The lighting inside the police department was bright and Laura stood, blinking, for several long moments. Clutching her hand tightly, her small son looked excitedly in as many directions as possible, while his father stood waiting, as Jarvis spoke to a young woman behind a glassed-in front desk.
She looked down. "Yes, sweetie?"
"Theres a lotta people here. An its nighttime! Why so many people are up now?"
She crouched down to his level. "Well, lots of people work at night. Grownups, only. But lots of them. They drive trucks and some work in restaurants and some work in factories and some, like the police, take care of all of us at night, so were safe."
"Dont they never go to sleep? Ever?"
She chuckled. "Yes, they sleep. But they sleep during the daytime, when youre awake." The tall, curly-haired detective was rejoining them.
"Were good to go. Come on back with me, o.k.?" As a buzzer sounded, he opened the door leading to a long hallway, running the length of the building. The walls were covered with photos and plaques and the toddler peered up at them curiously. Jarvis stopped in front of a group photo, more than a dozen police officers in dress uniforms. "Hey, Harry, take at look at this. I think you might know someone in this picture."
The little boy dropped his mothers hand and scooted up to where Jarvis was standing. "Who?" he asked eagerly.
"Well, look closely and you tell me. Do you know someone here? I think you might have seen her once or twice." Jarvis smiled down at the brown head. "You need to get closer to see?"
The toddler gave a little bounce at his feet. "Nuh-uh! I see her! An I know her! Thats Joeys mommy! She wore all that stuff when she comed to pick Joey up sometimes. An once she letted me wear her hat on my own head! She was nice!"
Suddenly he settled back on his heels and lowered his head. "But shes gone now. An so is Joey." He turned and buried his small face in Lauras thigh.
"Yeah, she is gone now," Jarvis said softly. "Come look at another picture." He walked past a few doors and stopped at a line of photos, individual head shots, surrounded by black borders. "See? We have a special picture up, just for her. Because she was special." He pointed at the wall, to a framed photo with a plaque that said Officer Elise Gardner", and Harry walked up to him again and peered up at the photo he indicated.
"Uh-huh. She was pretty, huh?" he said softly.
Jarvis looked grave. "Yes, she was very pretty. And very nice. And very, very brave." Then he straightened his shoulders and smiled. "Now, come on over to my office, I have to look up a very special number, just for you!" And he turned and strode quickly down the hall, as the others hurried to keep up.
His office was smaller than Laura would have expected. A large desk took up most of the space inside, though there was room for two chairs in front of it and a comfortable-looking rolling armchair in back. A horizontal filing cabinet crowded the wall opposite the desk and held one anemic-looking spider plant and a number of piled-up file folders. There were more piles of folders on the desk and a framed photo, but it was facing Jarvis himself and Laura decided shed worry about it later. She sat down and settled her son on her own lap while his father lowered himself into the chair next to them. He sat erect, bracing himself. But for what, she wondered. She took her sons small hand and held it. For once, Harry didnt seem to mind. He just sat, watching Jarvis with large eyes.
Jarvis sat down himself and opened a drawer in his desk. He took out a black notebook and opened it. "Harry? Remember back at your house, when we talked about how some grownups lie? Well, like I told you, I think someone lied to you. And I think I can prove it, if youll let me. Would you be o.k. with that?"
Harry gave his mother one, panicked glance and she almost stopped everything right there. But some instinct, welling up from deep within, stopped her. She just squeezed the tiny hand encouragingly and smiled at him as calmly as she could. He let out one shuddering sigh and faced Jarvis again.
"O.k." he said, in a very small, frightened voice.
"Good." Jarvis picked up the receiver on his desk phone and began punching buttons. "Im gonna call someone and then Im gonna see if the person I most want you to talk to is around. Its kind of late, but I think we can still do this." From the speaker on his phone, there was a faint ringing sound. "Im gonna put this on speaker, so all you have to do is talk and the person on the other end can hear you. You dont have to hold anything for this, o.k." Harry nodded, his eyes wide. He still looked worried.
"Hello?" The voice on the other end of the line sounded elderly and female.
"This is Detective Jarvis. From Los Angeles?"
"Oh, yes. How are you?"
"Im fine, ma-am. And I know its late out there in Arizona, but I wondered if your grandson might still be awake. I kind of need to have a friend talk to him for a minute. Harry Chalmers. Could he come to the phone, do you think?"
"Harry Chalmers?" The voice sounded puzzled. "The little boy from the pre-school, you mean?"
"Yes, ma-am. Thats the one. Could he come to the phone, do you think? Im sure we wont have to keep him up long. And I think this may be important. I think he could clear up something for Harry, something thats been bothering him a lot. Would that be all right with you?"
"Im sure it would. But not for too long. As you said, Detective, it is getting late. Give me a moment." There was a faint clunk as the phone was laid down. Jarvis smiled across the desk at Harry. He turned his phone slightly so the speaker faced toward the small family sitting on the other side of the desk.
"Remember, you just have to talk and hell hear you fine."
There was a faint sound from the speakers and they heard Mrs. Bufano speaking, as if from a short distance. "Just pick it up and say hello, dear."
There was a shout from the speakers. "Harry! Is it really you? Harry?"
The small boy jerked upright so suddenly he almost tumbled off his mothers lap.
"Yuh-huh! Its me! Is it you? For real?"
"Yeah. An my Mommy an Daddy are here and Tecive Jarvis an everything! Where are you?"
"Im on the phone, silly. An Im with my gramma. Shes here, too. But my granpa is still in my room, waiting to finish the book. Were reading about the monkey one!"
"Uh-huh. My Daddy and I read that one, too. Where he rides a bike an stuff?"
"Yeah! You got a Daddy now? Did your Mommy get married?"
"Nuh-uh. I just got my Daddy now. But hes nice and he stays with us sometimes. But you got a gramma and granpa? For real?" An youre with them? Not " He faltered slightly. "Its not all dark and bad? Youre with them an everything?"
"Oh yeah, you dint know, didju? Harry, you know what? Shes a big liar! Shes a big fat liar!"
Harrys eyes were now huge. "Your Mommys there? Shes not gone?"
"No, Mommys not here." The small voice sounded quieter, and a bit sad. "Shes still gone. But it wasnt my fault and I got to go live with my gramma and granpa and they love me! And I got a Big Wheel, too! An my granpa is showin me how to ride it. Every day! An I miss my Mommy, but I love my gramma and granpa an its nice here. So shes a big fat liar, Harry! An I dont like her an I never did an you dont gotta believe her anymore cause shes a big fat liar!"
Harry looked impressed. "O.k. Joey. I wont believe her no more. So...its really o.k.? And you didnt make her go away?"
"Uh-uh." The small voice coming from the speakers sounded definitive. "That was the bad guys. Not me. An shes a bad guy too. Maybe your Mommy could take her to jail for you. You should ask her. I bet she would."
Harry looked considering for a moment. "That would be nice," he said. "Can you come visit me sometime? You could bring your Big Wheel. An your gramma and granpa, too. We got books here your granpa could read."
"I dunno, Harry. Its a long way aways. But Ill ask my gramma bout it." The womans voice could be heard, softly, though the words werent clear. "Harry? Gramma says I need to go to bed now. Maybe you can come visit me here! Then we could play on my Big Wheel all day long I bet! You wanna?"
"Uh-huh!" The toddler sounded as excited as his friend. "Ill ask my Mommy an Daddy. Gnight, Joey! Im glad you gotta Big Wheel an a gramma an granpa! Bye!"
There was a soft clatter again and suddenly the older womans voice was back. "Detective Jarvis? Are you there?"
"Yes, ma-am. Right here."
"Have you heard anything more, then?"
"No, ma-am. Im sorry. They havent gotten back to me. But remember, I told you it might take a week or more. As soon as I hear something, Ill call you immediately."
"Thank you, Detective. And I hope this helped as well."
"Yes, ma-am. Im sure it helped a great deal. Ill be in touch with you by early next week, one way or the other, ma-am. I promise."
"Thank you, Detective. I know you will. I have to get back to my menfolk now. That monkey book will keep them both up far too late if I dont lay down the law. Ill talk to you again, soon. Good night."
"Good night, ma-am." And Jarvis clicked another button, ending the call. He leaned back in his chair and looked at the toddler, who was smiling happily at him. "So, what do you think, Harry? Was I right? Did someone lie to you?"
"Uh-huh, she did!" The toddler nodded emphatically. "But how did you know?"
"Because I heard about some of the lies she tells from other people. Except I dont know all the lies. Do you think you could tell me about the lies she told you? It might help."
The small, brown head ducked and the tiny fingers began twisting together nervously. "I dunno. It might not be good. She said--" He clamped a tiny hand over his own mouth.
Jarvis nodded as if the child made perfect sense. "She said something bad would happen if you said anything, right?" A tiny nod from across the desk. "You know what it means to get in trouble, right? When you do something bad and Mommy has to scold you? Im sure you dont do very much thats bad, right Harry?" He nodded as if it were a foregone conclusion. "But sometimes you can get in trouble. And youd rather not get yelled at or punished, right? So you wouldnt want anyone telling on you. And I think," he leaned forward and leaned on his elbows, "thats the real reason she doesnt want you to tell anyone about what she said. Not because something bad could happen to you, but just because shed get in big trouble."
Harrys eyes widened again. "Grownups can get in trouble?"
Jarvis nodded solemnly. "Some grownups can get in trouble and they know it. So sometimes they lie about things and they make other people lie, or not tell the truth. Just so they dont get in trouble. But I dont think thats fair, to make somebody lie, or keep secrets they shouldnt. Do you?"
"Uh-uh." But the toddler didnt seem certain. The blue eyes searched the detectives face. "Are you sure nothing bad could happen? To my Mommy, even?"
"I am absolutely sure that nothing bad could ever happen to your Mommy just because of something you said. In fact, I can promise you that. Talking wont make bad things happen." The small face didnt lose its worried frown. "You know what? You should ask your Mommy and Daddy if you can believe me. Cause they will never lie to you. Right?"
The little boy considered this for a moment, then straightened up in his mothers lap and looked straight at his father. "Daddy?" he said, and then waited for an answer. Laura suddenly had to work hard not to giggle. And why it struck her as funny was beyond her, but it did. His father managed to keep a straight face.
"Harry, Ive known Detective Jarvis for a long time now, and I trust him. I dont always agree with him, but I always know that hell tell me the truth, no matter what. So, yes, I trust him completely. I dont think he would ever lie to a little boy. Or anyone else, for that matter."
Harry thought this over and then looked up at Jarvis. "O.k. You not a liar, like she is. Thats a good thing."
"I think thats a good thing, too," Jarvis said. "But would you please tell me what she lied to you about? I know she told Joey some lies and maybe she lied to other people too, but I need to know what lies she told you, cause I think we need to stop her from lying to little kids, dont you? And the best way to stop a lie is to tell the truth. Did you know that?" Harry shook his small head. "Well, it is. So could you tell me what she told you? The stuff Joey and you were talking about? Please?"
The child sighed and looked down at his hands for a moment, then raised his eyes again. They were clear and blue and shining. "She told me that I was bad and nasty and that I couldnt play with any of the other kids on accounta how bad I was. An she said if I talked about it that my Mommy would get taken away forever and I would go to live where its bad and dark and where nobody would love me, ever. And it would be all my fault. An Id never see my Mommy again."
A fat tear rolled down his cheek. "An she told Joey that, too. An then his mommy went away and then he went away an she said it was because he did something bad and the bad guys got his mommy because of him. An I never saw him again and I was scared. Cause I dont want my Mommy to go away. Ever."
Jarvis nodded calmly. "Thats what I heard she was telling some children. And Harry? Its not true. It was all a lie, just like Joey said. Now, lets see if we can clear this up for you, o.k.? And some of it isnt very nice, but its all the truth and I think you need to know the truth, dont you?"
The little boy nodded and leaned back against his mothers shoulder. She wrapped her arms around him tightly, unable to speak.
"Joeys mommy didnt go away, Harry," Jarvis told him. "Joeys mommy died. The bad guys killed her. But that wasnt because of Joey at all. Joeys mommy was a police officer. You know what police officers do, right?"
Harry nodded. "They catch bad guys and put em in jail!"
Jarvis smiled. "Sometimes they do. And sometimes what they have to do is protect people. Police officers work very hard to be sure that people are safe and that nothing bad happens to them. And thats what Joeys mommy was doing. She had to go into a building where some bad people were. And these bad people were trying to hurt some good people who lived there. And Joeys mommy went right in to try and protect the good people. And she did. But the bad people shot her and she died. She was very brave and she saved all those people. She did good. But she still died. It happens sometimes. And its very sad. But we have her picture on the wall so we can remember her and how brave she was. Understand?"
"Uh-huh." The little boy nodded solemnly. "An it wasnt cause of Joey at all?"
"No. Children cant make their parents go away or die. And Joeys mommy would never have wanted to leave Joey. It wasnt her fault, either. It was just because of the bad people. And theyre all in jail now. And theyll never get out again. So Joeys mommy did a very good thing, didnt she?"
"Uh-huh. But my Mommy wont do that, will she?" Harry looked up at his trustingly, expecting an honest answer, and Laura was terrified for a moment.
"No, she wont. Harry, do you go to your Mommys office sometimes?"
"Uh-huh. An its fun and I get to sit at Daddys desk and color an I like it."
"O.k., and you see what its like here, and this is the place where Joeys mommy worked. Is it the same as your Mommys office?"
"Uh-uh. Theres lotses more people here."
"Thats right," Jarvis smiled slightly. "And the people here wear uniforms, dont they" And they have guns on all the time, dont they? Does your Mommy wear a gun, Harry? Or your Daddy? Or your Auntie Mildred?"
"Nuh-uh," the toddler told him. "Mommy has a gun, but she keeps it in the file place and theres no bullets in it, cause that would be danejrus, right?" He looked at his father. "An Daddy dont got one cause he works with kids like me an he dont need one now, right Daddy?"
His father smiled, tight-lipped, and Laura knew he didnt trust himself to speak just then. She wasnt sure she did, either.
"Well," Jarvis said, "your daddy doesnt chase bad guys right now, but he will again someday. And your mommy doesnt need to carry her gun all the time, because she catches bad guys in a different way and without taking as many chances as regular police officers do. She does a different kind of work than Joeys mommy did, so I really dont think shes gonna get killed by any bad guys anytime soon. Honest."
There was a scuffling sound in the hall and, oddly enough, a sharp bark. Jarvis grinned and jumped up. "Harry! I think something neat is happening. Would you like to meet the most interesting police officer I know?" Harry nodded and Jarvis reached for the door handle. "Come here, then!"
Harry jumped down and, with a wary glance at each other, his parents followed him to the door. Outside, several officers were standing together and talking quietly as a large German shepherd on a leash sat quietly beside them , looking around at everything.
"Hey, Allen!" Jarvis called and the officer holding the leash looked around at him. "Could myfriend Harry meet Duke? Hes never met a real police dog before."
The officer smiled and pulled on the leash. The dog stood up and walked beside him as he approached them. "Sure thing. Duke likes to meet new people." He looked down at the toddler. "Are you Harry? Im Sergeant Allen. And this is my friend Duke. Hes a canine police officer, although I still outrank him. And he doesnt bite little kids, so you can pet him if you want to." The little boy stretched out one hand. "Careful, though," the young officer added, "he likes to lick peoples hands."
The dog happily proved his point and Harry giggled with delight, and began petting the large animal enthusiastically. Jarvis nodded at the younger officer and motioned Harrys parents to move a little ways down the hallway from them.
"I wanted to let you know," he told them in a quiet voice, "that Joey Andersons grandmother, Mrs. Bufano, had called me about a week ago. Joey finally told them about what had been happening at his preschool. I had no idea that your son was in the same class, only that one of Joeys friends from school was being abused the same way he had been." He shook his head ruefully.
"Apparently, the main teacher, a Mrs. Rose, decided that any child of an unwed mother was bad and dirty and had to be kept separate from the other decent children in the class," he explained. "So Joey and this friend of his were kept sitting at a table in one area while the rest of the children played or did activities in the larger group area. Then, when the children moved to the tables for art or snacks or lunch, Joey and his friend would be sent to sit on the rug in the large group area. And, at naptime, they would go back to the tables, while the other children went to lay on their cots. I dont think they ever got lunch at all, or their morning snack. But when Mrs. Rose left during naptime, I believe the afternoon teacher let them sit with the others and have afternoon snack and then let them play with the rest of the group. It was only Mrs. Rose who was the problem."
He sighed. "It was monstrous and I dont get how it could have been going on with no one knowing about it. I informed Child Protective Services immediately. Theyre doing an investigation, but I havent heard anything about it in a few days now. If Id known Harry was in that class, I would have told you both immediately. Im sorry about this."
Steele shook his head. "You couldnt have known, Detective." Beside him, Laura nodded.
"We dont blame you at all, Detective Jarvis. Im just grateful to you for doing all this. You have no idea how much it helps. Ive been frantic for so long. At least now I know whats wrong." She laid one hand on his arm. "Thank you so much."
Jarvis smiled at them both. "Im glad I could help even this much. You both looked like the world was ending. It just wasnt right."
"I have the echo what Laura said, Detective," he said simply. "I dont know what we would have done without you. I cant thank you enough." He scuffled his feet for a moment. "And, though it seems a bad time to bring this up, you came over tonight for a reason that was not at all related to our little family drama, didnt you? Was there something we can do for you tonight?"
The tall detective looked abashed. He glanced down at his own shoes for a moment. "Ah, actually, its probably not something you can help with, to be honest. I was just reacting to my Captain putting on more pressure. We found another body. This time only the head was missing. And we found that, too, not far from the body itself."
"Where was this, Detective?" His voice was winter sharp, as were his eyes. To his relief, Jarvis didnt bother dithering over it.
"In the bog over past Crescent Road. The body was dumped in the bog, as was the head. I think whoever did it tossed the head for distance. It took awhile to find it, but it wasnt more than six yards away." The detective gave him a searching look. "I think his pattern is changing. Hes not bothering as much in hiding things. Hes changing. And I dont think that change is a good thing here, do you?"
"No, detective," the voice was flat. "I dont think its a good thing at all. I think things are about to get much worse, in fact. Hes reached a crisis of some kind and thats never good. It means hell make more mistakes, but it also means the violence could get much worse."
"Hes murdering and cutting up women!" Jarvis said, and then ducked his head and lowered his voice. The small group around the police dog didnt seem to notice, thankfully. "How much worse could it get?"
"Trust me, inspector. It could get much, much worse. I think this person needs to be found, and quickly, before it does."
He was home again. Hed decided not to do anything tonight. Hed been right the first time. Tomorrow. Tomorrow in broad daylight it could finally happen. She would not see him coming and finally he could find closure. Rest. He could have his life back. Tomorrow.
He sat quietly on his couch. His mothers voice was silent as well. Finally, she approved of something he was doing. That should have made him feel better, but it annoyed him a bit. She had no right to approve. Her silence was a form of condemnation he didnt need.
But after tomorrow, even her silence wouldnt matter. So he would wait. He settled back against his new couch, not liking the feel of the fabric behind his head. But nothing could bother him now. He had waited so long. Now the waiting was almost over. And that made him happy.
They stood watching their son sleep in his own bed. Laura leaned forward and smoothed the brown hair back from his forehead. His father picked up Joji and tucked the stuffed monkey under the blanket next to his small owner. Finally, he tugged at her arm and together they slipped out of the room.
Once out in the hallway, she turned to him and buried her head in his chest. His arms went around her as the tears began to fall from her eyes. He rubbed circles against her shoulder blades until he felt her relax just a little.
"Its going to be all right," he said, wondering if he truly believe that himself. "Hes never going back there. Never again. Well find someplace better. I promise. Nothing like this will ever happen to that little boy ever again!" His own vehemence shocked him. She pulled back and looked up at him, smiling.
"You mean that," she said wonderingly. "Youd do anything to make that happen, wouldnt you?"
He looked a bit sheepish. "I would," he said simply. "It rather surprises me. Id heard about parental feelings and how strong they were, and how immediate. But I never really believed it, I suppose. Until now. I suppose its something of a biological imperative, but it still takes me by surprise. I just love him." He looked down at her, and added, softly, "And you, too."
Her breath caught in her throat and she pressed against him even harder for a moment. Then, pulling away, she slipped one arm around his waist and led him to the bedroom. "Tomorrows likely to be a long day," she said, closing the door behind them. "We should get some rest."
"Rest is it?" he said, with a smile. Laura smiled back, and took her hairbrush off the nightstand. As he slipped off his tie and shoes, she began making long strokes down her auburn hair. He sat on the bed for a moment, watching her.
"Laura?" She looked up at him. "Do you think you could tell me now?"
She blinked, confused. "Tell you what?"
"Why you cried."
And there it was. Hanging in the air between them. She stood for a moment, chewing her bottom lip. And then, putting the brush back on the nightstand, she sat next to him, looking straight ahead.
"I said I would, didnt I?" She sighed. "I suppose I hoped I wouldnt have to. But youre right. I need to, dont I?" She took a deep breath. "Do you remember telling me that I blamed myself for my father leaving? And my telling you that I knew exactly why he left? Well, thats all tied in to my crying. And its not comfortable to talk about, but I suppose you have the right to know. Everything. You have the right to know everything."
She straightened her shoulders, staring straight ahead. He moved to stroke her back, then stopped himself. This wasnt the right time. She was still for a moment, before she spoke again.
"I was nine the first time. And he was still my hero. He worked in a factory, doing maintenance. He could fix anything, it seemed. He even made some of his own tools. And he let me work with them, too, showed me everything about them. And he watched all the dumb TV shows I liked with me. And let me sit on his lap. When I was little, that used to feel so safe. Later, not so much."
Beside her, he felt his own shoulders stiffen, and hoped she didnt notice.
"It was only the one time, at first. And I didnt connect it with sitting on his lap in front of the TV. But six months later, it happened again. And he said all the things you hear about, how it was just the way fathers show their daughters they love them. And it was our special secret. And all the rest of the crap. And I was nine years old." Her voice was harsh. She seemed to struggle to get it under control. When she spoke again, it was softer.
"After that, it happened more often. And I stopped sitting on his lap. Ever. After awhile, I tried never to be alone with him at all if I could help it. But I never told him to stop. Never told him how uncomfortable I was getting about it. I never told him. And I never told anyone else. Not Mother. Not Francis."
"I avoided him, hoping it would stop. But it didnt. I had my own room, you see. We both did, Frances and I. And it was an older house, and the inside doors didnt have locks. So there was no way to keep him out. There was no way to make him stop." A single tear trickled down her cheek and she wiped it away with an impatient hand.
"He didnt do it constantly. There were sometimes months between but he never stopped. He was still my father. He helped me with homework, and he took Frances and I places, museums, the zoo the circus. There were good times. Almost normal times. But it never really stopped."
Her voice had faded to almost a whisper, and she cleared her throat. "By the time I was in junior high, it was so bad, I just retreated into myself. I stopped talking, ironically enough. I didnt volunteer in class, I didnt join in at sports. I just existed. Even at home. Everyone noticed, eventually. Even he noticed."
She reached for a tissue on the nightstand and blew her nose. "You see, people like him arent just monsters, and they dont hate their children. Whatever made him do it, somewhere inside, my father actually did love me. And thats why he left."
She shook her head. "Toward the end, he just watched me. He was almost as silent as I was by that time. He and my mother fought sometimes. Well, a lot, actually. And hed scold Frances for things, staying out too late, usually. But with me, he didnt even talk. He just sat back and watched me. It was almost creepier than everything else. I couldnt even look at him the last few weeks. But it had been months at that point since hed been in my bedroom. Id hear him outside the door sometimes, but he never came in. I started to think that things would be better. And then he was just gone."
She sighed. "Mother never understood, and Frances didnt, either. But I knew. I knew why hed left. He left because he loved me. He knew he couldnt stop, so he took himself as far from me as he could get. Because he was my father and he loved me. He didnt want to hurt me anymore."
"It was the summer before I started high school," she went on. "Starting high school is always a big thing, and difficult. Adults expect their kids to change a bit when they start high school, at least thats what Mother used to tell me. But I changed way more than I should have. I still dont completely understand why. And I dont understand why I changed again when I started college. Well, thats not true. I understand a little."
"See, the thing about starting a new school is that you get to do things differently. I dont understand what happened to me in high school. Why I did the things I did." Her voice dropped again. "To be honest, Im not sure I want to know why."
"Boys started noticing me in high school. They hadnt in junior high, or else I hadnt wanted them to. But in high school? Oh, they noticed. I was dating before Christmas break of my freshman year. Even Frances hadnt been dating that early. But then, Frances wasnt me. I wasnt even me, I suppose."
She laughed a bit. It was a hollow, joyless sound. "Dating for me was never just innocent fun. But I never lacked for dates. Frances was a junior when the word started to spread. I didnt even know about the nickname til she took me aside one day and told me herself. Little Laura Layback."
She looked down at her hands. "I was a freshman. And I did nothing about it. I did nothing that year, or the next, or the next. By senior year, I think Id gone through every boy in my class, all the classes above me and was working my way through the class behind me. Graduation was almost a relief, though I couldnt have told you why."
"Despite my extracurricular activities, Id kept up with my studies. Hell, I concentrated on homework every night just to avoid my mother. Frances had moved away to college by that time, of course. She was already seeing Donald and I knew they were serious. But my mother was a whole other problem. She blamed herself for my father leaving and I couldnt find a way to tell her the truth. So I just avoided her at every turn."
"I ended up graduating at the head of my class. My teachers loved me. They were the only ones who did, I think. But I didnt care. I was going to Stanford. I was going away. Starting somewhere new. And that meant I could reinvent myself. I wanted that more than anything else. I wanted to leave Little Laura Layback as far behind as I could."
"Its why I wanted to do that so badly that leads into why I cried, you see." She looked at him at last. He could see her eyes glistening with tears, but her cheeks were dry. "This is the part I really hate telling you, but you deserve to know. Please understand, though, Im telling you the truth. About all of it. Especially about now. O.k.?"
He nodded and reached for her hand. She let him take it gently in his own. She didnt pull away. But she drew another breath and looked away again.
"When youre in high school," she said, "sex is a big deal and everyone talks about it. Locker rooms, bathrooms, lunchrooms. Hell, classrooms if the teacher comes in late. Everyone talks about sex. And how great it is. And who does it best. And how wonderful it all feels. Everyone talked about sex in high school. Except me."
"Despite all my experience, I had nothing to talk about, really. Other than the mechanics of it, that is. And nobody wants to talk about that." Her smile was bitter. "Because mechanics was all it was for me. That was all it had ever been. I didnt know what the other girls were talking about. I had no idea what an orgasm was. Or why people even found sex pleasurable. It was just mechanics. Sometimes it hurt and sometimes it didnt. But there was nothing particularly good about it, either."
She sighed. "It was a way to get boys to notice me. And take me out. Id get to see a movie, or eat a burger or go to a party. Things I thought were normal. And if there had to be the mechanics to pay for that, I was fine with it. It didnt matter."
"Until late during my senior year. Then I started caring, for some reason. I wanted to stop paying for movie tickets with mechanics. I wanted to stop watching movie romances and see if I could find one of my own. Like what Frances had. Something real."
She lowered her head and spoke softly. "I wanted to see if I could feel anything at all. Or if it was too late for me."
He wrapped his fingers more tightly around hers and felt her relax against him for a moment. Then she straightened.
"So I headed for Stanford," she said, firmly. "I was going there to study. I was going to be a math major. Because math was less problematic. Numbers didnt have expectations, numbers didnt catch you unawares. Numbers didnt try to control your future with stupid nicknames and locker room talk. Numbers were safe and understandable. So I was a math major."
"And thats how I met Wilson. I was part of this study group my junior year. And Wilson had the study carrel just next to the table my group met at. He seemed to be there every time we met. And then he started checking out right after we broke up for the night. Wed exchange comments on the way out the door and down the walkway and eventually, he asked me to have coffee with him."
She smiled ruefully. "I told myself it was just friendship, it was fine. But Wilson was different. He wasnt a math major, he was an economics major. And he was smart. And he cared about so many things and about so many people. I think thats what attracted me to him."
"We had coffee and then pizza and went to movies and then he took me to a Bruce Springsteen concert. Nobody really knew who Springsteen was back then, but Wilson did. And he took me to see him. And then afterward, we went back to his place."
She sighed. "And things progressed much as youd expect. And Wilson was sweet." She smiled at bit at the memory. "One of the things Id learned during all those years as Little Laura Layback was how to fake it. Otherwise, boys wouldnt stop, thinking they had failed somehow. At least this time, I wasnt faking it to make it end. I just didnt want Wilson to think there was something wrong with him. Because there wasnt."
She looked down again. "There was nothing wrong with Wilson, but for me it was still just mechanics. If Id been honest with myself, Id have stopped seeing him after that night. But somehow, I didnt want to. I told myself it was just because I liked him. But really? I just didnt want to believe there was something so wrong with me. I wanted to keep trying. It wasnt fair to Wilson, though. It was never fair to him."
"I hadnt dated anyone in college before Wilson. He was the only person I dated in college. We were still together when we graduated. And Wilson found me a job in the same accounting firm he was working with. I inherited my grandmothers house and Wilson moved in with me. We were making it work according to our friends."
"Except we werent," she said flatly. "We fought a bit that last year in school. Acapulco over spring break. Wilson was mortified. I thought hed leave me over it. But he didnt. Things were a bit strained for awhile, but he didnt leave. And I felt so guilty about that."
"And then I got the offer to join Havenhurst. One of my professors from college had recommended me. Wilson was shocked when I accepted. Hell, I was a bit shocked, myself." She looked into the distance, at nothing. "But it felt so right to me. Nothing else had. Not since high school, I think. But this? This felt like me. Like the real me. So I took it. And lost Wilson. And, somehow, never really looked back."
"When Id worked at the accounting firm, Wilson and I had kept our relationship under wraps. Wilson said it was because the higher ups, didnt want their associates dating. It seemed like a reasonable rule to me. And a good way to keep Little Laura Layback at bay."
"So I didnt date anyone I worked with," she said. "In fact, I didnt date anyone at all. But nobody noticed. Except Murphy, of course." She smiled. "Murphy noticed everything. Including how shut out I was. Only the men got the good cases. Only the men got the advancements. Only the men got the real on-the-job training. It was Murphy who kept whispering in my ear that I should leave and start my own agency. It was Murphy who was convinced that it could work. And then, two weeks after I quit and opened Laura Holt Investigations, it was Murphy who showed up there to tell me hed quit Havenhurst and did I want a partner?"
"Im not a total idiot," she said, still smiling. "Id figured out why there were no clients by that time. I thought just having Murphy in the office would help." She sighed. "But apparently not. We had to invent Remington Steele." She looked at him. "You." He smiled back at her. "And then Bernice came and clients came and then you came. And you know everything else. Except"
He waited, saying nothing.
"I never dated Murphy, despite knowing that he wanted to. I didnt want to test anything anymore. I didnt want to lie to anyone else or spend my life faking everything. I thought it would be easier." She looked at him. "I was wrong. Because there was you. And there were feelings. When I looked at you. When you touched me, kissed me. But they werent feelings I understood. And I was still scared that they were all it would ever be. That the rest would be mechanics. And I couldnt bear that."
"So I held you off, and never told you. Because it was easier. Better I thought. Until Ireland. When that last brick wall came crashing down. And I found out that there was a lot more than just mechanics. Finally."
She looked up at him. "Do you understand? I almost told you then, but I couldnt. And when we came back to LA and the magic was still there, I couldnt tell you. I was afraid. And then you were gone, and when you came back, I was terrified that the magic might not come back, too. But it did! And thats why I cried. Can you understand?"
For an answer, he wrapped his arms around her and kissed her. It was a long, deep kiss that they neither wanted or needed to interrupt.
The clock told him it was after 1 a.m. He should go to bed. But he didnt want to. It was all so close now. How could he sleep, knowing how close it all was?
He knew she went to work early most days. Shed always been an early riser. But she hadnt been alone last night. The man had been with her. He had seen the telltale sillouette against the curtain next to her front door. Had heard the oddly accented voice speaking calmly, with familiarity. And that made everything all wrong.
The man couldnt be there when he faced her. The man had to leave first. Had to leave her behind. And alone. She had to be alone when they finally met, face to face. With no distractions, no interruptions.
The universe had been blocking him for so long now. But she was finally within reach. The universe couldnt be so cruel. She had to be alone tomorrow. She would be. He knew it.
And he would be there. And it would finally end.