compassion and act for the sake of man.” That was what I focused on for the day, turning it over in my mind as I examined all possible meanings and oppositions. I like to think such mental exercises keep me keen.

Behind me, I heard the sliding glass door open. “Jesse, the phone’s ringing.” Ah, the dulcet voice of the love of my life, my wife, Mira.

Without opening my eyes, I answered, “Can you please take a message?”

I don’t know if I’m the only husband with this talent, but I can actually tell when my wife is gritting her teeth just from the tone of her voice. “The other phone is ringing, Jess.” Oops. Mira did not follow the bushido, so I doubted I’d get great compassion for the sake of man from her at this moment. In fact, she was more likely to throw something at me.

“Coming.” I opened my eyes and bowed from the waist to the little Buddha statue in my garden. No, I’m not Buddhist. He just seemed to belong there, and I hated to leave without at least acknowledging him. Courtesy, you know.

The remnants of morning dew soaked my bare feet and the cuffs of my sweats as I crossed the yard. Stepping up on the brick patio, I grabbed my discarded T-shirt off the lawn furniture and slung it over my shoulder. It gave me a chance to eye the beginnings of a tan. I’m out at night a lot. Add that to the pale blond hair and blue eyes, and I am the poster boy for white and pasty. I was more likely to burn than tan, but every spring I hoped for the best.

The only thing that wouldn’t tan would be the scars, starting just below my left armpit and disappearing beneath the waistband of my sweats. These particular ones were a lingering souvenir from a Skin demon. It had been a hulking white- furred creature, with long grasping arms and talons the length of my forearm. Towering a good four feet over my own six- foot height, it reminded me of a prehistoric sloth. There had been nothing slow about it, however, and even though I won that fight, I most certainly had not walked away from it. When I had nightmares, it was what came at me out of the dark with silver claws and glowing red eyes, killing me night after night.

In my mind, I still called it the Yeti, because the weak attempt at humor was all that kept me from going screaming mad in terror.

My other scars, peppered over my shoulders and arms, were inconspicuous next to the Yeti’s spectacular marks. I could name most of them. The small spattered burns on my forearms belonged to an explosive Snot from two years ago. The horseshoe marks on my shoulders, the size of fifty-cent pieces, were left behind by something leechlike nine months back. I was never sure whether it counted as a Snot or a Scuttle. The tiny scar at the right corner of my mouth, mostly hidden by my goatee, was my own doing. I had cut myself shaving in my youth.

Sure, I had more than my fair share for a man my age, but if anyone noticed that my scars had strange shapes and occurred in odd places, they never said. They pretended to believe they were knife wounds, and I pretended I believed they believed that. It worked out well for all concerned.

Mira was bent over, her head stuck in the dishwasher. She wore a pair of short cut-off jeans and a tank top, her thick mane of sable curls temporarily confined in some kind of twisty clip that probably had a name known only to women. All right, I’m a pig, I admit it, but I stopped to let my eyes wander up the slender column of her legs, over her nicely rounded behind, across the curve of her back… to find her green eyes staring at me over her shoulder. She raised one brow, and I shrugged with a sheepish grin. “You can’t blame a guy for looking.”

“Go answer the phone!” She hit me in the chest with a damp dish towel. At the same moment, a hard object collided with something lower down and much more precious to me. No combat training in the world can prepare you for the toddler-head-in-the-junk attack.

“Oof!” I looked down to find the culprit grinning up at me, all red pigtails and blue-eyed innocence.

“Daddy, your phone is ringing,” she informed me in all her five-year-old seriousness.

“I know, button. Lemme go so I can get it, ’kay?”

“Annabelle, go pick your toys up out of the living room, please.” At the sound of her mother’s voice, she was gone, her bare feet thundering down the hallway like a small herd of buffalo. It was amazing how much noise one small child could make.

The phone- that phone, anyway-never brought good news, so I took my time sauntering down the hallway, smelling the faint incense Mira had burning. Our house was nothing spectacular. I think the real estate agent called it a single- level ranch, three bedrooms, one and a half baths. I called it mundane suburban. Pale yellow vinyl siding and an unfenced yard completed the picture. The house was light and airy, and the maple hardwood floors almost glowed when the sun crept in through the tall windows. We’ve lived here six years already. I guess that means we’re going to stay.

I could hear Annabelle in her room as I passed, giggling fitfully as she tried to hide under her huge stuffed rabbit. We simply could not convince her that snickering madly was not a good way to stay hidden. “You’d better get moving before your mom finds you, kiddo.”

In my den-a walk-in closet, in a former life-the shrill chirp of my cell phone ceased just long enough for the person on the other end to hit REDIAL, then started up again. I closed the door behind me, encasing myself in my own personal haven. My desk and chair were against the far wall, the short wall. Two tall book-cases towered at my left, laden with everything from ancient Japanese philosophies to the latest bestseller from my favorite author. The right wall was adorned with my tie-dyed Jimi Hendrix wall hanging, right next to a Japanese silk print of two samurai battling. Home, sweet home.

I settled into my old desk chair, one left over from Mira’s college days. The abused leather felt sticky against my bare back, and I had to be very careful not to lean on the right arm, because it would fall off and dump me on the floor. It was my favorite piece of furniture in the house.

I examined the still-ringing cell phone before I answered it. Eighteen missed calls already. It was a local number, but not one I knew. Whoever it was, was persistent. I had to give the person that. “Hello?”

There was a moment of confused silence on the other end. Since a simple hello so confounds my callers, I always wonder how they expect me to answer the phone. “Mr. Dawson?” It was a man’s voice, older than I if I had to guess; in his fifties, maybe.

“Yes.” There was a long, uncomfortable pause again, and I just waited, letting him squirm. What can I say; I’m not good with small talk.

“Um… a friend of mine recommended you…”

“Who?” I picked up the handy-dandy pen and notepad I kept on my desk.

“Walter Brandt. He said you might be able to help me.”

“And where can I reach you?” He rattled off the name and number of a local hotel, which I scribbled down with a frown. I don’t like it when they go ahead and invite themselves to my city, just assuming that I’ll take up their cause. It was a strike against him, whoever he was. “And your name?”

“Nelson Kidd.”

I had to pause in the middle of writing that down to blink. “Nelson Kidd, the Arizona pitcher? Mr. Perfect- Game-in-the-World-Series Kidd?”

“The same.”

Well how d’ya like them apples? I confess I’m still a bit starstruck at some of the people I wind up working for. But I remembered my professionalism enough to keep from squealing like a fan girl. “I will call you back in twenty minutes, Mr. Kidd.” I hung up before he could protest. I know people hate that, but it gives the leftover rebel inside me a great deal of pleasure.

The first thing I did with any new client was touch base with his reference. I learned the hard way not to just take folk at their word, and I’ve got the scars to keep the memory fresh. Walter Brandt’s name was in my phone book (under B, even!), and I dialed him up.

A woman’s bored voice answered. “Lexicon Industries. How may I direct your call?”

“Walter Brandt, please.”

“I’m sorry, sir, he’s in a meeting. May I take a message or forward you to his voice mail?” It was said with a tone of “I’m only doing this until my acting career takes off, so I won’t bother to treat you with more than indifference.” I could picture her snapping her gum and filing her nails. Do secretaries still do that? Oh wait, I’m sorry-administrative assistants.

Whatever she was, she irritated me. “Interrupt the meeting and tell him it’s Jesse Dawson. He should be expecting my call.” I had no doubt that Walter Brandt would move hell and high water to take my call. His assistant, however, was apparently not aware of my privileged status.

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