Never Look BackBy: Linda Lael Miller
If there's a maniac or an ax murderer within a hundred-mile radius, he—or she—will come straight to me, Clare Westbrook, hapless attorney at law, like steel filings to a magnet.
Take Peter Bailey. Please—take Peter Bailey.
The very day I opened my new storefront office, in one of Phoenix's less sought-after neighborhoods, he wandered over from the mental health clinic next door and peered at me through the glass door, hands cupped around his face. It was a childlike stance, reminiscent of a little boy yearning after puppies gamboling in a pet store window.
Of course I didn't know his name yet. Nor did I know he was under psychiatric care, though it wouldn't have taken a nuclear physicist to figure it out. He had that look—eyeballs spiraling in two directions, lean body seeming to hum with that frenetic energy peculiar to those whose brain chemistries are seriously out of whack.
I remember that I sighed philosophically and reminded myself that I'd chosen my office because it was smack in the middle of Dysfunction Junction. I'd recently inherited twenty-odd million from the father I never knew, and after weighing my suddenly expanded options, I'd taken the high road. Since bringing in a paycheck was no longer a matter of desperate compunction, I had decided to use my law degree and my hard-ass reputation to strike a few blows for the underprivileged. The ones who needed my expertise but were unable to write a retainer check—at least, one that would clear the bank.
The man staring through my door probably qualified.
I crossed the mostly unfurnished room, turned the lock, and let in a rush of hot desert air. October, and the temperature was still high enough to roast a lizard on a rock.
"May I help you?" I asked.
He recoiled as though I'd thrust something sharp at him, and for a moment I thought he was going to bolt.
"You're Clare Westbrook," he said, shifting from foot to foot. "I've seen you on TV. Lots of times."
Thanks to my recent involvement in some very high profile cases, just about everybody had seen me on. TV, or in the newspapers. He looked me over, and his mouth quivered a little. Drool gathered at one corner, and he wiped it away with a feverish motion of one hand.
"You're prettier in person," he added earnestly.
I'm used to comments about my looks—shoulder-length dark hair, fairly good body, brown eyes, and high cheekbones. When I look in a mirror, I don't see those things. I just see me, a complicated bundle of faults, foibles, and contradictions. I'm smart as hell, for instance, but common sense often eludes me.
"Thanks," I said. "Was there something you wanted?"
"My friend, Angela—I think she's in trouble. A lot of trouble."
Now we were getting somewhere. I stepped back so he could pass. "Come in."
He hesitated, wringing his hands a little, then ducked back to the middle of the sidewalk to look both ways and then up. That, like his eyes, should have been a clue to his mental state, but I was trying to set up a pro bono practice, and for that, I needed clients. Just then, I wasn't too picky.
"This isn't a good place, you know," he observed, edging nervously over the threshold, sweeping the room with his gaze. "The bad people know you're here. They might try to hurt you."
A spark of uneasiness flashed in the pit of my stomach.
"Tell me about Angela," I said carefully, indicating the client chair facing my newly purchased desk. I hurried to move a box of file folders so he could sit down. "What kind of trouble is she in?"
He didn't sit. He seemed too agitated for that. "I shouldn't have come here," he said. "I'm supposed to be next door. I have an appointment with Dr. Thomlinson. Do you know Dr. Thomlinson?"
Ah, I thought. Yes. The doctor had introduced himself earlier that morning, warned me that one or two of his patients might stray my way. Many of them were paranoid schizophrenics, he'd said. No need to be alarmed—they were mostly harmless. Pick up the phone, and he'd send someone to round them up.
"I know him," I affirmed pleasantly, edging a little closer to the telephone on my cluttered desk. "If you're late for your appointment, I'll certainly understand if you have to rush."
He shook a finger at me, already backing toward the door. "You need to be very careful. The dolls. You have to look out for the dolls."
"Right," I said. "I'll be careful."
With that, he was gone.
I sagged into my chair, hoping that interview wasn't going to set the tone for the rest of my career.
After a few minutes I was over it. I got back to work, and since nothing out of the ordinary happened that day, or the next, I figured I was home free. I was destined to save the downtrodden.
Three nights later, feeling industrious and—okay?—avoiding some things that were going on in my personal life, I decided to paint my office.
My on-again, off-again lover, Detective Anthony Sonterra, and I were in the "off" phase again, leaving a serious gap in my social calendar. So there I was, at ten-thirty, with only my niece Emma's dog for company. Perched on the top rung of a folding ladder, I glanced with pride at the legend newly scripted on the barred window. My name, my degree.