The orange crayon moved, stopped, moved again, circled around itself, stopped, then moved forward again.
He sat, as he had for the past 20 minutes, watching the crayon, the small fingers guiding it, silently, patiently. Behind him, high on a wall, an industrial-style clock ticked off the minutes. The crayon stuttered, stalled, started again, and then was laid down.
He watched silently for a few more moments while Shannon Michaels sat back, her hands curled limply in her lap, staring down at the paper she'd been coloring on. The orange lines criss-crossed it randomly. The silence stretched.
"How about a look around, eh?" he finally said, softly. She looked up at him curiously. He pushed back the plastic stack chair he'd been sitting in and stood up. "You've been here for 20 minutes, I thought you'd like to see where you were going to be spending some time. You know you and I will be meeting here, don't you? Maybe a couple of times a week. So I thought you'd like a closer look around." He held out a hand and she moved to stand beside him, but made no move to take his hand. He let it fall to his side.
"O.k., now this area is what I call the 'work area'." He indicated the long counter they had been sitting at. "In these cabinets up above is where we store things like paper and glue." He took a small key out of his pocket and unlocked a cabinet to show the art supplies inside. One by one, he unlocked each cabinet, showing its contents and locking it up again afterward. "We have to keep the cabinets locked because some of the things in here, like the paint and glue, can be dangerous to younger children, toddlers and like that. So it's a rule that they have to stay locked. But I like to make sure that the people who visit here with me know what everything is and where it is, so you don't have to wonder or worry about it. O.k.?"
Silently, she nodded. He smiled down at her and led her toward the far end of the room, where an empty, multicolored rug beckoned. "This is our play area, well, one of them, anyway." He led her over to a series of bins, stacked along one wall. "Here is where we keep the blocks and some cars and a few dolls and some other things." One by one, he pulled bins from their place and displayed their contents. "We have hats and dress-up clothes and here are some playhouse toys, like pots and pans. There's a nice frying pan, eh? And we have dishes and cups over here. And here are some balls and some beanbags and other toys. And Legos. Do you like Legos?" He glanced quizzically at her. She nodded slowly, but made no move to touch the brightly-colored plastic blocks. "That's right," he continued. "You and Harry were playing with these the other night. Anyway, that's one of the play areas."
He turned back and walked over to a box full of sand set up like a table on legs. "This is our sand table. It's a nice thing to have around. In this cabinet over here," he walked over to the wall next to the sand table, "we have doll furniture and some smaller dolls and some smaller cars and little toy houses and even some trees and playground things and all sorts of other things to use in the sand table. What do you think of that, eh?" But she stood silently next to him, showing no interest in the contents of the smaller cabinet.
"And, finally, over here," he said, leading her to the corner nearest to the hall door, "is my favorite spot in the whole room. See, where the rug is different?" He stopped at the edge of the spot where the loden green turned to a soft pink square stretching into the corner. "This is Millicent's area. I can't go in, not without permission, but you can. Millicent likes children, so it's o.k. See, on the shelf there? There are books and some other toys. And there's a little doll's house and some pillows and a stuffed teddy bear. All sorts of nice things."
Shannon stood next too him, looking into the corner dubiously. He smiled at her encouragingly and continued, softly, "And over there, in that rocker? That's Millicent." He indicated a stuffed Raggedy Anne doll sitting primly in a child-sized rocking chair next to a cardboard fireplace. "She isn't much of a talker, but she's a grand listener."
He crouched down until he was sitting on his heels. "I'm not usually allowed in there. Millicent thinks everyone needs a spot where they can get away. So, when a child comes in here and doesn't want to deal with me, or anyone else, she lets them go into her corner and we aren't allowed in. It's a private place, just for Millicent and the children who visit with her. So, when you feel like getting away from me, you can go visit with Millicent and it's o.k."
"Mind you," he added, "I have special permission once in a great while to go into the area, but only long enough to get a book off the shelf. For some reason, Millicent likes to have me read to her. She says she likes the sound of my voice. Says I have a nice accent." He turned a quizzical face to the small girl at his side. "But I don't think I have an accent, do I?" She offered him a small smile, which he cheerfully returned. "I guess maybe I have a small accent, eh? Anyway, Millicent lets me take a book off the shelf now and again and sit out here, outside her rug, and read to her."
His head cocked suddenly. "What's that? Oh, I'm so sorry." He turned to Shannon. "Millicent has told me how rude I'm being. I should have introduced you properly." He stood up and bowed to the rag doll formally. "Miss Millicent, may I present Miss Shannon Michaels. She'll be visiting here from time to time and I told her you were a good person to know. And Shannon," he turned to the child, "this is Miss Millicent, who is a lovely person to get to know also. I think the two of you will be good friends."
He stood then, silently, and waited. After a brief pause, and a small, sidelong look up at him, Shannon slowly crossed onto the pink rug and began wandering quietly around the corner area. She looked on the shelves and bent over to glance at the books on the shelf. Finally she knelt down in front of the rocker, her hands curled carefully in her lap, and stared silently at Millicent.
"What's that, Millicent?" he said quietly from the green rug. "Oh! I suppose, if it's all right with Shannon, that is." Shannon twisted to look at him and he smiled encouragingly. "Millicent would like to hear a book, if that's all right with you."
Shannon paused, seeming to consider the matter, then nodded gravely. He walked to the edge of the carpet nearest the bookshelf and leaned over, plucking a book from its place, without touching the pink rug. "It helps," he said, grinning, "to be a bit tall."
Then he settled down, crossed his legs and opened the book. "My name is Sam," he read. "Sam I am. Do you like green eggs and ham?"
Slowly, Shannon settled down to sit on the pink rug next to the rocker. Before the book was finished, her hand had crept up to grasp one stuffed fabric "hand" and cradle it gently with her own.
The courier dropped off the pouch at 10 a.m. By 11 a.m. Det. James Jarvis was outside his chief's door, ready to knock, wishing he were on his way to Vegas for the weekend instead. And it was only Thursday.
He raised his hand and brought it forward into empty air. The door had swung open and Jarvis found his right fist poised inches from Leon's forehead. It took both by surprise, but Leon recovered quickly as Jarvis lowered his arm again.
"Hey, Jimbo, I know competition's cutthroat around here, but you don't have to get violent." He grinned and banged one meaty paw on Jarvis' right shoulder as he passed him on his way out of the Chief's office. Jarvis sighed and moved on into the office without comment. Some days, the best you could do was maintain silence. Anything else was a major mistake. And he'd made too many of those in his career to risk any more.
Chief Broussart looked up as Jarvis settled in the chair across from him. "You got something for me, Detective?"
Jarvis nodded and tossed the file folder across the desk. "It's a possible profile of our guy. Might be something in there we can use. But nothing definite that I can see at first glance."
Broussart picked up the folder and began leafing through it. "Professional job," he commented mildly, and Jarvis braced himself for the inevitable. "Nicely done," the chief murmured, his eye sweeping the pages with deceptive speed. Jarvis knew from experience that, after one read-through, Broussart would have the file committed to memory, down to the last semicolon.
"So," Broussart said, closing the file and laying it with geometric precision in the center of his desk blotter, "the guy we want is short, maybe five foot at most, a professional of some sort, probably works from home, psychotic, but not schizophrenic, obsessive-compulsive and probably not currently or recently under any kind of care or supervision. Lives alone, probably no friends or close acquaintances, probably never dates or socializes except in anonymous situations." He at Jarvis closely. "Meaning he hits the club scene or the bars, right?"
"That was what I took it to mean, sir." Jarvis said, noncommittally.
"And he lives alone in buildings where he doesn't know or hasn't previously met any of the tenants. And that's exclusively, according to this," Broussart indicated the closed folder on his desk. "That about the long and short of this report, is it?"
"Yes sir," Jarvis said, and mentally braced himself for the worst.
"And what did this mountain of useful information cost this department, may I ask? Especially since I specifically turned down a previous request for just such a service?" Broussart's voice had gone flinty.
"Nothing sir." Jarvis mentally reminded himself not to hold his breath or swallow. He couldn't quite control his sweat glands, however, and realized his palms were becoming greasily damp.
"Nothing," the chief repeated flatly. He stared at Jarvis for a few moments longer, then flipped open the report. "It says here that these crimes were not sexual in nature. That despite the violence done to these women, the women in and of themselves were not the target victim. That they were " He studied the folder again. " merely 'stand-ins for the real victim, who is either unattainable or has not been located at this point in time.' Meaning, I suppose," he looked up at Jarvis again, "that whoever put this report together thinks there is someone specific out there that our own pet lunatic is after and he just hasn't gotten around to her yet. Which begs the question of why, doesn't it? Which also means we've got-" he flipped the report closed and slammed one hand down on top of it, "-nothing. Nada. Zilch." He stared at Jarvis for several long moments. Jarvis met his gaze and said nothing. Finally the chief sat back in his chair, letting his hand slide backward off the file.
"You pull together a professionally-done report like this, which you say cost the department nothing. And I'm inclined to believe you, detective. Because anyone dumb enough to charge money for this pile of crap should be too dumb to con their way past a smart cop like you, right?"
Jarvis remained sitting silently, looking at Broussart, schooling his face to remain blank, neutral. After a long moment, Broussart sighed.
"You know what I want you to do now, Detective? I want you to get up off your ass, stop fucking around with this psycho babble bullshit and go get me the jerkwad who's been killing these women. And do it NOW!" Reaching forward with the rapidity of a striking snake, Broussart picked up the file and flung it like a frisbee at Jarvis, who managed to catch it as he was rising to his feet. A moment later and he was on the opposite side of the chief's door, letting out a long, shaky breath.
That had all gone much better than he had hoped, he realized, as he headed down the hallway and back to his desk. The rest, he reflected grimly, should be easy. All he had to do was pull a minor miracle out of his backside.
Piece of cake.
She was at the keyboard, transcribing her notes when the door opened.
"You're skipping lunch again, Mildred, and that's not good." Laura said, smiling and placing a cup of coffee and a tuna salad sandwich on her associate's desk. "How's the day treating you so far?"
Mildred smiled and reached for the coffee. "As of about three seconds ago, much better. You have no idea how badly I need this right now. And what about you? We didn't exactly get a chance to talk last night after you guys got home. What happened? I've been on pins and needles. Spill!"
Laura sighed and dropped into the chair next to the desk. "It was a long, strange night, Mildred. I haven't even sorted it all out in my mind yet. I'm not even sure I can at this point."
Mildred studied her through the steam rising from her coffee. "Kiddo, you aren't the sort who figures things out well in a vacuum. Sometimes talking it through works best."
"And sometimes it just adds to the confusion," Laura said grimly. Mildred remained silent, but under her steady gaze, Laura finally began to fidget. Finally she could take no more.
"You're worse than Tourquemada, you know that?"
Mildred smiled. "He took lessons from me."
"O.k., so we went to one of the scenes of the crime and I kind of blew it," Laura said and then recounted for Mildred the events of the previous evening. Mildred listened quietly, betraying no emotion or reaction.
"And the thing is," Laura finished up glumly, "he was right. The clues were all there, right under my nose. I just didn't see them for what they were. Have I gotten that sloppy? I never thought I'd say it, but am I losing my edge here, Mildred?" She looked at the older woman, confusion and worry etched on her features.
Mildred couldn't help herself. She burst out laughing. Seeing Laura about to become upset, she flapped a hand in her direction.
"Settle down, honey. I'm not really laughing at you. Well, maybe a little, but it's still more of a relief than anything else."
Laura stared at her for a moment. "A relief? I think I'm losing my investigative skills and you call that a relief?"
Mildred shook her head. "You know what worries me most about you, honestly?" Laura shook her head mutely. "You're too good at what you do."
"I should be worse at what I do?" Laura said with a frown.
"Well, to be honest, yes, you should." Mildred took a sip of coffee and leaned forward, propping her elbows on the desktop. "Let's look at what you're going through right now, shall we?" She ticked off each point on a pink-polished fingertip. "First of all, you're a single parent trying to make ends meet. Secondly, you're dealing, on a regular basis, with your mother and sister, which is enough of a stresser to kill a bull elephant from what I've seen. Thirdly, your son is having ongoing nightmares and is under a doctor's care. Fourthly, you're running a high-profile agency, alone, without the so-called 'head' of that agency anywhere around to help out. Fifthly, the man you loved and thought you'd lost has suddenly come back into your life and you're trying to figure out what THAT means and how to make it all work. Sixthly-"
Laura began laughing herself. She put up a hand. "Stop, Mildred, please. You're gonna run out of fingers and besides, I get the point. I'm a little off my game and there are reasons for it. I understand."
Mildred frowned. "No, I don't think you do. See, all this stuff I just mentioned? Well, it should put you off your game, but with you that's almost never the case. Because with you, when it's a question of work, there's nothing else in the world that can interfere. Normally, you wouldn't let any of this get to you. You'd just sail on through and never miss a beat."
"O.k., now you have me confused." It was Laura's turn to frown. "What exactly are you trying to say?"
"Just that " Mildred sighed, trying to choose her words carefully. " well, you tend to use work to push everything else away. It's more of an escape for you than anything else. Work is like your shield against everything else in the world you can't cope with. All through the last few years, you worked just fine. Never missed a beat. No matter what else was going on, you kept on going. The cases got handled and solved and you never broke a sweat or missed a clue." She looked down into her cup as if trying to divine the future in the swirling eddies of cream. "It just wasn't natural. It wasn't right."
Laura stared at her. "So," she said finally, "it's more right if I fall apart? Is that what you're saying?"
Mildred put down her cup and came around to put an arm around Laura's shoulders. "Honey, you're not falling apart. Honestly you're not. It's just that, as far as I can see, you're finally getting your priorities straight. Work is important, yes, but other things are finally more important. And that's a good thing. Not a bad thing. Don't you see that?"
Laura found herself blinking rapidly, and not because her eyes were too dry. She drew a shaky breath while Mildred returned to her seat and picked up her coffee again.
"O.k.," Mildred said briskly. "So let's attack the problem together this time and maybe we can get a feel for what we're dealing with here." She opened a drawer and out came the inevitable floral notebook. "Tell me again what you and the Chief found out about our guy last night."
For the next hour, the two women shared notes and swapped sandwiches. At the end of their bull session, little had been done to advance the case in any material way, but each went away with a sense of relief and satisfaction. And sometimes, that's not a bad thing at all.
He sat in his room and watched the shadows lengthen. It would be hours yet before he could go out again. Hours before he could return to where he knew she must be. Hours before he could once more try to set things right.
Until then, he sat very still and watched the light from the afternoon sun bouncing off the back of his window shade.
She would be there tonight, he knew. She had no idea how quickly he'd found her again. She thought she was safe, so there was no reason for her to stay away. So wiley, so tricky, but she'd outwitted herself this time. He'd found her much faster than all the times before. She would reasonably expect several weeks before he located her again, before she had to disappear into smoke and wind, leaving behind another doppleganger to take her place.
And that was why he would, no, must prevail this time. Because for once he was ahead of her. She wouldn't see him coming this time. She couldn't. And this time, he would catch her. Without her masks or mirrors. Without her strange body-doubles to cover her tracks.
It would be tonight, he told himself, because it must be. And by this time tomorrow, he would have it all back again. The way it was. Before she'd come along to ruin everything. By this time tomorrow, he would be free.
And there was nothing she could do to stop him. Nothing at all.
He still knocked, she realized, hearing the tentative rap on the front door. "It's open!" she sang out from the top of the stairs. She heard the door open and Harry's shriek of glee.
Coming downstairs, she saw them both sprawled on the floor, cheerfully wrestling. She stood over them and smiled, then gently nudged him with her foot.
"Hey, you! Don't I get a polite hello?"
He grinned up at her over his son's shoulder. "Hello," he said cheerfully, then went back to wrestling with his son. But only for a moment. Seeing her draw one slender leg back threatening to kick him in earnest, he finally disentangled himself from the small, clutching arms and legs and rose gracefully to plant a warm kiss on her lips.
"Mmmm I guess I'll let you live, then," she murmured and nestled into his shoulder.
"Daddy! We gots tuna cassamole for dinner tonight! Mommy made it!" Her small son, jumping up and down like an excited frog, was not going to be ignored, it seemed. Laughing, she twisted away from him and headed toward the kitchen while he loosened his tie.
"No, Harry, Daddy has to--, Harry, stop, please. Harry! Stop!"
Concerned she returned to the living room. Her son was standing in front of his father, hands dangling, head down despondently. His father was standing over him, a scowl on his face.
"Sweetheart, I'm sorry to yell at you," he said calmly, "but I asked you to stop, didn't I? You needed to stop jumping, but you weren't listening very well just then. And so I had to shout to make you hear. But I don't like to do that. And I don't think you like being shouted at. So let's make a deal, shall we?" He paused and finally the child lifted his head to look up at him. "If you'll try to listen to what I tell you or ask you to do, I'll try not to shout at you. Does that sound fair?"
The child's lower lip was jutting out at an angle again, but after a moment, he gave a small sigh and nodded. "O.k. I not jump on you no more."
It was his father's turn to sigh. He sat down on the couch, where he'd tossed his briefcase moments before. Reaching out, he snagged the child's arm and gently pulled him over to wrap one arm around his thin shoulders.
"It's o.k. You know what? I think you and I just kind of got our wires crossed tonight, didn't we?" The child looked up at him, puzzled. "What I mean is, we were playing and you wanted to keep on playing, but I was trying to take my tie off and put my briefcase away and neither of us got to do what we wanted, did we?" The little boy thought about this for a moment, then shook his head. His father hugged him again. "It's not all your fault. You just wanted to keep on playing, didn't you?" The brown head bobbed at him. "Well, you know what I want right now? More than anything in the world?" The small head shook once, side to side. "A hug," his father said solemnly.
Smiling, Harry scrambled up and wriggled around until he was kneeling on his father's left thigh. Then he wrapped his thin arms around the older man's neck and squeezed for all he was worth, while his father wrapped his arms around the small torso.
Smiling, Laura returned to the kitchen and her "cassamole". There was nothing going on in the living room that needed her attention at that particular moment. And that was just fine with her. Moments later, standing at the stove where she was spooning the dinner onto plates, she felt an arm encircle her waist like an affectionate boa constrictor.
Smiling, she leaned back into him and tilted her head to offer him better access as he leaned down to nuzzle her throat gently.
"Mmmmm " he murmured into her shoulder. "I missed you today."
Relaxing, she rested her head back on his shoulder. "I missed you too."
He lifted his head and let his free hand wrap around other parts of her torso. "So I sat in my office and dealt with patients and cranky parents all day. What did you do?"
"Paperwork," she said with a small grimace. "And then most of the afternoon, I sat around Mildred's office going over case notes. That was the only good part of the day, to be honest. Well, except for around four p.m., that is." Stretching, she pulled slightly away from his embrace and felt him gently, reluctantly, release her. She picked up the two plates nearest to her and carried them to the table, aware that he had picked up the third and was right behind her.
"What happened at four p.m.?" he asked, setting the small plate with the blue seahorses on the rim in front of his son's booster seat while Laura returned to the kitchen to pull a pitcher of iced tea out of the refrigerator.
"I made a phone call," she said, pulling glasses down from the shelves. He reached past her to pull the butter dish off the counter and carried it to the table.
"Important call?" he said casually, fiddling with his own place-setting.
"Very important," she said, carrying the glasses to the table and arranging them carefully. "I had to talk to my sister about watching Harry for us this weekend."
She looked up in time to see his face. There it was at last. The smile she remembered so well from years ago. The smile she hadn't seen since he'd been back. A smile with no shadows.
And finally, for the first time all day, she began to breathe.