Here's my revised first three chapters of my story. I'm enjoying the experience of commenting and gettting reviews on youwriteon but it's taking all my time what with working and all. At first I was getting 4 stars (each reviewer must rate you)and then 3.5 then 3.6 and now I'm at 3.4. Its exciting but I'm not in the top ten yet but I'm working on it.
I'd love your comments on this version.
Stephanie (working title)by Olga Segal
He waited inside his van until the streetlights came on and dusk became night. A California sea breeze set the trees rustling and threw dancing shadows on the sidewalk.
He reached for the bottle beside him and gulped a mouthful of water while he watched the house opposite. In an upstairs window a light came on, and then it went off. He opened the car door slowly to minimise any noise. Crossing the road, he skirted the large oak tree at the side of the drive, and whispered across the lawn and down the side of the wooden front porch.
The soft flickering glow from a television seeped under the curtains at the back living area. Satisfied that someone was home he retreated across the lawn to the garage, crept down the side nearest the house. He stumbled on the uneven pathway while looking for a side door to the garage. Normally he would have cursed but nothing could be allowed to mar the anticipation welling within him at what he would set in motion.
He pulled out a tiny pocket flashlight and shone the beam low on the garage wall. At the back entrance to the garage, he killed the light.
Once inside, he trembled so much with excitement that he couldn’t get the flashlight to work. And when it finally did, he let out a pent up breath, and shone it on the Ford. Under the steering wheel he felt for the hood release and pulled it, lifted the hood and found the hydraulic brake fluid line. He loosened the nut on the clamp that held the first line in place, and then did the same for the next one.
Afterwards, he meticulously wiped off his prints and returned to his van, climbed in and waited. It took about an hour before the external lights to the home went on. A man and his son appeared. The man opened the garage door, secured the child into the passenger seat, and drove away.
“Yes.” He punched the air as the feeling of absolute power surged through him.
Stephanie reached for the coffee she’d left on her desk earlier. Yuk. It was stone cold and bitter. She started to sort the mail she’d just collected into one pile for Richard Dixon and the other for her, and the junk went straight into the wastebasket. That was until she came upon a pink envelope without a return address or company logo addressed to her.
Doctor Stephanie Robbins, Senior Tissue Engineer
Rigby Research Inc
Strange. The envelope had an embossed edge like an invitation.
Richard strolled in from his glass-walled office next door and leaned over her shoulder. “Any mail for me, doc?”
“Stop that stuff. Just because I have a few letters after my name.” After the graduation ceremony at Berkeley, her mother had said as she hugged her all those years ago that she’d been so proud of her. Stephanie wished she could have been proud of herself too but wasn’t.
“I like to tease you,” he grinned.
She glanced up at him as he finger combed his wavy black hair and smiled. Richard was easy to work with and the place was beginning to feel like home at last. Where would she be now if he hadn’t asked her to collaborate with him? Alone, struggling in some lab that didn’t have enough funding. He was always trying to get her to lighten up. Said she was too serious, and maybe she was. “Maybe I should call you, Professor Dixon?”
“Now…now. I see you’re still getting loads of readdressed stuff from our Los Angeles branch?”
“And it’s been three months since I transferred here. Don’t they ever update their contacts? I emailed the companies before I left,” she said.
“Obviously none of them are as organized as you.”
“Oh sure. How are the RT241 trials looking so far?”
“It’ll be another thirty-six hours before we know anything.” She opened the envelope without a return address and found two photos inside. What the hell was this?
She pursed her full lips. One photo was of her playing catch in the park with her niece Dionne, and the other of her stepping out of her silver Honda dressed in her indigo-blue jacket and pencil skirt. It was the one she’d worn to work last Friday. Dumbfounded, she fell into the gas-lift chair hardly aware that she had edged backwards around her desk. She looked for a letter and found none.
“What have you got there?”
“Nothing.” She shoved the photos back into the envelope.
“You sure? You’ve gone pale.” Richard raised an eyebrow.
“I’m fine, really.” She wanted him to leave so she could look at them alone. Try to make some sense of them. Her heart was thumping, thumping. Swallowed. She fumbled with the jumble of envelopes trying cover the one with the photos inside but everything cascaded to the beige tiled floor.
Richard glanced at her quizzically. Then he bent over and gathered them up.
“Don’t. I can do that.” Dismayed, she watched him pile them onto her desk and swallowed again as one photo fell out. Thankfully, her past hadn’t caught up with her.
He picked it up. “Is that your niece throwing you the ball?”
“Dionne. Yes. A few weekends ago.” She hadn’t noticed anyone with a camera hanging round.
“Who took this?”
“I…am…don’t know.” Her voice came out in a little girl whisper.
“Are you serious?”
“There’s more.” She prised open the envelope and pulled out the last photo. Handed it to Richard. “What sort of person would do this? It doesn’t make any sense. Maybe it’s some sort of joke?” Stephanie brought her hand to her mouth when she saw the sticker label on the back of the one where she was playing catch with Dionne. She read it aloud. “My Princess. My one and only love.”
“What did you say?” Richard flipped it over and saw the message. “Who wrote this?”
She pushed her hands through her thick-black hair. “Why ask me? I’m just as mystified as you.”
Richard stiffened. “Some weird person’s trying to get your attention. Well, he’s got my attention too. I’d be thinking when’s the actual note going to arrive? You know, blackmail or something.”
“Don’t scare me.” She wanted to say…more than I am already. “There must be some reasonable explanation.”
“You can analyse this away, but I don’t like it one bit. What we’re doing here is too important.” A worried frown creased Richard’s forehead.
She shrugged. “No one’s been following me. At least, I don’t think so. But then, Jesus, I didn’t see them take these, did I?” Stephanie glanced beyond the glass wall at the three white-coated co-workers in the laboratory.
“We should ask if they know anything,” said Richard. “Someone in the lab might-“
“No.” This was crazy but she just wanted to go and hide somewhere safe. She resisted the impulse.
“We can’t ignore this. We should let the police know.”
“Melissa did send that stupid birthday card to Nina a few weeks ago. This is nothing like that. Let me finish collating the results.” Time to think this through in a logical and ordered way was what she needed.
“We’ve got to do something. Got to start somewhere. You can’t always know the right thing to do.”
She stepped away from him. “Don’t lecture me please.” Men always thought they knew best. Stephanie had fended for herself for as long as she could remember, even when she was married, and had done just fine.
”Just trying to help.”
And here she was attacking him. This was something she had to work on in herself. Recognise when someone was being kind to her. “Shall we go ask them?”
They stopped in the glass-walled corridor to suit up in coats and caps. Then he opened the laboratory door for her, and followed her in.
Stephanie took a deep breath before she spoke in a voice that belied how upset she was at this invasion of her privacy. “Hi, guys. I don’t know how to put this except to come out with it. Oh look, just forget it.” She turned take them back to her office when Richard gave her a look that said, if you don’t then I will, so she pressed on. “I got some photos in the mail today. I don’t know if any of you know anything about them but I thought I should ask.”
Some of Nina Mumczuk’s blonde hair had worked it's way out of her disposable cap and fell across her high-cheek-boned face as she slid a tray of test tubes into the incubator. She pulled down her mask as she came over. “What are you talking about?” she straightened and then came over.
“Someone’s been taking photos of my niece, Dionne, and me, and sent them here.” Somehow the telling made it all seem worse. God. How could she even think that they would know anything about these? Well, it was too late now to back out.
Nina stared open-mouthed. “That is terrible.” Nina, a doctor of medicine in the Ukraine but not recognized as such in the States had befriended her the day Stephanie moved here from L.A. three months ago. She was totally out of line to even ask her.
“Tell me about it.” Stephanie turned to the over made-up tissue-engineering graduate, Melissa Toomy.
“What’s the problem?” Melissa closed the glass fume hood and peeled off her disposable gloves, skirted the white bench and flounced over. She pouted her crimson lips. “Gosh. You’re niece is so pretty. She looks like you.”
“How could you? I’m freaking out about this and you think it’s funny. Do you know anything? Seen anything unusual? Is this meant to be some sort of stupid joke?” Damn, she hadn’t meant to let on how much this had shaken her.
“Come on.” Melissa said. “Got no idea who did either. Something I’ve been meaning to ask you…are your parents Greek?”
“They’ve lived in the States since before I was born. What’s that got to do with these?”
“Sorry. I didn’t mean it like that. I’ve always wondered since the first time I met you as you’ve got that lovely Mediterranean skin, that’s all.”
“Accepted.” Receiving these in the mail upset her more than she’d realised. She didn’t usually bristle when questioned about her roots. It had happened so frequently when she was growing up that she had learned not to take offence.
Stephanie showed Melissa the message on the back. “Some creepy admirer you’ve got.”
“Oh thanks. I’ll be checking my back every time I go out now.” She’d have to lock herself into her apartment at night and she hated to do that: the very thought of not being able to get out easily, of being caged in, scared her more. This was making her paranoid.
“Gosh. Some people are so weird,” said the brunette.
“Do you know anything about this, Fred?” Fred Lincoln, the resident guru in cancer cell research, added incubation media into an injection machine and then turned it on. A soft whizzing sound punctuated the air. Measured amounts of media were squirted into test tubes.
Stephanie held up the photos. “They came in today’s mail.”
Finally, he lifted his head, and then he pulled down his mask that covered his bulbous nose. “What?”
Do you know anything about them?” she repeated.
He raised his caterpillar eyebrows. “As if I would. I’m here till eight o’clock most nights. When would I have time? And why would I bother?”
A typical answer from someone who still lived with his mother and wore pants up to his waist with two pleats on each side. “Well I don’t know? Why would you even care?” She turned her back to him.
“I don’t like it. I think you should call the police,” said Richard.
“When I lived in the Ukraine, the policemen did not help anyone much unless you had money.” Nina shook her head. “They were corrupt.”
“I hope someone will own up soon. It’s long past Halloween. Maybe one of the guys downstairs might have an idea who sent them?” Stephanie wished that this would be the likely solution. “I’ll ask the mail girl as well when she does her rounds tomorrow. She seems to know all the gossip around here.”
“Do you think it’s just a prank?” asked Melissa.
“I don’t know. I don’t want to think anymore.” She straightened her back, put her shoulders back, and pretended she was okay. “How are the RT251 tissue cultures coming along?” Stephanie asked Richard.
“They do look promising. Still, it’s too early to say for sure.” He glanced at her quizzically.
“I’m fine.” She answered his unspoken question. “The lymphoma cells?”
He said, “Don’t even ask. I’m doing a full comparison report this afternoon. I think we need to enrich the mixture. I’m going to start with a quarter of a millilitre at a time.”
“We’ll get there eventually,” said Melissa. “I can just see the headlines now. Women fighting to be first for new breast enlargement technology.”
Fred adjusted his mask and picked up the tray of test tubes that were partly filled with media. “Maybe they’re interested in…the child,” Fred’s voice was muffled.
“Women will be begging us to grow their breasts,” said Melissa. “I’ll bet it’ll happen soon.”
“Can you repeat what you just said, Fred?” asked Stephanie.
He moved his bulk slowly, carrying a loaded tray to the incubator.
She strode over to him “My God, Fred. What makes you think that someone is interested in my niece?”
“Pessimist.” Melissa couldn’t have heard him as she made a face at his back. “When we do perfect the formula, you two get all the glory and make a fortune.” Melissa said to Richard and Stephanie.
“Oh, please shut up. Tell me why Fred?” Her heart was pounding now.
“Just a guess really. If it was you, then wouldn’t you think that they’d only taken a shot of you?”
Her legs felt suddenly weak. She eased herself onto a stool. Not her sister’s child? If this were true…her sister would be so worried. How would she tell Iantha?
Melissa blushed and turned away; put on her gloves and mask and then loaded two test tubes into the centrifuge.
“Are you okay?” Richard asked.
“I’ve got to call the police.” Clutching the photos, she hurried past the slides of tissue cultures she had analysed for necrosis before the mail delivery and let herself into her office. Picked up the phone and suddenly realised she couldn’t remember the number. She expelled a pent up breath so her thoughts would settle. Then she dialled 911 and sunk into a chair.
She was patched through to the police department and told the duty officer about the photos. They would be over this morning to get the details she was told.
She wouldn’t tell her sister just yet. Fred’s guess that her niece might be the target was only just that.
“I’m glad you did that. If you hadn’t I would have,” said Richard.
“How long have you been standing there?”
“Long enough to see those photos shaking in your hand.”
A quick glance from Nina told her that her friend was concerned about her. She smiled and put on a brave face.
“I should do something.” She left her seat and paced to the window and back to where Richard was standing beside her desk.
“Just wait for them to turn up.”
She drew her hands apart and raised her shoulders. “You are right but I don’t know if I can concentrate. But I should try.”
“I can’t blame you for being so worried.” Richard hugged her briefly. “You look like you need a little support.”
“Thanks.” The scent of his aftershave mingled with that clean shirt smell when he embraced her was reassuring.
“Why don’t you take an early lunch?”
“I'm not hungry.” No way she could eat when her stomach was in a tight ball like this. Why would someone do this to her? It just didn’t make sense. There had to be an explanation. What sort of person would waste their time taking photos of unsuspecting victims? God, she wanted this sorted and sorted now. Where were the police? What was taking them so long?
Back in the laboratory now, she tried to look like she was working.
“The police. Will they help?” asked Nina.
She shrugged and picked up the slides, put them down because she made them tremble too, and wanted to pick them up again but didn’t trust her unsteady hands. When was the law going to get here?
Now the microscope wasn’t working. She turned off the program and started it up again and waited. Altered the angle of the computer screen a little and then picked up the slides again and slid them into place under the scope. The images on the screen showed some bacterial growth, but it was minor. Two done and another twenty two left. God, these gloves felt wet inside. Her hands were clammy. She was being irrational about it all. Focus, she told herself. Everyone must be noticing that she was fumbling about. It was no good continuing. The slides packed up securely she deposited them into the refrigeration unit.
Snapped off the rubber gloves and tugged at the face mask that was stuck in her thick bob as she retreated to her office. She wrenched her cap off, and stared at the photographs as if they might yield some new information.
When the phone beside Stephanie rang, she jumped and wrenched it from its cradle. Dropped it and then finally croaked a flustered, “hello!” Not the usual…Good Morning, Stephanie Robbins speaking. The receptionist told her that Jack Theed, the representative from West Labs Equipment, was still downstairs at the reception waiting to see her.
“Oh, yes. I’ve been caught up. Tell Jack I’ll be down in about ten minutes. Oh by the way, some policemen are coming to see me.”
“Oh really,” said the receptionist.
She wasn’t going to explain, but did ask the girl to keep this knowledge to herself otherwise it would be all through the building by lunchtime. “When they turn up, please let me know. I’ll be with Jack in meeting room three.” After a quick inventory check to see if the lab needed any more Petri dishes, test tubes or other equipment that West Labs carried she shrugged out of the lab coat and hurried into Richard’s office. “Can you ask the staff to keep it quiet for now please?”
“I have. Aren’t you waiting for the law to get here?”
“Jack’s got an appointment. I told the girl downstairs to let me know when they arrive.”
He hung the wet photos on the clothesline he had strung from two nails at opposite ends of the basement. The latest pictures he took of Stephanie were perfect. The angle of the sun lit up her face and gave her an innocent, childlike look. He loved the way her hair fell like a shimmering black satin curtain almost to her shoulders. So often, he wanted to reach out and really touch it. Touch the soft strands of his Princess’s hair. “My one and only love,” he whispered to himself.
“Pud, you down there?” his mother called.
Her voice was like metal scratching on glass. Did she have to remind him that he had wet the bed until he was twelve? Many times when he was a teenager, he had asked, no begged her, not to call him by that name. Cried, slammed his bedroom door, ran away a few times, and that bitch had laughed in his face every time. At least she had shortened the name and didn’t call him ‘Puddles’ anymore, so anyone who heard would not realize. But who would hear nowadays? No visitors ever called. And whenever he went to the shopping mall in Mesa to get the groceries, mother rarely came.
“I’m just finishing off. I’ll be up for dinner in a minute.”
He stared at the collage of pictures mounted on the wall. They were moments in his Princess’s life captured forever on paper. He reached out and stroked each of them one by one. This act heated his blood, made him tingle all over and made him harden.
“I need you now.”
The floorboards above him creaked. He could picture his mother’s fat body, legs swollen from fluid retention, waddling from the kitchen and along the hallway towards the basement door. He hurried across the cement floor and started up the old wooden stairs. “Coming, Mother.” He did not want her poking her nose down here.
The door opened as he reached the top step.
“What are you doing, Pud?” A jar of spaghetti sauce in her hand, she peered over his shoulder to the room below.
He felt for the switch on the wall beside him while staring at her and turned off the light to the basement. “Just some developing of animal stills.” He moved forward forcing her to retreat into the hallway.
Beads of perspiration glistened on her flushed face. Just the walk from the kitchen was enough to make her sweat with the effort and the heat. Her fleshy arms stuck out of a sack of a dress that strained across her ample bosom and folds of wet stained fabric bunched under her armpits. She was always like that. He hated it.
“What do you want?”
Hertha pushed the jar at him. “Can’t budge the lid.”
After a couple of tries, he went to the kitchen to find something that would give him the traction he needed to remove the lid. His mother trailed behind him. Faded peeling wallpaper embossed with daffodils and daises brightened the drab room. Even the view from the window above the sink depressed him, a single velvet mesquite tree, some cacti, and the odd clump of yellow–brown grass that had died in the summer. “Where’s the tea towel, Mother?”
His gaze took in the once white bench top and the old fifties cabinets painted bright orange, the paintwork chipped and marked from years of use. “I need a towel or something to get a proper grip on this.”
“Don’t know what I’ve done with them.”
The stupid bitch had probably left them in the washing machine days ago. He wrapped the edge of the stained blue plastic tablecloth around the lid and unscrewed it. “Here.”
He watched her add the sauce to some ground meat in the saucepan. On the sink stood a strainer with cooling spaghetti. “Why’d you cook it first? How many times have I told you I like spaghetti served hot?”
“So, you want it hot. It’ll heat up when the sauce gets poured over the top.”
“I hate cold spaghetti under hot meat sauce. The damned stuff tastes awful that way.”
“You’re too fussy. No wonder you can’t find a gal.”
“Just shut your mouth about that. How can I bring a girl home with a mother like you, huh? Look at the state of this place. You don’t clean. You don’t iron. This whole place is like the inside of a dumpster.”
“Now listen, boy. I raised you on my own. You don’t know what that was like. I had to do-”
“Don’t talk about that ever again! You had to do…you did not have to do that. You just did it just because it was easy money.”
“Don’t talk to me like that! You should show me respect. I did what I had to.” She stirred the sauce.
He tipped the spaghetti into a bowl. “Look at this. It’s stone cold. This isn’t cooking. Just once, it would be nice if you did it properly. You know that? Now I’ll have to microwave it. You can have yours cold if you want. I don’t care. I just don’t care.” He dumped her portion back into the strainer.
“That darned contraption! It’s too complicated,” Hertha whined. “I swear you need a god-damned license to use it.”
Stephanie would use it when she came to live with them. She would make him delicious meals. Like roast turkey even when it wasn’t Thanksgiving. Roast beef, with stuffed pumpkin. Home baked apple pie. He salivated at the thought. He would fix up the house. Get rid of the damned awful wallpaper. It should have been replaced when they first moved in ten months ago--his mother from Los Angeles, and he from a ranch house half-an-hour out of Scottsdale. “Contraption? I don’t know why I bother.”
His mother was loath to spend a cent on this place. When she sold their last shack of a home and moved here to be nearer to him, the termites had chewed the floorboards in the third bedroom, but it wasn’t obvious at the time, and two of the windows were taped over to keep the broken glass from falling out and the roof leaked in four places. It was ready to be pulled down, and that’s what the developer who purchased it planned to do. So long as the ground in the vacant lot behind theirs remained undisturbed, his secrets would be safe. Hurried burials in the dark of the night carried out in silence. He wouldn’t do those evil things anymore, he was almost sure of it.
When his Princess came to live…he saw mother stir the mixture. The fat from the beef formed pools around the edges of the pot. “Skim the fat off, mother. You know how I hate greasy food.”
Hertha scooped up some of the glistening mixture with the ladle. She tasted it. “Mm. Fat never did me any harm.” Then she scooped some of the fat away with a spoon and splashed it into the sink.
“I hope it tastes better than the last time you made it.”
“Listen here…you’ve been eating my cooking since you were a baby.”
“What choice did I have?” He didn’t know how much longer he could tolerate the bitch. “Christ, you stink.”
She lifted her arm. “Had a wash the day before yesterday, I think.”
“Well, have one today before you go to bed…and for Christ’s sake, use deodorant. God, a man could keel over from the smell.” He held his breath until she lowered her arm.
“You think you’re a man? Don’t make me laugh.”
“You fat bitch. No wonder father left you.” His hand ached to strike her. Instead, he stepped back and gritted his teeth. He remembered what she used to do to him when he was naughty when he was little, and shuddered. The sight of any type of needle still made him freak out.
“He died overseas in action. He was a brave army man.”
“What a load of crap. I found out years ago that he was a deserter and was thrown into jail. Never came back home when he was let out either. Why would he? What did he have to come home to? A fat pig like you!”
“Shut your mouth.”
“What did you say?”
“Ph,” she spat. “Your father didn’t want you.”
“I know he loved me but couldn’t stomach seeing you again.”
“Love? He never loved you. Said-“
“Stop it! Stop it! Fucken shut up, shut your mouth, Mother. Hear! Or I’ll shut if for you.”
“Get the plates, Puddles.”
“Don’t you ever call me by that name again. Hear?”
His goddamned mother had used the full word.
Dionne Sarlos rose from the rug spread under a group of mesquite trees and pointed. “Mommy, Auntie. Did you see that?” she said, her voice filled with childlike awe. “Look, there’s an eagle.”
Stephanie pushed her sunglasses up and she stared into the azure blue sky. She watched the eagle circled over the Canyon Lake picnic area where scattered groups of families had set-up their picnics at wooden park tables. Children drank juice and parents sat in easy chairs with platters of dips, cheese and crackers and nuts. The bird dived into a clump of rabbit brush. Moments later, he ascended.
“Did you see? That eagles’ caught a lizard,” said Dionne. “Where did he go?”
“Up to his nest.” Stephanie pointed to a high ledge across the lake where sheer walls of rock rose as if to meet the cloudless azure sky.
The other side was more or less flat, dotted with Joshua, mesquite, cottonwood, and the occasional ironwood tree until it reached the steep rise of the surrounding mountains.
Her sister, Iantha, retrieved cans of lemonade and cola from a cooler bag and set them down on the rug. “Don’t you wander off! There’re snakes and all sorts of things around. Remember last year that boy from your school was bitten by a rattler out here somewhere.” Iantha called out to her husband. “Can you get the chairs out, Theo?”
He deposited the picnic basket on the blanket. “Sure.”
“You’ve already told me a thousand times. Don’t touch this. Don’t do that,” Dionne sighed. “I’m not a baby anymore, Mom.” she glared at her mother. “Maybe that eagle will carry me away too.” She tramped off, her black ponytail swinging, past other picnickers toward the water’s edge.
“Don’t get too close, or you’ll fall in. What about your hat?” Iantha called after her. “You’ll get sunburned.”
Stephanie smiled. Her sister had given the child numerous warnings ever since they set off from their home in Scottsdale.
“Dionne’s a sensible nine-year-old.”
“Don’t say anything more.” Iantha sighed. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s got into me.”
“It’s okay.” Her sister was shorter than her, so Stephanie bent down a little and gave her a hug as best she could as Iantha’s large breasts got in the way.
“I think I’ve got PMS today.”
“Glad it’s not my turn. What would men do if they had go through this?”
“There would be no end to their moaning and complaining.”
Stephanie laughed. How long since she’d enjoyed anything, since she’d felt like a good belly laugh? The pain and sorrow of losing her husband and son had deadened her.
“I wish Mom could have come,” said her sister. “I’m sure she’d have enjoyed a day out. It must have been…Tuesday wasn’t it that she agreed. And then…well…you know what happened? It’s always the same with her. No. That sounds harsh. I’m sorry.”
“I know,” Stephanie shrugged. “Just the thought of going somewhere unfamiliar makes Mom nervous I guess, but I still keep hoping…. Hoping that I’ll wake up and find that the last twelve months was just a bad dream.”
“Oh sis…I’m so glad you moved from L.A.”
“Selling the house, and moving was all too much at first, and I thought I’d made a big mistake. But it’s closer to mom and you.”
“Sometimes, mom doesn’t recognise me when I visit. It’s hard.”
“She’s gotten worse? When did this start?” Stephanie expelled a worried breath.
“So, I guess you wouldn’t know. It started a few weeks ago. You’ve only seen her twice since you’ve been here.” Iantha pulled out a blue check tablecloth and laid it in the middle of the blanket. “I was beginning to think you’d forgotten about her. She asks about you all the time.”
“I will go see her, it’s just that I’ve been busy with the move, the job and all.”
“I don’t buy that,” said her sister. “You’ve been here three months now.”
Stephanie glanced away, ashamed. “I don’t know if I could take it if she didn’t recognize me. I think about her all the time.” When she was a child she believed her mother would never grow old, that she was close to perfect and would always be so. Now the mother that she loved was losing herself to a disease that was destroying her brain.
“I do too. Sorry. I didn’t realise how much that upset you.”
Stephanie reached down and touched her sister’s fleshy shoulder, and pushed the hair clip that was almost out back into Iantha’s thick long black hair. “No. I should be apologising. I always have excuses don’t I.”
“After what you’ve been through…”
“When the vacancy first came up at Rigby in Scottsdale you wouldn’t even consider moving. God, I know it must’ve been hard packing up your life like that.”
Stephanie shook her head. “You’re right…the leaving…the memories tore me apart.”
“There was nothing left for you there, you know that? Surely, you’re not thinking of moving back?”
Stephanie didn’t answer. Yes there is, yes I want to go back, she silently screamed.
“I was surprised when you sold your piano. You used to love playing it.”
Stephanie shrugged. “After Allan died, I couldn’t bring myself to touch the keys. The piano reminded me of the happy times we had.”
“Just put these chairs here beside the rug,” Iantha said to Theo as she set down the plates and flatware.
Theo moved the basket closer to his wife. “That make it easier for you, darling?”
“Thanks.” As he bent his tall frame, Iantha straightened to kiss him and then ruffle his receding grey-black hair.
Stephanie watched them wistfully. Their open affection made her heart ache. She turned away as she tried to visualize her family, the one she’d once had. Tears stung her eyes. Allan’s image was fuzzy. How could she have forgotten his smile, the sound of his voice? How he held her so tight when he came home each day. Dylan: their son. That funny little way he would crawl out from behind the lounge with his toy dog and ‘surprise’ her, shower her with wet kisses, and the stick figures he would draw of daddy, mommy and himself….
She hardly noticing the finch’s song, or the squirrel that darted past. Her throat constricted. She picked up a dry twig and broke it. Would the heartache ever ease? A child called her name…Dylan. Her son?
She swung round expectantly. The twig slipped from her grasp. Oh God, Dylan? She blinked to refocus her gaze.
“Auntie Steph. Come take a look at this. It’s so pretty. Come on, Auntie Steph.”
“I...I’m coming. Give me the cap,” she said to her sister. “I’ll take it to her.”
Since she’d moved to Scottsdale, this was the second time she thought she’d heard her son’s voice. Dylan’s voice had a similar tone to Dionne’s. Their oval faces and long black lashes that lidded their eyes were alike too, although her niece had Mediterranean honey-colour skin and her son inherited his fairer skin from his father. The image of those two coffins side by side in the church, one for her child and the other for Allan, remained branded in her memory.
* * *
He smiled to himself from his hiding place behind an ironwood tree. His Princess walked down to the waters edge with her niece. He adjusted the telephoto lens on the camera, and then clicked…clicked…clicked. Their features were so similar. Even though the niece’s body was immature and her breasts had not yet began to bud, her slim build and the way she carried herself showed the pledge of a fuller figure in the years to come. The splendour would be sullied when the flower of womanhood fulfilled its promise and the buds became large, and the body, more like her mother’s. But that would take years.
Someone stepped on a twig nearby and he looked up to see a fat guy in beige shorts and a busty blonde in brief jean cut-offs. They were holding hands. The blonde laughed. The fat guy probably cracked some stupid joke. She looked to be in her early twenties. He did not like blondes and the woman was in his line of vision. He waited until she moved and took another shot and another.
They saw him. The guy let go of the blonde’s hand and trundled towards him. “Hey. Listen jerk. You’re not taking photos of my girl.”
“I’m taking shots of the wildlife.” He picked up his backpack.
“Don’t look like that to me, buddy. You leave my girl alone or I’ll have a piece of you. Hear?”
The fat guy made a grab for the camera but he jerked it out of reach and pushed him hard.
The guy groaned as his face hit the dirt.
“Fuck, look what you’ve done to Rick.” The blonde bent over. “He’s bleeding. I’m calling the Park Ranger. And I’ll bet you’ve got something you shouldn’t in that bag. I’m sure he’ll be interested in what you’re hiding.” She pulled out a cell phone.
He wrenched it from her and flung it as far as he could. The woman screamed.
He ran. Ran to where the flat ground gave way to the steep rise of the Superstition Mountains. He kept on going until his legs were all shaky and he was out of breath. He wanted to sit down in the shade of the mesquite tree but he worried that his jeans would get dirty. The sweat from his body was staining his cotton shirt. Christ, he hated that. When his breathing returned to normal, and he thought he had waited a sufficient length of time so any law enforcement officer would have gone, he made his way down the slope of red earth and rocks. He wanted to get just one more shot of his Princess.
* * *
Stephanie stepped over patchy rye grass, and uneven rocky ground, to where her niece stood on the bank and stared at the blue water.
Dionne leaned over and pointed. “Look at that rock on the bottom. Isn’t it pretty?”
She eased the baseball cap onto the child’s head. “The water’s so clear. But I’m sure it’s deeper than you think.”
“But I’m starting a rock collection. If mom would only let me go in. Look there’s people swimming. It’s safe enough for them.” Dionne started rolling up her jeans.
“Don’t even think about it.”
“She never lets me do anything. She treats me like a baby. But I’m not so little anymore. I’m almost grown up. And it’s not that deep here.”
“It would take one second for your mom to notice your wet jeans and she wouldn’t be happy. You remember, when you were five, you fell into a pool and nearly drowned?”
“Sort of do, but that was so long ago. Mom made sure I had swimming lessons and I’m not afraid of the water anymore.”
“Your mom was so upset. I don’t think she’s gotten over it. And it’s not up to me is it?”
Dionne clasped Stephanie’s hand in hers. “Let’s go for a walk. Mom shouldn’t mind if I’m with you.”
Dylan’s hand had fit into her palm with barely a finger showing when she curled her fingers around it. He had been five when…. His smile used to light up her soul, and the four words he spoke in that little boy voice nearly every day made her stop whatever she was doing. “Mommy, I love you.”
Her niece’s voice drew her back to the present but the sadness remained.
“Did you see that squirrel, Auntie Steph? He’s so cute. I’d love to take him home.” Dionne tugged her Auntie’s hand. “Look he’s going to run up that tree.”
“Huh…you can’t take him home. You’ve got several pets already. The squirrel might have a family.” But she only had memories.
“But he’s so cute.”
“So we let him be. He’s happy here.” In a couple of years, Dionne’s mind would be filled with thoughts of pop stars and the latest fashions. And Dylan would have turned eight. Would he have looked more like his father?
They followed the lake edge where tufts of grass grew here and there.
Dionne let go of Stephanie’s hand and skipped ahead, then ran back to grab it again.
“Watch out.” Stephanie jerked Dionne out of the way just in time. “Ants’ nest.”
“Eek! They’re big ones. Do you still miss Dylan?”
Stephanie’s stomach contracted into a hard ball. “Very much.”
“Never mind, you can be my other mom.” Dionne clutched her hand tighter. “Then you can get to do those things you miss with me.”
She swallowed the lump that had formed in her throat, and blinked away tears that she didn’t want her niece to see. “That sounds like a great idea.”
Dionne stopped to stare at the water. “Auntie Steph, I don’t know what to do? Bree won’t talk to me anymore. She even asked the teacher to move her so she was further away from me in class. And she’s my best friend.”
“Maybe you should ask her why?”
“I want to but I’m scared she’ll be awful to me. Auntie Steph…look.” She pointed toward a clump of greasewood bushes, about the length of a football field away. There the ground rose steeply to the mountains.
“I can’t see anything. What did you see?”
“A man. I think he was holding something.”
“I can’t see anyone.”
“There was a man there. I’m sure there was. Can we go look?”
Stephanie caught her niece’s arm. “We should be getting back. I’ll bet lunch is ready. Your mom and dad will send a posse out to find us if we don’t show.” Had Dionne seen a stranger? Even if she had, the thought of going to investigate did not strike her as a good idea.
“Look…there. Over there,” her niece pointed.
“Can’t see anyone. Tell you what, I’ll race you back.”
“Okay,” said Dionne.
Stephanie gave chase.
They skirted a family playing catch. The woman sang out, “Wow, your daughter’s fast. I’ll bet she’ll beat Ben Jackson anytime.”
Stephanie, legs pumping, continued on.
Her niece slumped down on the rug beside her mother. “I won. I won.”
Breathless, Stephanie stopped beside them, clutching her sides. “I had no chance.”
“Yeah. You said it.” Dionne punched the air with her fists. “I’m just too fast.”
“Just wait until I start training. Then I’ll beat you…no problem.” Stephanie sank onto the rug.
“Training? You’re going to join a health club again?” Iantha’s look spoke the real question she asked.
“Mm…I’ve been thinking about it. I know what you’re going to say, it’s time.” Iantha had almost turned down a part-time job she’d been offered here, as she wanted to stay on in Los Angeles to comfort Stephanie through her grief.
“I’d never say that,” said Iantha. “I know it’s been tough for you. We still miss Allan and Dylan too.” She reached over, put her arm around Stephanie.
“Thanks.” She’d made her sister go back to Scottsdale, had pretended that she was okay, that she could carry on, but as the months passed it only got harder. “I just know I’ve got to do it. The first step’s the worst.”
Theo nodded. “Just remember, no matter what, we’re here for you.”
“I know that. And it really helps. Thanks.”
Theo eyed the picnic table laden with cold chicken, thickly sliced beef, a jar of olives, sun-dried tomatoes, three different salads and sliced sourdough bread. “Glad you’re back, I’m hungry.”
“You’re always thinking about your stomach. The buttons on your shirt are ready to pop.”
“And you’re always cooking such tasty meals. So can I help it that my shirts have shrunk in the wash?”
“What?” Iantha started to laugh.
“When can we start eating, Mom?”
“Where did you go?” asked Iantha. She handed her daughter a plate.
“Nowhere much. I saw a stranger, mom. He was hiding behind a bush watching us, and he was holding maybe a camera.”
Alarmed, Iantha held Stephanie’s gaze. “Who was the man? What was he doing?”
Theo, about to pour a glass of red wine, set down the bottle. “What happened?”
“I didn’t see anyone,” said Stephanie. “That’s not to say there wasn’t someone there. It was too far away to tell for sure. Let’s eat. I’m starving too.” She knew her sister would quiz her again later.
Two children were playing catch nearby, and their ball whizzed past Iantha and landed at Stephanie’s feet. She threw the ball back to the boys, and then leaned over to her sister and said, “It could have been nothing more than someone taking a walk. Remember the story she made up when she was five?”
“I don’t remember that,” said Theo.
“She convinced her teachers at school that Iantha was having a baby. On parents’ day at school, …remember Iantha? How stunned you were when you were complimented by a couple of teachers on how well you looked considering you’d just had a baby boy?”
Theo shook his head. “You’re not making this up, are you?”
“They stared at me like I was making it up when I denied it. Dionne told the teachers all about this baby and had even given him a name. I probably didn’t tell you because you were away on some job at the time.”
“Stop talking about me, “ said Dionne as she held out her plate. “Can I have some of that salad?”
“Sure. Later, we’ll take a walk and see where this person was.” Iantha handed out knives and forks.
Theo helped himself to some potato salad and some chicken. “Stephanie said she didn’t see anything.” He spooned some bean salad onto the only space left on his plate. “Maybe we should just forget about it.”
“How can you say that? It could have been some fruitcake of a guy who-”
“Okay Iantha,” Stephanie interrupted. “We’ll go and have a look.” She opened a bottle of soda and poured herself some.
Iantha gave Stephanie a plate. “Help yourself to some salads and some beef. I know you don’t like chicken. Though for the life of me, I don’t know why.”
“I just don’t.” Ever since she could remember the thought of eating chicken revolted her.
“The way that man was looking at us gave me the creeps.” Dionne munched on a chicken leg.
“Don’t start making things up,” Theo said between mouthfuls. “Your mom said we’ll check it out later and that’s what we’ll do.”
It was late afternoon when the four of them packed up the picnic and headed back to Scottsdale.
“Well, the ranger didn’t find any sign of that stranger lurking in the bushes,” said Stephanie.
“Nothing unusual and no broken branches or anything. I’m thankful for that, believe me,” said her sister.
“Can we stop at the gold mine, dad? It’ll be fun to go gold panning. The sign says there’s tours,” asked Dionne as the old disused mine came into view.
“Well, okay but not for too long. I’ve got some work to finish off for tomorrow,” said Theo.
“But dad, can’t they get someone else to make some plans so you can have a rest?”
“Sorry Pumpkin, I have to keep us fed and sometimes I have to take plans home when there’s a deadline.”
“But they only put old people in the subdivisions you design.”
Stephanie glanced at her niece who was beside her. “Your dad’s designed condos too.”
“Your nana’s an old person. If she wanted to live in there you wouldn’t deny her that would you?” said Theo.
“Sorry, dad, I guess old people need somewhere to live.”
“That’s right. But your poor nana’s not able to look after herself any longer.” Theo turned off Highway 88 and stopped in the parking lot near the mineshaft. The timber tower above it, a weathered grey-brown square structure, looked like the ground was slowly sucking it in.
“Tell me why again?”
“She’s got Alzheimer’s.”
“Does it hurt her?”
“No Pumpkin, but her memory’s bad.”
“What’s that round thing near the mine?” Dionne asked.
“It’s a water tower.” Then he went on to explain in great detail its use when mining for gold.
. “Hey. The sign says they have tours that go down into the mine. Can we go, dad? Please, pleease.” She reached for the door handle.
“We haven’t got much time. Sorry, it’ll have to be a quick walk around.”
Dionne jumped out of the metallic-blue Toyota and strode towards the handful of buildings that made up the town. She started up the timber steps of a reconstructed old saloon by the time her mother’s feet had touched the dusty earth and Stephanie had even opened the door.
Dionne ran back to them. “Dad. Can I have an old time photo with you, and mom? Mom said to ask you.”
“Okay, as long as we’re quick.”
“I might have a look in the museum,” said Stephanie.
“Half an hour we meet at the car. Okay?”
Stephanie nodded and they parted ways. She went in one direction, and Theo in the other, Dionne dragged him along to have their picture taken.
* * *
He drove into the parking lot at the gold mine slowly. Waited until Stephanie and her sister’s family were off looking at the attractions, then alighted with his camera in hand. What a lucky day, another photo opportunity. There would be plenty more when his Princess came to live with him. He had to set his plans in action soon.
* * *
Stephanie and her sister’s family climbed back into the Toyota and set off toward Scottsdale. They passed ranch houses with chimneys set on dry cacti ridden acres. “I can’t imagine why anyone would want to light fires to keep warm,” said Stephanie “It’s so hot that even the flies buzz so slowly I can swat one without any trouble.”
“You haven’t been here in winter. Just wait until you do. We can get some really cold nights then, especially out here,” said Iantha. “You know that piano we got for Dionne last year. Well, she’s stopped her music lessons and it’s just sitting there. I was thinking if you could fit it into your apartment that-“
“Nice try. Thanks but no thanks,” said Stephanie.
“Just a thought.”
At Apache Junction, they turned onto Main Street and headed back to Scottsdale. The shimmering black endless road divided acres of trailer parks and dry rocky ground studded with the occasional tufts of brown grass. Stephanie saw men in sleeveless undershirts soaked with sweat. Children licked ice creams that dripped over their hands and fell to the hot red earth.
Theo turned up the air-conditioning.
Finally near Mesa, they passed the rows of small boxy houses. Some needed a lick of paint, some littered with discarded objects but otherwise barren structures with windows open, limp dusty curtains waiting for a breeze; these gradually gave way to stuccoed structures with neat pebble and cactus gardens as they travelled closer to Scottsdale.
“Here at last.” Theo pulled up in the driveway.
The houses in this walled estate in Scottsdale, with a security guard at the main entrance, were all beiges and creams with small front gardens of succulents and other desert plants.
Dionne, eyes shut, rested her head on Stephanie’s shoulder.
“Time to get out.” Stephanie nudged Dionne.
Her niece stretched and yawned beside her. “What’s for dinner, Mom?”
“I don’t know. Something easy. Right now we’ll have to help dad unload the car.”
Theo opened the trunk and started to unpack it before Stephanie had climbed out.
He took the folding chairs into the garage, while Iantha carried the cooler bag to the kitchen.
Dionne dropped the picnic rug in the doorway to the kitchen, and then ran upstairs to her room.
“Dionne. Don’t leave it there.” Iantha set the bag on the grey-black granite bench top. “Want a drink, Stephanie? I know it’s been hot but I still need my coffee. Do you think you could play a few notes on our piano? Last time Dionne played something, it made a funny sound.”
“I’m no expert. It might need tuning. I’m so rusty, I don’t know. Let’s get this sorted first.” Stephanie set down the picnic basket, then reached over and pulled off the cloth that covered the dirty utensils. A photo nestled in between the salt and pepper shakers.
Iantha put on the coffee machine. “Dionne. Come back down and put that rug away.”
Stephanie picked up the photo. Her mouth dropped open. “What?” “How did...where did...did you take this?” What had she said? Before her sister could answer she added, “I’m sorry. I know you wouldn’t have.”
Iantha put down the dishwashing detergent as she stared at her. “What’s going on?”
Stephanie handed the photo to her. “Did you see this when you were packing the basket this morning?”
“No, not even when I put everything back afterwards. What’s the matter?”
“I received two photos at work a few days ago. I thought they might have been some sort of a joke but now I’m not so sure.”
“I don’t like the sound of that.” Iantha’s brow creased when she was concerned, and it was like that now. “There are so many crazy people out there. Someone’s trying to scare you. Let me ask Dionne if she noticed anything.” She called out to her daughter. “Please come down. Stephanie needs you to look at something.”
“I asked everyone I work with if they knew who sent them: nobody did,” said Stephanie.
“What’s wrong, mom?” Dionne clutched her Barbie doll.
“So you come down for your auntie but not for me?”
Stephanie showed her the photo. “I found this in the picnic basket. Do you know how it got there? Did you see anyone near our basket?”
Dionne shook her head. “But you sure look pretty in that blue suit.”
“Are you sure you didn’t see anyone near the basket?” Her mother asked.
“What’s this all about, Mom?”
“Just some photos your auntie found.”
“Do you think that man put it there? Maybe he loves you, Auntie Steph.”
“What are you saying, Honey? We all went to have a look where that man you saw was supposed to be, and there was no sign that anyone had been there,” said her mother.
“But I saw him Mom.”
“It must be one of the ones I had in my bag. It could have fallen out and maybe your dad saw it and picked it up.” She reached for her shoulder bag, and rummaged through it. The two original photos were still there. She pushed them deeper, not wanting to worry her niece.
“I didn’t want to say anything when I saw the same man at the old mine because no one believed me when I said I saw him hiding in the bushes at the lake.”
“What? The same man?” Stephanie and Iantha said in unison.
Theo walked in. “What’s going on?”
“You should have told us. The same man you said?” Iantha bit her lip.
“When did you see him?” Stephanie asked.
“What did he look like? Was he tall?” her sister bent down to Dionne. .
“He was hanging around behind the museum watching you Auntie Steph.” Dionne started twisting the doll’s hair nervously. “Is he a stranger, a pervert?”
“Do you know what that word means, Dionne?” Theo said in a louder voice.
“I think it’s a bad man who-”
Theo raised his eyebrows. “Do they teach you that in school? What’s happening, Iantha?”
“I’ll explain in a minute,” she said. “What did this man look like?”
Dionne shrugged. “He was tall and chunky. Not fat, just chunky.”
“Like a body builder?” asked Stephanie.
“I think so.”
“What colour was his hair?” said Iantha.
She shrugged again. “He was wearing a baseball cap.”
“What was he doing?” asked Stephanie.
“Just seemed to be watching you.”
“Did he hang around the whole time we were there?” She twisted strands of her black hair around her finger. She hadn’t done that since the week after the funeral when she sat alone in the bungalow she had called home in L.A., and despaired about how she could continue on with life without Allan and Dylan.
“I don’t know,” said Dionne.
“Can you remember anything else,” Iantha asked?
Dionne shook her head.
“Well, if you think of anything, come tell us. You’ve been a big help, thanks.” Iantha pulled back strands of her long-straight hair that had fallen onto her face. “How about you go and play, honey? Stephanie and I need to talk.”
“Do I have to? Just when it’s getting interesting.”
“You’ve been a good help but I’m sorry but this conversation is only for adults.”
Her daughter slumped away.
Stephanie repeated to Theo what Dionne had told them, and about the photos she’d received days ago. Then she showed him the photograph she’d found in the basket.
“Who would do this?” he said more to himself than to the two women. “We should have put our stuff into the car before we went walking.” He flipped it over and when he saw the note on the back he exclaimed, “Mother of god, what’s this creep up to?”
He expelled a long breath. “You’ve got yourself a stalker,” said Theo. “Have you still got the first ones?”
They were copies as the originals were with they police already but she didn't want to tell her sister that. “I didn’t want to take them out in front of Dionne.” Her heart was pounding a tattoo with alarm.
“Dionne said she saw that man again at the museum. We must report this to the police,” said Iantha.
“After what’s happened, I plan to go there on my way home.”
“Do you want us to come,” asked Theo?
“I’ll be fine.” She lied. Hell. Did this man know where she lived? How did he know her movements? Was he following her all the time or only some of the time?
Iantha reached for the phone. “Let’s get the police to come here. After all Dionne did see the man.”
“Maybe this guy fancies himself as a candid photographer,” said Stephanie? “ “Do you really believe that?” her sister asked.
“I was still hoping there would be a logical reason until I saw these in the basket…silly of me I guess.”
“Stephanie…you can’t be accused of over reacting, can you? I’d be going out of my mind with worry by now.”
Stephanie spread her hands and gestured as she spoke in the typical Greek way. “Okay, I am. But I didn’t want you getting upset over these as well. Let’s get the police here and see what they say.” Stephanie started dialling the local precinct number as she lent over his shoulder to read the message.
My Princess, you will be mine soon.
“How could someone write this? I need a stiff drink,” Stephanie gasped. “Have you got any-”
“No you don’t. You’ll manage just fine,” said Theo as he glanced at his wife.
“Can I help you ma’am?” said the voice on the line.
“I want to report…”