Convergence

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An Unwelcome Guest

I

Junction City, Kansas

Diane had always been the epitome of an upstanding, law-abiding citizen. She didn’t litter or jaywalk, and occasionally even felt uneasy about using free Wi-Fi in coffee shops. She had never received a traffic ticket or a parking ticket, for that matter but she was willing to risk her perfect record today. Still shaken from her experience at Mabel’s Market, she decided to allow herself to ignore all posted speed limits just this once. She would not feel entirely safe until she was inside her own house with the doors locked and windows secured. She glanced at the speedometer. She was doing eighty-five.

Once she got home and secured all the locks, it was time to do a little research on Steve McIntosh. In order to allay her fears completely, she needed to know whether the green Explorer that she had seen at Mabel’s had in fact been his. If it was, when had he moved to Missouri? If he had moved to Missouri, what the hell was he doing here? And if he was here, what did he want? He had no friends here. He had no friends, period.

As she drove, her mind wandered back in time. She remembered the night that he left their house.

They had been having problems for more than two of their less than three years of marriage. They hadn’t slept in the same room for six months. As their lives together unfolded, Diane had discovered day by day and week by week, with exponentially growing unease, that her husband was unstable, jealous, and perhaps even dangerous.

It had been little things at first: misplaced anger, occasional fits of jealousy. Then came the steadily growing paranoia, the slight but significant mistrustful innuendo - all of which soon eroded into stalking. He checked on her wherever she went - work, the library, even church. He began inconspicuously with drive-bys, phone calls, surprise visits. As time passed, he grew bolder, actually following her openly wherever she went. He actually seemed unconcerned about the fact that she knew exactly what he was doing. He was consumed, sick.

Despite his desire to believe otherwise, Diane had actually remained faithful to Steve during the entire course of their marriage. She was a woman of strong moral conviction and would never disrespect the sanctity of her vows. But everything changed the first (and last) time he hit her. She was “late” getting home from work one evening and Steve sat, shrouded in darkness, on their front porch waiting for her. “Good evening, dear.” She jumped excitedly, startled by the greeting tossed at her from unseen origins in the shadows.

“S-s-steve,” she responded uneasily and braced herself for the forthcoming verbal onslaught. He certainly did not disappoint. “Where the hell have you been?” Followed by the ever-popular, “Who have you been with?” And then, his personal favorite, “Did you fuck him, you whore?” She knew they were coming and she took them in stride as she entered the house briskly, anxious to conceal these proceedings from their neighbors. What she had not anticipated, however, was the blinding pain from the uppercut that shattered her jaw.

She awoke seven hours later in the hospital to find Clay at her bedside and an unknown man guarding her door. Clay was a captain at the base with whom Diane had daily contact. He was basically the military liaison to the civilian workforce that shared Fort Riley and Diane’s job required much from that relationship. As she regained consciousness, Clay recounted to her how much had happened during the previous seven-and-a-half hours. While she had been unconscious, a team of surgeons had worked deftly to repair her fractured facial bones. On a tip from Clay himself, he had told her JCPD had sent a squad car by her house to have a talk with Steve, only he hadn’t been there. In fact, he hadn’t been seen since. So, Clay had seen to it that someone was stationed at her door as a precautionary measure, at least until Steve’s whereabouts could be ascertained. It seemed that Steve had simply disappeared.

Diane spent the next three days under observation in her guarded hospital room with a morphine button for her pain. As she drifted into and out of fitful slumber, she noticed that Clay was at her bedside more often than not. On the fourth day, the head nurse informed Diane that she was ready for discharge. At that moment, Clay sensed her apprehension about returning home. In an effort to alleviate her anxiety, he spoke with a hospital administrator about the possibility of extending her stay, if even for only a couple of days. The woman with whom he spoke was pleasant enough and seemed genuinely sympathetic, but declined his request citing cost and logistics. Fully aware of the lunatic-induced danger that Diane might face at home, Clay proffered that she come home with him, to continue her recovery in the safety of his residence. Initially, Diane had refused. She tried every argument she could think of: I’m not a child, I can take care of myself, it’s just such an imposition, and of course, the obvious what would people think, I’m a married woman. But Clay would hear none of it. Steve was dangerous. They both knew it. There was no way that Clay was going to allow her to return to that house. In the end, Diane knew he was right and agreed to his generous offer.

All told, she spent the next fifteen days at Clay’s house. While there, Clay tirelessly nurtured her back to health. He prepared “meals” that she could drink through a straw while her jaw was wired shut. He told her stories about himself, his family, and his background. He asked her about herself and waited patiently, almost eagerly, for her to answer them with pen and paper. And he never lost interest or patience when she needed something, wanted to “talk,” or needed a pill for her pain. He was always there. And in the process of nursing her back to health, he had deliberately and altruistically undertaken the monumental task of rebuilding her broken sense of self.

When she had finally felt strong and determined enough to return to her own home, Clay had insisted on accompanying her. Despite her fears, Steve was not there when they arrived. He was gone. Completely gone. In fact, other than a couple of small blood stains in the foyer (and inexplicably, a rather large one in the home office); there was no sign that he had ever even lived here.

In the months that followed, Diane and Clay could neither deny nor ignore the intimacy that had resulted between them during her convalescence. While not yet physical, the bond that they had formed was a powerful one. Before they even realized that those seeds had been sown, the delicate flower had begun to blossom. As the days and weeks became weeks and months, Diane and Clay vigorously explored their newly transformed relationship. When the lease finally expired on the house that she and Steve had shared, Diane moved in with Clay.

Around that same time, her lawyer had begun, overseen, and completed the dissolution of her marriage to Steve. In addition to the warrant that JCPD had out for his arrest, Diane had been granted a protective order from him as well. One month after the official annulment of her first marriage, Diane married Clay in a small and private ceremony. Steve had not been seen or heard from since the night of the assault.

At the very moment that she and Clay shared their first kiss as man and wife, Diane finally realized that her long waking nightmare had ended and her personal fairy tale had seemingly begun.

The whole thing had seemed entirely too easy. It had left both her and Clay wondering when the other shoe would drop. It had to drop.

Now, seemingly out of nowhere, the bewildering appearance of that green Explorer… it had definitely been the same model and color as the one Steve owned. The very sight of that vehicle had caused within her an inexplicable and overwhelming feeling of dread. It had to be his. But if that were the case, where had he been? There was no one in the vehicle. And he hadn’t been inside the market. Then she remembered the strange alarm that had begun blaring wildly for no apparent reason. Something about this whole situation felt wrong.

“It seems the other shoe may finally have dropped,” she said aloud.

“That is a very interesting perspective,” came a voice from the back seat. “Very interesting, indeed.” It was Steve.

II

Albuquerque, New Mexico

“Hey, buddy,” Kevin tapped his empty glass on the bar. “Could I have another martini? And could you make this one dry, please?”

It was 5:20 and Angela was still conspicuously absent. Kevin decided to cancel their dinner reservation and have another drink (or two) before catching a cab to the airport. She must really be pissed off at him. He knew that she didn’t appreciate him making this major life decision without so much as a discussion. She had made that very clear. As a result, there had been an undeniable strain on their relationship recently. But for her to just blow him off completely, without so much as a phone call? Wow. He certainly hadn’t seen this coming.

Cheech returned with his martini.

“What’s the matter, buddy? Girl troubles?” A comedian and a psychotherapist. Impressive.

Kevin shook his head. “Martini troubles.” Cheech chuckled, apparently unaware of the insult that had just been hurled at him. As Kevin sipped installment number two of Cheech’s martini-like cocktail, he said, “Hey, let me ask you something.”

“Sure, boss. What’s up?” Cheech leaned on the bar and cocked his head in an amusing “I’m your bartender and I care. What’s on your mind, friend?” pose that, due to his underlying smugness, was impossible to pull off with any credibility.

“Are you guys out of vermouth or something?” It was time to bring Cheech down a peg.

“No,” Cheech answered with a chuckle. “If we were, I wouldn’t be able to make a martini, now would I?”

“Well, then,” Kevin said, “you can understand my confusion.” He took a long, deliberate look at his martini, then set it on the bar. “Could you call me a cab, please?”

“Gladly.” Cheech disappeared into the storage room adjacent the bar.

Before resigning himself to departing Albuquerque without ever seeing Angela again, Kevin decided to call her one last time. As he retrieved his cell phone from his jacket pocket, it began to ring. Angela’s smiling face popped up on his phone’s display. Good news or bad, he wondered. He feared he already knew the answer.

“Hello?”

“Hey, baby. It’s me.”

“Where are you?” Kevin was startled by the quiver in his voice. “I just cancelled our dinner reservation and called a cab. I was certain that you were blowing me off.” Then Kevin paused and asked, “Are you?”

Momentary silence. And then, “Well, it turns out that I am not going to be able to make it to Mariachi’s.”

Kevin’s heart sank. “Where are you? I’ve been calling you ever since I left campus. Are you okay?”

“Yes. I’m fine,” she answered. “Sorry if I worried you, but I’ve been busy all afternoon. Really busy.”

“Busy?” Kevin asked incredulously. “Busy doing what?” A pang of disappointment pierced his gut like a dagger. “You know how badly I wanted us to spend this evening together. What could you have had to do that could possibly have been more important than…”

Angela cut him off. “Well…if you must know…among other things, I had to quit my job, pack, reserve an airline ticket, and…”

“Wait, what?” That statement caught him off guard. “What do you mean?”

“What I mean, my dear…” she answered, then paused. Kevin could tell that she was enjoying this, perhaps a little too much. Then finally, “…is that I’ve decided to go to Fort Collins with you.”

Kevin laughed out loud. He floated through the last few minutes of the conversation as Angela explained how she had done some serious soul searching over the last few days and had decided that, more than anything else, she wanted to explore what the future held for them. And if that meant pulling up her roots and moving to Colorado, she was willing to do so. She had tried to secure a seat on his flight but it was overbooked, so she had had to book a later flight. Ultimately, though, she would be flying with the same airline and departing from the same gate.

“Oh! I’ve got to go, baby,” she finished, “my cab is here.”

“Okay,” he answered, practically gushing. “I want you to know you’ve made me very happy. I’ll see you within the hour.”

“Sounds good. I love you, Kevin.”

“I love you, too!”

As he hung up and returned his phone to his jacket pocket, Cheech returned and placed his bill on the bar beside his drink. “Your cab will be here shortly.”

“Thanks for that,” Kevin replied and slid a twenty across the bar. “Keep the change.”

Cheech smiled and thanked him. Kevin smiled back, amused by Cheech’s naivety to the fact that had Angela not just called him, he would not have received a tip at all. Ah, the droll little ironies in life.

As he sat awaiting the arrival of his cab, Kevin pondered the wonderful things that this unexpected twist in his life’s plot might provide and he kept on smiling.

III

Junction City, Kansas

“You know, one of the few things I ever really admired about you was your ability to remain even-headed under pressure. That would be a very useful character trait for you to call upon just now.” Steve spoke in a monotone; his voice calm, his words calculated. “Just be a good girl and do exactly as you’re told, and everything will be just fine. Do you understand?”

“What do you want from me, you sick bastard?!” He could tell that Diane was shaken, terrified. That was good. He needed her to be. In order to get them safely out of Kansas, Steve needed to maintain complete control over every minute detail of this situation – especially Diane. He knew her well enough to know that as long as she was shaken and frightened, she would be compliant.

“I want you to shut the fuck up and do just as I tell you.” He grabbed her by the hair on the back of her head, made a fist, and yanked her head backward. She yelped in pain and momentarily lost control of the vehicle, but was able to regain it quickly. Her yelp gave way to a heavy sobbing and a general inability to breathe normally. The hyperventilating that ensued was the best possible scenario for Steve. It told him that his little show of force had had the desired effect. She was completely terrified, and as a result, completely malleable.

She won’t stay that way, you know. Not without your influence. Stay focused, vigilant.

Steve’s head was reeling. Within the previous hour, his whole life had changed. When he heard Diane’s voice inside the market, something stirred deep within him. It was as if some malevolent auto-pilot suddenly took over his body and mind. Without any clear realization as to what he was doing (or why he was doing it), he suddenly found himself crawling frantically through the aisles of the market toward the rear door. Once there, he threw the door open, inadvertently setting off the alarm in the process. Although a meeting with Diane had been the first phase in his complex plan to regain control of his own fate, he had never really expected that it would happen. Like all of the other plans he had formulated through the years, he assumed that it was all just a pipe dream, intended to make him feel better about himself – not something that he could actually bring to pass.

Your lack of faith in yourself is your most glaring weakness!

Yes, okay…he freaked out. There was no use denying it. He freaked out and fled the building. Astonished that no one had seemed to react to the alarm or follow him into the alley behind the market, he raced around the building to the parking lot – where he saw Diane’s beige Grand Cherokee at the gas pumps. Then before he had even realized what was happening, he found himself crawling into the Jeep’s back seat. As he balled up on the floor and covered himself with the wool blanket that Diane kept stashed under the passenger seat, he heard the door open, the engine start, and the tires squeal. Now, here he was, with absolutely no idea what to do next. He needed a new plan. Quickly.

Can’t you do anything right?!

Steve blinked his eyes furiously and rubbed his temple, eager to silence his internal monologue. Refocus! Diane was too frightened at the moment to do anything other than drive. There’s time to think. What’s the next move? Think!

At the moment, there were only two things that Steve knew for sure. One: they needed to ditch her Jeep and procure a less identifiable vehicle. Two: he needed a firearm. He had packed his Glock but it was left in the Explorer, along with everything else he had brought on this trip. Those two tasks needed to be accomplished, and soon - preferably before Diane discovered that he was unarmed. That was information, if discovered, that could prove disastrous. He would have to guard against that possibility very carefully for the time being. Just for good measure, he made a fist and punched Diane in the back of the head. She howled in agony as the Jeep swerved right, then left, then steadied.

“What are you going to do with me,” she sobbed, glancing at him in the rearview mirror.

“I’m not quite sure yet. I may kill you,” he answered flatly. “Just set your cruise control on seventy and keep driving west.”

She did as instructed. “Where are we going?” Her sobbing was beginning to subside.

“West. No more questions. Just drive.”

Keep her frightened. Find a gun. Keep her frightened. Find a gun.

Much to Steve’s annoyance, his internal monologue had kicked into high gear, as it often did when he found himself in stressful situations; situations like last New Year’s Eve.

He had spent that afternoon watching football on the 28-inch flat screen TV he had received as a Christmas bonus from the electronics warehouse where he worked. There was a pork loin and sauerkraut simmering in the slow cooker and a case of Sam Adams in the fridge. He had anticipated a low-key evening at home by himself to usher out another brutally disappointing year.

As the minutes ticked by, reflecting had turned to moping. By early evening, the moping had become a dull, seething brooding. Then, as was often the case, the brooding gave way to a piercing uneasiness that had forced him from his house.

At 9:00, he had ended up at Larry’s Tavern, a few blocks from his house. True to its classification as a neighborhood hole-in-the-wall, Larry’s wasn’t much of a New Year’s Eve destination. The meager smattering of patrons he found inside provided proof of that. The male bartender stood behind the bar, serving and interacting with the customers. The female bartender sat at the end of the bar with the newspaper and the remote control, minding the beginnings and endings of the evening’s football games.

As he sat at the bar guzzling Jack Daniels, an attractive redhead in her early thirties had taken the empty seat beside him, despite the glut of empty seats from which she had to choose.

They sat silently for a while; Steve focused on his sour mash, she focused on his lack of interest in her.

“I hate New Year’s Eve,” she finally said. With that single innocuous declaration, she had cracked the door open for Steve, who strode through it confidently without as much as a second thought. Her name was Brenda, and she had no idea how prophetic that innocent statement would soon become.

She was thirty-three, had never been married, and worked as a call center supervisor. She lived alone. All of her friends were either married or in serious relationships. In addition to New Year’s Eve, she also hated Valentine’s Day and Halloween. She loved St. Patrick’s Day. She liked the Chiefs but not the Royals. She had a Labradoodle named Peaches and a Shih Tzu named Hugo. And she liked to talk. A lot.

For two hours, she talked about herself. For those same two hours, Steve sat and listened, gathering information.

As midnight approached, Larry’s began to fill slowly with already-inebriated revelers straggling in from other events, likely eager to celebrate the moment closer to home. At 11:45, the female bartender began distributing cheap, plastic champagne flutes filled with cheap, complimentary champagne. “For the midnight toast,” she told Steve and Brenda with a smile. Brenda smiled back.

On the television, Ryan Seacrest began the countdown as the huge, ornate ball in Times Square began its descent. Inside Larry’s Tavern, the drunken mass joined the countdown.

“Ten! Nine! Eight! Seven…”

On the barstool beside him, Brenda added her voice to the throng.

“Six! Five! Four…”

She nudged him with her elbow. Reluctantly, Steve raised his champagne flute and joined them.

“Three! Two! One!”

“HAPPY NEW YEAR!!”

When Steve turned to Brenda, she leaned in and kissed him.

Twenty minutes later, they were back at Steve’s house, drinking Sam Adams and eating pork and kraut. She was drunk, but happy. Steve was drunk, and edgy. After they had each finished their second beers, she nuzzled up to him on the couch. As her lips danced hungrily about his face and neck, her hands moved clumsily down his chest to his crotch. Things had reached critical mass when she began fumbling around with his belt buckle. He rose from the couch, scooped her up in his arms and carried her into his bedroom.

Their coupling was clumsy and lumbering. They moved awkwardly throughout, each unable to achieve the other’s rhythm. Steve grunted with each thrust. As his thrusts increased in intensity, Brenda moaned in ecstasy and drew her nails across his sweat-glistened back. At the moment of climax, he pulled out of her and spilled his seed on her naked, quivering belly. She released her grasp on him and collapsed to the bed, unmoving save for her heavy, rhythmic breathing.

Now you’ve done it!

As Steve looked down upon her, he became agitated. He suddenly did not want her to be here, in his bed – in his house. She didn’t want him – she wanted to not be alone. She wasn’t intriguing; she was annoying. How could she possibly sleep with him after knowing him for just three hours?

She’s a whore. Whores need to be punished.

“Come lay with me,” she entreated.

There’s only one way to do this…

Steve crawled into bed and snuggled up to Brenda, his bare chest pressed against her bare back. He began caressing her hair, and scalp, and forehead, and face.

“That was nice,” she whispered.

From behind her, he took her chin into his left hand and the back of her head in his right.

“Happy New Year,” he said, just before he snapped her neck.

“Where are we going?” Diane supplicated from the front seat, banishing all thoughts of Brenda back to the annals of his past. He caught sight of a passing interstate sign; Abilene – 34 miles. He glanced at the Jeep’s console clock. It was 4:05.

“We’re going to Abilene,” he said as he snatched her purse from the front passenger seat.

The blow that Steve had delivered to the back of her skull had removed any doubt Diane may have harbored that this nightmare was in fact real. At this moment, there was a very sick, very dangerous man in her back seat and she was completely at his will.

She glanced in the rearview mirror and saw Steve surveying the passing landscape through his window. Surreptitiously, she felt for the cell phone inside her pocket. Fortunately she had not returned it to her purse, which was now in Steve’s possession. It was safe in her pocket and may very well be her only chance of surviving this ordeal.

What if it rang? That would be disastrous. Not only would she lose the phone, she may very well lose a few teeth. She couldn’t turn it off now, Steve would certainly notice. That was a chance she simply could not take. Her only hope was that Clay wouldn’t check his voicemail until she had a chance to turn off her ringer. His meeting would run until around 6:00, so he almost certainly wouldn’t call her for over an hour. Unless he checked his voicemail during a break. That would present a problem. Diane realized that Clay would call her immediately after hearing that voicemail. She had mentioned Steve, after all.

She had to act. And soon. The longer she waited, the smaller her window of opportunity would become. Another glance in the rearview found Steve going through her purse. He seemed somewhat preoccupied, not quite all there. Maybe he would slip up at some point and provide her an opportunity down the road – perhaps in Abilene. She had to remain positive and focused, so as to recognize the opportunity when it presented itself.

They were about thirty minutes from Abilene. She would do nothing until then.

Just be calm and drive, she told herself. Just be calm and drive.

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