Watchers in the Night
Carolyn Mathers felt ridiculous carrying a gun on a date, but
that didn't stop her from donning her shoulder holster and slipping
in the Glock. Pathetic, she supposed. Certainly not romantic. But
Paul was a cop--he'd understand in some kind of basic way. If she
let him get close enough to find out she was carrying, that is.
Grimacing at the thought, she stepped out into the frosty night.
The weatherman had said it was ten degrees out. But Carolyn's palms
"It's just a date," she muttered under her breath, exasperated
with herself. Her words formed a misty white cloud before the bitter
wind dispersed it. Sticking her hands into her coat pockets, she
braced herself against the cold and descended her front steps,
hurrying toward the open parking lot a block and a half away.
She'd chosen ten o'clock on a Wednesday night for this date because
when she'd tried to meet Paul at a civilized hour, her work had
interfered and she'd had to stand him up. Now, however, she felt
tired and unenergetic, and if it weren't for the scrap of pride
she had left--the one that told her she was being a coward--she
would have begged off again. It appeared that even after three
years, she wasn't fully ready to date again.
As soon as her feet hit the sidewalk, the hairs on the back of
her neck prickled in a way that was becoming infuriatingly familiar.
She stopped and took a slow look around her, searching for the
prying eyes her body insisted were upon her no matter what her
rational mind told her. Row houses lined both sides of the street,
but no faces peeked out from any of the lighted windows. An occasional
car passed by--the streets of Philadelphia were ever truly deserted--but
there wasn't a single pedestrian in sight.
Shaking her head at herself, she started toward the parking lot
once more. One of the big street lights in the lot flickered, then
went out, leaving her car buried in the intimidating pool of shadow
where the light had once been. The creepy-crawly feeling of being
watched heightened, and she hunched her shoulders against it.
This was why she'd brought the gun, this constant uneasiness she'd
been feeling for several months now every time she went out at
night. Most likely, she was just being paranoid. But she'd been
a cop for eight years and a PI for three, and in both lines of
work she'd naturally made some enemies. It wasn't a bad idea to
be on her guard.
If some nut case were following you, he would have made his
move by now, she told herself. No matter how nutty they
were, they didn't stalk you for months at a time without making
some kind of move, if only to let you know you were in danger.
Forcing herself to relax, she strode briskly toward her car. She
glared briefly at the burned-out light. It buzzed to life for a
second, then died again. She paid this place one-fifty a month
to park her car--the least they could do was keep the lights on!
There wasn't even anyone at the booth tonight, and with the cold
weather keeping most sensible people in their houses, the lot felt
deserted. And ominous.
She was just a few steps from her car when she heard the unmistakable
sound of a footstep behind her. She whirled around so fast she
almost made herself dizzy.
In the dismal pool of shadow, not ten feet away from her, stood
a white male, maybe eighteen or twenty. The street lamp made another
feeble attempt to come back to life, and Carolyn got a good look
at him. Blond hair spiked with some kind of greasy gel, blue eyes
with the color and warmth of a glacier, thin, heavily chapped lips
twisted into a menacing sneer. Despite the cold, he wore only a
denim jacket for warmth, but from his dilated pupils she gathered
he'd found a chemical solution to the cold. His hand moved, and
she saw the gleam of a wicked-looking switch blade.
"Well, hello there pretty lady," he said. His gravelly
voice should have belonged to someone who'd smoked three packs
a day for sixty years or so.
Damn it! When she'd first stepped out of her house, she'd taken
a city-girl's care to check out her surroundings, scoping out the
area before potentially stepping into danger. But she'd just walked
blithely into the darkness of the parking lot with barely a second
thought. Trying to prove to herself how tough she was, how unaffected
by the constant uncomfortable feeling of being watched. She knew
The hoodlum licked his chapped lips. "Whatcha got under that
A Glock with your name on it, she thought. She consciously
widened her eyes and made her lower lip tremble, trying to project
helpless victim. All she had to do was get her hand under her jacket,
and the hoodlum was in for a big surprise.
Her feigned fear must have been convincing, because the kid's
eyes gleamed with malicious enjoyment, and his jeans bulged noticeably.
Carolyn glanced around the parking lot, but there wasn't another
soul in sight.
"Scream, and I swear I'll cut your tongue out," the
kid warned, coming closer, brandishing his knife
"P-please don't hurt me," she stammered. Her eyes focused
on the knife and her heart rate shot through the roof as adrenaline
pumped through her system. The kid was probably hopped up on something,
not to mention armed, so her chances of taking him at hand-to-hand
combat weren't good. She had to get to her gun before he made his
His smile was sly and cold and ugly as sin. "Oh, I won't
hurt you none, lady. Long as you behave yourself. Now why don't
you slip out of that nice coat for me?"
She sniffled loudly, not having to feign the sound because the
cold was making her nose run. She fumbled with the first button
on her coat, making it look like her hands were shaking. Sometimes
it helped that she was so petite and looked like such a girly-girl.
It had pissed her off when her fellow officers underestimated her,
but it wasn't a bad thing at all when the suspects did.
Her world shrank until there was nothing in it but herself, her
attacker, and this little pool of shadow in which she stood. She
continued slowly unbuttoning her coat, mentally rehearsing the
hurried reach into her blazer, the quick draw. The hoodlum would
be caught entirely by surprise, and she tried to imagine what he'd
do. A sensible guy would probably run for his life, but Carolyn
doubted this punk would be sensible considering how high he was.
The kid's breath was coming shorter and shorter as he grew more
excited. Oh, he was just loving this show of fear, loving the power
he thought he wielded! Carolyn looked forward to turning the tables
The last button slid free, and she shrugged her shoulders out
of the coat. She meant to let it fall to the ground behind her,
but as it slid down her arms she once again felt that prickle on
the back of her neck. Her hands were free of the coat, but it didn't
hit the ground. Her attacker's jaw dropped open, and Carolyn caught
a glimpse of misty white breath brushing past her cheek.
Reflexes took over, and despite the threat of the knife, Carolyn
whirled and backpedaled at the evidence of a threat from behind.
Her hand plunged under her blazer, seizing the butt of the Glock.
And then froze.
Standing there, maybe a foot away from where she had been, was
a ghost from her past. How he could possibly have come that close
to her without her noticing--or without the knife-wielding punk
noticing--was beyond her.
The man had her coat in his hands, and he casually laid it over
the hood of a car while the punk quickly determined that he was
a much greater threat than Carolyn.
"Stay away from me, man," the punk snarled, poking the
air with his knife for emphasis. But he'd lost a lot of his cockiness.
Carolyn blinked rapidly, but the ghost didn't disappear. He looked
markedly different from how he'd looked three years ago, when she'd
seen him last, but there could be no doubt that it was him. Gray
James. The only man she'd ever loved. The man who'd stranded her
at the altar and disappeared from her life.
He wasn't dead. For three years, she'd told herself and anyone
else who would listen that something terrible must have happened
to him. For three years, she'd dreaded getting the news that his
body had finally been found. Now, here he was standing in front
of her, very much alive, and she could hardly believe her eyes.
Gray had lost a lot of weight, she noticed. He'd never been fat,
really, but he'd always been just a touch on the heavy side, no
matter how carefully he'd watched his diet. His hair, once always
cropped close and neat to his head, formed a shaggy black mane
around his pale face, which was devoid of the glasses and mustache
he'd once worn. He even dressed differently. Instead of
his dress-for-success outfits, he was now wearing a black leather
jacket over faded jeans and well-loved sneakers.
Damn, he looked good.
Then he smiled, and a chill traveled down Carolyn's spine.
"I'd advise you to leave the lady alone," Gray said,
and if Carolyn had thought the hoodlum's eyes looked cold, Gray's
were arctic. His smile was more like the baring of his teeth, and
the air fairly vibrated with menace.
Menace? From Gray? The man was so even-tempered he rarely raised
his voice, and so gentle he wouldn't even kill a spider in his
apartment but would trap it in a glass and take it outside instead.
But that sense of menace wasn't just Carolyn's imagination-- the
hoodlum's face had noticeably paled. She tried to shake off her
shock and draw her Glock out of its holster. Gray's eyes flicked
briefly in her direction and once again she froze, unable to complete
the movement. It was like one of those dreams where you were being
chased by a monster but you couldn't get yourself to move. She
knew it was just the shock of seeing Gray, but that knowledge did
nothing to loosen her limbs.
"Don't mess with me!" the hoodlum warned, but his voice
held too much fear to be even vaguely threatening.
Gray smiled that terrifying smile again, the one that would have
chilled Carolyn to the marrow if it had been directed at her. The
hoodlum's knife hand shook.
"I'll do more than mess with you, little boy," Gray
said in a low growl, taking a step forward.
The hoodlum broke and ran. Gray took off in pursuit, and Carolyn
once more urged herself to draw the Glock. She had to stop this
kid, before he terrorized some other woman. Her hand moved sluggishly,
the gun catching in the folds of her jacket, and by the time it
was out the kid had turned the corner.
Gray pulled up short, then slowly turned to face her once more.
He wasn't smiling anymore, but that mysterious aura of danger still
clung to him as he came closer. His once plump and rounded face,
made even softer and more harmless-looking by his round glasses,
was now sharp and angular. Sculpted, even. And yet no matter how
different he looked--and no matter that she'd been sure he was
dead--she couldn't deny that it was really Gray.
Averting his eyes, he walked past her and picked up her coat from
the hood of the car where he'd laid it. She shivered and hugged
herself, suddenly conscious of the cold once again.
"Here," Gray said, handing the coat to her.
She shoved her arms into it and clutched it close around her as
the chill deepened.
"Come on," Gray said. "I'll walk you back to your
She wanted to say something to him, anything, but her
tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth and her throat closed up
on her. Instead she followed mutely as he walked to her front door,
not looking at her. His face was almost completely devoid of expression,
although occasionally she caught the gleam of some unknown emotion
in his eyes.
Her hands shook for real as she unlocked her front door, and she
wondered if she were about to wake up from this dream. But no,
it was too coldly real to be a dream. Gray brushed past her without
waiting for an invitation, making his way into the living room
as if he had every right to make himself at home. She paused in
the hall to hang her coat, then followed, thoughts and emotions
fighting and scrambling over each other within her.
Relief that he was alive quickly faded. If he wasn't dead, that
meant he'd left her of his own free will. The conviction that he'd
met with foul play had protected her heart, but now that protection
was gone. Pain threatened to overwhelm her if she let down her
guard enough to let it in.
He'd squatted in front of the dark walnut cabinet that held her
liquor stash. He poured a healthy dose of Scotch into a tumbler,
then rose and held it out to her. Nothing for himself, she noticed.
She took the glass from his hand and downed the Scotch in a single
burning swallow, grimacing and wrinkling her nose. As a cop, it
had practically been a job requirement that she drink, but she'd
never particularly liked the taste of hard liquor. Still, she appreciated
the warmth right about now.
She cleared her still-burning throat. "So, long time no see," she
said, attempting to sound casual and failing spectacularly. She
tried to meet his eyes, but he looked away as he unzipped his jacket
and threw it over a chair. Underneath, he was wearing a short-sleeved
sky-blue T-shirt that clung appealingly to his chest. In the past,
he'd always worn his clothes on the loose side to camouflage his
extra weight. Carolyn couldn't help noticing that he most definitely
did not need to camouflage anything anymore.
Damn it, why was she noticing stupid things like that? Who cared
how good he looked, when she'd just found out she'd been mourning
three years for a man who was alive and well and hadn't even bothered
to say goodbye when he left her?
"Are you all right?" he asked.
"I'm fine." Except for the fury that was rising within
her, that is. "I thought you were dead."
The corner of his mouth twitched, but he didn't quite smile. "You
mean you wished I was dead."
He was amused by her anger? By her pain? "You bastard!" she
spat, and it was all she could do not to cross the distance between
them and land a solid right to his chin. She smacked her glass
down on the coffee table. Otherwise, she might have thrown it at
He sighed heavily and shook his head. "I should go." He
managed to take two steps toward the door before she seized his
arm in a grip meant to hurt. Up close, she could smell the faint
hint of his cologne, and it made her heart clench in her chest.
Cool Water. She'd given him a bottle on their first Christmas together,
and thereafter he'd always worn it to please her. The scent evoked
memories of chilly winter mornings spent cuddled in his arms. She
summoned her anger once more before the pain could overwhelm her.
"Oh no you don't! You don't get to just waltz back into my
life for ten minutes, play the hero, and then waltz back out again." Her
heart was pounding harder now than it had been in the parking lot. "I
want to know where you've been for three years."
He pried her fingers loose from his arm. He'd put on his expressionless
mask once more, and even his voice when he spoke gave away nothing
about how he felt. "I should have just let you handle that
hoodlum on your own. I'm sure you could have taken him. I'm . .
. sorry. Now please, I have to go."
She grabbed him again. "You're not going anywhere. Not until
you've answered a whole lot of questions." Fury still coursed
through her veins, but pain was slowly and steadily working its
way in as well. "Two days," she started, but the pain
caught up with her and squeezed her throat. Her eyes burned, but
no way in hell was she going to let herself cry in front of him. "Two
days before our wedding, you disappear with nothing but a three-line
Dear Jane letter. Three years I've been trying to figure out what
happened to you."
In the beginning, she'd tried to let the police handle it, like
a responsible citizen. But because of that damning Dear Jane letter,
no one except her had really thought there was any foul play involved.
The fact that he'd last been seen leaving his bachelor party with
a stripper on his arm hadn't helped her arguments any. She'd launched
her own investigation, and it had turned into an obsession. When
her superiors had given her an ultimatum--quit the investigation
or quit the force--she'd walked away, full of regrets, but unable
to let go.
She cleared her throat, hoping her voice didn't come out froggy. "Now
you just show up here to 'save' me when you know damn well I can
take care of myself, and you're just going to walk away?
I deserve an explanation, don't you think?"
The expression on his face softened just slightly. "You do," he
said quietly. "But I can't give it to you. I'm sorry."
The weasely answer inspired another surge of anger. Anger was
good, much more manageable and energizing than pain. Carolyn seized
that anger and held onto it for dear life. "Sorry? You put
me through three years of hell and all you can say is you're sorry?
Well that just ain't gonna cut it, mister."
Something sparked in his eyes, but his voice remained calm and
level. "I know you're angry with me, and I understand why,
but I have nothing to give you, Carolyn. I never wanted to hurt
you, but life doesn't always give us what we want." A hint
of bitterness tinged his voice, intensifying her anger. What did
he have to be bitter about? He was the one who did the
"If you didn't want to marry me, you could have just said
so." Damn, did she detect a trace of a sob in those words? Anger,
Carolyn. Hold onto the anger. "Instead, you had to disappear
mysteriously without a word to anyone. You had to make me worry
myself sick over you, convince myself you were dead. And now you
just casually stroll into my house and say 'Sorry, Carolyn, I'm
not going to explain anything to you?'" She'd latched on to
the anger with gusto, and her voice had risen to a shrill level.
Perhaps shouting at him wasn't the most effective way to pry information
out of him--it had never worked before--but it was better than
bursting into hysterical tears.
"You're right," Gray said. "You deserved better
then, and you deserve better now, but it doesn't matter. I have
my reasons for what I've done, and they aren't reasons I can share
with you." Again that hint of bitterness in his eyes. "Gray
James died three years ago. It's time you let him go." He
turned his back and started heading toward the door.
"You are not walking out on me again!" Carolyn
shouted, but he didn't slow down. She drew the Glock and pointed
it right between his shoulder blades. "Hold it right there!" Okay,
a rational voice whispered in her head, now you're taking a
step off the deep end.
Gray glanced over his shoulder briefly but seemed completely unintimidated
by the firepower ranged against him. He put his hand on the doorknob.
The bastard really was going to walk out without a word of explanation!
Carolyn couldn't believe it, wasn't about to let him get away with
it. She swung her aim down and to the right and squeezed off a
The report was deafening in the enclosed space, and Gray's shoulders
hunched protectively at the sound. The bullet dug into the wall
beside the door, and a shower of plaster dust sprinkled the carpet.
The scent of cordite burned her nostrils, and Carolyn wondered
how many of her neighbors were even now dialing 911.
Once again, Gray paused to look over his shoulder. She met his
gaze and found she couldn't look away. There might have been a
hint of reproach in his eyes, but there certainly was no hint of
fear. He shook his head briefly, then opened the door. A gust of
chill air filled the room. Carolyn willed herself to move, to fire
off another shot, to do something to make him stay, make
him explain himself. But everything was taking on a dream-like
quality, and she couldn't seem to make herself move.
The door pulled shut behind Gray and finally Carolyn was able
to shake off the strange paralysis. Shoving the Glock back in its
holster, she sprinted for the door and threw it open, careening
down the short flight of stairs and looking frantically right and
But Gray James had disappeared. Again.
Last updated: December 28, 2006