Regan mustered up a big smile. “Oh, I want to change. I really do. That’s why I’m here.”
“Me too,” Sophie gushed.
Debbie eagerly nodded. “The reception is being held down the hallway and around the corner, behind a double set of doors. You don’t know how lucky you are, ladies. It’s a real bonus that the doctor isn’t just mingling. He’s already hinted that he might do a couple of exercises tonight. It wasn’t printed in the program. Dr. Shields is so busy these days with all the demands on his time, but he loves to be spontaneous when he can schedule it on his calendar.”
“He schedules spontaneity?” Regan asked, trying not to laugh.
Debbie was as enthusiastic as a Laker’s cheerleader. “Why, yes, he does.”
Regan turned to leave. “Wait,” Debbie called out. “I forgot to give you ladies your packets.” She handed each of them a blue folder. “There’s a notebook and pen inside the folder so you can write down the doctor’s words of wisdom. No tape recorders or cameras allowed inside. Now, if you have any questions or need anything, all the personnel are dressed in identical blue blazers like the one I’m wearing. We’re all here to help make this seminar a fabulous experience for you.”
“I’m sure it will be,” Sophie said.
Regan walked ahead down a wide hallway, turned the corner, and came to an abrupt stop. “Good heavens,” she whispered.
There, adjacent to the double doors was an impossible-to-miss, eight-foot-tall cardboard cutout of Shields. A full-color body shot had been done, and with his bright blue blazer and dazzling, obviously capped, white teeth, he really did look like an advertisement for a real estate agent who had just made the deal of a lifetime. One of Shields’s eyelids was lowered ever so slightly, as though the photographer had caught him in the middle of a wink.
“Think he likes himself?” Cordie asked.
“He’s an egomaniac,” Sophie said.
“Do you think he’s wearing colored contacts?” Cordie asked.
“Have you ever met anyone with cobalt blue eyes?” Regan responded.
Cordie stepped forward to open the door when Sophie stopped her. “Hold on. I have to turn my tape recorder on.”
“You better sit up close to him,” Regan said.
“I’m sitting in the back,” Cordie said.
“Okay. Let’s do it,” Sophie said as she opened the door.
The living room was surprisingly large and very crowded. There was a long, cream-colored sectional in front of the stone fireplace, and easy chairs were grouped in pairs around the room. Folding chairs lined the back walls.
At least eighty percent of the participants were women, but there wasn’t one age group that was more prominent than another. Regan had assumed most of the registrants would be men and women going through some kind of midlife crisis, but she was wrong about that. There were just as many twentysomething women and several who were well over sixty.
Sophie headed to the front and squeezed in between two men on the sofa facing the fireplace. Both men were happy to accommodate her.
Cordie spotted two empty folding chairs in the corner against the back wall. She nudged Regan. “Follow me.”
Regan hurried after her friend, took her seat, and then gave Shields her full attention. The psychologist stood in front of the massive stone fireplace. He was an imposing figure. Tall, tanned … or was that makeup he was wearing? His bodyguards were easy to spot. They stood like robots at opposite ends of the hearth. They weren’t wearing sunglasses, and their eyes were constantly scanning the audience.
“They’re creepy,” she whispered.
“The bodyguards?” Cordie asked.
“So is Shields. Is he wearing makeup?”
“I think so.”
The psychologist didn’t look like a monster, just a vain, fiftyish con artist trying to be twenty again. Mary Coolidge had written that he was the most charismatic man she had ever known. Maybe it was because Regan was predisposed to disliking him, but she couldn’t find anything charismatic about him.
Cordie nudged her. “You know who he kind of reminds me of?”
“Another reason not to like him,” Regan replied.
Shields did have a dazzling smile. He had moved to a corner of the room and was surrounded by adoring women. He suddenly motioned for the women to take their seats. He waited until they had found spots, then strode back to the center of the fireplace. A hush fell over the group.
“Showtime,” Regan whispered.
SHIELDS BEGAN HIS GREETING. HE HAD A CROONING, HYPNOTIC voice that was a cross between Barry White and Mr. Rogers.
Cordie nudged Regan. “One of the bodyguards, the guy on the left, has been staring at you since you walked in. What’s his problem?”
“Ignore him,” Regan said.
Shields clapped his hands. “The early bird gets the worm, as my grandmother used to say. Tomorrow there will be five hundred people in the auditorium. Space is at a premium here, so I had to limit the number at this conference, but because you men and women came early and paid your fee, I decided to have this little get-together. If more show up tonight, we’ll open those doors and expand. Now then, let me tell you what you’ll learn during this weekend.”
He was droning on and on, so Regan tuned him out. She pulled his photo from the pocket of the folder and compared the likeness. Close, she thought. Her mind began to wander and then it turned to more practical matters, and she flipped the photo over to jot down some reminders for herself. “Call security and talk to them about Peter Morris,” she wrote. Then, “Talk to Aiden about the Emily Milan problem.” Regan looked up and scanned the audience. Shields certainly had a way with the participants. Most of the women seemed captivated by what he was telling them. Some were actually leaning forward in their chairs as though subconsciously trying to get closer to him. She turned her attention once again to Shields, and after listening for ten minutes, concluded his extemporaneous speech consisted of two themes, fear and greed. Yes, Shields insisted, they really could have it all. They deserved to have it all. But first they needed to rid themselves of the poison inside them.
A hand shot up. Shields took a step forward, paused to flash a smile, and then said, “Yes?”
A woman bolted to her feet. While she was tugging at her ill-fitting skirt, she asked, “I … I’m not sure I understand. I know you said we had to open our minds to new opportunities and that we must first get rid of the poison inside …”
When she hesitated, Shields said, “Yes, that’s right.”
“Well … the thing is … I didn’t know I had poison inside.”
Shields dramatically waved his hands. “Everyone in this room has poison inside them.”
“But that’s just it,” the woman said, still tugging at her skirt. “What do you mean by poison?”
He obviously expected the question. Clasping his hands behind his back, he took another step forward.
“Look how close he is to Sophie,” Cordie whispered. “Her tape recorder must be getting every word.”
“I think the woman who just asked the question is a plant. What do you think?”
“Maybe so,” Cordie agreed.
“Have you ever been hurt by anyone,” Shields asked the woman. “Hurt deeply?”
Who hadn’t? Regan thought about Dennis and was suddenly interested in what Shields had to say. The woman who’d asked the question lowered her gaze, and a faint blush covered her cheeks. “Yes … I’ll bet most of us in this room have been hurt deeply,” she said as she nervously glanced around. “My boyfriend … he cheated on me, and he didn’t care how much he hurt me. He … used me.”
“And you took that hurt and buried it deep inside, didn’t you?” Shields nodded sagely and looked over his audience. “How many of you have been in hurtful relationships over the years? How many have endured betrayals from family and those you believed were your friends? How many of you have been overlooked for promotions time and again at work when you know in your heart you earned them?”
Hands were shooting up all over the room. “Shields has them eating out of the palm of his hand,” Cordie whispered. “Uh-oh. That bodyguard is still staring. Put your hand up.”
Regan dutifully put her hand up. A shiver ran down her spine the longer she watched Shields. He was smiling like a benevolent Yoda now.
“I believe that all those painful experiences have turned into drops of poison inside you, eating away at your potential, your creativity, your passion for life.”
“But how do we get rid of this poison?” another woman called out.
“I’ll show you,” he said. “By the time this seminar is over Sunday evening, you’ll be cleansed and ready to take on the world. I guarantee it.”
He paused again, and then in a voice as smooth as Häagen-Dazs said, “Why don’t we do a little exercise? Everyone, take out your notepad and pen. You’ll find both inside your folder. We’re going to make a list.”
He motioned to the bodyguard on his right. The muscleman immediately knelt in front of the fireplace and turned the gas jets on. Seconds later a roaring fire was heating up the already warm room.
“Better get our notepads out and look eager,” Cordie said. “It’s hot in here,” she added. “I should have worn my hair up. It’s definitely gonna frizz.”
Regan was used to Cordie obsessing about her hair and ignored her comments.
“Ready?” Shields called out. “Now, here’s what I want you to think about. How can you make the world a better place for you? Would you be happier, more fulfilled, more joyful, if the people who have hurt you no longer existed? What if you could wave a magic wand and poof,” he said, snapping his fingers for drama, “they’re gone … forever. Would you be better off without them? If you could get rid of the poison inside you, would you be happier? If you believe you would, write down the names of those people you want to vanish.”
Regan couldn’t believe what she was hearing. She wasn’t the only one. A timid hand went up. “Excuse me, Dr. Shields. Did I hear correctly? You want us to—”
Another woman stood, clutching the notepad to her chest. “You want us to make a … murder list?”
“That’s not what he said,” a young man shouted.
Shields put his hands up. “You can call it whatever you want. Those of you who are a bit squeamish, think of it as a list of the people you simply wish to never see again.”
The woman clutching the notepad couldn’t seem to compute what he was telling her to do. “Okay. So you want us to write down the names of people we wish were … dead.”
“Yes, that’s exactly what I want you to do. If those people who have injured you no longer existed, then wouldn’t you be able to get rid of the poison inside you?”
“Yes … I guess … but …”
Another man shouted, “I’m gonna need more paper.”
Nervous laughter followed his comment. “Is there a limit on the names?” he asked.
“Write down as many names as you want. I do think for this exercise we’ll have a time limit. Ten minutes,” he said. “Shall we get started?”
He stretched his arm, stared down at his watch, and said, “You may begin.”
A man sitting in front of Regan whispered, “This is going to be fun. I’m going to start with my wife.”
“You mean your ex-wife,” the woman sitting next to him said.
“Oh, that’s good. I’ll put her on my list too.”
Cordie looked appalled. “Can you believe this? Shields has turned the group into ghouls.”
“Hush,” Regan whispered. “We better act like we’re with the program. Start writing.”
“No matter how obscene this exercise is?”
“Well, then …”
“Well, then what?”
Cordie smiled. “Might as well have a little fun.”
They both pulled out their notepads. Regan wrote across the top of the paper, “Murder List” and underlined the words twice. Underneath she wrote, “People I Want Dead.” Now what? Stalling for time, she tapped her pen against the folder until the man in front of her turned and frowned.
“Do you mind? You’re distracting me.”
“Sorry,” she whispered.
She had a feeling the bodyguard was still watching her. Maybe she was being paranoid. She brushed her hair out of her eyes and looked up, then quickly lowered her head. Nope. Not paranoid. The creep was still staring. What was his problem?
Cordie was sniffling and digging through her purse. Regan handed her a tissue.
“Five more minutes,” Shields called out. “And then I’ll circle the room and I want everyone to hold up their notepads so I can see the number of names.”
Uh-oh. Regan began to write. Shields, bodyguard one, and bodyguard two all made her list. Who else? Ms. Patsy, that rude saleslady from Dickerson’s. Oh, yes, she mustn’t forget that horrible Detective Sweeney. The world would definitely be a better place without him. She was about to add Lieutenant Lewis to her list because he’d been so vicious to that young man, but time was up.
She’d had no idea she was so bloodthirsty. Shields clapped his hands. “Pens down. Everyone hold up your notepad so I can see them. That’s right. Good. Good,” he praised. “Everyone participated. Now here’s what I’d like you to do. One by one come up to the fireplace. Tear the paper out of the notepad and shred it. Then you’ll throw it in the fire and watch the flames devour the names. Shall we begin?”
“Will that get rid of the hurt and the poison?” a woman asked.
“It’s a symbolic gesture,” Shields explained. “Meant to open your mind to all the possibilities.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Cordie asked.
“We get to open our minds to the possibility that we could kill all of our enemies,” Regan explained with mock enthusiasm.
“Shall we begin?” Shields called out.
Sophie was the first in line. She was smiling at Shields as she walked past.
“Un-oh, Sophie’s flirting,” Cordie whispered. “And Shields is loving the attention.”