When he got in close he threw a long, slow roundhouse right at my head—easily one of the most incompetent punches I had ever seen. I slapped it away and followed with a short right jab to his chin, putting my weight behind it. Lorenzo went down as if he had been hit with a surface-to-air missile, and in that instant I realized his punch wasn’t incompetent at all. Lorenzo knew exactly what he was doing. I realized it because of the way Benny shouted his name and pushed past me.

“Lorenzo, Lorenzo,” she chanted. There was no anger in her voice. Only concern. She knelt at his side on the concrete sidewalk. “Are you all right?”

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She tried to caress his face, but Lorenzo pushed her hands away. She tried again. This time he let her succeed.

“I’m sorry,” Lorenzo said.

“No, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Benita said.

Somehow Lorenzo’s head ended up in Benny’s lap, and she stroked his hair.

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Damn, my inner voice chided me. If only you had let Daniel the architect punch you out.

“Forgive me,” said Lorenzo.

“Forgive me,” said Benny.

“Forget this,” said I.

Benny glanced up at me.

“I’m guessing our date is over,” I said as I retrieved my jacket.

“I’m sorry, McKenzie,” she said.

Everyone’s sorry. Everyone’s looking for forgiveness.

I didn’t have anything to say, so I didn’t say anything.

If I had been paying attention, I might have seen him, but I was upset as I made my way west to where I’d parked my car next to the trash bins outside the North County Co-op Grocery. First Nina, and now Benny, with Shelby Dunston giving advice to the lovelorn from the sidelines. “It shouldn’t be this damn confusing,” I said to no one in particular. Still, it all seemed to prove a theory that I had been advancing for years now. When it comes to love and romance, none of us ever really leaves high school.

I had unlocked the Audi with the key-chain remote, opened the passenger door, and draped my jacket over the seat when he hit me hard in the kidney. The pain rippled through my body and I nearly lost my legs. I had to grip the top of the door to keep from falling. He hit me again—and again—before moving to my head. I pivoted toward him, tried to get my hands up to fend off his blows. It was only a gesture, a suggestion that I knew how to defend myself. I don’t think he noticed.

He was six inches taller than I was and at least fifty pounds heavier. His long hair and full mustache were jet black, and his features were Hispanic. The expression on his face told me only that it took some effort to beat me up, but nothing he couldn’t handle.

He put a hard fist into my solar plexus and my legs melted beneath me. I slid into a sitting position, my back against the rocker panel, my legs drawn up to my chest. He hit me twice more with his fists and then a couple of times with the car door.

Is this about Benny? my inner voice wondered, but only briefly. I was losing focus fast. Two stinging slaps on both cheeks brought me back.

“I told the lawyer and now I’m telling you.” His voice was calm but demanding. “You ain’t helping that bitch Merodie Davies no more.”

Merodie? Who’s. . . Oh, her.

“Do you understand?”

Understand?

“Nod your head if you understand.”

I nodded.

“Don’t make me tell you again.”

I might have nodded some more—I don’t remember. I don’t remember seeing him leave, either. Or if he had any parting words. See you later, alligator. After a while, crocodile. He was there and then he wasn’t there. Maybe he left an instant ago. Maybe an hour. It was hard to tell. Possibly I had lost consciousness and that’s why I had no sense of time. Yet if I was unconscious, why was I singing “What a Wonderful World”? Wait, that was Louis Armstrong. Jeezus, my head hurt.

It was growing increasingly difficult to see, and for a panicked moment I thought there was something wrong with my eyes, but it was only the gathering dusk. I wanted to stand and knew it was going to hurt, so I took my time getting ready for it. I unfolded my body and, using the car door, lifted myself high enough to fall onto my car seat. A tsunami of nausea told me that I had made an unwise decision. I hugged my knees until the convulsions subsided, proud that I kept the contents of my stomach to myself. Minutes passed, and the bright red light behind my eyes faded to a dull amber. I made a slow and careful inventory of body parts. Everything seemed to work more or less as designed, although if I were a used car, they’d have me in the “best offer” lot.

The loud chiming in my ears became the tinkle of a dinner bell. I could hear my own thoughts again.

He wasn’t so tough, I told myself as I gingerly fingered my jaw, satisfied that it was still in one piece. Bobby Dunston’s girls can hit harder.

Yeah, right. What was all that about, anyway?

Merodie. Someone wants you to lay off Merodie.

Merodie?

The man said, “I told the lawyer and now. . .”

“G. K.!”

The notebook I was using for the Merodie Davies investigation was in my glove compartment. Pressed between the pages was the business card Genevieve Bonalay had given me. I dialed the home phone number she had written on the back. After four rings a voice mail message kicked in.

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