The Listener

CHAPTER ONE

From across the crowded food court, Leigh couldn't see the woman's ears, only the gaudy, diamond-studded loops that dangled from them. But she could see Enoch at the next table, staring, his eyes fixed upon the woman like a hawk's targeting a field mouse.

The woman was on a cell phone talking a whirlwind, free hand flying, chortling so loudly that patrons at other tables aimed disgusted looks her way. She was a petite woman with big hair that jiggled when she laughed. She wore a Dole/Kemp campaign button below the jewelry adorning her frail neck, even though Clinton/Gore had won their re-election a month earlier. The woman oozed money. And she had Enoch's attention.

Which meant she'd be dead by midnight.

Leigh stepped behind a group of teenagers and closed her eyes, beads of sweat trickling between her breasts. Kneading one of the lumps in her shoulder bag, she considered pulling out her camera and risking a picture. But if Enoch saw her...

She trembled and looked back at the woman. She'd moved the phone from her left ear to her right, giving Leigh a clear view of what else had attracted Enoch's attention. Large, round, and flat, her ears stuck to the side of her head like oversized sand dollars.

Just like the others.

Leigh imagined them preserved by a food dehydrator, mounted in a frame with blue felt background and proudly positioned in the center of Enoch's growing collection.

Suddenly weak-kneed, Leigh grasped the nearest chair and sat down, losing the back of Enoch's head in the crowd. She closed her eyes, swallowed and pushed the memory away. She would survive this, she had to survive this. She climbed from the chair and carefully maneuvered alongside a group of shoppers.

The mall on this Friday wasn't as busy as Leigh had expected only three-and-a-half weeks before Christmas. But since she hadn't been in the Dallas area long, she didn't really know what to expect. If not for the dinner crowd, she would have been forced to watch from much farther away. She hadn't been this close to Enoch in ten months. His proximity caused her heart to quicken.

Through a gap in the crowd she saw him writing, now with his back to the woman, his head cocked to one side, listening. Taking notes.

Trembling for the woman, Leigh dug into her shoulder bag and removed a hand-held scanner, resting it in her lap to shield it from passersby. She then placed a pair of headphones on her ears and activated the scanner.

She could see the woman's lips, decipher a few of her words, hear an occasional burst of laughter. With her scanner programmed to search the 800-megahertz range, Leigh located the woman's cellular call in under a minute. She was talking to another woman, something about her Lexus needing the tires rotated. Leigh matched the words with the woman's lip movement. Confident she had the correct call, she locked the frequency, turned up the volume and slid the scanner back into her bag.

The crowd between her and Enoch thinned again. He was still scribbling, still leaning back, his head cocked to one side. Standing, Leigh wrestled the strap of the bag over her shoulder and slipped into a passing group of teenagers. She needed a photograph of Enoch near the woman as evidence. From the bags surrounding the woman's table it was clear she'd been shopping, something the police would learn later from the receipts.

If Leigh eventually sent it to them, her picture would tell the cops that Enoch had red hair, that he was left-handed and powerfully built, and that his posture clearly showed him eavesdropping. And it would show them that a murderer could look just like little Opie Taylor from the Andy Griffith Show.

As Leigh flanked Enoch, she heard the woman mention that "Bill" was out of town until Tuesday. She had to assume Bill was the woman's husband, because she mentioned a business trip.

Enoch smiled.

Leigh prayed silently. Please save this woman.

The woman announced into the phone that she'd gone to the bank earlier to withdraw a thousand dollars for an antique dresser.

A group of Santas paused near Leigh's column and she took the opportunity to raise her camera and peer out. Enoch hadn't moved, nor had the woman. She snapped two photos and ducked back behind cover.

The woman ended her call. Leigh's earphones fell silent. She looked out around the column and saw the woman close her flip phone and start gathering her bags. Enoch was folding a napkin, his makeshift notepad, and slipping it into a pocket. He stood and slowly collected his dinner trash, snatching quick glances at the woman as she walked off.

This is where it gets tricky. She'd parked her Oldsmobile five rows from Enoch's Land Cruiser, but knew he would shadow the woman in order to know which car to follow away from the mall. Once he knew that, he'd sprint to his car and drive like a madman to catch her. Leigh couldn't follow him that closely, so she'd just go to her car and wait. As soon as she saw him sprinting for his, she'd pull out and follow him from there. Still risky, but she'd done it before.

It took twelve minutes after Leigh settled in her driver's seat. Enoch raced around the lower level of Sears and hit the remote to unlock his doors on the run, barely breathing from the effort. He had the Land Cruiser started and rolling before Leigh had time to drop her car into gear.

Enoch gunned it and turned west around Sears, shooting across the outer edge of the parking lot. Then he hit his brakes, ducked down a row of cars and stopped. Up ahead, seventy yards away, Leigh saw a gold Lexus turn north on Alma Drive. Enoch sped up, turned north and dropped in behind the Lexus just as it reached the traffic light at 15th Street.

Leigh hung back, two lanes over, and stopped in Enoch's blind spot over his right shoulder. She glanced inside the Lexus and recognized the woman, who was on the phone again.

Placing the headphones back into position, Leigh punched the scan button and found the woman's familiar voice within fifteen seconds. Her phone was transmitting on cellular frequency 833.175. Leigh added forty-five megahertz and picked up both sides of the conversation.

"... yeah," the woman said, "I could do that."

"Si, Miss Jane. You want me to wait for you to come?"

A moment of scratchy silence. "Well... I'm just leaving the mall."

"I... have to get home. Maybe..." The Hispanic female sounded young, unsure, servant-like.

"Tell you what," Jane said. "Leave the key under the flower pot in the backyard, next to the pool house. You remember the alarm code?"

The light turned green. Leigh glanced at Enoch, who had a pen poised against one of those small note pads stuck to the windshield above the dash. She knew he was scanning the call, too. She punched her car north, on Enoch's tail.

On Leigh's headphones the young voice paused. Then, "The alarm code? Uh... yes... I think... yes, here it is, in my address book."

"Okay," Jane said, "just don't forget to lock up. Did you clean the oven? I overfilled a pie yesterday."

"Si, Miss Jane. Clean as new."

"I'm on my way home," Jane said. "Have a nice weekend. See you next Friday."

The transmission went dead.

A chill swept over Leigh when the call ended. Enoch hadn't heard the alarm code; maybe Jane would live through the night. If she could only get inside her house and lock herself in before Enoch figured out a way to get her thousand dollars.

Ten minutes later, as the sun dipped below the horizon, Jane pulled into the driveway of a house on Tanner Drive. Leigh couldn't read the numbers. Enoch drove four houses down and pulled into the driveway of a house posting a For Sale sign. One of Jane's neighbors, a man who obviously didn't keep up with weather forecasts, was in his yard planting a colorful stand of late fall flowers. Leigh pulled to the curb five houses before Jane's and cut the engine. Sliding over to the passenger seat, she slumped down and waited. Nine houses separated her from Enoch. She wished it were nine states.

Wondering how quickly her old Buick would be noticed in this neighborhood, Leigh switched her scanner to search for household cordless phones. Twenty-five minutes later she'd learned that Jane didn't like cats, but was forced to live with one because of her husband; she enjoyed her new big-screen TV and stereo system, both recently acquired as a result of Bill's monthly bonus; and that she missed both of her girls, now in college, missed the noise in the empty house. She rattled pots and pans and talked above the noise.

Leigh listened with increasing anxiety. She knew Enoch was scanning, too, and would patiently sift through all the unimportant details and gossip, extracting only the profitable information. Jane would be an easy, unexpected Christmas bonus for him.

It was nearly nine p.m. when the phone finally fell silent. Leigh had been there for almost three hours; the darkness fully shadowed her inside her car and Enoch inside his. She could feel the early signs of the much-heralded cold front due to blast the Dallas area at midnight. According to the weatherman, this was the last mild evening for the next several weeks. By tomorrow temperatures would be in the mid-teens during the day and single digits at night.

When another car passed, Leigh turned her face away from the headlights. Despite her ragged Oldsmobile, no one seemed to notice her.

A scent of scorched BBQ sauce drifted into her partially opened window and Leigh realized how hungry she was. Then she saw movement from Enoch's car, saw a shadow creep toward Jane's house and then scale the fence leading into her back yard. At that moment Leigh gave thanks she hadn't eaten anything.

 

By the time Leigh saw Enoch exit Jane's front door, it took all of her concentration to raise her camera. Through the magnification of the lens she recognized Enoch's familiar strut, his slight limp, his thick legs and broad shoulders. The gloom of the night hid his face from her, hid the scar that ran across his forehead, his square jaw, his piercing green eyes. But she knew his features as well as she knew her own.

Enoch turned to the left, back toward his car. He carried something in his right hand, but the darkness hid it. He carried a cat in his left.

As he moved away from her, fading into the darkness, the vise of fear slowly released her. She shook uncontrollably.

During the hours she'd been waiting for Enoch to come out of the house, the temperature had dropped at least twenty-five degrees. Her warm breath had long ago fogged the windows and only when she couldn't see a thing had she risked starting her car to use the defroster.

Enoch backed out of the driveway and headed toward her. She hid her face and crouched in the seat. Only after what seemed an eternity did she look up. Behind her, she saw a glimpse of Enoch's fading taillights.

The wind howled and rocked her car as she considered her next move. Finally, she swallowed her fear, grabbed the camera, and stepped from the car. The cold air slapped her as it screamed from the north. The short walk to Jane's house seemed the longest of her life.

Her throat tightened as tears gathered in her eyes. Wrapping herself tightly in her jacket, she leaned into the cold and prayed for strength.

At the front door she hesitated, collected her courage and knocked. The sound died as soon as her knuckles slapped against the hard, cold door. She knocked harder, afraid to use the doorbell glowing in front of her.

She glanced at the street as she waited, hoping not to be seen by some insomniac. Or Enoch, who might decide to come back and retrieve some item of value he had seen but forgotten to take.

No one answered. After a full minute she knocked again. She wore no gloves and the sharp rapping stung her cold hands. She blew on them for warmth as she watched the street.

Still no answer. Pulling her jacket sleeve down over her right hand, she tried the knob. Unlocked. Despite the cold, sweat moistened her hairline. She drew a breath and pushed the door open with her foot.

Enoch had destroyed the place. A single, shade-less lamp stood in the middle of the den and cast shadows into the corners of the room. Around this solitary lamp, furniture was slashed and overturned, pictures destroyed, broken glass lay everywhere. Stepping through the doorway, she gave the door a bump with her hip. It swung soundlessly on its hinges but didn't catch in its lock. She clicked it shut with her foot.

From where she stood, she saw that Enoch had opened all of the windows and the back door leading to the patio. Already the inside of the house was as cold as outdoors. Touching nothing, she stepped through the wreckage and walked from room-to-room, looking for the woman.

Not on the first floor. Leigh climbed the stairs. Searched the rooms to the right. Nothing. To the left, at the end of the hallway, a door stood open.

She smelled the sour odor from the hallway. Death. Or human terror. Before meeting Enoch, Leigh had never believed you could smell someone's fear.

She approached the door and peeked in. The master bedroom hadn't been destroyed like the others, but it was the room that would reveal the nightmare. She stood outside the door, hesitating, as the wind howled through the open windows. The cold cut her to the bone.

Finally, she stepped into the room. The bed sat to the left, crimson. A trail of blood led from there, across the floor, and into the bathroom.

Her empty stomach churned, bile pushing into her throat. Covering her mouth, she followed the trail. It disappeared under the closed bathroom door.

Intent on what lay beyond the door, she jumped and screamed when she caught her reflection in the vanity mirror. The image staring back was horror-stricken, almost unrecognizable. Her hair hung straight and limp, her thin, gaunt face reflected the months of stress.

She refocused on the bathroom door, slid her jacket sleeve down over her right hand, and reached for the knob.

When a gust of wind rattled the blinds over one of the bedroom windows, she suppressed a scream. Calming herself, she slowly opened the door.

Then nearly choked on the bile that rose in her throat.

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