “I talked to some people I know in Chicago after our first meeting. It wasn’t hard to find people who knew you. Just like it wasn’t hard to decide to work with you on this.” Several thoughts hit me, not in any particular order. “What does Catherine know?” He cocked his head slightly to the right, appraising me. “I like to know who I do business with, but I hold my cards close to my vest, as you may have noticed. I figured Catherine should know what you wanted to tell her.” “And what about Renee? Did you check up on her when you were thinking of hiring her?”

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This evoked the rarest of things from George: a full smile. I’d never seen that before. “Ah, Renee, or Elizabeth McKinney. Ms. Meil. No, I didn’t have to check up on her when she came to see me. I already knew who she was.” George had been holding his cards longer than almost anyone else, waiting to see how the hand would play out. He must have been so amused when Renee showed up on his door. I wondered who had steered whom to the proposed marketing study; maybe Renee wasn’t as slick as she’d thought. All the time he knew who I was, who she was, and why she wanted to be here. And none of us knew he was pulling those strings. He must be one hell of a poker player indeed. No wonder he always had that smile; he really did know more than the people around him did. There was one more thing I needed to know. “Did you do the deal because of who you thought I was?” Now he looked at me with some reproach. “Sean, Sean, you know better. I don’t do deals that don’t make sense, regardless of who they are with. But I also won’t do deals that sound good if I don’t trust the people I’m working with. The deal got done on its merits, and on yours and Catherine’s.” George smiled at me with an almost fatherly look. “A man can leave his life, Sean, but he can’t leave who he is.” “And who am I?” George looked at me quite steadily, and quite seriously. “A man I’m honored to know and to do business with.” High praise indeed. He was an unusual man, to say the least. I was touched and not quite sure what to say. “George, I don’t know how to thank you for everything,” I told him

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sincerely. “Your offer, the chance to work on this neighborhood project, even Renee. I just don’t know what to say.” His eyes twinkled. “Like I’ve been telling you -- when you’re ready, you come work with me.” And he was off.

Chapter 69 On my way in I saw Renee and Sarah leaving. I stopped to see what was up, expecting that they would also stop and talk to me. But they just waved merrily and said hello and good-bye, then were out the door. More confusion; Catherine and Sarah together caused me enough trouble, so this was a potentially even more volatile combination. I wasn’t sure I liked that. Catherine was watching the scene with great amusement from the register. I walked over and plopped down on a stool next to her. “What was that all about?” I asked. “I suspect they are going out to lunch,” she said innocently. “Maybe they’ll do some shopping too.” “Don’t you start in on me too,” I pleaded. “I’ve already had a trying day.” She faked an emphatic pose, then we both laughed. It was hard to feel sorry for myself around Catherine. For some reason I didn’t tell her about George knowing my background, or what he had known -- when -- about Renee. I guess I liked that Catherine knew me as the Sean Meil I’d become, not the Sean Meil I might have been once. I didn’t want to bring that past here.

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"Hey, it's girlfriend number one," Catherine observed, looking out the window. "Too bad she wasn't here a couple minutes sooner. She could have joined your other two women." It was Paige. She trooped into the store. Catherine gave me a smirk. "Hey, Sean. Hi, Catherine," she said cheerfully. "Catherine, can I borrow Sean for a quick walk?" Catherine nodded, suppressing a smile. We went outside, and retraced some of the steps George and I had just finished. If anyone else noticed, they didn't show it. I couldn’t help but thinking that a few months ago she’d have been terrified to be outside. “How’s Jason?” I inquired. She told me he was good and she’d see him later in the evening. She wasn’t sure if this was marriage-bound or not, but it was nice for now. “Jason tells me you visited that little girl every day,” she said. “I’m sure she appreciates that.” I made a face. “I met her new parents today -- Angela's sister and her husband.” I paused, searching for the right words. I tried to make a joke out of it, but it fell flat. “Tough trade -- a sister for a daughter.” She stopped us and turned so she was facing me. She put her hands on my shoulders, and stared directly into my eyes. “Listen here, Mr. Meil,” she said sternly. “Bad things happen for no reason. Good people have bad things happen to them.” I must have looked unconvinced. She pressed on. “Does that sound familiar? That’s what you told me when I needed to hear it. If you didn’t mean it then I’ll be really mad, because it helped me. I just wish you’d let someone help you and stop blaming yourself.”

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I studied her. She meant it, and was adamant about convincing me. And she was right; I had meant those words when I said them to her. This beautiful, assured, caring woman with me was the old Paige, the one who had started down those brownstone steps all those months ago. She'd had a terrible accident, but -- like a victim of a bad bone fracture -- she had healed stronger than ever. Still, also like that fracture victim, sometimes if you knew where to look you could still detect signs of the aftermath, like the hint of a limp. Stronger and sadder, they often go hand in hand. Paige had lived through an experience she shouldn't have had to have, but she was all right now. And I'd helped. “Thanks, Paige,” I said gratefully, “I guess I’m just feeling sorry for myself.” She scolded me warmly, and we finished our walk, said good-byes. She hugged me longer than normal, and I think her eyes were a little misty when she pulled away. Catherine just gave me a look when I came inside. "If you gave me an office I wouldn't have to take all my meetings outside," I defended myself. She smiled, and nodded towards the departing Paige. "So I take it girlfriend number one is a closed door," she said. I crossed my arms. "That door was never open." She arched her eyebrows. "Oh, it was open all right. You just didn't want to go through it. That's OK; you still have door number two and door number three to choose between." We both knew who she was talking about. I sat down next to her wearily. "I know," I said. "I know, I know, I know…"

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"Listen," she interrupted, "I've been thinking about that. Did George offer you a job?” “Just his usual,” I replied. It seemed an odd segue, but I figured she had some reason. Catherine looked uneasy. “I worry about hanging on to you as an employee.” I gave her a dubious stare. “What do you mean? Are you afraid I’ll walk away to a better offer?” “Maybe,” she said. “Or maybe you’re get bored putting books on shelves. Maybe your lifestyle will change.” We looked at each other for several moments. “I don’t know what to tell you, Catherine,” I said hesitantly. “I -She interrupted me before I could finish my sentence. “So I was thinking I had a better shot at keeping you around as a partner than as an employee. If leaving will make you happy, then you have my blessing. But maybe the book business has gotten in your blood a little bit. What about it, partner? Fifty-fifty.” For the second -- or maybe the third -- time today I was speechless. I could understand her being anxious about me leaving, but I hadn’t expected this. “Catherine, are you serious?” I said intently. “This is your baby, your life. You can’t just give half of it away.” “I can do anything I want,” she said flippantly. “Besides, you helped bring about all this, and then there's city council. My focus is going to change somewhat.” "What does this have to do with -- what'd you say? Doors number one and two?"

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Catherine looked self-satisfied. "I figure George's offer would fit pretty well with door number three, and maybe give you reasons to leave. I figured maybe I could give you some more reasons to stay." I studied her. "And helping door number two's case?" She rocked her head back and forth briefly. "Maybe." She put a hand on my arm. "Maybe not. Sean, I'm not trying to get in the middle of that. They are both great ladies. You have to follow your heart. The way I look at it, you're at a crossroads in your life. I thought I could keep one of the roads from seeming narrower than it had to." I shook my head in wonder, smiling slightly. “Can I think about it?” I asked softly.

Chapter 70 I was looking forward to a relaxing dinner with Renee. It was funny how quickly the prospect of being with her had reverted from being almost scary to being comforting. Despite all of our baggage and unresolved issues, I wanted to end my day with her, to tell her all the things that had happened. I’d gone for so long without anyone to do that with. Then again, I’d gone for months without much happening to me. She came by the store a little before eight. I suggested we go to the diner, but she coyly said she’d just been to lunch there with Sarah, as if daring me to ask her why. I didn’t take the bait -- yet. We went to the Thai restaurant. As was now usual, there was a decent crowd. It had gotten off to a slow start when it first opened. I guess it took some time for people to get less skittish about coming to dinner here, and, frankly, this was not a big town for Thai food anyway. I wondered where all

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the patrons used to eat. If you go from Chinese to Thai, can Vietnamese be far behind? Sort of a domino effect. After we’d settled in and placed our order, I casually asked, “so, how was lunch with Sarah?” She beamed at me. “Oh, it was very nice. She’s such a nice young girl. I can see why you two are … friends.” She lingered over the word “friends” long enough to imply some ambiguity. Dropping her voice and leaning in towards me, she added, “you know she’s got a big crush on you, don’t you?” I made a pretense of squirming, and admitted that I did. She sat back, looking satisfied. “I couldn’t blame you if anything had happened with her.” I thought this was an opening, her telling me that all was forgiven, that she would understand if Sarah and I had gotten involved. I wasn’t sure what she hoped I’d say in response. I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to tell her. Should I tell her I’d thought quite a lot about getting involved with Sarah, or that she’d suggested it more than once? Telling her that would just mean telling her why I hadn’t. And I wasn’t quite ready. “I like Sarah an awful lot,” I said slowly. “She was my good friend when I didn’t have any friends…” Renee watched me carefully. Was she trying to verify the accuracy of my statement, or trying to figure out what I might be leaving out? In the end she just smiled a knowing smile and touched my hand sympathetically. Fortunately we were soon interrupted by the food. She’d ordered a chicken with curry sauce, while I’d opted for my usual noodles. She dove into her entree with her usual gusto, savoring the spiciness and the taste, and nibbling at my plate periodically. I enjoyed watching her eat. She wasn’t one of these women who pick at food and always

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order salads. She ate like she enjoyed it, and one couldn’t watch her without starting to think that she was a woman of large appetites generally. Fortunately she had the good genes to get away with this. I started to tell her about my last couple days. It all came out in sort of a jumble. My feelings about failing Angela, and what Paige, Sarah, and Angela's sister had said about that. Joe’s history, belying his tough exterior, and his willingness to keep fighting these battles. George knowing who both I was and who Renee was. She generally listened attentively, encouraging me, but not really responding. The latter, though, got a reaction. “You’re kidding,” she laughed. “He knew who I was when I walked in to see him? I was so careful!” She threw her head back and laughed joyfully. “It just goes to show you that you’re never as smart as you think,” she said decisively. “Here I am thinking I was putting something over on everyone, that I’d come up with this great ploy, and my cover is blown the first minute.” She shook her head in admiration. Maybe she should go to work for George. “Think how I felt,” I said. “Here I thought I’d covered my tracks so well and he figures out my background right off.” “Well, let’s be realistic -- you’re not some meek little book clerk,” she pointed out. “I don’t think you really fooled people very long. People had to know that you were more than you let on.” I told her about Catherine’s offer. “Full partner, with no capital outlay on my part,” I told her. “She’s built this great bookstore, which is turning into this great brand, and now she’s willing to share it with me. It’s too generous.”

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Renee made a dismissive face. “Catherine is a great lady; I really like and respect,” she said. “But she needed a partner like you to really make things happen. I bet she’s made more in the last few months than she made in the last few years.” “…but who’s counting,” I teased. We laughed. She looked at me seriously. “So, are you going to accept it? Do you have book selling in your blood?” I was suddenly restless. We’d polished off our plates, and had pretty much had closed down the restaurant. The other patrons had dwindled away while we were talking, and the staff was hovering over us, anxious for us to leave so they could clean up and go home themselves. “Come on,” I said abruptly, “let’s go for a walk.” Her question hung over us, but she didn't press. We paid and went outside. She surprised me slightly by taking my arm, much as Sarah had a couple of days ago. It felt warm and comfortable to me, the weight of her implied body behind it a gentle reminder of her closeness. "Let's go to your place," she whispered in an inviting tone I remembered. Once there, I felt bad having this beautiful woman in my crummy little apartment. It had been one thing when she was nursing me after a harrowing experience, but it definitely was not the kind of place I'd want to bring a woman at the end of what was looking suspiciously like a romantic evening. I started to apologize to her, but she stopped me. “It's OK,” she admitted cynically. “It’s not Lake Shore Drive but it’s not too bad. After all, you're here.”

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Her comment sobered us. The reminder of Chicago brought old thoughts, old memories, and not a few old pains. We stood close enough to realize we were close, not so close as to do anything about it. “Sean,” she said unsteadily. “You know when I told you I’d understand if you and Sarah had been involved?” I nodded uncertainly. “I have a confession to make of my own.” “No, Renee, really,” I interrupted, “It’s OK, you don’t have to explain anything to me…” “Yes, yes, I do,” she replied fiercely. “Just let me say this. When you left last year I was really hurt. Hurt and confused and I don’t know what all else. I wouldn’t see people, I stopped talking to friends. Then I got mad. I decided to put you out of my mind, out of my life. And I started dating. I dated a couple people, and I got kind of involved with one of them. He’s no one you know, but we went out for about a month. He took it slow, understood my situation, but, to make a long story short, we ended up sleeping together. Once.” “Renee, don’t…” I said softly. “Just let me finish,” she said doggedly. She looked out of the window at the lights of the street, or maybe she was drawn in by the dark behind the lights. The mix of light and shadows played across her concerned face in a complex pattern. I loved that face. She was so beautiful, and so fiery. Despite what she was telling me, there was no fear in her expression, just determination. I thought I also saw a longing behind the determination, and I loved her all the more for both the longing and the determination. This was the Renee I remembered, the Renee I’d been in love with. “I woke up in the middle of the night, and all I could think was ‘what the hell am I doing here, with him?’ I left, and haven’t seen him since. I didn’t date after that.”

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She was silent then for a long time, but still wouldn’t look at me. She was either gathering up strength or waiting for me to say something. “Is that when you hired the private detective?” I asked quietly. She looked up at me, surprised. She let out a short burst of laughter, not sounding very amused. “So you know about that, do you?” she asked. “How long have you known?” “I just found out a few days ago. Joe told me when we were looking for Angela and Connie.” She watched me, looking at me like she was waking from a dream. Finally she smiled, a slight smile of loss and pain, and maybe some gain. “You were hard to find, you know? No credit cars, no phone, no bank account, no utilities, no voter registration. Your lawyer even blocked us from getting information from Social Security. I was beginning to think we’d never find you, but then one of his contacts stumbled on your name in a police report. We thought we had you then, only to find out that you’d given a post office box for your address.” She looked quizzically sat me. “Do you ever check that thing?” she asked. “He staked it out for over a week with no sign.” I shrugged apologetically. “I don’t get much mail, and what I do get can usually wait.” “Detective Elmore wouldn’t give my guy any more information, just gave him that stony look. He couldn’t figure why Elmore would protect you like that. I just thought to myself, that’s just Sean -- people always want to help him. So finally I had to go see Elmore myself. I met him a couple times, telling him a little more each time. I don’t know what finally caused him to change his mind, but he finally gave me your address and where you worked.”

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She smiled at her success, but it was a smile with no mirth. The search had cost her in ways I didn’t understand yet. “I know why he finally told you,” I admitted after a pause. I watched her, soaking in the lines of her face. She turned to look at me and we matched eye for eye, stare for stare. “He and I had a talk on the roof of my building. We were talking about Angela.” “Is this when her husband’s friend got beat up?” she asked, squinting her eyes. I nodded. Then, with some growing realization, she added breathlessly. “That was you, wasn’t it? You were already trying to protect her and the girl.” “Yeah, Joe figured it out too, although he never directly called me on it. He did ask why I thought people went out of their way to help strangers, like an Angela Meyers or a Paige Atkinson.” “And why do they?” she asked pointedly. “Why did you?” We stared wordlessly at each other for a few moments. She seemed as though she was hanging on my next words, and I wanted to be careful about what I said. The only sounds were occasional cars on the street. We were suspended in our own world, our own little lunar module. “I guess I told him that I was hoping someone would protect you, since I couldn’t,” I told her gently. “I didn’t say it exactly that way, but that’s what he heard.” I don’t know which shell broke first, but we suddenly crumpled into each other. Those few inches separating us, which just a few minutes had seemed tantalizingly close but at the same time impossibly far, were bridged in an instant. We fell into a deep, deep embrace.

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Chapter 71 This is the part where the old movies would fade to black. I’m sure lots of people would like all the gory details, but I’m not that kind of guy. Suffice it to say that, despite the poor furniture, despite the uncertainty of what the hell we were doing, we connected in a very meaningful way. It may not have been the right time, it probably wasn’t the right place, but somehow we mutually decided this was when it was going to be. Renee was even more beautiful than I’d remembered. Her body, once so familiar to me, was a new country to explore, to claim, and to share. I touched her everywhere, emboldened by her pleasure. I’d forgotten just how passionate she could be, and her passion surpassed even my best memories. I’d not been with a woman since I left her, and had kept most of those feelings buried. Renee brought them out, leaving me gasping and dumb. We challenged each other to greater and greater heights. Eventually we left ourselves spent and sprawling on the bed, satisfied and with our limbs entwined. “Wow!” she exclaimed. “Wow is right,” I echoed. “I take it back; ‘wow’ may be too mild. I think we need stronger words.” We cooed and cuddled for some time, absorbed with each other. I kept stroking her soft skin and smooth curves, amazed by the feelings it brought back. I felt almost sad, feeling intensely responsible for this fragile human being in my arms. “I told you that you were ferocious,” I teased. “Yes,” she said seriously, “yes, I am.” And she was silent, watching me languidly with her deep blue eyes.

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A thought that had been nagging me at the back of my brain for days finally popped free. I didn’t know why I thought of it then, unless on the theory that you need to be distracted to pull up lost thoughts. I certainly was thinking of other things. “Renee,” I said conversationally, “you know when you came to get me in the ER?” She nodded solemnly. “How did you get there so quickly?” She grew still, stopped her caressing my chest, and let out a soft sigh. “I heard it on the news.” “In Chicago? You still couldn’t have gotten here that quickly.” She held her breath, then tersely said, “No. I was already here.” I considered this for a few seconds. Part of me wanted to just drop it, and just enjoy laying here with her. But we both knew I had to keep asking. That was the kind of people we were. “Why were you here? You had just told me the day before that you wouldn’t be here for a couple more days.” Her face froze, slowly, reluctantly. With great effort she untangled herself from me and sat up, wrapping her arms around her bent knees. I let her go, and sat up myself. We looked out the window at the now totally deserted streets, neither of us saying anything. Finally she roused herself from her thoughts. “There’s more that I haven’t told you, Sean.” She glanced over at me and gave an apologetic smile. “You’ve got a few more surprises coming today.” She looked back out through the window. She hugged herself more tightly, and seemed to steel herself for what she had to say. She had an ironic look on her face. “I don’t live in Chicago anymore. I moved here several months ago.”

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She paused, and shot a quick glance over at me. I’m not sure what she saw on my face, probably something between impassive and encouragement, but also curiosity. I wasn't sure myself what I was feeling. She continued. “As soon as Elmore gave me your address I started visiting here, watching you, following you. That didn’t work out too well with my job, so I quit and started consulting. Just packed in my career and left. You can imagine how my parents took that.” We both smiled at the thought. “At that point, I didn’t know what I wanted. I just, I don’t know, wanted to know you more. The private detective managed to talk to some of the people you’d known here, and I talked to a few as well. Mostly, though, I just watched you. I thought a few times you even saw me.” She paused, so I broke in softly, “I did. I thought I was imagining you. I didn’t think there was any way you could have found me.” She laughed. “Well, like I said, it wasn’t easy.” She grew serious again. “Anyway, the more I watched you, the more I missed you. You think you had such a solitary life here, but you’re wrong. You had that twinkle in your eye again. You don’t see how people brighten up when you come in the room, or how much you seem to enjoy them. Your friends here, the customers in the store. I had to talk to them, to see how they knew you and what they were to you, so I thought up this idea to talk to George about a marketing study. The rest is history.” We sat in the near dark, arms folded around our knees and no longer touching each other, hidden away in a tiny room. We both had a smile on our faces, amused by the memories but also saddened by the gap. We'd had to lose so much to get to this point, and it still wasn't clear what would happen from here. “You know what Catherine told me?” she said impulsively. “She and I have talked a lot, more than you know. I told her about the twinkle in your eyes and how I loved you for that. She told me the difference between you and most people is that most people just

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hope not to be unhappy. You want to be happy, and you spread that to everyone around you. It’s like a virus, a good one. She’s right. And I don’t want to settle for just not being unhappy. I want to be happy, to be joyful and really alive again -- like I once was with you.” I was touched, both my Catherine’s description and by Renee’s sharing it with me. I wasn’t sure I agreed about the effect I was supposed to have, but there were worse things I could have put on my tombstone. “The morning I left,” I said absently, musing at the thoughts that were floating of their own volition in my head. She winced at the memory. “Yes?” “I didn’t just leave. I came into the bedroom and watched you sleep. It was so hard leaving; I can’t tell you.” She smiled slowly, a look of infinite sadness and regrets. It was the kind of look that only comes out late at night, in the dark, with ex-lovers. I thought the depths of the pain in it could drown us both. “I know,” she whispered. “I was awake. I just didn’t let you know. I was awake most of that night, and most of the time I sat in the living room watching you toss and turn. I couldn’t believe I’d lost you…” Her eyes filled with tears but she bravely kept from crying. I reached over and touched her chin, pulled it to face me. Our foreheads touched gently, as though we were trying to communicate directly through our skulls, bypassing words. We looked seriously at each other. "What about the taking care of thing?" I finally asked. "I got it wrong," she said simply. "We're supposed to take care of each other. I let you down; you didn't fail me." For a time, I didn't have the right words. Then I did. “You’re still the most beautiful woman in the room,” I whispered back. Now the tears started to leak slowly, and she

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made no move to stop them. I brushed them away tenderly. “What now, my ferocious Renee? What is it that you want?” Her face slowly filled with confidence like a sail filling with air. “Why, my Sean,” she said lightly, pulling back so she could take a full look at me. “I want you back.”

Chapter 72 The next day I went to work as normal. My head was spinning, and I just wanted a day doing everyday things. Catherine was coming in as I was going out. She gave me a concerned look. “I’m on my way out for the day,” she said. “Talk tomorrow?” I was not quite ready to give her any answers anyway. “Sure,” I told her. “Have fun.” The day passed quickly. I buried myself into the store. I got caught up on the store’s financials, which were still holding up very nicely. We were exceeding even my aggressive projections from last fall, with solid trend lines. The staff meeting -- I’d missed the last couple -- was lively. I enjoyed the give-and-take. We were able to kid John about some of his more utopian ideas without him taking offense. Despite his occasional bloopers, he still always managed a couple of solid ideas that were at least singles or doubles. I was proud of him. Jessica chirped in with some good ideas, having grown more confident with each successful idea. A couple of the newer people still needed coaxing, but were getting into the spirit. Our earn-and-learn kids were proving to be a big help. One of them was a computer geek, and had helped launch our Web page. We were getting more hits every day, and starting to generate some orders from it. I liked the way it looked -- it had the hip, intelligent, even sassy attitude we wanted the store to project.

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Sarah liked the site too, and had “borrowed” the student to tinker with the civic association’s site too, encouraging the other stores to develop their own sites with a consistent feel. “It’s taking some doing,” she admitted, “but we’ll get these guys into the 21st century soon.” About half of the neighborhood businesses were set up already. She suggested we submit our site for consideration in a national contest for small business Web sites. I stopped Sarah after the meeting. We had unfinished business, business that I had to resolve before I could make any decisions about Renee. “Hi, stranger,” I said. “I’d like to catch up. Are you going to be home after work tonight?” She didn’t look too surprised, as though she had been expecting this. “Sure, just stop by when you’re done here. I’ll be up.” Business was pretty busy. I made conversation with some of our regulars. It was fun to see what people were reading, to talk with them about it and even to make suggestions to them. More than a few would mention some book or author I’d recommended, and thank me for it. It made me feel pleased, proud to have brought even that little bit of pleasure into their lives. And some of them had suggestions for me as well, which I dutifully wrote down for future reading. I was thinking, too, about what Renee had told me about my last night in Chicago. I was haunted by the image of her awake and listening to me in the other room. It was so ironic, I thought. What if I’d known she was awake? If she had simply said, “stay,” would I have? I wouldn’t have gone back to the bank, I was sure, but perhaps I could have done my soul searching there with her. ‘If,’ ‘perhaps,’ ‘what if’-- all these were pointless to me now. I had gone, she had let me go, and my world was irrevocably altered. I couldn’t recapture that past.

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I'd jumped in those dark waters long ago, not caring if I'd drowned, and had just floated here until events took their own course. I hadn't planned any of this. Renee, though, had jumped into those menacing waters after me, knowing there were shoals and other dangers. She was going to find me, swimming doggedly and intrepidly against all the tides that threatened to divert me. Maybe it had started out as her needing closure, or maybe even then she'd known what she'd wanted. Whatever the original motive, she'd managed to find me, despite my best efforts to be invisible. She'd eventually given up everything from her old life too -- not out of despair like I had, but out of love. She was a magnificent woman, better than I deserved. I shooed the last customers out around ten, and straightened up for tomorrow. I said goodnight to the staff and walked one of the remaining staff to her car. We talked briefly about her schedule for the next couple days, and she drove off with a wave. I looked around. No Paige waiting. No Renee. No potential muggers lurking in the shadows. It was a warm night, with an almost full moon and the stars shining brightly, at least as brightly as they can under the streetlights. I walked to Sarah’s, passing by Brewed Heaven II. They had a folk singer playing, attracting a scruffy crowd of what looked to be graduate students. Hey, I hoped they drank a lot of coffee. I recognized a few of them; they’d bought more than a few books from us over the last few months. The restaurants were empty or emptying out. The cinema/grill had let out, and small lumps of the crowd still were floating, discussing the movie and debating where to go. Some of them might end up at Brewed Heaven II; some would go to one of the two new bars in the neighborhood. I was satisfied. George was right; we'd done good things. Sarah buzzed me in, and I walked up to her apartment. She’d added some more decorations to her place, filling up some of the space. She was -- not surprisingly -- big on historical pieces and pictures, turning her apartment into an almost mini-museum. The pictures I’d given her at Christmas were displayed in a special place. I’d kidded her

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in the past about loaning the civic association some of her collection for a traveling exhibit, but it was getting to the point when she could actually do it. She looked relaxed. She was wearing a pair of short cut-off jeans and a T-shirt. The Tshirt was a proto-type for a street festival the neighborhood was going to have in a couple of weeks; I’d not seen it before. She noticed me looking at it. “Like it?” she asked, pirouetting like a model. “I just got these in.” “Very nice,” I commented. “Now the trick is getting all of the crowd to be as cute as you in them.” She gave me an appreciative peck on the cheek and sat me down on the couch. She asked if I wanted a drink, and then got a couple of beers for us. “So,” she said, curling up next to me, “I hear you’ve had a couple of big days.” I took a long drink of the beer. It felt cool and refreshing. “Yeah,” I admitted. “It’s been a long couple days, after a long week.” I was quiet for a couple minutes, and she let me stew in my own thoughts. “I hear Catherine asked you to be her partner, and George offered you a job,” she said, peeking at me cautiously. I gave her a quizzical look. “Gee, this is like Peyton Place,” I complained. “Everyone knows everyone’s business.” “Real World, not Peyton Place,” she corrected me. “You’re dating yourself.” “No, if it were Real World we’d all be younger and sleeping with each other,” I countered. “Is there something I should know….” We shared a laugh and sat in a comfortable silence for a few minutes, listening to her CD. She had on some Leonard Cohen. His gravelly voice was bemoaning lost loves. “Pretty

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grim stuff,” I pointed out. “You sure know how to brighten up the mood.” She just smiled enigmatically. “What did you want to talk about?” she asked. I shifted in the couch to look more directly at her. “I hear you had lunch with Renee yesterday,” I said. “How was that?” Sarah studied her beer bottle carefully. “You know, she still loves you very much.” I was impressed with her measured nonchalance. “She says much the same about you.” Sarah looked up, startled, then recovered quickly. “She does, does she?” she said with artificial coolness. “What did you say to that?” I didn’t reply for several seconds, just watched her until she got uncomfortable and looked over at me. “Well?” she prodded. My face was serious as we faced each other across the couch. This was it; time to face it, hard as it was going to be. “I think I’m going to have to hurt someone I don’t want to,” I said softly. “And I don’t like that.” She nodded in understanding, lips together in a straight line. She started at me intently, searching for clues. Her body was tense, prepared to take a blow. As we watched each other, though, a small smile of concession came over her face, and her body gradually relaxed. All without a word. “You know why I gave you The Little Prince at Christmas?” she asked finally. I shook my head no. “I knew then. Don’t ask me how; I just knew.” I must have looked puzzled; goodness knows I was. She looked sympathetically at me.

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“Don’t you get it? I’m the fox. You were just here to ‘tame’ me and give me good memories of you for when you went back. She was your rose, special to you in a universe of roses. You were always going to go back to her. You just didn’t realize it yet.” She looked at me almost savagely, then softened. “Now you do.” I leaned back, absorbing the force of what she had said. In some sense, she was right, and I knew it. It was ironic. I’d always thought Sarah was too young, too innocent to get involved with someone like me, with all my baggage. She hadn’t lived enough to really know how to love me. After all she had done for me, after all she’d cared for me, now I was giving her the kind of emotional scars that would have made it possible for her to truly fall in love with me. Timing is everything. I hoped the next man in her life appreciated her. Part of me was very sorry I wasn't going to be that next man. “What makes you think I’m going anywhere?” I replied after some reflection. “What even makes you think I’m going back to Renee?” “Aren’t you?” she challenged. “Don’t get me wrong. I don’t blame you. Renee is a girl who gets what she wants, and she definitely wants you. I really do like her; she deserves someone like you. You deserve her too. I’m glad for all you’ve done for me, all you’ve given me and all the memories I have of being with you. I’ll just miss you.” With that she started crying, soundlessly at first, then turning into fierce sobs as I took her in my arms and held her, comforting her. Eventually the tears slowed, then stopped, but she made no movement to get out of my arms, nor did I make her leave. We sat in the awkward position we’d fallen into. “It’s not as simple as that,” I told her softly, talking to myself as much as her. “I can’t go back to that life, and I don’t want to.” I tenderly brushed that flopping hair out of her eyes.

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She studied me gravely. “And Renee?” I stopped stroking her hair, which I had been doing unconsciously. I thought for several long moments before replying, Sarah watching me curiously. I wasn't going to lie to her. “I want Renee in my life. I don’t know if it makes any sense. I don’t know how we’ll be together. I don’t know if we can stay together this time either. But I want to try.” Sarah sat up slowly, brushed her hair back and smoothed her face. She looked sadly at me. The battle was over, the cause was lost, the game was done. She knew it. “But I don’t know that I have to leave here to find these things out,” I said. “I still hope you’ll be my friend, and that we’ll have lots more memories together.” She smiled, the smile not quite reaching her eyes or chasing the sadness from them. She nodded wordlessly, then broke off the look to take a drink from her bottle of beer. Eyes gleaming, she looked back at me boldly. “I have a favor to ask,” she said deliberately. My eyes widened, and my hands gestured for her to continue. “I’d like to have one more memory of you…”

Chapter 73 I was not scheduled to come in to Authors’ Corner until mid-afternoon, so I spent some time cleaning my apartment. Renee had suggested I come live with her. It turned out that Renee really was a marketing consultant, with a small office downtown, and was doing quite well, thank you. I'd let myself wonder for a second how many of her new

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clients were people George had quietly steered her way, then shrugged the thought off with a smile. Anyway, she had moved here and was renting a condo unit at one of the high rises downtown. She had just pretended to be visiting town when she wanted an excuse to see me. I wasn't sure I was ready to live with her again, yet -- but I suspected we’d end up spending lots of nights together. I looked forward to that. The apartment was pretty clean already, and it wouldn't be hard to pack up. I could fold up my little world to make it seem as though I never had been there without much trouble. In the end, I didn’t have much more than what I came with -- a suitcase of clothes. The only real difference was that I would be leaving with lots of books, and of course my precious Christmas presents from Paige and Sarah. Oh, and the toaster oven; I wouldn’t leave that behind. I went down to the deli to get some lunch. It was too depressing to eat in my apartment; it suddenly seemed barren and claustrophobic. The playground was also out, for obvious reasons. I elected to go up to the roof for one last time. My memories of that were basically good, anyway. Sitting alone, Angela and Connie playing, and, more recently, Renee. It would have to do. The skies were kind of cloudy -- not threatening rain yet, but the sun was gamely trying to break through, and not entirely succeeding. It seemed appropriate somehow, balanced on that line fine between gloom and joy, between light and dark. That was the kind of mood I’d been in. The last year or so had gone by so quickly. I’d grown both older and younger in some curious way. In coming here I’d been trying to cede control of my life, to not even admit I had a life worth trying to have control over. I did my best to remain aloof from the world and the people in it. Of course, I'd failed pretty miserably at staying aloof, and for the most part that was probably for the best. As for ceding control, I supposed that I had done that, only to now find myself struggling to figure out how I should react to the

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forces that were now shaping my life in very clear ways. The partnership in Authors’ Corner, Renee, Sarah -- I didn’t ask for these, but they were offered up to me anyway. It seemed too easy, and too sudden. And always there was the memory of Angela and Connie. Those thoughts were very acute sitting up here on the roof. I could remember the times we met up here. I could stand up and see the playground where they played, and where Angela had died. If I closed my eyes I could listen to the sweet, shrill voices of the children at play and imagine that Connie and Angela were down there now. Joe was right; Mark would have gotten to them sooner or later. If he hadn’t gotten them the night I’d stopped him and Carl, it just would have been another night. Whether Mark dragged Angela back, or beat her to death, or just took Connie, it didn’t really matter. The Angela that I liked and hoped for, the woman with the joyful smile: she wasn’t going to make it. She’d been sentenced to death by poor choices years ago, when she let herself get mixed up with Mark. Why she got involved with someone like that, why she couldn’t fully seem to make the break -- these were questions a therapist could take years unraveling. Perhaps she had a childhood where she was abused or was witness to abuse. I'd never know, and, frankly, I no longer wanted to know. I could only hope that Connie could start fresh, and escape the bonds of her life so far. I wondered if I could do the same. Renee and I had talked about what life might be like if we got back together. I had warned her that I wasn’t able to just take up our old lives again. I didn’t want to go back to Chicago. I did my best to scare her away, told her I might never figure out what I wanted to do. We wouldn’t have the glamorous lifestyle, we wouldn’t have the money or the prestige, and we definitely wouldn’t have the same kind of appearance of certainty ahead that we once had. We needed some time to re-introduce ourselves, I told her, to ease into life here together gradually.

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“I don’t care,” she told me emphatically. “But we’ll have each other. I’m not making that mistake again.” She’d already given up her life to follow me here. She did it not knowing what she’d do, or if we would get back together. All this had forced her to reorder her priorities, and I’d landed on top. I was lucky. Whether I deserved her, whether I deserved another chance with her, I couldn’t say. But I was glad she took that leap. I wanted her back in my life, and I'd take her in any way I could. There was a lot left to do here. As much progress as the neighborhood had made, we still were working against the tide. The public is fickle, so perhaps all of Author's Corner's recent business would shift to some other “hot” area. Should we expand, capitalize on the growing reputation? Would we convince enough people to adapt city living and make the neighborhood really viable, not just a sterile re-creation? Catherine was right that I was at a crossroads. But that was progress. When I'd fled Chicago, I wasn't at a crossroads; I'd been at a dead-end. Now I really did feel like I had some choices, and they were good ones. I'd already made up my mind about one of them, but I still had more decisions to make. But I wasn't afraid to make them, when I was ready. George had told me that a man could leave his life, but not who he was. I’d left a life, only to find another life that I found I liked better, and I’d found out for the first time who I really was. I’d lost track of time and had probably been brooding for an hour or so when the door to the roof creaked open, surprising me. I turned around and saw Joe, carrying a six-pack. He spotted me and headed over. “I thought I’d find you up here,” he said calmly. “Have a cold one,” tossing me a beer.

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“Worried about me?” I asked. “Or did Catherine send you to watch out for me?” He made a face. “Nah, I just figured you could use the company. I hear you’ve got a lot on your mind.” We tapped our beers together in salute, and stood looking out over the roof. Intentionally or not, we looked out at the playground, standing in silence for several minutes. “Thinking about her?” he asked quietly, appraising me curiously. “Off and on,” I acknowledged. ““I still feel guilty about Angela. I keep racking my brains about what I should have done differently, and it’s tearing me up.” Joe gave me that self-possessed detective look. He took a drink of his beer to heighten the tension. His voice was soft but firm -- the old iron hand in a velvet glove. “I’ve been doing this a long time. You win a few but most of the time you lose. There are more bad guys than good guys, at least in my line of work. But life goes on. There’s some other jerk out there wanting to hurt his wife or his girlfriend, and that’s what I have to focus on now." He put his hand on my arm. "You figure out what you need to focus on. Stop worrying about the past." I nodded in silent agreement. “Here’s to Angela Meyers,” he said, toasting her with his bottle. I did the same and we each took a long drink. “And to Connie,” I followed. We repeated the salute. “What about you?” he challenged. “Are you and Renee going back together?” “I guess so,” I said after a long pause. “I mean, yes and no. Yes that she’s the woman I want in my life. I suppose that was always true and I just didn't think I was still the man

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she wanted. She and I both had to realize what we wanted. No that, well, it won’t be the same. I’m not going back to Chicago; I’m not going back to my old life. It was a good life, but that Sean Meil is dead. I kind of like this one." He contemplated that. “He’s all right. You could do worse.” I smiled painfully, but his words meant more to me than I could say. We watched the distant playground quietly. It was a comfortable silence. “I suppose you heard about Catherine’s offer,” I said cautiously. “What do you think?” He shook his head. “It’s not for me to say,” he said firmly. “That’s between you and Catherine. But you know how much that bookstore has meant to her, and how much you mean to her. Don’t decide lightly.” “I won’t,” I promised. There was another pause while we each thought about that. “I’m figuring you were some sort of hot shot back in Chicago,” he said. “What’d you do?” “Banking.” He arched his eyebrows. “Banking, eh? Big deals, lots of money, all that?” I nodded. “This must all seem pretty tame.” I turned my head to face him. “You know, in my old life I forgot -- Renee and I both did -- who we were and what made life good for us. For what it’s worth, I’ve had more excitement here than I ever had there. Some good, and” -- I gestured with my hand towards the playground -- “some bad.” He smiled briefly, sadly.

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For it’s not the ride you’re on, I realized. The ride could be a fancy job in a corporate headquarters, or it could be selling books one at a time to an increasingly non-literary population. It’s the people you’re riding with, and whether you like and care about them. That must be the secret of why people stay in lives that are unimaginable to you. People in small towns, people in dead-end jobs, people with no money; we all have our prejudices about other people’s lives and what we couldn’t do. I didn’t know why this place, why these people. I’d had good friends in Chicago too, people who mattered to me. But these were the people I wanted to be with. There was no guarantee that this cast of characters would stay in place. People change jobs. Move, do different things, and in doing so drift apart. But for some reason I’d grown to care about what was happening here. I wanted to see what was going to happen next. I once would have thought this life was too small, and unthinkable that I could live in it. But leaving it now would mean I’d always be wondering what had happened to the bookstore, to Catherine, to Sarah, to all the people I knew here. Plus, I wanted to know what books people were reading, and discover for myself what worlds those books might contain. The Little Prince strikes again -- the aviator will always wonder what happened with the sheep’s muzzle. Was the sheep eating the rose? My life was here. What that life would be, we’d have to see. But Renee would be part of it, and I thanked the powers that be that she loved me enough to make that happen. I’d almost blown it. We all like to imagine that we are the main characters in the stories of our lives. How could it be otherwise? We are the narrators, after all. But just because you're telling the story doesn't make it about you, doesn't ensure that it is truly your story. For when I really thought about it now, all that had happened to me was Renee's story, not mine. That is not some polite or politically correct modesty on my part. We can never be sure whose life we will impact, or quite how. Perhaps if Sarah told her story of these last few months, it would be my story. Ted may grow up to be a famous scientist or businessman,

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and in his memoirs might cite our time together as being a turning point of some sort. Stranger things have happened. Like Renee finding me. I'd never thought she would have wanted to, much less have believed it was possible for her to find me. Sorting through it all in retrospect now, Renee was the only one with a plan, the one who had shaped the ending into what it was. Much had happened to me, and to the people around me. Many of those events had something to do with me. But that didn't make it my story. I'd just been waiting. I hadn't known I was waiting, and couldn't have said what I was waiting for had I known. Not until Renee showed up in my life again, that day in Catherine's office. She had decided that the world's happiness was demonstrably less with the two of us apart, and had resolved to change that. She took that plunge, for me, for us, and made things right again. I'd have had a life here had she not come, and it might have even ended up as a decent enough life, but it would have been a much different story. I liked the way this story was ending…or was beginning. My story or not, it was a story I'd be happy to tell, and happier still to live. I must have been quiet for several minutes while I processed these thoughts. When I came out of my reverie, I noticed Joe looking at me, smiling. The sun was finally winning its war against the clouds and was starting to emerge triumphantly. “You’re back,” he commented. He finished off his beer and gestured for me to do the same. “What are you going to do now with your life?” I finished my beer. “I don’t know,” I said with relish. “Maybe I’ll write a book.”

THE END

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