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Chapter 1

Crazy Megan parks the car.

Doesn't want to do this. No way.

Doesn't get out, listens to the rain...

The engine ticked to silence as she looked down at her clothes. It was her usual outfit: JNCO jeans. A sleeveless white tee under a dark denim work shirt. Combat boots. Wore this all the time. But she felt uneasy today. Embarrassed. Wished she'd worn a skirt at least. The pants were too baggy. The sleeves dangled to the tips of her black-polished fingernails and her socks were orange as tomato soup. Well, what did it matter? The hour'd be over soon.

Maybe the man would concentrate on her good qualities -- her wailing blue eyes and blond hair. Oh, and her body too. He was a man.

Anyway, the clothes covered up the extra seven...well, all right, ten pounds that she carried on her tall frame.

Stalling. Crazy Megan doesn't want to be here one bit.

Rubbing her hand over her upper lip, she looked out the rain-spattered window at the lush trees and bushes of suburbia. This April in northern Virginia had been hot as July and ghosts of mist rose from the asphalt. Nobody on the sidewalks -- it was deserted here. She'd never noticed how empty this neighborhood was.

Crazy Megan whispers, Just. Say. No. And leave.

But she couldn't do that. Mega-hassle.

She took off the wooden peace symbol dangling from her neck and flung it into the backseat. Megan brushed her blond hair with her fingers, pulled it away from her face. Her ruddy knuckles seemed big as golf balls. A glance at her face in the rearview mirror. She wiped off the black lipstick, pulled the blond strands into a ponytail, secured the hair with a green rubber band.

Okay, let's do it. Get it over with.

A jog through the rain. She hit the intercom and a moment later the door latch buzzed.

Megan McCall walked into the waiting room where she'd spent every Saturday morning for the past seven weeks. Ever since the Incident. She kept waiting for the place to become familiar. It never did.

She hated this. The sessions were bad enough but the waiting really killed her. Dr. Hanson always kept her waiting. Even if she was on time, even if there were no other patients ahead of her, he always started the session five minutes or so late. It pissed her off but she never said anything about it.

Today, though, she found the new doctor standing in the doorway, smiling at her, lifting an eyebrow in greeting. Right on time.

"You're Megan?" the man said, offering an easy smile. "I'm Bill Peters." He was about her father's age, handsome. Full head of hair. Hanson was bald and looked like a shrink. This guy...Maybe a little George Clooney, Crazy Megan decides. Her wariness fades slightly.

And he doesn't call himself "Doctor." Interesting.

"Hi."

"Come on in." He gestured. She stepped into the office.

"How's Dr. Hanson?" she asked, sitting in the chair across from his desk. "Somebody in his family's sick?"

"His mother. An accident. I hear she'll be all right. But he had to go to Leesburg for the week."

"So you're like a substitute teacher?"

arHe laughed. "Something like that."

"I didn't know shr -- therapists took over other patients."

"Some don't."

Dr. Peters -- Bill Peters -- had called yesterday after school to tell her that Hanson had arranged for him to take over his appointments and, if she wanted, she could make her regular session after all. No way, Crazy Megan had whispered at first. But after Megan had talked with Peters for a while she decided she'd give it a try. There was something comforting about his voice. Besides, baldy Hanson wasn't doing diddly for her. The sessions amounted to her lame bitching about school and about being lonely and about Amy and Josh and Brittany, and Hanson nodding and saying she had to be friends with herself. Whatever the hell that meant.

"This'll be repeating some things," Peters now said, "but if you don't mind, could we go over some of the basics?"

"I guess."

He asked, "It's Megan Collier?"

"No, Collier's my father's name. I use my mother's. McCall." She rocked in the stiff-backed chair, crossing her legs. Her tomato socks showed. She uncrossed her legs and planted her feet squarely on the floor.

"You don't like therapy, do you?" he asked suddenly.

This was interesting too. Hanson had never asked that. Wouldn't ask anything so blunt. And unlike this guy, Hanson didn't look into her eyes when he spoke. Staring right back, she said, "No, I don't."

He seemed amused. "You know why you're here?"

Silent as always, Crazy Megan answers first. Because I'm fucked up, I'm dysfunctional. I'm a nutcase. I'm psycho. I'm loony. And half the school knows and do you have a fucking clue how hard it is to walk through those halls with everybody looking at you and thinking, Shrink bait, shrink bait? Crazy Megan also mentions what just plain Megan would never in a million years tell him -- about the fake computerized picture of Megan in a straitjacket that made the rounds of Jefferson High two weeks ago.

But now Megan merely recited, "'Cause if I didn't come to see a therapist they'd send me to Juvenile Detention."

When she'd been found, drunk, strolling along the catwalk of the municipal water tower two months ago she'd been committing a crime. The county police got involved and she maybe pushed, maybe slugged a cop. But finally everybody agreed that if she saw a counselor the commonwealth's attorney wouldn't press charges.

"That's true. But it's not the answer."

She lifted an eyebrow.

"The answer is that you're here so that you can feel better."

Oh, please, Crazy Megan begins, rolling her crazy eyes.

And, okay, it was totally stupid, his words themselves. But...but...there was something about the way Dr. Peters said them that, just for a second, less than a second, Megan believed that he really meant them. This guy's in a different universe from Dr. Loser Elbow Patch Hanson.

He opened his briefcase and took out a yellow pad. A brochure fell out onto the desk. She glanced at it. A picture of San Francisco was on the cover.

"Oh, you're going there?" she asked.

"A conference," he said, flipping through the brochure. He handed it to her.

"Awesome."

"I love the city," he continued. "I'm a former hippie. Tie-dyed-in-the-wool Deadhead and Jefferson Airplane fan...Whole nine yards. Course, that was before your time."

"No way. I'm totally into Janis Joplin and Hendrix."

"Yeah? You ever been to the Bay Area?"

"Not yet. But I'm going someday. My mother doesn't know it. But I am."

He squinted. "Hey, you know, there is a resemblance -- you and Joplin. If you didn't have your hair up it'd be the same as hers."

Megan now wished she hadn't done the pert 'n' perky ponytail.

The doctor added, "You're prettier, of course. And thinner. Can you belt out the blues?"

"Like, I wish..."

"But you don't remember hippies." He chuckled.

"Time out!" she said enthusiastically. "I've seen Woodstock, like, eight times."

She also wished she'd kept the peace symbol.

"So tell me, did you really try to kill yourself? Cross your heart."

"And hope to die?" she joked.

He smiled.

She said, "No."

"What happened?"

"Oh, I was just drinking a little Southern Comfort. All right, maybe more than a little."

"Joplin's drink," he said. "Too fucking sweet for me."

Whoa, the F-word. Cool. She was almost -- almost -- beginning to like him.

He glanced again at her hair -- the fringes on her face. Then back to her eyes. It was like one of Josh's caresses. Somewhere within her she felt a tiny ping -- of reassurance and pleasure.

Megan continued her story. "And somebody I was with said no way they'd climb up to the top and I said I would and I did. That's it. Like a dare is all."

"All right, so you got nabbed by the cops on some bullshit charge."

"That's about it."

"Not exactly the crime of the century."

"I didn't think so either. But they were so...you know."

"I know," he said. "Now tell me about yourself. Your secret history."

"Well, my parents are divorced. I live with Bett. She has this business? It's really a decorating business but she says she's an interior designer 'cause it sounds better. Tate's got this farm in Prince William. He used to be this famous lawyer but now he just does people's wills and sells houses and stuff. He hires people to run the farm for him. Sharecroppers. Sound like slaves, or whatever, but they're just people he hires."

"And your relationship with the folks? Is the porridge too hot, too cold or just right?"

"Just right."

He nodded, made a small notation on his pad though he might've been just doodling. Maybe she bored him. Maybe he was writing a grocery list.

Things to buy after my appointment with Crazy Megan.

She told him about growing up, about the deaths of her mother's parents and her father's dad. The only other relative she'd been close to was her aunt Susan -- her mother's twin sister. "She's a nice lady but she's had a rough time. She's been sick all her life. And she really, really wanted kids but couldn't have them."

"Ah," he said.

None of it felt important to her and she guessed it was even less important to him.

"What about friends?"

Count 'em on one hand, Crazy Megan says.

Shhhh.

"I hang with the goth crowd mostly," she told the doctor.

"As in 'gothic'?"

"Yeah. Only..." She decided she could tell him the truth. "What it is is I kinda stay by myself a lot. I meet people but I end up figuring, why bother? There're a lot of losers out there."

"Oh, yeah." He laughed. "That's why my business is so good."

She blinked in surprise. Then smiled too.

"What's the boyfriend situation?"

"This won't take much time," she said, laughing ruefully. "I was going with this guy? Joshua? And he was, like, all right. Only he was older. And he was black. I mean, he wasn't a gangsta or anything. His father's a soldier, like an officer in the Pentagon, and his mother's some big executive. I didn't have a problem with the race thing. But Dr. Hanson said I was probably involved with him just to make my parents nuts."

"Were you?"

"I don't know. I kinda liked him. No, I did like him."

"But you broke up?"

"Sure. Dr. Hanson said I ought to dump him."

"He said that?"

"Well, not exactly. But I got that impression."

Crazy Megan thinks that Mr. Handsome Shrink, Mr. George Clooney stud, ought to've figured it out: How can a psycho nutcase like me go out with anybody? If I hadn't dumped Josh -- which I cried about for two weeks -- if I hadn't left, then everybody at his school would be on his case. "He's the one with the loony girl." And then his folks would find out -- they're the nicest people in the universe and totally in love -- and they'd be crushed...Well, of course I had to leave...

"Nobody else on the horizon?" he asked.

"Nope." She shook her head.

"Okay, let's talk about the family some more. Your mother."

"Bett and I get along great." She hesitated. "Only it's funny about her -- she's into her business but she also believes in all this New Age stuff crap. I'm, like, just chill, okay? That stuff is so bogus. But she doesn't hassle me about it. Doesn't hassle me about anything really. It's great between us. Really great. The only problem is she's engaged to a geek."

"Do you two talk, your mom and you? Chew the fat, as my grandmother used to say?"

"Sure...I mean, she's busy a lot. But who isn't, right? Yeah, we talk." She hoped he didn't ask her about what. She'd have to make up something.

"And how 'bout Dad?"

She shrugged. "He's nice. He takes me to concerts, shopping. We get along great."

"Great?"

C.M. -- Crazy Megan -- chides, Is that the only word you know, bitch? Great, great, great...You sound like a parrot.

"Yeah," Megan said. "Only..."

"Only what?"

"Well, it's like we don't have a lot to talk about. He wants me to go windsurfing with him but I went once and it's a totally superficial way to spend your time. I'd rather read a book or something."

"You like to read?"

"Yeah, I read a lot."

"Who're some of your favorite authors?"

"Oh, I don't know." Her mind went blank.

Crazy Megan isn't much help. Yep, he's gonna think you're damaged.

Quiet! Megan ordered her alter ego. She remembered the last book she'd read. "You know Márquez? I'm reading Autumn of the Patriarch."

His eyebrow lifted. "Oh, I loved it."

"No kidding. I -- "

Dr. Peters added, "Love in the Time of Cholera. Best love story ever written. I've read it three times."

Another ecstatic ping. The book was actually sitting on her bedside table. "Me too. Well, I only read it once."

"Tell me more," he continued, "about your father."

"Um, he's pretty handsome still -- I mean for a guy in his forties. And he's in pretty good shape. He dates a lot but he can't seem to settle down with anybody. He says he wants a family."

"Does he?"

"Yeah. But if he does then why does he date girls named Bambi?...Just kidding. But they look like they're Bambis." They both laughed.

"Tell me about the divorce."

"I don't really remember them together. They split up when I was three."

"Why?"

"They got married too young. That's what Bett says. They kind of went different ways. Mom was, like, real flighty and into that New Age stuff I was telling you about. And Dad was just the opposite."

"Whose idea was the divorce?"

"I think my dad's."

He jotted another note then looked up. "So how mad are you at your parents?"

"I'm not."

"Really?" he asked, as if he were completely surprised. "You're sure the porridge isn't too hot?"

"I love 'em. They love me. We get along gre -- fine. The porridge is just right. What the fuck is porridge anyway?"

"Don't have a clue," Peters said quickly. "Give me an early memory about your mother."

"What?"

"Quick! Now! Do it!" His eyes flashed.

Megan felt a wave of heat crinkle through her face. "I -- "

"Don't hesitate," he whispered. "Say what's on your mind!"

She blurted, "Bett's getting ready for a date, putting on makeup, staring in a mirror and poking at a wrinkle, like she's hoping it'll go away. She always does that. Like her face is the most important thing in the world to her. Her looks, you know."

"And what do you think as you watch her?" His dark eyes were fervent. Her mind froze again. "No, you're hesitating. Tell me!"

"'Slut.'"

He nodded. "Now that's wonderful, Megan."

She felt swollen with pride. Didn't know why. But she did.

"Brilliant. Now give me a memory about your father. Fast!"

"Bears." She gasped and lifted a hand to her mouth. "No...Wait. Let me think."

But the doctor pounced. "Bears? At the zoo?"

"No, never mind."

"Tell me."

She was shaking her head, no.

"Tell me, Megan," he insisted. "Tell me about the bears."

"It's not important."

"Oh, it is important," he said, leaning forward. "Listen. You're with me now, Megan. Forget whatever Hanson's done. I don't operate his way, groping around in the dark. I go deep."

She looked into his eyes and froze -- like a deer in headlights.

"Don't worry," he said softly. "Trust me. I'm going to change your life forever."

Copyright © 2000 by Jeffery Deaver

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