I think we’re coming up on 10,000 words, which is the most I’m willing to post of anything in case I drop dead and my heir wants to dump everything into KU for ease of asset management (can’t have more than 10% free on the web in that case). Conveniently, it also happens to be the end of Chapter 1. Maybe I’ll give you the dead-in-the-water ghost story for Halloween.
Caz retrieved her phone from the hall table. No light leaked around the edges of Eddie’s bedroom door at the top of the stairs, but she retreated to the small dining room between the kitchen and living room to put the maximum number of walls between her and an audience. She didn’t want Eddie or Lenore overhearing what she was about to do.
Quarter after ten was a bit late for a social call from a stranger, but Phin had left the clinic at about the same time she did and had a houseguest to contend with, so he was unlikely to be sleeping yet.
Being a man, he’d interpret her rapid response as desperate and overeager for his attention, but the sooner she knew if the plan wasn’t feasible, the sooner she could write him off as a loss and figure out Plan B. If giving him the impression she was panting for his company made him more cooperative, even better.
He answered immediately, as if he’d only just terminated a call from one of the other women he’d picked up that evening and still held the phone in his hand. “You’ve reached the defeated husk of Phin Payne. Leave a message after the beep, and I’ll get back to you in a year or two when morale improves.”
She cocked her head and waited a few seconds. “You didn’t beep.”
“Sound effects cost extra, Ms. Nash.”
He not only recognized her voice from three words but remembered her name. That deserved a minor attaboy. “You can call me Caz.”
“Caz.” He didn’t drag out the syllable, but there was a thoughtful finality to it, as if he’d committed a treasured piece of knowledge to memory. “I’m soaking in Epsom salts like a battered, exhausted geriatric. If that’s too risqué for you, we can postpone this talk until another time.”
She tried to picture a large, muscular, naked man submerged in water, but thanks to his description, the only image that came to mind was that of a withered nursing home resident in a walk-in tub. She closed the mental door on that poor old fellow and left him in peace. “I’ll do my best not to violate any of your boundaries, but if I’m disturbing you—”
“Not one bit. In fact, you’re rescuing me from disturbing research.”
She sat on the edge of the table and put her feet in a chair, warming to the chat. “Dare I ask?”
His sigh reinforced the previous report of low morale. “You’d be a good source, since I’m sure you have training in this area for your job, but my boss would probably prefer discretion.”
A secret wrestling investigation that would benefit from her medical training? Visions of chronic traumatic encephalopathy danced in her head. Neurology wasn’t her area of expertise, but she’d read enough to understand why a man in his line of work would be disturbed by the subject.
But since he was disinclined to share details, he might be referring to anything. The unanswered question would itch like a rash she couldn’t quite reach. “My hunger to solve mysteries and my respect for confidentiality are now engaged in pitched combat.”
A rumbling hum traveled through the phone to stroke her ear. “Medicine sounds like the perfect career for you.”
“Is that the best distraction you can come up with?”
“It was worth a shot.” A listless swish of water hinted at a shift of his body. “I haven’t checked on the patient yet.”
“Too busy with that mysterious research.”
“Only when I don’t get what I want immediately.”
Morale improved enough to let a rich, low chuckle escape. “Well, Caz, tell me what I can do for you without incurring the boss’s wrath, and I’ll think real hard about whether to give it to you immediately or resist your persistent attempts to pry it from my grasp to prolong the conversation.”
Those big hands probably had a grip like a vise. Brute force on her part would be futile. Fortunately, women had evolved wiles to compensate for a physical strength disadvantage.
She placed a hand on the table behind her and leaned her weight onto it like a pinup girl sitting on the hood of a vintage automobile. Her quarry couldn’t see her, but he’d understand how the right pose helped with getting into character. Her voice softened to chide, “You’d be an awfully poor sport to make me work for something you offered freely.”
“The tour of the training center is already yours. I’ll be out of town until Saturday night, but if you’re in a hurry, I can set up another guide.”
A different guide would defeat the purpose. “If you’re not interested in a day of rest, Sunday is my kid’s birthday, and it turns out he’s a fan of Professor Pain.”
If he was put off by the idea of not having her to himself for a romantic stroll through a building that reeked of sweaty jockstraps, there was no pause or change of tone to show it. “What’s his name?”
“I’ll leave visitor passes at the gate for you and Eddie bright and early Sunday morning. Come anytime.”
Her wiles hadn’t even broken a sweat. “Thank you. It will mean a lot to him.”
“It will mean a lot to me. I expected you to throw my number in the trash.”
Caz grimaced at the ceiling. What he didn’t know… “Why would you expect that?”
“I would imagine a lot of patients hit on you.”
“Given my access to needles and lab slips for colonoscopies, the smart ones decide it’s in their best interests to let me do my job in peace.” Not all of them were smart, but the only cretin she couldn’t easily dispose of was the clinic’s office manager.
“It didn’t occur to me your position gives you a built-in defense mechanism.”
Only the threat of one. Insurance companies didn’t accept retribution as a medically necessary reason for ordering invasive procedures. “Luckily for you, I didn’t know you were hitting on me. I thought you wanted free followup for your friend.”
“You did not.”
His instantaneous acknowledgment of her feigned cluelessness, wry but free of censure, sparked an unwelcome warmth toward him.
She should welcome it. She should, at the very least, like any man she allowed to come in contact with her nephew.
But women were socialized from birth in the art of getting along with men, only to have them turn and violate their end of the bargain. Like a wary animal, she sensed a trap behind every tasty snack and kind word, acutely aware it could be followed without warning by a choking snare, betrayal, pain.
Eddie would suffer alongside her, just as he’d suffered alongside his mother.
Caz wouldn’t swallow the bait. Phin had something she wanted. She would trade only what she must to get it and escape unscathed. Liking him wasn’t part of the bargain. “We’ll see you Sunday, Old Man Payne. Try to stay in one piece until then.”
© 2018 Ren Benton. Archived.