Sylvia Powell gave the unknown man one last smile as he turned and walked towards his car in the underground parking garage. The outer smile was for show only, independent of the inner smile that threatened to burst into silent laughter. She hadn't given him the full treatment. It was the end of a long day, a long week, and she didn't have the energy for it. She had used the "I'm sure we'll meet again" line along with the smile, eliciting the predictable reaction -- he had taken his dismissal in good grace, returning the smile, and was now disappearing from sight around the corner, no doubt imagining that she was interested, that likely she would agree to a date the next time their paths crossed in the elevator. She stopped short of asking him for his phone number, as she sometimes did when she was in a more playful mood. She loved visualizing a man sitting by his phone, awaiting the call she had assured him would come soon. She wondered how many days he would hold his breath before deciding the call would never come.
The smile melted, no longer needed. Tomorrow, she decided. Too tired tonight. Tomorrow I'll try that new bar, what was the name? Le Monde, that was it. The usual game. Flirt with a man. See how long it takes to spot the signs of a hard-on inside his pants. Breathily suggest the short trip to her apartment. Excuse herself for a quick trip to the ladies' room -- I'll only be a second, dear, I promise. Leave the bar by the back or side door, which she'd scouted in advance. Afterwards, at home, turn off the lights and rub herself to a fierce orgasm, laughing and screaming with pleasure simultaneously, wondering if he was still waiting for her to come out of the ladies'. Wondering if he was still hard.
She wasn't sure why she preferred the lights off. It just seemed to work better for her in the dark. It intensified her orgasms somehow. It seemed she was able to visualize the scene better -- the bar, the man shifting uncomfortably in his seat as he waited, perhaps tapping his foot in impatience for her return -- when there were no competing visual distractions.
Sylvia brushed a strand of her coal-black hair away from her eyes. She smiled again. The man in the elevator had seemed quite taken with her hair, his eyes frequently shifting up to it. She knew her hair and eyebrows were striking, and she found that men's eyes often started at her hair before being magnetically drawn to her cleavage.
The parking garage was stuffy and hot, as always in this season. Sylvia hated summer, especially July. She sighed and began walking to her own car. She was so glad it was Friday. A little time to relax before another crushing week started. Depositions in the conference room all day Monday. Over the weekend she should spend some time preparing her opening statement for the court case on Tuesday. She smiled exhaustedly. Well, some fun tomorrow night, anyway.
Have to have a word with Judy Sokol on Monday, too. Ever since Judy had returned from the hospital at the start of this week, she'd seemed only half there. Her work as Sylvia's legal secretary was suffering. Yesterday Sylvia had seen her sitting at her desk, staring off into space when she was supposed to be typing a legal brief. The girl had even forgotten, for an hour, to pass along a phone message to Sylvia, from a famously impatient client. If Judy couldn't do her work at her usual level of efficiency...
Sylvia would have to think about what sort of threat to use. It wasn't easy to fire an employee without repercussions. Especially if there was a medical issue involved. Judy still had not filed the required forms noting which hospital she had been in and the dates of her stay there. The way she'd been behaving, both before and after her hospitalization, Sylvia suspected depression was involved. Very likely some psychiatric care.
Funny how people who think God is out there to help them still get depressed, thought Sylvia. Sylvia didn't believe in God, but she knew Judy did. Sylvia had often seen that little crucifix Judy habitually wore on a necklace. Not helping much now, is it, Judy?
Poor mousy Judy, with her shapeless brown hair and her Walmart clothes. About three inches shorter than Sylvia, yet somehow seeming much smaller, her face not quite plain but not quite cute. Sylvia wondered what Judy did for fun. Somehow she couldn't quite associate the word "fun" with Judy.
Sylvia's knee-length skirt swished as she walked, her clicking heels echoing on the hard concrete of the parking garage floor. She could never understand the predilection among female lawyers for pant suits. Didn't they understand how important it was to use the body they'd been born with? Sylvia always wore a skirt, to reveal her legs, and a white or cream-colored blouse of silk-like material, better than real silk for Atlanta's hot, humid weather, partly unbuttoned to the extent of showing that hint of cleavage, a small glimpse of the curve of her upper breasts, pushed up by her half-cup bra. She considered it essential, when dealing with judges, with opposing counsel, with witnesses against her clients, that her clothes should complement her own natural sexuality. If the men she dealt with lost their concentration amid fantasies of being in bed with her, if the women were intimidated to the point they could barely squeak out a nervous word, it made her job so much easier. There was so little difference, in a career in the law, between a lawyer making millions and one who could barely afford the office rent. Sylvia needed every advantage she could get. At thirty-two, Sylvia had her own successful private law practice, with four associates working for her. She knew what it took to succeed in this world.
Sylvia reached into her purse for her key ring. As she removed it from her purse, she felt a vague unease. Something seemed wrong, but she wasn't sure what it was.
She sighed again. I'm probably just losing my mind, she decided. Nothing major. She ignored the internal disquiet, depressed the small button on the key ring, and was rewarded by the cheerful chirp and deep clacking indicating the unlocking of her car doors.
Suppressing a groan that signaled to her that she was even more tired than she'd thought, she threw her purse onto the passenger seat and curled herself into the driver's seat. In a single motion she thrust the key into the ignition and turned it, listening for a moment as her engine settled into its customary soft purr.
Every muscle in her body suddenly contracted in reaction to an unexpected sound from behind her. Her heart pounding from the adrenaline rush, she started to turn, but even before she could, she saw, in the rear-view mirror, a shape rising from behind the seats. Inside the car!
She felt a moment of pride in her reaction. Reflexively, without panic, her hand shot towards her purse, seeking the can of Mace it contained.
Behind her a voice, so raspy and choked with emotion that she did not immediately recognize it, said, "Looking for this?" Sylvia looked in the mirror again. A feminine hand, wearing a white glove, held the spray can high enough for her to see.
Sylvia reached for the door handle, with a hand now shaking so badly she couldn't immediately get a grip on it. She froze suddenly, as a mental playback in her mind finally told her whose voice had just spoken.
Her jaw dropped. Slowly, making a supreme effort to keep the trembling out of her voice, but unable to force it down from an unusually high pitch, she said... "Judy?"
Sylvia couldn't see the humor in it, but some sort of joke this surely must be. An ill-considered office prank. Well, Sylvia thought, this could easily serve as grounds for firing. Problem solved. In the biting voice Sylvia used to break down witnesses in the courtroom, she asked coldly, "How did you get in here?"
Judy sat up straighter, showing her face in the mirror. Her hair was rumpled, from the blanket she'd used to cover herself, lying in wait on the floorboards in front of the rear seat. Sylvia merely noted that fact in passing, something glimpsed before she'd locked onto Judy's eyes. Something Sylvia had never seen before in Judy was peering out from behind those eyes. They were unnaturally bright, with excitement bordering on hysteria.
Judy spoke again, her voice more recognizable now but still unusually taut. She sounded out of breath, as if she'd just finished sprinting around the block. "I got your keys out of your purse during one of your bathroom breaks. And this." She waved the can of Mace again. "I left the rear window rolled down so I could climb back in after I brought your keys back. I nearly went nuts waiting for you to take another break later so I could put them back in your purse. I started thinking you weren't going to."
That was what had been wrong! Sylvia had found her keys at the very top of her purse! It was impossible that they would be there. They should, at the very least, have been underneath her day planner, the small notebook as important as her life's blood to her. Not to mention any number of other things Sylvia had used during the day. Why couldn't I think of that? she moaned to herself. I would at least have taken a lot more careful look inside the car before I got in.
In that same cold courtroom voice, Sylvia said, "Judy, get out of my car now. We can talk about this Monday."
With a rustle of movement, Judy lowered the Mace can and lifted something else into view. Sylvia ordered herself to stay calm, but a squeak of fear escaped her throat as she saw the gun. A Magnum. The thing would put a hole in her head bigger than her fist, Sylvia knew. "I think we should talk now, Miss Powell." Judy had never called her anything else, but always before with respect for the employer/employee relationship. It came out now as more of a taunt.
Maybe that's the reason she's wearing gloves, thought Sylvia. Fingerprints. But why keep prints off your own gun? Sylvia sat still for a moment, reestablishing control over herself, then reached again for the door handle. If I move fast enough, she told herself, I'll be a hard target to hit.
Judy reacted instantly, as if she'd foreseen the move, suddenly pressing the gun hard into Sylvia's neck. She said only one word, almost calmly: "Don't."
Sylvia froze once more. There would be better opportunities later, she was sure. This wasn't the time. She waited as she worked once more to hold off the trembling, then asked, "What do you want, Judy?"
Judy pulled the gun away, and sat back in her seat. "First, reach over to your purse slowly, pick it up by the side without reaching in, and toss it back to me."
Sylvia almost laughed. "Are you kidding me? This is a robbery? Judy, if you've got some sort of financial emergency, we could work something out without all this drama..."
Judy did laugh. "This isn't about money. I want to turn your cell phone off so there won't be any records of where we've gone if somebody calls you."
"We're... going somewhere?" This, thought Sylvia, can't possibly be good.
"First things first." Judy again pressed the gun against Sylvia's neck. "Just move really slowly."
"Okay, okay." There is nothing I can possibly do right now, thought Sylvia, other than what she is saying to do. Opportunities may arise later, she told herself again. Sylvia leaned, as required, slowly over to the passenger seat, squeezed the side of the purse between her thumb and forefinger, and handed it back to Judy, her heart thumping wildly.
Judy, still holding the gun against Sylvia's neck and not looking away, reached into the purse with her other hand and located the phone by feel. Flipping it open, she powered it off -- Sylvia could see the light wink out -- and tossed it casually back into the purse. "Now drive us out of here. I'll tell you where to go."
"I... thought you said you wanted to talk."
"Not now. Just drive."
Sylvia hesitated, mulling over possible alternatives. As there were none, she put the car in gear and backed out of the parking space. Shifting into Drive, she started the car moving towards the exit.
The commonplace act of driving the car calmed her a bit. It was easier to speak. "I'll need my garage card to get us out of here. It's in my purse."
"We can use mine. I'll hand it to you when you need it. And don't think about yelling for help to anybody on the sidewalk or in the street. This thing will kill you even if I fire it through the back of your seat."
"In front of witnesses, Judy? Even I couldn't get you out of a murder rap then. Whatever this is about, is it worth going to prison for?"
"I'd shoot myself right after. You need to believe I'm serious, Sylvia," she said, using Sylvia's first name for the first time. "Look at me if you don't."
Sylvia gasped to see, in the mirror, Judy now sitting with the barrel of the gun in her own mouth, her thumb tapping the trigger lightly, almost playfully. Judy raised her eyebrows, and lisped around the gun, "Thee, I'm not thcared of it. But you thould be." The corners of Judy's lips curled upward in a calm smile.
Sylvia jerked the steering wheel to avoid scraping the rear bumper of a parked car. After renewed efforts at voice control, she managed to get out, "B-But if I do what you want, then you won't kill me, right?" Dammit, she thought, no more stammering.
Judy put the gun back in her lap, aimed forward. "If you do everything I want. I promise you can live through this, but only if you do exactly what I tell you. Here." She handed forward the garage card. "Head towards the interstate after we get out."
Sylvia rolled down her window and reached out to swipe the card through the reader at the gate. As the gate raised itself, she started to drive out, stopping suddenly as two pedestrians walked right in front of the car. Sylvia watched helplessly as they both looked at her incuriously and moved on. Sylvia moved the car through a break in the foot traffic and made a right into the street.
Judy reached for the garage card. Sylvia handed it to her. "Judy, if this isn't about money, then what is it about? If you're in some kind of trouble, we can talk about it without..."
"I'm not in any trouble. I worked all that out. This is all about what you did to me."
Sylvia searched her brain, tossing around memories as if ransacking her bedroom closet for a crucial pair of shoes. "What do you mean? What did I do to you?"
"I'll help you out. Christmas party."
There seemed to be no useful memories in the closet. "What happened at the Christmas party?"
"You, with Peter. In the Xerox room."
"With..." Sylvia's blood ran cold suddenly. Had Judy misinterpreted a little harmless fun? Sylvia remembered asking Judy's six-foot-six husband Peter to help her retrieve the envelope down from a high shelf, in which she'd hidden the bonus checks for the associates and staff. It was either that or climb up on a stool. Sylvia had a preference for getting men to do things for her. It was never hard. "Judy, I don't know what you think you saw. But nothing happened."
"From your point of view, maybe. I saw that kiss." Judy's voice was becoming progressively more hoarse with unspent emotions.
Okay, Sylvia thought, yes, I kissed him. A minor reward for a job well done. Always leave them wanting more, that was Sylvia's motto. A single kiss could stir up male fantasies that would run for years. Okay, she'd been a little playful about it. That was all part of the game. Running her fingers along his necktie, kidding him about how great it must be to be so tall, then pulling him gently towards her by the tie, with that look in her eyes, her lips parting, the universal signal. Their lips meeting softly. "So I kissed him! People do it all the time, for God's sake! It doesn't mean anything."
"It wasn't just you kissing him! He kissed you! I know his body language better than anybody. He wanted you! Right then, right there, he wanted you!" She gestured with the gun. "Here's the interstate. Get on it. North."
Sylvia was silent as she negotiated the entrance ramp and merged into the crawling Atlanta rush-hour traffic. Friday was always the worst. Settling into the right-hand lane, she said softly, "I would never try to take him away from you. It was just a little harmless flirt."
"You're still talking about it the way you saw it. I saw something else. I saw the man of my dreams, the man who pledged his life to mine, the man who looked at me the way nobody ever had... I saw him look at you that way. Wanting you. And acting on it! He kissed you!" Judy's voice began to quaver. "You... you could have any man you want. With your face, your body. There are so many out there who don't belong to anybody. Why did you have to take mine?" Sylvia could see Judy palming the tears out of her eyes.
"Judy, I didn't..." Sylvia frantically sought for a way to put this in some sort of reasonable perspective for Judy, her foot suddenly flying to the brake in near panic as the line of cars in front of her slowed unexpectedly. "Have... Have you talked to Peter about this?"
Judy rolled her eyes, the tears giving way to anger once more. "For four months in therapy, that's about all we did talk about. Till he got sick of hearing about it. We're separated now. And I've been in the hospital for major depression." She giggled suddenly, the last thing Sylvia expected to hear. "My therapist told me I should make plans for the future. So I did. I planned all this out."
Before she could call the words back, Sylvia blurted, "Judy, this is just crazy!"
Judy simply raised the gun back into Sylvia's view in the mirror, still pointed at the back of Sylvia's seat. "Yeah. Probably so. Now just shut up for a while and concentrate on driving. If you get us in an accident and we have to stop, I'll just have to shoot you." She waggled the gun.
Sylvia cautiously stole a look at the car in the lane to her left. Just a driver, no passengers, and he was watching the cars ahead of him. He couldn't see the gun from where he was in any case. Sylvia couldn't decide whether she wanted him to. She wished someone could help her, but wasn't sure how to solicit it without being killed. Anything she did had to take into account that Judy herself was suicidal. She had to assume Judy would kill her without hesitation, regardless of consequences to herself.
Sylvia sighed heavily and did as Judy asked: she focused on driving.
As traffic began to ease, Sylvia knew she had to try again. "Judy, for what it's worth... I would never have taken him. I'd never purposely try to break up a marriage, and..."
Judy, who had appeared nearly relaxed, suddenly stiffened. "That's not it! Didn't you get what I said? It's not about whether you wanted him. You made him want you! That's what you do! I've seen you!" Sylvia could see Judy's face redden in the mirror, felt her own heart renew its heavy pounding as Judy raised the gun back into view. "I said I won't kill you if you do what I say, but I should! I should!"
Sylvia's entire body tensed, waiting for the shot. She caught herself closing her eyes, and forced them open again, jerking the steering wheel to correct a drift into the next lane, to the accompaniment of a blaring horn from her left.
Breathing hard, she watched Judy carefully, and saw Judy struggling equally hard to control herself. It wasn't until Judy sat back again that Sylvia could let her taut shoulder muscles begin to relax.
In the mirror, Sylvia now saw that Judy was looking out the window at the passing scenery, her expression neutral. Sylvia ventured a cautious, "Could you tell me where we're going, Judy?"
Judy was silent for a time sufficient to make Sylvia doubt Judy had heard her. At last, without looking away from the window, Judy said in a calm, barely audible voice, "My parents named me Judith. It's from the Bible. The story of Judith. Do you know that story, Sylvia?"
Sylvia bit her lip. "I... don't really know the Bible the way I probably should."
Judy nodded, as if expecting that answer. Then she looked at Sylvia, and said in the same voice, "She was a killer."
Sylvia gripped the steering wheel tightly enough to leave dents. Is this it? Sylvia asked herself. Has Judy calmed down because the shoot-Sylvia-now side has won the argument inside her? She's decided she has the Bible on her side?
Judy made no move, and looked away again at last.
It took Sylvia much longer to relax this time. I make my living with words, she thought, but I can't find any here. I can talk to juries, I can talk to judges, to opposing lawyers. I can always find the words to make things go my way. But it's always because people are rational. I know what buttons to push, she told herself, when I know people will react rationally. I can't find the words when the slightest wrong one will set off a crazy lady with a gun pointed at me.
Just shut up for now, she decided. That's how to stay alive.