Chapter Nine

A Tigress must always be on her guard against a Tiger. These male animals sense fear, smell it, and will try to use it against you to get what they want from you.

The next morning, a little before eight, I found myself sitting alone at the coffee shop, waiting for my mom. I'd left that damn beeping BlueJay at home. I was this close to flushing it down the toilet. "Stupid BJ," I muttered. That's the name it really deserved.

Vanilla and cinnamon flavored the air, blending with the scent of fresh baked breads. I swirled a spoon in my mocha latte and watched as people sauntered past my table.

I didn't want to be here. Last night I'd wanted to see my mom. Today I didn't. God knows I didn't want to answer questions about my love life, didn't want to discuss the merits of love and marriage. And that's why she'd called this meeting, I knew it was.

Why in the world had I opened that topic for discussion?

Was I an idiot?

Wait, maybe I shouldn't answer that.

Mom had called me early this morning to make sure I remembered our meeting. She'd done it on purpose, making sure I was too groggy to think up a good excuse to avoid her.

Smart woman, my mom.

Finally, she arrived, only fifteen minutes late. Better than usual. My mom had no concept of time, really. Throughout my childhood, she'd made me late for everything. Birthday parties, cheerleading camp, hell, even school. I'd always gotten lukewarm, leftover food at the parties, missed exciting games and never learned the right cheers. Come to think of it, maybe that was when my obsession with punctuality had started.

"Why are you wearing that color?" was the first thing she said, taking the seat across from me. She was an attractive woman in her early fifties. Short brown hair, eyes that were a mix of brown and gray-and filled with a kind of sadness and vulnerability I hadn't seen in a long time. Her slight build and petite height gave her a damsel-in-distress vibe.

"Are you all right?" I asked, concern growing.

She waved away my words and the action wafted a sweet fragrance of lilies in my direction. Lily was her favorite scent. Every time I'd cried over a boy, she'd wrapped her arms around me comfortingly and that smell had surrounded me.

"You should be wearing green," she said. "To match your eyes."

"In case you never noticed, my eyes are gray."

"Never mind that," she said, once again waving my words away. "That brown washes out your skin tone."

Why was she so concerned about my clothing choices? That was completely unlike her. "I like to look washed out," I said dryly. "Otherwise people are intimidated by my glorious beauty."

Her lips pressed together to prevent a smile. "Do you sass everyone this way, or just me? Never mind. I'm just glad you're doing it. I was afraid Richard had killed your spirit. Anyway, we were talking about your clothes and the fact that you should be wearing something green."

My eyes widened as it suddenly hit me. I almost groaned. She knew about Royce. That was the only explanation for this bizarre behavior.

She confirmed my suspicions with her next words. "Why didn't you tell me you're working with Royce Powell?"

Because I didn't want to, I silently answered. To her, I said, "How did you know about my job with Mr. Powell?"

"Mr. Powell, is it?" She tapped her pink oval fingernail against the table surface. "That's not what the Tattler says you call him."

I jolted to a perfectly aligned position any chiropractor would have applauded. "The Tattler has an article about me and Royce?"

"That's why I'm late. I saw the tabloid at a newsstand and almost died." Her pretty face scrunched with distaste. She pulled the tabloid from her purse and slid it across the table. The front page glared up at me.

It was a picture of me walking out of my apartment building. I looked... bad. Really bad. My face was all puckered up like I'd just sucked down two dozen lemons without a breath in between. My hair was anchored back in my usual twist, except my shadow made the twist look eight times larger, reminding me of Marge Simpson.

The caption read Has Royce Powell Been Brainwashed by Alien Female?

Mortification washed through me and I wanted to slink down in my chair. My cheeks reddened. My only hope was that I looked so hideous in the picture that no one would recognize me in person.

"Really, Naomi. Couldn't you have smiled at the photographer or something? You look...I don't even want to say it."

Not wanting to draw undue attention to myself, I kept my voice down. "I didn't know anyone was taking my picture."

She frowned and shook her head. "Sweetie, you need to be more aware of your surroundings. It's dangerous to be so oblivious to what's going on around you. A thief could run off with your purse or something."

As if I didn't know that.

"Don't feel bad," my mom added. "You're not the only poor female caught on film with Royce."

My shoulders straightened. "What! What other woman?" That bastard!

She blinked. "Well, this one." She tapped the corner of the paper and my gaze darted there. Royce stood next to Gwendolyn Summers, the gorgeous, leggy brunette he'd been photographed with before. They were in formal wear, looking fancy. Perfect together. Pieces of a well-matched puzzle.

What were they doing together yet again? Was Royce dating her? He'd told me she was only a friend. It was none of my business if he was dating her, but damn him to the hottest fires of hell! He'd asked me to marry him. He'd kissed me. Twice. He said he loved me. What a scum, rat, dog bastard. I wouldn't sleep with him now if I was dying and the only thing that could save me was a penis injection from him.

The sound of crumpling paper filled my ears and I realized I was gripping the tabloid too tightly. I also realized another photographer could be here, too, waiting to snap another shot of me. Immediately I pasted a pleasant, I'm-so-happy-and-not-a-hideous-monster smile on my face. I glanced around the room, showing that smile to everyone who looked in my direction.

My mom eyed me as if I'd suddenly sprouted braided nose hair. "What are you doing?"

"Nothing," I said, still gazing around the coffee shop, trying to spot any suspicious characters. No one seemed out of the ordinary. No one sported a camera.

"Naomi, sweetheart, your face looks...I don't know, frozen. And that's the fakest grin I've ever seen."

I would have glowered at her but I didn't want to spoil my nonchalant expression. "What did you want to meet me for? And don't tell me it's because you were worried about me. I've already told you there's nothing wrong."

"Can't I see my daughter for no other reason than that I miss her?"

No. There was always a reason. I decided to turn this around and aim the spotlight at her. Still smiling, of course. "Why don't you tell me why you look so sad, hmm?"

"I do not look sad." She assumed an airy pose, though it clearly took a concentrated effort on her part. "I was just curious about your social life, is all. You call me in the middle of the night, asking about love and marriage, and now I learn you're working for Royce Powell. Are you considering marriage to him?"

"Not even if it would save my soul from roasting in hell!" Smile, I reminded myself. I bared my teeth in what I hoped was a happy grin.

"Well." Her pointed stare bore into me, probing deep and completely unnerving me as only my mom could. "Are you? Be honest this time."

"No." Smile, damn it. "Of course not."

"Why not? And stop smiling like that."

I allowed my facial features to relax, but only slightly. "You know why."

"Because you saw him in a picture with that Summers woman? Or because of Richard the Bastard?" She scowled. "Jonathan might not have seen the way Richard changed you, but I did, and every day I curse that lying scumbag to everlasting hell for what he did to my baby's hopes and dreams. You're a beautiful, intelligent woman and you should be-"

A waiter appeared, cutting off the rest of her sentence. What had she been about to say? That I should be comfortable with the idea of marriage? If so, I didn't know what I could say in response. Once, I did have dreams of marriage, children and happily ever after. When Royce said every girl pictured herself in a wedding dress, walking down the aisle to pledge herself to the man she loved, he'd been right in my case, though I'd never admit it to him. I'd wanted those things at one time, very badly. Now I wanted to rely only on myself. I wanted to be happy because I made myself happy.

I sipped my latte while my mom ordered an espresso. The second the waiter moved away, she picked up our conversation but maneuvered it down a different path.

"I have something to ask you, Naomi, and I want you to tell me the truth. I won't be upset, I swear."

Oh Jeez. This didn't sound good. "All right," I said, bracing myself for impact. "I'll be honest with you." Maybe.

She sucked in a breath, paused, then swallowed. Sucked in another breath. Swallowed again.

"Out with it," I cried.

"Are you gay?"

"Mother!" My mouth dropped open and I sat for a long while in stunned disbelief. Only the thought that someone could take a picture of me looking like that snapped me out of it. "Why would you ask me something like that?" First Royce and now my mom. What kind of come-and-get-me-ladies vibe was I putting out there?

"I'm just curious, sweetie. Since your breakup with Richard the Bastard, you've become a dating recluse. Jonathan tells me this is a definite sign that you hate men."

Little Johnnie was a regular pain in my ass. I think he lived for analyzing every moment of my existence.

"Jonathan also says Richard the Bastard was a smoke screen," my mom finished.

"A smoke screen?" I asked, not sure I wanted to hear the reasoning behind this little gem.

"You know." She motioned with her hands. "A device used to fool those around you into believing what you want them to believe, and not what is the actual truth." That was a direct quote from Jonathan, I knew. I could almost hear his "helpful" voice while my mother spoke, as if she were channeling him.

Sweet Jesus, this was too much.

"I'm not into women, Mom. I really do like men."

Doubtful, she gazed down at the table. "If you're sure-"

"I'm sure. I want to have sex with men." God, I couldn't believe we were having this conversation.

"All right," she said on a sigh, "I believe you."

Her coffee was delivered, and she stared down at the cup for a long while. Another sigh slipped from her lips a split second before her face crumbled. "I think Jonathan is cheating on me."

The blurted words hit me like a disco globe falling from a domed ceiling. I'd expected this type of announcement in the first several years of their marriage. Not now. Fury blazed a hungry path through every part of me, even hotter and darker than when I'd first found out about Richard. For my mom's sake, I didn't allow it to emerge. Not yet. She needed comfort right now, not rage. "I'm sorry, Mom. I'm so, so sorry."

"I don't know what to do." Tears gleamed in her eyes, making the hazel irises look like swirling pools of brown and silver.

"Why do you think he's seeing someone else?"

"It all started when he bought me that damn lamp for my birthday. What woman wants a practical household item as her present?"

"No woman I know."

"He should have known better. But I think I nagged him about it too much because after that, he started coming home late. And he's been making secret phone calls. I know because he slithers out of bed when he thinks I'm asleep and goes into another room with his cell phone. Some evenings he even stinks of some musky bouquet-type perfume. You know I'd never wear anything like that. I wear lilies. Lilies!"

I somehow managed to retain a neutral expression. Inside, however, the fury bubbled and churned with greater force. I was a seething cauldron, ready to erupt. The late nights, the secret phone calls, the different perfumes...those had been the early signs with Richard.

"Maybe I drove him to it, it's just-it's just-" She wiped at her tears with a shaky hand. "I never thought he'd be like your father."

At first, I'd allowed myself to make excuses. Working late. Business emergency. A freak perfumed breeze that stuck to his clothes. When the excuses no longer worked, I'd blamed myself. I wouldn't let my mom do the same. Not this time, anyway. If he hadn't died of a heart attack, my mom would still be with my real dad.

Reaching out, I covered her hand with mine. "There's not a reason good enough for a man to cheat. Ever. It's his fault, his lack of integrity. Not yours."

"What should I do?" she whispered brokenly. "I can't go through this again."

"You need to hire a private investigator ASAP and catch him in the act."

"I don't know." She shifted uncomfortably in her seat, refusing to meet my gaze. "What if I'm wrong?"

"There's only one way to find out."

"I don't know," she repeated.

"Will you have any respect for yourself if you do nothing? You did nothing with Daddy. You saw what Richard's affairs did to me. Don't let this beat you down. Be strong and take action."

"I-I just... "

I knew what that wavering meant, so I pounced on it before she could completely absolve the man. "If you don't want to hire a private investigator, don't. But I'm going to follow him."

She frowned and finally faced me. The tears were gone, at least. "Really, Naomi. Be serious."

"I'm dead serious." I was going to nail the bastard in more ways than one. Lie to my mom, would he? Cheat on my mom, would he? He'd picked the wrong girls to screw with. Detective Delacroix. That was me.

My mom pressed her lips together and reached out with her free hand, skimming her fingertips over my jaw. Tenderness shone from her features. "I've always thought of myself as the strong one for what I survived, but it's you. You're the one with true strength. Look at you, ready to defend my honor."

I glanced down at the table surface, beading with rings of moisture from our cups. Her praise caused my chest to constrict. She was wrong, but her words pleased me nonetheless. "I'm trying," I said.

"No; not trying. You are strong."

If she kept it up, I was going to bawl like a baby. I clasped her hand in mine and gave a gentle squeeze.

"Jonathan expects you at the house tonight. Seven-thirty. He wants to counsel you on your relationship choices. Can you come?"

How ironic. Relationship counseling from a cheater. I didn't think I was ready to see the rotten creep without scratching the skin from his bones, but I'd do it. I'd use the opportunity to sneak around the house like a goddamn Scooby-Doo disciple and find clues.

"I'll be there," I said with a firm nod.

"I love you, sweetie." She kissed my cheek, stood and glided away.

I forced Mel and Kera to go with me to Jonathans "relationship therapy" session that night. After he was finished dispensing his advice, they were going to distract him while I searched the house. Thankfully, my fury had lessened and I felt in control enough not to attack the cheating bastard with a whip and blowtorch. I loved the man, but I still planned to castrate him.

Maybe I wouldn't have been so upset if not for the picture of Royce and Big-Boobed Gwen. Nah. I'd still be pissed. Cheating was cheating.

Mom greeted us at the door. She brightened when she spotted her nieces. "Mel, Kera! I'm so glad you came. It's been too long since I last saw you. How're you doing, girls?"

"Fine, Aunt Gloria. Just fine," they answered simultaneously, and hugged her.

"Come in, come in," my mom said. I followed behind Mel and Kera, but when I tried to move past my mom, she grabbed my arm and tugged me aside. "You look ready for war." She spoke behind her hand and didn't meet my eyes. "What are you planning?"

"It's better if you don't know." I kissed her cheek, savoring the fragrance of lilies, and sailed past her. "Where's Dr. Johnnie?"

"You know he hates when you call him that." Mom waved toward the back of the house. "He's waiting for you in the den."

We followed the trail of floral-scented candles. The den was spacious, well-lit and fairly bursting with elegant bird figurines of every color and breed. Jonathan collected them. If I were analyzing him, I'd say he collected them because he's a cheating bastard who thinks it's okay to trample over a woman's self-esteem and ruin her ability to trust for the rest of her life.

That, and perhaps he wishes he could fly.

My stepdad was sitting on a big, cushy recliner, smoking a pipe and reading a book. He had a thick head of silver hair and a neat, trimmed beard.

Over the years, this man had counseled me on everything from eating disorders to shopping addictions. My entire childhood had been spent digging into my inner core, learning why I behaved as I did.

Maybe that was why I was so screwed up.

A pretty woman in her mid-twenties occupied the room's only other recliner. She, too, was reading a book and didn't notice the new arrivals. I gave her a once-over and frowned. Red curls framed her round, pleasant face. Her brown eyes tilted upward and her lips were small and shaped like Betty Boop's. She wore a fitted pink T-shirt and red-striped pants.

Could this be Jonathan's new love interest? Was he screwing around with a woman less than half his age? My frown became a hot scowl. How dare he bring her into my mom's house? How dare he! He was probably trying to pass the redheaded Boop impersonator off as a "friend." I'd met a parade of Richard's friends, aka whores, tramps and sluts.

"Hello, Jonathan," I said, both words measured carefully. Cheating bastard. Rot in hell!

He glanced up from his book and smiled, completely unaware of the fact that I was planning his death in my head.

"Naomi. So good of you to come." He placed his pipe in the ashtray, smoke wafting around him like a misty cloud. "You'll be happy to know I've been studying primitive mating rituals, hoping to help you with your problem."

Mel snorted, and I had to pinch her arm to keep her from saying anything.

"What problem?" I asked.

He didn't answer. "I see you've brought the twins," he said, brightening. "Excellent. Excellent. I'm sure this will be beneficial for everyone."

"Who's your friend?" I motioned to the redhead with a tilt of my chin. I didn't mean to sound so rude, but my blood pressure had escalated several more points.

The woman in question stood and held out her hand to shake. "Hi, I'm Jennifer. Jonathan and Gloria's neighbor."

Neighbor... was that the word for "whoring tramp" nowadays? "So nice to meet you," I ground out. I didn't take her hand.

She blinked over at me, obviously startled by my seemingly unwarranted ambivalence. "Nice to meet you, as well."

"I'm Kera." Kera shot me a what's-wrong-with-you frown before reaching out and clasping Jennifer's hand in a friendly shake. "And this is my sister, Melody. Everyone calls her Mel."

"Jennifer is joining us for the session," Jonathan said. "I thought it would do her some good, too."

I just bet you did, I thought darkly.

Mel, Kera and I settled on the couch. My mom eased onto the armrest beside Jonathan. Jennifer began to reclaim her chair, but Jonathan said, "No, no, Jennifer. You sit beside Naomi."

I tensed, not wanting the tramp anywhere near me.

"I'm fine here," she said, casting a wary glance in my direction.

"To the couch." Jonathan pointed.

I scooted over to make room and Jennifer obligingly sat down. She smelled good, like roses and baby's breath. I made a mental note to hate that scent for the rest of my life, as well as to check Jonathan's laundry for any hint of roses.

"I can feel everyone's eagerness." Jonathan rubbed his hands together in a show of delight. He lived for this shit. "That's the first step toward recovery, you know."

What were we trying to recover from? Being related to cheating male whores?

Get a hold of the bitterness, Naomi. There'll be time, enough for that later. I pasted a fake smile on my face. In the past I'd always put up with these therapy sessions because they made Jonathan happy. He'd done his best to make me feel loved, so I'd done the same for him. Now, today, I only wanted it over.

Using a remote control, Jonathan turned on the stereo. Soft new-age music floated and hummed from the speakers.

Kera rolled her eyes at me and I shrugged.

"Now then, girls," he said. "I want you to relax."

Like that was possible. My bones and muscles felt tight and strung out, brittle, ready to break.

"Close your eyes." He was using his I-am-in-a-happy-place voice. "That's right. Relax. Find your meadow of happiness. Melody, close your eyes please. Good girl. Naomi, you, too."

Though we'd all endured many therapy sessions over the years, I guess none of us had realized that failure to do as Jonathan wanted only prolonged the experience.

"Really, Gloria," Jonathan suddenly sighed. "You're casting shadows over my notes."

"Oh, goodness. I'm sorry." My mom moved to stand in the corner.

I watched the whole thing through slitted eyelids and came close to launching myself across the room and bitch-slapping the man. No one told my mom to get out of their way! This was not a normal interaction between my mom and Jonathan. He was acting strangely, just like my mom had said, and I didn't like it.

One point in Royce's favor was he'd never spoken to me so dismissively, as if I were a pesky fly to be swatted away. Still, the man liked leggy brunettes, and that made him just as bad as Johnnie.

"Better," Jonathan said. "Now, where were we? Close your eyes... check. Meadow of happiness... yes, there." Once again his voice went soft. He sounded like an idiot when he did that. "Imagine yourself in a meadow. A lush, green meadow swaying with wildflowers and lit by sunshine."

Kera squeezed my knee.

Mel smothered a chuckle.

Jennifer had yet to move. In fact, I barely heard her breathing.

"While you're in this safe, happy place, I want you to consider my next words. Picture them, even. Relationships are like maps. When you first meet someone new, you set a course for yourself."

Yada, yada, yada.

He continued. "Sometimes, the wind will blow you off course. But that doesn't mean your map is useless. That just means you need to readjust your route. Do you girls understand what I'm trying to tell you?"

"I do," my mom said, her voice hard.

"Not you, Gloria."

I bit the inside of my cheek to prevent myself from snapping the man's head off.

"Girls, do you understand?"

I nodded stiffly and nudged Kera and Mel. They, too, nodded.

"Good. Now it's time to picture the man-not the woman- you plan to marry."

How subtle.

"Remember, no choice is wrong." He cleared his throat. "Who do you see, Kera?"

She glanced to me, her expression saying, Do I really have to answer?

Again I nodded.

"I see someone I love dearly," she said. "But I can't make out a face clearly."

"That's okay. At least you know your map is going to lead you to love. And you, Melody? Who do you see?"

"Actually, I see four men."

"Four?" he gasped out.

"One for every divorce."

"Perhaps we need to readjust your map." He uttered a nervous chuckle. "I'll work with you privately on that." Now he turned his attention to me. "And who do you see, Naomi?"

At that point, I decided I'd had enough. I wasn't in the mood to convince my stepfather that I liked men.

"Well, Naomi?" he persisted.

"I see Jennifer," I told him. "I've been hot for her since I walked into this room." With that, I leaned over and planted the woman a big one.

Surprisingly, she responded.

"How was I supposed to know Jennifer's gay?" I whispered fiercely.

Kera, Mel and I were in the kitchen, supposedly preparing everyone a drink. The therapy session was over and it was now social hour.

"Did you see the look on Dr. Johnnie's face?" Mel asked, laughing. "That was priceless."

"Yeah, come here and kiss me, lover girl." Kera puckered up.

I covered my face with my hands. Guilt hovered over my shoulder for the way I'd glared and snarled at Jennifer, thinking she was Jonathan's secret lover. "What else was I supposed to do?"

"I don't know, but I'm ready to sign up for the next therapy session he wants to give us," Mel said. "I've never laughed so hard. Maybe next time he'll tell me a man's penis is like a flute. Blow it hard enough and you'll make music."

A choked laugh bubbled past my throat. "Just take him a drink and keep everyone busy. I've got some snooping to do."

First, I searched my mom and Jonathan's bedroom. Needless to say, the whole thing creeped me out. I didn't need to know that they slept on red silk sheets and had mirrors on their ceiling. I didn't need to know about the sex toys in the drawer next to their bed. Most of all, I did not need to see the Strokia Sex book-whatever the hell that was-under Jonathan's pillow.

Cringing, I rifled through the dirty clothes hamper and the scent of sweet perfume wafted to my nostrils. Floral and musky, yes, but not lilies. Mom was right; that was not a scent she'd ever wear. I checked Jonathan's shirts for lipstick stains and stray hairs. Nothing. Not a smudge, not a strand. The man was immaculate.

Of course, a cheater needed to be immaculate to properly hide his clandestine activities.

With Richard the Bastard, Yd had to count condoms. He hadn't thought to buy a new box but had used the one from our home. The supply would get low-and they hadn't been used with me. My mom was postmenopausal, so that would be no help.

Where should I look next? Mom had said Jonathan sneaked away to make secret phone calls. I needed to get a hold of his phone bill. Every number dialed and received would be recorded there.

My heartbeat drumming in my ears, I padded quietly to the office. It was small, but crammed with books. Mostly psychiatric mumbo jumbo. His desk drawers were locked, I noticed, eyes narrowing. He probably kept kinky pictures of the other woman in there.

I leaned back in the plush, black leather seat and considered my options. I could jimmy the locks open with a letter opener, but then he'd know I'd been here. I could search for the key, perhaps not find it and waste precious time.

There was no choice, really. I had to risk wasting time by searching for the key.

My gaze circled the room. If I were Jonathan, where would I hide my keys? A place my poor, unsuspecting wife wouldn't think to look for them, that's where. Richard had kept his on his person or in his briefcase 24-7. I doubted Jonathan would be that paranoid. He was a mind doctor, therefore he would assume he could outsmart anyone who entered his domain.

The picture of him fishing on Lavon A hollowed-out book... no. Too clich§ٮ My gaze continued to search, considering and discarding items as I came to them. Then I noticed a small, seemingly innocent blue-and-yellow parakeet. I lifted the item in question and turned it in every direction, wondering why my I'm-so-sophisticated stepdad owned an ugly, plastic figurine.

The answer hit me, and I smiled slowly.

"Of course you'd hide the key in plain sight," I whispered, pressing the bird's beak. A key instantly snapped out. My hands shaking with excitement and nervousness, I quickly unlocked and searched the desk drawers.

My teeth bared when I spotted photos of a plain, conservatively dressed woman in multiple stages of movement. In some, she was holding a cute, dark-headed toddler. My jawbone almost snapped with the force I used to bite down. Did Jonathan have a love child? Of course he did. Why else would he hide the picture? That sugar daddy dickwad!

I found his cell-phone bill, too. There were too many numbers to write down, so I folded the papers and stuffed them in my pocket. Hopefully, he'd just think he lost them.

Smoldering with anger, yet giddy with my triumph, I locked the desk and replaced the key, then strolled into the den. I breathed a sigh of relief when no one took notice of my arrival. Mel and Jonathan were facing off, arguing over the prevalence of divorce. Kera, Jennifer and my mom were seated demurely on the couch, discussing the merits of good skin cleanser.

Watching them proved to be a surreal experience. I'd gone from snooping to finding incriminating photos to happy domesticity in less than seven minutes. I almost wished I was dreaming.

"Time to go," I said, my voice tense.

Everyone's attention snapped to me.

"Are you feeling better, sweetie?" My mom pushed to her feet, her expression concerned. At her sides, her hands twisted the material of her slacks. "Mel said you were sick."

"No, uh, I'm not feeling better. I'm very sick." I coughed for good measure.

"I thought it was your stomach," Jonathan said.

"Throwing up probably scratched her throat," Mel said helpfully.

"Yes, that's right." I rubbed my stomach and gave another cough. "I hate to leave so early, but I need to get home."

A look of relief washed over Mel and Kera's faces, and they raced to my side, wrapping their arms around me and pretending to hold me up. "Let's get you home and put you to bed," Mel said. "You look awful. Just awful."

Gee, thanks. I allowed them to lead me toward the front door.

"Did you find anything?" Kera whispered.

"Phone records."

"I'll ring you tomorrow and see how you're feeling," my mom called after us, a wealth of meaning in her words.