Mr. Perfect by Linda Howard

  Neither Shelley nor Leah had surfaced.

  Jaine took a deep breath and ducked back underwater.

  Their struggle had taken them farther into the deep end of the pool. She saw the froth of bubbles, their twisting forms and floating hair, and Leah’s full skirt billowing around them like a jellyfish. Jaine scissored her legs, kicking herself toward them.

  Leah had one arm around Shelley’s neck. Wildly, Jaine latched her hand in Leah’s hair and pulled back as hard as she could, and Leah couldn’t maintain her hold. Shelley shot upward like a balloon.

  Leah twisted and got one hand on Jaine’s throat, her fingers digging in. The incredible pressure made Jaine gag, and water rushed into her mouth.

  She brought her legs up and braced them on Leah’s stomach, and pushed. Nails clawed her neck as she tore free, and red stained the water in front of her face.

  Then Shelley was there again, pushing Leah down on the bottom of the pool. Jaine clawed her way through the water to add her strength to Shelley’s, pushing and fighting and not daring to let go, needing air again, unable to breathe, unwilling to release Leah and surface. Leah’s clawing hands fastened on her blouse and locked tight.

  Leah’s struggles grew weaker. Her bulging eyes glared at them through the crystal clear water, then slowly glazed over.

  The water exploded behind them. Weakly Jaine turned her head and saw a dark shape, then another, surging toward them in a stream of bubbles. Strong hands wrenched her out of Leah’s death grip, while another pair pulled Shelley away and shoved her upward. Jaine saw her sister’s bare legs kicking, and she tried to follow her, but she had been longer without air than Shelley and she no longer had the strength to kick. She felt herself sort of sink to the bottom, then one of the uniformed cops grabbed her and kicked strongly toward the surface, carrying them both up into life-giving air.

  She was only half-aware of being dragged out of the pool, of being stretched out on the concrete. She gagged, coughing convulsively and curling in on herself as she fought to get air past her swollen throat. She heard Shelley’s hoarse cries, and the cops were talking simultaneously, the words jumbling in her head. People were rushing around, and someone else jumped into the water, droplets arcing upward in the bright sunshine and splashing in her face.

  Then Sam was there, his face utterly white as he lifted her to a sitting position and braced her in his arms. “Don’t panic,” he said reassuringly, his voice steady though his arms trembled. “You can breathe. Don’t fight so hard. Just take slow breaths. Easy, babe. That’s the way. Breathe in nice and easy.”

  She concentrated on his voice, on doing what he said. When she stopped gulping so frantically, her throat relaxed and oxygen rushed past the swollen membranes. Weakly she let her head rest against his chest, but she managed to put a reassuring hand on his arm to let him know she was conscious.

  “I couldn’t get here in time,” he said rawly. “My God, I couldn’t get here in time. I tried to call, but you didn’t answer. Why didn’t you answer the goddamn phone?”

  “Reporters kept calling,” Shelley gasped. “I turned the phones off.” She winced and clutched her ribs, her face colorless.

  There seemed to be a thousand sirens piercing the air, the sound reverberating in Jaine’s ears. Just when it became unbearably loud, the sound cut off in mid-shriek, and a moment later, or maybe it was several minutes later, white-shirted medics were surrounding her and Shelley, and she was taken from Sam’s supporting arms.

  “No—wait!” She twisted frantically, screaming Sam’s name, except the scream was a barely audible croak. He motioned for the medics to back off a minute, and put his arms around her again.

  “T.J.?” she managed to ask, scalding tears burning her eyes.

  “She’s alive,” Sam said, his own voice still raw with emotion. “I got the word on the way over. They found her in a storage room at work.”

  Jaine’s eyes asked what had to be asked.

  Sam hesitated. “She’s hurt, honey. I don’t know how bad it is, but the important thing is, she’s alive.”

  Sam didn’t stay to watch Leah’s—Corin Lee’s—body being removed from the pool. There were enough officers present to handle everything, and this wasn’t his jurisdiction anyway. He had more important things to do, such as be with Jaine. When she and Shelley were transported to a local hospital, he followed in his truck.

  They were whisked away to treatment cubicles. After making certain the hospital notified Al right away, Sam leaned against the wall. He was sick to his stomach; he had sworn to serve and protect, but he hadn’t been able to protect the woman he loved more than anyone else in the world. Until the day he died, he would never forget the feeling of helpless terror as he raced through the streets, knowing he was already too late and couldn’t get to Jaine in time to save her.

  He had put the pieces of the puzzle together, but too late to save her and T.J. from harm.

  T.J. was in critical condition. According to Bernsen, the only thing that saved her was that when she fell, she somehow rolled so that her head was partially protected by the base of an old office chair. Something must have frightened Leah away before she could finish the job, and she had gone in search of Jaine.

  Sam was slumped in one of the uncomfortable plastic chairs in the waiting area when Bernsen came in.

  “Jesus, what a nightmare,” Roger said, dropping into the chair beside Sam’s. “I heard their injuries are minor. What’s taking so long?”

  “I guess no one’s in a hurry. Shelley—Jaine’s sister—is being x-rayed for a broken rib. They’re checking Jaine’s throat. That’s all I know.” He rubbed his face. “I damn near fucked up, Roger. I didn’t put it together until it was almost too late, then I couldn’t get to Jaine in time.”

  “Hey, you put it together in time to get other people to them. T.J.’s alive, which she wouldn’t be if they hadn’t found her when they did. The uniforms who dragged the women out of the pool said they all came close to drowning. If you hadn’t alerted them, got the officers there ahead of you—” Roger broke off and shrugged. “Personally, I think you did a helluva job, but I’m just a detective, what the fuck do I know?”

  The E.R. doctor finally came out of Jaine’s cubicle. “We’re going to admit her, keep her overnight for observation,” he said. “Her throat is bruised and swollen, but the larynx isn’t ruptured and the hyoid bone is intact, so she’ll make a full recovery. We’re admitting her just as a precaution.”

  “May I see her now?” Sam asked, standing.

  “Sure. Oh—her sister has two cracked ribs, but she’ll be all right, too.” He paused. “Looks like it was one hell of a fight.”

  “It was,” said Sam, and stepped into the treatment cubicle, where Jaine was sitting on a vinyl examination table. Her eyes brightened when she saw him, and though she didn’t say a word, her expression was enough as she reached out her hand to him. Gently he took it in his, then used it to pull her closer and fold her in his arms.

  Twenty-two hours later, T.J. managed to open one swollen eye a tiny slit, and move her fingers just enough to squeeze Galan’s hand.


  I can’t believe you haven’t told your parents,” T.J. said. Her voice was still weak and slightly slurred, but the scolding tone was clear. “No, wait—I can believe you didn’t tell them, but I can’t believe neither Shelley nor David did. How can you not tell your parents someone tried to kill both you and Shelley and almost succeeded?”

  Jaine rubbed her nose. “Remember when you were a kid and you’d do almost anything to keep your parents from finding out you were in trouble? It was kind of like that, but it …” She shrugged. “It was over. You were alive, and Shelley and I were both okay, and I didn’t want to talk about it. There was all the media coverage driving me crazy, Luna’s funeral to get through, and I couldn’t handle anything else.”

  T.J. carefully turned her head, which was still swathed in bandages, to look out her hospital window. She had b
een out of I.C.U. for a week and change now, but much of the preceding week was forever lost to her. She remembered nothing about the day of the attack, so exactly what had happened was unknown. Sam and Detective Bernsen had put forth a logical theory, but no one would ever know for certain.

  “I wish I had been able to go to her funeral,” she said, her expression sad and distant.

  Jaine didn’t say anything, but inwardly she shuddered. No, you don’t, she thought. She wished she didn’t have that memory.

  Two weeks had passed, and every night she had jerked awake from a sound sleep, drenched in sweat, her heart pounding in terror from a nightmare she couldn’t remember. Of course, considering Sam’s prescription for disturbed sleep, the experience hadn’t been all bad. She might wake up in terror, but she went back to sleep with every muscle limp from an overdose of pleasure.

  Sam had had a few bad nights himself, especially at first. Hero that he was, it bothered him that he hadn’t been able to reach her first. That lasted until she climbed into the shower one night, stuck her head under the water, and started yelling, “Help, help, I’m drowning!” Well, she had tried to yell, anyway, but her throat had still been bruised and swollen, and Sam said she sounded more like a bullfrog’s mating croak. He had jerked the shower curtain back and stood there glaring at her while water splattered all over the floor.

  “Are you making fun of my hero complex?”

  “Yeah,” she said, and stuck her head back under the stream of water for another drowning imitation.

  He turned the water off with a snap of his wrist, slapped her on the bare butt sharply enough to make her say, “Hey!” in indignation, then wrapped his arms around her and lifted her bodily from the tub.

  “You have to pay for that,” he growled, striding toward the bed and tossing her onto it, then stepping back to strip off his damp clothes.

  “Oh, yeah?” Naked and wet, she stretched sinuously, arching her back. “What do you have in mind?” With one hand she reached out to stroke his bobbing erection, then rolled onto her stomach and captured him in her grip. He went very still.

  Delicately, like a cat, she licked. He shuddered.

  She tasted the entire length. He groaned.

  She licked again and ran her tongue along the underside. “I think I should really, really have to pay,” she murmured. “And I think it should involve … swallowing.” She took him in her mouth and suited actions to words.

  Since then, at least once a day, Sam would put on a pitiful face and say, “I feel so guilty.”


  His attitude, more than anything, had helped her through the trauma. He hadn’t babied her. He had loved her, comforted her, made love to her so often she was sore, but that was it, and it was more than enough. She had been able to laugh again.

  She had visited T.J. every day. Already T.J. was taking physical therapy daily to help her overcome the resultant disabilities from her head injuries. Her speech was slurred, but better every day; and her control over her right leg and arm was iffy at best, but that too, with work, would improve greatly. Galan had been constantly by T.J.’s side, and if the naked devotion in his eyes was any indication, their marital difficulties were behind them.

  “Back to your parents,” T.J. said now. “Are you going to tell them when you meet them at the airport today?”

  “Not right away,” Jaine said. “I have to introduce them to Sam first. And we have the wedding to talk about. Besides, I thought Shelley and I should tell them together.”

  “You’d better do it before they go home, because their neighbors are bound to rush straight over when they see your folks are back.”

  “Okay, okay I’ll tell them.”

  T.J. grinned. “And tell them they can thank me for delaying your wedding a week, which will give them time to rest.”

  Jaine snorted. True, delaying the wedding a week would allow T.J. to attend, albeit in a wheelchair, but she doubted her dad, at least, would thank anyone. Having the wedding the next day would have suited him just fine, because there would be less hoopla for him to endure.

  She checked her watch. “I gotta go. I’m meeting Sam in an hour.” She leaned over the bed and kissed T.J.’s cheek. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

  Galan entered the room bearing a huge bouquet of lilies, filling the room with their perfume. “Just in time,” Jaine said, winking at him as she sailed past.

  “Yes,” said J. Clarence Cosgrove, his voice reedy with age, “I remember Corin Street very well. The situation was very strange, but there was nothing we could do. We didn’t even know Corin was a girl until she reached puberty. Oh, her sex was on her birth certificate, of course, but who checks that? Her mother said Corin was her son, so … we accepted it.”

  “She was raised as a boy?” Sam asked. He was at his desk, his long legs propped on an open drawer, the phone glued to his ear.

  “To my knowledge, the mother never admitted or even acted as if she knew Corin was female. Corin was a badly disturbed child. Badly disturbed,” Mr. Cosgrove repeated. “She was a constant discipline problem. She killed a classroom pet, but Mrs. Street wouldn’t accept that Corin could ever do anything like that. She made the statement, often and to anyone who would listen, that she had the perfect little boy.”

  Bingo, thought Sam. Mr. Perfect. That was the trigger that had set Corin Lee Street off like a bomb that had been slowly ticking down over the years. It wasn’t the content of the List itself, but rather the title that she had found so unbearable.

  “She took Corin out of my school,” Mr. Cosgrove continued. “But I made a point of finding out what I could about the child. The behavioral problems worsened over the years, of course. When Corin was fifteen, she killed her mother. I remember it was a particularly brutal murder, though I can’t recall the specific details. Corin spent several years in a mental institution and was never charged with the murder.”

  “Did the murder take place there in Denver?”

  “Yes, it did.”

  “Thank you, Mr. Cosgrove. You’ve helped fill in a lot of the blanks.”

  After he hung up, Sam tapped his pen on his desk as he pondered what he had learned so far about Corin Lee Street. She had entered the mental institution as Corin, but she was Leah—evidently chosen because of the name’s similarity to “Lee”—when she came out. The picture that had emerged was that of an extremely unstable and dangerous woman who had been abused both mentally and physically by her mother until the violence that had been leaking out all of her life finally burst out of control. The psychiatrists could argue all day about which came first, the abuse or the violent personality, but Sam didn’t care. He just wanted a clear picture of the woman who had wreaked so much destruction.

  After he talked to Mr. Cosgrove, Corin’s middle-school principal, he called the Denver P.D. and eventually got to talk with the detective who had investigated Mrs. Street’s gruesome murder. Corin had beaten her mother to death with a floor lamp, then poured rubbing alcohol on the woman’s face and set it on fire. When the body was discovered, Corin was incoherent and obviously mentally unsound. She had been confined in a mental institution for seven years.

  More digging turned up the psychiatrist who had treated Corin. On being informed of Corin’s death and the circumstances, the woman sighed. “She was released against my better judgment,” she said. “But she functioned better than I expected, if she went that many years before she began deteriorating. When she was on her medication, she was functional, but she was still—I hate to use labels, even when they’re accurate—psychotic. In my opinion, it was only a matter of time before she began killing. She had all the classic symptoms.”

  “How did she change from Corin into Leah?”

  “Corin was her maternal grandfather’s name. Her mother simply refused to accept that her child was female. Females were … ‘Unworthy’ and ‘dirty’ were the terms Corin used. Mrs. Street gave Corin a male name, she raised her as a boy, dressed her as a boy, told everyone Corin was
her son. If Corin ever made any sort of mistake, even as a very small child, she was punished in a variety of ways: beaten, jabbed with pins, locked in dark closets. Then she reached puberty, and all hell figuratively broke out. Mrs. Street couldn’t bear the changes in Corin’s body. Menstruation particularly upset her.”

  “I bet,” Sam said, feeling almost nauseated at this litany of abuse.

  “After puberty, whenever Corin made a mistake, she was punished in a sexual manner. I leave the details to your imagination.”

  “Thanks,” Sam said dryly.

  “She hated her own body, hated female sexuality. With therapy and medication, she did finally develop a rather rudimentary female personality, and she named herself Leah. She worked hard at being a woman. I never had any hopes, though, of her having a normal sexual relationship, or a normal relationship of any kind. She learned some female mannerisms, and the medication controlled her violent tendencies, but her grasp of reality was tenuous at best. I’m really surprised she was able to work at the same job for a number of years. Is there anything else you’d like to know?”

  “No, Doctor, I think you’ve answered all my questions,” Sam replied. He had needed to know. If Jaine ever wanted to know, he would have the answers for her, but so far she hadn’t asked a single question about Leah Street.

  Maybe that was good. He had known Jaine was a fighter, but he had been surprised by how fiercely she tackled recovery, as if it were an adversary to be whipped into shape. She wasn’t going to let Leah Street defeat her in anything.

  He checked the time and saw he was running late. “Damn it,” he muttered. She would never let him hear the end of it if they were late meeting her folks at the airport. He had some important news for her, news that couldn’t wait, and he didn’t want her to be angry when he told her.

  He drove like a maniac to meet her at her parents’ house on time. Since all four of them and six weeks’ worth of luggage couldn’t fit in either her Viper or his truck, they were driving her mom’s Lincoln to the airport. She was already in the driver’s seat, motor running, when he skidded to a stop in the driveway and leaped out of the truck.

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