"Hello, Johanna." He smiled to show her all of his perfect teeth, acting as if this meeting might be a happy chance encounter and not an ambush, not a defiance of the court order to keep him at a distance.
Did he seem a little jittery--just on the verge of a tic or a twitch? She looked through him, then passed him by on her way back to the black van.
He walked alongside her, keeping his tone light, fighting down all the high notes of runaway anxiety. "You're looking well."
"Still alive, you mean, and you're wondering why."
"No, seriously, I think physical labor agrees with you," he said. "But I suppose this new line of work is your idea of penance."
Much could be read into that clumsy little barb, perhaps some desperate situation coming to a head. Johanna's bent posture had made her a student of footwear, and now she gleaned more from his shoes than his words. The black leather was, as always, fanatically shiny, but both laces had been broken and repairs effected with knots. The man was coming undone.
She raised her face to his, not bothering to hide her contempt. "You don't look well, Argus. You seem a little shaky today. Under a lot of stress?" Did that sound like a taunt, like getting even? She hoped so. "And you're losing weight."
He dismissed this with a wave of one hand, saying, "Long hours." He drew back his shoulders in an effort to appear larger and less the nervous rabbit. Eyebrows arched, he folded his arms to strike a condescending pose, exuding an arrogance that invited every passerby to punch him in the face.
"I met your boss today." Argus staged a pause. "We had a long talk about you."
"Really?" That was unlikely, for Riker was tight with his words. And so she could surmise that this lie was an implied threat. Yes, Argus would want her to worry about what he might have shared with her employer. She stared at him, wondering, How frightened are you?
"That guy Riker, he's a heavy drinker, isn't he? Yeah," said Argus. "Couldn't help but notice. You can tell by the eyes, all those red veins." He was still pressing what he believed was his advantage over her. A few seconds of silence dragged by before he realized that she was not at all threatened, and neither was she inclined to banal conversation. The man looked up at the sky, unwilling to meet her steady gaze anymore.
"He tried to grill me on your background." The old familiar pomposity was back in his voice. "I could tell Riker was an ex-cop by his interrogation style. They never lose that, do they? On or off the job, they can never have just a normal conversation. I figure he doesn't know the first thing about you, Johanna. That or you fed him some fairy tale-and he knows it." Argus smiled, awaiting praise for this insight. Failing in that, he flicked imaginary lint from the sleeve of his coat. "Of course, I didn't tell him anything. Not who I was or what I-"
"So you lied to him. You think Riker didn't pick up on that?" She swung her body up into the driver's seat and slouched deep into worn upholstery that received the hump on her back like a cupped hand. She faced the windshield.
Marvin Argus rushed his words. "Does your boss know-"
"I told Riker my history was none of his damn business." She slammed the door and put the van in gear.
Argus reached up and gripped the door handle, as if that could prevent her from driving away. He yelled to be heard through the rolled-up window. "Johanna! About Timothy! Did you believe him--while he was still alive?"
If the man had held on to the van another moment, he would have lost his hand when she pulled into the street. Johanna pressed the accelerator pedal to the floor and sped toward the broad avenue at the end of the street. She passed through a red light amid the screech and squeal of braking cars and a cabdriver's hollered obscenities.
From Dead Famous by Carol O'Connell, copyright © 2003 Carol O'Connell, published by G.P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., all rights reserved, reprinted with permission from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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