Part XXI
By Kelly Rourke

"Dr. Cathcart? Line two." His secretary's voice coming over the intercom was bland enough, but he detected the slight note of curiosity in it and was smiling when he lifted the receiver.

"Laura? I'm so glad you called. I was thinking of stopping by after work today to make it up for missing story time with Harry last night. Would that be all right with you?" There was no one else in the room to hear the long pause after that before he spoke again. "Of course, that's no trouble at all. I'd enjoy it. My last patient should be gone by 4 p.m. and I can take my paperwork with me when I leave. What time do I need to be there?" The pause this time was much briefer. "Excellent. I'll see you later this evening then. And Laura? Have a good day." He was still smiling when he hung up, which his secretary couldn't see, of course. But she'd have known about it anyway.


He pulled into a parking space next to the one-story brick building and gave himself a moment to relax. He stretched his neck, hoping to ease the tension in his shoulders. The "talk" with John hadn't gone as badly as he'd feared. John had held forth at length, of course, about the error of what he'd done, and he'd made all the correct penitent responses. But they both knew he would have done it all again the same way. "Medical ethics" would always take a back seat, in his book, to actually helping patients.

While John didn't know chapter and verse about his checkered background, he knew enough to understand that "ethics" was, at best, a polite suggestion where Dr. Harrison Chalmers was concerned. And so, the one-sided talk had been mercifully brief. There would be, no doubt, something "official" written up in his company record, but he couldn't get terribly upset about it.

He didn't plan to spend the rest of his life with the company in any case. North American Therapy Associates was a good enough organization, he supposed, and his colleagues did good and important work throughout Canada and the U.S. But John had finally gotten hold of the financial records and he now knew to the dime how much more he owed "TA" as its employees called it. Which meant he knew how much longer his period of "indentured servitude" should last. He and John had worked out another eight to ten months, tops, before he could bid farewell to full-time clinical child psychology altogether.

He would remain available, of course, to John and his other colleagues, even the ones in Canada. He knew he could offer real help to the patients that might present themselves, but it might actually be time to get back to his own life, to finally offering his help to some people who meant a great deal more to him.

One of whom was waiting for him at that very moment. He slipped out from behind the wheel and headed toward the side entrance. It was open at this time of day to harried parents trying to find the closest route to their offspring. The main entrance, along the left side of the building, was closer to the office, where he would have to sign out, but he could grab Harry's things from his cubby on the way down the main hallway, before ducking out the far side of the building to the playground where he could collect his son.

As the door closed behind him, the afternoon quiet seemed to envelope him, broken only by random, thin shrieks from the playground outside. He recognized the door to his son's classroom and reached it quickly. Inside, his son's cubby sported his red-and-blue baseball jacket, and his father snagged it, along with the plastic bag of soiled clothing stuffed down at the bottom. His father held this gingerly and wondered about it. From what he'd seen, Harry had no toileting problems at home. Even during naptimes, his mother said, there were seldom "accidents". And yet, every day, the plastic bag came home. Laura admitted that she sent almost half her son's wardrobe to school with him each week. But Harry was silent as to any difficulty at school.

Frowning, he looked around the small area. The room was actually split into two main areas. The cubbies were in the "open floor" area. A colorful carpet stretched from the long row of cubbies to the far wall, with the naptime cots piled in stacks along it, over to a short wall extending through only half the room, covered with three rows of shelving, separated into "box" areas, each box holding different toys. There were blocks in one box, cars in another, stuffed animals in another, alongside a box filled with colorful plastic hats of various descriptions. Legos filled another, a stack of wooden puzzles filled the box next to that. One box held a variety of plastic fruits and vegetables and another held rubber balls of various sizes and designs. The last held small wooden figurines painted in a variety of primary colors that apparently stacked one atop another. An adult-sized rocker waited patiently in the corner and the walls were papered generously with artwork lovingly rendered in fingerpaint. Each paper had a name printed neatly in black marker, though often smeared with fingerpaint.

He walked the perimeter of the room, looking at the art on the walls. There were ten little artists represented. None of the sheets of paper displayed there had his son's name on it, however and his cubby didn't hold any small masterpieces, either.

In the remainder of the classroom, past the half-wall was a scattering of three thigh-high tables, each with six tiny plastic chairs set around it. In the corner, near the marble window ledge, sat two tall double-sided easels, each with a tray attached to either side to hold paints and brushes. Open shelves under the marble countertop that ran halfway down the remaining length of the room, held blue plastic bins. He pulled one out and found small canisters of different colored modeling clay. Another held a dozen bottles of paste. Another held oversized brushes and yet another held empty egg cartons and empty aluminum pie pans. There were more, but he ignored these and peered behind him. There was a small window on the opposite wall, higher up. Only an adult could peer through that window. Under it was a "housekeeping" area with a wooden sink and stove and refrigerator. Flanking these were a sequence of colorful posters with various cheerful messages about fair play, healthy snacks and the necessity of washing hands.

He looked around for a working sink and found it against the far wall between the windows. It stood next to a movable wall with a bright red cloth covering. Whatever was behind that was out of sight. Even the windows didn't extend that far. More curious than ever, he crossed to it...and stood staring in shock for several long moments.

Finally, with a pale face, he turned away and hurried out of the room, fingers clenched around the plastic bag, his son's jacket flung over his shoulder. If the receptionist in the small office where he signed his son out for the day noticed his agitation, she tactfully did not ask about it. Neither did the playground attendants who watched him collar Harry in the sandbox and lead him away.

They were halfway to Laura's apartment before he was able to find his voice properly. Fortunately the spider was climbing for its life and his son didn't seem to notice. This time, however, he watched carefully in the rear-view mirror at stop signs. His son sang happily, while he fiddled with the zipper on the jacket he had in his lap. Occasionally, he'd pick up one sleeve and flap it against his leg.

"Harry," he said finally, "did you have a good day at school?"

"Yeah," his son replied, still fingering his jacket. "I played with Colin an' Rashad. Robert didn't come today. He's sick."

"That's too bad. I hope he feels better soon. But what games did you and Colin and Rashad play?"

Harry looked up at him for a moment, not seeming to understand the question. "We played in the sandbox, with our buckets. You saw us playin'."

"Yes, when I picked you up. But what about earlier? Did you play with them earlier?"

His son's small forehead scrunched with effort. "Earlier" seemed to be a concept beyond his ability. "We played lots in the sandbox. We always do. It's fun."

For a little bit after that, both fell silent. Then, a few blocks from home, he tried again. "What did you have for lunch today, Harry?"

His son twisted the sleeve in his hands and stared at it fixedly for a long moment. "They had hot dogs today." He twisted the jacket some more. "Daddy? Can we have hot dogs for dinner tonight?"

He shook his head. "I'm sorry, Harry. Mommy made tuna casserole for dinner tonight. She left it in the refrigerator and you can help me get it ready to go in the oven tonight. We might even make a salad together. Would you like that?"

The little boy sighed briefly. "I like tuna cassamole," he said softly. "But I like hot dogs better."

As he pulled into the parking lot behind Laura's apartment building, he had a sense that he'd somehow let his small son down all over again. And it might be hours before Laura would be there. And that was the bleakest thought of all.

When the intercom buzzed, Laura actually felt herself flinch. Stop it, she told herself sternly. Then she rose, went to the door of her office and poked her head out into the reception area.
"Mrs. Smythe?" she said in what she hoped was a warm voice. "Please come in." The older woman glided elegantly across the carpet and Laura stepped back, controlling her features with an act of sheer will.
When she was safely back behind her own desk, the older woman had settled onto a chair and fished a compact and a few tissues from her purse and was patting her lips gently. Laura couldn't see any earthly reason why. The woman's make-up was flawless. She reached for the file laid out on her desk, but stopped at the sound of the smooth even voice.
"I know this is just a routine meeting, Ms. Holt," she said, not looking up from the compact mirror. "And it's probably still too early for any news. But all morning I've had the most anxious feeling, as if something were about to happen. If that is the case, I'd prefer to dive right in, without any lead-ins or sugar-coating, if you don't mind. I know that seems a bit overbearing on my part, but I thought telling you might help in some way."
"Mrs. Smythe, Julia, I think it's important to get things like that straight right from the start. I promise not to sugar-coat anything, or hold anything back," Laura said, hoping she wasn't lying to the older woman. "But while there have been a few developments in the case, it's nothing that will give us any real answers. Not yet, anyway. However, it has led me to form a few questions I wanted to ask you. You might not have any answers, but it's worth trying, in any case. I hope you don't mind?"
"Not at all. Fire away. But you will let me in on these developments you spoke of?"
"Of course," Laura assured her. "Just let me get a few questions out of the way first." She opened her notebook to a fresh page and picked up her favorite pen. "Now then, in the last few months of your daughter's life, did she ever mention meeting anyone different, or a bit odd, perhaps?"
"You mean someone who worried her or frightened her?"
"No, not necessarily. Just someone she saw as being a bit different or unusual. Even in a good way, or an amusing way. Someone she took notice of, maybe?"
Julia Smythe looked into the distance blankly for a moment. "No one that I can think of. Just the last few months, you say? We didn't see each other terribly often those last few months, she was always so busy..." The smoke from her ever-present cigarette coiled silently around her head for a few moments before she spoke again. "I don't know if this is what you had in mind, but there was something that seemed to amuse her a bit. A man she'd met."
"A man?" Laura didn't realize she was leaning forward so much until Julia Smythe's gaze fell on her directly. Then she pulled back and straightened up self-consciously.
"Not in the sense of anything remotely possible, you understand," the older woman continued smoothly. "She met him at a coffee shop near her office. She thought it was sad how eager he was to start up a conversation with her. A little man, she said. Not a dwarf, of course, just not as tall as most men. Terribly...nice. In a rather generic way, she thought. As if 'nice' were a suit he put on in the morning because he liked the color."
Laura waited patiently as Julia Smythe tapped the overlong ash off the tip of her cigarette.
"She said he seemed terribly lonely, but she didn't think she was quite "friend material" for him. She was planning on finding another coffee shop because of him, in fact. She felt she shouldn't encourage him. Except she hated the only other place near her office and didn't know where she'd find another. She even talked about buying a thermos and taking her own coffee to work with her. I just don't know if she did."
Julia Smythe sighed briefly. "That was the last time we talked, you see. I don't know what happened after that. I don't suppose I ever will."
Laura looked down at her pad and fiddled with her pen a moment, giving her client time to compose the features that were less serene than she might want them to be.
"Well," she said at last, looking her client squarely again, "I'm going to want the name of that coffee shop. It might be important. Tell me, did she describe the man? Other than his height and his...niceness?"
"You mean a physical description?" Mrs. Smythe looked at a loss. "No, I don't think she did. Oh, she mentioned he was bald. Well, balding, anyway. She said it was nice that he didn't do a comb-over, the way men do sometimes. But that was really the only other thing she mentioned. That and his hands."
"His hands?"
"She said he had nervous hands. He kept fiddling with things, his spoon, his napkin. She almost advised him to take up knitting, for something to do with them, but she didn't, thank God. I always thought her sense of humor went a bit far, but she managed to restrain herself. In that instance, anyway."
"She didn't mention a name, by any chance?"
"No. I don't know that she knew his name, or cared. She only met him the one time, at least as far as she said. She'd noticed him the day before, but he didn't talk to her that first time. In any case, if she knew his name, she didn't mention it." She took a long look at Laura through her cloud of smoke. "You think this man is important, somehow, don't you?"
Laura looked down at her pad and took one, nervous breath. "I don't know, but he might be." She looked up again and squared her shoulders. She'd said she was going to be straightforward, it might be time for that, after all. "The police think they have reason to believe that the man who killed your daughter, and several other young women, might be a relatively short man. They don't know for sure, but there are reasons to think so." She was remembering the notches carved into the coat rack at regular intervals and had to suppress a shudder, though she couldn't say why.
She shook off the feeling with impatience. "This may have nothing whatsoever to do with anything," she told her client, her voice far steadier than her nerves. "We don't know enough to make even intelligent guesses at this point, but I'd still like to check out that coffee shop."
"They call it Beans and Barley," Mrs. Smythe said, her tone as calm and cool as her lipstick, "because they serve bagels and other fresh breads that they bake on site. But from what my daughter said, most people just went there for the coffee. It was supposed to be very good. I wouldn't know. I never went there myself."

"Well," Laura said, more confidently than she felt, "if it's any good, I'll bring you back a loaf of French bread."

The voices were silent for the moment, and for that he was profoundly grateful. It was distracting. And he didn't think distraction was a good thing anymore. There had been too many distractions. Far too many. It was time to focus.
Focus was the key. If he'd been focused from the beginning, this would all be over. But he'd let himself be distracted. By her. She had played him all this time, knowing his weaknesses, exploiting them expertly.
He kept hoping she'd changed. It was why her doppelgangers had fooled him so easily. He believed she'd changed, so a difference in appearance went unnoticed. The differences were slight, but even so, if he'd been focused, as he should have been, he'd never have made those simple mistakes. All the false faces had been so close to her own. But close only counted in horseshoes, and he wasn't playing horseshoes. He wasn't playing at all anymore. It was time to end this. Time to do what he should have done from the beginning.

He reached for the small end table beside him and, without having to look, grabbed the book that lay there, waiting for his hand, waiting to answer the question he should have asked long ago. Waiting to help him find closure. Once and for all.


It was late when she finally turned in to her own parking lot. A growl from deep in her stomach told her exactly how late. And the worst part was that the extra trip to Beans and Barley had done nothing to advance the case. She'd talked to the staff that was there, but none had worked there when Jessica Smythe was still alive. The manager had been, she found out, but he had no memory of Jessica or the small man she'd met there.
She grabbed the bag of bagels and cream cheese off the passenger seat and headed for the stairs up to her second floor apartment. The French bread was safe enough in the car until tomorrow. If Mrs. Smythe didn't want it, Mildred or Grace would be happy to get it.
She could hear the tv as she let herself into her apartment and met the small rush of her son with an open arm. "Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!" She was surprised he was even aware of her, his devotion to the antics of Scooby Doo and his animated friends was so absolute. Or, as he was happy to tell anyone who'd listen, he liked the show with the big doggie who could talk. But now he clutched at her hips and babbled about the dinner her stomach was so anxious for anyway.
"We made a tuna cassamole and I got to put the nums on it and they was good!"

Usually she could translate his babble just fine, but this one lost her. "The nums?"
"I think he means 'onions'. I let him sprinkle the French fried onions on top before we baked it," his father said, stepping forward to relieve her of her paper bag and the sweater she was trying to extricate herself from.
"Yeah! The nums! You'll like them best, Mommy! Come see!" His small hand grasped her fingers and began to tug impatiently.
She looked up at him helplessly for a moment. "Oh, don't tell me I forgot to put the onions on again!"
"Don't worry, I found a container of them on the shelf and we made sure to add them," her son's father said, with a smile that somehow didn't reach his eyes. As the toddler started to pull her toward the table just off the kitchen, he reached out one long arm to stop him.
"Harry, would you mind going back to watch a little more tv for a bit? Mommy and I need some time to ourselves for a minute. O.k.?"
For a moment an argument started to form in the small blue eyes, but then a cry of "Jeepers!" came from the direction of the living room tv and his attention was sufficiently distracted.
"O.k., Daddy," he said cheerfully, dropped her hand and headed back into the word of four-color monsters that always went down to defeat in 30 minutes or less.
Laura stepped toward the dining area as he threw her sweater over the back of the couch and put the bag of bagels on the kitchen counter. But then he came back, took her hand and led her toward the stairs.
"Don't you want to eat first?" she said, a bit confused.
"I need to talk to you. Don't worry, Harry's had his dinner. But we need to talk. Privately. And now."
It was the subtle urgency in his voice that made her quicken her pace. Once the bedroom door was shut behind them, she sank down onto the bed and mentally braced herself.
"O.k. What's wrong? I can see it in your eyes and it's not good, is it?"
"No, it's not." he pulled the stool out from her dressing table and perched on it. "I discovered something when I went to pick Harry up tonight. And while I've tried to talk to him a bit, I didn't want to push anything until you were here. It didn't feel right. But you need to know what I'm thinking beforehand. And it's not something I have any real proof of, so keep an open mind, here. For Harry's sake, at least."
He rubbed his hands against his thighs nervously, smoothing nonexistent wrinkles out of his slacks. "Laura, you told me that Harry brings home soiled clothing almost every day. Is it just dirt from playing, or is it a toileting accident?"
"He seems to wet himself on a daily basis," she said reluctantly. "Sometimes...worse. But usually his underwear and pants are wet. But he's only two and I don't think it's that bad. I remember Frances complaining about her kids when they were that age. Maybe not as much, at least that's what she says now, but he does fine at home, and on the weekends. And she says he does fine when he's visiting her and mother. I think he just gets distracted at school. There's so much going on and you know Harry, he doesn't want to miss anything." Even she could hear her own tone becoming defensive.
"Laura, do you remember when I took Harry out for ice cream?"
"He had to go, so I took him into the men's room. And he was shocked to see a man using the urinal. Those are just open, not in stalls, you understand. And he acted as if he'd never seen a urinal in his life. Toilets, he understood, but I'd swear he'd never seen a urinal before that day."
She relaxed slightly. "I'd say that was true. I mean, unless Donald took him to the bathroom somewhere, he's been mostly with women his whole life. And there are no urinals in any of our houses or in any of the women's rooms we've taken him to. So it's honestly likely he'd never seen one before."
He looked at her steadily for a moment and she felt a chill creep across the back of her neck.
"Laura, there is a small, child-sized urinal, perfectly normal in every way, in Harry's classroom. Hanging on the wall, right next to the toilet in the corner."
Her hands were suddenly ice-cold. "That's not possible. Maybe they just put it in."
"I asked him today, and he said there was nothing new in his classroom. Everything is the same as it always was. Now, he's only two, so take that for what it's worth, but there didn't seem to have been any construction going on there, and the wall around it seemed perfectly normal and untouched. If pressed, I'd honestly have to say it had been there for quite awhile. Definitely more than a week or two."
He let her digest that for a moment.
"And something else, too. Has Harry brought home any artwork from school lately?"
"Well, not often. Once in awhile. Especially on rainy days. You've seen the one hanging on the refrigerator."
"On rainy days? When they can't go out to the playground?"
"That's right."
What do they do on days they can't go outside? Do you know?"
"Well, in the morning, they do the usual things in their own classroom. And when they get up from their naps, they have snacks in their own classroom, and then they go out into the big common area between the classrooms and everyone plays there. They have a little wooden slide and a plastic climbing set with tunnels and things. And they have books and cars and a table where they can color.." She trailed off, realizing what he was implying.
"They have different teachers in the mornings and in the afternoons, don't they?"
"Yes, I think the teachers change just after naptime. During snack or just before. I'm not sure. But his morning teacher is his primary teacher. His afternoon teacher is more of an aide. That's why they mostly just play in the afternoons."
"Laura, when did he stop taking Joji to school with him? He takes that thing everywhere else he goes, even into the bathroom with him. Why not school? Did you ever ask him?"
"I asked him about it, but he said Joji would be happier at home. That he didn't like going to school. That's the most I could get out of him. I thought maybe the other children were teasing him about it or something like that. So I didn't push it."
"What about his lunches? Do you ever ask him about those?"
"What do you mean?"
"Do you ever ask him what he had for lunch?"
"No, not really. The school prints a schedule and we have it at home, so I always know what they're serving for lunch."
He sighed. "Serving, yes." He thought for a moment. "What about snacks? Is there a schedule of those?"
"No, but he talks about that. He'll tell me, 'we had cookies for snack today' or 'I had the red juice today'. He really liked the 'red' juice." She smiled at the memory of her son's enthusiasm.
"Laura, think for a moment. What words did he use? Did he say 'we' had cookies and 'I' had red juice? Not 'they' had?"
She thought for a moment. "No, he uses 'we' and 'I' just fine. He mixes up verbs a lot and other words, but pronouns he usually gets right."
His hands clenched. "Laura, when we were coming home, I asked him what he'd had for lunch today. And he said 'they' had hot dogs. And right after that he asked me if we could have hot dogs for dinner. When I told him we were having tuna casserole, he seemed honestly heartbroken and said he liked tuna casserole, but he really liked hot dogs."
"He does. Hot dogs are about his favorite food."
"I'm sure they are. And I'm starting to think he doesn't have them nearly often enough. Certainly not today. Laura, do you remember telling me to take a snack along for Harry whenever I picked him up from school?"
"That's because he's always hungry at that time of day. I started taking a snack for the drive home awhile ago. He always seems so...hungry..." She was staring straight ahead of her, at nothing, and her expression was becoming bleak. "Dear God, what are we saying here?" She looked up at him, panicked. "This can't be happening! Tell me this isn't happening!"
He reached out and took her hand. "Laura, I wish I could. But I'm beginning to think something is wrong, terribly, terribly wrong, at Harry's school. I just don't know exactly what. Or why. And I think we have to talk to Harry and get him to tell us."
He dropped her hand. "I tried talking to him on the way home, and a little bit when we were making dinner. But every time I got close to the subject, he managed to change the subject. I'd ask him about school and he'd talk about playing with Rashad and Colin. And I'd ask about his teachers and he talked about Miss Kathy, his afternoon teacher. But if I asked about his morning teacher, he'd start talking about cartoons, or Joji, or the casserole. If I asked about whether his drawings were ever put on the wall in his classroom, he just said he didn't know and started talking about playing with cars later and what book he wanted to read at bedtime. I don't like this, either, Laura, but something is wrong and we need to find out what."
"You couldn't get him to talk to you?" Her voice soundly slightly hysterical. "You're the professional! You can get kids who won't say a word to talk. And you can't get your own son to talk to you? What do you think I'm supposed to do?"
"Laura, he trusts you." It was an effort to keep his tone calm. "You're Mommy. You make him feel safe in ways I can't. He doesn't know me well enough yet. And the one thing I noticed when I was trying to talk to him this evening is that he seemed frightened. Honestly frightened to talk about these things. I can't get past that fear in him. I was hoping you could. It's why I waited for you. Do you understand?"
She took a deep, shuddering breath and began to rub her arms with stiff, semi-clenched fingers. "I think so. I'm sorry I snapped at you like that. It's just--"
He got up and sat next to her on the bed, wrapping one arm protectively around her shoulders. "I know, Laura. Believe me, I know. I'm not a doctor right now. I can't be. He's not my patient or my client. He's my son. And I have no idea how to help him. I'm honestly scared here. And I'm not used to the feeling at all." He held her close for a moment. "But we have to try, Laura. We have to find a way to help him. Can you do that?"
She swallowed heavily. "I think so," she managed, finally. "If you stick with me, I think so."
"I'm right here, Laura. And I'm not going anywhere. I promise."
As they stood up together and headed for the hallway, she decided it was the one promise he truly didn't have to make. She would never believe anything else of him ever again.

Back Index CaseBook E-mail Next