She looked at her watch. It was six thirty-eight. He was running late. Was supposed to meet her at half past six. Her eyes wandered about the restaurant. It was pretty crowded and that was the main reason she chose this place. She wanted to meet him in a public place where there were plenty people around. After all, she didn’t know him. Met him on a dating site on the Internet. Actually, she wasn’t interested in meeting anyone. It was her friend and coworker, Maddie, who had been pushing her to get a boyfriend.
‘I’m not interested, Maddie. I just got my life in order.’
And she had. As a single mom life had been very difficult. She worked as a waitress in a diner, but barely made enough money to pay the rent, let alone buy food as well. She had to get food stamps for that. Then her mother died and she inherited a house along with fifty thousand dollars. Her mother was a tightwad who cried poor and never gave a penny to anyone. She certainly didn’t help Jackie with anything. Jackie didn’t even know that her mother had any money in the bank.
‘Are you gonna quit working in the diner now that we have money?’ asked Chelsea, her daughter, when they moved into her grandmother’s house.
‘No, Chels. I need the work. Fifty thousand dollars isn’t a fortune. It’s something, but it isn’t a fortune. And that’s why I’m thinking of going back to college and study something.’
‘Like what?’ Chelsea asked.
‘I don’t know yet, but it gotta be something that’d lead to a better job and better pay.’
‘Are you gonna get a boyfriend?’ Chelsea blurted out.
‘What makes you say that?’ asked Jackie, furrowing her brow, surprised by the question. She hadn’t yet discussed the matter with her daughter.
Chelsea shrugged. ‘I heard you on the phone talking to Maddie about it.’
Jackie sighed. At work and at home Maddie was relentless, telling her that she needed a man in her life. Never mind that every man she ever met broke her heart. Never mind that Chelsea’s father ran for the hills as soon as he found out that Jackie was pregnant. No, men just broke your heart. And she had had enough of having her heart broken.
‘But, Jackie, you can’t close yourself off to the world just because of a few bad experiences.’
‘I’m not closing myself off to the world, Maddie. I’m just closing myself off to men. Besides, I have Chels to think of...’
‘I’m not saying not to think of her. But you have to think of yourself too. Look, Chelsea won’t always stay fourteen, and you won’t always stay thirty-six. You’ll grow old, and I don’t want you to grow old alone…’
Like a battering ram, Maddie battered, until Jackie capitulated and signed up with a dating website.
The guy she met on the Internet sounded nice. He was thirty-eight years old, so he was of the right age for her. He had his own house, so he would not be eyeing her house. And he had his own business, fixing electrical appliances, so he was self-sufficient financially. And they seemed to like the same things: the same movies, the same music, the same food, the same pretty much everything.
As to what he looked like! Well, she didn’t know. She sent him a picture of herself, but he didn’t. He said that he didn’t want to be prejudiced based on his looks. He wanted to be liked and accepted for who he was, not how he looked. Fair enough, Jackie thought, but when it came to meeting him, she asked how would she recognize him then. He emailed her that he would be the guy with a red carnation in his hand.
So the date was set by him, and the venue was chosen by her. They were to meet at Silver Heart, a restaurant not too far from where she worked.
Jackie looked at her watch again; it was six forty-five. She guessed that he wasn’t coming. Oddly enough, she found that she wasn’t all that disappointed. Perhaps a little irritated, but not disappointed. Oh, well! She took her purse and was about to get up, when someone tapped her on the shoulder. Startled, she turned around.
‘Larry!’ Instantly recognizing him by the red carnation he carried.
He smiled pleasantly, gave her a peck on the cheek and handed her the red carnation. ‘I’m sorry that I am late, but there was some sort of accident on the way here. Anyway, I’m so glad that you didn’t leave.’
‘I was about to,’ Jackie said, laughing. ‘You caught me just in time.’
‘Must be kismet…’
The evening went splendidly. They ate. They drank. They talked. They laughed. They joked. And Jackie drew a sigh of relief. While no oil painting, Larry was not ugly. He was average: average looks, average height, and average weight. But what he lacked in looks, he more than made up for in charm, attentiveness, and sense of humour. Larry was definitely worth a shot.
The following morning Jackie was in such a good mood that she could have danced on roller-skates while serving customers.
‘Dish,’ Maddie urged with a wide grin.
‘Dish what?’ Jackie demurred, pretending that she didn’t know what she was talking about.
‘C’mon. Don’t tease,’ Maddie retorted, jabbing her in the arm.
Jackie grinned and shook her head. ‘Later. When it’s a bit quieter.’
It was a busy morning and there wasn’t really much time for idle chitchat. As Jackie moved from table to table, jotting down the orders, she noticed a young attractive woman, wearing a red jacket, sitting alone at a small corner table. She seemed, somehow, out of place, Jackie thought.
‘May I take your order?’ Jackie asked when she finally reached her table.
The young woman raised her eyes, but remained silent.
Jackie looked at her. There was something strange about the woman, but Jackie couldn’t quite put her finger on it. ‘Would you like me to come back later to take your order?’
The young woman shook her head. ‘No, that won’t be necessary. I’ll have coffee … black, please.’
‘One black coffee coming right up.’
Jackie made her way behind the counter and passed the list of the orders to the cook in the kitchen. She then folded her arms and stood watching the woman in red.
‘Penny for your thoughts,’ Maddie said.
Jackie blinked. ‘Oh! No, I was just wondering…’
‘Wondering! Wondering about Larry?’
‘No, I was wondering about that woman over there…’
‘What woman?’ Maddie asked, following the direction of Jackie’s gaze.
‘That woman in red over there.’ Jackie pointed to where the young woman was seated.
‘I don’t see anyone,’ Maddie said, frowning.
‘C’mon, don’t tell me you can’t see her,’ Jackie said, diverting her gaze from the woman in red to Maddie.
‘Over…’ Jackie’s voice drifted away when she saw that the woman in red had vanished. ‘She must’ve gone. Jeez! She left quickly.’
‘C’mon, tell,’ Maddie pressed.
‘Tell what?’ Jackie said, distractedly.
‘We have a bit of time now. Tell me quickly how did it go last night!’
‘He seemed a nice guy. And I really had a good time last night.’
‘See, wasn’t I right?’ Maddie said, grinning triumphantly.
Jackie glanced up at the wall clock in the kitchen – it was seven o’clock in the morning. She had overslept. Was still in her pyjamas. Normally, she woke up at six and by seven she was dressed. But not today! She forgot to set the alarm clock last night. Too preoccupied thinking about Larry. Too preoccupied thinking about Chelsea. Would Chelsea like Larry? Would Larry get along with Chelsea? What if they hated each other? Well, Larry won’t have a chance with her if he didn’t like Chelsea. Chelsea came first. Her needs were always put first. Jackie didn’t grow up with a loving mother, but from the moment that she held Chelsea in her arms, she vowed to be the most loving mother to her.
She was about to go to the fridge to get a carton of eggs, when suddenly through the kitchen window she noticed a woman on her front lawn – the same woman she had seen the day before at the diner – the woman in red and still wearing the same clothes.
‘What the hell!’ Jackie exclaimed. Grabbing her dressing gown, she quickly shrugged into it and ran outside only to see the woman heading down the street. Jackie ran after her, but couldn’t catch up with her. It was not that the woman was moving particularly fast. It was just that for some inexplicable reason Jackie couldn’t catch up with her. It was as if the space between them couldn’t or wouldn’t contract. And by the time Jackie turned the corner into the next street, following the woman in red, she was gone.
‘Where did she go?’ Jackie stood there, wondering, looking in both directions.
‘Is anything the matter?’
Jackie swung around to see Dorothy, the busybody of the neighborhood, standing there, looking at her. For sure, she would have seen the woman in red.
‘Dorothy, did you see a woman wearing a red jacket passing this way just now?’
By the confused look Dorothy gave, Jackie thought that perhaps further description was necessary. ‘She was young … attractive … oh, about my height … long dark hair in a ponytail.’
The confused look became more animated when Dorothy squinted through her thick glasses and said, ‘You mean someone looking just like you?’
Jackie blanched at Dorothy’s comment. It spooked her to think that the woman in red resembled her. But now was not the time to ponder on that. She had to find out if Dorothy had seen her or not. As it turned out, she hadn’t.
Jackie was quiet at work. She couldn’t get the woman in red out of her mind. Who she was! How she got her address! Why she came to her place! And why she ran away! And the more she thought about it, the less sense everything made.
It was just before leaving work, when she got a text message from Larry. Would she have dinner with him?
Yes, she would have dinner with him, but the best time would be on a Friday night. She knocked off early from work and she had time to get ready.
‘This Friday, then?’ came the text message.
‘That’ll be fine,’ she texted him.
‘I’ll meet you at seven-thirty at Silver Heart, but this time I’ll be carrying a red rose in my hand,’ he texted back.
It was Wednesday, so she had plenty time to get a nice new outfit and a pair of new shoes. Since receiving her inheritance, Jackie had actually spent very little of the money on herself. So it was time for her to do a little splurging.
On Thursday evening, Jackie and Maddie made a quick trip to a nearby department store for Jackie to buy a new dress and a pair of shoes.
‘Maybe I should have a haircut too,’ Jackie said. The similarity between her and the woman in red had spooked her so much that she wanted to have her hair cut short.
‘What? Are you mad? I wish I had hair like yours. Your hair is gorgeous. Touch it and I’ll never speak to you again,’ Maddie warned with a serious face.
Jackie rolled her eyes. ‘Ah, okay then, no haircut.’
The dress Maddie insisted on was black with a plunging neckline. The shoes Maddie insisted on were a pair of black stilettos.
‘Isn’t it a bit too much, though? I mean for a second date that is? I don’t want him to get any ideas!’
‘C’mon, you know what I mean.’
‘No, I’m sure I don’t,’ Maddie shrilled. Then threw her hands up in the air and said, ‘Don’t you ever yearn?’
‘Yes, I yearn, but I want to get to know him first. I don’t ever want to repeat the past mistakes.’
Maddie sighed and linked her arm in hers as they walked. ‘Look, you can’t live life in fear of repeating past mistakes, because if you do, you’ll end up living in fear. You’re supposed to learn from your mistakes, then file them away as life experience and move on.’
Jackie reflected on Maddie’s advice for a moment, then nodded. Perhaps it was time to move on. And perhaps Larry was Mr Right. He certainly had given that impression.
They were about to leave the department store, when Jackie caught sight of the woman in red. She was standing outside just to the right of the front entrance.
‘What?’ Maddie asked when Jackie suddenly stood stock-still. ‘What’s the matter?’
Jackie blinked and the woman in red was gone. ‘Nothing,’ she finally said, ‘it must be my imagination.’
At seven o’clock on Friday night, Jackie got into her car and drove to the restaurant. As she drove, it began to rain, so she turned the windshield wipers on, but then suddenly she saw the woman in red on the sidewalk. Damn! If only she could stop the car to talk to her. She looked in the rearview mirror and then back at the sidewalk, but by then the woman in red had disappeared.
Jackie drew a sighing breath. Who was this woman? What did she want with her? Why was she playing hide and seek with her? She was not Larry’s ex-wife or ex-girlfriend, who was now trying to stalk her, was she? What if the woman in red was crazy? Various scenarios went through her mind and she got a feeling that she should turn the car around and go home, but as she was about to do that, she found herself close to the restaurant.
Well, no point in turning back now! Maybe it was just her nerves! After all, it had been years since she went on a date. She was looking for a free spot to park her car, when her cellphone rang. It was Larry. His car had broken down and he was wondering if she could pick him up.
Jackie turned her car round.
It was on a lonely stretch of road where Larry’s car had broken down. Jackie saw him leaning under the open hood of his car. She wound the window down and called out to him. Larry looked up and motioned her to park her car in front of his. An uneasy feeling came over her and for a fraction of a second she thought that she saw the woman in red standing by the side of the road.
‘This woman has burnt herself into my retina,’ she muttered under her breath.
Jackie parked her car, but didn’t get out. The rain was pelting down. But Larry wasn’t moving. Oh, for goodness’ sake! Jackie saw no choice but to get her umbrella and get out of the car.
‘Larry, you’ll catch your death if you stay much longer in this rain,’ she said as she walked up to him.
‘I’ll be all right. Thanks for coming.’
‘That’s okay. What’s the matter with your car?’
Larry grimaced and ran his hand through his hair. ‘I don’t know. I just had this whole damn engine replaced.’
‘So what do you wanna do? You wanna cancel tonight’s dinner?’
‘No, no, that won’t be necessary. I just have to…’ he grimaced again and leaned over the engine.
‘Have to what…’ Jackie said and leaned slightly over the engine to see what Larry was doing. It was then that darkness came over her amidst an explosion of pain at the back of her head.
Jackie blinked her eyes open. She was lying on a cold bare floor in a pitch-black room. Where was she? What happened? Larry! Dinner with Larry! Larry’s car breaking down! Suddenly, fear gripped her and Jackie sat bolt upright, but then a blinding pain made her wince. She rubbed the back of her head, feeling a sore lump the size of an egg. Oh, no, no, no, this is not happening.
Peering through the darkness, she began to hyperventilate. She couldn’t detect any windows around. No light was coming from the outside. Where the hell was this place? Chelsea! Where was she? At a girlfriend’s house, she remembered, and relieved that Chelsea was with someone.
‘Help, someone help me,’ Jackie screamed as she groped in the dark for a door. There was a door. Her hand found the handle and rattled it. It was locked.
‘Let me out. Please, let me out of here,’ she screamed, banging on the door.
‘Shush! Don’t scream. No one can hear you down here,’ a voice came from behind the door. It was Larry.
‘What do you want from me?’
‘What … do … I … want … from … you? Why, to paint you of course,’ Larry said.
‘To paint me? To paint me, how? To paint me in the dark? Please, let me out of here. I have a daughter who needs me—’
‘Don’t worry about your daughter so much. I’ll take very good care of her—’
‘Let me out, you sick bastard,’ Jackie screamed, banging on the door, ‘let me out.’
Hearing his retreating footsteps, Jackie knew that Larry wasn’t about to let her out. She had to rescue herself, but how! The room was pitch-black. There were no windows, no way out, except for the door, and the door was locked.
‘Think! Think!’ She struck her forehead with the heel of her palm. ‘You can do this. You can do this, Jackie. You’re strong. You can get out of here. You must. You must. You must do it for Chelsea. But how?’
Tears streamed from her eyes and she wiped them with her hands. ‘Crying won’t save you, Jackie. Think! Think! Think!’ Her eyes squinted through the darkness in the hope of seeing something that might help her to escape, but she couldn’t see anything. ‘Oh, God, no, no, no, I’m not gonna die this way.’
In panic, she started moving about in circles like a captured animal in dread of its doom. Then suddenly beneath her bare feet she felt something. She bent down and picked it up. In the dark, her fingers felt for the shape of the object.
Oh, my God! It was a pair of rather small scissors with long handles. Jackie rushed to the door and tried to work the tip of one of the scissor blades into the keyhole, but she couldn’t. Whether or not it was a wrong fit, she didn’t know, because she couldn’t see. What should she do? She wasn’t ready to die. Chelsea needed her. ‘Oh, God,’ she cried. Uncontrollably, tears streamed from her eyes and her body convulsed beneath racking sobs. She would not die this way, not in this dark hole at the hands of a psychopathic killer.
She had to find a way out, but there was no way out, and the scissors were of no use. Could she use them as a weapon? Maybe! But she was unsure. The scissors didn’t appear particularly lethal – they were too small. Then she heard footsteps. Larry was coming for her. Jackie began to hyperventilate again. As Larry unlocked the door, she ran and stood with her back to the wall, holding the scissors behind her back.
‘Don’t hurt me, Larry, please don’t hurt me,’ she pleaded.
‘I’m not gonna hurt you, baby. I’m gonna paint you.’
‘Paint me? Here? In the dark?’
‘No, not in the dark. I brought a torch. Look!’ Larry turned the torch on and grinned.
Jackie turned her head sideways and closed her eyes to the bright light for a brief moment, but when she opened them she saw the woman in red standing right next to him. Jackie looked wildly at both of them, but it seemed that Larry was quite unaware of the presence of the woman in red. But how could that be? He was a psychopath, not blind. He must have brought her here.
‘I’m gonna paint you,’ Larry said, breaking into Jackie’s thoughts about the woman in red. ‘See!’ Larry showed her a can of red spray paint. ‘Oh, you’re gonna look so good in red,’ Larry said in a tone of calm malevolence.
‘Now,’ the woman in red mouthed.
With her eyes wide in panic, Jackie sprang to action. As if someone else was controlling her body, Jackie lunged at Larry with the scissors and plunged them into his neck.
‘Hi, sweetie, just wanted to check in on you to make sure that you were okay,’ Jackie said to her daughter over the phone.
‘I’m okay. Are you okay, Mom? You don’t sound okay. Are you with Larry?’
‘No, darling, I am not...’
‘So, where are you? And why aren’t you using your cellphone?’
‘Um … um…’
‘Mom, what’s the matter? Where are you?’
‘I’ll tell you everything on Sunday night when you get back.’
‘You sure? I can come home right now if you want me to—’
‘Oh, no, sweetheart. I’ll see you tomorrow night.’
‘Okay, Mom, love you.’
‘Love you too, baby girl.’
Jackie burst into tears. She had been running in the rain, screaming for someone to help her, when a police patrol car had passed by and rescued her. It was a miracle that they were patrolling that area at all. She had been locked up in a storage room in an abandoned warehouse in the middle of nowhere. The terror of what had happened to her was something that her mind had difficulty coming to grips with – she had actually dated a serial killer. Larry did want to paint her; only he wanted to paint her corpse. That was his modus operandi: kill his victim first by strangulation, then paint them in red. For ten years he had been on a killing spree right across America: eleven women in total and they all looked alike. She would have been his twelfth victim.
But who was the woman in the red jacket? She still didn’t know who she was, but she was grateful for her help. She owed her escape to the woman in red. She told the police all about her. How she looked. How she was dressed. Though, she couldn’t fully explain why Larry couldn’t see her, or if he could, what was the purpose of bringing her along. Her reverie was interrupted when a man walked in.
‘Ms O’Brien, I am detective James Scott. Could we go to my office? I have a few questions to ask.’
Jackie wrapped the blanket she was given by the paramedics tightly about herself and followed detective Scott to his office.
‘Please,’ said detective Scott, motioning with his hand for Jackie to take a seat at his desk as he went around to sit across from her.
‘The description of the woman you gave us, right down to her red jacket, matches the description of a woman who was murdered eleven years ago in Michigan.’
‘In Michigan?’ Jackie looked in disbelief at the detective. ‘But that can’t be right. She is here … right here in Los Angeles … and very much alive, I can assure you. I saw her with my own eyes … several times. I told you how she helped me.’
‘I am sorry, Ms O’Brien, I don’t know who it was that you saw, but it couldn’t have been her. Look’—he opened a folder and took out a photograph to show her—‘this is the woman that you claim you saw?’
‘Yes, that’s her. That’s definitely her. I am one hundred percent sure of it.’
‘Was there anyone other than you who might have seen her?’
‘No, aside from him.’
Jackie frowned. ‘Well no, but what does that matter? I saw her. Without her I probably wouldn’t have been able to stab Larry and get away from him…’
‘Ms O’Brien, you said in your statement that you stabbed Larry Stone with a pair of scissors with long handles, but we found no such item.’
‘Impossible. I know I stabbed him with them…’
‘With a pair of … scissors?’ detective Scott questioned incredulously.
‘Yes,’ Jackie confirmed with certainty.
Detective Scott regarded her contemplatively for a long moment, then said, ‘But if you had stabbed him, wouldn’t you have blood on your hands? The police didn’t find a spot of blood on you when they found you.’
Jackie glanced at her hands. ‘I was running in the rain, so maybe … maybe the rain…’ her voice drifted away when she saw detective Scott refuting her explanation by giving her a stony look.
‘Was she’—Jackie stammered, trying to control her trembling voice—‘was she killed the same way as the other victims?’
‘I am sorry, I can’t discuss the case with you.’
‘May I, at least, ask what her name was? I’d like to know her name.’
After a few silent moments, which appeared as if detective Scott was considering whether or not he should reveal that information to her, he said, ‘Her name was Amanda … Amanda Moore.’
Jackie nodded, wiping her tears.
Exhaustion, both mental and physical, begged her to stay in bed. Chelsea wouldn’t be home till late in the evening. She didn’t know of what her mother had been through, and Jackie would have preferred it that way, for she didn’t want Chelsea to be exposed to this kind of terror at such a young age. But since Jackie had to go to court and testify against Larry Stone, she had no choice but to tell Chelsea everything.
How would Chelsea react to it? How would Maddie? She hadn’t told her friend either. Maddie would probably blame herself for everything. Jackie threw her bedclothes off. She couldn’t rest. Too much on her mind. She would go for a drive to the beach to clear her head. She didn’t bother with breakfast. Just changed into her jeans and jumper, got into her car and drove off.
When she got to the beach, she stopped the car and got out. The sea was calm. Jackie leaned her back against the car, closed her eyes, and inhaled the sea air. When she opened them, she saw the woman in the red jacket. She was out on the water.
‘What do you want from me, Amanda?’ Jackie murmured.
Jackie blinked and turned round. ‘Detective Scott, what are you doing here? Are you following me?’
‘Actually, I came to see you this morning, but then I saw you get into your car, so I thought—’
‘So you thought to follow me to see if I am crazy or do something crazy?’ Jackie said, laughing sardonically.
Detective Scott came and stood next to her, leaning his tall frame against the car and gazing out into the sea. ‘Are you okay?’
‘I don’t know.’ She shrugged. ‘I’m trying to figure it out.’
‘You are not crazy,’ he said, without turning to look at her.
‘Oh!’ She sighed. ‘So, what are you, really, doing here?’
Scott folded his arms as his gaze remained on the sea. ‘Amanda Moore was killed by a pair of … scissors … fitting the description you gave. She was stabbed in the neck.’ He paused as Jackie gasped. ‘We have Larry Stone’s full confession. She was his first victim. His motivation for killing her was different from the rest. He was obsessed with her. She was a young beautiful twenty-five-year-old doctor, and he … her patient. She had no interest in him, but he was obsessed with her. He attacked her one night in an attempt to rape her. In the struggle to defend herself, she managed to get a pair of surgical scissors from her medical kit, but she was overcome and … well, the rest, I am sure you can guess.’
Jackie nodded as she wiped her tears. ‘Did he spray-paint her too?’
‘No. Her wearing a red jacket at the time of her death was what started him on painting his victims red.’
Jackie let out a sobbing sigh.
Scott unfolded his arms and cast his blue-green eyes on her. Only a deep wrinkle between his brows marred his handsome face. The wrinkle that she thought would have been most certainly caused by hours and hours of him frowning over hard to solve cases. ‘You were very lucky to get away from him the way you did … just by knocking him to the ground,’ Scott said.
‘With scissors … a pair of invisible … scissors…’ Jackie’s voice faded away, as she saw the woman in red drifting further out into the sea until she disappeared altogether.
‘Is that what you came here to see me about … to tell me how Amanda died?’
‘That and … to ask you if you’d be willing to work for us?’
‘Work for … as in work for the police department?’ Jackie asked with a surprised frown.
Scott gave a short, uncertain laugh. ‘We don’t like to advertise these things, but we do at times seek people like you to help us solve the unsolvable.’
‘What do you mean by people like me?’
‘How long have you been seeing dead people?’
Jackie closed her eyes and drew a deep breath. As a child she could see people that no one else could, but her mother always rebuked her for telling lies. Eventually when she got into her teens, she began to ignore them, until finally she couldn’t see what she used to call those extra people. ‘A long time,’ she finally said under her breath.
‘C’mon, I’ll buy you a cup of coffee,’ said detective Scott with a warm smile, ‘and we can discuss your new job.’