The winebottle sat on the coffee table, half-empty. It was getting late, but neither seemed to want to move from where they sat, close and comfortable in the low glow of a small table lamp.
More? he asked briefly, indicating the wine bottle, but she shook her head.
Ill never get my head off the pillow tomorrow morning if I have any more tonight, she told him. He smiled and replaced the cork in the bottle.
Shall I return this to the fridge for you? She smiled and he rose and went to the kitchen, taking the bottle and both wineglasses with him. She heard a soft clink as the glasses were placed in the empty sink, then the sound of the refrigerator door opening and closing. Then he was back. She stood and moved into the circle of his arms.
His fingers brushed a strand of hair back from her temple and she felt all her nerve endings coming to life at the same moment. When he bent his head to kiss her, her lips were tingling even before he reached them.
He ended the kiss with a small sigh and looked down at her. After a moment, a soft laugh broke from his lips.
What? she demanded. His grin broadened.
I was thinking of the first time I met you and how I characterized you to Daniel afterward, he told her.
Characterized me? To Daniel?
After I met you, I called Daniel. He always insisted that I let him know what I was up to and where I was. It was my first day in Los Angeles, so I called. And while I was telling him about my day, naturally, I told him about you.
And what exactly did you tell him?
I told him Id met the most remarkable woman
Go on. What else?
I told him well, I told him about the agency of course, and about what Id done and how Id approached you and, naturally, he asked what you were like.
And you told him ?
He had the grace to look utterly sheepish for a moment, then confessed. I told him you were a funny little mouse with a determined chin. He looked at her for a moment, a fond smile on his face. You still are, you know.
Why you ! A a mouse! You you ! She was trying desperately to look outraged, but finally collapsed in giggles against his chest and he hugged her tightly for a moment while she playfully thumped his arm. You rat!
Well, at least were both rodents, he said and began to giggle himself. She drew herself up to her full height and tried to look haughty.
Speak for yourself, cheese-breath! But he pulled her closer and she relaxed against him willingly. Well, as long as were both furry creatures with long tails, she added, looking up at him through half-closed lashes, what say we share my little hole in the wall tonight?
But he frowned slightly. Laura
I dont want you to go, she told him softly. I dont want you to take your arms away. I want them to stay right where they are now. All night long.
He looked down into her brown eyes, sensing the warmth there, wanting to curl up in them and never leave. Laura he said softly again, but she placed one slender finger against his lips.
Please? she said gently. Please?
He opened his mouth to protest again, and found himself sighing heavily. I dont really want to leave you, either, he confessed. But do you think--
She cut him off. No, I dont think. I know. You should stay. Here. With me. Tonight. Well worry about tomorrow when it comes. Tonight, well I think we can handle tonight, dont you?
He looked into her eyes again for a long moment, then bent
and gently kissed her again. Before the kiss ended she found herself,
feet off the floor, being carried toward the short staircase.
She sighed happily and laid her head against his shoulder. Which
was exactly where it was meant to be.
He let the last dumpster lid down with only a slight noise. Doing it this way always made for a long night, but the night was finally over and he could rest. Maybe he could even settle down now. No more running, changing names, hiding.
He could finally find peace.
He pulled his car out of the alley and merged with the traffic headed uptown. Three hookers waved at him from a corner. One looked vaguely familiar. He looked away, troubled.
No doubts this time. Please, God, no more doubts. Let it be over. Just this once, let it be over.
He drove on, something about the hookers smile worming its way under his skin, loosening his resolve, his certainty.
It just wasnt fair, he thought with a kind of grim desperation, his hands beginning to sweat where they clutched the steering wheel. Not fair at all.
She wasnt even cold yet.
John Needham looked up at the ceiling and sighed. His wife was right, of course. He should wait until tomorrow, go to the office as usual and then make the call, if a call had to be made.
He should be certain before bringing the full weight of The Law in on his suspicions and fears. Before possibly irreparably damaging a young mans reputation and life. But it was hard. His own thoughts were keeping him up, had kept him up far too late for the past two nights.
Well, his wife was right about one thing. If he could just hold out until 9 a.m. tomorrow, he could know for certain, or as close to certain as he was likely to come. And if he was right, it was probably far too late for the police to do anything about it by now anyway. No use getting everyone all riled up at this late hour.
But he was tired of not sleeping well. He turned over for the thousandth time and punched his pillow. Hard. Tomorrow, he knew, was going to be a very long day. No matter what happened.
And it still couldnt come soon enough to suit him.
He sat at the desk, hunched over a ledger centered in a pool of light from a gooseneck lamp. The rest of the room was dark. It was late, but as the footsteps approached he didnt look up.
Hey, Manuel, he said softly as the slender young man paused beside the desk. Whats up, my man?
I was watchin, like you tol me, the Hispanic youth said, an I saw this guy.
Now he looked up. Manuel had his hands in his pockets, trying to look unconcerned, but his hands were stuffed deep inside the pockets, twin bulges revealing that they were clenched into fists.
What guy? he asked in his softly-accented voice.
I dunno. A guy I never seen before. He was thin an had a beard. They was together, fya know what I mean.
For how long?
First the old lady come and took the kid. Tha was on Saturday. Then he come and he stayed in there all evening an all night an the next morning. Then he left an when he come back, he had the kid with him. Then they all went inside an never come out again. An thats all I know.
He had the boy with him? He brought him home?
Yeah. In her car, tucked in his lil seat like hes sposed to be. She met em at the door an then they all went inside. He stared at the man for several long moments, uncomfortable in the silence. You want me to knock off or go back?
You did fine, Manuel. Go ahead and knock off. The man rubbed his eyes.
You o.k. with this?
With what? He looked up sharply and Manuel fidgeted again.
With there bein some guy.
He sighed. Manuel, it was bound to happen sooner or later. I was hoping for later, thats all.
So were not watchin anymore then, right?
No. Youll watch as usual. All of you. And report back to me. Nothing has changed. Not yet. Not till I know more. You understand?
Is Little Fingers there now?
Yeah. He relieved me bout half-hour ago. Hes there now.
Good. The man looked down at his ledger again. Go home, Manuel, he said softly. Go home and get some sleep. Youve earned it.
Yeah, sure. Manuel shrugged and moved off, but he cast several worried glances back behind him as he left. The older man waited until the outer door closed behind Manuel before leaning far back in his chair and regarding the blank ceiling above him with a worried frown.
He stayed like that for a very long time before switching off
the light and leaving the building himself.
He was deep in slumber when the screaming started. At first it didnt register.
Then Laura tied to move and the arm he had thrown across her waist instinctively tightened. It was a moment before she pried herself free and by then he was awake, every nerve path on fire with alarm. The screaming continued.
She was out of bed, across the room, pulling on her robe and opening the door as he sat up and listened carefully. The sound was much clearer with the door open.
Mommy! Mommy! MommyMommyMommy! Mommy!
He flung himself out of bed and after her, pausing long enough to retrieve his slacks, pulling them on as he moved quickly in the direction of his sons bedroom.
Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!
Now Lauras voice: Shhh, darling, shhh! Mommys here. Shhh, now. Nothings going to hurt my boy. Shhh.
But the child continued to wail even as he reached the doorway to see her sitting on the edge of the small trundle bed, her sons small, trembling body already gathered into her lap. She was rocking back and forth and gently stroking his hair. One small hand was clutching at her robe, the other was twisting against his mouth, as if he were trying to block the sound of his own screams.
Mommy! It was an anguished, lost sound and it sent chills down his fathers spine. Laura looked up and saw him framed in the doorway. Her eyes were shadowed and dark, but he could make out the pain in them clearly.
Hush, darling, she crooned into the childs soft hair. Hush. Youre safe now. Mommys here.
Mommy! Now it was a low, grieving tone, almost a keening. She held him close and continued to rock as his father moved closer to the bed and crouched beside them. He touched the childs small arm.
Harry? Hey, Harry, its o.k. Were here. Were here now. Its o.k. He stoked the childs shoulder and the boy finally twisted in his mothers arms to look back at his father.
His large blue eyes were filled with tears. They were red-rimmed with dark shadows hovering under them. He blinked and stared at his father, one small fist jammed into his open mouth, where shuddering moans still issued forth, interspersed now with loud hiccups and an occasional volley of sobs.
Its all right, love. Were here. Its o.k. now. He tried to maintain eye contact with the boy, but the child turned away agan and buried his small face against his mother's robe, beginning to moan in earnest.
Darling, shhh. Its all right, she soothed, holding him close and rocking back and forth. Its all right. Nothings gonna hurt you. I wont let it. Youre safe. Its all right.
Harry? his father asked gently. Can you tell us whats wrong? We want to make it better for you. Can you help us to do that?
But the child only moaned harder, his face firmly pressed against his mothers chest. She wrapped her arms defensively around him.
Its o.k., sweetheart. You just rest. Its o.k. We love you. Hush now, baby. Its o.k.
His breathing was still ragged, but the sobs werent as frantic and the moaning was only sporadic. His father rubbed his back gently as the child began, slowly, to calm down. His fingers were no longer twisting against his face, but he had one thumb tucked securely in his mouth and still maintained a death-grip on his mothers robe.
His mother was still crooning over his head. Nothings going to hurt my little boy. Hes safe. Harrys safe. Hush now. I love you. Its o.k. Youre safe. Harrys safe. Shhh, my baby. Its o.k. Mommy loves you.
The childs breathing was gradually slowing down to an almost normal pace. He gave a series of hitching sighs and snuggled closer against his mother. He blinked several times rapidly and twisted his head to the side, so he could see his father as well.
Hey, there, his father said gently, still rubbing his back. You gave us quite a scare, you did. You sure youre o.k.? You can tell us if youre not, you know. He waited, but the child just looked at him, blue eyes still swimming behind a thin veil of leftover tears.
Thats o.k., his father said finally. You dont have to tell us tonight. Maybe later. For right now, you're safe and thats all that matters. Right? He looked encouragingly at his son, but the boy didnt move, only stared, his thumb still plugged into his mouth.
My babys a good boy. Harrys a good boy. Harrys my darling, his mother crooned, still rocking back and forth gently. After a few more moments, the childs eyelids fluttered down and he gave one shuddering sigh and relaxed against her. The hand gripping her robe gradually loosened and dropped to his side, but he didnt move.
Hes asleep again, Laura said, dropping a kiss on the small brown head. Gently, she laid him back down on the bed and pulled the covers up under his chin, then stood, watching him for a moment. She jumped a bit to feel a hand around her waist, but looked up and gave him small, sad smile.
Welcome to the joys of parenting, she said. He grinned at her and pulled her close.
Youre wonderful with him, you know, he told her. She shook her head wearily. Yes, you are, he insisted. You do all the right things. You make him feel secure and loved and, at 1 a.m., thats just what he needs most. Not psychoanalysis. Just love.
You, he concluded, looking down at her earnestly, are a very good mother. I always knew you would be. And I was right. She laughed softly and snuggled deeper into his arms.
Lets see if you still feel that way when you see me on a really bad day. I dont know how long that compliments going to last, she said.
Until forever and just about a week longer, he told her, wrapping his arms around her tightly. Youre very good.
She sighed and rested against his chest for a moment before pushing back from him a bit. Brushing her hair away from her face, she looked up at him.
Well, good or not, wed better get back to bed and see if we can get any sleep ourselves. Its bound to be a long night.
He frowned briefly. What makes you say that? he asked.
Because, he never has just one nightmare. Trust me, this is just the first of several. Hell be up at least two more times tonight, maybe three. She linked her arm though his and drew him toward the door. He looked back over his shoulder at his sleeping son and finally let himself be led back to bed like an over-tired child himself.
They curled up in bed together, arms and legs entwined, drawing comfort from each others warmth and nearness. But it was a long time before he was able to sleep. It had been a strange awakening and her final words had left him confused and concerned for both his son and Laura. How many more times would she have to go through that tonight? Two, three? She seemed to expect it, but it was wearing on her nerves and it showed. He had no doubt that she was correct in her assessment of the situation. He just wished he could find a way to make it easier for both of them. Finally, exhausted, he slept, drifting off with a shuddering sigh almost identical to his sons. His last conscious thought was to wonder how long it would be before the next awakening.
Quite awhile, as it turned out. None of the three of them woke
again until morning.
It was 3 a.m. and she was smoking a cigarette in front of the kitchen window, looking through it into the night-shaded backyard.
Who was it who called 3 a.m. the dark night of the soul, she wondered. Whoever he was, he sure knew his clock. She and 3 a.m. were getting to be bosom buddies. How many nights now, she wondered, had she watched until the first ghost of dawn made its appearance? How many long nights of waiting for her heart to stop calling for someone who would never answer again? And what would she do in the silence that followed?
She stubbed out the small cigarette butt on the saucer at her right elbow and shook another cancer stick loose from the pack in her robe pocket. Some women drank to ease the pain. Shed taken up smoking again. It seemed to make that subtle, constant shaking that welled from the center of her being slow to a small tremor.
It would kill her eventually, the smoking. Her daughter had warned her time and time again until shed finally quit to escape the harassment. The pneumonia shed had at the time had helped as well.
Now she pulled the smoke deep into her lungs, letting it out slowly in a long, lazy cloud. She looked into the depths of that cloud, seeing the possibility of her own death there and smiling slightly. Who said there were no silver linings left?
But first, she had to get through tomorrow. She had to make something happen. And soon. Before these 3 a.m. sessions drove her completely out of her mind. It had gone on too long and she had finally faced the fact that she was the only one willing to get anything done. She was the only one left who still cared.
So shed done her research. Hours at the library, pouring through magazine and newspaper articles. And followed this up with phone calls and rude questions that she had persisted with until shed gotten the answers she needed. And then shed scraped together all the money that she could. She only hoped it was enough. There was no way of knowing. But if she had to mortgage the house, or even rob a bank, shed find a way to make it enough. That was her job now, and she would do it or die trying.
In the darkness, the red tip of her cigarette glowed like a
lone, red eye, reflected back at her from the windowpane. She
didn't move. She didnt have to. Dawn would be here soon.