Getting Off Easy

He drugged her and raped her. "This," the judge told them, "is why you don't go to bars." Then, ignoring the jury's advice, he gave the rapist probation.

The beat quickened, and the workout coach's bright white tennis shoes blurred into the spokes of the stationary bike. Breathless, Anne felt the wheels spinning beneath her, dissolving the tension of her upcoming divorce. She left the fitness club peacefully tired and ravenous, warmed up some Schnucks roaster chicken and vegetables at home, put on black pants and a boatneck sweater with fur-trimmed cuffs and left for Cardwell's at Plaza Frontenac. It was a Friday night, and she'd made plans to meet Jeannie, her best friend since seventh grade, and Karen, a newer friend and tennis partner.

Anne didn't order a second dinner, just ate the warm buttery bread and sipped red wine. She and her friends laughed a lot, sliding their worries between jokes, work stories and wry observations. About 8:30 p.m., Jeannie, tired from a long week at work, went home to her husband. But Karen wanted to see a new bar -- the Kitchen -- everybody was talking about, and Anne, who'd been there a few weeks earlier for a girlfriend's birthday party, agreed to go with her.

They drove separately, Anne figuring she'd leave early. It was a bleak night in early February, but the Kitchen was packed, its sushi chef rolling fast, the sofas by the fireplace all occupied. Already this Ladue bar, set back off Clayton Road just north of Highway 40, had joined the short roster of places where successful and beautiful adults could meet, talk -- probably not leave together that evening but "network" their personal lives. The place was fun, with leopardskin and camel leather barstools, a playful martini menu, club music thrumming in the background and retro cartoons competing with the stock-market ticker tape -- but nobody was going to throw up on your Prada slides.

Anne and Karen chatted with an investment broker and his friend, sipping a third glass of wine as they learned the vagaries of the portfolio world. Then Karen started talking with a Plaza Frontenac saleswoman she knew, and the woman's friends introduced themselves. Anne found herself standing at the edge of a group intensely discussing something she couldn't hear. Easing away, she headed toward the center bar, bubbly and alert, eager for another conversation. She'd always talked easily to just about anybody, from the old newspaper seller on the sidewalk to the kids at the neighborhood school, and she loved these glimpses into other people's lives.

A mustachioed man, 41, medium height and nothing striking, was standing by the bar, talking idly with a male friend. When he saw Anne coming, lithe and blonde, empty glass in hand, he immediately motioned to the bartender for a fresh merlot. Presenting the wine, he announced that he was divorced and sold plastics. She introduced herself and thanked him, and they made small talk for a while. Squinting through the crowd, she pointed out her friend Karen, across the room. Then she excused herself to go to the bathroom.

When she returned, they chatted a little longer, the guy seeming like the sort who enjoyed helping people solve their problems. Anne confided that she was getting divorced. They talked about his mom's diabetes, their jobs. He volunteered that he liked to hunt. Trying not to wince, Anne took a few sips of the merlot and changed the subject to fundraising, which they'd both done. She was surprised to hear how little his diabetes fundraiser had raised, but she responded politely. She was starting to feel a little odd, kind of wobbly, but she kept talking.

Then she felt her knees buckle.

Alarmed, Anne sat down on the nearest barstool, her stomach doing a slow roll, and tried to figure out what was wrong. She hadn't eaten anything unusual; she'd only had three glasses of wine all evening; she didn't know anybody with the flu. Her head felt light enough to fly off, then as heavy as a sack of sand. Soon, all she could think to do was rest it on the sleek bartop for a minute, just a minute....

She fell sound asleep. Alarmed, bartender Carrie Doe caught the eye of the Kitchen's owner, Kimberly Barnes, who'd been introduced to Anne earlier and had found her sober and charming. The Kitchen didn't have the sort of clientele who passed out at bars. Besides, Barnes had a stringent policy about overserving; if the liquor's effects showed, Doe wouldn't even pour.

Doe urged Anne to get some fresh air, and the doorman, Dan Derecskey, tactfully escorted her to an outside bench. The plastics salesman soon followed, looking concerned, and sat down next to her. She shivered in the February night air, willing her head to clear, knowing she couldn't drive this way. Where was Karen -- had she gone home already? In a fog, she heard the guy saying she couldn't stay there because "the police are on their way and you will get in trouble." A minute later, she heard him say something, oddly intense, about saving her from all the "vultures at the bar" who wanted to take her home.

Derecskey came back outside to check on her. "I don't know what's wrong with me," she told him sleepily. "I was fine a minute ago; I haven't had that much to drink. I think I'm getting sick." The doorman helped her back inside, leaving her in the lobby while he called a cab for her. She frowned, gathering all her powers of concentration, trying to remember where she'd left her coat and purse. Then her new salesman friend reappeared, holding them, and said he'd drive her home.

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