Authors: Brenda Chapman
A Stonechild and Rouleau Mystery
For all the courageous hearts.
“I only ask to be free. The butterflies are free.”
— Charles Dickens
Sampson couldn’t wait for the day to end. Twelve straight hours on the phone talking students through school jitters, boyfriend troubles, and suicidal thoughts was enough to make anyone go mad. Whoever said this generation had their shit together was dreaming in Technicolor. The problems she’d worked this lot through today had left her drained. A glass of Pinot, bowl of chocolate ice cream, and soak in a hot tub were long past due.
She turned her head as Wolf skirted past her desk to flop onto the couch positioned under a line of grimy windows. Darkness pressed against the glass and she glanced at her watch.
Ten to nine.
Ten more minutes and she’d be on her way home.
She tuned back into the girl’s voice droning into her ear and waited for her to take a breath. “If he threatens to hit you again, call me back,” Leah said. “We’ll talk further about your options. It’ll be time to decide whether you want to make a change. Yes, call anytime. We’re always here to help you through.”
She wearily hung up and looked across at Wolf, his long legs stretched out on the floor in front of him. His eyes were closed.
“What have you got on for tonight?” he asked.
A question inside of a question. He was really asking if she’d ended the affair. Had she stopped slinking around behind his back?
She couldn’t risk him finding out what she’d done. Not yet.
“I’m going home,
, and putting my feet up,” she said, using both hands to refasten the clip that held her long hair away from her face. “And I’ll be in the library writing a paper tomorrow, so no chance of getting into trouble.”
Wolf’s eyes flashed open; expressive green orbs flecked with gold. They were half of the reason why he’d been nicknamed a member of the animal kingdom. The other half lay in his mane of brown hair and full beard. She could have added his animal fierceness in bed, but that was an observation she’d attempted to seal away in her memory bank. Some days with more success than others.
He nodded, a smile tugging at his lips. “I’ll walk you out if you’re ready.”
She glanced at her watch again. Four minutes after nine. “Where the hell is Gail? She’s taking over the line from me and late as usual.”
“Getting a coffee. She’ll be back in a few.”
“I can’t leave until she gets here.”
With blessed kindness, the phone remained silent until Gail traipsed in at a quarter past. Leah grimaced in her direction, but Gail ignored the rebuke just as she ignored most subtleties in life. Spiky red hair, round face, and rounder body littered with cartoon character tattoos and piercings, her style was as unapologetic as her character. Yet, Leah had to admit that Gail had a way with the callers; an empathy one couldn’t fake.
Gail balanced a coffee cup in one hand and a biology text and iPad under her arm. “How’re our loonies doing today?” she asked. “I hope they had the grace to call you and didn’t save up their anxieties for my shift.”
“Nice,” said Wolf, rubbing a hand through his beard. “If callers knew the sensitive face of Queen’s University at the other end of the help line, they might think twice about sharing their secrets with you.”
“I’m just talking about the repeat loonies who wallow in messes of their own making.” Gail dropped into the swivel chair newly vacated by Leah and scattered her possessions across the desk. “Thank God for the rule never to meet any of them. Can you imagine?”
“The regulars have all phoned in this afternoon, I think,” Leah said. “Some more than once.” She grabbed her cellphone from the desk. “We’re off then.” She turned her head so that Wolf didn’t see her face. He’d know she was hiding something. He had a sixth sense when it came to her and lying.
They exited their office in the limestone house sandwiched next to the student centre on University Avenue. A cool breeze had come up from the direction of Lake Ontario and the air smelled of rain, dank, fecund vegetation, and earth worms. The fall semester had only begun four weeks ago, but the student problems never took a break. Summer, fall, winter, spring — each season had its own emotional issues. Leah noticed the asphalt was wet in the circle of light under a streetlamp. She shivered in her light T-shirt and denim skirt. Late September had brought in a welcome Indian summer. It had been a hot day when she left for work that morning. She hadn’t thought to bring a jacket.
Wolf walked on the road side. He told her one night in bed that they’d been taught how to treat a girl in gym class: walk closest to the oncoming traffic, hold the door open, wear a condom. He’d taken it all to heart.
She’d been hurt at first when he ended their relationship. Hurt that he’d doubted her, then anger that finally resolved itself into acceptance. She’d been shocked when he told her the month before that he knew she was having an affair. It was exactly the wrong time for him to accuse her. He’d pressed for a name and she’d refused. Predictably, he’d made the leap that she was protecting a married man. She hadn’t denied it, not even when Wolf told her they had to take a break from each other. It still made her chest constrict and her eyes burn to think he didn’t want her anymore, that he could doubt her so easily. They reached a truce after a few weeks of not speaking. Now she was grateful for his brotherly presence in her life. It meant he might still come around and become something more. She just needed a bit more time.
“I’ve handed in my notice to Mark,” he said.
She stopped walking. “I hope it wasn’t because of my …”
“No,” he interrupted quickly. “Our breakup had nothing to do with my decision. I just think it’s time I got into the field. I’ve accepted a job with the Kingston Public School Board that starts next semester. I’m heading out west for a few weeks first.”
She caught up to him. “Then you’ll come back to Kingston.” For a moment, she’d feared losing him altogether.
“For now.” He turned his head sideways and grinned at her. “I’ll have an office, but will travel to different schools to work with the kids.”
“You’ll be terrific. I’m jealous.”
“When you finish next year, I can put a word in for you too.”
“I’m not sure this kind of work is for me. I’ve had doubts lately.”
“It’s the first you’ve said.”
“It’s just all the pain, you know? People and their problems that never get resolved. I think they’ve finally worn me out.”
Wolf reached an arm around her shoulders and pulled her into a hug. She let herself relax against him for a moment before pushing him away.
“I’m just thinking about it, okay? No decision yet.”
“Don’t do anything rash. You’re good at helping people, even if the results aren’t always obvious. You have empathy.”
“I just can’t distance myself.” Some of their troubles hit too close to home. She wanted to tell him about what she’d done, but couldn’t bring herself to yet. She’d crossed lines, but wouldn’t drag in anybody else. Still, her actions proved she wasn’t professional enough for this field of work.
Wolf looked down Sydenham Street toward the house where she had an apartment. It was dark along the road, a street lamp burned out near her driveway. “I could walk you to your door if you’d like.”
“I thought you were meeting someone at the pub.”
“Yeah, but they can wait.”
“I’m fine, Wolf. You go.”
“I’ll see you in a couple of days.”
“Get some rest, then.” He gave her a quick kiss on the cheek. She held onto his arm for a moment before he turned away. She would have liked to wrap her whole body around him and make things right. From the look in his eyes, she believed he wanted the same.
Leah walked briskly down Sydenham toward Johnson, chilled in her light clothing. At the walkway to the front door of the two-storey red brick house where she’d lived for the past two years, she stopped and looked back toward the corner. Wolf still stood in the shadows where the streets intersected, watching until she made it safely inside. Another gym class lesson well learned.
She smiled and waved at the same time he looked down to check his phone. She slowly lowered her hand. A feeling of sadness welled up unexpectedly. One day Wolf would find somebody else and this fragile friendship would slip away. Some things could never go back to what they were. It always went like that with the people who meant the most to her.
Sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.
She started up the short walkway toward the house and surveyed the apartment windows. Lights on the main floor were off, but Becky appeared to be home on the second. Leah’s spirits rose a bit. It looked like there’d be some company around for the weekend.
The house was built in the 1930s when front porches and bay windows were in vogue. Leah liked the old style elegance of the structure, even if time had worn the brick and peeled the paint on the wood detailing above the windows. Her one-bedroom apartment in the basement was cozy but definitely student digs. She’d filled it with IKEA furniture and her parents’ cast offs. As soon as she finished her thesis, she planned to move into a nicer place and have a yard sale. The Queen’s Help Line had promised her more hours whenever she had more time to give them. It would do until she made up her mind about the future.
The front door creaked open and she entered the hallway. An envelope lay at the base of the stairs, stark white against the grey carpet. She walked over and stooped to pick it up, flipping the envelope over to read the name as she straightened. Becky must have dropped it on her way upstairs.
Leah walked up the creaky stairs to the second floor landing and knocked on Becky’s door. She could hear music and Becky talking on the phone when she leaned her ear against the wood. She listened for a while to see if Becky would hang up. After a minute or so, Leah knocked a second time before bending to slip the letter under the door. She would have liked to share a glass of wine and a chat, so she lingered a while longer before giving up and heading downstairs. For some reason she didn’t feel like being alone this evening.
She flicked on the light switch at the head of the basement stairs and cursed as the light remained off. It was the second time the bulb had burned out within three weeks. She’d phone the landlord as soon as she got inside and get him to check the wiring. She should have insisted last time.
She stepped carefully down the steep stairwell, the light from the landing just enough to make out the outline of the steps. A mustiness seeped up from the basement concrete floor that no amount of air freshener could disguise. She’d bought a dehumidifier that helped slightly and lit a lot of incense, but it was time to start looking at apartment ads in the
. Hopefully she’d find a better place not already rented for fall term.
At the bottom of the stairs, she felt in her pocket for her keys, then slid her hand down the door to the lock. She stopped with her hand on the knob and turned her head toward the laundry room. Was that a noise she’d heard or was fatigue making her jumpy? She listened for a moment more, her heart pounding like a jackhammer. Silence filled the space and she exhaled slowly. A braver person would have gone to look, but that would not be her. She had no desire to face a rat or other vermin in the dark.
It took three fumbling tries before she unlocked the door and opened it into her apartment. She stepped inside and felt along the wall to the light switch. She smiled when the room burst into brightness. At least the wiring problem hadn’t entered her inner sanctum as she’d feared it might.
She reached back with her foot to shove the door closed. Instead of clicking shut, it swung back toward her. Her first thought was that dampness had warped the wood and the lock didn’t catch as it should. “Dammit,” she said aloud.
She turned and took a step toward the door before her legs stopped working. Her eyes widened as her brain scrambled to make sense of what she was seeing. A person dressed entirely in black filled the opening like a character out of a slasher movie. Her first thought was how absurd they looked, but horror quickly followed. The hand she’d extended toward the door handle found her mouth. She let out a shriek.
The figure stepped inside her apartment and pushed the door shut. Their eyes stayed on hers. “Did you think this was a game?”
She shook her head but comprehension dawned. Her mind was scrambling, searching frantically for toeholds. The chance of Becky hearing her scream two floors above was remote. There was no chance of pushing past the person in the narrow hallway and even less chance to make it out the closed door without being grabbed.
“I have no idea what you want,” she heard herself beg. “Please just leave.” She stumbled backward, her leg banging against the wall.
The person took a step closer, leather-gloved hands reaching toward her. Leah turned to run into the living room, knowing she was trapped with no way out.
Knowing she was in very big trouble.