My mother saw Robin as a potential threat to my peace of mind, a possible dumper of her vulnerable daughter, the potential dumpee. His fame and fortune made no difference at all to her. But a couple of the other realtors were more impressed. I thought Patty Cloud, now a partner and divorced twice, was going to come clean across her desk and tackle Robin, she was so enraptured with having a real celebrity in the office. She made a determined attempt to impress him with her attractiveness and her business acumen, and I was pleased to see that she didn't make a dent. Patty had always played one-up with me - a one-sided game, since I had never had a competitive bone in my body. I hoped Patty had gotten something out of it, because it had never made a bit of difference to me.
"I'll be glad to take you around town, get you set up with the bank and a dry cleaner and so forth," she offered, her eyes gleaming. Robin reached over to take my hand, very casually. "Roe is taking care of me," he said. Patty's face was just wonderful. She could think of about twelve bitchy things to say, but she couldn't, because, after all, I was the boss's daughter.
"Thanks," I said, when we were returning to my car.
He knew full well what I meant, but he just smiled his crooked smile. "It was my pleasure," he said, wiggling his eyebrows, and I laughed out loud.
He went back to his motel room to work, and I went home to make phone calls. Mother had worked it so I could move out of this house and into the house on McBride in a week. I called a company on the outskirts of Atlanta, made a definite date for them to come pack up this house on one day, and move the contents to the new place the next. It only cost me an arm and a leg and one kidney. I tried to ignore the stab of pain I felt as I thought of leaving this house empty. I tried instead to focus on the incoming family, with their son who would love living out in the country. He might make friends with my neighbor's dog Robert. Maybe Robert would stop his nighttime howling when the new family moved in. Speaking of Robert, he was doing some daytime howling now.
As I was pulling on some nicer pants to wear to work, I thought I heard a noise downstairs. I stopped breathing to listen better, while my fingers automatically pushed the button through the hole. I took some silent steps to the top of the stairs and listened. There it was again, a step in the hall.
I knew it was not Robin or my mother or anyone who had a reason to be there. I thought of Tracy, her angry face, and I stepped back into the bedroom and lifted the phone. I heard a familiar beep beep beep - somewhere downstairs, a receiver was off the hook. I needed my cell phone.
It was in my purse, which was on the counter in the kitchen downstairs.
"Aurora!" called a familiar voice from downstairs.
My breath gushed out in a sigh of sheer relief. Catherine Quick. It was her afternoon. Oh, thank God.
"Catherine," I called, trotting down the stairs, half-angry and half delighted, "why did you come in so quiet? You could tell I was home."
I came into the kitchen to get yet another shock. Tracy, Robin's biggest fan, was holding a knife to Catherine's neck.
"Oh," I said quietly. "Oh."
Catherine's face was contorted with fear, and tears were running down her cheeks. I didn't blame her. The knife Tracy was gripping was a Swiss Army type thing, as far as I could tell - not a butcher knife, or a Bowie knife. But the blade looked plenty long enough to penetrate a vital area. It would never make it through airport security, for example, I told myself crazily. My thoughts were trying to escape from the here and now.
"You ruined it," Tracy said. "He was just on the verge, I could tell! He was just on the verge of asking me out."
"You're right," I said instantly. She had to be made to let go of Catherine. That Catherine should be involved in this at all was simply atrocious. Catherine was in her sixties, had high blood pressure, and should not be subjected to this deranged woman.
Of course, I shouldn't be, either.
My purse was on the counter, right by the side door, where I had a habit of dropping it. Tracy, her auburn hair falling in snakes around her head, was between my purse and me.
"Did you kill Celia?" I asked, before I thought. Obviously.
She laughed. "I hit her with the statue. She earned her own death."
"But she was already dead," I said, compounding my error.
"She was asleep," said Tracy, frowning. Her face was dirty. She was a far cry from the spic-and-span food provider in her spotless white, the woman I'd met such a few days ago. Could people really crumble that quickly?
"Right," I said hastily. Tracy wanted to take credit for Celia. And if I lived, I'd be glad to tell the police she'd done her best to kill Celia. It was just that someone had beaten her to it.
"For months, I've been planning this," Tracy said.
"Meeting Robin Crusoe. Getting him to love me. Ever since I saw the picture on his Web site."
It was news to me that Robin had a Web site. "Which picture? The picture of Robin and Celia at the Emmys?"
"Yes, right when it first came out. Did you notice the way she was ignoring him? She didn't even care that she was out with a brilliant writer. She's a slut; there's a million actresses in the world who can do what she does. But Robin's a writer in million. I've read every single book he's ever written. Ten times apiece, I bet!" Her face was soft and dreamy, but the knife looked just as sharp. "I've got every short story, in every language. I've got every interview, on-line and in print."
"You probably know more about Robin than I'll ever know." I was quite willing to concede that. I edged a little forward and to one side. The kitchen table was no longer between us, which I regretted, but I was a little closer to the cell phone.
"You're damn straight I do. So what are you doing going to bed with him?"
It was dumb to be embarrassed in front of Catherine, but I was. As if she cared, at this point. "How do you know what I'm doing?" I asked instead.
"I was in the backyard of your new house this morning," she said, so choked with fury I was terrified all over again.
It made me sick to think of her watching Robin and me. I also felt a little surprised she hadn't broken in on us then.
"He wouldn't like me if he saw me kill you," she said, as if she'd heard my thoughts.
"No, he wouldn't." Let's make that perfectly clear.
"But then, if no one finds out, I would get to comfort him when you die."
Okay, so this wasn't getting any better. "Don't you think Robin would know?" I asked.
"He doesn't know about Celia." She looked smug.
"He went to the police, to tell them he suspected you."
I didn't know if saying that was smart or not, but to tell the truth, I needed to find something that worked, and in a hurry.
"Did he really? But I did it for him." She looked more than a little confused. "I'm glad I didn't go back home last night. I got a room in the motel where he's staying. I couldn't get a room on the same floor, because all the movie people are taking up that floor, but I got a room right below him." She sighed. "I lay awake all night, thinking about him."
Hoo, boy. This gal would be spending some time in the loony bin, for sure. I had eased more than a foot closer during her meanderings.
"He's very attractive," I said sincerely, "but I'll bet you need some sleep."
"I can't sleep," she told me, sounding peeved about it. "I just keep waking up. And I know he's there, just out of reach. I need him. I deserve him." She gestured with the knife, and Catherine made a strangled sound.
"And I'm gonna have him," Tracy said quietly.
Quick as a wink, she shoved Catherine to one side and lunged for me with the knife.
Even in those few short minutes, I'd accepted a status quo, and the sudden change in threat caught me off guard. Catherine went reeling across the kitchen, and I yelled, "The phone! It's in my purse!" before Tracy grabbed me by the hair and began trying to stab me. I screamed and ducked, and she missed me with her first attempt. My scalp stung with the pull on my hair. She swung again, and this time she cut me below my shoulder. My knees folded from the shock of it.
The blood was immediate and it distracted her long enough for me to yank away from her - leaving her in possession of a handful of my hair - and drop to the floor. I rolled under the kitchen table, knocking the chairs out of the way. She staggered a little as a chair rocked against her and then fell to the floor with a huge clatter. She was still trying to get her balance. Without any planning on my part, my hands shot out from under the table to grab Tracy's ankles, and I yanked with all my strength. Down she crashed, with a shriek of her own, and then she gave a low moan and lay still.
After a long, shocked second of watching Tracy's blood flow onto my kitchen floor, I realized she'd fallen on her knife. I backed out from under the table so I'd be on the other side. I pelted out of that kitchen so fast I don't think my feet hit the steps down to the walkway. Catherine was outside, already talking to the dispatcher, though she was almost incoherent with shock.
"Where is she?" Catherine screamed.
"She's hurt, she's on the floor!"
"Oh my Lord! Did you hear that?" she demanded, and I heard the raised voice on the other end of the line.
"I have to go now, she might get up," Catherine said. She turned off the phone. But she managed to tell me the cops were on the way, and she helped me scramble into her car. We locked the doors while we waited.
We had about three minutes before the police could get there, and at first we didn't say a word to each, being occupied with important things like breathing and praying.
Oh, and I was bleeding. Catherine grabbed a kitchen towel from a basket of wash in the backseat and folded it into a pad, and I pressed it to my wound. Finally, when our gasps were down to pants, Catherine said, "I didn't have any choice but to bring her in, Aurora. She held that knife on me, and I just thought about my kids and grandkids, and I let her in with my key."
"I don't blame you one bit," I said sincerely. "I would have done the same thing."
"I tried to make a little noise," Catherine said. "To warn you. As much as I could."
"Thank you. At least I suspected something was wrong when I came down the stairs."
"Praise God we lived through that," Catherine said, sounding surprised by the fact.
"I don't know if she did," I said in a small voice. "I think she hurt herself pretty bad, falling on that knife."
"I know I will have to pray God for forgiveness, but right now, I just don't give a damn."
"Actually, I vote along with you," I said.
"Can't you stay out of trouble?" bellowed the new sheriff as he drew his gun and eased up to the side of the house. I rolled down the window to point at the open kitchen door, as if Sheriff Coffey couldn't see it himself.
Padgett Lanier had had a massive heart attack in his office (some said while he was receiving the personal attentions of an attractive prisoner) the previous spring, and his newly elected successor was a politically savvy African-American named Davis Coffey. Coffey, who was six feet tall and massive, had been out here a couple of times before during his years as deputy.
Jimmy Henske and Levon Suit, who had also paid visits to my house before, gave me disapproving headshakes as they followed their leader. Levon winked at me, though.
After calling into the house and getting no response, David Coffey hurled his large body into the doorway we'd left open, gun at the ready. After a few minutes, I could see through the kitchen window that he'd lowered his gun and was looking down at the floor.
The ambulance came up the drive just as Catherine and I scrambled out of her car, an aged Buick. It was for Tracy, Davis not having noticed I was wounded. Levon and Jimmy had stepped out of the house to wait in the yard, and Levon winced when he saw the blood dripping down my left arm. Jimmy raised his radio to his mouth and, in only a few minutes, another ambulance arrived for me. I knew my wound wasn't anywhere near life-threatening - it was probably pretty minor - but it hurt like hell, and I couldn't seem to stop the bleeding.
Tracy was alive, I could tell. Her mouth was moving when they were loading her into the ambulance, and though I couldn't hear what she was saying, I was sure it was about Robin.
Who, by the way, I should call. He picked up the phone at the motel and said, "Yes?" abstractedly. It was his working voice. Well, he'd just have to put it aside for now.
I explained the situation to him briefly. There was a moment of silence, a silence I couldn't characterize. Then he said, "I'll meet you at the hospital," and the phone went dead.
By the time we got there, I was feeling a little spacey. Loss of blood and shock, I guess. Plus, the EMT who rode in back with me took my glasses off, for some reason, and I am never at my most alert when the whole world is a blur. He was a handsome young man, whose family had emigrated from El Salvador, he told me. He had a crewcut and a large tattoo, but I was willing to love him nonetheless. I had to admit our romance was doomed when he passed the time on our ride to the hospital by telling me about his motorcycle.
I would have been glad to ride into town in Catherine's car instead of the ambulance, but (a) I didn't want to get blood all over it, and (b) she didn't offer. It was possible Catherine had had enough of me for one day and, frankly, I couldn't blame her.
Robin was already at the emergency room entrance, and he behaved in a gratifyingly loverlike way. Not a disappointment, like my EMT. Robin was even a practical help, which I hadn't expected. He fished my insurance cards out of my purse and showed them to the admitting clerk.
"Thank you," I said, wondering if my voice was as fuzzy as my vision. "This is above and beyond the..." And then I didn't know how to finish the sentence.
"Obligation of a new boyfriend?" Robin suggested.
"Something like that," I agreed, trying to smile. "I started to throw you over for the cute Hispanic guy who rode with me in the ambulance, but I think you'll do."
"Glad to hear it."
The emergency room doctor was a gruff young woman employed by one of the big health-care systems. She had one of the worst haircuts I'd ever seen, but she had a massive assurance that I really liked. She let you know that she was not about to make a mistake, and you would get worse at your peril.
"Don't see too many knife wounds in Lawrenceton," she commented. I had my head turned away, since I just didn't want to look.
"Mmmm," she said after a painful few moments. "Well, I'm gonna numb you up; you need some stitches."
Robin winced. "You can leave," I told him, wishing I could, too. "There's no need for you to watch this."
"Are you the husband?" the doctor asked.
I opened my mouth to say my husband was dead, and then I shut it.
"I'm the boyfriend," Robin said. His charm was such that she grinned at him before she strode out of the room.
"That what you are?" I asked weakly.
"I don't know what to call what I am, so that'll do."
A nurse came in and gave me a shot, with the customary warning about me feeling a little pinch. I rolled my eyes at Robin. Whatever getting a shot felt like, a little pinch was not it.
"This really hurts," I told Robin, "and I'm really ready for the shot to work."
"Do you need to think about something else?" he asked.
"That would help. I wonder how Tracy is. She tried to kill me!" I said, amazed all over again. "Did I tell you she was watching this morning?"
Robin turned red. "While we ... ?"
"Yes, while we."
"Oh, God." His face scrunched with revulsion.
"Yeah, me too."
"But it was great, wasn't it?" he said, bending closer. "You want to think about that while the doctor takes these stitches?"
"It would be better than thinking about someone actually sewing on me."
"Do you remember how you ..." he whispered in my ear, and then the doctor came in. She began her work, chatting all the time to Robin, but I kept my eyes fixed on his face, and I knew he was thinking about that morning, too.
When she was through she gave me a list of instructions and told me I could go. Robin rescued my glasses and we left the hospital. I glanced at Robin doubtfully from time to time. This was surely a lot of trouble for a fragile new relationship.
Robin opened his car door for me, and went around to the driver's side. After he got in, he put the key in the ignition, but then he paused. "I know you're tired right now, but I need to talk to you."
Oh, no. Here it came. "Sure," I said, my voice empty of emotion.
"I feel guilty as hell. Tracy said she hit Celia with the Emmy?"
"And she attacked you. It seems like I bring nothing but trouble to a relationship."
"I was just thinking the same thing about myself."
His eyebrows raised in a question.
"My first long-term boyfriend marries someone else and then divorces, my first husband dies, my short-term boyfriend shows back up and there's a killer stalking him."
He laughed. When Robin laughed, his whole thin face was involved. "I left my short-term girlfriend behind, hooked up with my agent, had a disastrous relationship with her, dated an actress who was strictly out for herself, then went back to my short-term girlfriend to get her stabbed, apparently."
"Can we actually date without killing each other?"
"I think we have to try," he said.
"I think I need to go to sleep," I said.
Robin took me back home, and helped me undress and get into bed. Okay, maybe that was overdoing it a little, but I think a woman deserves some bed rest after she's been stabbed. I called the library to tell Sam I wouldn't be coming in on time. I explained why in as few words as I could manage. He was so miserable he hardly seemed to care.
Robin said he'd be downstairs with his laptop, and I snuggled down in the bed. I could hardly believe it was only early afternoon. The morning had been packed with more incidents that I usually encountered in a week. Maybe two weeks. I'd had great sex, found out a coworker was a terrorist, started buying a house, and been stabbed in my kitchen. Busy day.
And it wasn't over yet.