Charm City: Chapter 1

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"You seem much improved, Mr. Murphy." The social worker folded her hands on top of his file, a fat many-paged collection of his previous ins and outs. Saint Berenice had become more than a temporary lay-over. It was starting to feel like home.

Which meant he'd stayed too long. "Feeling better, sweetheart. Time I move on."

"But you were extremely vulnerable when you arrived. I must insist." She shook her head, peering into his eyes.

He avoided that burrowing gaze and stared at the folder. A photograph was paper-clipped to the cover, the name KEVIN MURPHY printed in block letters across the top. Dark hair, dark eyes. What his mom would have called "properly Black Irish", clipped and shaved like a dandy. He snorted a soft derisive sound, knowing that he looked nothing like that when he was at his worst. That's the picture they should have—rumpled shirt, straggly almost-beard, dark rings beneath gray ghost eyes, the magic still burning through his veins. On the wagon was such a school boy look.

"Kevin." Her voice made him look up again. "For your own sake."

"I'm not doing this for my sake. I'm doing it for yours."

She bit her lips, a look of resignation on her face. "I think that this is premature. You feel rested, don't you? You look healthier. But it wasn't just anxiety that brought you back here, or the worry of a relapse. You are avoiding the true reason you haven't attained peace."

"I avoid a lot of stuff. It's how I stay alive."

"But your addiction—"

"You don't know the first thing about my addiction." Simon regretted the sharpness of his tone but was unable to soften it. "Don't presume the answer lies here among your group therapy and your Jungian theories and your psychological voodoo. If I say I'm better it's because it's as better as I'm going to get."

A long silence passed between them. She'd never been anything but polite to him, helpful at times; the game was different now. Truths were going to out themselves, truths that tended to drag everyone nearby down with them. He'd hurt her, just now. He couldn't prevent collateral damage but he had a duty to minimize it. Even if it meant he had to be an asshole to do it.

"You have to sign here to discharge yourself against doctor's orders," she said, her voice heavy. She flipped open the back cover to a printed medical form.

"I checked myself in." He took her pen and signed the bottom of the paper with a flourish. Kevin Murphy. As good a name as any, but he could never get the letter v right. Maybe it was time for a new alias. "I can do the same in reverse."

The therapist sighed and closed the file. She pulled a yellow envelope out of a basket. Opening it, she tipped the contents out onto the signed paperwork.

Wallet, cell phone, religious medallions, the wand. It rolled toward him and he snatched it up, shoving it into his breast pocket before collecting the other items. "Ah. My worry-stick. I was looking for that."

"Kevin, I don't think a simple worry-stick is enough to conquer the demons inside you."

"We'll not talk about my demons, sweetheart. Not when they can hear you." His smile faded, his eyes going glassy and hard. "Until next time, eh?"

He snapped an about-face and strode out of her office, down the taupe-colored hallway toward the door, pausing until he heard the electronic buzz of the lock release. He left the facility, doors slamming shut behind him.

The air was balmy, remnants of sea air tainted by traffic fumes as it filtered through miles of city sprawl. Ah. He inhaled deeply through his nose. The smell of freedom. Good to be out and about again.

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