The gallery was dark when he entered, the only light came from the dim "Exit" signs over the doors on either end and the spill-light from the room beneath him. And since that was coming through mirrored, one-way glass, it wasn't very bright, either.
So he concentrated on the two figures in the room rather than the folder of information in his hand.
The girl was 19, pretty in a bland way and not important. She was competent. He had used her before and would again. He kept his eyes focused on the boy.
There was little to see. At the moment, the youngster's whole attention was given to the sheet of blank newsprint he was randomly defacing with a small box of chubby crayons. All that could be seen was the top of his head. The medium brown, wavy hair gave little indication of the young mind it sheltered.
The girl leaned forward and said something too quietly to catch. Now the child looked up and smiled. For the man watching, it was a heart-stopping moment. He was quite certain he'd never seen this child before, never encountered him in any way, shape or form. But there was something in that smile that cut right to the core.
The pain was intense.
He opened the folder and risked leaning closer to the mirrored glass in order to use the diffuse light to read. It was a standard file, giving the child's basic vital statistics - age, address, date of birth, name, parents names...
He froze for a moment and then looked down again at the child. It was a long moment and he did not stir as much as a muscle during it. When he did move it was with such speed that his clumsy progress over the curving length of the bench he'd been sitting on was surely audible to those below. The girl didn't matter. She knew he was there, but the child was supposed to have no knowledge that he was being observed.
Right now, even that didn't matter. Getting out of there mattered. Getting away. Getting to John. He had to run because, suddenly, he couldn't breath.
Slow and careful wasn't even an option.
She was looking for someone safe. She'd had it with fast-talkers and slow thinkers. She was tired of the come-ons and the gimmees. That's what it all came down to. It was just a game to them, with one objective. What she wanted was someone who could enjoy the process. Someone who actually enjoyed chatting over drinks. And if they ended up at her place for the last of those drinks, that was fine too. But she wanted someone who was into more than a happy ending. She wanted someone who could enjoy the ride as well.
What she found was the last thing she'd been looking for.
The bar had been dimly lit, and if there had been anything in his eyes to warn her, she hadn't seen it. He seemed like the safest of the safe. Small, unassuming, friendly and a little self-effacing. But not so much as to be dull. He even let her buy him a drink. She always took that as a good sign. He wasn't what she usually looked for, of course, and she couldn't care less about his job. Thank God he saw that early and stopped going on about it. That alone showed he had some sensitivity, didn't it? He asked her about her job, her family, her life. He even seemed to enjoy hearing about it, in a low-key kind of way. Yet, under the laid-back attitude, something smouldered.
She should have reached for a fire extinguisher instead of asking him to light her cigarette.
When she left with him, hours later, it would be to go to his place. At that point, her senses well-coated by alcohol, she would think vaguely of what it would be like to invite him to her own small apartment.
She would never find out.
"You have to take this one for me!"
John Needham, Ph.D, stared at his agitated associate for a moment before calmly inviting him to sit. The calm was pure charade, of course, given the bizarre spectacle before him. He'd never seen Cathcart actively upset about anything. This was something entirely new, almost an impossibility. Only that morning, if someone had put a gun to his head and asked him if Dr. Harrison Cathcart was capable of panic, he would have sat back and laughed for a good five minutes.
Suicidal depressives almost never panic. They don't have that much energy.
But there was no mistaking the look in the younger man's eyes. In fact, his whole, frame was trembling visibly. Needham had to ask him twice more to sit before his knees actually bent. It was sheer luck that he landed on the edge of a chair. Needham stood up and came around his desk By leaning on its edge Needham could stay far enough away not to spook Cathcart, but close enough to intervene if anything more unusual happened.
"You've never asked me to take one of your cases before. What's so special about this one?"
Without a word, Cathcart thrust the folder at him. It was bent almost double from the pressure of his fingers. There were four sweat stains on one side and a slightly smeared thumbprint on the other that could have been used, with no difficulty, in a court of law. Needham opened it and read the contents carefully.
"I'm sorry, but I don't see...o-o-h-h." He looked up and met the younger man's eyes. "I take it this is all news to you." It wasn't a question, but Cathcart's answering shudder was eloquent.
"How were you thinking I would handle it?" Needham asked mildly.
Cathcart looked at him through a haze of shock. "Just take the damn thing. I can't do it! You know I can't do it!"
"All right." Needham kept his voice soft and light. "But what will you be doing while I'm talking to them?"
"God, I don't know."
"Will you watch?"
Cathcart looked at him in horror. "I don't think I can do that. No, I know I can't."
"Then what will you do?"
"Cancel everyone else and leave. I have to leave. You understand? I have to get out of here for awhile. I can't stay. I'll go out the back. I can do that. You understand, I can't stay here."
"I understand, but where will you go?" Needham had to fight to keep his voice level. Leaving, going off alone was the last thing he wanted Cathcart to do. It was possible he would never see the man alive again if he let that happen. But he had no way to prevent it, either. It was better to negotiate this, somehow, so that Cathcart didn't cut all ties with everything and everyone.
"I don't know. I need to think."
"You'll go home?"
"Maybe. I don't know."
"But I need to know," Needham persisted.
"Because even if you cancel everyone, chances are someone will come in anyway. If I have to reach you, I'll need to know where you'll be." As a reason, it was transparent as his watch crystal, but there was no time to think of anything better.
"No, I need to know when, so I'll know to take the call. When can you call?"
"An hour. I'll call at four. I promise."
By the look on Cathcart's face, Needham could tell he had overplayed his hand. The younger man knew exactly what this was about. But that desperate promise was the best that could be had at this time.
Still, it couldn't hurt to sweeten the pot a bit. "I'll let you know what the boy says. And what his mother says as well. Call at four." The look on the already-strained face of his associate told him how cruel that pot-sweetener had been. But the words, once spoken, could not be called back.
He watched the outside office door swing shut behind Cathcart with foreboding. John Needham, Ph.D, was good at reading people. It was why he was head of such a large psychology department. But he had no idea what Dr. Harrison Cathcart was thinking at this moment. And that worried him. It worried him a great deal.
He picked up the phone and spoke to his office nurse. "Bonnie, cancel my afternoon sessions. Oh, and have Julie cancel all of Dr. Cathcart's afternoon sessions as well, except his current one. I'll be taking that."
"Yes, Doctor." At least Bonnie didn't sound panicked, which was good.
Someone in the office had to keep their head in a crisis.
The young woman in the waiting room caught herself swinging her right foot in a wide, distracted arc and flushed, looking around to see who might be watching. Carefully she uncrossed her legs and put both feet firmly on the floor.
What was she trying to do, advertise to the whole world that she was on the verge of losing control altogether? What was she even doing in a psychologist's waiting room? Trying to prove her mother's point, that she wasn't a very good mother herself? Hiding from her responsibilities, her mother would say, and her sister would cheerfully agree, probably with a sticky-sweet smile and an insincere apology. She wanted to grab her son and run, but the door had closed behind his small back almost 20 minutes ago and she had no idea where he might be at this moment. God, she wanted to get out of here!
But that would leave her alone again. Alone with her son in the middle of the night, cradling his small, trembling body, listening to the piercing screams that, each time, seemed as if they'd never stop. If she was a bad mother, she would at least find the answer to this. She owed her son that much. She had to stay.
She didn't even notice when her leg began it's wide, pendulum
Mid-afternoon was too early. He knew that. But he'd been drawn to this bar, knowing she'd be here, knowing she'd be here now. He couldn't wait for a better time. He'd been trying for weeks. And there had been, at the beginning, a faint hope that it would be different this time.
But, of course, it wasn't.
She was like she always was. Her eyes had glazed over when he mentioned his work. She still found him boring. But he had tried, even then he had tried. He'd spoken of her own work.
That was when she lied. Right to his face, knowing he would know, she'd lied outright. Something about being a coroner's assistant. As if he'd fall for that. He knew her, and she should know he always would.
But he ordered another drink for both of them, drawing it out at least until sundown. If he could stand sitting here just a little while longer, listening to the poison spilling from her lips, he could try one more time to find closure.
For both of them.
Grace looked up as the older women popped out of her small, cubbyhole office and into the waiting room.
"You know what, kid?" Grace couldn't help smiling back at that friendly, round face. She was in awe of her job and her employers (those she'd met, anyway) at Remington Steele Investigations, but when she and Mildred Krebbs were all alone, she almost relaxed. Maybe it was because Mildred had ridden this chair for years before Grace had taken the job as secretary and Mildred had moved up to full associate.
"What, Miss Krebbs?"
"It's too nice a day for this. Miss Holt won't be back this afternoon, we don't have a client in sight and it's a glorious Friday. What the hell are two nice people like us doing in this dump?"
"What are you getting at?" Grace Hart asked with a knowing smile.
"What say we shut down early? It's only three-thirty, but take it from me, nobody calls after three on a Friday."
"But what will Miss Holt say?"
"Whatever Miss Holt says, she'll say it to me, and since I'm taking responsibility, you have nothing to worry about. If worst comes to worst, I'll tell her you got sick and I decided to abandon the fort after you left. So not to worry, o.k.? Besides, you need time to get ready."
"Ready for what?"
"It's Friday night. Don't tell me the irresistible Reggie has no plans for the two of you." Laughing, Mildred handed the younger woman her purse and steered her to the glass front doors of the office. "Get your hair done, or take a long, hot bath, or just sit around and daydream. Whatever. Just get out of here and enjoy."
Grace paused at the door to give Mildred a grateful smile. "Thanks, Mildred."
"Don't thank me, kid," Mildred waved her off, "I'm doing myself a favor. You're not the only one with a hot date. And if I'm quitting early, no reason you can't. See you Monday."
She watched the younger woman totter off to the elevator on high heels she seemed not to have mastered yet. Had she, herself, ever been that young, Mildred wondered fondly. Probably not. At that age she had been married and already miserable. Still, life went on and even got better. Much better, she concluded, thinking of Joe, who would be picking her up that evening. Much, much better.
Not knowing that her evening would be far from her happy imaginings,
Mildred finished locking up the office and headed for the elevators.
She was going to have her hair done, but she could have saved
herself the money if she'd only known who she'd be keeping company
with over the next two days. It would be Sunday before she saw
Joe and, by then, her new hairdo would be just a fond memory.
"Please, have a seat." Needham watched as the slender woman with the carefully composed face lowered herself into the chair in front of his desk. She looked braced for the worst. Pity he couldn't oblige.
"I've seen your son and talked with him. He seems like quite a bright young man."
Her smile was genuine, if fleeting. "He is. In fact, very bright, from what I've been told."
"You've had him tested?"
For a moment, she looked alarmed. "No. Of course not. I only mean some of his teachers at pre-school have said--"
"No need to be upset. I merely wondered if anyone had been foolish enough to test a child so young. He's only two, I believe."
"He'll be three in a month and a half," she said, composing herself.
"Well, no doubt he gets his intelligence naturally. You work in law enforcement of some kind, is that right?"
"Pardon?" For a moment she was confused. She couldn't remember mentioning her profession on any of the forms she'd filled out earlier.
"Your son mentioned that you 'catch bad guys' at work. I thought that must mean law enforcement of some kind."
She smiled fondly. "Yes, he would call it that. I'm a private investigator. I work for Remington Steele Investigations."
"I see. And the boy's father?"
"What?" The alarmed look was back, he noted.
"He mentioned that his father 'catches bad guys' as well."
"Oh, well, something like that, I suppose."
"Does he work with you, also?"
"What? No, of course not, he's only two."
"No, I meant his father."
For a moment the young woman sighed with what seemed to be tired annoyance. It was, Needham felt, her most interesting reaction so far.
"No, he doesn't. He did, but that's not important now. My son doesn't know his father. He's never met him. And it doesn't matter. None of this matters. None of this has anything to do with what's wrong." Her voice was rising steadily. "I brought him here for nightmares, not a genealogy survey. Can we get to the point here, please!"
Needham cut in smoothly. "I'm sorry, Miss Holt. I didn't mean to upset you. I'm not implying anything at all, merely asking about a comment your son made in passing. It's quite likely of no importance at all."
For a moment Laura Holt regarded him warily, then slowly composed herself again. "Tell me about the nightmares, if you would," he asked, when he felt she was ready.
"They started about two months ago. Maybe not that long ago, but I'm not sure. At first I didn't keep track. I didn't think it was that important. But they kept getting worse and more frequent and now I just want to make them stop."
"What does he say about them?"
"He doesn't say anything about them. That's what frightens me. He calls for me, but when I'm there, all he'll do is hold on to me and cry. He'll never tell me what it's about. And he's never done that before. Any nightmares he's had until now, and he's never had that many, he always told me what they were about."
"What were those other nightmares about?" Needham
was on safer ground here. He knew what questions to ask, what
answers to elicit. The other matter could recede into the background.
For now, at least. Later, he would have to think of some answers
of his own, unless he wanted to have his good suit pressed for
Mildred unlocked her front door and closed it behind her with a sigh of relief. Why some women found a trip to the hair salon relaxing she'd never know. She felt as if her entire head had been pulled out of shape. What she wanted now was a cup of something warm and a long, hot soak. She dropped her bag on the couch and, instead of opening the front window blinds, she reached for the table lamp beside her. The days were turning dark so early now, winter wasn't far away. Her fingers had just found the switch when he spoke.
Her fingers were numb. That's the only reason it took so long for her to get the light switched on. At least, that's what she told herself as she drew a deep breath and forced herself to turn toward the kitchen doorway.
He looked tired, she realized with a start. Tired and older and...something else she couldn't quite define. And he'd lost weight in the years since she'd seen him last. He was too thin. But he was definitely there. And what was she to say? She couldn't think of anything quite appropriate, so she fell back on something she'd begun to believe she'd never say again.
"Hello, Mr. Steele."
Late that night, one of the lowest of the low would find her. Cans didn't fetch the price they once had, before everyone had started recycling, but they still paid enough to make it worth going through dumpsters looking.
He'd already found three bagfuls of aluminum cans and was considering giving it up for the night when he came to the last blue dumpster in the mid-point of the alley. What the heck, one last haul, he thought. Make it an even four.
He was groping under a spill of magazines when he touched her arm. At first he thought some idiot had decided to sleep there. The arm was still warm.
Which was interesting, since it wasn't attached to the rest of her anymore.
Maybe, he thought wildly, holding what was left of a young coroner's assistant, aluminum didn't pay enough to make it worthwhile, after all.