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       Retribution, p.2

           Jilliane Hoffman
 

  He sat chewing his lip in the dark for what seemed like another hour, but really was only a matter of minutes. Lightning lit the sky and the thunder rumbled even louder and he knew then that it was time to go. Grudgingly, he removed his mask, gathered his bag of tricks, and extricated himself from the bushes. He knew that there would be a next time.

  Headlights beamed down the dark street just then, and he quickly ducked off the cement pathway back behind the hedges. A sleek silver BMW pulled up fast in front of the complex, double-parking no less than thirty feet from his hiding spot.

  Minutes passed like hours, but finally the passenger door opened, and two long and luscious legs, their delicate feet wrapped in high-heeled black patent-leather pumps, swung out. He knew instantly that it was her, and an inexplicable feeling of calm came over him.

  It must be fate.

  Then the Clown sank back under the evergreens. To wait.

  3

  Times Square and 42nd Street were still all aglow in neon, bustling with different sorts of life even past midnight on a simple Wednesday. Chloe nervously chewed on a thumbnail and watched out the passenger-side window as the BMW snaked its way through the streets of Manhattan toward 34th Street and the Midtown Tunnel.

  She knew that she should not have gone out tonight. The tiny, annoying voice inside her head had told her as much all day long, but she hadn’t listened, and with less then four weeks to go before the New York State Bar Exam, she had blown off a night of intense studying for a night of romance and passion. A worthy cause, perhaps, except that the evening hadn’t been very romantic in the end, and now she was both miserable and panic stricken, suffering from an overwhelming sense of dread about the exam. Michael continued to rant on about his day from corporate hell, and didn’t seem to notice either her misery or her panic, much less her inattention. Or if he did, he didn’t seem to care.

  Michael Decker was Chloe’s boyfriend. Possibly her soon-to-be ex-boyfriend. A high-profile trial attorney, he was on the partner track with the very prestigious Wall Street law firm of White, Hughey & Lombard. They had met there two summers ago when Chloe was hired as Michael’s legal intern in the Commercial Litigation Department. She had quickly learned that Michael never took no for an answer when he wanted a yes to his question. The first day on the job he was yelling at her to read her case law more closely, and the next one he was kissing her hot and heavy in the copy room. He was handsome and brilliant and had this romantic mystique about him that Chloe could not explain, and just could not ignore. So she had found a new job, romance had blossomed, and tonight had marked the two-year anniversary of their first real date.

  For the past two weeks Chloe had asked, practically begged, Michael if they could celebrate their anniversary date after the bar exam. But instead, he had called her this same afternoon to surprise her with theater tickets for tonight’s performance of Phantom of the Opera. Michael knew everyone’s weakness, and if he didn’t know it, he found it. So when Chloe had first said no, he knew to immediately zero in on the guilt factor – that Irish-Catholic homing device buried deep within her conscience. We hardly see each other anymore, Chloe. You’re always studying. We deserve to spend some time together. We need it, babe. I need it. Etc. etc., and etc. He finally told her that he’d had to practically steal the tickets from some needy client, and she relented, reluctantly agreeing to meet him in the city. She had canceled on her study group at school out in Queens, grabbed a quick change after her bar review class, and had shlepped into Manhattan all the while trying to quiet that disconcerting voice in the back of her head that had suddenly begun to shout.

  After all that, she had to say that she wasn’t even surprised when, ten minutes after curtain call, the elderly usher with the kind face handed her the note that told her Michael was stuck in an emergency meeting and would be late. She should have left right there, right then, but, well… she didn’t. She watched now out the window as the BMW slid under the East River and the tunnel lights passed by in a dizzying blur of yellow.

  Michael had shown up for the final curtain call with a rose in his hand and had begun the familiar litany of excuses before she could slug him. A zillion apologies later he had somehow managed to then guilt her into dinner, and the next thing she knew, they were heading across the street together to Carmine’s and she was left wondering just when and where she had lost her spinal cord. How she hated being Irish-Catholic. The guilt trips were more like pilgrimages.

  If the night had only ended there, it would have been on a good note. But over a plate of Veal Marsala and a bottle of Cristal, Michael had delivered the sucker punch of the evening. She had just begun to relax a little and enjoy the champagne and romantic atmosphere when Michael had pulled out a small box that she instantly knew was not small enough.

  ‘Happy Anniversary.’ He had smiled softly, a perfect smile, his sexy brown eyes warm in the flickering candle-light. The strolling violinists neared, like shark to chum. ‘I love you, baby.’

  Obviously not enough to marry me, she had thought as she stared at the silver-wrapped box with the extra-large white bow, afraid to open it. Afraid to see what wasn’t inside.

  ‘Go ahead, open it.’ He had filled their glasses with more champagne, and his grin had grown more smug. Obviously, he thought that alcohol and jewelry of any sort would surely get him out of the doghouse for being late. Little did he know that at that very moment he was so far from home, he was going to need a map and a survival kit to get back. Or maybe she was wrong. Maybe he had just put it in a big box to fool her.

  But no. Inside, dangling from a delicate gold chain, was a pendant of two intertwined hearts, connected by a brilliant diamond. It was beautiful. But it wasn’t round and it didn’t fit on her finger. Mad at herself for thinking this way, she had blinked back hot tears. Before she knew it, he was out of his seat and behind her, moving her long blond hair on to her shoulders and fastening the necklace. He kissed the nape of her neck, obviously mistaking her tears for those of happiness. Or ignoring them. He whispered in her ear, ‘It looks great on you.’ Then he had sat back in his seat and ordered tiramisu, which arrived five minutes later with a candle and three singing Italians. The violinists soon got wind of the party downtown and had sauntered over and everyone had sung and strummed ‘Happy Anniversary’ in Italian. She wished she had just stayed home.

  The car now moved along the Long Island Expressway toward Queens with Michael still oblivious to her absence from the conversation. It had started to sprinkle outside, and lightning lit the sky. In the side-view mirror Chloe watched the Manhattan skyline shrink smaller and smaller behind Lefrak City and Rego Park, until it almost disappeared from sight. After two years, Michael knew what she wanted, and it wasn’t a necklace. Damn him. She had enough stress in her life with the bar exam that she needed this emotional albatross about as much as she needed a hole in the head.

  They approached her exit on the Clearview Expressway and she finally decided that a discussion about their future together – or lack thereof – would just have to wait until after she sat for the bar. The last thing she wanted right now was the heart-wrenching ache over a failed relationship. One stress factor at a time. Still, she hoped her stony silence in the car would send its message.

  ‘It’s not just the depo,’ Michael continued on, seemingly oblivious. ‘If I have to run to the judge every time I want to ask something as inane as a date of birth and Social Security number, this case is going to get buried in the mountains of sanctions I’m going to ask for.’

  He pulled off now on to Northern Boulevard and stopped at a light. There were no other cars out on the street at this hour. Finally he paused, recognized the sound of silence, and looked over cautiously at Chloe. ‘Are you okay? You haven’t said much at all since we left Carmine’s. You’re not still mad about my being late, are you? I said I was sorry.’ He gripped the leather steering wheel with both hands, bracing himself for the fight that hung heavy in the air. His tone was arrogant and defensive.
‘You know what that firm is like. I just can’t get away, and that’s the bottom line. The deal depended on me being there.’

  The silence in the small car was almost deafening. Before she could even respond, he had changed both his tone and the subject. Reaching across the front seat, he traced the heart pendant that rested in the nape of her neck with his finger. ‘I had it made special. Do you like it?’ His voice was now a sensuous inviting whisper.

  No, no, no. She wasn’t going to go there. Not tonight. I refuse to answer, Counselor, on the grounds it may incriminate me.

  ‘I am just distracted.’ She touched her neck and said flatly, ‘It’s beautiful.’ The hell she was going to let him think that she was just being an emotional bitch who was upset because she didn’t get the ring she’d told all her friends and extended family she was expecting. He could take what she said and chew on it for a few days. The light changed and they drove on in silence.

  ‘I know what this is about. I know what you’re thinking.’ He sighed an exaggerated sigh and leaned back in the driver’s seat, hitting the palm of his hand hard against the steering wheel. ‘This is all about the bar exam, isn’t it? Jesus, Chloe, you have studied for that test almost nonstop for two months, and I have been really understanding. I really have. I only asked for one night out… Just one. I have had this incredibly tough day and all during dinner there has been this, this tension between us. Loosen up, will you? I really, really need you to.’ He sounded annoyed that he even had to bother having this conversation, and she wanted to slug him again. ‘Take it from someone who has been there: Stop worrying about the bar exam. You’re tops in your class, you’ve got a terrific job lined up – you’ll do fine.’

  ‘I’m sorry that my company at dinner did not brighten your tough day, Michael. I really am,’ she said, the sarcasm chilling her words. ‘But, let me just say that you must suffer from short-term memory loss. Do you remember that we spent last night together, too? I wouldn’t exactly say that I have neglected you. Might I also remind you that I did not even want to celebrate tonight and I told you as much, but you chose to ignore me. Now, as far as having fun goes, I might have been in a better mood if you hadn’t been two hours late.’ Great. In addition to the guilt pangs her stomach was digesting for dessert, her head was beginning to throb. She rubbed her temples.

  He pulled the car up in front of her apartment building, looking for a spot.

  ‘You can just let me out here,’ she said sharply.

  He looked stunned and stopped the car, double-parking in front of her complex.

  ‘What? You don’t want me to come in tonight?’ He sounded hurt, surprised. Good. That made two of them.

  ‘I’m just really tired, Michael, and this conversation is, well, it’s degenerating. And quick. Plus I missed my aerobics class tonight, so I think I’ll take the early one in the morning before class.’

  Silence filled the car. He looked off out his window and she gathered her jacket and purse. ‘Look, I’m really sorry about tonight, Chloe. I really am. I wanted it to be special and it obviously wasn’t, and for that, I apologize. And I’m sorry if you’re stressed over the bar exam. I shouldn’t have snapped like that.’ His tone was sincere and much softer. The ‘sensitive guy’ tactic took her slightly by surprise.

  Leaning over the car seat, he traced a finger up her neck and over her face. He ran his finger over her cheekbones as she looked down in her lap, fidgeting for the keys in her purse, trying hard to ignore his touch. Burying his hand in her honey-blond hair, he pulled her close and brushed his mouth near her ear. Softly he murmured, ‘You don’t need the gym. Let me work you out.’

  Michael made her weak. Ever since that day in the copy room. And she could rarely say no to him. Chloe could smell the sweetness of his warm breath, and felt his strong hands tracing farther down the small of her back. In her head she knew she should not put up with his crap, but in her heart, well, that was another story. For crazy reasons she loved him. But tonight – well, tonight was just not going to happen. Even the spineless had a limit. She opened the car door fast and stepped out, catching her breath. When she leaned back in, her tone was one of indifference.

  ‘This is not going to happen, Michael. I’m tempted, but it’s already almost one. Marie is picking me up at eight forty-five, and I can’t be late again.’ She slammed the door shut.

  He turned off the engine and got out of the driver’s side. ‘Fine, fine. I get it. Some great fucking night this turned out to be,’ he said sullenly and slammed his door in return. She glared at him, turned on her heel, and marched off across the courtyard toward her lobby.

  ‘Shit, shit, shit,’ he mumbled and ran after her. He caught up with her on the sidewalk and grabbed her hand. ‘Stop, just stop. Look, I’m frustrated. I’m also an insensitive clod. I admit it.’ He looked into her eyes for a sign that it was safe to proceed. Apparently, they still read caution, but when she did not move away he took that as a good sign. ‘There, I’ve said it. I’m a jerk and tonight was a mess and it’s all my fault. Come on, please, forgive me,’ he whispered. ‘Don’t end tonight like this.’ He wrapped his hand behind her neck and pulled her mouth to his. Her full lips tasted sweet.

  After a moment she stepped back and touched her hand lightly to her mouth. ‘Fine. Forgiven. But you’re still not spending the night.’ The words were cool.

  She needed to be alone tonight. To think. Past her bedroom, where was this whole thing headed anyway? The streetlights cast deep shadows on the walkway. The wind blew harder and the trees and bushes rustled and stirred around them. A dog barked off in the distance, and the sky rumbled.

  Michael looked up. ‘I think it’s going to pour tonight,’ he said absently, grabbing her limp hand in his. They walked to the front door of the building in silence. On the stoop he smiled and said lightly, ‘Damn. And here I thought I was so smooth. Sensitivity is supposed to work with you women. The man who’s not afraid to cry, show his feelings.’ He laughed, obviously fishing for a smile in return, then he massaged her hand with his and kissed her gently on the cheek, moving his lips lightly over her face toward her lips. Her eyes were closed, her full mouth slightly parted. ‘You look so good tonight I just might cry if I can’t have you.’ If at first you don’t succeed… try, try again. His hands moved slowly down the small of her back, over her skirt. She didn’t move. ‘You know, it’s not too late to change your mind,’ he murmured, his fingers moving over her. ‘I can just go move the car.’

  His touch was electrifying. Finally, she pulled away and opened the door. Damn it, she was going to make a statement tonight and not even her libido was going to stop her.

  ‘Good night, Michael. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.’

  He looked as if he had been punched in the gut. Or somewhere else.

  ‘Happy Anniversary,’ he said quietly as she slipped into the foyer door. The glass door closed with a creak.

  He walked slowly back to the car, keys in hand. Damn it. He had really screwed things up tonight. He really had. At the car, he watched as Chloe stood at the living room window and waved to him that all was okay inside. She still looked pissed. And then the curtain closed and she was gone. He climbed in the BMW and drove off toward the expressway and back toward Manhattan, thinking about how to get back on her good side. Maybe he’d send her flowers tomorrow. That’s it. Long red roses with an apology and an ‘I love you’. That should get him out of the doghouse and back into her bed. With the crackle of thunder sounding closer still and the storm fast moving in, he turned on to the Clearview Expressway, leaving Bayside way behind him.

  4

  The Clown watched with wide eyes through parted branches as her luscious legs stepped out of the BMW. Long and tan, probably from some high-priced tanning salon. She was wearing a short and tight, oh so tight, black skirt and a pink silk camisole that showed off her full, perky breasts. Over her arm she carried a matching black suit jacket. Pink was her favorite color – and his too – and he was glad she had c
hosen to wear it tonight. Mmmm-hmmm… pretty in pink! A slow smile spread over his face and he began to think that perhaps tonight – well, tonight might not be so bad after all. In fact, things were starting to shape up quite nicely. He put his hand over his mouth to suppress an escaping giggle.

  Her long blond hair met the small of her back in a cascade of tender curls and he could smell her sweet, sexy perfume, heavy in the humid air. He recognized it immediately as her favorite – Chanel No. 5. The perspiration rushed down from the nape of his neck, soaking his back and armpits.

  She seemed to go on forever talking with that preppie little prick of a boyfriend. She didn’t look happy. Blah, blah, blah… Didn’t they know what time it was? It was time to go home. Time to go to bed. His fingers drummed impatiently against the black nylon bag. His bag of tricks.

  She slammed her door. He, in turn, suddenly got out of the car and slammed his. Down the street a dog began to bark. The Clown’s knees quivered slightly. What if a nosy neighbor woke up?

  But no neighbors came out to play, and Preppie walked fast to meet her on the sidewalk. He grabbed her hand and they exchanged words that he could not hear. Then he kissed her full on the lips. Hand in hand they walked to the front door of the complex. Her high heels clicked on the cement walk, so close he could practically reach out and touch her ankle. Again, he began to panic. Was the boyfriend going in, too? That would just ruin everything. Preppie had had his fun with her last night – tonight was his turn.

  On the stoop of the foyer they kissed again, but then she slipped in the main door of the complex alone. Not so lucky tonight, are we, Preppie? The Clown chuckled softly.

 
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