“Okay … where am I? Where am I … where—” Cait Douglass leaned into the steering wheel of her little Lexus SUV, like that was going to increase the odds of her finding the hair salon. Tennis-matching it between the road ahead and the lineup of ritzy shops to the left, she shook her head. “The real question is, what the hell am I doing…?” As she trolled down an Epcot Center of luxury boutiques, she was out of her element. French bedding. Italian shoes. English stationery. Clearly this part of Caldwell, New York, was not only worldly, but capable of supporting these triple-H places: high-end, highbrow, high-cost. Huh. Might be worth a good gander sometime, just to know how the other half lived—not going to happen now, though. She was late, and more to the point, it was seven thirty at night, so everything was closed. Made sense. The rich were probably sitting down in their crystal-strewn dining rooms, doing whatever Bruce Wayne did when he was out of his Batman costume. Plus the environs made her nervous. Yup, lesson learned: Next time she decided to get her hair done, she was not asking her cousin, the one who was married to a plastic surgeon, for a reference— Cait hit the brakes. “Gotcha!” Yanking an illegal U-turn, she parallel-parked at a meter that didn’t require plugging, and got out.
“Brrr.” With a shiver, she pulled her lapels in tight. Late April in upstate meant that it could still get cold enough to count as February in more reasonable places, and as usual, the winter was hanging in strong—like a houseguest with nowhere else to go. “I’ve got to move somewhere. Georgia … Florida.” Maybe relocating could be the crowning glory of her year of reclamation. “Tahiti.” The hair salon was the lone still-open standout on the block, its interior lit up bright as daylight— and yet there didn’t appear to be anyone inside. Stepping through the glass door, the air was all sweet perfume with an undertow of chemicals, and the discordant, wavy music was way too sophisticated for her. Whoa, fancy.
Everything was black and white marble, the dozen or so stations spick-and-span, the row of sinks with their Liberace leather reclining chairs like some kind of napping center for grownups. On the walls there were framed, larger-than-life head shots of models rocking Zoolander’s Blue Steel, and the floor was shiny as a plate. As she walked up to the reception desk, her sensible shoes made a squeaking sound—like all that Carrara didn’t approve of them. “Hello?” Rubbing her nose as it kept tickling, she thought, for the love of God, the thing needed to sneeze or get over itself. Lot of mirrors—which made her truly uncomfortable. She’d never been much for looking at herself —not because she was ugly, but because where she came from, that kind of thing was frowned upon. Thank God her parents lived out West when they weren’t traveling. No reason they’d ever know she’d set foot in a place like this. “Hello?” She went deeper into the interior, checking out the island in the middle that was obviously where they mixed the colors. So many tubes of various hues of blond, brunette, red … and some of a more Crayola spectrum.
Blue hair? Pink? Maybe she should blow this off… The man who came out of the back was thin as a shadow, those shrink-wrapped black jeans clearly helping his toothpick legs keep him upright. “Are you zee Cait Douglass?” he said in an accent that she couldn’t place and could barely understand. “Ah, yes, I am.” As his dark, dark stare narrowed and locked on her hair, it was like a doctor eyeballing a rheumatic patient—and though he hardly looked like a serial killer, something about him made her want to turn and bolt for the door. Her skin was literally itching for her to get out of here, and this time it didn’t have anything to do with her family’s fundamentalist value system. “My chair, eez dis over here,” he announced. At least … she thought that was what he’d said—okay, yup, he was pointing at one of the stations. Now or never, Cait thought, glancing around and hoping to borrow some courage from something, anything. But nobody else was with them, and that trippy electronic music bubbling overhead made her brain spin. Worse, rather than being inspired by those photographs, all she could think of was that people really didn’t need to take what grew out of their head so seriously.
Wait, that was her mother talking. “Yes, thank you,” she said with a nod. Following his lead, she sat down in an incredibly comfortable leather seat, and then she was spun around to face the glass. Ducking her eyes to her lap, she jumped as he burrowed his surprisingly strong hands into her hair. “So what are you thinking?” he asked. Which came out as something close to, Sue va troo zinking? This is a bad idea, is what she was zinking. Cait forced herself to focus on her reflection. Same deep brown hair. Same blue eyes. Same fine features.
But there was makeup on her pale skin now, something she’d just recently learned how to apply without feeling like she was going into Kardashian territory. The body was different, too. Eight months of working hard in the gym had leaned her out in ways that the scale didn’t necessarily recognize, but her clothes sure did. And the handbag in her lap was bright red, the sort of thing she never would have worn a year ago. Naturally, everything else was gray and black, stuff that had been in her closet since before this year of change. But the Sephora tips, like the pop of color, made her feel … well, not the way she used to. “Zo …?” the stylist prompted, as he came around and struck a pose against the mirror. With his arms crossed and his chin dipped, he reminded her of someone, but she couldn’t place it. Cait fingered her hair like he had, hoping it would germinate an idea in her head. “I don’t know.
What do you think?” As he pursed his mouth, she realized he had lip gloss on. “Bloond.” Bloond? What the hell was—“You mean blond?” When he nodded, Cait mostly sucked back the recoil. Red accessories were one thing. Lady Gaga was another: She was prepared to dip her toe in the salon waters. Not drown herself. “I wasn’t thinking that extreme.” He reached forward and did that fingers-through-the-locks thing again. “No, deftly bloond—und viz the law lits as vell.” Law lits? Like he wanted to go tort reform on her hair? “I don’t even know what those are.
” “Tvust me.” Cait met her own eyes again, and for some reason thought of her closet, where everything was arranged by type—and she would have done color sorting among the blouses, pants, skirts and dresses, too, but there were only so many variations on shadow. Photoshopping a blond wig on her head made her want to hit the door again. But she was sick of her mouse-brown, too. Now is the time to live, she thought. Never any younger. Never any better. No guarantee that tomorrow would come for her. “Bloond, huh,” she whispered. “Bloond,” the stylist said.
“And ve’re lawyer up, tou. Ze changing vroom iz trough vere.” Cait looked over her shoulder. Trough vere was a little hallway that had four doors opening off of it. She didn’t suppose which one you chose mattered. But not all decisions had such lack of consequences. “All right,” she heard herself say. Getting to her feet, she squeaked her way across the shiny floor and felt as though she were walking on water—but not like Jesus did. This was not a miracle; this was a mortal woman feeling unsteady on an otherwise stable floor. But she wasn’t going to pull out.
The recent tragedy that had struck the community in so many ways had woken her up on an even deeper level, and she wasn’t going to waste time with any lack-ofcourage bullcrap. She was alive, and that was a gift. After a moment’s hesitation, she went through the first door on the right. As Duke Phillips strode down the sidewalk, people got out of his way, even though this was a rough part of Caldie after dark. Probably had something to do with his size, which was a bene he leveraged in both his jobs: big and muscular. Maybe it was his temperament, too: In violation of the New York State code of avoidance, he met the other schmoes right in the eye, ready for anything. Hell, even looking for something. The full-on stare routine was a favor rarely returned. Most of the men, whether they were gang members, drug dealers, or partiers heading for the clubs, followed the rules, their peepers shifting away from him and staying gone. Too bad.
He liked fights. As for the women? He didn’t pay attention to them—although that was because he didn’t want to fend off the inevitable “hey, daddys,” not because they were a threat to him. God knew females couldn’t touch him on any level except physical, and he wasn’t interested in sex at the moment. What he was in search of was a purple door. An ugly-ass, stupidly painted purple door with a billboard-size handprint on it. And what do you know, about fifty yards later, the entrance he was looking for presented itself on the right. As he gripped the black handle, he wanted to snap the thing off, and the red neon outline of the word Psychic made him curse. On so many levels, he couldn’t believe he was coming here. Again. It just didn’t— A sudden fluttering in his chest made him wonder if he’d gone into atrial fib from annoyance—but it was just his phone on vibrate.
Taking the thing out, he recognized the number. “You need me?” he clipped, because he hated wasting time with any kind of “Hello, how are you, hasn’t the weather been good/bad/rainy/snowy lately” shit. Alex Hess’s voice was deep for a woman, her words as direct as a man’s. “Yeah, can you pick up an extra shift for me tonight?” His boss was probably the only female he respected—then again, it was hard not to take seriously someone who’d snapped a grown man’s tibia in front of you: As head of security for the Iron Mask, she didn’t appreciate dealers on her turf, especially ones with short-term amnesia who she’d already warned not to sell in her club. You had one shot with Alex. After that? You were lucky if the damage was merely cosmetic and/or cast-related. He checked his old watch. “I can be over in about forty-five, but I’ve got to be somewhere at ten tonight—that’ll only take a half hour, though.” “Good deal, I appreciate it.” “No problem.
” Duke hung up, and faced off at the purple door again. Compelled by a force that he had long detested and never understood, he threw the thing open, the old wood panels ricocheting off the wall. As he caught the thing in his fist on the rebound, he looked up the flight of stairs that double-backed on itself for five stories. He’d been coming here for how long? Such bullshit. And yet his heavy boots carried him up two steps at a time, his thigh muscles grabbing onto his leg bones, his hard hand gripping the iron railing like it was a throat, his body coiling for a fight. When he got to the top, the sign on the door read, PLEASE HAVE A SEAT AND WAIT TO BE GREETED . Like it was a shrink’s office or something. He didn’t follow the directions, but paced back and forth on the cramped landing. The two chairs available for asses were mismatched and painted in a psychedelic array of bright-and-rainbow. The air smelled of the incense that was burned inside.
And under his boots, a Tibetan rug was threadbare, but not because it had been made cheaply. He hated waiting on a good day. Despised it in this context—frankly, he didn’t know why the hell he kept coming back. It was like some unseen steel chain was linked around his chest and pulling him to this place. God knew he thought this was a waste of time, but he kept showing up— “I’ve been waiting for you,” came a female voice on the far side of the closed door. She always did that. The woman always knew when he’d made an appearance—and it wasn’t like she had video monitoring equipment mounted on the ceiling. Then again, his pacing probably wasn’t silent. Not with all the muttering, at any rate. The knob on the door was old and brass, its face polished by the countless palms that had twisted it over time.
Watching it turn, a warped sense of unreality crept into his body and laid claim to his mind. As the woman in draped robing revealed herself, he was the one who looked down and avoided confrontation. “Come in,” she said in a low voice. Damn it, he hated this; he truly did. As he stepped inside, a clock began to chime … eight times. In his ears, it sounded like a scream. “You need to be cleansed. Your aura is black.” Duke shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans and flexed his shoulders. “How’s that different than normal.
” “It isn’t.” Exactly. Shit, for all he knew, she was making things worse instead of better, cursing him instead of healing him. “Sit, sit, sit…” He glanced over at the round table with its central-casting crystal ball, and Tarot card deck, and white candles. Just like the heavily draped psychic herself, tapestries hung from the workspace to the floor, pooling in a swirl of every color imaginable. There were two chairs, one large enough to be considered a throne, the other more pedestrian, the sort of thing you could find at Office Depot. He just wanted to leave. He sat down instead.