.Part XIXI
By Kelly Rourke

The door closed behind them, dulling the incessant din of the crowd, and a pleasant night breeze brushed the stray hairs from her temples. She drew a deep, grateful breath and felt his arm, warm against her back.
"This," she said, "is pure bliss."
In the darkness, she heard his low chuckle. "I must admit, the crowd was getting to me a bit, too. It's been some time since I've gone in for that sort of thing. Found it a bit unnerving, I'm afraid."
She smiled, as the scent of roses wafted off a small bush near the low wall surrounding the hotel garden. "Too much and then some, huh?"
"I suppose," he said. They were near a small fountain and he led her to a curved bench nearby. She sank happily onto the cool marble and he settled beside her, his arm still around her. She closed her eyes for a moment and leaned her head against his shoulder. The smooth fabric of his suitcoat pressed against her cheek and she breathed in his aftershave.
"I know you're enjoying this, and I hate to spoil the moment, but…"
Her head came up warily and she searched out his eyes in the moonlight.
"Well, you did say you'd tell me."
For a moment her mind was blank. "Tell you? Tell you what?"
"What was wrong in there. Before dinner. When we got to the table, you seemed, I don't know, disturbed by something. You said you'd tell me what it was, remember?"
She sighed. "I remember. I was kind of hoping you wouldn't." The silence stretched for a moment. "I did promise, didn't I?"
He rubbed his hand gently across her shoulderblades. Finally her chin came up.
"All right. It's embarrassing as hell. And you can do the whole 'I told you so' routine. You've earned the right. It just took me by surprise, I guess."
"What did?" His voice was gentle, but his eyes were clear and direct.
"When you were telling me about this weekend, you said you had to give a presentation, and head a couple of panel discussions. You just never mentioned the whole-" Her hands waved generally in midair. He offered her a puzzled look, but said nothing. She sighed again, in defeated resignation.
"You never said you were going to be the keynote speaker for the conference."
The puzzled look didn't lift. "That bothered you, Laura? I don't understand."
She laughed softly, but without real humor. "I've never been to a conference like this. This is huge. There are hundreds and hundreds of people in there, from all over the US and Canada. And they were hanging on your every word." Her shoulders slumped suddenly. "You were right. And I'm an idiot."
"I'm sorry, Laura, but what is it I was 'right' about and what makes you think you're an idiot?" She looked at him and realized the puzzled look wasn't a put-on. He was genuinely confused by what she was saying.
"You said I didn't take you seriously and you were right. I guess I really didn't. This all just took me by surprise. You told me you were a professional, respected in your field. But I don't think I actually believed you, somehow. It never seemed quite real to me. Until tonight, anyway. I watched those people coming up to you earlier, but I don't think I really understood, even then. They were genuinely excited to see you there. And not just because they liked you. Because they respected you. And what you do. Those people are impressed by you. And I'm starting to think they have reason to be. And that…well…that just got me a little shook up."
Suddenly she couldn't seem to look at him. Her shoes took on a whole new fascination. But she felt his fingers tapping the underside of her chin gently, insistently, and she found herself drawn back to his face once again.
He was smiling, but it was a gentle smile. "I'm sorry Laura. I didn't mean to blindside you. I never realized I hadn't explained the presentation very well beforehand. I'd agreed to do it for John in a moment of weakness. I usually avoid that sort of thing like the plague, and so I deliberately didn't think about it being the keynote address myself. I just thought of it as one presentation among many. I should've said something and I didn't. I'm sorry."
She offered him a wry smile in return. "Oh, come on. You can manage at least one 'I told you so', can't you? I deserve that much." He chuckled and pulled her into a warm embrace.
"This isn't about one-upmanship, darling. It's about making things work for us. For both of us. That's all the really matters. Don't you understand that?"
"Actually, I do understand." She snuggled into the curve of his arm and laid her head on his shoulder again. Funny how right it felt there. As if it had been waiting to find its true home for a long time and finally had. "And it really was a wonderful presentation."
"Really?" He sounded pleased.
"Really. I'm enjoying the conference itself, even, and I didn't expect to. Although…"
"Hmm? What?"
"I could do without all the female competition, I suppose. I'm sorry, but some of those girls, professionals though they may be, had their claws sharpened and at the ready. I'd forgotten what it was like being with you around other women. I hate to admit it, but it still gets to me a little."
He laughed again and pulled her very close. "Laura, I promise, you will never have to worry about me and any other woman, ever. You're all I want. You're all I'll ever want." He kissed her gently. "You can believe that."
She smiled. "Oh, you can convince me easily enough. But who's going to convince them?"
His smile matched her own and then suddenly his face brightened. "Hey, I've got an idea!"
"Cattle prods?"
"What? No, not about that. Listen, I've got those panel discussions I've got to lead. And there are a couple of lectures tomorrow I'd actually like to go to. There might be some you'd want to listen to as well. You don't have to, of course. I have a list back in our room. But I only have one panel discussion I have to be at on Sunday, early in the morning. What would you say to a day, or at least most of a day, spent sightseeing together? Hm? You and me in San Francisco?"
"We could do that? Just duck away from everything and go off on our own? Like a mini-vacation? Yes! Let's do it!"
He hugged her gently to him for a moment, then looked at her quizzically. "Anyplace you want to see, especially?"
"Not really. Anything. Everything. Just a day alone, the two of us? We could sit on a park bench and not move and I'd be perfectly happy."
He grinned. "There might be a park bench along the way somewhere, but I have a few ideas I think you might actually like, as long as you're up for it. I'll save those for later, though."
She hugged him happily herself. "Still my man of mystery. Some things never change. Well, the good things don't, anyway. And I'm glad of that."
He pried a beer can out of the mud and spotted a candy bar wrapper caught in a plant a little ways past it. Sighing, he retrieved that, too. People came here to "worship nature", and ended up doing things like this to it. How many small animals had caught their snouts in aluminum can openings, tearing skin, risking bad infections? How many other helpless creatures had simply choked to death on bits of plastic that were never meant to be swallowed? Nature lovers and the grief they caused. Never mind the grief to the planet itself and what would inevitably happen to the overall ecosystem.
Taking care of a place like this, he felt, was like being chief mourner at the longest funeral ever held. But someone had to do it, he supposed, tucking the wrapper and the can away in the garbage bag he kept tucked into his belt.
And shoes now, too? He scowled as he moved closer to a mudhole, where a woman's pump lay upside down. Someone had been having some kind of good time, if they were leaving clothing behind. He reached down and tugged at the footwear, trying to loosen it from the suction grip the mud had on it.
He had to tug on it for a few moments before it came loose, heel first, as it turned out. He stared blankly at the woman's foot still sticking up out of the mud for a few startled moments before getting down and beginning to pull, hard. As he would tell the police later, he just instinctively tried to get her loose from the mud. Of course, she was already dead and it took a little time to find the head that was still buried after the rest of her body had been pulled up. Still buried in the mud. Separate and alone.
And why, he wondered incongruously, had they taken off her head and not her shoes?
Church bells were peeling from somewhere blocks away as they stepped out of the hotel into the morning sunshine. Laura drew a happy breath.
"It feels good out here. I think we're going to have a good day!"
"In that case, let's get a move on, before Howard or someone else finds out we're leaving and decides to tag along," he said, taking her hand and heading toward the sidewalk. "It's only a block and a half to the streetcar stop. And if I remember correctly, you enjoy a good trolley ride, don't you?"
"Oh, I wouldn't miss it!" she said happily, her quick steps matching his own. "And I'm glad John gave his blessing to our escape plans. I have to admit, though, I thought today's panel discussion went really well.
Better than that one yesterday afternoon, anyway."
He grimaced. "Well, I blame yesterday afternoon on the blowhard from Seattle."
"Who was he, anyway?"
"I never found out, except he seemed to be someone Howard knew from somewhere, appropriately enough. He doesn't work for our outfit, that's one consolation."
"You'd think he was planning a court case, the way he kept cross-examining you and everyone else on the panel. I think the other people in the audience were ready to take him out toward the end."
He grinned as they crossed the street and headed toward the transit sign halfway down the block. "I was watching for him to show up at today's discussion and I noticed several other people kind of looking for him too. I think he decided to make himself scarce after yesterday's performance. And he wasn't at last night's panel discussion either. Maybe he decided to become the fly in someone else's ointment and while they have my sympathies, I still wouldn't take him back for all the tea in China."
They and the trolley arrived at their stop simultaneously and he quickly found two seats near the back. He ushered Laura into the seat nearest the open window and settled happily beside her. Laura, for her part, was looking eagerly out at the passing street.
"It's been too long since I've been in San Francisco. I love this city."
"I remembered that," he told her. "So I figured that, by the time we get to where we're going, it should be near enough to lunchtime. Or at least brunch. What would you say to seafood? Nothing too expensive, but I think I found the right place for it. We should be able to get something good."
"Why? Where are we headed?" she said, turning to meet his grin.
"Oh, I thought you'd enjoy a trip to Fisherman's Wharf, for starters at least."
Her smile was at least as broad as his.
While lunch was far from an elegant affair, he was right in that it was very good. They dined at an outdoor café, watching the passing crowds, trading quiet observations and enjoying themselves thoroughly. After eating, they wandered along the storefronts for a bit and he even let her lead him into an old-fashioned arcade.
He didn't seem as out-of-place as she might have thought and even showed enthusiasm over the various games and attractions. She went through her spare singles and quarters rapidly, but managed to beat him handily at air-hockey. And then, despite his former allergy to pocket change, he turned out to have a small stash handy and showed a surprising aptitude at skeeball. In fact, he ran up such an impressive score that they attracted a small crowd of admiring youngsters and he cheerfully distributed his winning tickets among them after he made certain she wanted nothing the arcade had to offer in exchange.
Back out on the boardwalk, he offered her a sly grin. "Are you up for dessert? It means a bit of a walk."
The grin intrigued her so much she let him lead her three blocks away. The aroma reached them before they reached their destination and his smile grew broader as her eyes grew wider. When they actually reached Ghiradelli Square, she was almost trembling with excitement. He seemed to enjoy the tour of the factory as much as she did and he refused to let her out of a trip to the gift shop afterward, reminding her that people back home might like a small token of appreciation.
He even agreed to carry the delicious-smelling gift bags for safekeeping when they left, surreptitiously slipping in an extra package that she hadn't seen him purchasing. That one he would make sure she was given after returning home.
To distract her from the enticing smells emanating from the bags, he coaxed her into a brief cruise of San Francisco Bay and endured her good-natured teasing about making the captain actually stop on Alcatraz Island as they sailed past the stone landmark. Her teasing was easily offset, however, by the fact that she spent the trip leaning into the circle of his arms, using them to fend off the wind that swept across the bay.
Back on dry land, she talked him into catching a bus and visiting Telegraph Hill, going all the way to the top of Coit Tower. Fortunately, the tower, unlike her old loft apartment, boasted an elevator. He did groan a bit, though, looking out at the spectacular views in all directions.
"What's wrong?"
"Nothing, really. It's just…"
"Just what?"
"How can you bring me to a place like this, Laura, without a paintbrush or an easel in sight? It's positively cruel!"
She managed to keep a straight face when she assured him that her laughter had been purely sympathetic. On the way back down, they overheard some other tourists talking about a free art exhibition at Washington Square and decided to check it out themselves.
A local bus dropped them off and they spent time walking from stand to stand, chatting with artists and those just interested in art. And at one point, she slipped away from him as he became intently involved in a technical discussion with one of the artists. In a nearby tent she purchased a small art kit with a palette, a set of paints and several decent brushes. These she stashed away in her purse as a surprise gift for later.
At last, tired but satisfied, they boarded another bus. This one delivered them to Chinatown. He led her through streets already illuminated by paper lanterns and other bright lighting, managing to guide her to a nice restaurant, despite her insistence that a trip to the platte map office might be more appropriate. While the restaurant didn't boast any special rating, the food was good and plentiful and they each sampled as many different dishes as they could. As always, she was the more adventurous, though his skill with chopsticks would always be better than hers.
It was still relatively early when the cable car dropped them off near their hotel. He noticed the small park along the way back and pulled her by the hand over to a small bench near a yew tree and smiled at her contented sigh as she settled on it.
"Satisfactory day, love?"
She leaned over, laying her head against his shoulder. "More than satisfactory, actually. That was honestly fun."
He rubbed her shoulderblades gently. "I hate the sound of that."
She pulled back and looked up at him. "You do? Why?"
"Because it sounds as if you've had far too little fun in your life. At least recently." His smile held that hint of pain it had worn so often since returning to her and she frowned.
"I wouldn't say that, exactly. I have fun. Granted, it's usually with Harry. But fun, nonetheless."
He tapped her playfully on the nose. "Really? Tell me about all the fun." She scowled at him and he laughed gently. "No. I mean it. Really. Tell me about the fun you and Harry have had. I want to hear about it."
She smiled and laughed at him in return. "We have fun of a kind. We go to the park and play and get silly. And I take him to the zoo and shopping with me and, oh! We went to Disneyland last year with Frances and Donald and the kids. And there was a carnival early this summer. And we go for walks and...well...we have fun together. That's all."
He pulled her gently to him. "I can believe that, Laura. All that and more. And I bet he has the best time when he's with you. I'd love to see you getting 'silly' with the little guy. I really would."
She snuggled against him for a moment, then looked up again. "But?"
He sighed and shook his head. "I just wonder if you have any fun of your own. That's all."
"I was never one for fun and frivolity, even in the old days, was I? Be honest." She patted him reassuringly on the shoulder. But his expression didn't lighten.
"I don't know that's quite true, Laura. I remember having fun with you. And I remember meeting your friends, people you knew. People you'd meet for dinner or lunch or parties, even. It just seems there was more in your life for you back then, somehow."
"I've had things in my life for me." She still sounded mildly defensive.
"Like what?" he challenged.
"I have books and music and tv. You know what a big reader I am. Harry's not awake all day, you know. I do other things."
He kissed the top of her head. "I know you love reading. I just worry that you read case files more than fiction. And you? Watching tv? When? I mean, it, Laura. You've never been big on that sort of thing. Old reruns of Atomic Man, maybe. Many of those, are there?"
She was forced to laugh again. "Well, not so many of those, I guess. But I do watch tv after Harry goes to bed. Videos mostly."
"Oh yes. I'd noticed the VCR hooked up at your apartment. Gone With the Wind was your favorite, as I recall."
"I rent it from time to time. But I'm not obsessive about it."
"What do you like to watch?" He looked genuinely curious, which gave her a small burst of pleasure, for some reason. But she flushed a bit before answering.
"I pick up videos at the library sometimes. And there's a little video store between here and the office I stop at sometimes. I just prowl to see what they have. Sometimes I'll just pick something up at random."
"Like what?" he asked, and noticed that her flush grew deeper. "Laura?"
She growled softly. "Old Bogart movies, if you must know."
He smiled, broadly. "Really?"
"Well, not all the time!" She frowned at his grin. "I rent other things, too."
"Like what?"
She sighed. "If you must know, old movies I've heard you mention from time to time. Like Notorious. Things like that. I sometimes think I've watched old black-and-white movies more than my mother ever did."
He hugged her again. "I don't know why, but that's almost the sweetest thing you've ever said to me."
She punched his side, lightly. "You!" Then she sighed and leaned into him again. "I don't know, I suppose it was a way of keeping you with me. In one sense, at least. Almost like we were watching together, somehow."
He sat up straighter and took her head in his hands, gently cupping her cheeks. "Laura, you have me from now on. You won't have to worry about keeping me with you ever again. I promise."
She kissed him and held him close. "I believe you. Somehow, I just know. And it makes me feel better than I've felt in years. I also have the feeling," she added, smiling up at him, "that fun's not going to be such a stranger in my life anymore, either."
He laughed and stood up, pulling her to her feet as well. "I think I can pretty much guarantee that, as well. Ready to go?"
She nodded and fell into step beside him, her arm wrapped around his waist, his around her shoulders. As they waited for the light to change at the corner across from the hotel, he got a sudden look of consternation.
"What's wrong?" she asked.
"I just realized we forgot something really important."
"I don't think we picked up any present to take home to Harry."
She laughed. "Oh, I took care of that yesterday, back at the hotel."
"You did?"
"At the hotel gift shop." The light turned green and they headed across the street. "You see, a few years ago we were visiting Mother and Harry noticed a snow globe she had. He loved it. Played with it for almost an hour that day. So, since then, whenever I've had to go out of town, I've picked him up a snow globe. I haven't gone out of town all that much without him, but you must have seen the four he already has on the shelf in his room."
"I noticed them, but I didn't think much about them, I suppose. Snow globes, eh?"
She looked up at him as they neared the front door of the hotel. "Mother got him one, I got him the rest. But this one I want to come from Mommy and Daddy, if you don't mind."
"I don't mind at all. I'm delighted, in fact."
"Good. When does our flight leave?"
"We've got about an hour and a half. I think we're fine. We just have to pick up our bags at the desk and hail a cab."
"That's good. I've loved this whole weekend, but I miss my baby."
"You know, Laura," his tone was suddenly a bit awed, "it's only been a week. I just realized that I met him one week ago today." He stopped completely and stood, staring into space. "That doesn't seem possible, now. Not really."
She looked up at him with a puzzled smile. "Why not?"
"Because I find that I miss him, too. As if I'd been away from him too long." He grew silent for a moment. "Don't you find that the slightest bit strange?"

"Of course not," she said, and hugged him. "That's why the snow globe is coming from Mommy and Daddy." He looked down at her quizzically. "That's who you are now, isn't it? You're 'Daddy'. Now and for the rest of your life."
He hugged her in return and laughed. "Laura, I've spent my whole life wondering who I am. I've called myself by so many names, even I've lost track of them. And now, finally, I know who I am." He kissed her. "Isn't that marvelous?"
"Oh, I think so," she said, happily. "You know what else I think? I think it's time to go home!"
He stood ankle-deep in brambles and sharp-edged weeds. The ground underfoot was spongy and damp. But he stood still, keeping his hands in his pockets and his thoughts to himself. Around him, the beehive of activity droned on. Men and women came and went, there were random calls between them for equipment of one sort or another, and what seemed to be every fly in southern California gathered in the area. In the midst of all this, his cell phone rang.
"Yes, Captain. Yes, body's female, looks to be late 20's, early 30's. Nothing found on the body, no purse or wallet. ME says he can't come up with an ID or definitive cause of death until he gets her back to the lab, which is where she's headed now. Yes, sir. We've got tire impressions and a few other things, but there's really not much here for the crime scene guys to go on. Right now they're scouring the area for anything - fabric, fiber or flesh - caught on anything. You know it. You'll be the first person I call. No sir, I haven't said anything. Haven't even mentioned it. But yes, that's what I think. And I hate to tell you, but the ME says it looks like the same type of weapon. A chainsaw of some type. Yeah, I know, just the head. I know, chainsaws are all alike, sort of. Look, Captain, when he gets back to his lab, he's gonna do a detailed comparison. That'll give us something. And if he can find that she was strangled as well...I'm just saying, Captain...yes sir. I know it's different. But it's still a likely possibility and...yes sir. More evidence. I understand. Yes sir. I'll be in touch, sir. Have a good day, sir."
Jarvis snapped his phone shut and jammed it deep in his pocket. Damn bureaucrat. Damn jerk. Serial killers have certain patterns. Everyone knew that. But what his esteemed Captain wasn't getting was that, occasionally, serial killers have been known to change those patterns. Maybe because something outside themselves necessitated the change, maybe because something changed, even subtly, inside themselves. But they had been known, however rarely, to alter their established patterns.
And, yes, there was minimal evidence, other than the decapitation, that this was the same perp. No dumpsters, no scattered body parts. Totally different location and means of disposal. But something inside Jarvis informed him that this was the same lunatic that had killed all the other women. He had changed his pattern, not his ultimate agenda. The same nutcase was going to continue his killing spree. But for whatever reason, something had changed, which turned the blood flowing in Jarvis' veins to ice. Because he knew what it meant.
It meant that things were about to get worse. Much worse.

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