On July twenty-fifth, Darcy McDaniel lost her house, her husband and her self-respect. Then things really went downhill.
Looking back, she should have known something was up. After all, her husband, Warren, hoarded money like a survivalist hoards ammo, yet he made reservations at a five‑star resort in Cancún, handed her airline tickets, told her to grab her friend Carolyn, and live it up for a week. As he hustled her out the door, Darcy remembered thinking that even though he was fifty-seven, he was still a little young for senility. Unfortunately, she took his sudden generosity as a good thing, and that was about as far as her thought process on the matter went.
She and Carolyn spent a glorious week in Cancún. Scantily‑clad waiters brought them pitchers of margaritas while they lolled in beach chairs and dragged their toes in the sand. They ate the most superb gourmet food, had spa treatments involving hot rocks, cold compresses and Alonzo's magical hands, and soaked up enough sun to give their skin a healthy glow without turning it into lizard hide.
After flying back to Dallas, they air kissed and promised to make a trip to Mexico an annual tradition. Darcy hopped into her Mercedes Roadster, put down the top, and sped out of long‑term parking at DFW. She jacked up the radio and savored the last moments of her vacation before going home to Warren.
At four-thirty in the afternoon, the Texas sun beat down on her shoulders like a blow torch, but she liked the feel of the wind tossing her hair and the appreciative smiles of the men she zipped past, some of them young enough to be her...younger brothers. She smiled back, knowing they figured she was thirty, tops. Actually, she was thirty-nine, with the big 4‑0 only a few weeks away. She surprised herself by not caring about that. Thanks to her personal trainer, her hair colorist, and the miracle that was Botox, it was a secret no one ever had to know.
She stopped at Doggie Domain to pick up Pepé, who was delighted to see her. The tap, tap, tap of his tiny toenails, along with his buggy little eyes staring up at her adoringly, made her heart melt. She scooped him up and rubbed her cheek over his silky hair, inhaling the aroma of vanilla‑scented doggie shampoo. Long‑haired Chihuahuas weren't any less neurotic than short‑haired ones, but all that hair did help cushion the frantic beating of their little hearts. Still, Pepé's was thumping even faster than normal, because it always freaked him out a little to be away from home. But since Warren didn't communicate well with other species, letting Pepé stay with people who spoke Dog‑‑particularly Dog with a Mexican accent‑‑was better for all concerned.
By the time Darcy reached Plano, it was nearly five o'clock. She drove down Preston Road, which was flanked by immaculate strip shopping centers, restaurants, and movie theaters. Everything in Plano was brand new and squeaky clean, unless of course you crossed Central Expressway into crappy old east Plano, which was what Plano used to be before it became home base for a substantial segment of corporate America. Over there you'd better have a damned good car alarm and hang onto your wallet with both hands. She'd grown up in east Plano, so she knew for a fact it was a good place to be from.
A few minutes later, Darcy was motoring down Briarwood Lane, heading for her house at the end of the block. On either side of the street, huge two‑story brick houses stood as monuments to upward mobility, with massive front doors inset with etched glass, arched windows, pristine landscaping and a swimming pool in every back yard. Coming home to a place she loved after a week of being pampered put her in such a fabulous mood that when Warren got home, she was going to hand him a glass of water and a little blue pill and show him her appreciation. She swung into the alley, then pulled into her driveway, hit the garage door opener, and got a shock.
Two unfamiliar cars sat in the garage.
Her first thought was that since Warren had a thing for cars, he'd done a little buying or trading while she was out of town. That theory might have held water, except one of the cars was a Buick sedan and the other a Ford Explorer, and Warren would never have bought any vehicles so painfully ordinary.
Houseguests? While she was away?
She grabbed Pepé and got out of the car. On her way through the garage to the back door, she noticed a car seat in the back of the SUV.
Houseguests with kids?
She went inside and set Pepé down. He trotted off with a jingle of dog tags. When she rounded the corner into the kitchen, she got another surprise. Four strangers sat at her breakfast room table.
And Warren was nowhere in sight.
Odd little chills snaked up her spine. She put her handbag on the kitchen counter. Several boxes sat along one wall, a few of them standing open. She had no idea what that was all about.
She feigned a friendly smile. "Uh...hello?"
A thirty-something man in a rumpled Polo shirt was holding up a forkful of pasta, as if he'd stopped mid‑bite when he heard her come in. The nondescript woman beside him looked equally dumbstruck, an expression which exaggerated the frown lines around her mouth. The ponytailed preschool girl kicked her feet back and forth and blinked curiously. The baby sitting in a high chair smashed a graham cracker in his fist, then deposited the crumbs all over Darcy's marble tile floor.
The man stood up, his brows drawing together like dueling caterpillars. "Who are you?"
Darcy eased back, feeling a little defensive. Wasn't she the one who should be asking that question?
"You must be friends of Warren's," she said.
"Warren?" the man said. "Warren McDaniel?"
"Yes. I'm his wife, Darcy."
At first Darcy took his surprise to mean that he thought a woman her age‑‑you know, thirty‑‑couldn't possibly be married to a man as old as Warren. Most people thought that. Even she thought that. But something else lurked behind this man's confusion.
"Yes," she said carefully. "His wife. Didn't he tell you he was married?"
After the man and his wife exchanged a few more of those stunned looks, he cleared his throat. "Actually, he..."
The man swallowed hard, his Adam's apple bobbing wildly. "He told us you were...uh..."
Darcy went totally still. It took a full ten seconds for her even to comprehend the word, then another five or so to find her voice. "Warren told you I was dead?"
"Yes. He said there was a car accident in Cancún. Those Mexican cab drivers, you know. It was very, uh...tragic."
Tragic? Tragic? The only tragedy here was just how delusional these people were. Or maybe it was Warren who was delusional.
Or maybe she really was dead.
For a moment Darcy actually considered the thought that The Sixth Sense might be more than just escapist entertainment. Still, she was quite certain she hadn't gone to heaven in the backseat of a Mexican cab. Now, she had taken a spill off a jet ski and sucked in a little surf, but she'd made it back to the beach still breathing. And she'd driven home from the airport, hadn't she? Everyone knew if a dead person tried to drive, his hands passed right through the steering wheel. She'd seen Ghost. That mind over matter thing was way harder than it looked.
No, the problem here wasn't her death or lack of it, but the fact that she didn't know who the hell these people were, not to mention the fact that her husband was missing in action.
"Where's Warren?" she asked.
When they shrugged, she felt her confusion melt into frustration, which oozed into annoyance. Finally she just let it loose.
"Excuse me, but...who are you people?"
She spoke a little louder than she'd intended to, and they recoiled as if she'd physically shoved them. The baby stopped littering her breakfast room floor, screwing up his face as if he were going to cry. Pepé's buggy little eyes grew even buggier. The woman fiddled with the silver bracelet she wore and deferred to her husband. When he shot her a helpless look, she turned back to Darcy, shrugging weakly.
"I guess with you being, you know, dead and all, your husband didn't tell you he..."
"Sold the house."
A woozy feeling overcame her. Warren sold the house. The words whacked the outside of her skull, trying desperately to get through. Entry was denied.
"We had to make a decision quickly," the man said, "but we were ready to buy, and it was such a steal, especially with all the contents thrown in. This big house at the price he was asking...well, you understand. We couldn't say no."
Darcy started to shake a little, sure she was going to be sick. But she managed to hold up her palms, laughing a little in that way people do when they know there has to be some mistake. "There has to be some mistake," she said, in case they missed the laugh.
"No," the man said. "No mistake. I can show you the closing papers."
The guy dug through a kitchen drawer and produced a stack of legal‑sized paper and shoved it at her. She saw only one thing clearly before her vision went all blurry. Warren's signature.
Good God, he'd actually done it.
She started to shout, This is my house, too! How could he sell it without my signature?
Then she remembered the papers she'd signed fourteen years ago before they got married, the ones that short‑circuited Texas's community property laws. Warren had the right to do anything he wanted to with this house, and she couldn't do a thing about it.
Consciousness seemed to fade a little, leaving her dazed and confused. Then a horrendous thought jerked her back to reality.
"Where are my things?" she said, her voice rising with panic. "My clothes? My shoes? My jewelry?"
The woman and her husband exchanged those glances again.
"He took your jewelry with him," the woman said, "but he left everything else. So this morning we called Goodwill‑‑"
Darcy actually screamed. Or, at least, she thought she did, but it was hard to tell when the world was moving in slow motion and her head felt as if it were underwater where loud voices tend to get muffled.
She raced to the front entry and scrambled up the stairs, images of street people filling her mind. She saw them huddled in doorways wearing her Emilio Pucci pants and smoking Camel nonfilters. Stretched out on park benches, using her Gucci jackets as pillows. Carrying drug paraphernalia in her Fendi bag. And whatever clothes of hers they weren't wearing were stuffed inside rusty shopping carts, suffocating beneath something flowered and polyester from the Kathie Lee Collection.
Darcy went into the master bedroom and threw open the closet door. It was like looking into an eclipse, because she was blinded by the most pedestrian clothing she'd ever seen. Cotton T‑shirts. Sneakers and flip‑flops. Enough denim that Levi Strauss had to be feeling the shortage. They were clothes only a mother could love‑‑the mother downstairs with the husband and two kids and the title to Darcy's house.
She ran to the jewelry box on her dresser and yanked open the door. It was empty. Visions of pawn shops danced in her head, their grimy glass cases displaying her gold Lacroix bracelet, her diamond chandelier earrings, her Cartier watch. As she stood there sucking in sharp, horrified breaths and gaping at the black hole where her jewelry used to be, the truth finally sank in.
It was gone. Everything was gone. What the hell had Warren done to her?
Strangely, it hadn't occurred to her yet to question the why of the situation. She was still dealing with the what, when, where and how. She ran back down the stairs and wheeled around to the living room, where she spied the French art deco vase she'd gotten at the Moonsong Gallery on McKinney Street. Whatever Warren's plans were, they clearly didn't include her, so when it hit home that she'd gone from having everything to having nothing, she was determined that she wasn't leaving this house without something.
She grabbed the vase and stuck it under her arm. She took the silver candlesticks from the mantle, plunked them inside the vase, and grabbed the Waterford clock from the end table. She spied the wine rack in the dining room and started toward it, intending to snatch the bottle of 1996 Penfolds Grange Shiraz that these people were going to drink over her dead body.
She had to hand it to the new homeowners. They knew temporary insanity when they saw it, and they were smart enough to back off and call 911. But that didn't slow Darcy down. She knew she was slipping off the deep end, but she was caught in one of those weird out‑of‑body experiences where she was watching herself doing something stupid but couldn't stop. She told them she didn't care what Warren had done. She didn't care if they had a ream of closing papers. She didn't care what kind of evil prenuptial agreement she'd signed. The things in this house were hers, and she wasn't letting them go without a fight.
Just when she was wishing for a third hand so she could grab the Tarkay serigraph off the wall, she heard a rapid‑fire knock at the door.
Plano's finest had arrived.
Cop number one was an older guy who looked like a hound dog minus the floppy ears. Cop number two was a cute young guy who'd been there a couple of times when their security alarm had gone off by mistake. He'd been friendly beyond the call of duty, giving her a few suggestive smiles in spite of the fact that he wore a wedding ring. Now he was looking at her as if she were a crazed asylum escapee. But that was only fair, because she was feeling a little differently about him, too. Those other times, she'd noticed how cute his legs looked in his summer cop shorts and the way his green eyes sparkled by the light of her foyer chandelier. Now she saw the Gestapo coming to drag her kicking and screaming from her home.
After getting the gist of the situation, the cops managed to pry everything away from her but the bottle of wine, and she had a death grip on that. The new homeowners just shoved her handbag at her and waved at the cops to take her away, figuring it was more important to get rid of the crazy woman than it was to have a nice red with dinner.
She scooped up Pepé on her way out the door. Young cop escorted her to her car while old cop spoke to the new homeowners. He came back a few minutes later to tell her that the people had no desire to press charges in spite of the way she'd behaved, as long as she swore she would never step foot in their house again. She countered that the prenup she'd signed didn't cover the things in the house she and Warren had bought since they were married, so he had no right to sell them. Old cop said fine, but that was something that had to be sorted out between her lawyer and her husband's, and for now it would be best if she just left the neighborhood.
Darcy's hands shook as she started her car and backed out of the driveway. She drove down the alley and swung back onto Briarwood Lane just in time to see the cops take a left onto Thornberry. As soon as they were out of sight, she did a one‑eighty in the cul‑de‑sac and headed back down the street, stopping at the curb to have one last look at her house.
Her house? It wasn't her house.
It had never been her house.
At that moment, she wished Mercedes Benz had taken luxury one step further and installed a corkscrew in the dashboard. Then again, it was probably a good thing they hadn't, or she'd be chugging that two‑hundred‑dollar bottle of wine like a can of Old Milwaukee.
Okay. She had to get a grip. Talk to Warren. Find out why he'd done this to her. She pulled out her cell phone and called Warren's office to talk to his secretary. If anyone would know where he was, Lucy would. She was an earthy little woman utterly lacking in fashion sense, which gave her that much more room in her brain for things like efficiency and professionalism and organizational skills. So Darcy was surprised when the woman greeted her sounding a little befuddled. She told Darcy she hadn't seen Warren for the past two days, and he had a client presentation this afternoon. Did she have any idea where he was?
Stunned, Darcy hung up the phone. This couldn't be happening. Warren had kissed his job goodbye, along with that big, beautiful paycheck?
That led her to another thought that made her even queasier than before. Warren could subsist a long time on the profit from the house, but not in the style to which he was accustom. But if he piled a few more assets on top of it...
Darcy called an information operator, who then connected her to their bank. She asked about their checking accounts. The perky little clerk on the other end informed her that all three of them had been cleaned out and closed two days ago.
Darcy's stomach did a slow, sickening heave, and she had to swallow hard to get rid of the feeling that she was going to throw up. She yanked out her credit cards, flipping one of them over so she could dial the 800 number on the back. The customer service rep informed her that recent large purchases plus a big cash advance had run the card right up to its limit.
No. Not her credit cards. Please God, not her credit cards.
She knew it was pointless, but she called about the others, too. Same story. Now she knew the whole ugly, painful truth: Warren was a one‑man demolition team hell bent on destroying her life.
Darcy gripped the steering wheel so hard her fingers ached, taking deep breaths to drive oxygen back to her brain so she wouldn't keel over onto the passenger seat. Not one dime of cash was left, not one dollar of open credit. Warren had all kinds of other investments, but she didn't have a clue what they were.
As if he'd left any of them for her.
Glancing back at the house, she saw a tear‑clouded image of Ward and June peeking out the plantation shutters, clearly wondering if she was on the verge of going nuts and taking hostages. That led her to yet another revelation. They would be sleeping in her bed tonight. She wouldn't.
Despair edged into panic. Where was she supposed to go now?
She thought about her friends, only to realize that most of them weren't really friends at all. They were women she went to lunch with, women she shopped with, women she went to Cancún with while her husband was yanking her life out from under her. But they weren't really friends if she was afraid not to show up to something for fear she'd be the one they talked about. Carolyn was the only one she'd even consider staying with, but her husband didn't like her friends dropping by for coffee, much less moving in.
Finally she realized that outside of a homeless shelter, there was only one place she could go that wouldn't cost her money or cause unnecessary gossip in the circles she and Warren ran in. And the thought of it made a shudder undulate down her spine.
You've got no choice. It's that or share a bathroom with forty other women.
She wiped her eyes so she could see to drive, then started her car. She left her neighborhood and drove down Preston Road. When she reached Park Boulevard, she gritted her teeth, turned left and headed toward east Plano.
Ten minutes later she drove into Wingate Manufactured Home Park, her eyes still so clouded with tears that the place almost looked habitable. She pulled to the side of the road in front of the double‑wide on lot 38G, a vinyl‑clad structure with plastic shutters and a limp metal awning. A pot of pink geraniums sat beside the front door, wilting in the heat, and Christmas lights drooped over the picture window in the living room. Clayton, take down the damned lights, her mother would say, and her father would say, not if I'm gonna have to put them up again next year.
Darcy sat in the car a long time, unable to bear going inside, overcome by the most terrible feeling that she had come full circle when all she'd ever wanted to do was stay put halfway around.
* * *
When John Stark looked up from his desk to find himself staring down the barrel of a gun, he really wasn't all that surprised. From the moment the kid had walked into his office, his swaggering gait and screw you expression said he had more bravado than brains, and that was always a reason for a heads‑up.
As usual, John's instincts had been right on target.
"So whatcha think now, repo man?" the kid said, holding the gun at a ninety‑degree angle with his elbow locked, like every gang‑banger in every B‑grade movie ever made. "Still think I need to make up those back payments? Huh? Or are you gonna give me back my damned car?"
John let out a silent sigh. If anyone else had been in the office, the kid might have thought twice about pulling this crap. But Tony was out on a repossession, Amy had left for class, and the floozy of a clerk John had hired a few days ago wouldn't have been much help even if he hadn't fired her this afternoon. Then again, maybe she could have asphyxiated the kid with a can of Aqua Net, or stabbed him with a nail file, or maybe just talked him into a coma. In her hands, any of those weapons could have been deadly.
John tried to remember if he'd seen the kid before in his former life, maybe busted him for drag racing or picked him up for shoplifting, but no bells rang. He was maybe nineteen or twenty, as tensely coiled as a starving pit bull, with an angel of death tattoo on his upper arm and the reshuffled nose of a street fighter. At six‑three, two-twenty, John's size alone made most men think twice about messing with him, and if the only weapons between him and this kid had been their bare hands, he could easily have taken him down. Unfortunately, a firearm had a way of evening things up.
John stood up carefully and moved around his desk. "I'll give you your car back. But like I said, you have to make up the back payments, pay the impound fee‑‑"
"Bullshit! I don't have to make up no back payments!"
John cringed. Profanity he could tolerate. Any accent in the world was fine by him. But for God's sake, did the kid have to use a double negative?
"If I don't have the appropriate paperwork," John said, "I can't release the car. You'll have to take it up with your finance company."
"I'm taking it up with you."
The kid shook the gun, and a heightened sense of uneasiness slid along John's nerves, telling him he'd better tread softly. This kid was a little more agitated than the average person whose car had turned up missing, which told John that a little crack might be swimming around in his veins, which made this situation more unpredictable than he cared to mess with.
He weighed his options. One repossession was hardly worth getting blown away over. Then again, if he got in the habit of simply handing over the cars he'd taken the time and trouble to legally steal, he'd have armed deadbeats lined up around the block demanding their vehicles back.
"Hey, repo man! I'm talking to you!"
John held up his palms. "Take it easy." He carefully opened a file drawer and pulled out a key ring. "Here's the key to the impound lot. Just take your car and get out."
He lobbed the key to the kid. But‑‑doggone it‑‑his aim was off.
The kid lunged for the key and missed. It clattered to the tile floor, and the second his gaze turned south to follow it, John took a step forward, clamping his hand on the kid's wrist and backing him against the wall. He smacked the gun out of his hand, then pushed him facedown on the ground and planted a knee in his back. With one hand pressed to the kid's neck, he held his face to the floor, and with his other hand he reached for the cell phone in his pocket.
While he was having a word with the 911 operator, the door to the outer office swung open and Tony walked in. He glanced into John's office, stopping short and staring down at the kid. "Damn. I leave for an hour and miss all the fun?"
John flipped his phone shut and looked at Tony. "Grab the cuffs out of my desk drawer."
Tony gave him the handcuffs, and in seconds John had the kid subdued. Then he came to his feet, wincing at the dull pain that throbbed in his knee.
"So what's the deal?" Tony asked. "Did you feel like taking a trip down memory lane, so you arrested someone?"
"He wanted his car back. Pulled a gun."
"Bad move, kid," Tony said. "Guess you didn't know who you were messing with. Next time you might want to think twice before pulling a gun on the nice repo man."
That prompted the kid to let out a string of curse words directed at everything from Tony's parentage to his intellect to his religious affiliation. The kid might have been a little deficient where proper English was concerned, but John had to give him points for creativity.
A few minutes later the cops showed up, two guys John had never seen before, both of them so young that he wondered if the Plano P.D. had taken to trolling high schools looking for recruits. He told them what had happened, and that he would come to the station later to make a statement. They stuffed the kid into the back of a patrol car and took off.
John collapsed in his desk chair with a heavy sigh. I should have listened to my family and gone with the Subway franchise, he thought. Unfortunately, eight years as an auto theft detective with the Plano P.D. had taught him more about repossessing cars than making sandwiches. After all, who knew more about how to steal cars than a cop who went after car thieves?
Tony tossed paperwork onto John's desk. "Got the Viper."
"Nah. The guy about wet his pants when I said I was repossessing his car. All he was worried about was the neighbors seeing me."
Well, that was nothing new. Most of John's business involved repossessing the high-dollar assets of west Plano doctors, lawyers, and other assorted bigwigs whose fortunes were tied to stock market trends and overspending wives. Those guys rarely gave him the kind of trouble he got from lowlifes whose fortunes came from dealing drugs.
Tony looked around. "Hey, where's the girl? Uh...what was her name?"
"Rona? Fired her this afternoon."
Tony blinked. "Now, why did you go and do that?"
"She had the brain of an amoeba."
"Brain? Who was looking at her brain?" Tony popped a Tic-Tac into his mouth. "We finally get a decent looking woman around here, and you get all hung up on competency. What's the matter with you?
"I've got a business to run."
"I was going to marry that woman. Till death do us part. I was in love."
"You were in love with her thirty-eight Ds."
"No. We had a cosmic connection. I could feel it."
"What was her name again?"
Tony blinked, then gave John a smug smile. "Rhonda. You thought I didn't remember, didn't you?"
"No, buddy. You're right on top of things."
"So why'd you fire her? I mean, specifically."
"She painted her nails at her desk. Stunk like hell, but I let it go. She talked on the phone for an hour. I looked the other way. Then she started to file."
"That's a good thing, isn't it?"
"Yeah. Until I heard her singing the alphabet."
Tony winced. "Well, if she could get most of the way to Z‑‑"
"I swear to God I'll vote for a chimpanzee in the next presidential election if he promises to do something about the damned educational system."
"Did she cry when you fired her?" Tony asked.
John winced at the memory. "Of course. And that made the experience even more enjoyable."
"So right now she's probably feeling pretty down, huh?"
"I expect so."
Tony raised his eyebrows. "You have her number, right?"
John shook his head, wondering if he'd been like Tony at age twenty‑eight, looking around every corner for an opportunity to get laid. He guessed he must have been. But late‑night liaisons with predawn departures just didn't do it for him anymore, and no woman had ever come along whom he cared to get permanent with.
Of course, being a loser in the marriage department had made him a real standout in his family full of...well, families. At their last reunion in Tyler, his female relatives from across the state of Texas had chattered about him in hushed whispers, speculating how such a handsome man could have reached age forty‑two without making it to the altar at least once.
Look how he's tossing back the Jack. I bet he has a drinking problem.
Maybe the trouble's down south. Size may not matter, but functionality's another thing entirely.
Suppose all that macho's for show? Uncle Raymond the bricklayer went queer, you know. I mean, who'd have ever thought that?
After that weekend, John had come away believing that "bless your heart" was actually his last name.
If he'd been living a few centuries ago, everyone would have just said he's not the marrying kind and let it go at that. Now they speculated on exactly which part of his anatomy or personality was defective and thanked God those mutant strands of DNA hadn't infiltrated their branches of the family tree.
The truth was that while he had no shortage of women in his life, marriage just didn't appeal to him. Never had. Maybe it was because he'd watched virtually everyone he knew walk into matrimony and right back out of it again. It took some guys two or three times to get the picture. It was as if they were hitting themselves in the head with hammers and trying to figure out where all the pain was coming from.
"Go ahead," he told Tony, flipping open a file and scribbling down the number. "Give Rhonda a call. I'm sure she'll be delighted to hear from you."
"Yep. As long as I tell her what a bastard you were to fire her."
The phone rang, and John picked it up. After a short conversation, he hung up with a smile of satisfaction.
"What's up?" Tony asked.
"Got a line on a car. It may not be there for long, though. Mind dropping me off so I can pick it up?"
John grabbed a key from his desk drawer, grateful he had one for this particular car. Hotwiring could make a mess of a steering column, and there was always danger of damage whenever he grabbed one with the tow truck. Most of the time those were his only options, but every once in a while he dealt with a company that kept a key for every vehicle it financed against the possibility that somebody might decide to stop making the payments. And that meant all he had to do was unlock the car and drive it away, which was the easiest five hundred bucks a man could make.
As he and Tony closed up shop and headed out, John felt a whole lot better than he had a few minutes ago. Yeah, it had been a hell of a day, but he had no doubt that getting behind the wheel of a sweet little Mercedes Roadster was going to perk him right up.