Wetting her lips and setting the teacup down, Laura struggled with her own fear. But it was too soon, she heard her heart cry. Too soon for trouble. This should be their honeymoon period. There couldn't be a problem so quickly. There just couldn't!
She waited until he sank into a chair across from her, then forced herself to meet his gaze. "Well? For heaven's sake, the suspense is killing me. What's wrong?" And then she simply stopped breathing, waiting for his next words.
"You've used the word twice now," he said softly. "If it were just that " He stared down at his knotted fingers as if they held the answers he needed. "But it's not."
He looked up and his eyes were clear and bright and the pain in them was clear and shining also. She felt her heart skip a beat.
"Please what?" she heard herself whisper, almost to herself, but he heard and winced. She wanted desperately to go to him, comfort him, but had no idea what was happening, no idea what form of comfort to offer.
Against all reason, she felt her own shoulders square, felt the blood rushing through her system, felt her chin come up. "All right then," she heard herself say, "we agreed to this, didn't we? No more game-playing, no more hiding. Let's get this, whatever it is, out in the open where we can see it and deal with it. Just start at the beginning." And then time stopped again, frozen by the silence that stretched for long moments until, finally, he spoke again.
"The beginning," he murmured. "Yes, that's it, isn't it? It's all there in the beginning." Slowly his eyes cleared and his expression lightened. She felt her shoulders begin to relax. Just a bit.
"It's just that 'first impression' thing, I suppose. Unless you work at it, a first impression is damned hard to get past. We just need to work on it a little more, don't we?" He was actually almost smiling by this point.
"That's fine," she told him. "I'm perfectly happy to work on anything you want. But would you please tell me what to work on? So far, I haven't got clue one, except that it's something I've said twice, apparently. Before I can beat my breast and offer you any form of sincere mea culpa, I need to know what I did wrong."
He reached out and took her hand in his. "Laura, it's not something you did wrong necessarily. It's more an attitude, I think. An idea you've got fixed in your mind that I need to shake loose somehow. And it's something I probably should have done long ago. Maybe now is best, though. This is the time I have a better chance of getting my point across."
"Perhaps a rousing game of twenty questions " she murmured encouragingly, drawing a small chuckle from him.
"I'm sorry, love. All right." He sat up and straightened his shoulders. "No more oblique references. Straight to it, then. The word you used, my dear, is 'play,' and you've used it twice now in reference to me. I'm 'playing' with Jarvis. Jarvis needs to ask if I can come out to 'play' with him."
She shook her head slightly. "I'm not certain I follow you."
"Laura, when you first met me, what was I?"
She swallowed hard. "A jewel-thief. You were looking to steal the Royal Lavulite I was hired to protect."
"I was more than that, Laura," he said softly. "Try again."
"All right, you were a con man, con artist, I should say, pretending to be a South African investigator, out to protect the jewels yourself."
"I was, in other words," he said softly, "playing a game, wasn't I? Pretending to be something I wasn't. As I 'pretended' to be Remington Steele for you."
The words seem to stick in her throat. "I suppose so. But you were such a good Remington Steele. And you learned so quickly. You were wonderful at it, really."
He smiled reassuringly. "Thank you, darling. But no matter how 'good' or 'wonderful' I was, I was still only playing a role, wasn't I? It was never real. I wasn't a 'real' private investigator. No matter how 'good' I was or how much I learned, I could never be that, could I?"
"Well, getting you a proper license would have been problematical, I suppose. And you never went to school "
"Did Mildred?" he asked suddenly.
"Did Mildred what?"
"Go to school. To learn investigative techniques?"
"Well, no actually. She was trained on the job by the I.R.S. and later by me. She didn't need a degree to get a license, only an apprenticeship."
"And was that because of her time with the I.R.S.?"
"No, it was more that I vouched for her with the licensing committee. To get a license, another licensed private investigator has to vouch that you know your craft and that you've spent a certain number of years in an apprentice position. That's how I did it with a math major. It's really not that difficult."
"So that, in essence, if you'd been able to, you could have 'vouched' for me at some point?"
"Well, it would have been awkward, what with you being 'Remington Steele' and all "
"But that aside, Laura, could you have? If there'd been no other obstacle?"
"Well " she struggled for a moment, then sighed and admitted the truth, "no, I suppose not."
His voice was soft, gentle. "And why not?"
"Because I never really trained you. I just let you muddle along. I never tried to train you properly. Even when you asked." Her voice had dropped lower and lower, along with her chin. Now his hand came up under it, to cup it gently and raise her eyes to his own.
"You decided not to, in other words."
She closed her eyes in anguish and nodded. "I'm so sorry. I wish "
"Never mind that, darling. It's all right now."
Eyes open, she looked at him and brushed away the few tears that she hadn't been able to squeeze back. "I'm so sorry. It was unfair, wasn't it?"
"Laura," he said abruptly, "when did you decide to train Mildred? It was before I left, wasn't it? As I recall, you'd started sometime before our 'wedding day', didn't you?"
"Well, she'd threatened to quit and you'd promised her I'd train her, so I just made good on your promise. I mean, she wanted a proper license and I saw no reason to deny her one."
"You didn't, did you?" He stared at her intently, making her want to fidget, an impulse she controlled.
"You have a point to this, don't you?"
"I'm afraid I do. You see, I wanted to be trained, needed to be trained. I was out there, with you, every day. I couldn't get a proper license, you're right, but I still had to do the bloody job, didn't I? And no matter what I did or how I asked, you never even attempted to let me into that private circle of yours, did you?"
"I don't understand."
"When Murphy was still with the agency, I asked for formal training. You turned it into a joke. After Murphy left, I did all could, picking your brain after every case, trying to put it together for myself. But no matter what I did, you kept me at arm's length all the way."
"Never mix business with--"
"No, Laura! Not that! If I asked about a case, I got what the bloody press got. I got the bold strokes, the overview, the obvious. I never got the details, the intricate how and why of the job. You never let me in to that secret spot in your mind where you went to really solve a case. You never let me see how it was actually done."
"I'm sorry, I didn't realize "
"But you let Mildred in. Almost from the first." His voice dropped to a softer tone that held more pain than she wanted to hear. "I used to stand outside your door and listen when the two of you got together. If I ever learned anything from you, that's when I'd did it. Because you'd talk to Mildred. You'd tell her things you'd never tell me. You'd let her in to places in your mind I could never go." He paused, looking at her intently. "And I have to tell you, I resented it."
"My God, I never even knew I wasn't aware I was doing that."
"I know you weren't." He sighed and ran his hands through his hair. "That's why I never mentioned it to you. You honestly had no idea what you were doing. Just as, I suppose, you had no idea what you'd done to Murphy."
"Done to Murphy?" Her chin came up again. "I didn't do anything to Murphy! He'd have said something if I had."
"Oh, I think he did a few times, there towards the end, but I don't think you heard him any more than you'd heard me in those days. You used him, Laura, and then just brushed him aside. I could understand it when you did it to me, but I never understood why you did it to Murphy. I mean, he was your friend."
"What are you talking about? I never 'used him and brushed him aside.' I never did that!"
"Laura, you did it every day. It was always, 'Murphy, go pick up the coroner's report,' or 'Murphy, go check the hall of records for this or that document for me.' And then you'd take the report or the document into your office, study it and come out again at least half the time with the case all neatly solved and tied into a pretty package for the client. Murphy never got past handing you the paperwork at the end. You stopped including him in your bull sessions for want of a better term. You didn't go over the cases with him towards the end. I think you may have talked to Bernice a time or two, but she was out of the office more than in it by that time, so the only one really privy to your thought-processes in those days was you. Not Murphy or I. You weren't talking to us. Not a hell of a lot, anyway. I think I was the only one who wasn't surprised when Murphy announced that he was leaving. I saw it coming for months."
She stared at him. "My God. It can't be true. I didn't "
He leaned forward again. "But you did, love. You did. And you never even knew it. Any more than you realized what you were doing to me. It wasn't deliberate. I think even Murphy knew that. He never seemed to resent you, but he did get tired of it after awhile. And finally, he left. I think, in some ways, it was the smartest thing he'd ever done. And quite possibly the hardest. He really loved you, you know. Not in a romantic way. I honestly don't think he was ever, truly in love with you. But you were like family to him. He worried about you, tried to take care of you, tried to protect you from so much. It must have been damned difficult for him to leave like that. But I think, in the end, he had to, or be destroyed himself."
"Destroyed? That's rather harsh, don't you think?"
"Not really. Laura, Murphy is a bright, capable man, in some ways quite brilliant. And he has, like the rest of us, a healthy ego. He knows what he's capable of and wants to do the best he can. He loves being an investigator. And you were relegating him to errand boy. From what I could see, it wasn't something that was likely to change any time soon. He had to either strike out on his own or bury himself. It just couldn't have been any other way. He had to leave. Don't you see?"
"I don't see anything! Murphy was my friend, I never would have hurt him like that! I wouldn't have!" Now the tears were flowing freely down her face. He moved over to sit beside her, one arm around her.
"No, you wouldn't have done it. Not consciously. You do love Murphy. You would never hurt him deliberately. I know that. And what's more important, he knows that. Nobody's blaming you, Laura. It just happened. It was something you couldn't help, I think. You weren't even aware of doing it." He hugged her close while she pulled herself together.
"But in some ways," he said softly, looking down at her, "I think you also did it deliberately. I think, sometimes, you still do."
"Look, make up your mind! Either I'm doing this deliberately or I'm not!" she said, stiffening and pulling away from him.
He sighed. "Laura, I'm not saying you're aware of what you're doing, but that it's deliberate, yes, I think it is. It has a purpose, doesn't it? It's a purpose you're not consciously aware of, but subconsciously--"
"Subconsciously! Good grief, save me from psychobabble! I think you've read too many psychology textbooks, doctor."
"This isn't babble, Laura. If you can stop being defensive for a moment, I can explain."
"First I'm subconsciously unaware, now I'm defensive. Wonderful thing, psychology. It has a label for everything and everyone! Well, I'm not a label. I'm a person!"
"And I'm not some quack radio Dr. Feelgood, Laura. I'm a practicing psychologist. A professional. Like yourself. Has that sunk in yet?" His brows were lowered to a dangerous level and his voice had become crisp, almost angry. "I didn't pick up a textbook and memorize a few snappy phrases. I studied this! I learned it. I practice my profession on a daily basis. I'm good at it. Whether you want to admit it or not, other people do and have. I'm rather well-respected in my field these days. Which is why Jarvis came to me in the first place. He didn't want an investigator. He wanted a psychologist. I wasn't in there playing at anything. I was working, Laura! And apparently a damned sight harder than you were!"
"And what's that supposed to mean?"
"You said there were no clues. There were clues all over that apartment. Apparently, you missed them all."
"Clues to what?"
"Clues to the person who lived there. Some of them I wouldn't expect you to pick up on. They're subtle, psychological clues. But other clues were so obvious, they should have screamed out at you. Apparently, they didn't."
"Apparently not. All right, Sigmund Freud. Let me in on the great secret. What glaringly obvious clues did I miss?"
"All right, first of all, did you go into the bedroom?"
"And what did you find?"
"Nothing! Not a damn thing that offered any information."
"Think, Laura. Go back in your mind. Describe the bedroom to me."
"Small, dark, ugly. Single bed, worn bedspread. Chipped nightstand, old upright dresser. Empty closet, chipped clothes rack, dusty shelves, nothing had been stored up there in awhile."
"Any other dust?"
"Not under the bed or yes, on top of the dresser and in the top drawer of the dresser."
"Chipped clothes rack, tell me about that."
"Well I didn't notice it at the time, I guess, but I remember that, when I stretched up to look on the closet shelf, I put one hand on the clothes bar and it was chipped on top, like notches cut into the wood."
"Did you go into the coat closet near the front door?"
"That was exactly the same as you describe in the bedroom closet. Dusty shelf, clothes bar notched at regular intervals. What did the notches feel like? Old and worn or sharp and fairly recent?"
She rubbed her fingertips together, willing a memory to surface. "Sharp, fairly recently made, I suppose."
"Right, same thing in the coat closet. Now, the kitchen. Did you notice anything in there?"
"No notches, if that's what you mean. No, nothing at all."
"Did you look on the shelves?"
"Just dust on the top shelves. Nothing else." She thought a moment. "Oh, the cup hooks under the shelves looked fairly new."
He looked at her silently for a moment. "Laura, darling, think. What does all of that say to you about the man who lived in that apartment?"
Her brow furrowed. "Well, the notches seem to say he was a neat-freak, had to have his clothing arranged just so, evenly spaced so that hangers didn't get close enough for the clothes to touch each other. But the dust seems to suggest otherwise. I don't know how to interpret it."
"Laura, think harder. What about the dust?"
She struggled with it for a moment longer, then shrugged. "There was dust. I don't know what you're reaching for here."
"Think of where you found the dust. Be specific."
"I found it in the bedroom and the kitchen."
"More specific than that."
She threw up her hands. "Look, I was joking about playing twenty questions, o.k.? Can't you just tell me?"
He sighed and ran his hands through his hair. "Laura, these are details that you used to latch onto immediately. I honestly don't know why you aren't picking up on them. O.k. The dust in the bedroom was on top of the bureau, in the top drawer of the bureau and on a shelf in the closet. There was no dust under the bed, on the chair or in any of the lower bureau drawers. Same thing in the kitchen. Dust only in the higher shelves of the cabinets. Not the lower shelves. And fresh cup hooks hanging under the cabinet. Does any of this say anything to you?"
"He was either a lot less conscientious than I'd figure or he was short. Is that what you're going for here?"
"Yes and no. The obvious conclusion is, of course, that a short man inhabited the apartment. But think of the clothes rack, Laura. This was a fastidious short man. Why all the dust in high places? Why any dust at all? You saw how thoroughly the bathroom must have been cleaned and the man was obviously fanatical about his clothes. His dishes, too. The cup hooks were lined up with absolute precision. I'd lay odds if you measured, they'd all be exactly the same space apart, to the millimeter. This is the sign of a real compulsive. The notches in the clothes bar were also evenly spaced, precisely cut. So why all the dust? What does that tell you?"
"He didn't like standing on chairs or ladders to reach high places? Maybe afraid of heights?"
"No, because he had to stand on something to cut the notches into the clothes bar. He didn't do that from the floor."
"He could have taken them down."
"Painted into their racks and the paint undisturbed. He never took them down."
Her brow furrowed again and she sighed. "O.k., I give up. What does that say to you?"
"That he was a man supremely uncomfortable with his height and did everything possible to avoid dealing with it. Never dusted high, never stored belongings over his reach, never used awkward high drawers. A neat freak who willingly let the dust accumulate, but only in places he would have had to climb to reach. It hints at a unique ability to self-delude. You can't be a neat-freak and live willingly with that much dust. He had to have adopted an 'out-of-sight-out-of-mind' attitude to deal with it, and most compulsives don't have that ability. That's what makes them compulsives in the first place."
"So he was able to lie to himself, you're saying. He could let the dust accumulate and pretend it didn't exist. But I don't understand. What does that make him?"
It was his turn to sigh. "I'd have to know a lot more about him to make an absolute diagnosis, but I'm going on two things here. The ability to self-delude while still remaining actively compulsive and the fact that he has, as far as we can ascertain, killed a number of young women. I don't think I'd be stretching it to say psychotic, quite possibly sociopathic, definitely compulsive-obsessive."
"What about schizophrenic?"
"No. Too able to cope. Pays the rent on time. Keeps people at bay without frightening them or doing anything too overt. Knows when to pack up and move on. Doesn't leave too many clues behind. Too well-ordered for schizophrenia."
"Then what are you suggesting? That we check psychiatric hospitals for clues?"
"It might well come to that, but not at this point. We don't know enough about the specifics. Right now, it's all too general. But it is a starting point."
"What about sex? He could be a registered sexual predator, couldn't he?"
"Anything's possible, of course, but I'd seriously doubt it. From what I could see, none of this had anything to do with sex."
"O.k., I read the same reports you did, the bodies weren't violated either before or after death. But that doesn't necessarily make this an asexual crime."
He shook his head. "Again, Laura, anything's possible, but remember the apartment. Dark, ugly bedroom. Single, lumpy bed, worn covers, fingernail caught in the fabric of the couch, suggesting that there was no cover on the couch. There were no obvious amenities of any kind. Most psychotics who use murder to achieve sexual gratification, which is what these killings would have to be to make them sexual in nature, would have things set up differently. There'd be more of a ritualistic feel to it. More of a stage setting than what we found in that apartment."
"He could have taken all his 'props' with him when he moved out."
"That's a possibility, of course, but something in my gut is saying that sex has nothing to do with these killings. These just don't feel like crimes of passion, Laura. There's something a little too precise, too calculating for that. His payoff isn't pleasure. I don't think he's after enjoyment or gratification."
"What makes you say that?"
"The apartment is a little too Spartan. No real amenities. It's not just that it's in a cheap neighborhood, Laura. It looked as if no effort was ever made to create any particular 'comfort zones' in that apartment."
"Again, though, couldn't he have had all sorts of creature comforts and just taken them with him with he left?"
"According to the landlord's report, he moved in with basically a laptop and a suitcase and a couple of cardboard boxes. He didn't live there very long and left in the middle of the night from all accounts. No moving van, no fuss, no noise. If there were 'creature comforts' as you say, they would have had to have been small, easily portable and extremely few in number. Somehow, it just doesn't fit the mold you're trying to create for a sexual predator. My gut is still telling me there's something else behind this. I just don't know what yet. But I'm betting it ties in somehow to his obsessive-compulsive nature."
"Because that's what the 'clues' in the apartment told you he was?"
"It's not a lot, I know, but it's all I have to go on at the moment. Until he slips up and we can learn more about him, that's the best I have to offer."
"So that's the report you'll be giving Jarvis?"
He shook his head wearily. "I don't know. I haven't decided."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that, I'm not sure of any of this, really. I only have some basic clues to go on. I can't say too much with any real certainty and, once it's committed to paper, I'm afraid it would be treated as if written in stone. And I'm perfectly capable of being wrong. I'm honestly not sure, at this point, what I'm going to include in the damned report."
She leaned over and wrapped an arm around his shoulder. "You'll do fine. And if Jarvis doesn't like it, tell him where he can stick it."
He smiled and hugged her back. They stayed that way for a moment, then Laura pulled away and began twisting at her fingers before finally looking up at him again.
"So, where does all this leave us?"
He rubbed at his eyes and ran a hand over his face before answering. "I'm not really sure, Laura. I'm not certain what's best at this point. I know this is difficult for you. But I remember what it felt like before, when I was 'Remington Steele.' It was frustrating and sometimes demoralizing. I just don't want to go back to that. There has to be a better way."
She smiled softly at him. "Well, you could just hit me over the head with a large stick at regular intervals to remind me not to take you for granted."
He didn't smile in response this time. "Laura, you never took me for granted. But you also never took me seriously. And that's what's bothering me. It used to bother me back then, as well, but with all our other difficulties, I just never thought it was worth mentioning."
"Now I think perhaps I should have mentioned it back then. It might have helped smooth out some of our other difficulties."
"How do you mean?"
"Laura, do you have any ideas what mental convolutions I had to go through during some of our cases? Coming up with old movie references? In fact, the only time I went through an entire case without an old movie reference, you specifically brought it up."
She smiled fondly. "I remember. In San Francisco. And your movie reference had nothing to do with the case itself. It was 'Lost Weekend,' wasn't it?"
"Only the title fit in that case. But you're still not getting it. Those movie references were my only passport into your world, the only one you'd allow me. I'll admit at first they were all I had to go on, but after awhile, if I didn't pose a theory in the form of an old movie, you never listened. I used to go through some serious mental gymnastics in order to find a movie to fit a theory I'd developed. That left you feeling enough in control to at least consider what I suggested."
"That can't be true."
"I'm afraid it is. Even when I occasionally mentioned old cases, you tended to dismiss them out of hand, move on with your own theory. You could handle working with me, but you couldn't take me seriously. I was always the amateur, the imposter, the fake. You were the 'real' detective and you never let me forget it. Not for a moment. And it bothered me, Laura. It really did."
"I had no idea--"
"I know that. I think it's why I never mentioned it. You seemed totally unaware that you were doing it. Oblivious to it. I figured you'd had to defer to men for so long, you just couldn't bear to defer to another, whether it was me or Murphy. It's always been a problem for you. I understood that, or thought I did, anyway, so I figured it was best not to make an issue of it."
He took her hand gently. "I've always loved your strength, Laura. You've overcome so much to get where you are and you have every right to be proud of what you've done and what you can do. I've admired you far more than I think you realize. You're a truly remarkable person and you dont have to take a back seat to anyone. You've earned all the respect anyone can give you. You honestly have."
She sighed. "Except that I seem to keep hurting the people I care for the most, apparently."
"Laura, Murphy's a damned good detective. He knows it and the people he works for know it. I think you know it as well and I think you're honestly quite proud of him, aren't you?" She nodded. "And you can be proud of him now. He's opened his own agency, he has his own clients and he's doing well. That doesn't bother you at all, does it?" She shook her head.
"But when he worked for you it was a different story, wasn't it? He was fine, so long as he backed you up, followed your lead and stayed in a more subordinate position. What I remember, especially toward the end, were the times he disagreed with you. And they happened. They'll happen in any close working relationship. As time went on, he ventured his own opinions more and more often. And more and more often, you'd ship him off to the coroner's office or the county records department, anything to get him out of the way so you could get on with the real work."
Her voice was low, almost inaudible. "Is that what I did?"
His voice was gentle. "Yes, Laura, I'm afraid that is what you did. I noticed it then, so that later, when it was happening more to me, I was able to recognize it for what it was. And, in a way, I didnt mind so much. I mean, what was I going to do? Break away and start my own agency? Hardly likely."
Her voice was so low by this time he almost didn't catch her next words. "You could have just left."
He pulled her close. "I know I could have. But you know what? I'm just too damned stubborn for that."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, I had the strangest feeling, toward the end of Murphy's tenure with the agency, that you were almost trying to drive him away. And when he left, it was almost as if he'd fulfilled some expectation you'd had all along. The same expectation you had with me."
"That you'd leave?"
"Of course. That's what the men in your life do, isn't it? They leave you."
"And when they don't leave me, I drive them away, is that what you're saying?"
"Laura, what really happened to you and Wilson?"
"I drove him away, obviously."
"But think, Laura. How did you do it?"
"By being everything he despised most, I suppose."
"By being everything you weren't, in other words."
"You're saying I wasn't being myself?"
He struggled for the right words for a moment. "Laura, how many traffic tickets have you had in you life?"
"I don't know. A few, I suppose."
"From what Wilson said, you accumulated quite a few when you were with him. What about after that?"
"Not that many. I got tired of paying the fines."
"Nice save. Now, what about before Wilson? Did you have many tickets then?"
"Well, no, but I guess I didn't drive as much back then."
"I doubt that, honestly. I think you've always been a fairly cautious driver. I know, from what I've learned of your college life, that you've always been a studious, hard-worker. Probably well-disciplined, responsible. The sort the others would go to in times of trouble."
"I suppose you're right."
"And when you visited Pepe's with your college friends, you relaxed and had fun, but I'll lay odds you also drove the group home afterward. And never had so much as a fender bender."
"You sure you weren't around back then, keeping tabs on me?"
"So tell me, Laura, during those wild, college days, hanging out at Pepe's ever do a fan dance for anyone?"
"Of course not. You wouldn't have dreamt of it. But with Wilson, staid, respectable Wilson, it just came naturally, didn't it? Just as driving recklessly and acting impulsively did. In other words, you reinvented yourself from being the person most likely to succeed into the being the person most likely to drive Wilson Jeffries as far away as possible. And you succeeded, didn't you? And what happened then?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, did you stay wild and uninhibited? Or did you settle back into being Laura Holt? And what about work? Were you the same at work as you were with Wilson? You were living with him when you worked at Havenhurst, weren't you?"
"At first I was. Then, after he left, I was still working at Havenhurst. I met Wilson my last year in college."
"The math major and the banker. It must have shocked him when you joined Havenhurst."
"He thought I was going to be doing their books."
"You must have enjoyed telling him the truth. Was he working at the bank then?"
"He'd just gotten his first promotion. He was surprised when I quit the bank to join Havenhurst. He was more surprised when I told him I was training to become a P.I."
"What were you like at work, I wonder?"
"I was what I am now," she said, somewhat stiffly. "A hard worker and damned good at what I did."
"You know, I'll lay odds that's exactly what you were."
"Why do you say that?"
"I was at your Havenhurst "reunion" remember? Which is where I met a few of your former co-workers. From what I could gather from them, you never mixed business and pleasure back then, either."
"So there was no need to drive any of them away, is that it?"
"You make me sound like a spider. Use them for what I want, bite their heads off and discard the carcass."
"Not in the least, I'm afraid. Spiders take great pleasure in what they do. I don't think you enjoy it at all. I don't think that's why you do it."
"No sexual gratification here, either, is that it, doctor?"
"We're not talking about sex, Laura, we're talking about relationships. Close, interdependent relationships."
"The kind you always ran away from."
He cupped her chin in one hand and forced her to meet his gaze. "The kind we both ran away from, Laura. For something of the same reasons, I suspect."
"And what would those be?"
"You know the answer to that, don't you, Laura? We've discussed it before."
She looked at the ceiling and chanted in a monotone voice, "My father left me so I believe all men with leave me, yaddah-yaddah-yaddah." She lowered her eyes to his once again and they were rock-hard. "Except that now, instead of just expecting them to leave me, I supposedly drive them off deliberately. Is that your diagnosis, doctor?"
He sighed. "You know, I could get to hate the word 'doctor,' the way you use it. But, when you boil away all the crap, yes, that's pretty much it. Your father left you. You must have at some level decided that this was your fault. It couldnt possibly have been his fault. He was Daddy, he had to be all right. So if he left, there must be something wrong with you. And, if there's something wrong with you, all men will leave you. And if they don't, there must have been something wrong with Daddy. But that can't be, so the other men have to leave. If they don't, you find a way to make them leave."
She stared at him, her eyes not softening in the least. "If you had any idea of how far off the mark you are "
"Tell me, please."
"I'm not going into chapter and verse with you. But I don't have to wonder why my father left. I know exactly why he left. My father's disappearance has nothing to do with my relationships with men. Believe me, I'm not protecting him in the slightest."
He leaned back and shook his head slowly. "Then I'm back to where I was at the beginning of this relationship. I haven't got a clue. And I honestly wish I did."
Her eyes clouded for a moment, then grew bleak. "I'm sorry, I'm just not ready to talk about it. I'm really not." She began twisting her fingers together again. "I suppose that pretty much leaves us where we were when we started this conversation, doesn't it?"
"Well, maybe not. Laura, all that was basically then. This is now. This is a totally separate reality for us, isn't it? We're not really the same people we were when we first met. We've both grown, changed, learned things about one another and ourselves. It's all different now. We just have to approach things differently, that's all."
"How do you mean?"
"Look, I don't want to lose you. I want us to stay together. But I don't want to end up resenting you, either. What I think we're dealing with is, as I said before, old habits. You're used to thinking of me as a con artist. I somehow need you to see me as I don't know a competent professional, I suppose. It's what I am, after all."
"I suppose I know that. And I don't want to lose you, either. Really I don't. I'm just not sure what to do at this point."
"I may have a suggestion, if you're willing."
"I was thinking of another trip to San Francisco. Just the two of us. For a three-day weekend."
"You're serious, aren't you? But why San Francisco? Why not some more exotic location? Or just a bed-and-breakfast spot up in the hills somewhere?"
"Because this isn't about just getting away together. This is about changing your perception of me, of who and what I am."
"And what's in San Francisco that's going to do that?"
"The annual North American Conference of Psychiatrists and Psychologists. Actually, I'd agreed to go and give a short presentation and do a series of lectures before you and I reunited. With everything that's happened, I'd forgotten all about it until this afternoon, when John reminded me that the conference was being held this weekend. I was planning to ask you to join me in any case, but now I think it might be the best answer all round."
"A chance to observe you in your native habitat?"
"Precisely." He smiled, then his smile wavered. "Will you come?" He searched her eyes for an answer. "Please?"
Her own smile was suddenly radiant. "Now how could I say no to a weekend alone with you in San Francisco?" She hugged him, hard. "Of course I'll go."
He hugged her back. "It's going to be all right, Laura. I honestly believe that. And, Laura?"
She looked up at him quizzically.
"Thank you. I really mean that," he said, planting
a soft kiss on her lips, which deepened gradually to a stage where
no more words were necessary. Or possible.
He should have known.
He'd been so sure she wouldn't show up that he almost lost it when she did. Almost lurched out from the shadows, exposing himself, risking everything.
It was the end of the evening and almost everyone but the staff had left when the door swung open in a spill of white light and they emerged. Suddenly his soul was singing it, drumming it out along with his heartbeat.
Walking across the parking lot, her head thrown back, her laugh spilling into the darkness, breaking like glass on his ear.
She had been there all along. Hiding, dancing, drinking, mocking him from inside. Knowing he was outside in the dark, in the cold. Knowing. And laughing. Always laughing. Just as she was laughing now.
His hands clenched with the need to choke the laughter off at its source. But he controlled himself.
She wasn't alone.
He should have known she would surround herself with other people. She'd avoided him so many other times that she would hardly allow herself to be totally vulnerable to him now, this late, in the dark. She was many things he disliked, distrusted, but she was not stupid.
Then again, neither was he. Nor was he weak enough to go to her now, surrounded by others, safe, protected, her laughing face shielded in shadows. No. He would be strong a little while longer. He knew where she was now. He would wait, knowing that he wouldn't have to wait much longer. She wasn't alone now, but eventually, even soon, she would be.
And he would be ready.