Fifteen years later
Julie Carlson's eyes blinked open. For a moment she lay still, heart racing, staring groggily into the darkness, not sure what had awakened her or why she felt so frightened. It took only a moment or so for her to realize that she was lying in her own bed, in her own bedroom, listening to the familiar hum of the air conditioner as it kept the sweltering heat of the July night at bay and smelling the comforting aroma of her own smooth clean sheets. Her potbellied teddy bear, a poignant memento of her late father, sat stolidly in its accustomed spot on the bedside table. She could just see the comforting shape of it by the faint glow of the alarm clock.
She must have had a nightmare. That would explain why she was curled up in a tight little ball under the bedclothes when she usually slept sprawled on her stomach; it would account for the now-slowing thud of her heart; it would explain her sense of -- there was no other word for it -- dread.
Although the words were distinct, the urgent whisper was in her head. She was all alone in her bedroom, all alone in the whole huge upstairs of her house. Sid, the dog, was obviously spending another night in the guest room.
At the thought, Julie felt her stomach knot. She had gone downstairs around eleven, to find her husband sitting on the couch in the den watching TV.
"I'll be up after the news," he'd said. Not wanting to start a fight -- all they did lately was fight -- she'd crossed her fingers and gone back upstairs to bed without uttering so much as a cross or demanding word. But here it was -- she focused on the clock -- at two minutes after midnight, and she was still alone in their bed.
Maybe -- maybe he was still coming. Maybe he was watching Letterman. Maybe tonight Leno had an especially fascinating guest.
Get real, she told herself, uncurling her arms and legs as anger edged out fear. And maybe the Pope was a Protestant, too.
Her attention immediately refocused. Trying not to be creeped out, Julie put out a hand, groping for the switch to the bedside lamp.
Then she heard it, and froze.
The distant sound -- vibration really -- of the garage door going up made her eyes widen and her fists clench.
Her heart gave an odd little leap. Her stomach heaved. She forced herself to take a pair of deep, calming breaths.
Despite all her hopes, all her prayers, it was happening again.
Oh, God, what should she do?
Julie Carlson didn't know it, but she had less than an hour left to live.
Other than a single light in a downstairs room, her house was dark. It was a big house in an exclusive gated community just west of Charleston, and, if all went according to plan, in a few minutes she was going to be all alone in it.
Then he would emerge from the shadows beneath the rustling palmettos in her side yard, break in through her back door, and creep up the stairs to the first door on the left. That door opened into the master bedroom, where she should already -- it was a few minutes after midnight -- be sound asleep.
Roger Basta allowed himself a small smile. This was going to be fun. The thought of what he was going to do to Julie Carlson made his breathing quicken. He'd been watching her for weeks, getting the household schedule down, making his plans, anticipating. Tonight he got to enjoy the fruits of all that labor.
Sometimes, and this was one, he loved what he did for a living.
The light went out downstairs. The house was now totally dark.
Just a few minutes more.
He fingered the snapshot in his pocket. It was too dark for him to be able to see it, but he was nearly as familiar with the image on it as he was with his own face in the mirror. Julie Carlson in a white bikini, slim and tanned and laughing, poised to dive into the swimming pool in her own backyard.
He'd taken it himself three days before.
One of the quartet of garage doors that faced his position rose, and seconds later a big black Mercedes purred silently down the driveway. The husband was leaving, right on schedule.
The garage door closed again. The Mercedes turned left at the end of the driveway, and drove away toward the interstate some five miles distant. The house was once again dark and quiet.
Everything was going down as expected.
The burglar alarm would be off, which made his job just that much easier. He had a window of maybe three and a quarter hours to get in and out before the husband returned. He would need far less.
Although he might want to linger over this one. Remembering the picture, he smiled. He definitely wanted to linger over this one.
Julie Carlson was a babe.
His instructions had been to make the hit look like anything but the professional, targeted job it was.
His reply had been, Can do.
Crouching, Basta set the small black satchel he carried on the carpet of golf-course-quality grass that covered the lawn and unzipped it. The steamy July heat, complete with swarms of hungry mosquitoes and a faint fruity scent, wrapped uncomfortably around him. It reminded him that he was wearing long pants and a cotton turtleneck, both black, on a night that cried out for shorts and not much else. A quick rummage through the contents reassured him that everything he might need was in the bag: burglary tools, duct tape, a small flashlight, a thin nylon cord and a pencil to use as a garrote, a box of surgical gloves, another of condoms. He touched his knit cap, making sure it fit tightly around his head and over his eyebrows. He'd shaved his body completely so as not to leave telltale hairs at the scene, but shaving his head and eyebrows would, he feared, make him too memorable to those who might be questioned in the aftermath of the crime. The last thing he wanted was to be memorable.
Besides, his thinning gray hair gave him an innocuous look, he felt. Countless people usually saw him in the days before a hit -- neighbors, passersby, convenience-store clerks, trash collectors -- but nobody ever remembered him, because he looked like a fifty-something Joe Average. DNA notwithstanding, the cap worked. The first two hadn't had time to dislodge it before he'd had them duct-taped into immobility, and Julie Carlson wouldn't either.
He was that good.
Sliding the flashlight into his pocket, he rezipped the bag, picked up his pistol, stood up and headed around to the back of the house. The swimming pool sparkled in the moonlight. Lush pots of tropical flowers gave off a heady scent. Cicadas and crickets and tree frogs sang.
South Carolina would be one of his favorite states, he thought, if only it wasn't so damned hot and humid in the summer.
The back door, the sliding one opening onto the stone patio and the swimming pool, was his target.
In a matter of minutes he'd be inside.
Piece of cake. The alarm was off, the locks were laughable, the woman was alone, and they didn't even own a dog. Might as well hang out a sign: Come and get me.
A light came on downstairs.
Basta froze in his tracks in the act of reaching for the doorknob, frowning at the window that was suddenly glowing warmly from within. This was unexpected. He retreated a few stealthy paces to the concealing shadow of an enormous magnolia, his senses on high alert. He'd been casing the house for three weeks, and she'd never once turned on a light after her husband was gone. Was she sick? Did they have company? No, he couldn't have missed that.
The light went off as suddenly as it had come on, and the house was dark and still once more. He stared meditatively at the looming facade, the shiny black windows, the two doors that he could see, probing the darkness for her with every instinct he possessed. He was so attuned to her now as predator to victim that he fancied he could almost hear her breathing through the brick walls.
Where was she?
A sound made him turn his head sharply. It came from the side of the house where he'd waited until just moments before. Alert as a dog on the hunt, taking care to stay deep in the shadows, he retraced his steps until he once more stood beneath the palmettos. His eyes widened as he saw that another of the garage doors was open now.
His pistol came up, but there was no way he could use it.
He could do nothing but watch as Julie Carlson's silver Jaguar nosed out of the garage, gathered speed going down the driveway, then turned left at the street and vanished like a bat into the night.
Just as quick as that.
He was left to look blankly back at an empty house as, with a barely audible thump, the garage door closed again.
She was gone. It took a minute or so for that incontrovertible fact to sink in. When it did, he felt empty, cheated. A surging anger at having his careful plans disrupted threatened to swamp his previously good mood.
Could she have somehow known he was there? Basta looked quickly around, wary of a trap. Given the group he worked for, a double-cross was never beyond the realm of possibility.
Then good sense reasserted itself. There was no trap; he was too valuable to the organization for that. And she could not possibly have known he was there unless she was psychic.
The most logical explanation was that some sort of emergency had arisen. What, he didn't know, but then, he didn't need to know. The pertinent thing was that, sooner or later, she would be back.
And he would be waiting.
The certainty of that was calming. Glitches of this sort happened even to consummate professionals such as himself.
Acknowledging that, Basta felt better. Circling back around behind the house, he even began to hum. When he realized what the song was, he felt a spurt of amusement at the sheer appropriateness of it.
ar"Ti-i-ime is on my side...."
Copyright © 2001 by Karen Robards
To Trust A Stranger
Suspicion. It burned through every nerve and Þber of Julie Carlson -- the heartbreaking, infuriating suspicion that her husband was having an affair. To the rest of the world, Sid Carlson was a wealthy contractor with friends in highly inþuential places. But to Julie, he was a man who had cheated on their marriage vow -- and she knew she had to take desperate measures. Who can she trust? Heartbroken by her husband, Julie turns to a handsome stranger.
Mac McQuarry knew better than to mix women and work: the private detective had tracked enough cheating spouses to know unbridled desire usually has no good end. And he had enough trouble of his own: the disgraced former cop had been bumped way down to his current status after an explosive shakedown of the Charleston police department. But when Julie Carlson hires him, Mac can't resist. Not only is she drop-dead gorgeous, but her husband, a longtime enemy, was a player in Mac's inglorious downfall -- and he'd love nothing more than to catch the corrupt jerk with his pants down, so to speak.
But what begins as a run-of-the-mill assignment spiced by a Þery þirtation with beautiful Julie suddenly spirals into a harrowing race for survival. Tracking the Carlsons' car down a lonely road one night, Mac witnesses an incredible hit that targeted Julie -- and suddenly Mac and Julie have become the hunted. With the mob and the police in hot pursuit, they can rely only on each other as they crash their way through a maze of buried secrets and deadly deceptions.