Midnight. Kim was sitting in bed debugging code, feeling miserable. Dumped by Justin, and with Shannon on an exotic sun vacation – palm trees, sandy beaches, and a cobalt blue sea – while all Kim had was the mighty responsibility of watering plants in Shannon’s office, Kim’s landmark thirtieth birthday was going to be a royal bust. She picked up a magazine from her night table and turned the pages. Photographs of beautiful women with nothing to hide pushed her spirits even lower, until an article in the editorial section jumped out at her. It said that committing to seven daily habits was certain to improve your outlook on life in a matter of weeks and it provided a link to the author’s Pinterest page for motivational quotes. She read on carefully.
Kim started the next morning with the first step: Draw your curtains wide and look forward to the day.
Next, from the list of inspirational quotes, she picked, Don’t look back, you’re not going that way, grabbed a screenshot and saved it as her phone’s wallpaper.
A copious protein-rich breakfast followed by a large glass of water and it was time to write down the daily goal. The author recommended to go big but concrete, and to follow the number one rule: Do what makes you happy.
Going to the farmers’ market with Justin. Once home, building enormous sandwiches. Listening to Justin on the piano play a song he’d just composed. Arguing over the meaning of a poem or irreverently commenting on a painting in front of the gallery owner, with Justin. Making love to Justin and laughing at his jokes. When they lived together, waking up each morning.
Everything had spiraled downward into a very dark place, her perfect life swept away in a maelstrom, the minute Julie Bold showed up at Justin’s door for a policy. Nothing she could do but be ripped apart.
She had to admit though, despite the pain and the treasons, she had never been happier than with Justin. Could she find a man like him again? Never. One of the Pins read defeat is not bitter unless you swallow it.
Her goal had to be: “Get Justin back.”
In the bathroom, she splashed her face with cold water to stimulate her collagen and massaged her cheeks. She reached for makeup shelved in the back of her cabinet months ago. Think positively, the article had said, and visualize success. She brushed her teeth.
She arrived at work early. A smell of processed meats and mayonnaise hung in the empty office, and the air conditioner rattled. As she walked along, she glimpsed coffee rings and sauces smeared on documents stacked in messy piles on colleagues’ desks. Once in her cubicle, she scribbled motivational thoughts on post-its and attached them to the thin frame of her computer.
The morning seemed interminable – another bulky and unwieldy program to clean up, and the constant drone of chatter. She glanced at the post-its between hitting keys and peering at the clock.
Coffee break finally came. Clearly Justin was not going to make the first move. He was too proud. On the other hand, if she went to him, he would rebuff her, snigger, close the door in her face. Each small step you take reveals a new horizon. She braced herself and headed for Justin’s office, a floor below. When the elevator doors opened, her hand went for the >||< button. A little voice at the back of her mind whispered: you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. She stepped out.
His office was three doors from the elevator bank. His door was open. She hesitated but colleagues pouring out into the hallway from a conference room pressured her to move ahead. Justin was sitting at his desk facing the door. When he looked up his hair fell onto his face, and she missed a breath. His eyes, pale blue behind the black silky curtain, the top buttons of his shirt undone showing a slice of hairy chest, and his tie dangling on the side of the collar of his blue striped shirt, a five o’clock shadow – he could have been on the cover of GQ. He tucked the unruly strand behind the ear with the diamond stud that flashed.
“Kim.” His face broke into a large smile and he rose. He peeked at his computer. “Happy birthday!” He walked over to her. “Can I kiss you?”
The blood drained from her cheeks. Had he been waiting all this time for her to mend their break up and offer forgiveness? The warmth of his lips on her cheek spread through the side of her neck and down through her body. He hummed the happy-birthday tune in her ear. She swayed.
Like magic, he said, “I’m so glad you dropped by. I wanted to talk to you, but I didn’t dare, well, after … it … all. Let me take you out to lunch for a bit of a celebration. Thirty, right? Gold Spoon?”
She blinked twice. Her cheeks burned. She cleared her throat. Set your sails when the wind blows. She nodded.
Justin laughed. “One? See you there.” He returned to his desk.
She headed back to the staircase, stunned and elated. There was wisdom after all in the motivational quotes. Who would have thought they really worked? All she needed to do was reach out and it would be hers again. Shannon was going to have a fit when she told her. She’d always said Justin was a callous, self-serving SOB. He could be like that, sure. But underneath, he was pure lamb, even if a bit anarchic with his silly ideas about deserving superiority and all that jazz. How things had blasted out between them was no indication of his nature. As the sayings go, all is fair in love and war, but, at the end of the game, the king and the pawn go into the same box.
At one, she hustled to the restaurant. From the door, despite the crowd, her eyes locked on him as if there was no one else. He had reserved the table next to the window where, years ago, he had asked if he could move in with her. The sun shone and he squinted. Her stomach knotted up and her jaw slackened. How was she going to be able to eat anything?
The waiter pulled the chair out for her. In her vlog about relationships, Dr Courtney affirmed that a woman should keep an open mind, and if her man makes a move to come back, she should shut up and melt right into him. Kim took the menu and feigned reading it. She needed a minute to adjust. Her hands shook. At the top edge of the menu Justin brushed his hair with his fingers, stared. She looked up. He grinned and dimples appeared in the prickly roughness of his cheeks.
Her insides were in turmoil. The deep breaths she inhaled were expelled as soon as they touched her lungs. She dipped her lip into the wine.
His voice was rich and hypnotic. Soon, they fell into familiar topics and she settled down. He complained about his job and colleagues. She laughed at his jokes and it all felt wonderful. The best birthday, ever.
“Other than work, how’s life?”
He sucked his upper lip over his front teeth. “I’m in a bit of a pickle to tell you the truth,” he laughed. “The craziness of it all is staggering.”
“Tell me.” A skitter in the ripples of his laughter had given away his unease. She put down her fork and laid her hands on each side of her plate, alarmed.
He gazed quietly into her eyes. “I don’t know if I should even tell you.”
“We used to be able to talk about anything. In spite of what happened, we’re still friends. You can tell me.”
“It’s nothing, really.”
He scratched the table cloth with his thumbnail as though he was removing a stain, then said, “Yeah, okay.” He reached for her hand on the table, turned the palm face up, and caressed the middle of it. She stretched her fingers out like a dog whose owner is scratching an itch on its back.
“There it is.” He took his hand away. “Guys on the town. We met some girls. We all went back to my place. One of the girls stayed after everyone left.” He shrugged. “I made a move, but she’d changed her mind. Then, it really was stupid of me I admit, I locked the front door and said I wouldn’t let her go before we, well, you know.” His eyes traveled over the diners. “She complied, but I’m afraid she’ll accuse me of something.” He leaned forward. “What do you think? Did I do something really wrong?”
A line of fire shot up from her stomach to her throat. She covered her neck with her hand. Why was he telling her this? What response could she give? A test, maybe, to see if she had moved on from being petty and possessive, and could generously stand by him. But she didn’t want to hear it because – didn’t he know – she still loved him. The thought of him being intimate with another woman … But now, he needed her to see him through the fix he’d gotten himself into.
Then her thoughts veered off. It was wrong, period.
It was Justin, though, the man she’d lived with, made love to. He’d given into trying the limits of what he could get away with, like shoplifting or leaving a restaurant without paying. It didn’t mean he was bad at the core, just juvenile, and he certainly was not a pervert. He’d made a mistake, that’s all, and wouldn’t do it again. His safety was the bigger issue, here. And not disappointing him.
The story had eaten away at some of the enchantment of the moment. But then she remembered, have enough courage to trust love one more time.
“Well, I guess … if she came to your place, she must have thought …” she mumbled weakly.
After the meal, they walked back in silence. “By the way, how’s Julie?” she said in a tiny voice.
“Julie? We broke up weeks ago. I certainly made a mistake with her. Geez.”
He put his arm around her shoulders. She thought her legs were about to give out and she wouldn’t be able to make it back to her desk.
For the rest of the afternoon, she pressed a few keys, her eyes on the phone, lost in a dream.
“Incredible day,” she wrote that night on the first page of her diary. Tomorrow she would let the sunshine in again, read an inspirational quote, have a protein-rich breakfast and a glass of water, set her goal for the day, and continue reaching toward happiness.
She couldn’t fall asleep though. What had happened to Justin nagged at her. If the woman reported him to the police, the consequences could be disastrous. He would lose everything. Did he really deserve such punishment?
The next morning, her mind was clear. She wrote in her notebook: “Help a friend in need.” She would make Justin understand that he needed to deal with it right away to prevent the woman’s anger from overflowing into a formal complaint. She had an idea. She grabbed her coat and keys.
At break-time, she walked down to Justin’s office, put a cappuccino with two sugars in front of him.
“I’ve been thinking about your predicament,” she announced, dropping into the chair in front of the desk.
“The thing you told me, the woman, the other night, and you were afraid she could get you in trouble.”
His head drooped and he winced.
“You need to talk to her, apologize. Say you’re sorry, you didn’t mean it that way. You misunderstood. Make it up to her. You weren’t, like, violent, were you?”
He glared at her in response.
After a moment of silence, he shook his head. “I don’t think it’s going to work, I should have realized she was unstable.” His eyes moved to the window on the adjacent wall and to the street below.
Kim didn’t know, of course, how he was with other women, but with her he was wonderful. How bad could it have been for her? “I can’t stand that you’re going through this. If I can do something …”
“Thanks.” His eyes shifted to the back of the room and narrowed. She turned around. Two men stood at the door. They had on cheap brown suits, wrinkled shirts, no ties, not the kind of clothes their regular clients wore. One in his sixties, very thin, white ponytail; the other much younger, dark rimmed glasses, crew cut, and puckered post-acne skin.
“Justin Crown?” the older man said.
Justin stood, invited them in, and Kim made her exit. On her way out, she overheard the older man introduce himself as a police inspector.
Once at her desk, she took out a pack of gum and chewed to calm her nerves. She pulled off one of the motivational quotes from her computer frame and laid it flat in the clearing of the desk beside the paperwork.
A step back gives you more traction.
So the woman had gone to the police.
But then, she thought, the officers might be there for another reason. Something about one of his clients. Or about even a bigger problem. An issue with security, for example. One evening, after a few martinis, Shannon, who headed the firm security, had shown Kim how data could be accessed. “Insanely easy to get in,” Shannon had said. “When you think security is so critical for us that if clients found out, we’d be out of business. The crazy thing is that I can’t do anything about it. They just won’t listen.” Maybe it had caught up with them and a breach had finally occurred.
After she creamed her face that night, she confided to her diary what had happened. She thought about the visit from the police and fretted that Justin could be in real trouble. His number was on her speed dial. She called.
“It’s worse than I thought,” he said. “She’s asked for a formal investigation. Can you believe that stupid woman?”
“I have nothing to apologize for. How was I supposed to know?”
She thought, “You had to threaten her, no?” But she opted to not let logic get in the way. “It might satisfy her and make the problem go away,” she said instead.
“I don’t want to give her that satisfaction. What are you up to now? Want to come over for a glass of wine?”
She took in a quick breath. It was late. Don’t always run to him like a dog, that was Shannon’s wisdom. “I’m in bed.”
“Would it help if maybe I talk to her?”
“What do you mean?”
“I can tell her I know you, you’re a decent guy, you made a mistake, and she’ll ruin your brilliant future if she doesn’t stop.”
“She’ll do that alright. Let me think about it. I’m sure you can help. Thank you, darling.” He hung up.
Her thoughts nestled around the word “darling” and she pulled the comforter over her shoulder. She fell asleep in the warmth of the bed with a feeling that everything was going to be alright.
The next morning she woke up late. She skipped breakfast, the motivational thought, and the goal of the day, bought a greasy doughnut from a street vendor. She made a detour to Justin’s office.
The door was closed.
She suffered through an interminable staff meeting, then went back to her workspace, called again and waited by the phone.
A couple of hours later, the phone finally rang. Agnes from the front desk said that two men wanted to speak with her. “They’re from the police,” Agnes whispered.
In the reception area, the same men Kim had met in Justin’s office stood near the desk, waiting for her.
The older one shook her hand. “We won’t be very long,” he said with a grandfatherly smile. His eyes were red, like he’d been up all night, or crying. “We need to confirm your whereabouts on April 26.”
“Last Friday? Why are you interested in that?”
The younger officer scratched a scar on his cheek.
“We can’t give you much information,” the older man continued, putting his hands in his pockets, and jingling his coins. “I can tell you we’re looking into a crime. The person we suspect hasn’t been charged yet, and we don’t want to start rumors, so we won’t give you a name. Your whereabouts on the 26th might clear up a few things though.”
She wet her lips. Justin’s future was in her hands. Where was Shannon when she needed her? Justin must have told them he was with her, otherwise they wouldn’t be here asking about her whereabouts. If she told the police the truth, Justin would find himself in more trouble. They would figure if he lied about where he’d been he must be guilty.
She was up against it. She couldn’t fail him. Don’t hesitate to go the extra mile to save your love and happiness.
“I was at work, as usual, all day, and then I spent the evening and night with my ex-boyfriend, Justin Crown. I cooked him his favorite, boeuf bourguignon, and we spent a quiet evening at my apartment, watched a video, Dirty Dancing, went to bed around 10.30. Do you need to know more?” Justin had to have told them exactly that. It had been a running joke between them, a story they had concocted the day he’d got a trespassing citation. They had used it shamelessly whenever he needed to be somewhere else.
“He was with you all night?”
“You’re patching things up?”
Kim beamed. “Yeah.”
Back at her desk, she speed-dialed Justin. No answer. She was scattered, anxious, couldn’t get a thing done and left early, saying she wasn’t feeling well.
She made a detour to Justin’s on her way home. Finding a space across the street, she parked and watched for signs of activity. He wasn’t home. Then a taxi pulled up in front of her. Justin got out. She leapt out of her car.
“Kim,” he said, as she ran to him. “It’ll be okay now.” He kissed the top of her head. “As you can see, I’m here.”
“Will you go to her, apologize, and fix everything? It would be terrible if they found out I lied. I’m terrified ….” She hugged him tight.
“Don’t worry. Come inside.”
Kim found herself in the midst of many of the objects that belonged to them. The dining room table, the garish chandelier, the rug with funny animals she’d bargained at a garage sale and, at the end, paid next to nothing for. They sank into the sofa with the cushions that were too soft. He took her hand, wrapped her fingers around his wrist and brought them to his lips. She melted.
“What happened?” she murmured.
“Her case was weak in the first place and when you alibied me it fell apart. It was my word against hers and I was more believable.” He got up, said, “I’ll just rinse off quickly.”
She moved the coasters on the coffee table to form a triangle, as she’d always done when she cleaned. The thin blinds filtered the evening sun and a soft breeze drifted through the room. The crisis was over and she was physically back in their apartment. Amazing. She wished she hadn’t had to lie to get there though. The officers must have grilled that poor woman mercilessly. She must have been so humiliated. And where were her friends? They should have been there supporting her. They should have told the police that Justin had them over. Justin’s own friends should have told them that too.
“Why didn’t they?” she said under her breath.
She listened to the water spattering in the bathroom. Surely the police had asked and double-checked the whereabouts of the other witnesses. Then how …?
He had slipped on a silk robe. Its vibrant purple made his eyes, his complexion, irresistible. And then he smiled and the dimples appeared.
But when he sat, she raised a hand between them to keep him at bay. She said, “There’s something I don’t get. How many girls were there that night?”
“Four or five, I don’t remember.”
Her heart, a ship made of paper, was sinking. Her voice shook like she was about to cry. “Why would the police take my word over all of theirs?”
“You’re respectable, they’re a bunch of drunks.” He reached for her hair with the tip of his fingers and the stretch loosened the belt of his robe exposing part of his chest.
She brushed his hand away. It made no sense at all. Yet, Justin was there, free. The police wouldn’t take the word of an ex-girlfriend over what, ten other statements? Unless there weren’t ten people with different versions of the facts. Unless … no one had contested his alibi at all. Because … .
“There was no one else in your apartment, was there?” She said. “You lied to me.”
“It’s as I told you.” He pulled his hand back, put his elbows on his knees, looked angrily at his feet. “I haven’t asked you to do anything for me.”
A tremor, heavy disappointment riding on a wave of nausea, passed through her.
“Oh my god, Justin. You raped her! Didn’t you? And I …”
His nostrils flared. “Don’t you dare accuse me.” On a dime, the monster who had so abused her months ago was back. “I thought you were better than the others. But you’re so stupid. I’d hoped you’d changed.” He stood.
All her being screamed, “No, don’t reject me again. You don’t really mean that. I’m sorry. Please, love me.” But it was clear the last scrap of happiness had slipped away. She jolted, rushed out.
She ran down the stairs.
Longing is a fertile soil for miracles. Sure. Justin unaccountably welcoming when she’d shown up at his door, their love instantly revitalized. His need for her like in the old days, beyond her dreams. Her infatuation had primed her to shield him. But in fact he had played her perfectly, knowing she would protect him against another woman. No, there were no miracles.
As she crossed the street, she heard footsteps behind her. Justin was going to try to stop her. This time she would spurn him. Once burned, twice shy. She turned around.
She started. The old inspector was a step away.
“Are you following me?”
He laughed. “Not at all, but it’s good I’ve run into you. I have a question.”
“Come to the office tomorrow if you don’t mind. I’m in a hurry.” She unlocked the car door. She couldn’t deal with this man right now.
“Julie Bold. You know her?”
Still facing the car, she said, “She’s a client, I think.” She yanked the door open and threw her handbag onto the seat. She had to get away, into the silence of the car. Shut that door.
“She’s dead, you know.” She twitched her head around. He was looking up at Justin’s apartment. “Strangled,” he added, his eyes focused pensively on the living room window.
She got in and he closed the door. At the stop sign, she studied him in her rearview mirror. He stood, his head tilted upward, hands in his pockets, legs apart, facing Justin’s building – the posture of a man who was not to be deterred by smoke screens.
Julie, strangled to death.
Justin … unthinkable …
Once in front of her house, she struggled to find the car door handle to let herself out, and failed. A hand had plunged into her chest and was squeezing her insides, juicing out of them the humiliation of having been used like a rag to wipe his bloody fingers. Sobs shook her as if they were trying to expel a foreign body clinging pugnaciously to her rib cage. Her palms were drenched in tears. A philosopher had said, You never step in the same river twice, but she had. Like a fool she had, and she deserved what she’d got.
She cried to exhaustion. Then, a notification on her phone triggered the backlight and the wallpaper surfaced. Don’t look back, you’re not going that way.
Tomorrow, the inspector would challenge her on Justin’s alibi. Saying she loved him and he had misled her was not going to cut it. When asked if she knew Julie personally, she would have to say yes; when asked if she hated her, she would have to say yes; when asked if she wanted her dead to get Justin back, she would have to say yes. If she retracted the alibi she’d given Justin, the inspector would conclude that she had lied to protect him and maybe even had been involved in the planning of her death. Justin had counted on exactly that.
He would get away with murder. And with bamboozling her, too.
Her hands on the steering wheel, she thought of Shannon. Thank god she was coming back tomorrow. Kim needed a friend. Shannon was going to be so angry when she found out the dire situation she’d gotten herself into.
She jolted. The plants in Shannon’s office! She’d forgotten. She shoved the gearshift into reverse and backed into the street.
Twenty minutes later, she put the watering can on Shannon’s desk and sat in her chair. She fingered Shannon’s computer that housed all the security information for the company. Justin’s passwords and permissions would be in there. Kim knew Shannon’s passwords. She couldn’t back off the alibi she’d given Justin, but maybe there were other ways to deal with it. An idea was hatching. She started to type.
Her next stop was Justin’s office. As she expected, his laptop was on the desk.
The next day, Shannon was back at work. When Kim passed her office, she gestured for her to come in and close the door.
“Jesus, Kim, you bloody slept with him and I had to find out from the police.” She had a tan but her nose was peeling. Freckles had surfaced on her cheeks. She glowered at Kim. “How could you after all he’s done? I can’t believe it.”
“Haven’t you heard that Julie Bold's been murdered and he’s a suspect?”
“He can’t be. He was with me the night she died. That’s when we made up. I told the police.”
Shannon made a face. “You’re beyond the pale. Wake up. It’s no joke. They brought me to the District Attorney’s office the second my plane touched down. Showed me the documents they’d subpoenaed.” She drummed her fingers on the edge of the desk.
“You think I would lie to the police?”
“No.” Shannon cupped her chin in her hands and stared at Kim. After a pause, she said, “Remember how Justin had insisted on getting Bold’s account in the first place?”
“Well, he was smitten.”
“The police found nothing unusual in the docs. But, I wonder … .” She typed and read silently. She pushed herself away from the desk and crossed her arms, staring at the screen. “Nope, everything’s in order.”
“Shannon, you’re wasting your time. Justin’s worked here long enough to know better than to do anything obvious. Let the police do their job.”
“You’re right, he wouldn’t be obvious.” Shannon nibbled on the inside of her cheek. “But he doesn’t know everything we do in this office. Let’s pull out his recent activities,” she said and typed in esoteric commands. She eyed Kim. “He’s been busy.”
Kim dragged her chair closer to the screen to see what Shannon was pointing at. “What do you know, a login late that night.”
“That’s a mistake.” Kim touched the screen. “At 11.52PM, we were in bed.”
“You, Kim, were in bed. Looks like he got up. What could have been so urgent?” She reclined, bit her upper lip. “You remember the problem we had last year with the Roston’s will when we couldn’t find the amendment to the policy? Well, since then, I got smart. I wrote a script to locate such things that may have been misfiled. Let’s check something.” She typed, impatiently hit the backspace, inhaled, clucked her tongue, hit return. Then, a list appeared on her screen. She scrolled down.
“Look at this baby.” She highlighted a line with her cursor. “An amendment to Bold’s policy. Misfiled. The swine hid it. I can’t believe this crap.” She scrolled down further and stopped.
“He wrote himself in as Bold’s beneficiary!”
She licked the tips of her fingers and rubbed them against her thumbs, her hands moved back to the keyboard. “We have a tracking system that no one outside the security team knows about. It has geotags that will tell us the time and location of a document when it was created.” A few strokes more. Lines of technical gibberish. Shannon muttered slowly, “Kim, it was created at your place. On the 26th.”
Kim looked at her incredulously. Her voice rose a notch. “If he made changes to the policy, she must have instructed him to do it.”
“Okay, I’ll grant you that for a minute. Think, Justin knows that any policy change has to happen while the client is alive. The coroner told me that Bold died around 12.30AM. Don’t you see? Justin had to make sure the changes were in before then. So he must have known the time of her death. How in the hell do you figure he knew that?”
She paused to let it sink in. “He must have hired someone to kill her. He’s the prime suspect. With his alibi there’s nothing the police could do. Until now. With this,” – she waved to the screen – “his alibi isn’t worth shit.”
Shannon snorted. “It’s the last nail in his coffin.”
“No! It’s impossible, he wouldn’t do that. You’ve always hated him.”
“Wake up! This is proof: geotags don’t have feelings. You both swore he was at your place. No?”
Kim considered this. Shannon had been pretty drunk when she’d told her about the security backdoor. She didn’t seem to remember she’d shown her. Nor would she bring up the weakness of the system with the police when the survival of the firm depended on its ability to protect clients’ data. Her head would roll.
And of course, Shannon had Kim pegged as a pathetic woman crazed in love. She wouldn’t suspect her of anything.
Be the girl who just went for it.
Shannon shook her head. “I hope that'll get the creep out of your system, once and for all.”