Chapter no 13

The Locked Door

Present Day

I’m glad I don’t have any surgeries today, because it’s impossible to concentrate after the visit from Detective Barber. All I can think about is Amber Swanson. And who could have possibly done this to her.

It could be a coincidence. I hope to God it is. But I’ve never really believed in coincidences.

But it can’t be my father. He’s in prison. For life. For eighteen lives.

At around five o’clock, I retreat into our bathroom to take a breather. There’s a public restroom on the floor, but we have our own bathroom that only the four of us use. I lock myself inside and splash water on my face. When I stare back at my reflection, my dark eyes look bloodshot.

I close my eyes and take a deep breath. This is going to be okay. I haven’t done anything wrong.

I open my eyes and splash water on my face one more time. Then I squirt some soap onto my hands. But before I can even lather up, the scent of the hand soap invades my nostrils. And I retch.

It’s lavender.

I pick up the bottle of hand soap, suddenly furious. I yank open the door to the bathroom and stride down the hallway over to Philip’s office. I pound on the door, then open it up without waiting for a response. He’s sitting at his desk, dictating into his computer, and his eyes widen at the sight of me.

“What’s this?” I snap at him, holding up the bottle of soap. I shake it in his face.

His brow furrows. “It’s soap?” “It’s lavender soap!”

He lifts a shoulder. “So…?” “Where did it come from?”

“I ordered it.” He shakes his head at me. “We needed soap for our bathroom. I don’t understand. What’s the problem?”

I grit my teeth. “I hate lavender. I told you that before.” “I don’t remember you ever telling me that.”

“I definitely did.”

“Jesus Christ, Nora.” He rakes a hand through his hair. “It’s just soap.


I hurl the bottle of soap into his trash can, which shakes with the impact. “I’ll get some other soap tomorrow. Don’t buy soap again if you can’t remember what not to buy. Okay?”

I march out of his office, slamming the door behind me. I may have overreacted just a tiny bit. Okay, more than a tiny bit. But I hate lavender more than anything. I still feel nauseated from the stench of that soap. I almost feel like I need to take a shower now to get it off me.

Usually, I’m the last one at the office, but today I quickly finish my documentation and get going as soon as I’m done with my last patient. When I get into the waiting area, Harper and Sheila are both pulling on their coats.

“Hey, Nora,” Sheila says. “Harper and I are going out for drinks and to talk about what a dirtbag Sonny is. Want to come?”

Ordinarily, yes. I would want to go with them. I want to be supportive for Harper and make sure this little setback doesn’t trip her up on her path into medicine. But sitting at a bar with Sheila and Harper and pretending to care about something as mundane as men… I just can’t do it tonight.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I’ve got to head home.”

Harper frowns at me. “Are you still upset about that patient? The one who died.”

Of course, after the detective left, I told them about Amber Swanson. I had to. But I left out the part where I was a suspect because she was mutilated exactly the same way my serial killer father used to do to his victims. Nobody at this office knows that I was born Nora Nierling. And they never will.

“I’m just tired,” I lie. “But have a good time.”

Sheila and Harper make disappointed faces, but they don’t try any harder to convince me to come with them. I’m their boss, so it’s awkward. Moreover, I’m not particularly fun. I know that much about myself. They’ll have a better time without me.

When I get in my car, I intend to drive home like I told them. But instead, I find myself taking a detour. I’m going to Christopher’s for the third time in three days. Except this time I’m not looking for an Old Fashioned.

When I get into the dark bar, right away I see Brady making drinks. He’s doing something with a cocktail shaker, and I can see the muscles standing out in his arms. A little shiver goes through me. I’ve been depriving myself a long time, but I need this now.

I love the way his face lights up when he sees me. He finishes up with his customer, then he comes right over to me. “Another Old Fashioned?”

I look up into his eyes as I slide the umbrella he lent me across the bar. “When do you get off work?”

A surprised grin spreads across his face. “In an hour.” “Good.”

“So…” He lifts an eyebrow. “You’re finally going to let me take you out to dinner then?”

I shake my head. “No. Your place.”

His smile falters slightly. I don’t know whether to be hurt or flattered that he was hoping for something more with me than a one-night stand. “Oh…”

“We don’t have to if you don’t want to.”

“No,” he says quickly. “I want to. Definitely. But you don’t want to grab a bite first or…?”

“No. I want to go straight to your place.”

He blinks a few times. “Okay then. So… I guess just wait here and hang tight.”

“For an hour,” I say.

“Right. An hour. Don’t move, okay?”

I end up letting him make me the Old Fashioned, and he insists it’s on the house. I spend the next hour sipping on my drink, pretending to surf the web on my phone, but actually watching Brady out of the corner of my eye. He doesn’t talk to me much because it’s a busy night at the bar and he’s got a lot of customers to take care of, but every few minutes, he catches my eye and grins at me.

I get a flashback to my first date with Brady, what feels like a million years ago. That was a proper date. He showed up at the door to my single

room wearing a crisp white dress shirt and even a tie. He looked distinctly uncomfortable in the tie, and soon after we were seated at the Italian restaurant where he took me, I leaned in and said to him, “Do you want to take off your tie?”

“Uh…” His fingers automatically flew to the knot. “Is there something wrong with it?”

“You just look like you hate it.”

“I…” He tugged on the tie. “Yes. You’re right. I hate it.” “Then why did you wear it?”

“I wanted to impress you.” He smiled sheepishly. “It doesn’t feel like it’s working.”

But the funny thing was that it was working. The last boy I went on a date with showed up in a T-shirt and jeans. There was nothing wrong with that, but I loved how Brady put in an effort. I loved that he wore an uncomfortable tie because he wanted to impress me. Most college boys wouldn’t have bothered. “I think it’s working more than you think. But you can still take it off.”

“No way,” he said. “If it’s working, I’m leaving it on.”

He was cute. I remember really liking him. Not to the point of ever saying the L-word or even close, but I liked him just as much as it was possible for me to like anyone.

Why on earth did I break up with him? I really can’t remember. It’s driving me nuts.

When the hour is up and another bartender comes in to relieve Brady, I practically leap out of my seat. He comes over to me, wiping his hands on his jeans. “Ready?”

I nod. “How far do you live from here?” “Ten minutes. I’m right off El Camino.”

For a second, I consider asking if he’ll give me a ride to his place and back afterward. But no. I want my car with me.

“I’ll follow you,” I say.

“Sure,” he says. “Let me get your phone number.”

I narrow my eyes at him. “My phone number? What for?”

“We should exchange numbers in case you can’t find my place.”

I drop my phone into my purse and hold the bag protectively to my chest. “I’ll be able to find you. I’m not too worried. It’s not brain surgery.”

“Hmm. I guess you would know.”

“Yes, I would.” (I considered brain surgery as a profession, but I didn’t like cutting into the skull as much as I like cutting into the abdomen.)

He sighs. “You don’t want me to have your number. I get it. But let me at least give you mine. Okay?”

Fine. I take my phone out of my purse and allow him to read off the digits of his phone number. I plug them in under his name, being careful not to accidentally click on his number, because then he’ll have mine. I’m never going to call him.

He lives ten minutes south of Christopher’s, just on the border of San Jose. His neighborhood looks quiet but slightly seedy. The houses look broken down, the lawns almost universally in need of maintenance. Fortunately, I don’t have a fancy car like Philip does, or I’d be worried it would get jacked.

“It’s okay to park out here?” I ask Brady when I get out of my car behind his.

“Yeah. Don’t worry about it.”

I look over at the small house we parked in front of. It’s an old off-white house, which is just as decrepit as the others on the block, with peeling paint and one of the windows boarded up. The cement stairs to the front door are crumbling. On the front porch, there’s a rocking chair, swaying gently. For a moment, I’m certain it’s empty. But then I can make out the outline of an emaciated body in the chair. Silver hair glows in the moonlight.

Brady raises his hand in greeting. “Hi, Mrs. Chelmsford.”

The skeleton raises its right hand, but doesn’t say a word. Even though it’s not that cold out, I shiver.

“Mrs. Chelmsford owns the house,” Brady explains to me as we walk around back. “But she’s a little out of it and I did the rental agreement through her niece. She just sits on the porch most of the time. Fortunately, I’ve got my own entrance.”

I don’t know what it is that makes me uneasy about that old woman rocking back and forth on the porch. Maybe because of how still and quiet she is. If she hadn’t raised her hand in greeting, I would have been sure she was dead.

He yanks open the screen door, then fits his key into the lock for the door behind it. There are stairs inside, and he waves to me to follow him up the dark, narrow staircase. I don’t usually get claustrophobic, but I’m relieved when we get to his front door.

Brady’s apartment is small, which isn’t a surprise considering the size of the house. I look around, taking in the tiny living area with a beat-up old futon and an armchair that looks like it may have been rescued from the side of the road. Brady watches my expression.

“I didn’t get the best of our furniture in the divorce,” he says. “Actually, I got nothing.”

“It doesn’t matter,” I say. And it doesn’t.

“I’ll give you the grand tour.” He waves at the living room. “That’s the living room. Obviously. The kitchen is over there. That room on the right is my bedroom. The bathroom is right next to it.” He snorts. “And now you’re kind of wishing we had gone back to your place.”

“No, I’m not.”

“Right. Because then I would know where you live.”

I wince because he hit the nail on the head. This is a one-time thing. I don’t want him to have my number and I don’t want him showing up at my front door.

“It’s fine,” he says. “Really.”

I nod at the hallway, at another door that seems to be closed. “What’s that room?”

He hesitates for a beat. “That’s my office. I used to use it when I was working for the start-up.” He clears his throat. “Could I get you something to drink? Some water?”

“No, thanks.”

“A beer? Or…” He opens his fridge and peers into it. “I may have some vodka or something.”

I walk over to the kitchen and put my hand on his shoulder. He stops in the middle of searching for the alcohol, shuts the fridge, and turns to look at me. I see his chest rise and fall for a moment, as he stares into my eyes.

Then he leans in to kiss me.

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