Mind Me, Milady
Jane Larson is an attorney on the Upper East Side of New York City, and the Gentleman Rapist has chosen her to receive his calls announcing each conquest. He also reminds her in chilling terms that he will one day twist his wire around her throat and bend her to his will.
Jane has professional and personal problems of her own, but she is forced to try to catch this monster when he stalks her newest client. Susan is a sweet young woman who cannot remember large time periods of her past and who has dreams about a prior life in which she was raped. Soon, the Gentleman escalates to murder, and Jane wonders if he was involved in Susan’s forgotten past, or if Susan is simply a means to get to Jane. Either way, Jane is caught in the deadly game of stopping the Gentleman before another woman feels the wire at her throat and hears his sinister whisper to Mind Me, Milady.
It was almost noon when he looked out to the street and saw Natalie step from the cab. A familiar pounding rushed through him—a blood rush of fear, of anticipation.
She ran up the stairs as he had expected she would. She was an athlete, after all, and desperate for this apartment. Rent-controlled, one bedroom, East Side, dirt cheap. Run, Natalie, run.
On the third floor, she saw the door was open a crack and came right in. This was one of the reasons he was drawn to her—her confidence. There was not a tentative bone in her body.
“Hello?” she called. “It’s me. Natalie.” She looked around, pleased by what she saw, no doubt—floors newly sanded and stained, walls freshly painted, kitchen appliances all scrubbed clean. For the rent he had quoted her, it was more than a steal. It was highway robbery. And she was carrying cash for a promised “bonus,” as she put it, because a bribe would be so tacky.
She stepped into the bedroom and heard nothing as he slipped the wire over her lovely head, pulling it tight around her lovely neck. She struggled, but not for long. A knee pressed against the back of her legs forced her to the floor. Lovely legs.
“Mind me, Milady,” he whispered in the British accent he affected for occasions like this. “Mind the Gentleman.”
There was no choice. Denied breath, she was seconds from dying.
Quickly, he placed a wide piece of tape over her eyes and another over her mouth. Two longer pieces bound her wrists and ankles. Only then did the wire slacken. Air rushed in through flared nostrils. What was she thinking? Was she grateful just to be alive? And how many more times would he have to bring her to the very edge of death before she learned who was in control?
His hand disappeared inside her jacket. She tried to pull away. He tightened the wire. A whimper emerged from beneath the tape.“Mind me, Milady,” he repeated. “Mind your Master.”
Jane emerged from the subway station at 86th Street and stood in the shade of an awning as she waited. Her dark blond hair was twisted into a bun and held in place by an ivory barrette. Over her left arm, she had draped her suit jacket, summer weight in deference to the weather but otherwise similar to the others in her closet—gray with a pinstripe bearing a hint of color. For court appearances, she usually wore a plain white shirt, buttoned to the neck, with a bow that matched the pinstripe. But today, she wore a ruffled blouse that her client, Grace Hastings, had recently given to her as a pointed suggestion—“Never forget you’re a woman, darling.”
“Is it safe to breathe?” Grace came up the stairs finally, having stopped twice on the ascent from the lower-level express track. Her voice was made nasal by the pinching of her nose between thumb and forefinger, more like one of the third-graders at the Elizabeth Redwell School for Girls, than its headmistress. Without receiving a response, she raised her nose and mouth upward and gulped the somewhat cooler aboveground air in a silent pantomime of a stricken fish. For the past week, the weather had been unusually warm and humid for September in New York, and the subway platforms were certainly no exception. Above them a pale white sky held no hope of any relief today, and only the thinnest lines of blue were visible through the haze.
“Oh, please,” Jane replied. “It’s not that bad and it was twice as fast as a cab.”
Jane dug her cell phone out of her bag to check for messages. She tried to hide her annoyance, but that was not easy after a morning with a woman who had as much love of power as a Fortune 500 CEO and none of the business sense. Compromise was not in Grace’s vocabulary. And why should it be with the rock-bottom hourly rates Martha had been charging?
“I wasn’t in that much of a hurry,” Grace said. She took out a compact and examined her hair carefully, pushing a few wayward strands back into place with the tips of her slender fingers. “It’s hot as hell down there and the stairwells smell of urine. That ain’t sanitary, my dear Jane. Remember, I was a nurse once. Not that it would be possible to forget with my husband’s attorney reminding the judge every time he has a chance. Do you suppose the judge remembers that my parents paid for my tuition, even though I was then married to that skunk of a husband, or that I then put him through medical school and essentially made his damned practice for him?”
“I’d say the chances are about fifty-fifty,” Jane said. She raised the phone to her ear to listen to her voice mail.
“You’re such a comfort.”
From the corner of her eye, Jane saw Grace frown one last time at her reflection and snap the compact shut. She had been a beautiful woman in her youth and continued to maintain herself extremely well with the help of a few strategically placed tucks, weekly facials, perfectly dyed and conditioned auburn hair, and an assortment of day and night creams. She had just reached her sixtieth birthday, but could pass for forty-five, Jane thought, if the light were right.
“I’m not supposed to be a comfort,” Jane replied. “I’m supposed to be your lawyer.”
“Well, Martha was a lawyer and a comfort,” Grace said, muttering the words and making it sound like a joke.
Jane pretended she hadn’t heard and focused on her phone. The first new call was from Hank Jacobs, the lawyer for Grace’s husband, asking her in a tone even more brusque than usual to call him back as soon as possible. The second message caused her to stiffen with dread. It was the now-familiar, artificially clipped voice of an aristocratic Englishman. He had first contacted Jane by accident when he’d called Martha’s office, not knowing that Jane’s mother had died. Martha had never told Jane, but the “Gentleman Rapist”—as he had been dubbed by the cops—had taunted her for years. Martha’s women’s organization, Women Protecting Women, or WPW, had been among the first to publicize the Gentleman’s crimes in an unsuccessful attempt to help the police capture him. Now he had Jane’s cell number also. Sofia Torres, the detective assigned to the Gentleman case, had warned her it was just a matter of time before that happened.
“Thinking of you, Milady,” he said, “and wishing you were here.”
Jane jammed the phone back into her bag. Her hands trembled. A different sort of perspiration appeared on her skin and darkened the folds of her blouse where droplets touched the fabric. She would retrieve the particulars of the call later and give them to Sofia for whatever it was worth.
The call to Jacobs would wait, too. She was too upset to deal with him now, and she’d spoken to him enough that morning in court to last a month anyway.
“Something wrong?” Grace asked. She pulled a cell phone from the pocket of her jacket. “You look pale.”
“No,” Jane said, trying to mask the emotions still racing through her. “It’s just the heat. But Hank Jacobs called. I wonder what the hell he wants. We just saw them twenty minutes ago.”
“I don’t know. I seem to have a call from Billy-boy as well.” This was a term Grace used for her husband that was guaranteed to enrage him. She held up her hand as she listened to the message. Her eyebrows were raised. Her head bobbed back and forth in apparent cadence to the words. Then she put her phone away.
“Well, that explains why Jacobs called you,” Grace said with a slight smile. “You know, I think you should suggest to your detective friend, Sofia, that the police investigate Billy-boy. He’s certainly angry enough to be the Gentleman.”
“Oh, please, Grace.”
“Think about it. He’s strong. He’s free to come and go as he pleases. He hates women. Just absolutely hates them.”
“Grace, stop, okay? It’s not going to happen. Now tell me what the call was about.”
Grace paused, evidently displeased. “My husband has now completely lost what passes for his mind. It seems there was a break-in at his office last night. Someone ransacked his desk. Of course he blames me.”
“And what? I deny it, of course. Why would I of all people ransack his desk? He’s a fitness freak, so there wouldn’t be any good drugs lying around. And he doesn’t get cash payments from patients, right? Billy-boy testified to that under oath. So money isn’t a motive. You see, it makes no sense.”
“Then why do I have the lingering sense that there is much more to this?”
“Because you’re a cynical smart-ass, just like your mother before you, may she rest in peace. The only difference is that Martha wouldn’t be asking me questions. She took clients as she found them. She didn’t preach to them. But I love you anyway, darling, even though you’re tall and beautiful.” Grace pursed her lips and kissed the air. “Besides, I have an alibi,” she continued.
“But you don’t even know when it happened.”
“Believe me. I have one. And another thing. When you talk to Billy-boy’s lawyer, tell him I reject his offer. It’s insulting.” She pulled a tube of lipstick from her makeup bag and applied a light layer.
Jane groaned. “But Grace, you practically told the judge you accepted it.”
“I told the judge I would consider it very seriously. I had to, or she never would have let us get out of there.”
“Grace, the judge is right. You should consider it seriously since it is probably more than I’ll be able to get you after a full trial, given the current state of the evidence.”
“Well, I reject it. Billy-boy is a cheat and a liar and a thief, and I’m not going to agree. I have great faith in you and the judge and the system of justice in this country. As Shakespeare said, ‘The truth will out!’” Grace ended her speech with a twist of her head, thrusting her face into profile against that pale white sky, as though she were a movie actress expecting her close-up at the conclusion of a tumultuous scene.
“And do you also have faith in the results of a certain break-in at his office?” Jane asked.
Grace turned to her slowly. Her gray eyes twinkled for just a split second. “You see, this is precisely the sort of inquiry Martha never made. Come along, darling, and let’s not be difficult. Have I told you how smart and beautiful I think you are? Have lunch with me, Jane. I’ll tell you again and again until your ears turn pink.”
“Thanks, but I have a meeting with Susan Clymer at two-thirty. She and I are going to Ohio tomorrow for the day and we still haven’t talked. Something always comes up for her.”
“Right. She told me you were going with her.” Grace hesitated, suddenly very serious. “Look, I appreciate your helping her, Jane. You’ll see that Susan’s a good person, if a bit flaky. And she’s had a rough life. She lost her parents in an automobile accident when she was thirteen. She, herself, almost died. She has no memory of anything that happened before it. Imagine! No memory of the first thirteen years of your life.”
Jane frowned. “I feel very bad for her, Grace. But that’s not the point. I told my firm I would just finish up Martha’s open cases, including yours, as I promised to Martha. I wasn’t supposed to take on new ones.”
“Well, it’s a personal favor and I appreciate it. And it’s a good deed that Martha would definitely have done. Think of it that way.”
“And no good deed goes unpunished. Isn’t that what Martha used to say?”
“She may have said it, but she didn’t believe it.”
“Do you believe it?” Jane asked.
Grace paused, momentarily taken aback. “I don’t know. I guess I would have to do a good deed first and see.” She laughed a full, throaty guffaw in appreciation of her witticism. “And no, Jane dear, hiring Susan does not qualify as a good deed, since I have no right to be performing charity with Elizabeth Redwell’s funds, do I? Isn’t that what Jonathan Ramsey has been lecturing you and me about?”
“Your reasoning is completely circular,” Jane said.
“Then how’s this?” Grace snapped back into full CEO mode, pounding her palm with her index finger as she spoke each word. “It was my opinion as headmistress that we needed someone to assist various teachers on special projects. And she has been wonderful. The children absolutely adore her.”
“And no other candidate had better qualifications. Like a college degree? Some education courses? Did you even interview other candidates?”
Grace threw her face into a comical pout, one eye nearly closed in a squint. “Are you on my side or not?” she asked.
She didn’t wait for an answer, stepping instead to the curb and raising her hand with a diva’s flair, to hail a passing cab. “In any event, my dear, we will soon see if the board agrees that I have the right to hire as I see fit. Your bit of cross-examination has reminded me that they’re having a meeting by conference call this afternoon.” A cab came to a stop, and she opened the door. “Which means, sadly, that I should skip a nice leisurely lunch and get back to school. They may want to speak to me, and I’d rather not give Jonathan any more ammunition by not being in my office, sitting primly at my desk, knees touching, hands folded.”
She settled into the backseat and waved to Jane out the open window as it pulled away, a smile on her face, although Jane recognized that the smile hid more than it revealed. Maybe Martha had been able to read this client. Jane couldn’t.
* * * *
In fact, as the cab pulled away, Grace wasn’t worried at all, either by Jonathan Ramsey or by those who were under his influence on the board of Elizabeth Redwell. If Jonathan did not yet know that he should back off from giving her aggravation about Susan, he would know very soon. Undoubtedly, Billy-boy would go whining to him. Charming Billy-boy—he was a liar and a cheat and a coward, but he wasn’t stupid.