CHAPTER 20

Burglar with a crowbar.

Normally, Lina loved to shop, but she wasn’t feeling the love on this particular Wednesday night at Park Central Mall in central Phoenix. Her date with Officer Cazzo was three short days away and she still didn’t know what she was going to wear. Slacks? A dress? A skirt and blouse? She simply could not decide. She and Kerri had been through rack after rack of Goldwater’s womenswear offerings and she was still uninspired and undecided.

“How ‘bout this?” asked Kerri.

Lina studied the floor-length, silk wrap dress with a flounce hemline. “I was thinking of something shorter…and not quite so formal.”

“Well, where is he taking you?” asked Kerri.

“I think we’re just going to dinner.”

“Someplace casual or fancy?”

“I have no idea. He’s a cop, living on a cop’s salary, so I doubt it’ll be too fancy.”

“You never know. Better to overdress than to underdress.”

Frowning, Lina shoved the blouse she’d been looking at back on the rack. “I’m just not finding anything.”

“We can try the new Bullock’s store over at Chris-Town Mall if you want.”

A glance at her watch deepened the frown on Lina’s face. “They’ll be closed by the time we get there.”

Wade, who’d wandered off to prowl around in the lingerie department, had found his way back to the women. He spied a hot little number on a clearance rack, pulled it, and held it up like a prize trout he’d just snagged:

“I can definitely see you in this one!”

Lina rolled her eyes at the sight of the dress, a red slinky chemise. It looked like it belonged more in the boudoir than on a first date.

“You’re not helping, Wade!” snapped Kerri, wiping the excitement off Wade’s face.

A prim, white-haired saleswoman who’d been lurking a few racks over started inching her way toward the women.

On the verge of tears, Lina turned to Kerri, “What am I going to do if I don’t find anything?”

Sensing she might lose this customer, the saleslady made her move. “Have you seen the Liz Claiborne separates that just arrived?”

Lina shook her head.

“They’re this way,” said the saleswoman who turned and led the shoppers to a nearby display of ‘New Arrivals’. The saleswoman pulled a sampling of skirts and blouses off the rack and handed them to Lina. “Would you like to try on any of these?”

One piece caught Lina’s eye, a button-down denim skirt of pale blue with embroidered pockets. “I like this one.”

Pleased with Lina’s choice, the saleswoman pulled down a taffeta-lined, white chiffon blouse with a sheer, delicate bodice and a column of small pearl buttons down the front. “This one,” she said, “pairs nicely with the skirt, don’t you think?”

While Lina consulted with the saleswoman, Wade flexed and admired his reflection in a floor-length mirror as Kerri searched the ‘New Arrivals’ racks on her own.

“Oh, this one’s pretty!” cried Kerri. She rushed over to Lina to show her the ruffled granny dress she’d found.

Lina grabbed the tags hanging from the dress. “Oh, my god! I can’t afford that! And it’s not even my size.”

“But it’s my size,” said Kerri, grinning.

The saleslady brightened. She now had two potential sales instead of one. She grabbed all the pieces from the women and ushered them into separate dressing rooms. “Come out whenever you’re ready, girls.”

Lina was the first to emerge from the dressing room. The saleswoman took Lina by the arm and, pushing Wade aside, positioned her in front of the full-length mirror. “What do you think?” she asked Lina.

Lina smiled at herself in the mirror. “I love it.”

The saleswoman straightened her spine and lifted her head, proud of her professional accomplishment. All that was left now was to close the sale. “You look fetching—that skirt really shows off your figure.” The saleswoman then turned to Wade, “Don’t you think she looks fetching?”

Wade’s mouth broke into a wide, salivating smile.

“And you know,” the saleswoman added, “you can undo the bottom buttons on the skirt if you want to show some leg and add a splash of intrigue.”

Lina blushed, then bent over to undo the bottom-most button, but drew back when Wade rushed in and dropped to his knees before her.

“Allow me,” he said, eyes ablaze as he began unbuttoning her skirt.

Lina tried to push Wade away but her effort only energized him. After he’d undone the third button—dangerously close to exposing Lina’s crotch—he buried his face in the denim skirt and made wet, smacking noises with his mouth, simulating cunnilingus. Both Lina and the saleswoman, their faces frozen in horror, watched as Wade finished his obscene show, jumped to his feet, and began laughing his ass off.

At that instant, Kerri appeared. “What does everyone think?” she asked, eager to model the granny dress.

Lina and the saleswoman turned their horror-filled faces to Kerri; Wade turned, too, still howling with laughter.

Their reactions were crushing—it was not the reception Kerri was hoping for. Crestfallen, she asked, without an inkling of the mortifying event which had just preceded her:

“Is it that bad?”

~ ~

The events of the evening—Wade’s humiliating ‘joke’—still played in Lina’s head as she tossed and turned in her bed. She could never step foot in Goldwater’s again for fear of running into the poor saleslady who’d been so mortally offended by Wade’s indecent public display, she’d fled the area, leaving it to another colleague to ring Lina up and collect the commission. On the bright side, the relief Lina felt in finding just the right outfit, even though it cost her a week’s pay, triggered so many exciting thoughts, the neurons in her brain were firing fast and furious, like a machine gun. Sleep was impossible.

Lina tossed again. The clock on her nightstand blinked at her: 02:30 AM. If she fell asleep right this instant, she could get three hours of sleep—three and a half if she snoozed the alarm and skipped her morning toast and jam. The clock blinked again: 02:31…then again…02:32…02:33…

Lina rolled away from the clock, aching for sleep. When she was little and couldn’t sleep, the housekeeper, Maria, would bring her a glass of warm milk, then rub her back and sing to her until she drifted off to sleep. She missed the soft-spoken Maria, so gentle of heart, who doted over her and Kerri when they were children.

Those early years of childhood were hazy for Lina; she had only fragmented memories of those days, the best of which were always spent with Maria. The last time she saw her, Lina was not more than three or four, but the memory of the day Maria left was still fresh and vivid: Maria had come to Lina during the night as she slept in her room, pulling Lina from her bed and into her arms. Lina could still feel the strength of Maria’s embrace, the warmth of the woolen coat she wore as it enfolded Lina’s body, and the wetness of tears on her face as Maria cried and whispered words into her ear in a language Lina didn’t understand. She remembered, too, the silhouette of her father filling her bedroom’s doorway, a suitcase in one hand, his car keys in the other. “It’s time to go,” he said in a curt voice, then grabbed Maria by the arm and pulled her away, leaving Lina alone, confused, and crying. The form of her mother soon appeared briefly in the doorway, there only long enough to pull the door shut.

Sometime later, how much later Lina could not remember, her mother, too, would leave. Lina remembered no event that signaled her mother’s leaving—no hugs goodbye, no tears, no closing of a door. She was simply there one day and gone the next. In the years that followed, Lina had pieced together from snippets of hushed conversations and slips from inebriated tongues that her mother’s ‘drinking problem’ had pushed Army to issue his wife an ultimatum, forcing her to either choose Army and the girls…or alcohol.

Her mother chose alcohol.

Lina rolled over again. The clock on the nightstand blinked: 2:50 AM.

“The hell with it.” Throwing back the covers, she slid out of bed and headed to the kitchen, feeling her way through the dark apartment. In the kitchen, she poured herself a glass of milk. As she turned to head back to bed, the flash of a dark shadow outside her sliding glass door caused her to jump and spill her milk. She stood in her kitchen, feet bolted to the floor, unable to move or breathe, and stared hard at the slider a long heartbeat before deciding it was just her mind playing tricks, likely from lack of sleep. Exhaling, she gave a little laugh and felt along the kitchen counter for the paper towels. Found, she squatted down to wipe up the spill…

A sharp, metallic sound pierced the quiet of the night, sending a bolt of fear down Lina’s spine. The sound was close by but unidentifiable. Lina slowly rose up and peeked over the counter, looking out past the living room and to the slider that led to her back patio.

The shadow was back.

Lina’s heart was now in her throat as she realized the shadow was that of a man and the sharp, metallic sound she’d heard was that of a tool attempting to pry open the slider. She couldn’t make out any details of the man—the slider’s curtains were too opaque—only that he was large. Very large.

The only phone in the apartment sat on an end table in the living room. As the shadow continued working on the slider’s lock, Lina dropped to her hands and knees and crawled as fast as she could into the living room. Crouched behind the couch, she grabbed the phone from the end table and, with a trembling finger, dialed for help. She listened, with bated breath, as one ring led into another, and another…and another…

“Answer the phone!” she cried out in a hushed voice. The phone continued to ring as a terrified Lina peered out over the sofa’s back. The shadow had given up on prying the slider open and was now on the move. It disappeared from Lina’s view momentarily but reappeared at an adjacent window just as the ringing in her ear stopped.

“Hello? Hello?” she whispered, her voice quavering.

“Who is this?” said the voice on the other end, irritated to have been woken at such an ungodly hour.

“Daddy! It’s me, Lina! Someone’s trying to break in!”

The cries of his daughter brought instant clarity to Army Jones. “Lina, listen carefully. Go back into your bedroom and lock yourself inside the bathroom. Do it now.”

Lina threw down the phone and ran the longest thirty feet of her life, bumping into walls as she fled through the darkened hallway, feeling her way along the furniture of her bedroom until finally finding the bathroom door. Throwing herself inside, she locked the door behind her and squeezed her body into the space between the toilet and sink cabinet where she sat shaking in fear. Every little noise, even her own ragged breathing, made her skin prickle, her heart pound, fearful the burglar had gotten in and was now somewhere inside her apartment. Her legs and back began to scream at her, cramping from the uncomfortable crouch she’d been in for…how long? Seconds? Minutes? Hours? Lina had lost all sense of time. She thought she might die here, from fear, and this is how they’d find her, in this crouched, undignified state of rigor. Lost in her panicked, chaotic thoughts, it took her brain a moment to register the new sound—a loud, urgent banging sound—that was echoing inside her ears and vibrating the bone of her skull.

The synapses in Lina’s brain finally connected. The banging was someone pounding on the front door.

“Catalina! Open the door!”

“Daddy!” A flood of tears unleashed as Lina scrambled to free herself from her hiding spot. Every cramped muscle in her body screamed bloody murder as she ran to the door, but adrenaline made it easy to ignore the pain. At the door, she unlocked and threw it open, then rushed outside into the safety of her father’s arms.

“We got him,” he told her, as she buried her face into his chest, sobbing uncontrollably. “It’s okay. It’s okay,” he said, stroking her hair. “He’s in custody. He can’t hurt you now.”

Lina lifted her head and looked out through her tears, noticing only then the flashing of red and blue lights filling the night, the squawking of emergency-band radios, and the army of police officers staged outside her apartment. One of the uniforms approached Lina and her father.

“Sheriff Jones,” he said, extending his hand. “I’m Sergeant Baylor out of the Squaw Peak substation.”

Army grasped the sergeant’s hand and shook it with appreciation. “Thank you, Sergeant, for your quick response. My daughter and I are in your debt.”

“Don’t mention it,” he said, then shifted his gaze to Lina. “I understand you work in Communications.”

Still too traumatized to speak, Lina nodded and tried to wipe the tears from her face.

“Here,” said the sergeant, handing her his hankie. “The suspect says he knows you.” He tilted his head in the direction of the street where several officers surrounded the would-be burglar who was sitting on the curb, hands cuffed behind his back and dressed all in black, including the hoodie pulled over his head. “Do you recognize him?”

Lina looked out to the street toward the circle of activity. “I can’t see his face, what with the hoodie…”

It was when an officer grabbed the suspect’s cuffs and yanked him to his feet that Lina could see, without a shred of doubt, who the culprit was. Towering over the surrounding officers, at six feet, seven inches, he was hard to miss. Lina turned to the sergeant, the fear in her eyes replaced with anger:

“His name is Vaughn.”

CHAPTER 19
CHAPTER 21

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