I'd always joked that my obsessions would prove to be the death of me, but it was just a joke. After all, obsession isn't a dirty word in my line. I'm a professional triathlete -- if I weren't driven to make it to the finish line before the other gal, I'd have to find a different way to pay the rent. Yet that didn't mean compulsive behavior had to take over my life as it had -- I couldn't let anything go with less than my absolute best. But kill me? I never guessed how close my joke would come to being a reality. Nor how many other lives I would risk along with my own. I never dreamed how deadly obsessions could become.
When John Bricker called my sports agent to ask whether I'd stop by the hospital to see his son, I assumed he just wanted me to sign my latest Triathlon cover for a sick kid. It wasn't that unusual. While hardly a household name, I do have a following in fitness-crazed San Diego, where I live.
Even after I pushed through the door to Danny Bricker's private room, I still didn't associate the patient's name with the buzz on the triathlon community's grapevine. All I noticed at first was that someone had taken pains to introduce personal touches to the boy's hospital room -- but that those items had been added with a level of precision that made Martha Stewart look like a slacker. The family photographs in sparkling silver frames were lined up in rigidly parallel lines on the nightstand, and the sheet folded down over the patient was so precise, it could have passed a marine inspection. Even the man seated in a shadowy corner sipped tea from an elegant bone china cup.
Then I focused on the broken boy beneath the neatly folded sheet. At the tubes coming in and going out, at the pins and braces holding his shattered limbs together.
The penny finally dropped. I remembered that Danny Bricker had been a seventeen-year-old triathlete on the rise -- when a hit-and-run driver struck him during a training run along the docks in San Diego one cloudy night. Piling insult on injury, he'd been struck by an old van his family owned, which had been stolen the day before; the police found it abandoned a few miles away. Weeks later, the kid still hadn't emerged from the coma the accident put him in. They were classifying it as attempted murder.
My identification with this maimed athlete was immediate and vivid. Instinctively, I turned to leave. People think I'm so strong. It's true I have the grit to make my body keep going when most would cry out for mercy, but there are all kinds of strengths and all kinds of weaknesses. I just run faster than my fears. The idea of being immobilized like Danny Bricker was one of the worst of the fears that pursued me.
Before I reached the door, the man in the corner called out to me. "Ms. Morgan. Zoey, please." His voice caught before the admission he was about to make. "I need your help."
John Bricker persuaded me to stay. "Tea?" He gestured to a gold-trimmed teapot with a delicate lilac pattern and an empty cup and saucer, matches for his own teacup. "Or I can get you coffee if you like."
Coffee was too dehydrating for an athlete. "I'm a tea drinker, too." Only I guzzle mine from a mug I got free at the gas station. "That's a beautiful tea service."
He nodded. "The set was my wife's grandmother's. She treasures these pieces. I thought having family things around..." His voice trailed off in a wistful sigh.
I judged him to be in his early-forties, though it was hard to be sure with the rigid tension controlling his face. His eyes were the color of steel and smudged below with the soot of fatigue. I locked my own eyes on him when he poured my tea, rather than let them drift back to the boy clinging to life on the bed.
After we sipped in silence, John said, "I hope you'll agree to find out who did this to my son."
I shook my head. "You've got the wrong girl. I'm an athlete, not a detective." Never mind that I acted like a detective when it suited me.
"You're what I need, Zoey. Someone who doesn't give up."
"What's there to pursue?" I asked. "I heard they charged the guy who did it. The paper said they found his fingerprints in your van."
He nodded. "Pepe Morales. He did some work around our house last month, and he used that van. There doesn't seem to be any doubt that our sometime handyman moonlights as a car thief. But did he leave his prints in my van when he worked for me, or when he stole it and hit my son?" John gave his wedding ring a nervous twist. "I have to know."
The anxiety I felt coming from him triggered a flash of inspiration. "You sound like you know who did it. Who...?"
"I don't know anything!" he snapped. "I'm -- I'm...afraid it might have been Danny's mother, or his twin brother." His voice broke off. "Neither can explain where they were when it happened."
I looked at the ring he had been turning. "You're...divorced?"
His lips twisted ironically. "Happily married, I thought." He shrugged.
I felt sorry for him, but I still wasn't the one for the job. "You don't know what you're asking."
"I think I do. I saw your face before you turned to leave. I could see what being here did to you. But as strong as your need is to avoid what happened to Danny -- that's how much I need to know. Can't you see that? I'm obsessed."
In the end, it was his appeal to our common homeland, Obsession, that made me agree to look into. I didn't expect to learn anything the police hadn't. But I knew too well what it was like being haunted by the dark images that come in the night. Unfortunately, I also knew chasing away John's demons would just transfer them to me.
I went to see my friend Lou Peña at the SDPD. Lou's in homicide, not vehicular crimes. But he traded a marker for the chance to see the file, which he shared with me. Not that he did it happily.
Vexation flooded Lou's espresso eyes. "I don't know why I keep helping you play cop, chica."
"Join the club. I can't figure out why I coach you for free, either." An amateur triathlete himself, Lou's race times had improved since he met me.
He grumbled quietly after that, while studying the file. "Open-and-shut, Zoey. The skid marks at the scene were Morales' signature."
"Car thieves have signatures?"
Lou nodded. "Some of them leave evidence of their driving pattern. The investigator on the case thinks the Bricker kid must have seen Morales with their van, and Morales had to silence him."
"What does Morales say? Does he admit to hitting Danny?" I asked.
"He cops to all the car thefts he's charged with -- except for the Bricker van. He swears he didn't take it, and he didn't run down that boy." Lou frowned. "Why is Bricker fighting it? Most parents would want to lynch the guy."
I told him. Lou's ramrod spine slumped, and he ran a hand over his short-cropped hair. "Families, they just make you feel so warm inside." Lou flipped through the file until he found the investigating detective's impressions of the Brickers. "They are quite a bunch. Bricker was the only one who cooperated. His wife, Sharon, was hostile, argumentative. And the boy's twin, Eton -- well, it seems there was some problem with his birth. Danny emerged the all-American boy, sleek and smart and strong. While Eton is -- not. The kids at school call him 'Eat,' because he does it so much. Still, family tensions, don't make people killers."
Sometimes, they're exactly what does it.
I rode my bike over to the Bricker home, thinking how ironic it was that people kept coming to me to solve their problems. My life was just one finish line after another, each victory another deposit in the holes I kept hidden within me. People were just life's wallpaper to me.
Danny's tragedy hadn't lowered the family's standards, I saw when I reached the house. The lawn before the large home in the elegant Fleetridge section of San Diego was so green and even, it might have been painted on.
I'd been assuming all the precision I'd seen in Danny's room had come from Sharon Bricker, even if the nurses told me she didn't spend much time with her son. I figured a woman with that tea pot and cups had high standards. But once she came to the door, I realized her attachment to the tea service must have been purely sentimental.
Sharon wore an unmatched pair of well-washed sweats, and her blond hair hadn't been combed today. It wasn't much after noon, but the smell that came off her told me her lunch had been the liquid kind.
Even though her husband had sent me there, I expected to encounter the same obstruction the police found, and Sharon didn't disappoint me. "The police are satisfied Pepe hit Danny. What right have you to question my family?"
Despite her disagreeable manner, there was something sad about the way her fingers, all of whose nails had been chewed down to the quick, clutched another one of her exquisite teacups. Especially since I gathered it wasn't filled with tea. Was she drinking from worry? Or guilt?
John said Sharon never told a consistent story for where she was when Danny was hit. Though some part of me wanted to leave this unhappy woman alone with her troubles, I kept hammering at her.
"Look," I admitted, "I'm a pest. I know that. I never give up on anything. If I did, I'd never win races. Believe me, you'll tell me the truth now, or you'll tell me later. But you will tell me."
Finally, she snapped, "Okay, you win. I'm tired of lying, anyway. You wanna know where I was? At the Bed-a-Bye Motel -- that's one of those dumps they rent by the hour."
I was guessing she hadn't been alone. "Do you love him?"
The withering look she gave me made me feel about two years old. "What I love is being with a man who doesn't need to control every aspect of my life."
This was getting way too ugly, too much like my own family had been. It made me want to walk away, as much as the idea of Danny's injuries had. But I couldn't. As nice as he seemed, John Bricker was part of this twisted bunch; he couldn't challenge them. The cops wouldn't.
Zoey, I thought, it comes down to you.
John told me where to find Rudy West, whom he described as Eton's only real friend. Approaching the park near the beach that drug dealers frequented, I began to wonder about that friendship. This park didn't seem the kind of place for a slow, overweight boy to hang out. Were the Brickers just too involved with their own lives, and their perfect son, to spare a thought to the imperfect one?
Rudy West fit his surroundings: Collar-length hair unacquainted with shampoo, gang clothes -- and a giant-sized chip on his shoulder and a miniscule soul apparent in his muddy brown eyes. To my surprise, he spoke quite freely to me.
"Yeah, Pepe showed me and Eat how to cut the car sideways when you pull out. In case...you're in a hurry."
When stealing cars? The handyman gave the little twerps a crash course.
"Leaves some cool rubber on the road," Rudy added.
"And Eton practiced?"
Rudy kicked at the crusty dirt beneath his feet with an Air Jordan big enough to house a family of five. "Yeah, some."
I asked where Eton had been Danny had been hit.
"He was out somewheres, running an errand," Rudy said. "I think he got lost or somethin'. Said the directions were wrong, even though his dad printed out the map from the Internet."
I used those map websites to generate my own directions to new places. Generally, I preferred the ones that decorated their maps with fun driving images, but none of them had ever failed me. "This errand -- was it for you?"
"For his mom," he shot back.
"Even though they're twins, there seems to have been quite a difference between Danny and Eton. How did Eton feel about his superlative brother?"
The look he directed at me made me want to check my eye for spit. "How would you?" Rudy asked.
Was that really what this crime was about? Had that slow, overweight boy, maybe feeling neglected by his mother and tired of being compared to his more dazzling twin, taken out his frustration on his brother using the tools Pepe Morales provided?
Three days a week Eton attended tutoring sessions after school. I had planned to catch him before the tutoring started, but I spent more time with Rudy than I thought, and it was late when I arrived at the school. I chained my bike to a post on the fringe of the parking lot and jogged across it toward the entrance.
Without warning, the blue Toyota Tercel John told me the twins shared came barreling across the high school parking lot at me. Only reflexes honed by competition saved my life. I hurled myself on the hood of a parked car.
I thought the Tercel would crash into it. But the driver agilely cut it to the side and brought it to a stop, just as Pepe Morales had taught him. The door flew open, and a large boy, who looked like Danny Bricker would have if he'd been filled with air, hurled himself at me. He threw me back against the windshield of the car I'd taken refuge on. He pressed his forearm against my throat and leaned with all the might in that heavy body.
"Leave us alone!" he grunted. "Can't...take anymore."
I pushed against that giant form with all my strength. But while my body is honed for considerable endurance, I'm not a big woman, and I didn't have a fraction of the adrenaline coursing rough my veins as that boy did. Spots began to appear before my eyes.
Despite the hour, the noise Eton created drew a number of students and teachers from the school. Two male teachers pulled the boy away from me. When they let him go, I cringed, expecting him to leap back at me. To my surprise, he collapsed on the ground, in tears.
I rubbed my throat. "Knowing he's tight with that little thug, Rudy West, isn't such a surprise now," I muttered to myself.
One boy just snorted. "Yeah, right."
The police sirens severed that conversation. The cops took in my wounded throat, the sobbing boy, and the signature Morales cutaway on the pavement, and they took Eton in for questioning.
Two days later, Lou told me Eton Bricker was charged with the attempted murder of his twin brother.
I didn't hear from John. What did I expect? He may have asked for the truth, but that didn't mean he wouldn't resent the messenger.
My gut still tightened when I stopped into Danny's room at the hospital. Seeing him there, as still as death, just made me itch to move. To prove I could?
The bright silver frames around the photos of the tarnished family were still rigidly arranged on the nightstand, but I didn't see the exquisite tea set anywhere. I found them at last at the bottom of the wastepaper basket, crushed to bits. How fitting.
I slipped away to the nurses' station and questioned the male nurse I found there about Danny's future.
"The longer he hangs in there, the better his chances are," he said.
With an impatient sigh, I said, "I meant his chance of ever competing again."
The nurse just shook his head. I felt weak in the knees, for Danny, for me. I just hoped the roots on his needs weren't as deep as my own.
Because I never know when to quit, I'm always closuredeficient. Finally, I went to the Bricker house. Sharon was moving out, judging by the overstuffed suitcase she dragged out the door.
"Haven't you done enough to us?" she spat. "You destroyed our family."
I hadn't really. I just tugged at the Joker and their house of cards collapsed. But I didn't defend myself.
"You know what the worst part is?" Sharon demanded. "You still don't know how wrong you are. Eat would never have done that to Danny. Sure, he gets frustrated when he can't do things as well. But Eton loves Danny, not just because they're twins, but because Danny is everything that Eton wants to be."
She climbed into her car without thanking me for my efforts on her family's behalf. "Tell John he doesn't need to lock his den anymore," she threw over her shoulder.
I thought about the stupid things people use as excuses when relationships die. Things that didn't matter when they worked.
I spotted John through the open doorway. He was just standing in the entry, looking around. At what was left of his life? But he joined me at the door, and he refused my muttered apology with a toss of his hand.
"My choice. I knew you would learn the truth," he said. "I saw you once in a race Danny competed in."
"Did I win?"
He laughed. "Of course. I don't think I've ever seen anyone as determined as you were."
That's me, obsessed to the end.
John hesitated. "I needed to know, for Danny's sake. But I wish I didn't."
Uncomfortable with my role in the operation, I changed the subject. "I saw Sharon's tea set broken at the hospital."
"She threw those pieces when she heard about Eat's arrest. She'll be sorry about it when she calms down. About a lot of things."
John had to leave, so I walked him to his car in the driveway. I mounted my bike, only I remembered I drank all the water in my bottle on the ride over there.
"Can I fill my water bottle from your garden hose before I leave?" I asked.
"Sure, it's around the back of the house. Just go through the gate."
I waved when he drove off and walked to the backyard. I found an amber hose at the rear of the house neatly coiled in a terracotta container, and silently gave thanks that the only area my own compulsive nature didn't extend into was my housekeeping. John did seem a little anal, but was that enough to break up a marriage? Maybe Sharon was one of those people who blame others for her mistakes.
I turned on the water, but since the hose rested in direct sunlight, the water was warm. I pointed the nozzle into a bed of coral geraniums and let it run, while I stared through the sliding glass door next to the faucet into what must have been John's den. The surface of the heavy mahogany desk wasn't as neat as I'd expect. Stacked in the center was a messy pile of sheets of paper and different sized photographs.
The water finally ran cold, and I turned my attention to filling my water bottle. But something about the cartoon graphics I'd seen on the papers on John's desk gnawed at me. I looked again at the stack on the desktop, and tried to understand why those things troubled me.
When the answer hit me, the bottle slipped from my hand. Cold water splashed against my bare calves below my black Lycra bike shorts, but I scarcely noticed.
I pressed my face to the window, studying the various versions of the graphics I saw peaking out from the stack of pages, and the subjects of the date-stamped photos, and more importantly, how far back the dates went.
Once I saw how it all fit together, I knew I'd been played for every kind of a fool.
Time came to weigh on me. I knew if I was right, I had to get away from there. I'd noticed the house across the street was empty, and that a high hedge shielded part of the property from view.
I grabbed my bike and hid behind that hedge, and waited. If my fears were right, I knew it wouldn't take John long to realize his mistake. By locking the door to his den, he kept the items on his desk from those inside the house -- but everything was visible to anyone standing outside that window. And he told me where to find the hose. If my conclusions were wrong, I could be waiting behind that hedge for a long time. If they weren't --
Before I could complete that thought, John's car careened into the driveway and jerked to a halt. He threw the door open and ran to the front door. He wasn't inside that long. When he returned, he'd put on a black windbreaker over his blue sport shirt. And he clutched a brown paper grocery bag, which had been rolled down to tightly contain a rectangular object around the size of the stack of papers and pictures I'd seen on his desk.
His car backed into the street in a rush. I watched him lay rubber in an effort to make a quick getaway from his quiet residential neighborhood. Much the way Pepe Morales did when he stole a car. I let him get a good lead, then took off after him on my bike.
If he hopped on the freeway, I was screwed. But if he stayed to surface streets, I might luck out. Traffic lights would keep him from gaining too much ground on me, and there are always too many cyclists on San Diego's streets for him to notice any one of them.
The gods were with me. Though John's Mercedes led me on a long, circuitous route, he finally parked his car in a strip mall adjacent to the sprawling Tecolate Natural Park, a wild preserve in central San Diego. Still clutching his brown bag, John picked up a trail and headed off into the park.
I stood at the trailhead until I lost sight of him in the undergrowth. I followed behind slowly on my bike, grateful for whatever impulse made me switch to my rugged mountain bike today and abandon my flimsy road bike, which I'd been using all week. The rutted trail dipped and rose, though overall climbed to a steep peak.
While he'd taken the time to don a windbreaker that seemed unnecessary in the balmy spring air, he hadn't changed from his loafers. They made him slip so many times, I came to recognize from a distance the little puffs of dust he would kick up when he fell. Despite his slips and falls, John stuck to his climbing trail, passing up plenty of chances to switch to less challenging and more crowded hiking trails that would take him lower into the canyon.
His steps slowed when he reached a clearing ringed by trees at the top of the hill. I stepped from my bike and waited some distance away to see what he would do. He leaned against a tree and caught his breath for a few moments. Then he found a large metal trashcan, and he rolled it into the center of the clearing. Reaching into his windbreaker, he brought out a can of charcoal lighter and a book of matches. He gave the trashcan a spritz of fluid and set it on fire.
I started to rest my bike against a tree, knowing I could approach more quietly on foot. But I'd make better getaway time on the bike. I centered the tires on the trail, where they would make less noise, and approached a cluster of trees at the edge of the clearing.
After watching the fire grow, John picked up the bag he'd put aside while lighting it. Just before he dropped it into the burning trash, I walked my bike into the clearing.
"Throw the bag to the ground, John. It's over," I said.
He did drop the bag down, but only because I startled him. "Zoey, what -- "
"You almost pulled it off. But the date-stamped photos of the Bed-a-Bye Motel prove you knew about Sharon's affair. And those graphics you copied from the Maps 'R' Us website --you used them to fake the map that sent Eton out on a wild goose chase. While you took your own van, and, with the flourish you learned for Pepe Morales, ran into Danny."
He must have discovered his wife had slipped the harness months ago. It enraged him so, he devised a plan to kill one of her sons and frame the other for it. I wondered how much he paid Rudy West to pose as Eton's friend and lead me astray.
But John wasn't perfect. Danny hadn't died. No wonder he spent so much time at his son's bedside; he couldn't allow the kid to tell the story if he ever came out of the coma. Then the police glommed onto the driving maneuver his handyman had taught him, and it seemed Sharon's life, while badly damaged, wouldn't be as thoroughly destroyed as he wanted.
"Sharon didn't do justice to how controlling you really are," I added.
Though the roaring fire brightened his face, John's steely eyes darkened. Yet he said nothing.
"The mistake you made was trying to make me your dupe," I said. "You only saw me on the race course. There, it's true, I never deviate from the course. In life, I play hop-scotch."
But not often enough. It pained me to admit how close he came to being right about me. Because of my single- minded nature, I followed the trail he'd left for me with relentless determination. If not for that fluke sighting of the evidence, I would never have seen the truth. Yet I should have known when I saw Sharon's teapot and cups in Danny's room. Those pieces weren't merely broken, they'd been crushed to dust. It took real hatred to do that.
"You blew it, you miserable cretin," I said.
I thought he would grab for the bag and try to burn it when he realized it was over, and I prepared myself to rush him. But he surprised me. The lighter fluid wasn't the only thing he'd slipped into the windbreaker while he was in the house.
He pulled an automatic from his jacket and pointed it at me. "Don't do the victory lap yet, bitch."
"You won't kill me," I said with more bravado than I felt. "There are too many people in the park. You couldn't get away with it."
An ugly smile crawled across John's face. "You're assuming that getting away with it is my objective now. It means more to me to make you pay for ruining my plans."
He aimed the gun at my pelvis, and then at my knees. My insides went cold. That threat I did believe. Robbing me of my ability to compete athletically fit his controlling nature. My heart began to throb erratically, my vision blurred. I couldn't face what he threatened to do to me.
John continued to sight the gun on different parts of my anatomy. "You see, Zoey, when you go out for revenge, you always need to size up the other guy's vulnerabilities. With Sharon, it's her kids. For you, it's your sport. Not such an Ironman now, are you?"
I was a heartbeat away from whimpering, from begging, promising him anything if he would spare me. Only my voice seemed to have locked along with my pathetic body. I always counted on my single-minded focus to allow me to leave my demons in my dust. Instead, that unrelenting need delivered me to them.
Worst of all, I would live a life without the things that gave it meaning -- knowing I was too weak to fight for them. What was the point of achieving maximum fitness of the body, if my soul couldn't face the one challenge that mattered?
Zoey, what's it gonna be?
With no warning to John or myself, I leaped on my bike. I aimed my front tire at the burning trashcan. When the tire met the can, I used it to push the can forward until I had thrust it against John. That action threw his arms out, and the gun flew off into the bushes, but I didn't even look to see where it went. I just kept the pressure on the can, until I had pinned John between a large tree and that fire breathing monster.
While he screamed for the mercy he hadn't shown anyone in his family, I rallied my considerable strength and my obsessive will, and I kept him pinned in that position, until the heat threatened to melt his flesh.
Eventually, he stumbled free of my grasp. The burns had weakened his legs, however, and he tripped to the canyon's edge and tumbled over the side.
He landed somewhere well below, and while he alternatively begged and ordered me to help him, I just safeguarded the bag of evidence and lamented the destruction of a perfectly good tire.
Eventually, a hiker happened by, who wasn't quite as determined to get away from it all as hikers usually are, judging by his Banana Republic attire and the cell phone pressed to his ear. I broke into his conversation long enough to ask him to summon the cops.
John's burns were pretty bad, and despite Lou's intervention, the posse took me in for questioning. It took a while to sort out, but they released me later that day, and Eton the next. Now John recuperated down the hall from Danny's room, with round-the-clock police guards at the door.
Since that day, I spent a lot of time with Danny, holding his hand, talking to him. They tell me the coma isn't so deep now, and I know he hears. I tried to see him now, not as a symbol of some fear I couldn't face, but as a fallen comrade who deserved my support. Sometimes I relieved Sharon in the vigil she felt free to maintain, now that John was gone, and sometimes I just sat alongside her. We talked a lot, too, having both been manipulated in different ways by the same controlling man. By the deadly side of obsession.
After combing through the replacement china warehouses, I found matches for the teapot and teacups John destroyed. Sharon said that too much had happened to her family to care about some china pieces. But I disagreed. It's important to put things right, even if only in the smallest ways. Sometimes, when we sipped tea together in those cups, we could almost forget what John did the ones he promised to love.
I also took Eton running most days, so he could lose enough weight to finally shed his awful nickname. It was hard for me, running at his slow pace. But I had to admit he saw things that I missed when I streaked through life. He didn't mind sharing them, either.
No, I hadn't changed all my stripes -- I was still a tiger on the race course. But I was trying to be less of one in life. Besides, it seemed only fair that I do what I could to help heal those people, after helping to tear their lives apart. Especially since, all the while I was healing them, they were healing me, too.