Mildred absently wrapped plastic film over a partially-filled dinner plate, her thoughts far from what her hands were doing. She could hear water running in the bathroom, and wondered if she'd gotten rid of all her old safety razors. She'd used an electric razor for the past several years. Still, you never knew what lurked in the dark corners of a medicine cabinet and now would be a very bad time to find out she'd been an inefficient housekeeper.
She couldn't say what she was basing this fear on. It was something in his eyes, she finally concluded.
After she'd gotten over her first shock at the sight of him standing in her kitchen doorway, she'd immediately put on a pot of tea. She needed it, and she had an idea he did as well. It had been three and a half years since she'd last seen the man she'd known as Remington Steele and she needed to collect her thoughts carefully before she spoke. So she bustled around the stove, making vague noises about the pot and the water and the brand of tea she wanted to use, until she felt his hand on her arm.
"Mildred, stop. Just stop."
She stood, frozen for a moment, staring foolishly at the teapot lid in her hand. Carefully, she replaced it, wiped her hands on a dishtowel and moved over to the kitchen table to sit. "All right," she said evenly, "start at the beginning. And don't leave anything out."
She looked directly at him, then, noticing the worn spot at the shoulder of his jacket, his slightly dusty shoes, the dark shadows under his eyes. "What do you mean, no? You just picked yourself up and vanished one day, never called, never wrote, never even said goodbye, and now you waltz in here and you won't even--"
"Mildred," His tone was mild, but there was an edge to it that quelled her immediately. "I need to ask you a question. Just one question. And I need an honest answer. It's important, maybe more important than you'll ever realize. After that, I promise, I'll tell you anything you want to know."
She was certain she knew what his question would be. He'd found out about the boy. That was why he'd come back. She was braced to explain it as gently as possible, so she was blindsided by his next words.
"What happened to Roselli?"
"Who?" She had to think for a moment. "You mean that phoney archaeologist creep? How should I know? The last time I saw him, he was being tucked into a coffin in Ireland. And as far as I'm concerned he can stay there. Why? What does he have to do with anything?" Then she looked closely at the man in front of her. "Mr. Steele? Chief? Are you o.k.? Hey!"
She had her arms around him before she was aware of standing up. She'd never seem him cry before and, though soundless, it was still terrible to see. She led him to a chair, handed him the first thing that came to hand, a paper napkin, and then stood there, patting him uselessly on the shoulder while he tried to compose himself. This was going to be a long, strange story, she could tell.
How long and how strange, she couldn't have guessed.
"Now, look, that happens to be the best meatloaf I've ever made and I know you like my meatloaf, so eat!"
He looked up at her and smiled sheepishly. "You're bullying me, you know."
Mildred grinned back at him, noting that the red was beginning to fade from his eyes. "You like that, too. Now eat!" Obediently he picked up a fork and took another small bite. She had long since finished her own reheated, leftover meatloaf. She had also called Joe and cancelled their date. She had been right. It had been a long, strange story. But now she would have to discuss the boy, and she knew he wasn't quite ready for it. The rest had been too emotionally exhausting. Still, there was no choice. The child was a fact and that fact had to be faced.
"Look, Chief, there's something we have to discuss." He put his fork down and faced her. She leaned over, picked up his fork and placed it back into his hand. "Eat. I know you can talk and eat because I've seen you do it. And, besides, I'm going to be doing most of the talking. It's about Miss Holt and what happened after you left."
"I know what happened after I left. At least I know the important part." He looked infinitely sad again and Mildred's heart wrenched with pain for him.
"No, I don't think you do. This doesn't have anything to do with Roselli. It has to do with what happened right after you left. Just a few days after, in fact."
"Not, say, nine months later?" he asked, one eyebrow cocked ever so faintly.
"You know, then," she said with a sigh of relief.
"About the boy? I know he exists. That's why I'm here. That's what brought me here, anyway. Until then I really thought..." He drew a deep, quivering breath. "Never mind. We've been all through that." He put his fork down again and pushed his plate away decisively. "Tell me about him. At least about whatever you were going to tell me when you started. Sorry to interrupt."
"Don't be. You've made it a bit easier." Mildred smiled at him encouragingly, but she still wondered if he was ready for all of this. Or if she was, for that matter.
"It was just after you left, at least I think it was. I hadn't seen you around the office for a couple days, but Miss Holt was vague about it when I asked. You were 'away' doing 'something,' but she never said what. Then one morning she just went into her office and shut the door. Didn't even poke her head out for coffee or the mail or anything. I sent a phone call back to her office and the guy called back and said she'd never picked up her phone. So I sent the call again and the same thing happened. And then I went in and found her. She was lying on the floor, out cold. I couldn't wake her, so I called an ambulance. At the hospital, they said she'd been drugged, some exotic thing almost no one had seen before, except one doctor who'd been in the army at some point. They said she'd been drugged repeatedly and it had built up to toxic levels, which is why she collapsed. We knew she'd been hit with the stuff as recently as the day before, but we never did find out what it was all about."
"What was she drugged with?"
"I couldn't pronounce it if you held a gun to my head. Wait a minute, I wrote it down." Mildred went to the china cabinet that formed a barrier between the kitchenette area and the living room and began rummaging through one of its lower drawers. The drawer seemed to be filled to overflowing with a jumble of twenty or thirty small spiral notebooks, all with the same pink and orange floral design. Mildred finally returned to the table with one particular notebook. Flipping through the pages, she finally stopped at one and handed the notebook to him. A low whistle was his first response.
"Someone gave her this?"
"Well, that's what they said at the hospital. Multiple doses, is how they put it. But we never found out who or why and, frankly, with everything else that was going on, we didn't try too hard. Anyway, it never happened again, as far as we know."
"Mildred, this could've killed her! No one uses this stuff anymore, it's too dangerous. Unless..."
"Unless what, Chief?"
"Nothing, Mildred. It's not important right now. Look, go on. What else was happening then?"
Mildred knew she shouldn't let him get away with such an obvious change of subject, but he'd had such a rough day already, she just couldn't force him through any more. There'd be time enough for that later...she hoped.
"Well, for starters, you were missing. When I got Miss Holt to the hospital, the first thing I did was try to find you. After I got done with the doctors and I knew everything, I went over to your place, partly to get Miss Holt some things she'd need, because they were keeping her overnight, but mostly to find you. And what I found was that you were gone. Your things were gone, everything. It looked like nobody but Miss Holt was living in your apartment."
He winced again. Those last few months before he'd left had been the happiest he could remember. Laura had finally given up her loft and moved into his flat. She claimed it was easier than trying to remember where she'd left a particular outfit when she was trying to get dressed, and that it made more financial sense to keep one address instead of two, but it was still the happiest time of his life, however brief it had been.
"I tried to find you." Mildred continued. "I tried every alias you'd ever used, tracked down people I didn't remember knowing, pulled in favors people didn't remember owing me, but nothing. It was like you vanished off the face of the earth. Where in heaven's name did you go, anyway?"
"Chicago," he said absently. "But that's not important right now. What happened then?"
"You've been in Chicago all this time?"
"No, Mildred, that's just where I went at first. Please, go back to Laura. What happened?"
"Well, like I said, I couldn't find you and right then it was really, really important to find you, so everything else went on a back burner. We'd just finished the Murchison case, the missing nephew thing? Anyway, what with Miss Holt's condition, I stuck pretty close to her and kept trying to find you."
"Her condition? What the hell did the drugs do to her?"
"Nothing that I know of, other than knocking her out for a bit. That's not what I was talking about. That was when we found out, you see. When the doctor tested her to see why she'd passed out, he also found out she was pregnant."
"Oh, yes. Of course. Go on." She eyed him carefully, but there was nothing to be seen in those blue eyes except the pain he'd worn there since she'd turned on the living room light hours before. It seemed safe to continue.
"Anyway, we were both kind of in shock and you were nowhere to be found and Miss Holt was going nuts and so I just dropped everything else for awhile and stuck close to her. And kept looking for you. You should have called me," she added, sounding faintly accusing, "or at least written."
He looked at her closely for a moment, then leaned over and planted a soft kiss on her cheek. "I wish to God I had, Mildred. You don't know how much I've missed you. But I just couldn't. It was too hard. You understand?"
She sighed. "Yeah, I guess I do. Anyway, you're here now." She grinned at him. "That's what counts."
"Of course. But you were saying?"
"Well, there's not too much more, really. After awhile, as we got used to the idea of the baby, Miss Holt got a bit better about things. She got back to work and everything. Of course we still looked for you. Not that we had any luck. I think Miss Holt even called her friend in Colorado, Michael-somebody."
"Murphy," he corrected her gently. "Murphy Michaels."
"Yeah. Anyway, he couldn't find you either. You should give lessons to the witness protection people, Chief. You're good. Anyway, we just kept on and then the baby came and we took care of him and we kept looking for you and working at the agency and there's really nothing else to tell."
"You could tell me his name," he said softly.
"Why do I get the feeling you already know his name?"
"Because I do. It's why I came here. Because if what I'd thought had been true, it didn't make any sense."
"So, now you know. What are you going to do?"
He sighed. "Mildred, you're the second person who's asked me that today. I honestly don't know what I'm going to do. I can't face her."
"Chief, you have to. You don't have a choice."
"I know that, Mildred. But I just can't fathom it right now. My head is spinning. And that's the least of it. I just can't cope with any of it at the moment."
"What you need," she said firmly, "is a hot bath and a good night's sleep. You can stay on my couch. Then, tomorrow, I think I'm going to do a little kidnapping."
"Mildred!" He sounded so genuinely shocked, she had to laugh.
"No, not like that. I do this from time to time. I just show up at the door one morning and announce that I'm 'kidnapping' the little guy and going off to the zoo or the park or something. Every mother needs a break now and then, especially an unplanned break. So it wouldn't be anything that unusual. Then, after I've left, you arrive. That way you two can talk and you won't have to worry about how either of your reactions will affect him." She grinned at him, but he only shook his head wearily.
"Mildred, it's a lovely thought, but I'm not sure I'm up for this."
"Of course you're not up for this. You're exhausted. So, tonight you'll sack out on my couch." She raced on to forestall the argument she saw growing in his eyes. "It's actually very comfortable. I've dozed off there myself many times. And then tomorrow, I'll stuff you full of pancakes and eggs and after that, you'll be able to take on anything."
"I'm not so sure of that," he said ruefully.
"Well, I am," Mildred said, with far more confidence than she felt. "I use a super-secret pancake recipe guaranteed to put the starch back in your spine. Trust me!"
"Do I have a choice?"
"None whatsoever." Secretly, underneath the table,
she crossed her fingers, hoping she was right about this. So much
was depending on it. She didn't dare be wrong.
After she'd dressed for bed, Mildred carefully left her bedroom door ajar. She was usually a light sleeper, and she felt sure she'd hear any unusual noises in the living room, but it didn't hurt to be cautious. Nothing had happened so far, but tomorrow she was going through her medicine cabinet thoroughly, as well as the rest of the place. Better safe than sorry, that was her motto.
As she turned out her bedside lamp and settled herself for
sleep, she said a brief prayer that he would be able to sleep
as well. They both needed all the rest they could get because
tomorrow would be a big day. That is, if she had anything to say
Out on the couch, he lay on his back with one arm under his head. His tired, overstressed mind tried to make some sense and order out of all the disturbing revelations he'd taken in during the past eight hours, but it was a losing effort. It was all just too much and then some.
Sleep wouldn't actually come for hours yet, when exhaustion forced the issue. But this was something he was entirely used to. He had spent many long hours over the past few years staring at one ceiling or another far into the morning and, in spite of everything he'd heard today, he didn't see that fact changing anytime in his near or foreseeable future.
And Mildred's ceiling was a change of pace from his own, at
Across town, John Needham was having trouble sleeping as well. He'd talked it over with his wife, and she'd recommended against calling the police, but he wasn't totally convinced she was right.
Cathcart had never called. He wasn't at his rooming house and his landlady hadn't seen him. None of this was good news. But, as Needham's wife had pointed out, it didn't justify alerting the police, either. He would have to wait a day or two and call Monday.
After all, as his wife had pointed out, if the worst had happened, waiting wouldn't really matter. And if it hadn't, it wasn't likely to now, anyway.
That was what he wasn't so sure of. But he couldn't find an
argument that made enough sense to either of them. So he did a
small stretch of ceiling-gazing himself before giving himself
up to disturbing dreams he would have no trouble interpreting
in the morning.
The problem was that, afterward, the doubts would begin. At the time, he was always quite certain. His course of action seemed unquestionably right. But then, later, while he was engaged in the distasteful act of cleaning up, all the little similarities, the resemblances, the familiar signposts would begin to vanish and doubt would creep in.
Death, he told himself, did that to people; rendered the familiar strange in order to remove a loved one further away, making the pain of that parting easier to bear.
But his calm certitude was dissolving again. The eyes were brown, but weren't they shaped just a bit differently? And the mouth, had it actually been that narrow? Hair, no, that could be changed easily enough, but even the neck seemed wrong. Of course, after being bisected, both ends would seem to shrink back into the head and torso, but he thought her neck had been longer, more graceful.
What if he'd been wrong again? What if it weren't her after all? Would he have to begin all over?
Would he never find closure?
They made sleep difficult, these endless questions. He was certain other men didn't lay awake torturing themselves like this. But if he'd been like other men, none of this would even be necessary. If he were like other men, she would never treat him this badly and he wouldn't have to put himself through it.
Well, he'd see how he felt about it in the morning. And if the doubts were still there, he'd start again. He'd done it before, many times. He was strong that way, even though no one realized it.
He'd just sleep on it first.
"Mommy! Mommy, Mommy, Mommy!!!"
She was out of bed and across the hall before her eyes were fully open.
"Mommymommymommymommymommy!!!!!" She scooped him out of bed and held him close.
"Mommy's here, darling. Mommy's here. You're all right. Shh." She stroked his hair and held him tightly, feeling the tremors racking his small body. "You're safe. Nothing's going to hurt my little boy. Shh, now."
She felt her own eyes fill with tears and brushed them away quickly before he raised his head and saw them. According to his bedside clock it was barely 1 a.m. This was the second awakening of the night. How many more would there be before morning?
"Can you tell me what happened, sweetheart? Can you tell Mommy what's wrong?"
His grip on her neck was tight enough to leave bruises. Lord, but he was strong for his size.
"Darling, shh, sit up and talk to Mommy, o.k.?"
But it would be some time before she could get him to stop sobbing and loosen the death- grip he had on her. And she wouldn't be able to get any more information out of him than she had before.
And the night, as she well knew, wasn't over yet.