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Always

By Charlotte Bennett,2014-11-04 22:04
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From Publishers WeeklyAt the start of Griffith's intense third thriller to star Aud Torvingen (after The Blue Place and Stay), the stylish half-American, half-Norwegian lesbian ex-cop and self-defense teacher is still grieving over the shooting death of her lover, Julia, a year earlier. Also distraught over a recent violent incident involving one of her self-defense students, Aud welcomes the chance to leave Atlanta, accompanied by her friend, Matthew Dornan, to visit her ambassador mother, Else, in Seattle. There sabotage of a TV pilot in production that's been receiving OSHA and EPA complaints disrupts their vacation. Adding romantic tension is Victoria "Kick" Kuiper, a caterer and former stuntwoman, to whom both Aud and Matthew are attracted. Aud's ace inve Published by Riverhead Hardcover on 2007/05/03

ALWAYS

    NICOLAGRIFFITH

    RIVERHEADBOOKS

    ONE

    IFYOUWALKINTOABARANDTHERE’SAMANWITHAKNIFE,WHATDOYOUDO?

    Walk out again. If you can. In Atlanta it had been a kitchen, and a woman, and I couldn’t.

    It’s a ?ve-hour nonstop ?ight from Atlanta to Seattle. I had slept the ?rst three hours, but Ididn’t want to sleep anymore. If you don’t sleep, you don’t dream. I pressed my foreheadagainst the vibrating cabin window and stared down at the Rockies, visible only as winks ofsnow in the setting sun.

    Next to me, Dornan stirred and put his guidebook facedown on his lap. He peered over myshoulder at the scenery below. His T-shirt was still very white and his eyes very blue, but hishair, just long enough to hint at waviness, was ?at at the back. “Looks like Mars,” he said.I nodded. There were places there where no one had walked. Perhaps one day I would goexploring.

    Dornan leaned back. “You missed dinner.” It was unclear from his tone whether he thought thatwas good or bad.

“I can eat when we get there.”

    “I don’t know,” he said, and tapped the book on his lap. “I’ve been reading the touristguide. The good restaurants mostly seem to shut at ten.”

    Right around when we’d be landing. “There’s always room service.”

    You can’t learn much about a city from a hotel room, and I needed to hit the ground running.My mother would arrive in two days. “Let’s talk about it when we get there.”

    Books were all well and good—I’d already read several histories, maps, and guides to Seattlesince deciding on the trip—but I preferred somatic information to extra-somatic. I would knowwhat I wanted to do when I smelled the air and tasted the water.

    “So,” Dornan said. “You haven’t told me much about the new bloke.”

    I didn’t say anything.

    “Your new stepdad.”

    I looked at him.

    “Well, he is, technically. So what’s the story? You haven’t even told me his name.”

    I opened my bag—once again I resented the nasty ripping sound of the Velcro ?ap, and missedthe bag I’d given away—and pulled out the report.

    “Eric Loedessoel,” Dornan said, reading over my shoulder. “Wait.” He pulled back. “Youresearched your stepdad?”

    “It wasn’t dif?cult.”

    “That’s not . . .” He shook his head.

    I leafed through the list of sources: medical bills, brokerage accounts, limousine service,phone records, grocery bills, restaurant bills, and so on. Then the data itself. There was aphotograph of Loedessoel taken last year in Washington, D.C., and a photo of his new wife,dated two months ago.

    She was wearing a hacking jacket and turtleneck, a riding hat tucked under her left arm. Iwondered what the photo opportunity had been, and why she looked happy. She hated horses. Herhair was dark honey streaked with grey, and cut in a soft, chin-length bob. It looked allwrong; my mother had had long hair for as long as I could remember. She had gained a fewpounds. She looked younger and softer.

    “Thumbnail sketch,” I said. “Male Caucasian, mid-?fties, ?ve feet eleven, hundred andseventy-eight pounds, grey hair, grey-blue eyes. Born in Bergen to Norwegian parents; twosisters, one brother. Parents deceased. First year of medical school in Oslo, where he marrieda Danish woman, and the remaining years in Seattle, at the University of Washington. Graduatedin the top third of his class. Never practiced, though.” No hint as to why. “Divorced theDanish wife a few months after graduation.”

    “Children?”

    “No.”

    “Thank heaven for small mercies.”

    My stomach squeezed. The possibility of step-siblings hadn’t occurred to me. “Job inWashington, D.C., with the Norwegian trade delegation. Climbed the ladder. Directorships inseveral pharmaceutical and biotech companies. Financially stable. Current residence inLondon.” Chelsea. I wondered if and when he would move into my mother’s of?cial ambassador’sresidence. I wondered if she still actually lived there. I read some more. Dornan returned tostaring out the window. Loedessoel’s net worth was nearly four million dollars. Well matchedwith my mother’s assets. It would have seemed a lot to me four years ago. I started skimming.Clothes, hair, and manicure spending about what you’d expect for someone in his position.Cars: many purchases and resales. In the last three years, a Porsche Carrera, a Jaguar S-type,a Maserati, a vintage Bentley—that one had been sold after numerous high bills for replacementparts.

“He likes cars,” I said.

    “Lots of men do.”

    I skimmed the list of af?liations, memberships, and subscriptions: Mys tery Guild Book of theMonth Club, local wine society, the American Museum of Natural History, chamber of commerce,the local Gilbert and Sullivan Society. “He likes operetta.”

    “That’s not exactly sinister.”

    “Well, no.”

    “But you’re frowning.”

    “I’m trying to imagine my mother beaming fondly at a man dressed as the lord highexecutioner.”

    “Giggling behind a fan.”

    I stared at him.

    The seat belt light went on. “Look at that,” he said, and busied himself with the tray tableand footrest.

    WEWALKEDpast the tired people in baggage claim and to the man holding a sign saying Torvingen.

    “I’m Aud Torvingen,” I said.

    He didn’t bat an eye at the Norwegian pronunciation but said, “Jeff,”

    and led us to the town car.

    I fastened my seat belt and opened my window, and we pulled smoothly past the hordes waitingfor taxis.

    “Maybe you aren’t potty after all,” Dornan said, leaning back on the grey leather. He’dthought I had lost my mind when I’d ?rst suggested FedEx-ing the luggage. Then I’d offered topay, and suddenly it hadn’t been such a bad idea.

    Traf?c was light. The cool air, heavy at ?rst with jet fumes, then the scents of late cherryblossom and second-growth conifer, reminded me of Oslo last year. It had been May then, too.

    The engine hummed. I’d never driven a Lincoln, but I suspected it would handle like a squashypillow. The interior wood trim, black bird’s-eye maple, was so heavily varnished it lookedlike plastic. If I’d done my research correctly we were on Highway 99, which ran north andwest into the city along the waterfront. I could sense the empty horizon stretching to my left,but I couldn’t see or smell it; there was a steady offshore breeze and the moon was hiddenbehind dense cloud. In Atlanta it would be twenty degrees warmer. In Oslo, twelve degreescloser to the Arctic Circle, the sky would still be light. There would not be so many cars onthe road. My mother and new stepfather would be in the United States by now, in New York, orpossibly Vancouver. From a distance the Edgewater Hotel looked like a warehouse building, butas we approached, it became clear that what had seemed to be corrugated iron was in factmassive vertical timbers. Fir, I thought. Very Scandinavian. It was just after ten-thirty whenwe pulled into the parking lot.

    “Wait,” I told Jeff. “We’ll be out in ten minutes.”

    The lobby was all exposed wood—de?nitely ?r—and polished slate. I handed my Total Enterprisescredit card to the woman behind the desk. She handed me two keys.

    “They’re not next to each other. I’m sorry.”

    “Not a problem,” I said, and gave one to Dornan. “Don’t unpack if it will take you longerthan ten minutes.”

    In my room were two faxes, and a large FedEx box. I put everything on the bed and opened thewindow, which was less than eight feet above the water. I listened a moment; all I heard wasthe slap and slip of Puget Sound against the pilings driven deep into the muck of Elliott Bay.I closed the window. Being so close to the water was less than optimal, in terms of security. Itook a dime from my wallet and balanced it against the glass. There were a dozen portable

intruder alerts on the market, but low-tech worked well enough.

    One of my credit cards wasn’t plastic but specially sharpened ceramic. I extracted it from mywallet and slit the tape on the FedEx box. The clothes were still on their hangers. I hung themin the wardrobe, and my toiletries bag above the mirror in the bathroom. I set up my laptop butdidn’t connect to the local network—security precautions took time—and glanced at the faxes,one from Laurence, one from Bette, both of which could wait. After a quick visual check of theroom I shut the door, rattled it to make sure it was locked, and headed for the lobby.

    Dornan was four minutes late. He had changed his T-shirt and put a sapphire in his rightearlobe.

    “Belltown,” he said. “That’s the only place we’ll be able to get anything to eat at thistime. Belltown,” he said again to Jeff as we got in the car.

    “Somewhere called the Queen City Grill?”

    “On First,” Jeff said, and turned left out of the parking lot.

    “First and what?” I tried to visualize the city plan, which was a confused mix of theoriginal diagonal and later north-south grids. If you could believethe maps there was even aspot, north of here, where “First” intersected with

    “First.”

    “First and Blanchard.”

    Blanchard. Between Bell and Lenora. A little north and east of downtown, a little south andwest of here. “Why are we heading north?” Northwest.

    “If I take you south there’s no cross street for a while.”

    “Thank you.”

    We turned right, heading northeast, and then right again, ?nally moving south and east.

    “After all these years I still can’t believe how early Americans eat their dinner,” Dornansaid, as we passed dark storefronts. “Look at that. Can you imagine a U.K. city the size ofSeattle shutting down at ten?”

    “No.”

    “It makes no sense.”

    It did to me. The city was full of Norwegians and Swedes who had formed the backbone of the?shing and shipping industry and a large part of the paper and lumber industry, and thensettled back to work hard, live quietly, and grow. They would write back to relatives dug intotheir fjell-side seter s, or boiling and freezing in sod houses in the Midwest, and tell themabout the good life, the teeming salmon and the miles of trees, and how it hardly ever snowed.Inevitably, the children of the brothers and sisters left behind would come for a month insummer to visit. And here I was.

    ATTHEQueen City Grill we were shown to one of the dozen or so booths running alongside the bar,a huge expanse of mahogany that looked as though it had been there a hundred years. It wasenhanced by a double handful of the young urban gorgeous. One woman with long glossy hair andskin the color of toasted ?ax smiled and tipped her head back to laugh. Her companions laughed,too. She sipped her martini, and when she leaned forward, the cream silk of her dress pulledtight across her hips. Her lips left a red print on the rim of her glass.

    “See anything you fancy?” Dornan said, studying the menu, which was very short andspecialized in steaks and seafood with an Asian tang.

    “Crab cakes look good.”

    The wine list turned out to be heavy on Washington and Oregon vineyards I’d encountered onlyin travel guides. I put it down. The woman at the bar laughed again, and the server appeared.

    “What do you have on draft?”

    I settled on something called Hefeweizen, Dornan ordered a kamikaze, and we asked for oystersto start. The Hefeweizen came with a wedge of lemon in it, and looked like cloudy lager. Ittasted better than it looked. The oysters were cool and slippery and tasted like the beach atlow tide. We focused on the food for a while.

    The woman at the bar slid from her stool and stood, gathering purse and wrap.

    “It’s good to see your appetite returning,” Dornan said. He was concentrating on squeezingthe last drop from his lemon onto the oyster on his plate. I let him tip it into his mouth andswallow, then nodded at the last remaining half-shell.

    “How’s your appetite?”

    “Let me put it this way, Torvingen. For once, I think I’d be prepared to ?ght you for it.”

    We ordered another dozen.

    Two intense twenty-nothings took a seat at the bar and started arguing about whether cyberpunkowed its attitude more to Materialist philosophy or to a misguided interpretation ofDescartes’ interpretation of Aristotle.

    “So,” he said. “How are you?”

    “How do you mean?”

    “You know what I mean. It’s been nearly a year. And then the incident with your self-defensestudent. And now your mother is coming. Talk to me. Tell me how you feel, what you think.”

    I thought Mr. Materialism was about to get lucky: Ms. Cartesian Dualism was leaning forward inthe kind of unnatural pose that had been practiced in front of the mirror because someone oncetold her it made herthroat look delicious, and holding her hand palm up while she talked,

    Touch me. And indeed, Mr.tilted towards him in a way that could be interpreted only as

    Materialism was beginning to stumble over the bigger words as his subconscious ?gured out whatwas going on and diverted blood from his brain to more important organs. Although Dornan’sdegree from Trinity was in philosophy, I doubted that’s what he meant. I shook my head.

    He drank off his kamikaze, sighed with pleasure while he re?lled his glass from the cocktailshaker, and nodded over at the debating couple.

    “Did you ever argue philosophy with a girl in a bar?”

    “There are easier ways.”

    He nodded. “Buying her a drink always worked for me. So have you tried any interestingapproaches lately?”

    I looked at him.

    “You could at least reassure me that since, ah, well . . .” He hated to mention Julia’sdeath. “I just don’t think it’s natural to be so—Look, I know how you are, what you’relike. You shouldn’t deprive yourself . . .”

    “I haven’t.”

    He sat back and looked expectant.

    “Her name was Reece.”

    His expectant look didn’t waver. Ever since I had let him help with the cabin in NorthCarolina last year he seemed to believe he deserved a window into my life. I had not yet workedout how to shut him out, or whether I wanted to.

    “When I went back to the cabin last month Tammy had a party. She introduced me to Reece. Wehad a conversation that ended up in bed. She’s a very pleasant woman. It was a very pleasantevening. I doubt I’ll ever see her again.”

    I had needed the animal warmth of the sex, had welcomed the familiar building heat of skin onskin, the harsh breath, the shudder that starts in your bones. The terrible urge afterwards toweep until I howled had been new.

    “That Tammy. Isn’t she something?” It had been three months since she’d returned his ring,but his voice still throbbed with pride.

    “She is.” She was a piece of work. He was better off without her.

    SOMEONEHADturned on the ?re in the corner of my room. The dime was undisturbed. I turned offthe ?re, put the dime in my pocket, and opened the window.

    I read the faxes. Details from Laurence about how my Seattle real estate revenues had fallenagainst local benchmarks, the addresses of my local real estate manager and my cross-shippingwarehouse, and a list of leaseholders of that property in the last eighteen months—far toomany. Bette’s fax was a detailed, itemized list of OSHA and EPA complaints leveled by personor persons unknown against either me, as the property owner, or various lessees, along withpages of de?nitions of various regulations, and the names of relevant people at both regulatoryof?ces to deal with the complaints.

    I turned to my laptop. The fan hummed and the hard drive chuckled as it ran its anonymizersoftware and automatically cleaned itself of anything but the most basic programs: nodocuments, no cookies, no automatic updates downloaded from the Web, no e-mails, no addressbook, nothing. Just an operating system unencumbered by experience or past history, lean andsure, memory constantly scoured and reset for instant, optimum ef?ciency. Stupid, to be jealousof a computer.

    I set every ?rewall I could, then hunted for and matched the hotel network. I logged in to mye-mail account. Nothing. I logged out, wiped all the cookies again, just in case, and checkedmy antivirus software. All my personal data was safe on the ?ash drive on my key ring.

    It was late, according to my body clock. Nearly four in the morning. I tapped the faxes into aneat pile and put them next to the phone on the cherry-veneered desk by the window. I’d studythem carefully in themorning. On top of the pile I put my maps and two books about Seattle.Tomorrow I’d start learning this city the way I liked best, by moving through it.

    I undressed and carefully laid my clothes over the back of the desk chair, easily to hand incase of emergency.

    I stood naked by the open window. The water was black. Kuroshio, the Black Current, the vastocean stream that poured past Japan and arced north, keeping the inlets of the Paci?c Northwestfrom freezing. I could lower myself into the lightless water and slide beneath the surface,leave it all behind. Give it all away and never look back. I wish my father had left all hisholdings to my mother instead. I wouldn’t have to be in Seattle to deal with a real estatemanager stealing me blind. I wouldn’t have to meet my mother and brand-new stepfather. Iwouldn’t have been at leisure to teach a self-defense class.

    The room felt as warm and moist as the womb. I got dressed.

    ONFOOT,I could head south. I walked through the night, swinging my arms, glad that there wasnothing to my right but Elliott Bay. I could feel the open water, taste salt on the breeze. Iwalked up and down arti?cially graded hillocks of grass, avoided a tree. When I ran out of parkI turned left, under the Alaskan Way viaduct; I saw traces of the homeless—a burnt-out trashcan, a slashed sleeping bag—but the streets and train tracks were silent.

    In Atlanta at one o’clock on Thursday morning I would have had downtown to myself, butSeattle’s center ?ickered with ?ashes of restless, contradictory life. As I walked down First,south of Queen City, I could have been looking at two different boulevards. On my left, the?fty-foottall sculpture of The Hammering Man banged away silently in cultural ecstasy outside

    the Seattle Art Museum. On my right, a man and a woman stepped into the street from the LustyLady, whose pink neon sign ?ashed cheerily, its letter board declaring veni, vidi, veni. Peepshows for the classically educated.

    Pioneer Square wasn’t really a square but a triangle, partially cobbled, with a totem pole anda drinking fountain. The buildings were old brick and wrought ironwork, painted to match theblue-and-rust paintwork on the Tlingit totem. There had been more trees in the guidebookphotos, plane trees. I couldn’t think of any diseases speci?c to plane trees, and wondered why

    they had been taken down. It was still a picture-perfect vision of the heart of an establishedcity whose industrious citizens slept well—or would have been without the thump of club music,and the homeless who lay on benches or leaned against the wall in knots of two or three, notunlike the hipsters at the bar earlier. Some of them were young and some smoked, but none worewhite and none of them laughed; most had more tattoos than teeth. They stopped talking as Ineared. I nodded. They smelled of tobacco and old wine, like old people in hot countries, whichis not how the homeless in Atlanta smell.

    Guidebooks never told you everything. Seattle was another country.

    LESSON1

    SELF-DEFENSEISNOTJUSTASKILL,IT’SAWORLDVIEW.LIKETHESCIENTIFICmethod—or religion, ormotherhood, for that matter—once you accept its precepts you see things differently. I didn’tintend to tell my students this. Just as you don’t try to interest six-year-olds in naturalhistory by discussing physiology and adaptive evolution—but take them, instead, to a pond towatch tadpoles turn into frogs—on the ?rst day of class you don’t tell grown women to changetheir lives. You show them how to punch a bag.

    I parked outside Crystal Gaze, under the only streetlight. It was a long way from the sidedoor. I turned off the Saab’s heater and got out. 5:56 on the second Tuesday of February. Mybreath hung in a cloud as I zipped my jacket. The sky was the heavy grey of unpolished pewter,shading to iron in the east. The still dark reminded me of Mørketiden, the days of Norwegianwinter when you don’t see the sun.

    Crystal Gaze is Atlanta’s alternative bookshop and personal wellness center, more comfortablewith chakras than choke holds. My class, the advisory board had decided, could go ahead as longas it was in the basement space. It was a very nice space, they said, even without a window:newly painted, new carpet, and a room air-conditioner; big and bare, eminently suitable forphysical activity. It also had its own convenient side entrance. In other words, sweaty womenreeking of the body would not trample through the main ?oor and disturb patrons who werebrowsing their way to the next level of spiritual enlightenment. They agreed I could bring infour big mats and a punch bag and leave them for the duration of the course.

    The stairwell smelled of concrete dust. My boots echoed. There were damp footprints on eachtread, including one set of those pointy-toed, needle-heeled shoes that look as though theywould leave the wearer utterly crippled. I peered more closely. Two sets of pointy toes.Or—no, one set whose owner had walked down, then turned and taken a couple of steps back, thendecided to head back down and go through with it. Americans rarely have the same appreciationof punctuality as Norwegians, so when I opened the basement door at precisely six o’clock Iwas mildly surprised to ?nd nine women already sitting on the corded blue carpet. Nine pairs ofshoes were lined up neatly under the bench. Second from the right were the pointy-toed spikeheels: brown fake-alligator ankle boots. Several of the women could have owned them—lots oflower-tier business clothes and careful makeup—though I’d bet on the white woman with thecurly hair in a powder blue blouse with a wide silver stripe. At least she was wearingtrousers, unlike the woman in the brilliant green skirt and matching jacket.

    “We will begin with the closed ?st,” I said. “Please stand.”

    They gaped at me, then a stout woman with wiry grey hair and sensible workout clothes stirred,said, “Don’t need names for that, I guess,” and hauled herself to her feet. One woman whohad been sitting in full lotus position with her palms up stood with the ease of a dancer, orperhaps a yoga practitioner, though the muscles around her eyes were tight. Another—matteblack dye job, who had sat with legs spread and weight tipped back on her many-ringedhands—rose with the awkwardness of a day-old foal, just a bit too quickly to match the boredomshe was trying to project. There were several obvious cases of nervous tension, including BlueBlouse; one openmouthed possible breathing dif?culty, which I hoped wouldn’t develop intoasthma due to poor air quality; and one set of tilted shoulders that looked to be more theresult of habitual bad posture than a structural de?cit. On ?rst assessment, the only possiblepowder keg was a white woman who jerked to her feet and kept her chin down;who didn’t lift her

eyes from the ?oor, even when the door banged open behind me.

    “Oh,” said the latecomer. Softball muscles played in her forearm as she shifted her gym bagfrom right hand to left, and through her warm-ups her quads bulged like those of a soccerplayer. “Sorry I’m late.”

    I wheeled the punch bag and frame away from the painted breeze-block wall and into the centerof the room. The heavy bag swayed. I dropped the stabilizer on each leg and slapped it intoplace.

    “This bag is ?lled with sand. You can’t hurt it.” It couldn’t hurt them, either, becauseI’d had it ?tted with a custom cover of latex over foam to protect their beginner’s hands. Inodded at the middle-aged woman with the wiry hair. “Come and give it a try.”

    “Me?”

    Basic rule of animal behavior: control the leader of the herd. For a group of women who hadbeen together less than ten minutes, that meant the cheerful motherly one. “Stand here. Make a?st. No. Keep your thumb out of the way.”

    I found their ignorance dif?cult to believe. Dornan had tried to warn me. He had watched me

    I don’t thinkthumbtack my poster to the public board in one of his cafés and shaken his head. you know what you’re lettingyourself in for. Anyone could show up. Southern women with bighair, bigteeth, big nails. Women with husbands and babies.

    “The thumb always goes on the outside of the ?ngers,” I said, and raised my hand to showthem. They all nodded and ?exed experimental ?sts. I got behind the bag and steadied it againstmy body. “Now hit it.”

    The stout older woman glanced around, but didn’t seem to ?nd any hints, so she stepped up tothe bag, and gave it a tentative tap. Selfconsciousness, the curse of Western womanhood.

    “Again, only this time, say ‘Blam!’ ”

    “Blam?”

    “Like a cartoon. Pretend you’re in a Saturday-morning animation: Blam! Pow! Zap! You’re aninvincible superhero. It’s not really you hitting this bag, it’s the character you’replaying.”

    She pulled a face at her audience, moved half a pace closer to the bag, said “Blam!” like aten-year-old boy waving a homemade lightsaber, and thumped it. The difference was audible.“Cool!”

    Everyone grinned. I nodded at her to go again.

    “Whap!” she said. “Zammo! Bam bam bam!” Her face got red and her hair stuck out.

    “Okay. Good. Next!”

    They lined up. The newcomer assaulted the bag with a ?urry of ferocious punches, added a coupleof elbow smashes, and ?nished with a

    “Whomp, whomp, you asshole!”

    “Next.”

    The yoga woman, light but competent, followed by Dye Job who shrieked “Fuck!” when her ?ngersgot mashed between bag and ring metal, a lesson she wouldn’t forget in a hurry. Blue Blouseand Green Skirt surreptiously removed rings and pocketed them. Blue Blouse was clearlyembarrassed but hit the bag anyway, after a fashion. Then, because it was her turn and it wasexpected of her, Carpet Starer came to the bag, managed

    “Bang, bang,” in a tight whisper, and poked it with her knuckles. I nodded and called“Next!” because I had seen so many women like her—in shelters, in hospital emergency rooms,bleeding bravely in their homes—and it was important not to let her know I was payingattention. Next was Green Skirt, who unselfconsciously hitched up her skirt, brushed back herbangs, and ?ipped her hair over her shoulders before beginning. Then Sloping Shoulders, thenBreathing Dif?culty.

Now that everyone had had a go, I made the line hustle.

    “Run!” I said. “Faster. Hit it three times. And again. Experiment: stand closer, try theother hand, point the other leg forward. Shout when you hit it. Hit it ?ve times. Don’t think.Do. And run. And again.” The air began to hum, and muscles plump, and just before the roomkindled I clapped my hands and said, “Enough. Please sit.” They did, in an obliging circle,some smiling, and Blue Blouse scooted to her left with an ingratiating bob of herhead—teacher’s pet—to make a space. I took it.

    “I am Aud Torvingen. Aud, rhymes with crowd.” They waited for more,but I wasn’t interestedin proving I was quali?ed to teach them, and the name of the class, Introduction to Women’sSelf-Defense, was selfexplanatory. I nodded to Blue Blouse that it was her turn. She told usshe was Jennifer, and we went round the circle briskly: Pauletta, with the green skirt and agold cross. Suze, the latecomer. Katherine, the bad posture. Sandra, the carpet starer. Kim,with long red nails. Therese, the yoga woman. Christie, the dye job. Tonya, the breathingdif?culty with carefully straightened hair. Janine, the middle-aged woman, “Or Nina, I don’tmind which.”

    “Pick one,” I said.

    “Nina, then.”

    “Fine.” I waited a moment. “Self-defense has only one goal: to survive.”

    “And kick butt!” said Nina.

    “No.” They blinked. “One goal, to survive.”

    “Wait a second,” Suze said, “just hold on.” She leaned forward. “You’re saying we can’t?ght?”

    “I’m saying that from a self-defense perspective, the only goal is to survive. Fighting isneither here nor there.” Wrinkled brows. The ?ick-?ick?ick of Kim’s long red nails, one byone, against her thumb. “Of course, once you’ve ensured your survival, kicking someone todeath is an option.”

    Therese lifted her shoulders, momentarily losing that Zen poise as nasty reality intruded onher nice, clean middle-class understanding. Suze was still frowning. “So are you saying weshould or shouldn’t ?ght?”

    “You’re grown-ups. Make your own choices. My job is to show you the basic tools andtechniques of self-defense: how to stay out of trouble, how to recognize it if it ?nds youanyway, how to deal with it using what’s available—whether that means words, or body weaponslike elbows and teeth, or found objects.”

    Therese probably thought of found objects as sea-etched glass and driftwood from Jekyll Island.For Kim it might be a lottery ticket. Sandra, now, she would understand the concept: the heavy-buckled belt he pulls from his pants, the quart bottle of Gatorade he’s drinking from when shefoolishly mentions she forgot to buy the mushrooms, the broom handle brandished like aquarterstaff when he sees a footprint on the kitchen ?oor.

    “What you do with those tools is up to you. I can tell you what I might do in any givensituation, or at least give you my best guess, but that doesn’t mean you should do the same.”

    Pauletta touched her cruci?x lightly. “So, okay, what would you do if you walk into a bar andthere’s a guy with a knife?”

    “Walk out again.”

    “That’s it?”

    “It’s one option. Prevention is better than cure.”

    “But what if he’s threatening someone?” Suze asked.

    “This isn’t Bodyguarding for Beginners or Heroism 101.”

    “So you’d let him cut some girl, just walk out and leave her?” Pauletta.

“Depends.” It always depends.

    “On what?” Suze, leaning forward again.

    “Everything. How I’m feeling that day, what city I’m in—even what part of town in thatcity. What the assailant looks like, and the potential victim. The number of exits. The general

    Women with babies . . . “Anyone here have kids?”mood of the bar.” They were not getting it.

    Nods from Therese, Nina, Sandra, and Kim. “What would you do if your child came home fromschool crying?”

    “Oh,” said Therese after a moment.

    “Right,” said Kim, nodding, “it depends.”

    “I don’t get it,” Suze said.

    Therese said, “If my twins come home at the end of the day it means one thing, if it’s ateleven in the morning it means something else—”

    “If Carlotta’s crying because some girl stuck gum in her hair I have to do different thingsthan if it’s because her teacher died in a car crash,” Kim said.

    “But you always comfort them, ?rst,” Nina said. “You make sure they’re safe—”

    “And that they feel safe,” Kim said.

    “Yes,” said Therese. “And you always try to ?nd out what happened, make sure it doesn’thappen again.”

    “Basic principles,” Nina said. They smiled at each other, pleased. Suze frowned and openedher mouth. I forestalled her. “Basic principles. That’s what I can give you. Any mother willtell you that if you take a favorite toy from a two-year-old he will scream. I can tell youthat if you kick the leg with enough force at a particular angle you will detach the kneecap.”

    Suze brightened. “So are you going to show us that kneecap thing now or what?”

    I studied her a moment. I nodded at her quads. “You already know how to kick things. That’snot why you’re here. One of the things you need to learn is who to kick, and when.” I lookedaround the circle: different ages, races, classes. Different ways of looking at the world.“When do you hit someone?”

    “Depends,” Nina said. Fast learner.

    “Yes. On what?”

    They all looked hard at the carpet, like teenagers desperate not to be called on in class.

    “Everything?” Christie said.

    I smiled. “Yes. Let’s go back to what Pauletta said earlier. Walking into a bar . . .”

    Every student learns at school how to fake attention. I watched it start to happen now.

    “Or a supermarket at night. Or an empty church.” Most of them came back. “How do youapproach it? What do you do? What do you look for?”

    “I walk in like, Don’t fuck with me!” Suze said.

    No one said anything.

    “Not looking like a victim is a good ?rst step. But it takes a lot of effort to projectaggression all the time.” I paused, trying to think of a metaphor that might mean something toall of them, something American. “You’ve all seen old westerns. The gunslinger steps throughthe saloon doors and stops.” Nods. “That is exactly what not to do.”

    If gunslingers really had paused in the saloon doorway, conveniently backlit by the noonday sunand blind in the sudden interior gloom, their days would have been short. The unassuming oneswould have lived longest, the ones who slipped through the swinging doors behind someone else,slid along a side wall, and looked over the room before ghosting up to the bar and orderingwhat everyone else was drinking. By the time the bad guys in the black hats at the card tablehad realized he was there, he would have known who was the ringer with the derringer in hispocket, where the exits were, and whether the gang leader might be delayed on his draw by the

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