The first thing she saw were the woman's feet, so white they looked like the marble feet on the statue of the Virgin Mary who wears the gold halo and stands in the Catholic church where she attends mass every morning before coming to work at the high-rise hotel on Sixth Avenue. The church where she attended Sunday mass only four hours before. Except these feet oozed black-red blood.
Celia Rodriguez stared, not yet comprehending.
The Virgin's feet do not bleed, though. Christ's feet do. Holes through to the soles, spilling blood.
For the love of God.
No. No love here. Blood. Nighttime pools of congealed blood.
These are still only fragments of thought as her mind raced to keep up with her eyes. She could not make sense of this scene. Not yet.
The mosaic of horror seemed to take forever to fall into place, but in reality, from the time the maid walked into the room to the time she finally opened her mouth to attempt --- and fail --- at a scream, only one minute passed.
Holy Mother of God.
In random order Celia Rodriguez registered that there were fifty-dollar bills, no longer green but soaked dark brown, dozens of them, surrounding the woman's head. Like a halo. And what she had first thought was a blanket was a voluminous black dress pushed up to show shapely naked legs. No, revealing more. Pushed up farther to reveal a chestnut patch of hair between the legs. Too bare. More naked than naked.
The fifty-year-old housekeeper and mother of three stared, sure that what she saw was a vision of some kind.
The woman's pubis had been shaved in a particular shape. She knew this shape. But before she could focus on that, she saw that there was blood oozing from there, too. Celia's eyes shifted from right to left, taking in that the woman's hands were outstretched in a T position and lying in yet more viscous blood.
Celia could not believe what she saw. None of it. Especially not the shape the hair had been shaved into. She knew this shape. It was engraved on her own heart. It hung around her own neck in gold.
It was a cross.
With that, everything finally slipped into place: the plentiful and flowing dress was a nun's habit.
The Spanish woman who opened the door only seconds before fell to her knees and touched the corner of the robe. Her hand came away, stained with bright crimson. She was mesmerized by this horror that made her think of a shrine in the back of her church. Our Lady of Sorrows.
Her eyes returned to the shape carved out of the wiry hair. Why did she have to keep looking there? At that cross. At that blasphemy.
And then she saw more. There was more?
Dripping from the woman's nether mouth was not just blood, but something that was alive, moving, almost crawling. No, it was a rosary that was dripping blood, drop by drop from bead to bead. The blood had washed over the oval medal of the Virgin and had painted the Christ figure. What had flowed off of him had soaked into the carpet. And still it came. And still it came. Christ's blood. This poor woman's blood.
The housekeeper opened her mouth and tried to scream but no sound came. She called for her God, and even if he heard her, no one else did.
It would be nearly half an hour before she could make any noise. Then hotel security came, followed ten minutes later by three uniformed policemen. But it would take an hour for Detective Noah Jordain of the Special Victims Unit to get the phone call while he was sitting in a steamy and crowded restaurant in Chinatown, finishing up a spicy bowl of hot and sour soup and about to start in on a platter of crabs in black bean sauce.
Twenty-four hours later, Jordain learned that the woman who had been brutally murdered was not a woman of God at all, not married to Jesus Christ or pledged to charity or good works, but rather a call girl who had one prior and had just finished up her last stint in prison four months before.
"At least she had a head start at getting into heaven in that outfit," Jordain said after leaving the autopsy room, while he and his partner, Mark Perez, examined the nun's habit the woman was wearing.
"Noah, if you say prayers, you'd better start praying," Perez suggested.
"To help her get in?"
"No, that this isn't the beginning of something."
Jordain nodded. He'd already been there, thought that. A murder like this, ritualistic and designed, was not just an act of passion. It was, in all likelihood, the calling card of a sociopath on a mission.
Statistically, things would get far worse before they got any better.
"Good girls don't kiss and tell." She stroked the cushion she had put in her lap and the movement of her fingers was mesmerizing.
"Does that mean you're not a good girl? Or that you aren't going to tell your story?" I asked.
Cleo Thane laughed. A child's laugh that was all delight with only an innocent hint of sensuality. "I'm good, but not a good girl."
To look at her shining blond hair, the flawless skin, the light makeup that highlighted rather than hid, to take in the classic diamond stud earrings and the watch --- subtle platinum, not gold --- the designer blazer and slacks, the chic shoes and the status bag, you might guess she was an executive at a cosmetic company or the president of an agency or an art gallery.
But the night before this lovely woman had been whispering lies into the ear of a television newscaster whose name you would recognize, while she brought him to a violent orgasm in the back of a stretch limousine, with only a thin layer of glass separating them and their hot breaths from the driver. And before she met him, she'd charged his credit card two thousand dollars for the privilege of spending three hours with her.
The contrast of who she was and how she presented herself was just one of the many things I was intrigued by.
"Dr. Snow, no matter what kind of gentle words I wrap it up in…I sell sex. That's what I do for a living. How could I be a good girl?" She kicked off one of her very high-heeled shoes and noticed my glance. Even though I'd looked at her shoes before, she'd never paid attention until today. I made a mental note of that.
"In my line of work, you always wear stilettos."
"Because they are so sexy?"
Because they are weapons."
That was the last thing I had expected her to say. I certainly knew how dangerous prostitution was for street hookers, but the way Cleo had described her extremely exclusive business, the need for weapons hadn't occurred to me. I covered my surprise. "Other than your shoes, you make a real effort to look like a good girl, don't you?"
"It's how I look. Why is that so hard to reconcile? I look like this. And I sell sex. And since I do, I can't possibly be a good girl, now can I?" By repeating the question, she made it impossible for me to ignore it or how important an issue it was to her. We'd talked about this before in the last six months, but there was obviously something about it that we still hadn't uncovered.
"Well, we aren't necessarily what we do, are we?" I asked, then leaned back in my chair, crossing my ankles, noticing my own modestly heeled pumps. Classic and not inexpensive, but not sexy like Cleo's shoes.
She cocked her head and thought about my question. Not everyone did that. Some patients just blurted out whatever came into their minds. But because we'd been meeting for a long time, I already knew Cleo was more calculated with her words, sometimes saying what she wanted me to hear instead of what she really thought. That was what we'd spent most of her sessions talking about: not that she was a prostitute, or her conflicts with her lifestyle, but her inclination to please people too much --- both sexually and in other ways. And not just her clients. That would have been natural. But the other people in her life.
With her forefinger she drew circles on the pillow. Her eyelashes were long and dusted her skin, and for the first time since she had been coming to see me, twice a week, at 10:00 a.m. each Monday and Wednesday, a single tear escaped from her eye and rolled down her cheek.
She kept her head bowed.
Still, Cleo didn't move. I took the opportunity to tuck my hair behind my ears. Straight, dark hair --- almost black --- that hung down to the top of my shoulders. Cut to curve and frame my face. My twelve-year-old daughter liked to experiment with it: setting it, braiding it, putting it up with clips. She also liked to do my makeup. Other kids dress up in their mother's clothes; Dulcie preferred to dress me up and prepare me for the makeshift stage that doubled as the far side of our living room. And then, once I was in costume, she'd make me act out plays with her.
"Morgan Snow appearing as the lead in --- " she'd say, and fill in the part I was playing at her direction. She'd act opposite me. Happier with this game than any other.
My daughter wanted to be an actress. Which wasn't surprising since her father was a film director, and I, being an overindulgent mother despite my better instincts, accommodated her. I didn't mind that it was her hobby and her ambition, but she wanted to try to act professionally while she was still in grade school, and I didn't want her to.
Acting is a tough business and I wanted my daughter's life to be filled with acceptance and success --- not rejection and frustration.
Cleo finally looked up. Her gray eyes were soft and wet.
"What is it?" I asked.
"I am really confused. I wish I'd found you sooner. I wish I had known you a year ago. Two years ago. I needed someone like you who I could trust not to judge me, but who would push me to judge myself."
"That is not what I want to do. This isn't about judgment at all."
"Is it about redemption?"
"Do you need to be redeemed? Do you think of yourself as a sinner?"
More laughter. Even though Cleo, at twenty-eight, was only seven years younger than me, she reminded me of my daughter. For all that she had seen and done in her life, she remained untouched in some fundamental way.
"Not necessarily a sinner. No. But I'm not a good girl, either."
"You say it as if you are proud of it. What would be so bad about being a good girl?"
She grinned at my unintentional word play. "There are some very good things that I do. If I talk about them it will sound like propaganda from some dogmatic pamphlet."
"Let me worry about that. I think you are much harder on yourself than you need to be. And we need to talk about that. It plays in to you doing too much for other people.You deserve to feel good even if you don't want to be good."
She reached out and touched my hand, to thank me. Her skin, even on her fingertips, was like finely spun satin. It was unusual for my patients to touch me, but I didn't pull back, didn't flinch or show any reaction. Touch is telling. Lack of touch is even more telling. There is nothing as sacred as one person reaching out to another with their body to offer connection, and I would never treat such a thing lightly. There was nothing sexual about the way she put her fingers on the back of my hand and exerted a small but real pressure, but it woke me up in a momentarily sexual way. It made me think about sex, not with her, not with a man, but just inside of myself. Two fingers on my skin and she made me crave something I couldn't quite name.
"I don't meet many people willing to forgo making judgments about me," she said.
The current of connection between us was strong. It was not something I ignored with my patients. I intrinsically understood some better than others.
"What do you think would make you feel good?"
"Having my book published."
Cleo had just finished writing a memoir, a tell-all about what she had learned about men and sex, based on the clients she had worked with over the last five years. She'd submitted an outline and the first five chapters to a publisher and just two weeks ago had received a substantial six-figure deal.
Now she was dealing with the reality of what she had signed on to do. Reveal secrets, albeit anonymously, about men, albeit disguised and not named, who had paid her and trusted her to never do exactly what she was doing.
My phone rang and Cleo glanced at it with a slight frown, but not nearly with the consternation that some patients do. I don't usually answer the telephone during sessions, but I do look at the caller ID in case it is Dulcie, or her school.
It was neither, so I let the machine pick up, apologizing to Cleo.
"That's all right. But you asked me another question and I never answered it. What was it? I don't like unanswered questions."
Her voice was soft with a faint hint of a Southern accent. Too soft to be talking about such hard facts and harsh realities.
She sighed and crossed her legs at her ankles. It was a dainty movement. A woman sitting on a veranda sipping iced tea and wearing a soft summer dress would cross her ankles like that.
"A patient after my own heart. I asked you what was wrong with being a good girl."
"Can you think of anything that would be more boring?"
"Can you?" I asked.
"Okay.You don't answer questions, I do. I forgot. So, no, I can't think of anything that would be more boring than being a good girl. They have no power, no clout. They are so easy to dismiss. Wives. Girlfriends. Sweethearts."She grimaced."I know their husbands. I look into their lovers' eyes." She shook her head and her golden hair swung around like a sheath of silk. "You know, everyone talks about men having all the power, but it's easy to take it away. Especially if you have the one thing that they want so badly."
"What is the difference between you and those women? What do you know that they don't?" I wanted to hear her answer as much to learn about her as to understand more about the men she serviced.
"I know what they want and my entire energy is focused on giving it to them. And to make sure they don't have any reason to fear me. I'm not about approval or disapproval. Men are scared, Dr. Snow. Some worse than others. Some men, who have trouble getting an erection, or who have trouble with premature ejaculation, are just scared of what is between a woman's legs. Did you know that? Of course you do.You know even more than I do about all this. One man told me that he imagined it as a big gaping hole with rows of tiny sharp teeth inside and he was worried that if he stayed inside of me for too long, I'd bite him off. Have you ever heard that from a patient?"
Not for the first time, I was reminded of how much Cleo and I actually had in common. In figuring out what her clients wanted, in satisfying them, she had to listen to their fears and phobias, which was exactly what I did with patients.
I leaned forward just a little, to make the connection between us stronger. "Did it bother you when that man told you that?"
"Bother me? No, but it made me sad. And it made it much easier to do what I could for him. I never took him inside of me. But I saw him for months. Talking, soft touching, listening to him. I'd go to his hotel room every time he came to the city on business. He'd order whatever I wanted from room service and then we'd get into bed with the food. He liked me to feed him. And then he liked to feed me. And he liked me to massage him. Just lightly, you know, with oil. He was strong, worked out a lot, and I liked looking at him. All stretched out on the bed. He never closed his eyes, though. And we never shut off the light. I'd use the oil to loosen him up, and then I'd…"
She cut herself off and looked over at me.
"I guess there's no reason for me to go into all that?"
"If you want to tell me about it, I want to hear about it," I offered.
She'd pulled me in and lulled me with the cadences and nuances of her speech. If Cleo Thane wanted to become a sex therapist, she'd be very good at it. The only problem was as much as I earned --- $225 an hour --- she made more than three times that.
"It hurts. This confusion. These conflicts…" Her lips trembled for a minute; she looked away.
"What scares you the most? What is the most confusing?"
"I'm not sure. Maybe it's the book…." She hesitated. And then in a quieter voice said, "No. Not exactly the book. But it's related to the book. It's really the man I'm seeing."
"Seeing? As in seeing a client?" I was surprised. In all the time she had been in therapy with me she had never mentioned that she was seriously dating anyone, and I'd been waiting for a revelation like this.
Six months may sound like a long time for a patient to hold back important aspects of their personal life, but opening up was not always a simple act. Cleo had been obfuscating since she started with me. It was my job to be patient and do the best I could and trust that she would tell me her secrets when she was ready.
She shook her head. "No. He's not a client. He's my fiancé. A lawyer. At a very prestigious white-glove law firm. I hired him a year ago to help me set up an off-shore account for my company." She let out a delightful peal of laughter. "How ironic is that? I hired him. After a while he asked me out. This love shit is worse than the guy who pulled the knife on me in bed when I first got into the business. Him I knew what to do with, I just reached out and grabbed him by the balls. I squeezed so hard, his little baby fingers opened and the knife just dropped out. But this love stuff? I don't know where to grab."
When you are a therapist, you often become preoccupied with a patient's body language and voice. Obsessed with those things, in fact. From an inappropriate smile you understand a conflict, from crossed arms you pick up on an unwillingness to open up, from closed eyes you detect a reluctance to face the truth. In listening to a client, you learn the subtleties of inflections, pauses and rhythms because a voice is telling. Not just the words said, but also the beginnings of words that almost come out but are aborted, the sighs, the hints of tears. For me, voices are a rich source of information, especially when a patient is lying down on the couch and I can't see his or her face.
But Cleo was sitting up and facing me. She had been clear from the first: she didn't want to lie down on my couch. That, she said, would make her feel too much like she was back at work.
"What is so confusing about the love stuff, as you call it?" I asked.
"I never believed in romantic love. I once read that it's something that was invented in the twelfth century. And up till now every experience I've had was just more proof. This has never happened to me before. And I'm not sure I'm cut out for it." A faraway look in her eyes suggested she was trying very hard to deny the very opposite feeling.
Doctors were not supposed to admit this, but we like some patients more than others. And I liked Cleo. She was refreshing and honest. She was authentic. And that went far with me. But mostly it was because I --- Morgan Snow, not the doctor part but the woman part --- identified with her, mostly because of the similarities in our professions. But also because I had to work hard at not trying to please the people in my own life too much.
Identification with a patient is a healthy, normal part of therapy. In fact it helps us to get deeper insight into the men and women whom we are helping. But it is important to be aware of identifying with someone we are treating so that we don't lose our objectivity.
"Why don't you think you can be in love, Cleo?"
"That's not what I said."
"You are too clever." She gave me a smile along with the compliment.
This woman was seductive in the most delightful way. Her charm was like a song that made you happy, and just for a little while, while you were listening, it enabled you to stop worrying about everything else that was going on.
And if I reacted to her that way --- me, her therapist --- then I could just imagine how the men she met reacted.
"You do ask good questions," she said, trying to get me off the track.
I nodded. Waited. Knew she had more to say.
"The man I am in love with thinks I might be in danger." A slight frown creased her forehead.
This was not what I had expected. "Why?"
Outside a cloud passed in front of the sun and the office was cast into shadow. Just for one second. But in that second, Cleo looked frightened. And even younger. And vulnerable.
How could this woman, who ran a successful twenty-first-cen-tury brothel, who teased and tortured and pleasured men to the tune of two thousand dollars a session, look so innocent and vulnerable?
"Yes?" She had been so deep in thought she couldn't remember what I had asked her.
"You said that this man thinks that you might be in danger. Have you been threatened?"
"No. Nothing has happened, not yet. But he's afraid of what will happen when word gets out about the book."
"Has the deal been announced?"
She shook her head but didn't say anything. The clock on my desk ticked, making a slight but distinct sound as each second passed. We were running out of time, but I didn't want her to leave before she answered me.
"I really am in love," she said.
"You say that as if you have to convince me of your feelings."
"Maybe…maybe I have to convince myself."
"Because how can I love someone but not be able to make love to him?"
"And you can't?" This was an important revelation, and I watched her carefully as she composed herself and then answered.
First she shook her head no. Once. Twice. And then for a third time. Finally she began to speak. "No. No matter how hard I try.
I can't do the simplest things with him. How can I feel the way I do about him and not be able to go down on him without gagging? He puts one hand on my breast and I freeze. He kisses me and I get sick to my stomach.You know, even though I'm getting paid to do it, I still like sex. Always have. It's what I do. How can I not be able to do it with the one guy who really matters to me?"
Her tears caught in the reflection of the sun in her eyes. Cleo even cried in a lovely way: her eyes didn't get red; she didn't scrunch up her face. Her lips quivered and a small sob escaped from her lips. "I'm really confused."
She had just told me more about herself in the last fifteen minutes than she had in all the days and weeks that she had been coming to see me. I nodded. "I know."
"Do you think this is what I'm really here to talk to you about? Not how I want to please people. Not the book, but what is wrong between this man and me."She shook her head vehemently. "Is that what happens in therapy? People come to you for one thing and find out something completely different is bothering them?"
"It might look like that, but everything is connected in some way. However, figuring that out isn't your job right now. You should just feel free to tell me what's on your mind. Whether it seems connected or not."
She didn't say anything.
"What are you thinking?" I asked.
"How he'd feel if he knew that I had just told you all that. He's sort of private."
"Cleo, is there a reason you won't use his name?"
"Occupational hazard. I never use men's real names. To protect their privacy. I just give everyone nicknames."
"But you said he's not a client."
"No. No, he's not."
"If you were to give him a nickname, what would it be?"
She laughed. "I've given him a few nicknames."
"Okay. What one comes to mind first?"
I must have arched my eyebrows, because she laughed. "Do you think it's silly?"
"No, but I'm curious. Why Caesar?"
"The real Caesar was so commanding and powerful. Did you see the movie? His passion for Cleopatra was so all-encompass-ing. It just reminds me of how he is."
"Is he understanding about your sexual conflicts with him?"
She nodded. "No.Yes. Well, intellectually yes. He understands that I am having some sort of resistance to doing what he wants me to do to him --- what I want to do to him --- and confusing it with what I do with my clients…." She broke off, close to breaking down again.
I've been a therapist for ten years, a sex therapist at the Butterfield Institute for five of them, and have had more than fifty long-term patients. One thing I've learned is that, if we are sensitive to our patients, if we listen to what they say as well as to what they don't say, they reveal all the clues we are going to need in order to help them in the first five to eight weeks of therapy. It can take an infinite amount of time to move the pieces around until they lock into place and present us with a whole picture, but we get the clues early on. I was getting them now.
Cleo's head was bowed. Her eyes lowered. Her body remained quite still. I didn't know if she was crying again or not, but clearly she was distressed. I looked away for just a second, toward the windows and the balcony outside my office --- the narrow terrace that is just wide enough for me to stand on and sip a cup of coffee as I watch the pedestrians and traffic on the street below. Beyond that are two lovely magnolia and dogwood trees that filter the strong summer light as it spills into my office, sending shadows of dancing leaves on the wall and across the Chinese art deco rug.
Cleo started speaking while my head was turned.
"Caesar seems more worried about the book than about our sex life. He doesn't understand why my sense of accomplishment at having written the book isn't enough. He thinks I should burn it now that I've gotten it 'out of my system' --- as he says. He is afraid that one of the men I am writing about might try to get back at me. Oh, it's just so ridiculous." Her eyes filled up again. "I'm afraid he is going to give me an ultimatum over this. Over a book!"
The minute hand on the small silver clock on the table by my chair swooshed forward. It was ten-forty-five. The session was technically over. But I didn't mind giving her a few more minutes.
She was twisting the emerald ring on her ring finger, twirling it around so that every few seconds the stone caught the light, sending reflections on the wall, then disappearing just as quickly.
"Has he read the book?" I asked her.
"No. No one has. Not yet."
"Because there's something in it that you don't want Caesar to know about?" I guessed.
She nodded. "I haven't lied to him about what I do. I just haven't gone into the kind of detail the book does. Caesar thinks that for the last couple of years I have been behind a desk sending out the girls. And I have been doing that. But I've also been doing some calls."
"You told him you stopped?"
"He thinks I stopped about a year ago. I didn't. I still have a half-dozen regular clients who I've been taking care of for a long time. I know these guys. We have…hell…we have a relationship."
"Cleo, I'm not sure that I understand. Does Caesar know that you are still going to bed with other men?"
"Well, see that's the thing. Technically I'm not. I don't have what you'd call regular sex with most of them."
"Regular sex?" I laughed. "I don't make judgments, but there is no such thing as regular or irregular sex, as far as I'm concerned."
"See, that's why I like you. We're on the same side of all this. The logical side. The side that doesn't make sex into some religious experience that saves souls or plummets you into hell."
The clock chimed and the bell-like sound drew her attention. "I guess my time is up?"
"Just one more sec?"
I nodded again
She reached down and pulled out the Tiffany shopping bag she had brought with her. I'd noticed it when she walked in but hadn't though much about it.
From inside, she extracted a bulky manila envelope, which she held in her hand for a few seconds and caressed as if it was a velvet pillow, or a man's thigh.
"I printed this out for you. Like I said, no one has seen the whole thing yet or even knows I finished it. It's my first draft. I still have a lot of work to do. Not to mention disguising the guys I write about much better…" She smiled. "But I really want you to read it."
"Does Caesar know you're giving it to me?"
"No." She stood up.
Even though she was getting ready to go, I didn't want her to miss what I thought might be a moment of insight for her.
"Does keeping that from him make you feel good or bad?"
Her head tilted to the side and a half smile played on her lips. "Good. And. Bad." She sighed. "But here's the thing. If we are going to talk about whether or not I can really go through with publishing this book, you have to read it. I mean, if I do this, I need to be able to give Caesar a really good reason why. I want to publish my book, but I don't want to lose him in the process. So…"
She took the last step to the leather chair where I sat.
Holding out my hands I took the package from her.
It wasn't light and somehow that surprised me. Everything about Cleo Thane was. From the lilting voice to the blond hair to the pastel-colored clothes she favored --- so different from the almost all black uniform most of us New Yorkers wore --- to her pale gray eyes and barely pink lips. Even her perfume, which reminded me of spring and had a base note of lilacs, was light.
There was nothing heavy or dark or ominous about the woman who handed me her confession.
Nothing except for what was actually in that envelope: all the secrets she hadn't yet told me, or anyone else, but that would, in the end, be like the pins collectors used in the process of "pinning" a butterfly's body to a board after they have captured and killed them.
After Cleo left my office I pushed the play button on my answering machine, and while the morning's messages repeated, I walked to the window, opened the door to the balcony, stepped out and looked down.
The first message was from my divorce lawyer, telling me that the papers had been signed by the judge and my divorce was final. We'd expected it to happen that day, but there was always a chance that the paperwork would be delayed.
I rubbed my fingers against the gritty stone surface of the balustrade. I was conflicted about having ended my marriage.Yes, it was the right thing to do, and I would have championed this divorce if it were for any one of my patients. But, despite our problems, I had liked the calm of my life with Mitch. That we had wound up at a place where there was a lack of passion hadn't been a surprise to me. Many marriages wind up lusterless. But it depressed my husband and he couldn't live with it. Ex-husband, I reminded myself.
The next message, from an insurance company, droned on while the sun disappeared behind a cloud and peeked back out. It was early June, and the scent of the climbing rose bush that winded through the railing and up the side of the brownstone perfumed the air. I leaned over, looked down.
Below me, on the street, Cleo emerged, stood in front of the building and lit a cigarette, her gold lighter flashing in the sun.
Cleo worried me.
No one who did what she did for a living, who had been with so many men, who had made money having sex with lonely or worse --- with disturbed or sexually addicted men --- could remain as untouched and blasé as she appeared.
Despite how long it had taken for us to get to the heart of her problems, I didn't feel manipulated. I didn't see any deception. I didn't feel --- in that intuitive way that a therapist sometimes does --- that she had been holding back. She just needed more time to open up. So then, what didn't I trust?
My own preconceived notions of what someone who did what she did for a living must feel?
I had other patients who were prostitutes. None, however, who had their own businesses, or who got paid what Cleo did.
One day a week I did my duty and visited women behind bars to counsel them so that when they were released they would stay off the street. And pigs can fly and there is a Santa Claus. But occasionally we did help. And for that one patient a year who didn't go back to where she just was, I could give up fifty-two days.
Cleo had never even been near a prison. And to look at her, you would believe that. With her lustrous hair, refined clothes and shining eyes, she presented a very pretty picture. I knew better than to assign personality traits based on appearances. But there was a real guilelessness about her. Were her defence mechanisms so strong that she just did not allow the reality of her life to bruise her?
Or was she disturbed in a deeper way? How buried were the fissures and flaws? How long would it take us, working together, pulling and pushing, to find them? Was she just an excellent actress playing one role with her clients, another with me? I didn't think so, and I knew a little about actresses. My mother had been one. Not a very famous one, though. She never became a bright star, except for a short time, in one little girl's eyes.
My machine beeped and another message started.
"Dr. Stone, this is Officer Tom Dignazio from the Twenty-fourth Precinct," the somber voice said. I stiffened. This was the last message, the one I had ignored while Cleo had been in my office.
"Someone who we believe was a patient of yours has been found. A young girl you were seeing earlier this year when she was in prison. I'm afraid she's been murdered. And we need you to identify the body."
He rattled off his phone number and requested I call him as soon as possible.
Which one of those girls whom I'd been seeing was now just the body? I knew I would call him back, but not yet. Not that fast. I was too stunned.
Below me, Cleo was still standing on the stoop smoking her cigarette. Two men, walking east from Madison Avenue, slowed just a little as they approached, watching her standing there in the street having her cigarette. She must have smiled at them --- her back was to me --- because one of the guys' faces lit up as if he'd been anointed. The other just stared. It would have been rude if his expression hadn't been filled with admiration. They passed her. Then one turned back for a last look.
Cleo took one more puff and threw the cigarette down on the sidewalk, stamping it out with that high-heeled shoe that showed just enough toe cleavage, then she started to walk west, away from me. Just as I was about to turn back to my office, I noticed a third man in the shadows of the building across the street, a bulky briefcase by his foot. He gripped an umbrella with a shining silver handle despite the sunny day.
Clearly, he was watching Cleo.
He stood, unmoving, just staring until she was almost to the corner, and then he began walking in her direction. He moved as if mesmerized, as if pulled forward because of her.
I crossed my arms, shivering despite the warm air. I was suddenly scared for Cleo.
She didn't sway her hips. There was nothing lascivious about the way she held her shoulders or head. What signal did she telegraph, what was it that men instinctively knew just from looking at her?
I wanted to follow her, to protect her and to watch her interact. It was one thing to hear her talk about seducing men, but I wanted to see her do it, to note the steps of the process, to study the interaction.
If I was totally truthful with myself, the reason I was so curious about this client of mine was because I wanted to learn from Cleo Thane.
I had been studying human sexual response and counseling patients with sexual problems for years. But living with the same man for almost fifteen years, I had forgotten so much about how to deal with men. Now that I was once again single, I felt naive.
Physician heal thyself.
If I could have followed her around for the rest of the day, I would have. Even into the darkened rooms where her clients waited for her, desperate to have her work her magic on them.
We want what we don't have. We take what we have for granted. I was curious about what it would be like to be hungry for someone again. I had not tasted a man's skin or licked a man's lips for too long. What would it be like? How easy or how difficult would it be to find that part of myself again?
My husband and I had separated two years before. And for a few years before that we had not been very physical with each other. Early on in our relationship we'd fallen into being friends and parents first, and lovers last and infrequently.
That's what I mean.You want what you know you cannot have. Cleo didn't want what I wanted. She had men's desire. She wanted what I'd had --- unconditional love that didn't depend on sex. That was what my marriage with Mitch had become. What I really still had with him, despite our divorce. We couldn't generate any heat anymore, but we cared about each other. That was what made our breaking apart so bittersweet.
To be a therapist, you have to go into therapy yourself. I'd started that part of the process when I was a teenager, and over the years I had gone back several times. I knew that I had some issues with control, with wanting to please the people I cared about --- sometimes too much. And I knew I'd lost the connection to my own sexual energy. Only in the last few months, once I knew my divorce was imminent, had I started to think about it again: about seduction, passion. About the hot rush of pleasure that I hadn't felt in a while.
Cleo talked about standing in front of a man and watching his face grow slack with need. Seeing his eyes half close and have him fight his urgency. Listening to him beg her to take him in her mouth or let him slip inside of her so that he could, for just a little while, swirl off into that soundless, sightless place where everything falls into waves of blues, greens, reds, yellows, and bursts into feelings. Explosions of sensation. No words.
I wanted to see what she saw.
The man in the street was still twenty or thirty paces behind Cleo, his footsteps not intruding on her shadow. Was he being cautious not to go faster? Was he measuring his steps? Was this someone who just happened to be walking in the same direction she was going? Or was he following her?
I knew about trailing someone, even though it had been more than twenty years since I had done it. I'd followed my mother, sneaked out of the apartment after her, waited on the street corner to see which direction she took and then crept forward, staying in the background. Not to spy on her, but to make sure that she was, indeed, going where she had told me. To make sure she was not going to get more pills or alcohol. Or to meet another man whose name I would never hear.
If you don't want to be seen, you are careful. The way the man in the street below was being careful.
Cleo had reached the corner, still unaware of him. Men's glances couldn't be important to Cleo anymore. When someone was willing to give you thousands of dollars to look at you, and touch you, and have you touch them, when you were desired that way, a mere look must have been meaningless. There were other things that might have caught her attention, but a man's attraction?
This guy was good at what he was doing. To anyone else on the street who had not watched this aerial ballet of suspense that I had, there would be nothing suspicious to see.
But I believed she was being followed. And I didn't know what to do with the information. Call her on her cell phone? Warn her?
Except what if I was wrong?
She turned the corner. And ten seconds later he turned, too.
And then they were both gone.
Maybe, it didn't mean anything.
A woman walked west on Sixty-fifth Street at 11:00 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, and a man, who happened to be going in the same direction, noticed her. He hesitated when he saw her, not to hide in the shadows, not to make sure that he wasn't seen, but to enjoy the lithe body as it walked by. To smile at the shining hair. He was just appreciating her. And the fact that he went in the same direction? Well, everyone on the street has to go either east or west, north or south. It was a meaningless encounter.
It was not the first time my overactive imagine was trying to turn an innocent moment on a lovely spring day into a portent of imminent danger.
Where are you going? When are you coming back? I would ask my mother, and she would smile and run her fingers through my hair and promise that she'd be back soon, leaving me, again, to wonder if this time my mother was telling the truth or a lie.
Until she went away for good.
Excerpted from THE HALO EFFECT © Copyright 2004 by M.J. Rose . Reprinted with permission by Mira Books, an imprint of Harlequin Enterprises Limited. All rights reserved.