“Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to
the tree of life,
and may enter by the gates into the city.
Outside are the dogs and the sorcerers and the immoral persons and the murderers and the idolaters,
and everyone who loves and practices lying.”
“Thy father hath chastised thee with whips. I will chastise thee with scorpions!”
The words thundered in his ears as the upraised staff slammed down on his back. He staggered, nearly losing his balance. His foot crunched what he thought was a tree branch until it moved and a pair of pink paws shoved him upright.
“Hey, watch it, buddy,” the panther growled. “You’re steppin’ on my tail.”
He thrust the creature aside and elbowed his way through the raucous throng of revelers, frantic to put distance between himself and the prophet. When there were enough bodies between them, he turned and shouted, “I’m gonna bury you! You and that pathetic bunch of zombies you got kissin’ your ass! You’re dead meat! DEAD MEAT! You hear me?”
Rubbing his shoulder he pushed his way into the street, heard the crash behind him as the prophet leapt from the platform. Fear, like a living thing, grabbed him, stealing his breath. He began to run, his heart pounding in his ears, masking the beat of the drums in the background. A troop of noisy, beer-swilling knights impeded his progress and he burst through them, knocking a bottle out of a hand, ignoring the curses that followed him. The painted face of a medicine man loomed and he dodged around him only to find his path blocked by a jagged-toothed jack-o’-lantern on legs. An anteater’s nose clipped the side of his head, knocking his mask askew and forcing him to his knees. He stumbled to his feet, dizzy, disoriented. With shaking hands he shoved the mask back in place and glanced over his shoulder. His pursuer had disappeared, swallowed up by the horde. His pulse slowed.
“Zeke! Zeke, wait!”
He looked around, trying to find her. Was she with them? He couldn’t be sure, couldn’t take a chance.
“Go back,” he shouted, not certain she’d heard him. It didn’t matter. Disco lights flashed, momentarily blinding him. Weaving in and out of the bizarre figures, he ran toward the meeting place. An orange sunburst briefly lit the inky sky, its trailing fingers illuminating his path. He had the sensation of being outside himself, watching, as if this were a horror movie and he part of the spellbound audience. He slowed, his breathing easing as he neared his destination. He was just over a block away when he caught sight of a uniformed policeman moving the barrier outside the window of an antique shop.
“Officer,” he gasped, pulling off his mask and clutching at the arm. “Please, I need help—”
But it was a clown’s face above the uniform that turned to him and a voice he recognized rasped through garishly oversized lips, “No help for you, Judas. Parade’s over.”
He never saw the flash of steel that pierced his jacket, only felt a rush of adrenaline and a fleeting moment of agonizing pain as the knife sliced through flesh, severing an artery and ripping open his heart.
She sensed him before she saw him. He was slouched in her doorway, his angular face, no longer striated by stress lines or shadowed by a two-day growth of beard, was composed as though seeing her wasn’t the least bit awkward for him. He was wearing chinos, the left pant leg cut off just above the cumbersome cast, his foot encased in a Velcro fastened sneaker. Nothing in his demeanor suggested that she had once meant anything more to him than the crutches that now supported his six-foot-two frame. She’d been told he was coming, had thought she’d prepared herself, but the hazel eyes appraising her unnerved her, bringing into sharp focus that disastrous night that would forever be stored on her brain’s hard drive.
“Looks like we’ll be sharing space for a while, Ms. Barron,” he said, a half-smile replacing the noncommittal expression.
Samantha felt her face flush, her cheek muscles quiver with the effort of stretching her lips into a reasonable facsimile of a smile. She struggled to match his flippant tone.
“Well, we’ll just have to hope you’re a fast healer so it won’t be for long.” She forced herself to hold his gaze and it was he who finally shrugged and moved out of the doorway. She watched him juggle his crutches, didn’t offer to lend a hand as he made a grab for the leather jacket that had begun to slide off his broad shoulders. Watching him limp into the empty cubicle across from her office, it crossed her mind that she’d like to see him fall on his smug face. Brushing an unruly strand of dark hair from her cheek, she came around her desk, following him.
“I just can’t help worrying, though,” she said. “I mean, however is the crisis team going to manage without you?”
He tossed his jacket on the desk, rested the crutches against the three-legged wooden coat rack standing next to it, and sank into the desk chair. Spinning it around, he grinned audaciously up at her. “Ah, but NOVA’s loss is Victim Service’s gain.”
She could feel her co-workers listening; thought she heard murmurs, a giggle. That from Chrissie probably. How much did they know? Whose brilliant idea had it been to put in her office the stone-hearted sonofabitch who had kicked her off his crisis response team? Forget that he was volunteering his time and was only going to be in her office temporarily—it wasn’t going to work. Returning his smile with her own mocking one, she said, “How’d you break that leg, Doug? Leaping out a window escaping an irate client? Or was it a cuckolded husband?”
For just a millisecond he hesitated and she wondered if she had actually hit on it, but then he replied in a tone emulating hers, “Take your pick. Which version floats your boat?”
“How about the truth? That’d be refreshing.”
He bristled. “Hey, I never lied to you. You knew the rules.”
“Okay, you two, chill.” Assistant prosecutor Nina Crowley walked into the room, carrying Doug Ruark’s briefcase. Streaks of gray ran through the ebony of Nina’s hair, every one of them, along with the fine lines crisscrossing her forehead, earned the hard way. Her no-nonsense expression made clear she hadn’t gotten where she was vying for the Mary Poppins award.
“Why is he here?” Samantha demanded of her boss. “If I need legal advice, John’s office is just one floor up. It’s never been necessary before to bring an attorney—”
Nina interrupted. “Mr. Ruark is taking a few weeks away from his firm while his leg heals. Workaholic that he is, he’s very kindly offered to help us out.”
“But we don’t need—”
“Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. Your caseload’s getting out of hand. There’s a girl sitting in reception right now, looks like an escapee from a Dickens novel. Probably battered, though she’s so covered up I couldn’t see any bruises. Chrissie got her on the hotline this morning, talked her into coming in.”
Her eyes moved to the figure in the chair. “Ruark, why don’t you take the morning to familiarize yourself with the setup here? As you know, Samantha’s our victim advocate. You’ll have to make yourself available to her and her staff whenever they need your legal expertise, but mostly you’ll be doing your own thing. You okay with that?”
Ruark spread his hands, a gesture of compliance, though Samantha was sure she detected amusement in his eyes. “I’m here to lend a hand when and wherever needed.”
Samantha gritted her teeth. If she drew up a list of all the people in her life that she least wanted ever to lay eyes on again, Douglas Ruark would make it to the top two, right below the woman she’d called mother until the age of nine.
Nina’s voice, impatient now. “So what about it, Sam?”
Samantha looked down at him, suddenly enjoying the advantage. Had he been standing, he would have had several inches on her. Her next thought curved her lips into a genuine smile.
“I can live with it,” she said, “just so long as Mr. Ruark is absolutely clear about the chain of command in this office.”
Nina rolled her eyes. “Just make sure you both have it clear that you’re here to help people with real problems. I’ll have Chrissie send the girl in, Sam. Ruark, when you’re settled, come see me and I’ll find something to keep you busy.”
Trailing her, Samantha paused in the doorway, turned to see him propping his injured leg on an overturned wastebasket.
“You will forgive me if I don’t bring you a footstool,” she murmured sweetly, “but I’ve always been really bad about turning the other cheek.”
She could have bitten her tongue off the minute the words were out of her mouth. If he says one word about cheeks, I’m going to kick over that basket and send him straight back to the hospital.
He didn’t, but she could tell by his expression that it took effort. “I’ll forgive you anything,” he said with a cocky grin, “if you’ll bring me a cup of coffee. You remember how I like it.”
She had to restrain herself from following through on her first impulse. “Bite me,” she said, and silently berated herself for not coming up with a more blistering retort, especially when his chuckling, “Anytime. My pleasure,” followed her out.
Still seething, she was taking an empty file folder from her drawer in preparation for the interview when she heard movement in her doorway.
God, even on crutches the bastard creeps around like an Indian scout. She kept her eyes focused on what she was doing.
He cleared his throat and waited.
She let him stew before banging the file drawer closed. “What?” she said sharply. “I’m busy.”
He sighed. “Come on, Sam. We’re going to have to see each other every day for the next few weeks. What say we bury the hatchet?”
What say we bury it in that heart you don’t have? Samantha swung around to face him. “Let’s understand each other. I don’t like it that you’re here. I don’t like you. I imagine your opinion of me can’t be much different considering you decided, rather precipitously, that you wanted me off the team. Well, in this office I’m in charge and I won’t tolerate interference from you. We’ll get along just fine so long as you do your thing, whatever that may be, and keep out of my way.”
He blinked, taken aback by her vehemence. “You’re not going to let go of it, are you?”
“Probably not. Kind of sticks in your craw when someone cans you for no good reason.”
“Damn it, Sam, you know the reason. You didn’t belong in that unit. I had to let you go.”
“You arrogant jerk. Who are you to decide where I belong and where I don’t?”
“Unfortunately, at the time I was the arrogant jerk running the show.”
“Well, you’re not now so get out of my office.”
“You operate from your heart, not your head. You’re too soft, too female. When you went charging into that inferno—”
“Excuse me, I’m too female? What century are you living in? Being female is no longer considered a liability, or hadn’t you heard?”
“What I meant—”
“What you meant was I was too human. Your problem is your fat ego. You’d rather work with robots who sieg heil to your every command than with someone who can take the initiative.”
“Whew.” He took a step back. “I stand corrected. You’ve toughened up over this past year.”
“You bet. I’m a fast learner. A year ago, someone I was coming to think of as a”—her voice caught—“as a friend taught me a hard lesson about what happens to people who make the mistake of showing they care.”
“Your friend kept you from getting killed.”
“My friend nearly derailed my career.”
“You ignored my direct order not to go into that building.”
“I thought I heard a child crying!”
“There were emergency personnel in place to go in,” he snapped, losing the battle to keep his temper in check. “Your job was to help the victims already out!”
“I didn’t think anyone else heard. There was so much—”
“You didn’t think, period. You let your emotions take over, which made you a danger not only to yourself—which was bad enough—but to the team. I had to go in after you. We both could’ve been killed.”
They were breathing hard as they confronted each other.
Finally, she said coldly, “Look, you did what you thought you had to do. And now I’m doing what I have to. Stay out of my way while you’re here.” She walked back to her desk and sat.
After a moment he said softly, “I never mentioned it to anyone—the reason I sent you back. And look what you’ve accomplished. I’ve heard great things about the job you’re doing.”
“I can’t tell you how touched I am that you’ve kept tabs on me.”
“Word gets around. By the way, did the pooch make it?”
“Yes,” she replied shortly. “Now would you please leave? I have work to do.”
“I guess you decided to keep him. He okay?”
“Scarred, but he’s a survivor.”
“Like his benefactor.”
“Ms. Barron?” came a timid voice from the doorway.
“My client’s here. Please go,” Samantha said.
Ruark tucked his crutches under his arms. “This conversation isn’t over,” he said as he moved to the door.
“Yes.” Samantha’s voice was ice. “It is.”