Anna remained silent during the short drive from the airport to the hotel. As soon as Mark parked in front of the hotel, he reached for the door handle. She made no move to get out of the car. He turned to her and asked, “Second thoughts?”
“I wasn’t thinking clearly when I asked you to find a way to keep Miller in town until I could confront him. I let my anger cloud my judgment. I was determined not to let him walk away believing that his actions were acceptable. Then, when Ben confirmed that my stalker was the uncoordinated teen that stumbled into me at the restaurant, I had second thoughts.
“At the time of the glass incident, I was convinced that he was in such a hurry to escape an embarrassing situation, that he walked out with my glass. Actually, I felt a little sorry for him.
“I still think that he needs to accept some responsibility for his actions, but jail time is too extreme. Maybe I should back off.”
“Since we’re here, why not see him? The meeting with him doesn’t have to be confrontational. Tell him how frightened you were, and let it go at that.
“Miller isn’t a hardened criminal, but neither is he the innocent gangly teen that you imagined him to be. He’s twenty-two, Anna. He manipulated you. He gambled that you would be more forgiving if you thought that he was a bumbling teenager.
“On the other hand, you might also keep in mind that he lost his job at Best Buy because of his actions. The loss of income is going to complicate his life. Now that he’s jobless, it’s going to difficult for him to meet his financial obligations.
"For the record, his yearly evaluations have always been excellent. He was commended for his leadership and his likeability.:
“If he had a job at Best Buy, why did he agree to take the job James offered?”
“It gave him the opportunity to use his photography skills. He used his vacation time, so unexcused absences weren’t the issue until he was picked up by the police. Then, he was forced to call his boss and explain the situation. His boss wasn’t as forgiving as you are.”
“Ouch! He probably feels like he’s the victim.”
“I don’t think so. He knows what he did was wrong. He needs some direction, but he has a strong work ethic, and he’s smart. He reminds me of some of the kids we work with at the foundation who were brought up by single mothers with few mothering skills.
“To his credit, he’s a responsible son. He’s been paying half of the household expenses for his mother since he was sixteen. He’s been slowly building a savings account to use for college classes. It won’t take long for the account to be depleted if he can’t find another job.”
“James’ client base is primarily the elite of Clinton. I don’t want to sound like a snob, but doesn’t hiring someone like Rusty seems somehow out of character?”
“I didn’t put it like that, but I did ask Ben if there was a connection between James and Rusty. It turns out that James’ wife was Rusty’s English teacher in high school. She had seen and admired Rusty’s photography.”
“Hmm . . . He must have redeeming qualities if James’ wife recommended him to her husband. Now that I know more about his background, I sympathize with his predicament. I’m glad I came to my senses.
“Lots of guys in their late teens and early twenties are reckless when they get behind the steering wheel of a car. Two guys in my high school class were demons on the ski slopes and in a car. They lost their licenses when they were caught playing chicken on a mountain road.”
“Are they still alive?”
“Only by God’s grace. Okay. I’m going to try to get through this meeting without coming across as a drill Sargent. Let’s go.”
There were only three customers in the lounge. Miller was nursing a drink at the bar.
Mark put a hand on Anna’s shoulder. “Let me handle this. Grab one of the tables in the back corner. There will be more privacy away from the bar. I’ll get the drinks and bring them over. What’s your choice?”
“Ginger ale if they have it. If not, 7-up.”
Anna studied Rusty as he strolled across the room to join her. When she had last seen him, he was wearing faded jeans, a scruffy t-shirt and well-worn Jordan's. Currently, he was wearing kakis and a white dress shirt open at the neck, and his hair was neatly combed. The transformation was remarkable.
He didn’t speak until he had settled into the seat across from her. “Before you say anything, I’d like to apologize for frightening you.”
She couldn’t resist saying, “Are you one of those ‘I don’t give a damn’ guys who gets his jollies from playing chicken on backroads on Saturday night?”
He frowned. “Contrary to what you might think, I am not a thug. As for my Saturday nights, I haven’t had a free one since I was sixteen. I work on Friday and Saturday. I grew up in a tough neighborhood, Anna, so I have some rough edges. I occasionally make bad decisions, but I learn from them. My decision to use an unacceptable tactic to get your attention, was way out of line. I can’t change that, but you can be sure that I won’t pull a trick like that again.
“Why did you put your job at Best Buy in jeopardy by accepting the job James offered?”
“I didn’t foresee a conflict. I was under the impression that I could get the job done in one weekend. Even when James sent me back to Raleigh, I still had unused vacation time. I reasoned that it was a rare opportunity for my work to go national. Even if that didn’t happen, I expected offers of more work. Photos of the missing Jessica. What a coup for me, or so I thought.
"Jessica Summerfield’s name is known to every person in Clinton over ten. I grew up hearing stories about your kidnapping. I would be lying if I claimed that your disappearance wasn’t a factor in my decision to take the job.
“You are the spittin’ image of the late Claire Summerfield. It seemed to me that James was being anal retentive when he insisted that a DNA sample was needed.
"In his defense, James is thorough. He wanted proof that you were the real McCoy before I discouraged you from having a DNA test done."
Anna’s tone wasn’t sympathetic. “If you understood that, why didn’t you follow his instructions?”
“Impatience. My vacation time had run out, so I needed to return to Clinton. You weren’t convinced that communicating with Ben and Beth Summerfield was in your best interest, but you were still considering going through with the DNA test.
"The car incident was my last-ditch effort to delay your response. I assumed that if I wasn’t caught that you would attribute the incident to a drunk driver or a message from Ben. At that time, you had reservations about his integrity. It didn’t occur to me that you would see it as a death threat.”
“You didn’t just swerve, Rusty, you drove into the parking lot. The next time you try to scare a pedestrian, he or she might not be so forgiving.”
“I realize that it was a chargeable offense. I don’t deserve a second chance, but I’m grateful for it.”
“What are your plans now that you’ve lost your job?”
“I don’t have a clue. It’s not like James or my boss are going to give me a glowing recommendation. I might end up washing dishes in a restaurant for the rest of my life.”
“Talk to James. Maybe he can convince your boss to reverse his decision.”
“Why should he? I let him down. I thought about groveling, but I’ve gone as far as I can as a sales associate. I need to find a job that has a future. The next few weeks will be difficult, but I’ll muddle through somehow.
“I have one thing going for me. My web site is doing well. I’ve sold quite a few of my photos. Setting up a web site was one of my better ideas.” He glanced at his watch. “Sorry, unless there’s something else, I need to head to the airport.”
“Thanks for seeing me. I hope you find what you’re looking for.”
His gaze turned toward Mark. “Thank you, again, Mark. He rose from the table and strolled out of the lounge.
Mark’s attention returned to Anna. “Regrets?”
Anna shook her head. “No. I made the right decision. I hope he finds a job before he spends all of his savings.”
“I didn’t want to say anything to him before a thorough background search. If he checks out, I’m going to hire him to do some photography work for me. Then, if he does a good job, I’ll discuss college classes with him. I won’t give him a free ride, but I’ll make it easy for him.”
Anna’s eyes widened. “Wow!”
“Is that a good wow or ‘are you stupid’ wow?”
“A ’I’m impressed” wow. There’s nothing that pleases me more than seeing a talented and deserving individual catch a break.”