An Excerpt from Personal Demons by Stacia Kane
"Welcome back to Personal Demons," Megan said into the microphone. "Our next caller is Regina. Hi, Regina, how can I slay your personal demons?"
The words tasted like shame. She and Richard had fought over that line, just as they'd fought over the massive publicity campaign he and the station had orchestrated for the show.
Richard signed the paychecks, so Richard won. Never let it be said that good taste and actually helping people outweighed silly gimmicks in the media world.
"Regina? Are you there?"
"I'm scared." The rush of images accompanying the small, almost childish, voice raised goosebumps on Megan's skin and drove all thoughts of Richard and tacky taglines from her mind. The pale, pointed face of a woman, limp blond hair tucked behind her ears. Blood poured over the vision, red and viscous. Gnarled six-toed feet stepped in the blood leaving strange misshapen impressions that fissured the vision like a shattering mirror.
Megan gasped, rocking back in her chair. What the hell was that? She instinctively raised her psychic shields, only to immediately drop them. Regina was her patient now, just like any other. She deserved everything Megan could give to help her.
Bill and Richard gestured at her from the booth, their faces reddening. Dead air was a mortal sin in radio and both her engineer and her boss looked ready to inflict eternal punishment.
"Sorry, sorry. We had a minor technical problem. You said you're scared?"
"Yes." Regina sniffled. "I can't do it anymore. I can't take it anymore."
Now that the initial terrifying flash had passed, Megan received more mundane pictures. A car, a bland pale green office cubicle looking like every other bland pale green office cubicle. An attractive man, smiling down at her--at Regina. A boyfriend, maybe?
Megan forced her muscles to relax. "Why don't you tell me what's happening."
"It's the voices. They talk to me all the time. When I'm awake, when I'm asleep . . . I hear them."
"Evil voices. They tell me to . . . to hurt myself. To hurt other people. And I don't do it, but I think I might. I have to make them stop."
"Have you spoken to anyone--"
Regina's sobs shuddered through the phone line, cutting off the question. "They won't go away, they won't leave me alone, and they say horrible things, and they want me to do horrible things, and I think if I were dead I wouldn't hear them anymore. I don't want to die, but I can't listen to them anymore either!"
To Megan, Regina didn't feel organically disturbed, but mentally sound people did not hear voices. And none of this accounted for that scaly, misshapen foot she'd seen or the cold panic it inspired.
"Regina, suicide is never the answer. Listen to me. You can be helped. We can find out why this is happening to you, and we can make those voices go away. Okay? You can be happy again. You're a good person and you deserve to be happy."
"I don't know if I deserve happiness. I don't think I do. They told me I'm not . . . they told me they're with me because I'm bad."
"You're not bad." Megan sat up straighter in her chair and leaned forward, staring at the microphone as if Regina could somehow see her through it. "Not at all. Your friends, your family, the people you work with don't think you're bad, do they?" The face of the man in the office flashed again. "Is there anyone you can trust, who you can talk to?"
Regina blew her nose--not, most decidedly, a pleasant on-air sound--then squeaked, "Maybe."
"Then here's what I want you to do. I want you to think of those people, okay? Think about them, and think about your parents, and all the people who care about you. When you hear those voices telling you to hurt yourself, you think about them. My engineer, Bill, is going to give you a different phone number to call. The people who answer are going to help you, too. You don't have to be scared anymore."
"Thank you," Regina said.
"Good," Megan replied, relieved. "Our time is up for this evening, but I want you to call me back next week and tell me how you're doing, Regina. Will you do that?"
"Yes. I'll call you. Thank you. Thank you so much."
"You're welcome. You take care of yourself and call me next week." Megan signaled Bill to transfer Regina back. He already had the list in his hands, ready to give her the suicide hotline number. At least Regina had genuinely wanted help, unlike most of Megan's other inaugural show callers. Three lonely hearts, one rebellious teen, a man who thought Elvis lived next door, and one pervert had not made for a stellar beginning.
Thirty seconds to the blessed moment Megan could go home and not come back for another week. "There is always a reason to live, no matter how you might feel right now. There are always people who care about you, people willing to listen and try to help you. If you think you don't have anyone, you're wrong, because you can call me, here on this show. I care and I'll listen. We're out of time for tonight, but I'll be back next week."
Once more the music filled the studio. Bill gave her the thumbs up, but Richard leaned over him and pushed a button. "That was great." Megan smiled, but he continued, "But you didn't use the phrase. Don't ever go to break or end the show without using the phrase. It's the most important thing you'll do on the air."
He continued harping about it all the way through the almost-empty station and into the parking garage. "Your show is a vehicle for advertisers, Megan. You understand that, right?" He didn't even glance at her, which was probably a good thing as she was having difficulty keeping her face blank. "You must identify the show and the station. You must use your tagline. We put a lot of thought into--"
"I understand." Opening herself to so many people, so many problems, over the course of two hours drained her more than she had expected. All she wanted to do was go home, have a glass of wine and a snack, and take a long, hot bath. None of which she could do until she escaped Richard and his evidently unending lecture.
"I'm still new at this, Richard, but I realize the audience needs to be reminded of brand identity, especially when they may have been distracted by something as insignificant as suicide. It won't happen again."
"I hope not," he said, completely missing the sarcasm. In Richard's world, everyone was a consumer. The only help they needed was to be steered toward the right brands.
They walked through the parking garage, their heels echoing on the gritty concrete. Megan shivered. She hated parking garages, with their stale, oil-smelling air. A minor phobia, but one that still bothered her. Even Richard's echoing monologue seemed preferable to silence here.
"I have an interview set up for you," he said. She'd been wrong. It was better when he didn't speak. "Tomorrow evening, a dinner. Seven at Cafe Neus. It's a reporter for Hot Spot."
For what felt like the millionth time in the last few weeks, she cursed her decision to take the show. The only reason she accepted was because Richard would have hired Don Tremblay--the male Nurse Ratched of local counselors--if she'd turned it down. Now she wondered if it mattered. Would any of her callers have minded? Maybe the heavy breather; calling a guy might not be fulfill his particular "needs" . . . and Regina.
"Richard, I don't want to be in that tabloid."
"You say 'tabloid', we at the station say 'invaluable source'. Do you have any idea how many subscribers they have?"
They reached Megan's car, sitting all by itself under one dim fluorescent light. "No, but I bet you're going to tell me."
"Over fifty thousand. Fifty thousand subscribers, and that doesn't include off-the-shelf readers or people in waiting rooms. They're a big deal, and they want to do a big story."
"One interview isn't a big story. I don't think GQ or Vogue do just one brief dinner interview and turn it into--oh, no." Clutching her purse in front of her like a shield, she said, "You didn't sign me up for that 'Week in the Life' thing, did you?"
"It's good publicity. Besides, they'll plug the Femmel Foundation by writing about the charity ball. You do want to do your part for charity, don't you?"
"It's an imposition."
"It's your job."
Megan glared at him. "Fine."
Richard waited while she got into the car and settled into the driver's seat. Just before he closed the door for her, he said, "Wear something sexy. They might take pictures, too."
By the time she thought of a nasty enough reply, he was too far away to hear it.
Someone waited on her porch.
Megan froze in the middle of the walkway, her fast-food bag still clutched in her hand, and lowered her shields. Better to have some idea what was in store. Her free hand twisted the little cap on her pepper spray keychain. If he planned to slit her throat and run, at least she'd have a fighting chance.
She opened the shields more. Surely something would come through. She almost always managed to get some glimpse of the other person's character or motives.
Still nothing. Perhaps she was more drained than she thought.
The figure in the shadows moved. "Hello, Dr. Chase." A man's voice, smooth as glass against silk. "I enjoyed your show very much."
Megan took a cautious step forward. This was her home. It was just past 9:30 p.m. on a bright September night, and she would stand her ground.
"Thank you," she said. "And who are you, please?"
The man stepped off her porch. Moonlight made the sharp, aristocratic bones of his face stand out like bas-relief under a shock of thick dark hair. He was tall--of course, to someone as short as Megan most people were tall, but she thought he was a few inches over six feet. She'd remember that if the police asked her about it in the emergency room later.
He could send her there without breaking a sweat, too. Broad shoulders encased in a suit even she could tell was tailor-made hinted at a muscular body. He looked like a successful businessman.
Successful businessmen could be rapists too.
"My name is Greyson Dante," he said, reaching into the interior pocket of his suit coat and pulling out a card so white it glowed. He held it out to her. She didn't step forward.
"And what are you doing here?"
He lowered his hand to his side without a trace of embarrassment. Was he a lawyer? She'd never met anyone who enjoyed being rebuffed as much as attorneys seemed to. "I came to speak to you about your show. I have a client who is very interested in your concept."
"If it's about the show, your client should call the station."
"It's not an offer for the station. It's for you, personally."
She sighed. "Then he or she should call me at my office, not send a lawyer to lie in wait at my home."
"Did I say I was a lawyer?"
He waited for her to continue, smiling when she remained silent. The more she looked at his face the more she wanted to look, and she couldn't imagine she was alone among women in that reaction.
And she bet he knew it. She concentrated very hard on seeming unimpressed.
"Listen, Mr . . . ?"
"Dante." His voice was a perfect blank. It wasn't just a bland accent, it was accentless, as if he'd spent years removing any identifying trace from his speech.
"Yes. This is all very pleasant, but it's late and I'm hungry and tired. You can leave a message at my office tomorrow if there's something you need to discuss. I may even have time to call you back."
He kept smiling. Megan reached out to him with her mind. Maybe he simply wasn't much of a transmitter. Some people weren't. If she could have a little feel-around inside his head, though, she might get a better idea of what he wanted.
It was no use. Not only could she not get into his head, but the grin on his face made her think he knew--or at least suspected--what she was doing. Which wasn't possible. Was it?
"Dr. Chase." She could almost see him switch gears from "slick and sophisticated" to "your good friend who wants to help you" mode. "I don't think I'm making myself very clear. My client wants only to aid you and possibly come to a mutually beneficial arrangement. If you would just give me ten minutes of your time, I could explain--"
"I'm sorry, but I have a lot to do this evening. I don't have time to sit here and talk."
"I don't have time to sit or stand with you." She crossed her arms over her chest. The paper bag full of fries flopped against her stomach.
He studied her for a minute, his head tilted to one side. "I'll be in touch," he said. "Meanwhile, I'd appreciate it if you could do me a favor."
"You want me to do you a favor?"
"Don't accept any new offers until you've heard what my client has to say."
"Fine." What difference did it make? Wasn't as if any offers of any kind were likely to come her way soon. Besides, if listening would get him to leave, then she'd listen.
"Thank you." He turned to go, then stopped and held out his hand. "My card."
He didn't move as she took it from him. The heavy, thick card stock whispered against her skin as her finger slipped over the raised lettering.
Megan watched him go, crossing the street and stopping next to a sleek black Jaguar, which unlocked with a discreet click. "Oh, and Dr. Chase?"
He opened his mouth, closed it, then opened it again. Megan was ready to give up and go inside when he finally spoke.
The man sitting on the tan leather couch looked up. "Dr. Chase?"
She nodded and extended her hand. "Call me Megan."
Kevin was a pleasant-looking man, with light brown hair cut short and a round, innocent face. Average height, average build, just one of the many people one sees on the streets every day and doesn't remember two minutes later.
So Megan didn't understand why she started feeling sick as soon as her skin touched his.
"Thanks for seeing me on such short notice, Dr. Chase--I mean, Megan." Kevin let go of her hand. Megan gasped as the nausea eased off. It didn't disappear, it stayed lurking in her stomach and making her mouth water, but it did ease. "I just . . . . I had to talk to someone."
Megan swallowed and forced a smile. "That's why I'm here. What would you like to talk about?" She made her way to her chair and sat down harder than she planned.
Kevin had quite a few troubles to talk about. He was lonely, he was depressed, he had low self-esteem and worked in a dead-end job at a bank. Kevin was afraid of heights and small spaces, snakes and spiders and bugs. In all, Kevin was basically just like everyone else whose life hadn't turned out exactly as they'd hoped or expected it would.
Megan tried not to let her mind wander, but she couldn't seem to focus. Her memory of Regina's pale face and the deformed feet and the twisting tension in her stomach when Kevin touched her hand all pointed to a problem she'd never faced before, not like this.
Anyone with psychic abilities dealt with their share of what Megan called "the shivers." Some people just didn't "feel" right. Maybe they liked kicking puppies, or swindling old ladies, or occasionally something even more violent and horrible. She'd met such people, of course. But Kevin made her feel like she was the problem, as if whatever threat existed came from deep inside herself.
"How long did you attend--" she checked the file and forced herself not to roll her eyes--"Fearbusters?"
"Six months," Kevin said. "And it's a good program and everything, but lately . . . I'd rather see how I do on my own, you know?"
"Of course." She glanced at the clock. Twenty minutes left in this session. "Is there something in particular you'd like to focus on today in the time we have left?"
"I had a nightmare last night," he said. "A bad one." For the first time she noticed something other than sadness and loneliness in his eyes. Fear lurked in the depths like a wasp in a flower bouquet.
"Tell me about it."
Kevin lay back on the soft leather couch, resting his head on the armrest, and closed his eyes. He smiled faintly, clearly enjoying this part of the session. It was a relief to talk to someone who listened.
Megan tensed. At this point in a session she started tuning in, seeing what the patient saw, noticing what they mentioned or omitted and asking careful questions to find out why.
She had to steel her nerves to do it for Kevin.
She saw the room he walked across as he described it to her, and sighed with relief. No nausea, no fear.
The cavernous room seemed to stretch into nothingness, with a ceiling so high only the fuzzy variations of color let her know something decorated it. The walls weren't walls at all, but cupboards, with hundreds of doors in them, each two or three feet tall. It was like being in an enormous library card catalog, but lights came from under the small closed doors.
"Was it an empty room, Kevin? Or was there furniture? Doors to other rooms?"
"There were doors. A lot of doors."
"What's behind them?"
In the dream memory Kevin paused and looked at the thin line of light on the floor. "I don't know. Weapons?"
Megan noted that answer on her pad. "Did you think you needed a weapon, Kevin?"
"I didn't think," he said. "I just tried to get to the end of the room. There was something waiting for me there, something that wanted me to see it."
"What was it?"
"I didn't know. I just knew I needed to get there."
Another note. "What happened when you did?"
At the end of the room another door loomed, larger than the others, with ornate carvings in the dark wood. She felt sweat rolling down her face--Kevin's face. Was there a fire behind the door? Fire was a pretty common fear.
Kevin's voice changed now, growing higher and faint. Whatever hid beyond that door must not be pleasant. She braced herself as he reached for it. His hand closed over the ornate brass knob. Flesh sizzled.
Kevin screamed. Something slammed into Megan with enough force to knock her out of her chair. She cried out, her head hitting the floor with a painful thud. The door still loomed in front of her, even as she saw Kevin jerking and convulsing on the couch, his mouth open, his eyes wide. Desperately Megan tried to put her shields back up, to break her connection with Kevin's dream, but she could not. Something had grabbed hold of her mind and refused to let go.
She tried to cry out for Lucy the receptionist, for anyone, but no sound escaped her constricted throat. She reached up, her fingers scrabbling for what felt like a cord squeezing her neck, but she scratched at empty air.
Kevin fell off the couch, smashing into the glass-top table in the middle of the floor. His body still twisted and writhed, horrible gagging noises coming from his open mouth.
Megan's vision started going black around the edges, black as the dream door that screeched on huge brass hinges . . .
Just before she saw what lurked behind it, the door to her office burst open. Lucy's terrified face was the last thing Megan saw before darkness overtook her.
"I'm fine." Megan sat up on the bed and swung her legs over the side. "I just want to go home."
"The doctor hasn't released you," the nurse replied, in the weary tones of a woman used to being ignored and treated badly by the people she tried to help.
"Can you call her for me, please? I'm fine." It was a lie. She was not fine, but the hospital couldn't do anything for her.
Twice in two days now she'd had an unusual reaction when tuning in to someone. Three times, if you included her inability to read anything from the lawyer on her doorstep. Was it possible for psychic abilities to suddenly become uncontrollable? Or was it a coincidence, some odd alignment of the planets? Maybe Kevin was epileptic or had an organic brain dysfunction?
She had no way to find out, no one she could ask. In her youth Megan had looked for a mentor, someone else who could do what she did. Once she'd realized her parents couldn't help, she'd tried making appointments with Tarot readers and psychics. None of them were able to do anything for her, with the exception of the Tarot reader who'd advised her to let go of her anger. Megan liked her anger and ignored the advice.
Through trial and error, not to mention desperation, she'd found a way to shield herself, but she'd never advanced beyond that.
The nurse looked her up and down. "Are you the kind of person who ignores doctor's orders?"
Megan smiled. "No. I'm not an idiot."
"You don't look like an idiot," the nurse said, returning the smile. "I'll get her." She turned and headed for the busy nurse's station in the middle of the Emergency Care area, her jogging shoes making little squeaks on the polished tile floor. Megan bit her fingernails and waited.
"You know, we have a snack machine," the doctor said, entering Megan's little curtained cubicle. "In case those nails don't fill you up."
Megan blushed. "Nervous habit. Oral fixation."
"Mmm-hmm. You're a counselor, right? PhD?" The doctor--Janet Hunter, according to her ID badge--cocked an eyebrow and grinned.
"Physician, heal thyself?"
"Something like that. I suppose it could be worse. You could smoke."
"No smoking. Just clean, non-lethal nasty habits."
"Great. Lisa tells me you're feeling fine, and I don't see any reason to keep you here, but try to take it easy for the next few days, okay? And call your regular doctor if you have any dizziness or pain that can't be treated with a couple of Tylenol."
A man in a plaid shirt and a pair of brown corduroy jeans that had seen better days stood in the entryway to Megan's room. Large glasses dominated his smiling face. "I'm sorry to interrupt," he said. "I wanted to catch you before they discharge you."
"I'm done with her, Art. Signing her discharge now, you're just in time."
"Excellent." The man stepped further into the room while Megan thanked Dr. Hunter. "I'm Arthur Bellingham." He held out his hand. Megan shook it. It was warm and limp. "I'm head of the Fearbusters program here at the hospital."
"Right," Megan looked at him with new interest. "Kevin's therapist."
"Yes, Kevin's therapist." Something about the way he said it made Megan itch to tune into him, but she refrained. She wasn't about to take a chance of something else going wrong when she was so close to freedom from the hospital. "That's why I wanted to talk to you. What happened to Kevin?"
"It looked like a seizure, but you'd have to ask Dr. Hunter if it was."
"I will," Bellingham replied. "I'm glad neither of you were seriously injured."
"Me too." What did he want? He was clearly building up to something, and Megan wished he would just come out with it so she could leave.
"I suppose things could have gone very badly if your receptionist hadn't come and found you."
How did he know that? Had he been peeking at her triage forms? Not worth arguing about. It wasn't like there was any information there he couldn't get elsewhere anyway. "I suppose," she said. "I'd rather not think about it."
"Oh, come now, Dr. Chase. We're psychologists. It's our job to face fear."
"It's our job to help our patients face their fears."
"You say potato. Actually, it's just that kind of thing I was hoping to discuss with you. Fears, I mean, not potatoes!" He chuckled at his own joke.
Megan smiled with her mouth closed. "What about them?"
"Well." He thrust his hands into his pockets and leaned against the EKG monitor, only to stumble and nearly fall when the monitor on its wheeled cart rolled away. Megan tightened her lips to keep from laughing as he pulled it back into place. He looked back at her, with the guilty expression of a child who expected to be beaten for his clumsiness.
"Stupid wheels," Megan said. "Whose idea were they, anyway?"
He gave a nervous little giggle. "Yes. Right. Anyway, I wanted to talk to you about Fearbusters."
"The program Kevin was in?"
"The program Kevin is in. He hasn't officially left."
"Most therapy clients don't officially leave, do they, Mr. Bellingham? I mean, there's no graduation ceremony for feeling better. They just stop making appointments."
Bellingham shrugged, but the lines of his face tensed. "Fearbusters is . . . different. Special. We do have a ceremony of sorts, and our clients sign up for a set period of time. If they feel better before that time is up, they help mentor those who aren't as strong yet. It's a wonderful program."
It may be wonderful, but it also sounded unethical. "And they pay for the sessions where they're acting as mentors?"
He nodded. "We reduce the fee, but our theory--and our clients agree--is that they're still learning new coping mechanisms while helping others to cope. Often they decide to stay, even after they've had their Leaving Ceremony."
He narrowed his eyes. "If they really want to leave, they can. They just have to tell us. But in the two years we've been running the program, only one person has."
"Thank you. Let me cut to the chase, Dr. Chase." He smiled. Megan smiled back, just as if she hadn't heard that joke a million times. "I'd love to have you on board. I heard you on the radio last night, dealing with the woman who heard voices. You were great. Most of our clients have issues like hers, hence our name. I think you'd be a great asset to our team."
Was there a person in the city who hadn't been listening? In her worst nightmares she'd never imagined Richard's stupid publicity campaign being this effective.
"I'm flattered," she began. "But with my own practice and the show, I'm working six days a week. I just don't see how I can fit it in."
"Maybe you could come down one evening and sit in on a session? We meet here at seven every weeknight, Conference Room B in the Outpatient Center. We'd love to have you."
Bellingham brightened. "Great. Here's my card." The card was much flimsier than the one her mysterious visitor had presented her last night. "Please call me anytime if you have the chance to come in."
"I will." Megan hopped off the bed and landed with a thud on her feet. The bed was a little higher than she'd thought. She grabbed her purse. "It was nice meeting you, Mr. Bellingham."
"Call me Art." He gave her another limp handshake. It was like holding hands with an uncooked chicken cutlet. Megan suppressed a shudder. "Megan," she said.
"Megan, then. I hope you'll call."
She waited until he was gone to wipe her hand on her skirt.
Cafe Neus was part of the "new millennium" rebuilding project the city counselors had gone into paroxysms of glee over a few years back. Megan hated it. All the old buildings that used to give downtown character were gone, replaced by gleaming storefronts and chi-chi restaurants that looked like a strong wind would blow them over.
But she had to admit, it certainly had made the area more popular. Megan hunted for fifteen minutes before finding a place to park her little Focus, seven blocks from her destination. By the time she entered the cool, leafy interior of the restaurant she was grumpy, her feet hurt, and she wished she could go back in time and slap herself for agreeing to do the stupid radio show at all.
Don Tremblay wasn't so bad, was he? So what if he loathed Megan as much as she disliked him, especially after she'd lost her temper a year before at a conference they'd both attended and told him she'd recommend Hannibal Lecter as a therapist before she'd recommend him? So what if he'd told at least one client to grow up and stop whining so much, then charged the client double for the session saying it was because he hated her? Could she herself honestly say she'd never been tempted to do the same? It was hypocritical of her to judge poor Don, who'd been a therapist for years, poor Don whose wife had left him three years ago, poor Don, who was . . . heading right for her.
"Megan." He smiled his artificial smile and grabbed her hand in both of his. She focused all her energy into her shields as he trapped her between the fake bamboo hostess stand and his pudgy body and forced his wet lips to her cheek. "It's nice to see you. I heard your show. What a sweet little effort."
"Sweet little effort?"
"Of course." He clasped his hands together in front of his chest and grinned at her. The effect was not what she thought he intended. He looked like a mad scientist about to cut up some dead bodies and make amusing shapes with their cold innards. "When Richard Randall told me you'd agreed to do it, I thought you were both a little crazy, but after listening . . ." He picked up her hand again and kissed it. "Magnifique. A word of warning, though. There are some in our illustrious profession who may not take kindly to your sudden fame."
Like you, she thought, but did not say. Tremblay's eyes were cold and watchful, and he was not afraid to make a scene. She didn't want to make things worse, especially when there was a reporter somewhere in the room ready to write about her. Fame-Hungry Counselor Stabbed Backs for Radio Show was not a headline she cared to read. At least, not on a story about herself.
"Thanks for the warning. I'll keep that in mind."
"I'm always happy to help a young lady unschooled in making the right impressions." Good old Don, always ready to patronize. "In fact, seeing as how you're dining alone again, perhaps you'd care to join me and my friends?"
"I'm sorry, I can't. I'm meeting someone."
"Blind date? It's hard for a girl like you to meet people these days, isn't it?"
Some people made her want to gouge out their eyes with a grapefruit spoon. Don was one of them. With effort, she refrained. "Yes, my enormous sexual appetite tends to scare men away. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to find my dinner date."
She left him standing next to the gaping hostess.
"Here's how it works." Brian Stone, reporter for Hot Spot, rummaged around in his large backpack and set a mini-recorder on the table between them. His eyes sparkled. Megan envied his enjoyment of his job. "I ask questions, you answer. It's simple, but the tricky part is not sounding self-conscious. I want this to be a good article. I'm not planning a hatchet job, don't worry. If we do it right, it turns into a conversation and we both forget the recorder. We're going to be together all week, so it's best if we get the uncomfortable part out of the way fast, okay, Dr. Chase?"
He had an easy, quick way of talking as he gave this little speech. His light brown hair was short and tidy, his smile wide and welcoming. Everything about him was designed to be reassuring and encourage confidences. Megan refused to be won over.
"I'll certainly give it a try."
"But you don't want to."
"You don't want to be interviewed, I can tell. It's okay. I mean . . . it's not okay, because it makes my job harder . . . but I understand you feeling that way. A lot of people do."
"But you push them anyway."
"Don't you?" His blue eyes looked directly into hers, pinning her to her chair. She looked away.
"I don't think of it that way. They pay me to ask questions, to find out what's at the heart of their problems. Sometimes to do that you have to force people to confront things they'd rather not face."
"Is that your theory, then? That your job is forcing your patients to look into all the nasty corners of their minds?"
"They are not necessarily 'nasty corners' and I don't 'force' anyone, Mr. Stone. Nor do I think confronting the truth in order to deal with problems is theory. It's the truth. If you go to the doctor with pains in your stomach, but refuse to allow an examination, you've wasted a trip to the doctor. Same with a counselor."
She hadn't expected the interview to be fun, but she hadn't expected to react with gut-clenching rage, either. Her Coke sat on the table next to her as yet untouched salad. She wished she'd ordered something stronger.
"It's not the same, though, is it? What you don't tell a real doctor can kill you. What you--"
"Hold it right there, Mr. Stone. I may not be a medical doctor, but I earned a doctorate in Counseling Psychology. I'm a highly qualified, licensed counselor, I'm not doing this as a lark."
"Furthermore, I--what? What do you mean, you know?"
Stone smiled. "Of course I know your qualifications. You have an excellent reputation, and it's certainly not everyone who can earn a Master's and a Doctorate in eight years. But I've gotten you to loosen up a bit. You're ready to talk now, right? More than you were earlier? And to call me Brian?"
"The only thing I'm ready to do now is dump my salad on your head."
"Please don't. It takes forever to get the dressing out."
In spite of herself, she laughed. "Okay, Brian. I admit I'm not as nervous as I was. That doesn't mean I approve of your methods."
"I can only do my best," he said, taking a bite of his own salad. "You should eat."
"Desperate to take a photo of me with spinach in my teeth?"
"No, but I will if you aren't nice to me."
Megan smiled in acknowledgment and took a sip of her Coke, scanning the restaurant over the top of her glass. Her gaze stopped on two tables at the back. At one sat Don Tremblay with Jeff Howard--one of the partners in her co-practice who'd been vocally opposed to her joining--and a woman she didn't recognize. So Tremblay was friendly with Howard. She'd never known that, but it certainly made sense.
The other table was more worrisome. As the giggling waitress stepped away from it, Greyson Dante held up his wineglass in her direction. She ignored him.
"So," Brian said, after thanking the waitress for his entree, "I'd like to be in your office by ten every morning. That way our photographer can get some good shots, and I can interview some of your patients."
"You can't interview my patients. They have a right to confidentiality."
Brian shrugged. "Some of them will probably want to keep that privacy intact but still speak anonymously. But I'm sure a few of them would love to have their picture in our magazine, so everyone knows they get to see Dr. Demon Slayer on a regular basis."
Megan almost choked on her steak. "The who?"
"The demon slayer. That's what the station specified we were to call you. Part of the theme of the show."
"Oh, god." Megan buried her face in her hands. The dull throbbing ache in her head promised to get worse as this hell continued.
"I was thinking we could get a picture of you holding a pitchfork or something. Maybe a big wooden cross? Sound good?"
She stared at him. He lifted his hands and leaned back in his seat, as if he was afraid she might start spitting on him. "Hey, only joking."
"Oh, I do love jokes." Greyson Dante stood by her side.
"Hello, Mr. Dante. I'm afraid this is a private conversation, so you will, of course, be going now."
His grin widened. Was there no way to insult the man? "Why, Dr. Chase, if I didn't know better I'd think you didn't want to see me."
"What makes you think you know better?"
"I always do."
Brian looked from one of them to the other. "Don't you want to introduce me to your friend, Megan?"
Dante still stood there smiling, his wineglass in one hand, looking like Cary Grant on a luxurious cruise. She hadn't been wrong in her first moonlight impression; he really was handsome, with dark hair and eyes and smooth, lightly tanned skin. She'd always liked dark-haired men, probably to contrast with her own blond paleness. Megan often thought she looked like a ghost. A dark man seemed to anchor her to earth, somehow, or perhaps it was just her obsessive childhood crush on Burt Reynolds.
Before she could disavow friendship with Dante and say no, Mr. Tall Dark Handsome and Annoying was shaking hands with the reporter.
"Dante. Greyson Dante."
Brian smiled. "Mr. Dante, then. Sit down. I'd love to talk to some of Megan's friends. Get some more personal information, you know?"
"I'd be glad to share what I know." Greyson grabbed an empty chair from a nearby table--without asking the table's occupants, Megan noticed--and pulled it to theirs.
"Which isn't much," she said under her breath.
Brian glanced at her. "What?"
Dante grinned. Megan wanted to stab him in the hand with her fork. Of course he was grinning. She couldn't say anything to him. She couldn't yell, or claim he was a crazy stranger, or be nasty to him. Brian was a reporter, a man with the power to make or break her reputation. Radio Counselor Can't Remember Names of Casual One-Night Stands . . . Power-Mad Radio Host Turns Her Back On Friends Now That She's a Success . . . Fame Drives Radio Counselor Insane . . .
"And how do you two know each other?" Brian was either trying to figure out what was wrong between them or, innocently unaware, was just trying to make conversation. Megan hoped it was the latter. She opened her mouth to speak, but Greyson got there first.
"I'm a counselor, too. From out of state. We met at a conference last year."
Megan would have bet her car that the closest Greyson ever came to counseling was recommending it for his clients in the hopes they would get larger damages in court.
If he was a lawyer. Which she had to admit she wasn't certain about. It was just a feeling she had, but without being able to read him she couldn't be sure.
"Our methods are very different," Megan started, but Dante cut her off.
"But we both love helping people. I think 'help' is Dr. Chase's favorite word."
"And what's yours? 'Malpractice'?"
"Oh, no." He folded his hands on the table and leaned forward. "Sin is my favorite word, Dr. Chase. Sin."
His eyes caught hers, held. She leaned forward before she realized she was doing it, and sat back so quickly she knocked her knife onto the floor.
Dante tsked and picked it up, nodding to his pet waitress, who leapt to their table as if they were the only customers in the restaurant. Megan calmed herself and started studying the room, trying to avoid even looking at him.
Perhaps it was fallout from earlier, but the steak that had looked appetizing now made her throat close, and she made no move to use her new knife. She thought if someone made a loud noise she would jump right out of her skin, and it wasn't just the tension of the last day or so catching up with her.
The men continued chatting, unaware of her lapse into silence. "Oh, Megan is highly respected," Dante said. "She's a real counselor's counselor."
A counselor's counselor? Where was he getting that shit?
Trying to soothe her churning stomach, Megan reached for her Coke and took a long swallow.
Something hovered in the air over the right shoulder of the woman at the next table.
The shadowy form lacked definition but as Megan watched she caught a flash of what looked like dark green before the color disappeared. The shadow stayed, rippling at the edges but hovering in place.
The woman didn't notice, but Megan stared transfixed. Blurry edges of darkness reached out and passed over the woman's face, then slipped back into the semi-solid mass.
The image made her gorge rise, but she kept staring, unable to move or blink. If she looked away, would it disappear? Or would it move, leaping to one of the other diners, as if trying to gain entry to someone's body? It felt so wrong, so . . . evil. Her skin prickled and itched.
While the woman laughed and ate her food, the blurry form twisted and darted around, staying in the same space but writhing as if trying to burst through some kind of membrane.
Megan's stomach gave up the battle. She leapt from her chair, knocking it over in the process, and ran for the ladies' room. She barely made it in time.
"I'll walk you to your car, if you won't let me call a cab." Dante faked concern pretty well.
"I'd rather walk." She was tempted to tell him she didn't need his company, but it was after dark in the city and she wasn't stupid. Why walk alone when she could have a man she trusted--okay, a man she was fairly certain wouldn't attack her--to walk with her?
"What exactly do you want, Mr. Dante?"
"Call me Grey." His footsteps fell in time with hers as they passed groups of revelers still out, most of whom looked like professional partiers. Megan, with her pallid face and businesslike suit, felt out of place, a grandma trying to hang out with teenagers. Which was ridiculous. At thirty-one she was still in the age range the stores and clubs catered to, but she didn't think she could ever go to them. It simply wasn't her scene, aside from how difficult it was to keep her shields tightly closed after spending hours in a hot room and having a few drinks.
"What happened back there in the restaurant?"
"What do you mean?"
"Before you ran off, you were staring at a woman behind me. I got the feeling something about her disturbed you."
Megan forced herself not to gag. She didn't even want to think about what she'd seen, that squirming mass, the sense of malevolence radiating from it. She certainly wouldn't discuss it with Greyson.
"I wasn't feeling well, that's all. I've been feeling off all day."
"Before you went to the hospital?"
"Yes, I--" She stopped short and swung to face him. "How the hell do you know that? Are you following me? Who the hell are you, anyway?"
Greyson raised his hands and stepped back. "Hey, hold on. It's not necessarily--"
"Don't tell me what it necessarily is or isn't. You tell me how you know all this about me. Who are you, Mr. Dante, and what do you want from me?"
If she'd hoped to disarm him, it didn't work. His face went carefully blank and he put his hands back in his pockets. "I just want you to listen to my--client's offer. That's all."
"Why are you following me? And you're either a moron, or you've been going out of your way to let me know you're following me. Why? What are you up to?"
"I want to help you."
"Help me what?"
"Sudden fame can be very difficult. You could attract some . . . unwanted elements."
"Stop lying to me!"
"I'm not lying. Stalkers--"
"Stalkers? Like, for example, you?"
"I'm not a stalker."
"Oh? Let's see. What does a stalker do? Follows someone around, tries to insinuate his or her way into the target's life, maybe drops some vague hints and threats along the way? Sound familiar? Are you going to start telling the press you're my secret husband next?"
His face darkened. "Megan, if you would just listen--"
"Fuck you." She turned and started walking away. "Leave me alone, Mr. Dante," she called over her shoulder. "You might be a lawyer, but that doesn't mean I can't still have you arrested."
"I never said I was a lawyer," he called after her.
Don't take the bait, don't take the bait, don't take the bait . . .
She turned around when she reached the end of the block. He was gone.
A big red blinking "2" on her answering machine welcomed her home. Someone wanted to sell her aluminum siding, she guessed, and perhaps the other call would be a hang-up for variety. She'd been getting a few of those lately.
Hearing Brian Stone's voice checking her well-being made her smile. Brian wasn't as bad as she'd thought. At least he didn't wear a fedora with a press card tucked in the band or talk out the side of his mouth or try to bribe people for information about her. At least she assumed he wouldn't.
The second message erased the smile. Kevin Walford's voice quavered out of the machine. "Um, Dr. Chase, I hope it's okay for me to call you at home, I mean, I'm sorry if it bothers you, but I wanted to thank you for earlier? For taking me to the hospital and all? I was hoping you could meet me there tomorrow, well, I was hoping maybe you'd meet me at Fearbusters, and Mr. Art said he'd talked to you about coming there anyway, and we thought maybe you would come down tomorrow because I wanted to thank you in person." He finally took a breath. "So, um, call me if you can, or call Mr. Art, okay? And thank you." He finished by reciting his phone number three times.
"Mr. Art" must be Art Bellingham. Why did that man want her to meet his group so badly? For a second she imagined he wanted her to lend her newfound fame to the program, but she managed to stop herself before the thought fully formed. It was only a little Sunday-night radio show in a mediocre radio market. So why was it suddenly so important for her to get to Fearbusters?
She'd left Bellingham's card on a little bronze tray on a table near the front door with her mail. The cheap paper stock felt slick and flimsy in her fingers, which reminded her of Dante's elegant, obviously expensive card. She fished that one out too.
Two men, each with some hidden agenda, each of whom seemed to want her to do something for them.
Either she was suddenly the most popular girl in town, or something was going on. Tomorrow she'd start finding out exactly what.
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