Read Lying With Strangers Online
Authors: James Grippando
KEVIN WAS ON THE VERGE OF NODDING OFF WHEN HIS CELL PHONE
Percy Gates be damned, he really did have a seminar to attend, and a full afternoon of tedious analysis of recent SEC enforcement actions was having the inevitable effect. His eyes blinked opened, and it took a half second for him to remember that he was seated in a packed auditorium. He’d zoned out ten minutes after the lights had dimmed for the overhead projector. He grabbed his phone and headed for the exit, trying hard not to disturb those lawyers who had managed not to snooze through the guest of honor’s speech.
“Hello,” he said the instant he reached the hallway.
It was Peyton. She sounded wired, but in two minutes he fully understood why. It took her that long to tell him all about Andy Johnson.
“Unbelievable,” was all he could say. “Do they think he’s the guy who ran you into Jamaica Pond?”
“No. They gave him a lie detector test. Apparently it showed that he didn’t have anything to do with my accident.”
“That’s not a hundred percent reliable, but it should give you some comfort.”
“It doesn’t. I just spent the last forty minutes in a meeting with the director of security here at the hospital. If you ask me, the test they gave Johnson is totally unreliable.”
“Why do you say that?”
“If I tell you, do you promise not to wig out on me?”
“Yeah, I guess. What are you getting at?”
“One of the questions they asked Johnson was whether he and I had ever been sexually involved.”
“Really?” Suddenly, Kevin could think only of the red rose he’d found outside their door. “What was Johnson’s answer?”
“Kevin, you promised not to wig out.”
“I’m not wigging out.”
“I know that tone. It’s the same voice you get whenever I mention Gary Varne. It makes me afraid to talk to you about certain things.”
“I just want to know what this guy said, that’s all.”
“He said no, of course. But here’s why I think the polygraph was bogus. The examiner concluded that his answer showed signs of deception, which is ridiculous.”
The part about it being “ridiculous” didn’t even register. Kevin didn’t answer, knowing that he would only be giving her “that tone” again.
“Kevin, are you still there?”
“Then say something.”
“I just don’t understand why the examiner would even ask if the two of you had been sexually involved.”
“Because security wanted to know what kind of stalker personality he might be.”
“The way he explained it to me, law enforcement uses different labels for different kinds of obsession. If a stalker has had a previous relationship with his victim, that’s called a simple obsession stalker. But if the stalker is obsessed with someone he never really even met, that’s a whole different kind of stalker personality. They call it love obsession.”
“Why didn’t they just ask
if the two of you had ever been involved?”
“Because I’m married. I guess they thought I would lie.”
“Would I what?”
“Please. Now you’re making me mad.”
“You didn’t answer the question.”
“I’m not a liar,” she said, a little too loud.
His head was spinning. “I’m sorry. I’ve actually had a terrible couple of days here in New York.”
“That doesn’t make it okay to effectively accuse me of…you know.”
“Well, try to put yourself in my shoes. How could any man just ignore a lie detector test that shows his wife was sexually involved with another man?”
“That’s not what it showed. Johnson was asked if we were sexually involved, and his denial showed signs of deception. You have to remember how stalkers think. They live in a fantasy world. He may have thought that by dancing the tango with me, he and I were sexually involved. Or maybe he’s fantasized about having sex with me so many times that in his mind we have been sexually involved.”
“I suppose that’s possible.”
“It’s more than possible. God, Kevin, I hate this. All this mistrust. I mean, it’s gotten to the point that even my own mother suspects…”
She hesitated, then said, “She thinks she saw you with someone at lunch yesterday.”
His heart nearly stopped. “Oh, really?”
“Look, I’m sorry I even said that. I don’t want us to be pointing fingers. I was so happy the way we seemed to be reconnecting.”
“Me too. Let’s just kind of move forward.”
“That’s exactly what I wanted to hear. When are you coming home?”
“Seminar ends tomorrow afternoon.”
“I wish you could come sooner.”
“Ditto,” he said with a nervous chuckle. “I gotta go, okay? I’ll call you later.”
As they hung up, he nearly fell against the wall, drained. The lunch reference was just a whisker away from a direct question about Sandra. But why had Peyton backed off?
Maybe she wasn’t ready to confront him, just as he wasn’t ready to press for answers about the rose he’d found outside their door. Surely she would have said it was just another unwelcome expression of love by her stalker. Perhaps that was the truth, in which case telling her about it would only scare her. If it was a symbol of something else, however, and if Kevin was going to make an issue out of it, he wanted to look her in the eye when she explained that rose away. Peyton probably wanted the same face-to-face advantage, if she was going to take him to task about the lunch.
He suddenly recalled Sandra’s parting words to him: He and Peyton were competitors, and she’d beaten him at his own game. He’d dismissed that as crazy at the time. Peyton’s middle name was monogamy. But with he and Sandra traveling so much together, Peyton could well have suspected something long before her husband had crossed the line. It seemed unlike Peyton to take a lover out of spite. But maybe she did find another man. Not a man. A clown. A damn
He shoved his phone in his pocket and headed for the cloakroom. To hell with the seminar. To hell with everything.
It was time to check out.
ANDY JOHNSON WAS MAD AS HELL. AFTER FIFTEEN YEARS OF PART-TIME
work at a half-dozen different hospitals in Boston, his career was over. Children’s had been the first to advise him that his services were no longer required. The other hospitals quickly followed suit. One suggestive look at a young female doctor and he was suddenly blacklisted all over town. He knew that image-conscious hospitals like Children’s were understandably sensitive about the misconduct of personnel who came in direct contact with pediatric patients. But from the way the administration had overreacted, it was as if he’d cornered Peyton in a restroom and exposed himself. The whole politically correct world was going crazy.
“Buy you a beer, pal?”
He’d heard the same offer every ten minutes for the past hour. Some lonely old stranger had planted his ass next to him at the bar and seemed determined to become his drinking buddy. After a few minutes of reluctant small talk, Andy loosened up. Two or three shots later, Andy found himself nearly boring the old geezer to death with the whole stinking story.
“They put a damn memo in my in-box,” said Andy. “Can you believe that? Didn’t even have the guts to tell me to my face.”
“That’s pretty low,” the old man said. “Maybe you should sue them.”
“For what? Clown discrimination?”
“They can’t just fire you for giving some woman the eye.”
“There’s more to it than that. They must think I’m after her.”
Andy shot a look. “What do you mean by that?”
“Just a question. Are you after her or not?”
Andy examined the foamy head on his beer, then smiled thinly.
“You ever just look at a woman and know it would be great?”
“Know what would be great?”
“What’s wrong with you, old man, out of Viagra? I’m talking about sex.”
“So, you are after her.”
her. I was just, you know, fishin’.”
The old man nodded in silence. Andy said, “Whole thing started when I got hired to dance the tango with her at a surprise party. It was all pretend, but when a good-looking woman like that can step into a role in front of a crowd of people and have that much fun acting all sexy and everything, it makes you stop and think. Here’s a woman with no hang-ups. She has got to be a firecracker in the bedroom.”
“So you just want to nail her.”
“You’re a sick son of a bitch,” he said, a little louder this time.
Andy sat up straight. “Listen, pal, I don’t care how old you are. You watch your mouth.”
“We’re all sick. Every last one of us.” A smile crept to his lips as he raised his glass to toast. “Here’s to us sickos, and to the women who made us that way.”
Andy was beginning to wonder if the old guy was all there, but he seemed harmless. “I’ll drink to that,” he said. They finished their beers together and set the empty glasses on the bar.
“Buy you another, fella?”
“Nah, thanks,” said Andy. “I gotta make a pit stop and head home.”
Andy slid off the stool and started toward the bathroom. Halfway there, he felt dizzy. It was a good buzz at first, but it quickly intensified to something discomforting and then disorienting. He stopped to get his bearings. The television behind the bar had been playing in the background all night, but he could suddenly hear it clearly, as if the volume had raised itself. Then it faded. His attention shifted to two guys shooting pool in the back who seemed to be laughing at him. That faded too. The kitchen was behind a set of swinging double doors in the back, yet the clanging sounds of pots and pans rattled in his brain. He shook that off and turned his gaze toward a fat woman at the pay phone. Or maybe it was a man. He couldn’t tell. It was impossible to focus. His hands felt numb. His knees were weak. A flash of hot then cold ran from the base of his spine to the top of his head, and he suddenly felt himself falling. He reached for the nearest chair, which happened to be occupied.
“Hey, watch it!”
A big guy pushed him, and Andy fell to the floor. He tried to stand but could only rise on one knee. He tried to prop himself up, but he was groping someone’s thigh.
“Get your hands off my girl!”
The big guy shoved him again. Andy tumbled backward and sprawled on the floor, his limbs tangled in the upright legs of overturned chairs. He tried to get up but could barely lift his head. It took all of his strength just to hear the conversation above him.
“What’s the problem here?” asked the bartender.
“This drunken slob is falling all over us.”
“I’ll get him home. Everybody just calm down, okay?”
Andy recognized the shaky third voice. The old man lifted him to his feet and showed Andy his wallet. “You’re so wasted you left it sitting right on the bar,” he said, tucking it back into Andy’s coat pocket. “Come on, let me help you out of here.”
He could barely walk, but somehow he got his arm around his new buddy. They squeezed through the doorway side by side, his feet dragging with each step. The blast of cold night air helped him
sober up a little and triggered a few coherent thoughts. The whole experience was strange. Five beers were well within his limit. The old man had talked him into two shots of tequila, but that shouldn’t have put him under the table. Or had it been six beers and three shots? Maybe that was the problem. He’d lost count.
“Juss call me a cab,” said Andy, his words slurred. “I’ll be okay.”
“No way a cabby is gonna risk you puking all over his car.”
“Can’t walk. It’s too far.”
“How about the subway?”
“Yeah,” Andy mumbled. “Red line to Quincy. Lass train’s at twelve-thirty.”
“I’ll take you.”
Andy leaned on his friend as they headed down the sidewalk. The extra burden had the old man huffing and puffing, his breath steaming in the cold air. Andy hardly noticed the chill.
The nearest station was Downtown Crossing, a maze of long underground tunnels and platforms where the red and orange lines intersected. During business hours, it was like a busy ant mound. At midnight with temperatures near zero, it was deserted. The old man fed the fare into the slot and pushed Andy through the turnstile. Andy was about to turn and thank him, but he was right on Andy’s heels.
“I’ll see you to the train,” he said. “Don’t want you falling on your face.”
“Thanks, old man.”
They followed the signs to the platform. Dim overhead lighting did little to brighten the dank cement surroundings. Graffiti covered the advertisements on the walls. A half-frozen puddle of urine glistened in the corner. The old man led him to the far end of the platform where the red line fed into the station through a narrow tunnel. They stopped at the thick yellow line that marked the edge of the platform. Beyond was a several foot drop to two rows of tracks. Andy was suddenly aware of how alone they were, just him and the old man. They’d left the street noises somewhere
behind in the underground tunnels, and the silence was palpable. Andy’s numbness from the drinking and the cold was dissipating, and he was starting to feel his toes again. He took a long look down the track but saw only darkness. He wondered if they’d already missed the last train. Slowly, his eyes were drawn to the humming noise below the platform.
“Third rail,” said the old man, having noticed it too. “Six hundred volts of electricity. Watch your balance.”
The mere suggestion had Andy feeling wobbly. “I wanna siddown.”
“Not now. Train’s coming.”
Down the track, a pair of headlamps was indeed drawing closer to the station. Andy tried to take a step back from the yellow line, but the old man was standing right behind and holding firm.
Strong for such an old guy.
“Let’s back up,” said Andy.
“I got you. Don’t start squirming around on me.”
Andy could hear the train now, feel its vibration under his feet. It was fast approaching. He was close enough to the edge to actually see the conductor in the lead car. The old man was still behind him, standing just outside the tunnel’s opening and out of the conductor’s line of sight. Again Andy tried to back away from the line, but the old man’s grip only tightened. Andy was feeling flushed, the way he had back at the bar.
“I really gotta sit.”
He thought he heard the guy tell him to shut up, but the noise from the rails had drowned it out. The speeding train was just twenty yards away and closing in quickly. Suddenly, the old man grabbed him by the jacket collar, whirled him around, and shouted into his face.
“You can’t have Peyton!”
Their eyes locked just long enough for the crazed look to cut to Andy’s core, long enough for Andy to realize that this close, chin to chin, the old man no longer seemed old. With that, Andy felt the power of the other man’s rage squarely in the chest, both
hands hitting him with the force of a much younger man. Andy flew back across the yellow line. He reached for the assassin’s hand, his coat, anything he might grab to stop from falling, but he garnered only fistfuls of cold air. He heard himself scream, which sent his mind racing. For a split second, it was as if he were outside his body and witnessing his own peril. Arms flailing as he tumbled off the platform. The speeding train screeching into the station. An explosion of hot, red blood at the moment of impact. His vital organs crushed and splattered across the windshield. His severed limbs scattered across the tracks, landing with a sizzle on the electrified third line.
“No!” he shouted. He reached for the old man one last time but came up empty, then met the train head-on as his vision became reality.