A year passed with little incident. Sherry’s graduation and promotion to Junior partner added her full-time into the fold, while Carol’s once, unshakable faith in the system continued to degrade at its usual rate. By now it seemed nearly non-existent, and whenever the subject of that fateful trial was broached, Ed became passive, quiet, still unable to look her in the eye without the aide of copious amounts of alcohol. His guilt became static in their relationship, something he tried to compensate for with large bonuses, pay raises, and her choice of clientele.
Her usual, Wednesday routine to see Kathy remained unchanged, and today the street near her home-office was especially busy. In the early afternoon of the spring’s mild-warmth saw the annual shift from heavy, winter gear to T-shirts, light jackets, even a pair of shorts or two. As a result, most of the block of pancaked, bi-level homes had signs of activity in or around them. Even Oakton’s Street Department had awakened from its winter slumber, began to fill the potholes along the road. The grizzled men in their work clothes and bright, fluorescent green vests clustered along the avenue only a few dozen yards from Kathy’s door
Carol flashed her card at the cabby’s electronic eye as usual, stepped out from the car. A jogger collided with her, toppled her to the ground as the cab pulled away. He recovered, apologized profusely. She did the same, gathered her things without a look.
He scooped up papers, straightened them atop folders, “Sorry. Sorry. Forgive me please, I wasn’t paying attention.”
Carol managed a chuckle, “It’s alright. I wasn’t either.”
He handed his pile over to her, he huffed a flustered breath, “You’re alright, right? You’re not hurt.”
She took the pages, thanked him with a look, “No, I’m fine.”
He smiled wide with perfect, white teeth, as he stepped to one side, “Sorry again.”
The perfect teeth forced a flash of memory from the distant trial, super imposed the perfect, white-teeth of that snake that had slithered away over the man’s. Her stomach lurched. The man apologized, oblivious, and excused himself to jog away. She muttered an garbled pleasantry. Turn autonomously to track him from Kathy’s property to the next. He continued without a look back, but the image blasted a shiver of ice through Carol’s spine. The man’s face disappeared into the overlaid image of the sick, sadistic smile from the courtroom.
Carol swallowed hard, dizzied and sweating. She swayed in a turn for the door, planted each step to it with a deliberate gait to keep upright. Her hand slapped the doorbell as her stomach upturned and her legs wobbled. Kathy opened the door with a casual smile that soured at her pale green pallor. She urged Carol in, guided her away from the door. The foyer and office morphed into one another through vertigo-laden vision. The world gyrated, swirled around her. Her heart raced, panicked, chest tightened, incapable of drawing breathing. A vise had ensnared it, forced it nearer her back.
She was only vaguely aware of Kathy ushering her to the couch. A cool breeze blew from an open window, coursed over cold-sweat that lined Carol’s body, caused a shudder that worsened the vertigo. A distant wind-chime clanged through the air, muffled by a haze of black infected by colors that swirled around it.
Time ceased to have meaning, only seeming to start again once the wind returned to her lungs over the indistinct sound of Kathy’s voice. A warm hand pressed at her forehead and cheeks, while the vertigo began to recede. She managed enough to ask for water, was obliged without question. Her mind focused enough to relay that she had laid down on the couch, was staring up at Kathy’s textured ceiling.
What the hell just happened?
She mentally retraced her steps, found the source of the spell at the man’s face. Dark eyes, not unattractive, but somehow irredeemably repulsive.
Kathy appeared with water, “Sip it, or you’ll make yourself more sick.”
Carol muttered a weak “thank you,” as she sat up to sip from the glass. The ill feelings swirled within her, their cause unknown.
It was a few moments of deep, slow breath’s later that Kathy finally sensed she could speak, “You’re not high are you?”
Carol’s brow furrowed, “What? No. Why would you even–”
“If you are it’s okay, but I have to–”
“I’m not high, Kathy. I don’t…” Carol took a breath. “I don’t know what the hell happened.”
“It’s okay, Carrie, I believe you. But you know if you ever feel you need that you can–” She cut herself off from the glare on Carol’s face. “Oh alright. What’s wrong then?”
She shook her head, “I don’t know.”
“Symptoms?” Kathy asked, formally.
“Vertigo, shortness of breath, sour stomach– but it all came on so fast, I thought I was going to faint.”
“You nearly did. What d’you think caused it?”
She sighed with a shake of her head, “Like I said, it happened so fast.”
“Could be a hypoglycemic episode. How’s your diet been lately?”
“It’s not that– you know how I careful I am with my health,” She sipped a few times from the water glass, “Antacids?”
“I’ll get ’em.” She rushed off once more, returned with a pair of chalky tablets. She handed them over, re-took her seat, “Retrace your steps. Walk me through the few minutes before it started.”
Carol drank from the glass, swallowed and sighed, “I was at the office, took a cab over like usual, and was fine until some guy bumped into me on the street.”
“Think he dosed you with something, somehow?” She asked, concerned.
“No, nothing like that. I was fine until…”
She trailed off: Could it really be true? No. It couldn’t. It was her imagination playing tricks on her. After all, the one year anniversary of the trial was this week, and it had been heavy in her mind.
Kathy interrupted her thoughts, “Until?”
“Well, it was… odd,” she said over thoughtful stare. “He was nice enough. Polite, but… something about his eyes. They were… familiar. And his smile– full of perfect teeth.”
Kathy joked, “Sounds like a looker to me. Maybe it was love at first sight.”
“No. He repulsed me– to my core. He reminded me of– well, of that sonuvabitch that got away last year.”
Kathy’s humor disintegrated, “Oh.”
She hesitated a moment, then sighed, “Honestly Carrie, this sounds like you’re ascribing your… distaste for that particular man onto others with his features.” Carol eyed her skeptically. Kathy explained, “It’s not uncommon. A lot of ex-wives could tell you that– “’I’ll never date a man with brown hair again, or never marry another green-eyed man.” Men do it too, “I’ll never let another blonde into my bed again.” Anyway, trust me when I say it’s more common than you think.”
Carol wasn’t satisfied, but gave a slow, defeated sigh, “I don’t know, maybe. I mean, you’re probably right, but it just didn’t feel that way. It… felt like I was looking into those same cold eyes, getting that sadistic smile bared at me again, just like that day in court… when they gave him Rehab.”
Kathy was sympathetic, but there was a rigidity to her tone that said her opinion was fixed, “But it was his eyes and smile that did it, right? Not the rest of him?”
She shook her head, “No.”
“Did he resemble the… other man in any other way?”
Another shake of her head, and a sigh, “No, not that I could tell.”
Kathy grimaced, “Then it’s probably like I said, and you’re putting too much thought into it. Just relax, and sip that water.”
Carol gave an absent nod, took another drink. Her stomach had finally begun to settle, but an eerie foreboding frothed beneath the fine layer of antacids. She pinched at the corners of her eyes, forced back the memories of that sadist’s smile in the mockery of a court-room.
At Kathy’s insistence, Carol called the office to take the rest of the day off. Sherry was less than enthusiastic, now stiffed with new paperwork for a defense they were working on. After being told of Carol’s episode– and promised a free night out– Sherry relented. Carol conveniently left out the episode’s trigger, but Sherry was satisfied all the same.
Carol hailed a cab back to her house, unlocked the door and entered the house to her slobbery Pit-bull Terrier, Buddy. He gave a few, deep barks, bounced excitedly and pawed at her legs. His tail wagged behind his torso that circled her path down the hall to the kitchen and two, French doors.
“Come on, Budd.”
He lagged behind her as the door opened. Then, a rush of spring air poked his muzzled and his ears perked up. He rocketed outside ahead of her. She followed him down the trio of steps to the patio-deck, sank into a patio chair to stare off while he made his rounds through the yard.
She tried to push the day’s events out of her mind, kicked up her feet to let the breeze flutter at her at cheeks and tousle her stray hairs. What the breeze didn’t cool, the afternoon sun kept warm. It was a welcome release from the harsh, gray cold that dominated Oakton’s winter months. Her eyelids parted to cotton-white clouds that she vaguely recalled as cumulus.
Buddy’s nails clacked in a trot along the wooden deck, startled her. He plopped onto his haunches beside her while his tongue dangled out the side of his mouth.
She leaned over, kissed the top of his head, “Good boy, Buddy.”
He gave her a lick, stood to lead him inside, and carry on with her normal, after-work routine. She filled Buddy’s bowls, washed her face, and changed to her street clothes to plop comfortably onto the couch, flip on the TV. The digital channels passed casually, stopped on Info-Corp’s News Network with the hope that Carol might see a favorable media fare to their case.
Like many others, this client was high-profile and a perpetrator of drunk-driving. The wealthy-retiree managed to hit a parked car before he careened into an intersection and oncoming traffic. His excessive speed twisted the van he hit into his sports car, left them as little more than useless hunks of steel and plastic. OFD had to cut both drivers from their vehicles; the man walked away with a few broken bones, but the woman was now in rehabilitative therapy with a broken back.
While the doctors said she would recover to walk again, it just so happened that she was sister-in-law to the mayor. It was ultimately impossible to avoid jail-time, especially given the forthcoming Mayoral election. On word of the crash, the Mayor’s campaign immediately shifted to a crackdown on drunk drivers to gain public support– never-mind the half-dozen murders each day, or the countless pick-pockets and other thefts.
The TV flashed commercials to a sigh from Carol. Buddy lumbered atop the couch, put his head on his paws to stare out at the flashing pictures on the screen.
“What are we gonna do with this world, Budd?” Carol said aloud. He whimpered, rolled sideways to expose his belly. She gave it a scratched, muttered, “I guess that’s a solution.”
Info-Corp’s jingle played as the news returned. The overtly charismatic man began his spiel at a moderate speed, never pausing for longer than it took to breathe. “Turning to local business news; today Allen contractors was bought out by DePaul contracting LLC. The emerging construction company seems to be an overnight success story for its owner Anthony DePaul.”
Carol looked up just in time to see a photographic expose of a man’s life. She watched on, entranced, the images chronicled the life of a familiar face– the one she had seen earlier in the street. His dark eyes and pearly-white smile burned into her retinas with the familiar rush of a curdled stomach. This time though, the sounds muffled seemed to highlight the televisions words.
“Anthony DePaul, thirty-eight, inherited a modest fortune from a dying relative,” The anchor said. Old, color photos of a young boy gave way to a young man, then finally, the adult man she’d met, “With a generous dose of foresight, DePaul put the money to good use in creating a construction company with a vision to change Oakton’s scenery.”
Carol’s head began to spin. The expose shuffled through images of office-buildings and construction equipment, “In just under two months DePaul Contracting saw profits in excess of three million dollars. DePaul publicly attributes this success to quote, “dumb luck and knowing the right people.” In the last nine months, the small construction company has grown by triple that, leading to the acquisition of Allen contractors after it had fallen on hard times. Mr. Depaul had this to say:”
Carol couldn’t move, or think, or even look away. She was gripped by pain, terror. Acid rose into her throat, the ivory-white teeth moved in a mockery of her pain while the dark eyes softly scanned the crowd of a press-conference.
“It is my esteemed pleasure,” DePaul said cheerfully. Carol’s insides rolled. “To make this company a part of the DePaul family. As promised, all employees will be held to their original contracts. As you know Allen is an old company, and a well respected name, and speaking as a laborer, I’d hate to see that name lost.” There was a pause, a break in the reel where it jumped to another question. “My intent is purely to help our weakened economy. It’s on all of us, as business owners and citizens, to ensure we keep jobs available and money coming in. In acquiring Allen, I hope to see that–”
Carol heard nothing more. She slumped forward, felt vomit rise. Buddy whimpered. Carol stumbled around the couch, sprinted with a hand over her mouth to the bathroom. The cold porcelain chilled her hands and face as she heaved in a stupor. The fire in her throat and pores reveled in a cold draft from the open door.
She wanted to crawl into the tub, ball up and die. The pain in her stomach and throat forced her eyes shut and clenched against tears that squeezed out. Panic gripped her. Her mind ran hurdles along a gauntlet of hypochondria; she was being drugged, poisoned, slowly gassed or…
Something was wrong. She knew it, felt it, but couldn’t place it. The expose replayed in her mind, triggered a final, dry heave. She gave a loud sob, her tears streams along her pale cheeks. Buddy appeared, barked in alarm. The expose refused to stop. It played a dozen times at high speeds, followed by her episode in the street. Violent shakes seized her arms and legs. Her head snapped from side to side, neck twisted and writhed with attempts to throw the images from her mind.
Without volition, her fists balled. Her knuckles whitened. The images began to superimpose atop one another. With a mounting speed, the man’s face followed childhood to manhood, ended with a grip of unassailable fear as a final, translucent overlay of a second-man’s face appeared. The features were distinctive, similar; a protruding brow, boyish cheeks, dark hair, and full white teeth. Worst of all, were the cold, dark eyes whose orbits perfectly matched those of the other man.
The second man was Zachary Evans, the killer she’d failed to prosecute, the same one given Rehab in place of life-long prison cell or a deserved death sentence. There were obvious differences– chin, nose, hairline, each one thinner. Somehow though, Carol knew; they were the same man.
She crumpled to the floor, exhausted, stared up at her ceiling. Buddy’s hot breaths against the floor were the only sounds audible. Even so, she didn’t notice it. Her mind was too focused, too preoccupied with piecing together the puzzle before her. Her stomach and throat burned from acid, limbs ached from residual tremors that vibrated her body.
Why was this happening? What did these two men have in common? Was it really Evans or was Kathy right; had she displaced hatred for one man onto another? No. No, it couldn’t be that simple. She couldn’t put it all together yet, pieces of the puzzle were still hidden, but it couldn’t be another man. She knew it wasn’t. So what was happening? Were Evans and DePaul really the same person? How?
She didn’t know the answers to her question, but she knew she had to find them. These two episodes had been radically different. The first was bad enough, but the second was like a textbook cocaine overdose. If the last two episodes’ progressions were any inclination of what she could continue to expect, the next one could very well kill her.