“Austin Abuse Hotline. We’re here to help. What can I do for you?”
“Hey. It’s me again. Is Doris there?”
“I’m sorry. Doris is out today. I can help you. Just let me know how I can assist.”
“Umm…I feel stupid, but I just need someone to talk to. Is it okay if I just talk with you?”
“I’m glad you called. Of course you can talk to me. What’s your name?”
“Uh. I don’t want to say. Is that okay?”
“Sure. Just tell me how I can help.”
“What’s your name? Wait. That wasn’t fair of me.”
“It okay. I can tell you mine. It’s Julie. Go ahead and talk. I’ll listen.”
“Thanks, Julie. I told Doris a lot of it yesterday. I’ll just give you the skinny. Okay?”
Julie chuckled softly. “Sure. Tell it any way you need.”
The caller huffed in frustration. “Okay, here goes nothing. The guy I’m living with is making me crazy. I’m not stupid. I know I need to leave. I’m trying to do that, but until I can make that final step, I need someone to just listen to me. I can’t keep running this through my own head. It’s driving me nuts. I have no one else. They’re all gone.”
“I’m sad to hear that you don’t have anyone close that you can speak with. Who did you share your thoughts with before? Who did you lose, caller?”
“My mom and brother. I never knew my dad. I took care of my mother when she got sick. She had emphysema. She hung on for several years. No matter how bad she felt, she would always ask about my day. When she passed, my brother and I became closer. She was the only family we had. We stayed in constant contact even when he went into the Marine Corps. He died last year in Afghanistan. I came here to Austin after that. I just couldn’t be around so many reminders of what I lost. It didn’t help. Memories follow you.”
“I’m sorry for your loss. I know it’s not the same, but I’d be more than happy to be the person that listens. I do have one question I would like to ask though. Is that okay?”
“Maybe. What is it?”
“Is your boyfriend physically hurting you? Do you feel your life is in danger?”
The caller gave a hollow laugh. “No, he doesn’t beat on me. He’s grabbed my arm a few times, but he doesn’t leave bruises or anything like that. When he throws one of his tantrums, he usually punches a wall or breaks some of my things. Pardon my French, but he’s just a total ass. I don’t consider him my boyfriend. Haven’t for a long time. He’s just an annoying roommate who thinks he’s my boyfriend. I tried to make friends with people at work, but he won’t let them come over to the house. I don’t want to talk about my problems at work. It’s not a place to drag in your home drama. None of the girls there can keep a secret and they all think he’s sweet. He just says things that set me off. He tells me I need to lose weight, but won’t let me exercise. He even threw away my workout equipment. I try to eat healthy and he won’t let me buy the right foods. I don’t know what the hell he wants.”
The caller sighed heavily and said, “The more I hear myself talk the guiltier I feel for taking up your time. You could be helping someone that really is getting abused instead of someone needing a temporary girlfriend to have a bitch fest with. I’m sorry. I should go.”
“No,” Julie urged. “Please don’t hang up. You did the right thing by calling. Abuse is more than just physical. What you described so far is mental abuse. You need to talk so you can keep firm in your goal of leaving before it ever does become physical. You’re doing the right thing. Talk to me. It’s okay.”
The air fell silent for many moments. The only sound marring the quiet room was the rusty squeak of a beat-up desk chair as Cato quickly leaned forward to adjust the volume on the audio capture equipment. He was surprised at the thundering of his heart as he waited for the caller’s voice to fill the room again. He’d been craving that voice since he’d heard it three weeks ago. She’d said, “I need to find a man that will love me for who I am. I’m beginning to think men like that don’t exist. Do they?” and his program tagged the call. Her husky, sensual voice had slid like silk across his ears and he’d been hooked from that moment.
“Caller? Are you still there?”
“Yeah. Sorry. I just had to compose myself for a second. You’re very kind. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. Please. Continue.”
“I tried going to a church for guidance. I’m not Catholic, but I thought a priest might be understanding and confidential. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough when he said I was the problem. He said that I’d lost my faith and was being punished. That made me doubt myself for the longest. I found myself trying to please Bryan…crap! I said his name.” A quick huff of breath hit the receiver.
“Oh well. Who cares? It could be any Bryan. Anyway. No matter what I did, it was never enough. I saved up some money to leave, but he found it in my purse and took it. I thought it more than a coincidence when my car quit running two days later. I think he did it on purpose. I’m stuck walking or taking the bus. Damn! I sound like such a pushover. I’m not like this. I feel like I’m losing myself.”
“It’s okay. You’ve just been through a lot. It’s very easy to get confused and start second-guessing yourself. The real question is what do you want? How do you want this to end?”
“I know I don’t want to be like this anymore. I want to leave and find myself. In truth? I want to be loved. Is there such a thing?”
Julie’s voice came across soft and sympathetic. “There has to be. For all of our sakes, there has to be.”
“You’re right. I’ve given up on so many other things. I don’t want to lose that, too. Shit! Oh, sorry! I have to go. He’ll be home soon. I have to go.”
“Wait,” Julie said. “Call back if you need help or just want to talk. I’m sure I can find some resources to assist you. Just ask.”
“Thanks, Julie. I have to go.”
Cato sat back in his chair as the click of disconnecting lines drifted across the room. He knew his caller was at a payphone on the corner of Johns Avenue and I-35. She was no more than fifteen minutes away, yet it felt like a thousand miles. He wondered which direction she’d taken after she hung up. Was she okay? Was it a long trek back to her house? These were the same questions he asked each time she hung up the phone. He found himself getting angry that she was forced to walk home. It was too dangerous for a woman to do that. Bryan needed his ass beaten for the way he treated her. To his dying breath, any male of worth protected his female. She received the last scrap of food, the last sip of water, and all the love her heart could handle. If she was his woman he would…
“Damn!” Cato shoved himself up from the chair and paced around the room. “What the hell am I saying? I don’t have the first gods damn clue who she is and she doesn’t belong to me.” Taking a deep breath, he plopped back onto the chair and slid close to the equipment. He reached out to turn the audio off, then hesitated. Instead, he turned to his computer, methodically punched a sequence of keystrokes, and transferred the recorded conversation to his handheld. As he programmed his computer to alert when any calls generated from her pay phone, he internally berated himself for taking the steps. This wasn’t in the protocol. There was no address to forward a card in order to draw a lonely woman to the Seeker agencies. He recognized it for its simple truth. He wanted to hear her voice again.
Resigned to his fate of being the world’s biggest sap, Cato strode over to the couch and stretched out on the leather cushions. He’d been parked in his chair for several hours trying to dig up dirt on Peter Drexler and he was starting to feel the grind on his spine and the burn of tense muscles. Severus needed to end this thing with Drexler so Cassie could be safe. They’d been at it for days and the snake was elusive as ever. Cato knew they’d find something soon, but the wait was becoming unbearable. Cassie had already been hurt with the pepper spray and he didn’t know how long Severus could hold out before he just snapped the man’s neck and got it over with.
What the hell was wrong with these guys? Drexler in his pursuit of whatever the hell information he was trying to get from Cassie’s law firm, and this ass wipe Bryan leaving his woman defenseless on the street. He just couldn’t comprehend the coldness it took to allow injury to the fairer sex. Females were precious and valued. Cato realized he still gripped the handheld and his thumb was running back and forth over the button that would release his caller’s voice. He succumbed to the inevitable and pressed down.
“In truth? I want to be loved. Is there such a thing?”
Cato was amazed at the chills working their way across his skin. He’d heard thousands of voices and never once had he been impacted at this level. It was mesmerizing. He punched the button again and felt warmth travel through his body as her soft, husky voice revealed her need. Like an addict, he pressed it again.
He tried to picture what she looked like. He imagined her with full, dusky pink lips, creamy skin, and long, dark hair. Try as he might, he couldn’t envision her eyes and he grunted in frustration. Again, he hit the button. Generous breasts, rounded hips, and firm thighs flashed across his vision. His cock immediately woke and took notice. It grew painfully engorged within seconds. Cato chastised himself out loud for the reaction. “Oh, yeah. You’re a nice guy who cares for women in distress. Sure, buddy. Let’s rock a hard-on in sympathy. Slow your roll, asshole.”
Cato’s eyes widened from sudden realization. He hadn’t lain with a female in over two years. He’d been relying on his own hand or just diverting his attention to other activities. He paused to think about the last time he’d been with a woman and was saddened that he couldn’t recall her face. It wasn’t like he hadn’t been around women or didn’t have ample opportunity. He received enough sensual desire for energy stabilization just by hanging around the females at the club, yet he had no longing to be with any of them.
He thought about the blonde he’d met when he’d gotten his tattoo adjusted, but she’d been all boobs and no brains. His dick immediately deflated at the thought. He hadn’t been able to hold a conversation with her that’d made any sense. Candy must have practiced her initial, intelligent meet-and-greet spiel because shortly afterward she floundered severely in her IQ score. He must’ve been bored out of his skull when he took her dare to dye his hair tips pink. When she’d casually rubbed his crotch and asked him to fuck her, he’d almost retched. The thought of having sex with someone he could barely understand had made him ill. He’d felt bad about ditching her on the sly, but he just couldn’t stay in the room one more moment.
It was this memory that Cato understood to be the beginning of his rote existence. He woke early each morning, caught a workout with Maxim, spent all day in this very room, swung by the club twice a month to recharge, crawled into his bed at home for a few hours’ sleep before the sun rose, and the cycle continued. It was only within the last few days that he’d started to feel alive again. Granted, it wasn’t the best of circumstances, but at least he’d broken routine. No wonder he barely went home. There was nothing there to greet him except a cold bed and packaged food, if he remembered to buy any.
Cato sat up and rubbed his face. He glanced over to the extensive bank of computers and vast array of equipment that would make Gates piss himself, and wondered why he even bothered coming in here. Everything was automated. Other than conducting specific research like he was doing now on Drexler, there was absolutely no need for him to sit and listen to conversations or read text messages from the lonely masses. He felt pathetic.
Cato looked down at the handheld, closed his eyes, and leaned back against the leather cushions. “Are you just another distraction to break up the monotony of the endless, boring days, my lovely?” He fought the urge, or that was what his subconscious convinced him, yet he played the recording one more time and let her beautiful voice wash across his senses to soothe the biting sadness lodged deep in his chest.