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Chapters One & Two

ROMANCE

SUSPENSE

IMAGINATION

 

 

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The Eyes of a Stranger

 

by Jacqueline Diamond

A news reporter on the track of a serial killer risks winding up as his next murder victim in this taut mystery.

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Monday

 Chapter One

 

Citrus Beach, California  

      He drove by the elementary school about noon, knowing he wouldn't be noticed in the slow-moving traffic of Citrus Avenue.

In front of the school, a line of wiggling young bodies clattered toward the playground behind their teacher. A little girl with fuzzy gold hair turned and saw him and for one moment their eyes met, and then another little girl grabbed her hand and the contact broke.

The car drifted past. He could make almost no noise at all when he wanted to. He passed the library and pulled up alongside the high school, halting in the shade of a pepper tree.

They were sitting on the grass beneath a palm tree about a hundred feet away, eating lunch out of white paper bags from the McDonald's across the street. The two boys had their backs to him, but between their heads he could see her, framed, as in a movie.

Today the shoulder-length blonde hair was pulled back with two clips, or maybe they were combs, and spilled down over the shoulders of the delicate white blouse. Her mouth glistened from whatever she was drinking out of that paper cup, not bothering with a straw.

One of the boys shifted, leaving a clear view of her breasts pressing outward through the thin blouse. You'd think they'd leave a permanent mark.

She wore a gold chain around her slim neck.

"Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow?" His mother laughed tipsily, her hand stroking lightly down his pa­jamas as he lay in bed. "Cockles and mussels, alive, alive, oh." Louder laughter, ringing against the scarred walls. He shifted pleasurably against her hand and she drew it away, slapping it with stinging suddenness against his cheek. "Bad boy!" The pain brought tears to his eyes.

Today was going to be perfect. It had to be today. The need ached and swelled in him. His palms grew moist on the steer­ing wheel. He could already see the puzzled look in her eyes, the way she would half-smile as if trying to figure out the joke. He could already feel the pulse of her throat.

Slowly he took his foot off the brake and idled forward until he reached the entrance to the high school parking lot.  

  

Chapter Two

 

“Have you noticed recently that your shoes don’t match?" Barry Wheatley tried to keep a straight face as he waited for Diane's reaction.

"The mates hurt my feet," she said calmly. Her right shoe was black with an open toe and the left one was gray with a black stripe, but the heels looked as if they were almost the same height, and they were probably both real leather—Di­ane liked quality, when she could afford it. "I won't go out of the building this way; trust me. And don't change the sub­ject."

She was standing in the doorway of his office, the news­room clickety-clacking behind her. Something in the way she braced herself, blocking the door as if ready to fight for what she believed in, made him want to give her anything she asked. A damn fool, that was what he was.

"Maybe you ought to investigate the shoe industry," Barry said. "That's more along the lines of a consumer reporter, don't you think?"

Diane shook her head impatiently, silver earrings glinting at the movement. She had exquisite earlobes. Barry could al­most feel the velvet of them. But he knew that if he tried, she'd leap away like a startled fawn.

"Close the door," he said.

Diane glanced at her watch. "I'm going to be late picking up Lara at the high school."

"You want an audience? Guy wouldn't like you moving in on his territory."

She glanced over her shoulder. Nguyen "Guy" Chang, the Daily Record's police reporter, was sitting a dozen feet away staring fixedly at his computer screen. Not writing anything. Probably listening. Chang made everything that went on in Citrus Beach his business, especially everything that went on in the managing editor's office.

Diane closed the door and sat down on top of the late edi­tion of the paper, which occupied the chair closest to her. Through the glass front of the office, Chang could still see them, but at least he couldn't hear them. "Just because I want to investigate a phony psychic doesn't mean I'm gunning for a news job."

"Aren't you?" Barry thought about lighting a cigarette. He thought about losing the twenty-five dollars he'd dropped into the office pot two weeks ago. He thought about not smoking for the remaining two weeks and decided he'd give it a try.

"Barry, I got a complaint about this psychic, and I think it's justified. Have you ever listened to his radio show on Wednesday nights? The man's a con artist." When she was excited about something, Diane's hands started to wave like a conductor's.

"Who was the complaint from?"

"She wouldn't give me her name—she said she was em­barrassed. She 'donated' a hundred dollars to find her daugh­ter and he said the girl had run away to Los Angeles. Big help."

Barry shrugged. "Anybody who believes in a guy called Eduardo Ranier deserves what she gets. Diane, your job is to write a consumer column about incredible shrinking sweaters and people who sell solar-powered toothbrushes door-to-door. Fake psychics are out of your territory."

"I want to do it." Her mouth tightened. "You know how I feel about people like that, people who take advantage of worried parents ..." There was a slight tremor to her voice.

He was going to fold; how could he help it? He knew, even if only at second hand, the memories that lay behind that tremor. "Well, the column comes first. Go after the man in your spare time, if you insist." She gave him a smile, but her eyes stayed sad. "Speaking of which, what are you doing for lunch tomorrow?"

"Buying a new pair of shoes." She stood up, pausing with her hand on the doorknob. "Look, Barry, after Saturday . . ."

"I'm not going to make a pass in Sammy's."

She considered. "That was the only silk blouse I had where all the buttons matched."

"I'll look in my carpet again, I promise," he said. "Don't tell me. I know. They're real mother-of-pearl."

She sighed. "All right. One-thirty at Sammy's."

As she opened the door, the noises filtered back—the click of terminal keys, the endless ringing of phones—and Barry picked up a thick whiff of smoke, which filled the newsroom despite the handful of smoke-eater ashtrays he'd scattered around. Breathing it was almost as good as smoking his own cigarette.

The general effect in the newsroom was of barely con­trolled chaos, which was normal. The desks, he noted idly, were covered by three layers, like an archaeological bisection of an ancient city. On the bottom were scattered newspapers and files; atop these, telephone books, dictionaries, and AP stylebooks spilled over onto vacant chairs and the scarred linoleum floor; and, on the very top, half-empty coffee cups tilted precariously beside carelessly discarded wire photos and crumpled slips of paper scribbled with phone numbers. Mottos and favorite photos had been stuck to sides of desks and every other available vertical space. One sign taped to the back of a reporter's chair said, If you don't want it printed, don't let it happen.

Barry refrained from staring as Diane strode somewhat lopsidedly to her desk and replaced one of the mismatched shoes. He knew Guy Chang was watching him.  

 

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      Copyright 1987, 2010 Jackie Hyman

 

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