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Authors: William Bayer

Tags: #Suspense & Thrillers

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BOOK: Punish Me with Kisses
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Someone had just whispered her name, someone standing close. She looked up warily.

"I thought it was you, babe."

Jared!
She couldn't believe it. She immediately lowered her eyes. What was he doing here? He was supposed to be a continent away, on a commune in California, or an oil rig in Brazil.

"Hey, don't you recognize me?"

In Chinatown of all places, in this tiny obscure restaurant out of all the thousands she could have chosen, on this night of all nights she'd decided to wander aimlessly looking for a place to eat.

"Join you?"

She looked up again. It was him, no mistake, his face dark as ever, the same black stubble on his cheeks and chin. His smile was the same, too, engaging, warm. What was he doing here? Why was he standing beside her table?
What did
be
want?

"Well?—"

She looked back at her menu, feeling her pulse begin to race. She could sense him standing there, waiting for her to invite him to sit down. He was very still. She only wished she could tell him to go away.

He sat down just as the waiter appeared. She ordered "Buddha's Delight" and Moo Shoo Pork. After the waiter scuttled away, she stared at him, trying to find the proper words. "Look," she said finally, "I didn't ask you—I really didn't want you to sit down."

"Waiting for someone?" She shook her head. "What's the harm then?"

"I just don't feel up to this."

"I can understand that. But maybe you'll change your mind. I saw you out on the street. I was wandering around, I saw somebody, I thought it was you, so I followed you a couple of blocks. I saw you come up here and I thought: well, go ahead, follow her in, sit down with her if she's alone. What'll be the harm?" She looked down at the vinyl table top, shook her head. "Come on," he said. "We haven't seen each other in—how long has it been? Almost three years, right? Jesus—you saved my life. At least let me buy you dinner. We don't have to talk if you don't want."

Then she didn't know what to do. It seemed childish to walk out on him, uncouth to ask him to go. Anyway, she thought, maybe he's right: what difference did it make?

"Where were you? I mean—where have you been all this time?"

"Oh—everywhere. Texas mostly, bumming around. Odd jobs, stuff like that. I came back because I'm an actor. I finally realized New York's where an actor's got to be." She nodded. "Haven't found anything yet. Don't know—maybe I won't. Had some résumés printed up, some photos, too. Sent them around. Nothing's happened yet, but that's usual, I guess. There're some cattle calls next week. Think I'll show up, check out the mood." He toyed with a matchbook. "I could get back into porn easy if I wanted. My face's famous now. But I've sort of been through that already, I guess. Yeah, it'll probably be pretty rough."

He paused and smiled. "You should see this crummy dump I'm in. It's a real dive, around the corner from the Port Authority. Swarming with hustlers, whores. Hey, I'm poor, remember? 'The poor boy knocking on the portals of the rich.' Isn't that what they said? God—" He shrugged. "Hey—you're not feeling hostile anymore?" She shook her head. "That's good. I've thought about you a lot."

There was something so disarming about him that she couldn't help herself—she was moved. He was the same boy who'd made love to her so beautifully, so romantically on a cliff overlooking the sea on a hot summer day so long ago.

"Tell me about yourself," he said. "What've you been up to all this time?"

What could she say? Where should she begin? "I changed my name."

"Yeah, I can understand that. They wouldn't leave you alone otherwise, I guess."

"I still get recognized sometimes."

"Me, too. I had a beard for a while, let my hair go long. I don't know—sometimes I think people are staring at me, but then maybe they just like my looks."

He grinned. She began to feel more relaxed.

"I wanted to talk to you after the trial. But you disappeared so fast, and then there wasn't any way to reach you. I called a few times. The person who answered said you weren't there. Anyway I just wanted to thank you for going out on a limb for me, the way you handled yourself on the stand."

"I only told the truth."

"I know. You don't have to explain. I know what you did, the kind of person you are. I just wanted to say 'thanks for being you'—you know, something like that."

He reached across the table, placed his hand on top of hers. "I really mean it," he said.

He ordered some food, and they ate in silence. He was expert with his chopsticks. They had ice cream for dessert, and when the fortune cookies came he shook them in his fist, then offered first choice to her. They groaned at their banality; he crumpled up the little slips. "Maybe you ought to go into the fortune cookie writing business. Do you think you'd like it? I bet all your fortunes would be nice."

He began to talk again as they sipped their tea, of someplace he'd lived in Texas, a job he'd had, people he'd met. Listening to him she found herself liking the way he spoke, his earnestness, his vulnerability, the warm timbre of his voice. She'd always liked him, she remembered that; he was an attractive person, not sly or insincere the way some of the papers had made him out. It was hard not to like him.

He had a quality which now she could see more clearly than before. He was a sensitive rebel with dark liquid eyes and an uncanny ability to evoke feelings of tenderness. She looked at him, barely listening to what he said, and found herself caring about him, wanting to help.

"I'm a better person than I was," he said suddenly. "I honestly believe that—that out of all the bad some good has come."

She looked down. "I just wish I could forget it all."

"You can't," he told her gently. "And it doesn't matter. You don't let it gnaw at you. You just pick yourself up and go on."

They walked on the streets of Chinatown for a while that sweltering September night, then up to the subway stop on Canal. He rode the train with her to Eighty-Sixth, walked her to the door of her brownstone.

"Well—" he said. "I'd like to see you again if that's OK."

She studied him, then shook her head. "I'm sorry, Jared, it's nothing against you, but I just don't think we should."

"Yeah," he said, nodding. "I guess you're right. Well—I'm glad I spotted you anyway. It was real good to see you, babe. Goodnight."

They shook hands, then he walked away. She waited until he turned the corner, before she turned herself and went inside.

 

S
aw him on Fifth Avenue today, walking the other direction, face abstracted, blank. Impossible to know what was in his mind. Was afraid he'd see me and set my face quickly in case he did, but then he walked by as I was hoping, and,
natch
, I began to feel hurt. Decided to follow him, actually did for five or six blocks through the lunch-hour mobs. A crazy lady with a monkey passed—he didn't give her a glance. A gaunt street violinist with crudely lettered cardboard sign ('Please help me continue my lessons') serenaded him with Mendelssohn, but he didn't even pause. I kept saying to myself hide, hide in case he turns. And then I thought: don't let the others know, all these people passing—don't let them read your face. Finally I lost him. Think he turned on 56th where there're a zillion restaurants.

 

O
n Monday morning she overslept and didn't make it to the reservoir till seven. There was a herd already jogging when she arrived—gays with Afghans,
Farrah
Fawcett look-alikes, interracial couples, the Columbia University track squad. She ran past fancy Fifth Avenue ladies trying to trudge off excess flab, was passed in turn by handsome lawyer types with tanned and rippling backs.

She spent most of the morning on the phone, contacting young agents, introducing herself, setting up appointments for lunch. Lillian Ryan came in and started typing up her reader's reports. She acted secretive, shielding her papers whenever Penny passed her desk. Had she actually discovered something in the
slushpile
, or was that what she wanted Penny to think?

There was some excitement in the office in the early afternoon. The subsidiary rights director was wrapping up an auction; it looked as if a B&A novel would go to paperback for half a million dollars. Penny hung around the corridors picking up the gossip, sharing in the excitement of the junior staff. Later in the afternoon, as she was writing some letters, her telephone rang.

"Babe?"

"Hi." She was a little surprised to hear from him so soon.

"That was fun the other night."

"Yes," she said, wondering how he'd gotten her number; she hadn't told him where she worked.

"Look, I understand what you said about not seeing each other. I respect your feelings on that. But I kind of hoped—well—I'd like to see you again." She was silent, and then she felt resentful. What right had he to bother her now, after everything, all those silent years? "I'd like to see you again," be repeated.

"There's no point, Jared. I don't think there is."

"Come on, babe. I want us to be friends."

"It's too late for that. Don't you understand?"

"All right—listen to me." His voice suddenly took on an edge. "I understand plenty. You bet I do. I understand I did a lousy thing, and you have plenty of reason to be pissed—"

"I don't want to listen to this!"

"We got to talk it through. You owe me that."

"How did you get my number?"

"What?"

"I didn't tell you where I worked."

"Yes you did."

"No, I didn't. I made a point of
not
telling you, because
I didn't want you to—" She stopped. A thought flashed into
her brain. "That wasn't any accident was it, your meeting me in Chinatown Friday night?" Silence. "
Was it
?"

"No."

"You lied to me,
goddammit
."

"Don't hang up, Penny. Please."

She hung up. She felt sorry for him, and anger, too. He had no right to bother her, follow her on the street, pursue her, lie. They'd had their talk. Why couldn't he just accept the fact that she was done with all that now?
Owed him
?
She'd stood up for him when all the world believed he was a killer. Now it was he who owed her, owed her respect for her wish to be left alone.

She was still upset at five o'clock. There was something about the situation she didn't understand. She thought about it as she waited for the elevator. Could he have gotten to her, somehow attracted her again? She couldn't accept that, not after so many years. What was it then? Was she going to feel awkward about him all the rest of her life?

She didn't notice him at first. He was leaning against a column in the busy lobby, watching the elevators disgorging people hurrying from offices, rushing to beat the rush hour mobs. He was at her elbow before she realized he was there, was reaching for her arm.

"Babe—"

She jumped. "Don't touch me!" Some people nearby turned and stared.

"Relax, babe. OK?"

He was wearing a denim wrangler's jacket. His jeans were cinched by a cowboy belt.

"Just relax. Hey. Relax." She nodded. The people who'd been staring turned away.

"What are you trying to do?" They were standing in the middle of the lobby, away from the elevator banks still disgorging crowds.

"I'm not trying to
do
anything. I just want to see you—that's all. I just want to sit down with you someplace peaceful and talk. Is there any crime in that?"

"I told you—"

"I know."

"And you don't care what I want?"

"Sure I care. For God's sakes I
care
. I'm not asking so much, you know." He stood back from her and let his arms hang at his sides. "OK, babe, anything you want. Just tell me to go away now, and I'll never bother you again."

She examined him: he looked resigned and hungry. "OK," she said, "there's a fairly decent bar around the corner from here." He looked so happy then, beamed so warmly, she felt incredulous at her power to affect his moods.

BOOK: Punish Me with Kisses
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