“I’m … so upset, Dr. Fein,” Lila said, alternately rubbing and clasping her long-fingered hands as she stared out the window. Her mouth crumpled and tears flowed down her cheeks. “I don’t know where to start.” Her last words came out as a sob.
Dr. Morris Fein thought about how to respond to this, keeping his expression bland, as he did with all patients no matter what crazy things they might say. Thinking is what Dr. Morris Fein did best. Thinking about the nutty things distraught patients said and formulating a well-reasoned response.
It had taken most of their hour to get to the heart of Lila’s problem. She’d danced around the issue, talked about her frustrations at work, her lousy love life, her financial problems. After this extensive prelude, it seemed like she’d finally come to the reason for her visit.
“Why don’t you start with whatever you’re most comfortable telling me,” Dr. Fein said. Lila needed to be handled with care, like a carton of fine china.
Continuing to avoid his gaze, Lila raised a fist to her mouth and bit it. Finally she said, “I … can’t. I’ve done something very stupid. And I think I’m in trouble.”
Dr. Fein cocked his head to one side, as if examining a specimen from a different angle. He kept his expression impassive but spoke in a warm tone. “I’m here to help. Perhaps you could tell me more about this thing you’ve done.”
“I’ve been — ” She broke off the thought in mid-sentence and, bowing her head slightly, looked up at Dr. Fein with wary, deep-blue eyes.
“Everything I say is confidential, right?” she said in a husky voice.
Dr. Fein pursed his lips. “For the most part, yes.”
“When you say that … does that mean if I’m involved in something criminal, you have to report it?”
Dr. Fein felt unease stirring within him. He hated questions like that.
“That depends.” He leaned forward, clasping his hands between his knees. “If we’re talking about something that’s already happened, no. Or something involving, say, minor property crimes like shoplifting. But something more serious like murder or child abuse …” His voice faltered, despite his best efforts to the contrary. He needed to sound sure so patients would have confidence in him, trust him. “If a patient told me she intended to hurt someone, I’d be legally required to report it. You can understand why …” Again his voice trailed off, but he searched out eye contact with her as he asked, “Are you involved in such a crime?”
She shook her head with such force, he thought he saw tears fly from her cheeks. “No, no,” she said. “Nothing like that. I just … got involved with the wrong people. And now I’m afraid they’re coming after me.”
“Please,” he said, his unease quelled but not eradicated. “Why don’t you start from the beginning?”
“They wanted me to deliver something,” she said, staring before her as if a spider too tiny to see were hanging a few inches from her face. “It was strange because they told me not to tell anyone. But they were willing to pay me a lot of money to do it, plus the costs of the trip and everything. I was supposed to take a locked suitcase to this place near the Canadian border.” Her eyes finally turned his way, refocused on Dr. Fein. “I think it may have been drugs. Maybe something worse. They … they wouldn’t tell me.”
“Who is ‘they’?”
“Two men. They never mentioned their names.” Lila shook her head and shrugged. “They said they got my name from Mickey. That should have tipped me off the whole thing was bad news.”
Her ex-boyfriend. Dr. Fein had jotted the name in his notes. He sighed, thinking about how often people were in denial and didn’t see the obvious error of their ways until it was too late.
“And you agreed to do this?”
Lila buried her face, pink from crying, in her hands. Her dark hair fell over her cheeks, brushing her shoulders. When she looked up, her desperate expression had transformed to self-derision. “Stupid, wasn’t it? I never thought I’d be dumb enough to get involved in something like this. But when they told me how much they’d pay me … I guess I just didn’t think. I needed the money so much.”
Dr. Fein nodded and glanced surreptitiously at the wall clock hanging behind Lila. Ten more minutes. He knew this wouldn’t be solved in the time they had left but wanted to bring things to enough closure to satisfy Lila until the following week.
“Anyway,” Lila said, giving her runny nose a backhanded sweep. “I did what they asked. I put the suitcase in this locker at a bus station and mailed the key to a PO box. But I’m scared now. I think these people are watching me.”
“How the hell should I know?” Lila’s eyes reminded him of a wild animal stuck in a trap. “Maybe they think I’m going to tell someone!”
“No,” Dr. Fein said, keeping his voice low and even. “I meant, what evidence do you have that someone’s watching you?”
“Evidence?” Lila sounded as if she’d never heard the word before. “I’ve been followed. The last three days. They’ve followed me home from work.” She paused and sniffled before adding, “Then they wait outside my house for hours. Like they’re watching me. I’m afraid to go anywhere when I see them out there.”
Dr. Fein nodded. “Are you sure?”
“Am I sure?” Lila’s lips curled and he received the kind of look she’d have given a reeking pile of dog doo. “You don’t believe me, do you? You think I’m crazy. Well, I’m not crazy, Dr. Fein. I’m not!”
She picked up her purse and pulled out her cell phone. “You want evidence, fine,” she muttered. “Here!” Hitting a few buttons, she held up the phone to show him a photo. Dr. Fein scooted forward in his chair and reached out to draw the phone closer. He saw a black Escalade with a sparkling chrome grill parked along a leafy, residential curb.
“This is right outside my house,” Lila said. The photo noted the date and time. Three days ago at 5:47 P.M. Lila clicked a button on the side to show him yet another photo of the vehicle, dated the following day, around the same time. She hit the button again — same Escalade, the next day, from a different angle. This one provided a rear view. There appeared to be a bright red decal on the back window, setting it apart from the no-doubt many black Escalades roaming the state of Maryland. The windows were darkly tinted. The license plate was a standard black-on-white type — not a “Save the Bay” or colorful “Farm Preservation” plate. He tried, without success, to read the tag number. The characters were too blurred to make out, but they didn’t appear to be vanity plates.
“And you know for a fact this vehicle is connected to the people you … did business with?” Dr. Fein said.
Lila looked at the floor and shook her head. “I’ve never seen it before.”
“Well,” Dr. Fein said. “There could be other explanations.”
“I do something that’s probably illegal. Then this car turns up the next week — follows me home and sits outside my house for three days in a row. And you think there’s no connection?” Lila looked incredulous. “I think they’re watching me. Making sure I don’t tell anybody, I guess.”
The whole thing sounded absurd to Dr. Fein. Who had done this to Lila? Why would they do it? Why would they assume she’d tell anyone else? Surely it would only hurt her to do so. He wanted to ask all these questions, but time was running out.
“Are you sure this vehicle was following you? Maybe someone in the building where you work happens to know one of your neighbors.”
She shook her head. “No. I just know it’s them. I think … I think my life may be in danger.”
Dr. Fein shifted slightly in his seat, tensed and ready to rise and show Lila to the door. His next client would be waiting. “If you feel that way, maybe you should contact the police?”
“After what I’ve done?” Lila gave him a look that expressed a low opinion of Dr. Fein’s IQ. He could feel himself flush, realizing his gaffe.
“They’ve paid me way too much to make what I’ve done legal. Now I’m supposed to go to the cops for protection? And say what? That a bunch of criminals I did a job for are watching me? I mean, isn’t that why they’re watching me? Because they think maybe I’ll tell the cops?!”
Dr. Fein had no idea why the people who’d paid Lila would want to watch her and found her reasoning about the matter to be confused and twisted. Even so, as her voice rose with each derisive comment, he could feel his embarrassment and discomfort rise with it. He felt as if she was scolding him, the way his ex-wife did toward the end of their marriage.
“I can see your dilemma,” he said. “I confess, I’m not sure what to suggest. You live alone, don’t you?”
“Yes.” The word came out as a sob. “Now I do.”
Dr. Fein nodded. Mickey had left Lila several months ago. She hadn’t dwelled on the topic, but he could tell it still tugged at her consciousness.
“Perhaps you should consider staying with a friend or relative if you feel scared,” he said, trying hard to stay seated. The minute hand had inched past the appointment’s ending time.
“I have no relatives. There’s no place I can stay.” Lila raked her hair back, and it fell like a dark curtain framing her perfect oval face.
“I’m afraid our time is up.” Dr. Fein rose — giving Lila her cue to stand, also — and he placed a reassuring hand on her arm as he escorted her to the door. Lila paused and gave him a damp-eyed, beseeching look. Her eyes were an incredibly dark blue — indigo, really. Dr. Fein resisted the urge to touch Lila’s cheek.
“Try not to worry,” he said. “I’m sure you’ll be all right.”
After twenty years as a therapist, Dr. Fein had observed that female patients often jumped to conclusions, read too much into situations, and were swayed more by wayward and unpredictable emotions than by reason. Dr. Fein had learned to tolerate these traits in female patients, as he’d learned to tolerate them in his wife. That is to say, his ex-wife.
Despite the somewhat bizarre, even ludicrous, nature of Lila’s tale, Dr. Fein couldn’t help but worry. Whether Lila had bungled her way into becoming a runner for a drug cartel or was simply nuts, she believed herself to be in danger. That was a fact. And if she felt scared, she might do any number of crazy things.
Dr. Fein knew this all too well. He had ignored similar warning signs in another female patient, Jenny Mahoney. One who, in retrospect, he realized he should have monitored more closely.
He had tried with Jenny. Tried to explain that she needed to curb her irrational impulses and focus on how to make the best of a bad situation with her parents. Tried to explain that homosexuality was a difficult concept for them to accept. In point of fact, it was a difficult concept for Dr. Fein to accept, too. Jenny was a beautiful, young woman, with wavy blonde locks that flowed gracefully down her back. She had light-green eyes and a peaches-and-cream complexion. Dr. Fein knew that the field of psychiatry no longer considered homosexuality an aberration, but he found it (secretly, for he would never say so outright) a shame that such loveliness was being wasted in another woman’s arms.
Jenny was dead now, exactly three months ago to the day. Suicide by pills and carbon monoxide poisoning. Dr. Fein didn’t like to dwell on his mistakes — it made no sense to dwell on things you couldn’t change — but that mistake … well, it insisted on dwelling with him. The memories crept into his consciousness, like roaches creeping through a tenement wall. Each time Dr. Fein tried to squash one thought, more thoughts would appear to take its place.
The following week, Lila failed to appear for her scheduled appointment. Dr. Fein had warned her she would be charged for not showing up, but this was not the first thing to cross his mind when he didn’t see her in the waiting area at the appointed hour.
His first thought was, what if she had been right?
Dr. Fein tried to reach Lila at her daytime phone, only to get voice mail. He tried her home number, too. The phone just rang. Dr. Fein listened to it ring on and on. He’d counted twenty-five rings when he hung up.
Not good, he thought.
That evening, after the last patients had unloaded their sorrows or shared their latest breakthroughs, Dr. Fein locked up his office and climbed into his silver Lexus.
The car was his pride and joy, and one of the few possessions he’d been able to salvage after the divorce. Sarah had done a thorough job of laying claim to most of their assets and gaining custody of the children, forcing him to pay the mortgage on what was now her house, along with three years of alimony, child support until the kids turned eighteen, and all the rest.
Dr. Fein fumed over the fact that this outcome had been driven by Sarah’s quitting her job as an office manager for a law firm to “spend more time with the kids” and “be a real mother to them.” So she’d said. Dr. Fein believed now that her ten-plus years outside the workforce had been part of a larger strategy. An exit strategy, in which she would end up with the house and kids and he would end up footing the bill.
Dr. Fein scowled as these thoughts revisited him, once again making him feel impotent and used. Why were men always paying for women’s petty schemes? Sarah could go and throw away a job, extra income, benefits — all for the kids. Everyone would “ooh” and “ahh” over her and admire her motherly instincts. But if he did that — well, people would think he was insane. What kind of a man quits his job to be a house-husband? No real man. Not even by today’s loose standards.
As he pulled into the lot of his favorite Chinese restaurant, Dr. Fein found himself mentally comparing Sarah to Lila. Now Lila (for all her irrational fears and impulses) was a woman he could respect to an extent. She wasn’t looking for a meal ticket; she was earning her own keep. Her desperation for money may have driven her to make a foolish decision, but it was her own decision and, he had to admit, required pluck and nerve on her part.
Sarah would never have done such a thing. Sarah was too conventional — in every possible way — to get mixed up in such business. No, Sarah chose a time-honored and conventional way to get her money — by extracting it from her ex-husband.
Dr. Fein seated himself and ordered his usual chicken lo mein. He dined at this restaurant about once a week since moving into his apartment. He’d never been there with Sarah — he avoided all restaurants they’d frequented, hoping not to see her or deal with her unless it was absolutely essential. Yet despite these evasive maneuvers, he could often feel her invisible presence — like a ghost — across the table from him.
He could even hear her voice. Her endless chatter, which had seemed to get more and more inconsequential the longer she’d been out of the workforce.
Even now Dr. Fein could feel Sarah’s presence in the empty chair opposite him, hear that voice — that voice! — and he concentrated hard on tuning it out. Concentrated on exorcising the ghost. Replacing her, perhaps, with Lila. He thought of Lila and wondered what it would be like to have her in that seat, instead.
When he finished his dinner, Dr. Fein decided to call Lila once more. He pulled out the patient list he kept in his briefcase in case of emergencies and dialed her number.
The phone rang endlessly. Maybe he should run by her house, he thought. Just to make sure she was okay. He noted the address, then made his way to Route 29 and took it north toward Columbia.
Lila lived in an older section of Columbia, a well-manicured planned community. Her small house had a cramped rectangle of yard, but tall, leafy trees lined the road. Dr. Fein parked across the street, several feet up from the house — a spot with a good view of the front, flanked by trees. He sat for a moment, watching the place.
Evening had fallen, and the house was still — the entire neighborhood was still, as if no one lived there — as if he were on a vacant set for a television series about life in the suburbs.
As Dr. Fein pondered this, a light snapped on in Lila’s house, emanating from the front window like a beacon. Lila marched into view talking on a cell phone. She appeared upset — waving her free hand about, her expression drawn, her brow furrowed. She wore a robe, loosely tied at the waist. As she walked, Dr. Fein could see flashes of black pubic hair or dark underwear — he wasn’t sure which. One shoulder of the robe slipped off to reveal a black bra strap. Dr. Fein was still staring as Lila walked to the side of the window and drew the curtains shut.
Through the light-colored curtains, Dr. Fein could just make out Lila’s silhouette as she paced about the living room. The light went out.
A few minutes later, a black Escalade pulled up in front. Two men climbed out, walked to the door, and knocked. The living room light came back on. Lila answered, and a conversation ensued. One of the men — the taller, thinner one — seemed to be edging his way inside. Dr. Fein couldn’t read Lila’s expression from where he sat. Eventually she appeared to relent and let them in.
The living room light went out.
Several seconds later, light came from another window facing the street — possibly a bedroom. Dr. Fein slipped out of the car and approached the house. He thought of calling again but decided against it. If the men were threatening Lila, she wouldn’t be able to talk freely.
As he walked by the SUV, he checked the back window and saw a red decal with writing on it that he couldn’t make out. He didn’t stop to read it.
Dr. Fein crept toward the window where light filtered out from behind a blind. Suddenly the blind snapped up and one of the men stood in its place, looking out at the darkened yard. Dr. Fein pitched face forward to the ground. His middle-aged body landed with a dull thud.
He ventured a peek at the window, where the man, framed by shutters and light from the room, didn’t seem to notice him. Dr. Fein realized the man was squinting, not looking his way at all. The light indoors was probably obscuring his view. In fact the man might simply have been looking at his own reflection.
Finally the man walked away from the window, leaving the blind up. Dr. Fein grunted as he rolled over and brushed off his grass-stained khakis. Creeping on hands and knees, he made his way to the window and crouched near it. Then he rose slowly, hugging the brick façade. Cautiously he craned his neck to peek inside the room.
The three of them were in her bedroom. The tall man, who had his back to the window, must have been doing all the talking because Lila just stood, nodding, her lips parted and her chin quivering. The shorter, stouter man leaned against the wall by the door, a smile plastered on his face and one of those silly-looking phones clipped to his ear — the kind that make you look like a robot. The tall man gestured broadly as Lila kept nodding, her indigo-eyed gaze riveted to the man’s face.
The robe had slipped further off Lila’s shoulder, revealing one cup of a lacy, black bra. When Lila finally tried to speak, the tall man grabbed the robe and ripped it off her, flinging it aside. Lila stood, shaking, in her bra and matching bikini panties. The man with the ear phone laughed and applauded, as if his friend had performed a magic trick.
Dr. Fein’s mouth hung agape, allowing a gnat to fly in. He coughed and spit it out, then looked inside to see if anyone had noticed. Apparently no one had. Relief washed over him, but tension took its place as he thought that if anything more happened, he should call the police. Give an anonymous tip. But then they’d have his cell number. And how would he explain his lurking around outside a patient’s house? A female patient, no less. What a field day Sarah would have with that. It was already hard enough to enforce his visitation with the kids. He could picture her painting him as a Peeping Tom. Then there was the licensing board to think about. Jesus. Dr. Fein cursed Lila’s stupidity for getting involved with these men, even as he fretted over what they might do to her.
Fortunately the tall man merely said a few more things to Lila and abruptly turned and left, followed by his companion. Dr. Fein scuttled around the corner of the house until the two men appeared outside, crossed the yard, and sped away in the Escalade.
Dr. Fein ventured once again to the window. Lila, who’d apparently forgotten the blind was open, lay on the bed, face down, banging her fist against the mattress. Eventually she rolled onto her side and stretched out, facing the window. Her face was red and eyes puffy. She stared without apparent comprehension.
Dr. Fein was torn between wanting to comfort her, wanting to help, and wanting to steer clear of the whole business, for his own good. He stood arrested by the sight of her slim, young form in her underwear. Body so firm, skin so creamy. He couldn’t tear his eyes away, and he drank in the image, impressing it in his memory.
He remembered then that he could take photos on his cell phone — a function he rarely used. He cursed himself for not remembering this before the men had left.
Lila’s expression changed suddenly, and she scrambled off the bed. Dr. Fein dropped to a squat as she walked to the window, cupped a hand against the glass, and looked out at the street where the Escalade had been. Apparently she didn’t notice Dr. Fein cowering nearby. Then she pulled the blind shut. But not before Dr. Fein had snapped several photos of her.
As he drove home, the memory of Lila’s body made Dr. Fein’s head reel. He was breathing so hard the windows were fogging as he pulled onto a quiet side street to park and get his bearings. Glancing around and seeing no one, he opened his phone and viewed the series of shots — not great on detail but good enough — of Lila’s lithe, barely clad body. Before he knew it, his pants were unzipped, and he was fondling himself.
As he clicked through the photos, fogging the windows all the more, he couldn’t help thinking of Sarah’s voice — reprimanding, reproachful, whining — but helpless to stop him. The satisfaction of this knowledge brought him to a climax that left him astonished and gasping.
“They say it wasn’t there! And they want all the money back.”
Dr. Fein had called Lila the next day. After assuring her it wasn’t about payment for the missed appointment (though he normally would have insisted she pay in full), he asked whether she was all right.
What followed was a lengthy, tearful account. Parts of it he already knew, parts he could guess, but some details came as a complete surprise, including the fact that the suitcase had somehow gotten into the wrong hands and the people who’d hired Lila to make the delivery now wanted back the money they’d paid her.
“Then pay them.” Dr. Fein tried, without complete success, to keep a note of irritation out of his voice.
She gulped loudly enough to be audible through the line. “It’s not that simple. Most of the money … well, it’s gone.”
“How much money is that?”
“Twenty thousand dollars.”
“How could you possibly — ?” Dr. Fein cut himself off. The note of irritation threatened to flare into anger, disgust and disbelief.
“There were old debts. Plus …”
The line went quiet. Dr. Fein counted slowly to ten, then kept going, instead of screaming “What!?” as he might have done otherwise.
A deep, shuddering breath came from the other end. Wait for it, he thought.
“I gambled a lot of it,” she said. “A whole lot of it …”
Dr. Fein fell back in his chair, and his eyes rolled skyward as Lila told him about her visits to the Laurel racetrack, where she couldn’t resist playing the ponies. She’d win a small, safe bet and gain the courage to try something bigger, riskier — only to see her money slip away. She kept going back, tried several times to recoup her losses by placing more bets. Of course she lost more than she won. In the end, the money that didn’t go toward her debts was frittered away at the track.
Dr. Fein despised gambling. Lila might as well have flushed her money down the toilet.
“I’m scared, Dr. Fein.” Lila’s voice quavered over the line. “If I don’t pay them back, they’ll … they’ll kill me. Or worse.” Her voice broke upon uttering the last two words.
Dr. Fein could feel pain run like a thread being pulled between his temples. He massaged his forehead and tried to think.
“What am I going to do, Dr. Fein? I don’t know what to do.” Lila moaned. “I don’t have their twenty thousand dollars. I have nothing of that value to sell. No one will lend me the money. I rent my house, I have no collateral, and these people … well, they don’t exactly take credit cards, do they? I just don’t know — ”
“Lila,” Dr. Fein interrupted, in a soft, but firm voice. He continued to knead his forehead. “Hold on for a moment while I think.”
“But I’m scared. What am I supposed to do?” Lila’s voice took on a whiny edge. Then she started babbling. “I could run away, but I don’t know where to go that they won’t find me. I have to do something. Maybe I should buy a gun. I can’t afford a bodyguard, and I have to protect myself. But I … I just don’t know. Could I really shoot someone if I had to? Maybe, maybe not. I’m just — oh, God! I just could kick myself for letting this happen. I just could — ”
“Lila!” Dr. Fein barked as a surge in the pain seared through his forehead. His imperative tone had the desired effect this time. “Lila,” he continued, more quietly. “Please just let me think for a moment.”
After half a minute of silence, Lila said in a halting voice, “Dr. Fein? Are you still there?”
“I’m still here, Lila.” Dr. Fein could feel the pain subside. “Can I call you back in ten minutes?”
“Oh — okay.” Lila sounded hurt, like she didn’t believe him.
He started to put the receiver down but heard her faint, childlike voice — like a toddler’s whimper — calling his name before it hit the cradle.
Bringing it up to his ear again, he said, “Yes, Lila?”
“Just ten minutes, right?”
Dr. Fein started his ten minutes thinking of Lila’s body, recalling the powerful urges he’d had the night before in his car. Her voice — like her body, so helpless, so fragile — only deepened the intensity of his desire for her. He had promised to call her in ten minutes. Dr. Fein wanted to think about how he could help Lila — but it was impossible with images of her, half-naked, giggling, pleading, sighing with pleasure, images that appeared one after another, rolling around in his head like a kaleidoscope. He finally gave in and, with a nervous glance at the clock, he locked his office door, grabbed a box of tissues, and indulged himself in the fastest self-gratification session he could recall having since puberty.
When finished, he sat spent for a moment, feeling himself growing limp on his sticky palm. He absently fingered himself as he considered his proposal. Yes, he could get the money — after making the proper arrangements. He could have her sign something for his files — to cover his ass, because Lord knows, her mind and story could shift like the wind. He’d refer her to another therapist. And after that he’d be free to help her in any way possible. He would be free even to see her — if she wanted that. And if she were grateful enough, it was quite conceivable that she would agree to see him. Perhaps even welcome the chance to do so.
After all, twenty grand could buy a whole lot of gratitude.
Dr. Fein proposed his solution. Lila was wary of taking his money but ultimately agreed. He e-mailed her the termination letter, which she signed and returned to him.
They arranged to meet at a small park, about a forty-minute drive from his office. He would bring the cash in an old briefcase. Dr. Fein had it wired to him from an account he kept in Paraguay — an account he’d managed to keep secret from Sarah and her grasping lawyer.
Dr. Fein picked up the cash at a Western Union office. He carried the briefcase to his Lexus and set it on the passenger’s seat. He smiled and started the car. With the money he gave her, she’d be free again. Or, to be more precise, in debt to him, not those ruthless thugs. Her debt to him would be one of gratitude. And he would never hold that over her, use it to hurt her.
He wondered if she would be free for dinner that night. Maybe Saturday.
As he drove to the park, Dr. Fein listened to an oldies station on the radio. He loved oldies. Sarah always called him “an old fart” and couldn’t understand why he refused to listen to more contemporary music. But the old music reminded Dr. Fein of better times. A time when the world seemed nicer. The rules about everything were clearer, better defined then. Today the rules had been thrown out, and no one knew how to act, what to do. He knew that from listening to his patients.
Sarah’s taunting words came back to him as he hummed along to the Lovin’ Spoonful. How can you listen to this all the time? Could we please change the station just this once? He could almost picture her beside him, whining and pouting — except that the briefcase was there, which made him think of Lila. Lila, smiling, perhaps even hugging him with joy after he gave it to her.
The thought of her breasts pressed against his body made Dr. Fein grin from ear to ear.
Dr. Fein parked the silver Lexus, grabbed the briefcase, and walked over a grassy knoll toward a bench near a stand of trees by a lake. It was early afternoon, and the park looked deserted. Dr. Fein hiked down the gentle slope. The day wasn’t overly warm, but he could feel sweat collect under his arms, dampening his shirt. Dr. Fein wasn’t in bad shape for a man in his early fifties, but his breath came hard and fast, as if he’d been running a sprint instead of strolling down a hill. He was surprised at how winded he felt by the time he’d reached the bench. He’d seen only one car in the lot — an old Toyota that he assumed was Lila’s. But Lila wasn’t waiting for him.
The bench was empty. Dr. Fein wiped his brow and took a seat, placing the briefcase on his lap.
Glancing around him, Dr. Fein wondered if anyone he knew would see him. Not likely, he thought, but not impossible, either. He hoped Lila would get there soon.
Dr. Fein watched a pair of ducks paddling across the lake. He’d heard mallards mated for life. He couldn’t imagine such a thing. Spending the rest of his life with Sarah would have been unbearable.
Lila, on the other hand … Dr. Fein drifted into a reverie, imagining Lila cuddling naked beside him in bed. Her head on his shoulder as he stroked her hair and whispered, “It’s okay. I’m here now.”
The ducks had just reached the shore when the back of his skull exploded with pain and everything went black.
The first thing Dr. Fein noticed when he opened his eyes were trees. He was seated on a bare patch of dirt surrounded by trees, with his legs slightly parted and extended before him. Pain radiated in waves from the back of his head. Blinking, he tried to get his bearings.
The terrain was hilly. He was on a slope facing uphill. His hands were tied behind him, digging into his back. And something propped him up from behind. As he twisted to glance over his shoulder, his hands scraped against a hard surface — a boulder, as it turned out. A boulder the size of a VW bug. Dr. Fein didn’t think he was in the park anymore.
He froze at the sound of footsteps.
Someone trudged up the slope behind him. More than one person. Dr. Fein’s heart raced. In vain he tried to free his hands from whatever was restraining them. His head pounded as he persisted in his fruitless efforts. He finally stopped, gasping for breath.
A man chuckled.
Dr. Fein looked toward the sound and, several feet to his right, saw the two men who’d been to see Lila. Both of them were smiling, but neither looked friendly.
Dr. Fein tried to ignore the pain screaming through his skull. He licked his dry lips, cleared his throat, and said, “What’s going on here?” with all the authority he could muster.
He realized as he said it how preposterous the question must sound. A demand for an explanation of what was happening would sound ludicrous, he thought, coming from a man sitting in the dirt with his hands bound behind his back. Apparently the two men agreed, for their smiles broadened, and they started laughing. And their laughter was no friendlier than their smiles.
Dr. Fein felt an icy ball of fear congeal in his stomach. Had the men followed Lila to the park? “Where’s Lila?” he demanded. “What have you done to her?”
His questions only made the men laugh harder. One of them wiped tears from his eyes, he was laughing so hard.
Dr. Fein fought pain and confusion to make sense of the insane situation. They must have followed Lila. How else would they have found him?
“You have your money,” Dr. Fein said. “What more do you want? And where’s Lila?”
The men stopped laughing and merely looked at him. The short, stout one frowned. In fact, he started to look angry. The taller man just stared at him with faint disgust, as one might at a maggot.
No one spoke. Dr. Fein’s chest heaved with the effort of breathing. He tried to scramble to his feet, but it was difficult facing uphill and with his hands tied. Dr. Fein braced himself against the boulder and tried to inch his way up, only to have the tall man saunter over and, with a sideways kick, sweep his feet out from under him, letting him land on his ass with a jarring thump.
Dr. Fein could feel his face redden with rage and frustration. His breathing was labored now, his head felt ready to explode. He sat gasping in the dirt, the tall man towering over him. Looking up, Dr. Fein wailed in anguish, “What is it? What the hell do you want?”
A moment of nothing but Dr. Fein’s breathing followed. Then the shorter man said, “It’s not what we want.”
More footsteps. Dr. Fein’s guts twisted with anxiety. The briefcase hit the ground a few feet from him. He turned to see who had thrown it and couldn’t believe his eyes.
It was Jenny Mahoney.
Dr. Fein shook his head, as if to clear his vision. He was hallucinating. That crack on the head must have done it. Or maybe the men had drugged him. But he looked again, and there was no denying it. She looked a little thinner, but the wavy, blonde hair, the green eyes, even a peasant blouse he recognized. Jenny Mahoney was standing right there, her arms crossed, her lips curved in a slight, triumphant smile.
“Jenny?” Dr. Fein croaked. “I thought you were dead.”
In response she walked up and kicked him squarely in the groin.
The pain was so intense, it took Dr. Fein’s breath away. He doubled over choking, then threw up the remains of his lunch.
As he tried to recover his wind, Jenny crouched beside him, placing her lips to his ear so they brushed against it as she whispered, “You goddamned bastard. You killed me. You made me feel worthless. You killed me.”
Dr. Fein spat bile from his mouth. “What are you talking about?” He stared at Jenny. “Where’s Lila?”
Jenny rose and looked down at him with scorn. “Don’t worry. We’ve taken care of her.”
“What do you mean? Where is she? What do you want?”
“An apology,” she said.
“I want to hear you apologize for killing me.”
This is insane, he thought. “How can I apologize for killing you when you’re clearly not dead?”
“Would you believe that I’ve come back from the dead to haunt you?” Jenny threw her head back and laughed.
“How stupid can you be, old man?” The tall fellow spoke. “Obviously she’s not Jenny.”
“Ohhhhh.” Jenny — or the woman who claimed to be Jenny — shot him a look to match her protracted moan. “And I was having so much fun, fucking with his head.” She put a hand on her hip and looked at Dr. Fein. “No, I’m not Jenny. I’m her sister. And I was in the SUV that night you were peeping into your own patient’s bedroom.”
“We followed you there that night,” the shorter man said. “We’d been following you for a while. And our girl here was in the SUV, telling us what you were up to, lurking outside the window like a perv. Naughty, naughty, doctor.”
My God, Dr. Fein thought. Jenny had mentioned a sister, close to her age. He could see now that, though similar in appearance, the girl was definitely thinner, her features slightly different. The eyebrows a bit darker — she must have highlighted her hair to match Jenny’s. In any case, he finally had a rational explanation. And an enraged relative to placate.
“Is this blackmail?” he said, thinking of how photos of his escapades outside Lila’s house could ruin him. “You have my money. What more do you want?”
“I told you, doctor.” The woman fixed a cool gaze on him. “I want an apology for what you did to my sister.”
“Okay, I’m sorry,” he blurted. “I’m really, really sorry. I should have paid more attention to Jenny. I should have been more responsive to her needs.”
“What you should’ve done,” Jenny’s sister held up a didactic finger, “is not make her feel like a freak because she was a lesbian.”
“I never … I didn’t …” he sputtered.
“Now, now, Doc-tor Fein,” she said with exaggerated formality. “You did. You made it pretty clear that you didn’t approve of her sexual orientation. From what she told me, you didn’t take her very seriously as a person at all. Like you don’t take women seriously at all.”
“No, no!” Dr. Fein’s protests grew louder, and he could feel his face redden. “That’s not true.”
“Oh, but it is. In fact,” she continued, her voice getting louder as she spoke. “You went so far as to suggest her lesbianism might be the cause of her depression and other problems.”
“I just … thought it was a shame.” He hung his head. “She was so beautiful. Like you.”
The woman frowned, and a deep line formed between her eyebrows. “Nice try, doc, but no dice. No one here is buying. Especially her lover.”
“C’mon over, sis,” the shorter man said with a wicked grin to someone Dr. Fein couldn’t see. “Say hello.”
“Her lover …” Dr. Fein’s voice was faint.
He heard the click of the gun being cocked before he felt the barrel against his right temple. “That’s right, Dr. Fein. I was Jenny’s lover.”
The voice was unusually cool and steely, but he knew it all too well. Dr. Fein glanced toward the woman who had quietly taken her place beside him. “You can’t be serious,” he rasped, feeling ready to vomit again.
“I’d say it’s only fair. An eye for an eye. A life for a life. You understand.”
“Please …” he whispered. “Don’t.”
“Plus a little monetary compensation from you — like an informal wrongful death settlement.”
“I … don’t believe it,” he mumbled.
“I know you don’t, Dr. Fein,” she said in a mocking tone. “You simply couldn’t imagine it, could you? That you might be dealing with a woman who thinks. But you’re a believer now, aren’t you, Dr. Fein? Aren’t you?”
Lila gave him a cold smile before she pulled the trigger. And in the moment before the bullet hit his brain, Dr. Morris Fein’s head was filled with the sound of Sarah’s voice, berating him once again.