Chapter 01 - "Unexpected"
***April 11, 2023***
Alexandra Eames Goren was awakened by her husband shaking her arm.
"Alex, you need to get up now."
She rubbed her eyes and pushed hair away from her face, then squinted at Robert Goren, still half asleep. He had switched on her night table lamp and was standing over her casting a long uneven shadow on the far wall, his face hollow-eyed, his silvering hair still rumpled from sleep, already dressed in a long-sleeved blue flannel button-down shirt, black denim pants, and his inevitable Dr. Martens, his cell phone in his right hand.
"A car will be here for us in two hours. I've brought up the suitcases, and you need to pack while I call Sharon to make sure she can take care of the house, then I'll take Sam outside."
She was bewildered. She'd been awakened from bed before, chiefly in connection with murder victims, but it was more than two years since she'd retired. "Who's picking us up? Pack? To go where?"
He dodged the question completely. "Alex, please don't. Not now. Let me...um...call Sharon and g-get that out of the way. I told the caller...but she didn't listen"
She fixed eyes with him, almost as if she could suss out what was going on by connecting with his mind, and was surprised at the pained look he gave her to bear with him. She took a breath, then asked, "What caller?"
"The person- Alex, please, Sam and Bandit have to be taken care of."
She sighed in resignation. "All right. How many days do I need to pack for? How long are we staying...wherever we're going?"
"A week...that's what I was told. I'm sure there are laundry facilities" She was losing him already; he was fidgeting, distracted.
"Bobby. I need to know what we need. Slow down for me."
"A week. A little colder...higher latitude. Think Maine. I haven't checked online for temperatures. And we'll both need dress clothing. Suits for me. Dresses for you." He looked strained to the breaking point. "Alex, please"
"You're going to wake Sharon," Alex said, scrambling out of bed. She shivered in her tank top and shorts, but didn't know if it were Bobby's attitude or the damp weather of the past few days.
"Someone has to be here to care for Sam and Bandit."
"I know," she said, surrendering. "All right, go call."
He turned and rolled their suitcases into the bedroom; they were usually stored in the basementhow long had he been awake? "I'll ex-explain," he finished, "once I...call Sharon."
She took another deep breath as he fled into the short, dark hallway, tapping on his phone with shaking fingers. She hadn't seen him this rattled in years and his frayed nerves made her uneasy. Still, she noted, even in nervous motion, he was mindful of Bandit, whose birdcage was still covered up for the night just inside the arched entry into the living room, by operating in the dark.
She stole a look at her Fitbit, which fully awakened herit was just around six a.m., more or less sunrise at this time of year; when she peeked out the window that overlooked the front yard, she could indeed see the brightening sky. She pushed the bedroom door closed and switched on the overhead light, pulling up the spread to protect the bedclothes, then tossing the largest suitcase on the bed. Unzipping and throwing the lid open, she began extracting underwear from the dresser for both of them, counting it, then socks, her bras.
Even though the door was closed, she heard Bobby speaking to Sharon in nervous staccato: "Sorry to wake you, Sharon. We h-have an emergency and need to go out of town. I found out only a half...half hour ago. I'm sorry, I don't like calling you at the last minute like this." A pause. "No, it's not family. But someone's coming to take us to the airport at eight. It's something we...um...have to comply with." 'Comply'? she thoughtthere was an odd word. Another pause. "We'll do the b-best we can before we leaveyou shouldn't have to come until nightfall...I'll take Sam out once I hang up...put food down for him, refill his water dispenser, and we'll leave Bandit watching television with his f-food and water dispensers full. You have the key. Sharon, I'm s-sorry to ask this again"
Alex knew Sharon would be saying it was no trouble, because that's the way Sharon was. The head server at their friend Shard Carver's and his partner TJ Gomes' restaurant and bar, Sharon Kovacs was their house- and pet-sitter of choice, but they usually gave her much earlier notice. Sharon had been friends with Bobby for more than two years and with Alex for about eighteen months; the Gorens still ran the trivia quiz at the Dark Crystal on Saturdays and Tuesdays. It was what had brought them back together in October 2021 after ten years of sharing only e-mails and phone calls following an eleven-year partnership at the NYPD.
Once he'd thanked Sharon for the fifth time, Alex presumed he'd hung up, since he called the collie to him and a flurry of toenail clicks preceded the solid thud of the back door closing smartly behind them. Alex had opened the doorway a crack when he summoned Sam, but he'd avoided glancing backward, and she sighed. Methodically, she continued packing, but as she did, she deliberately laid out two dresses and two dress suits over the footboard of the bed to get his attention, one of his old interrogation tricks. In a short time she heard rattling in the kitchenfilling Sam's food bowland the water running so now the water dispenser would be topped off. Finally Bobby was behind her, kissing her behind the left ear.
She wheeled on him, frustration simmering from the long minutes she'd waited. "Bobby, this is ridiculous. Talk to me."
"Let me make sure we have everything?" and he began to double check what she'd put into the suitcases as they always did when going out of town, mentally dressing himself with the packed items to make certain everything was accounted for. She had already filled one large suitcase and begun on a second, smaller one for toiletries.
"I have everything, Bobby, except what I don't know to pack. Talk to me." Alex was testy now, both from being awakened so early and the feeling of disaster his variable behavior was prompting.
"I'm sorry, Alex," and then he enfolded her in his arms, rocking her back and forth, that simple act conveying his tension. She gave him a tight hug, listening to his erratic breathing, and it was only then that he focused on the clothing she had left out, and his next words radiated fear through her.
"I'll need two darker shirts and a more conservative tie to go with the two suits and you'll need a black dress suitable for a funeral for youwith black shoes and possibly black stockings if you haven't already packed them."
Now she could feel her pulse pound at the back of her head and her breathing ratcheted up to match his. He had specifically said to Sharon "It's not family," but she still asked anxiously, "It's not your Aunt Agnes, is it?"
Bobby regarded her with such a somber face that she could already see, with some relief, that it was the wrong answer. "No," he said softly, "s-she's fine."
Another horrifying thought crossed her mind. "It's not Penelope"
"No. Or Ben or Karin and Jennifer."
So neither his supervisor nor his former FBI partners (or Karin's wife). "Bobby," she sighed, "you're about to give me heart failure. Why are you doling this out one drop at the time?"
He looked at her mutely, pain in his eyes, and she gave a deep sigh, shook her head with pursed lips, then disappeared to the guest bedroom opposite the kitchen where she kept their overflow clothing since the closet in the main bedroom was so tiny, returning in a few minutes with her best black dress and a navy blue one, both of a conservative cut, a pair of black pumps, two shirtsone silver grey, the other dark blue, and a black tie with small silver slashes on it.
"Do these fit your approval?" she asked in exasperation.
He averted his eyes at her remonstration, then rose from the side of the bed where he'd been staring at the door, wordlessly removed the clothing from her arms, then methodically began fitting them in the second large suitcase, placing the pumps and his dress shoes in bags Alex had bought specifically for the purpose. He put her two other dresses in next, then his two suits (black and navy blue), all expertly folded around tissue paper to retard wrinkles, and including his dress socks with her dark pantyhose. It was only when he finished that he faced her and took her hands.
"Thank you," he said sincerely and she felt him tense. "I needed...to get this all straight in my head before I could talk."
"Now, where is it we're going to a funeral?" she repeated, quietly this time.
She blinked. "The...one in France?"
"Yes," he said. "Our presence has been required."
"For wha" and then she froze, mouth parted, her mind clicking on the obvious answer.
"Marcel Pepin and Nicole" (and there was no need to tell her which Nicole; in their personal universe there was only Nicole Wallace, the clever but murderous Australian whom they had desperately tried to convict when they had worked in the Major Case unit) "were headed for Chaminox yesterday," he told her slowly. "His wife Evangeline had never understood his love for sports cars, but Nicole reveled in them. He'd just purchased a little Sunbeamyou know"
"Like the car on Get SmartI do know."
"From all reports he was driving safely, but...another car coming too quickly around a blind curve clipped them. The Sunbeam went down the side of a ravinethe top was downand flipped over."
Alex flinched, closing her eyes, but nothing could block her mental visualization of the crash. "My God, that must have been grim."
"It was. They were kind enough," and here sarcasm sharpened his voice, "to send me the photos of the scene of the accident."
She expelled her breath. No wonder he was so shaken.
He finished tightly, "Pepin was dead when the Alpine police arrived and Nicole died at the hospital. The driver of the other car had only minor injuries." Anger flared in his voice. "A Gunther Thorin. He blew twice the legal limit for alcohol."
She had to ask, "Don't take this the wrong way, Bobby, but...are they sure it was Nicole? She's always had nine lives like a cat."
"Miss Cornetto," he related, referencing his old adversary's bodyguard and watchdog, "as well as Pepin's valet had arrived earlier in Chamonix. Miss Cornetto spoke to Nicole at the hospital before she died. She briefly regained consciousness, then fell into a coma. Cornetto's a professional; I don't think she would make that mistake."
Alex mused, "So Nicole's paid for your brother Frank at last."
He nodded, averting his eyes with the same pained expression he always wore when his deceased brother was mentioned. "And for Ella Miyazaki and little Hannah, among others."
"But Mignon is safe" Alex said, referring to Wallace's nine-year-old daughter with Pepin, who was a prominent French political figure.
"At school, thankfully. Of course, she and her nanny have been taken to the family home since the accident."
"Poor Mignon. She loved her 'maman' and her 'Papa Marcel' so much. But I don't understand our being invited"
"We were summoned, not invited," he countered testily, "by a direct call from the State Department. They did vaguely attempt to say 'please,' but I understood it to be an order, not a request. Why? I have no idea."
"Passports," she said suddenly.
"Kitchen table," he responded. "I brought them up with the suitcases. We'll need an international charging plug, too."
In fifteen minutes they had collected e-readers, laptops, phones, along with their respective chargers, plus two international electrical plugs; the two passports; and small toiletry items. These were distributed into the suitcases or into the carry-on bags, and Alex fretted about the weight, but he shook his head decisively. "It's not our ticket, so don't worry about it. If the State Department wants to roust us from our b-beds at six in the morning, let them pay for overweight baggage. Why don't you get Bandit up...and ready for the day? I'll put together some breakfast. I'm not sure what meal accommodations they've made for the flight."
He moved to the kitchen to make eggs with fresh ground sausage, toast with blackberry jam, applesauce, and good strong coffee while she switched on the living room lamp and carefully uncovered the cage of her little white-and-grey budgie, filling his food and water dispensers, cleaning out his cage, and clipping some millet and fruit inside as treats. Bandit blinked at her sleepily, at the moment a mostly white ball of downy fluff perched on one foot with the other tucked up, until she switched on the televisionthen he perked up, chirped happily, and headed for his food dish. Once breakfast was finished, Alex changed into a blue sweater, dark grey wool pants, and black running shoes, then spent their final fifteen minutes at home talking quietly to the bird about where they were going and why. Bobby, sitting in his Laz-Y-Boy and caressing the big collie, smiled as she spoke of the Eiffel Tower and other landmarks of Paris to the budgie as if he were a small child who understood every word, for Bandit had his wide black-button eyes fastened on her as he listened, rapt.
The suitcases were lined in a row in the center of the living room and their laptop bags were laid on the sofa when, a little after eight, there was a knock on the front door. Alex whispered, "Be good for Sharon, little bug. Sam, you be nice for Sharon," and she caressed the dog's soft tulip ears. "Good dog." Bobby, with wallet in hand, crossed to the door and opened it to find a tall, broad-shouldered Army lieutenant in uniform, his cap tucked under his arm, his face grave. Although he didn't salute, he might have well have in his attitude toward them. "Special Agent Robert O. Goren?"
"Yes," Bobby said, handing him identification as he'd been instructed. The man at the door returned the same.
"Thank you, sir." The lieutenant, in his late twenties but his solemn attitude making him appear older, briefly nodded his head, revealing cropped dark red curls. "I'm Lawrence McConnell, Agent Goren, and I'm here to take you and your wife to the airport." Bobby made a move as if to grab a suitcase, and McConnell admonished, "No, sir, no, please put that down. I have strict orders to look after you completely until your flight departsI'll get your bags. You can carry your own laptops. I'm required to ask for Ms. Eames' ID first, however."
Alex produced ID from her crossbag, and once that was completed, McConnell led the way down the sidewalk with a carry-on bag clipped with a strap to each rolling suitcase on either side of him, followed by Bobby, now clad in his lined black topcoat and his dress fedora. He turned to watch as Alex, bundled in her smart black jacket and a storm-grey wide-brimmed wool hat with a thin yellow grosgrain ribbon around the crown, stopped in the doorway to give a last, wistful look at the comfortable, softly-lit living room and the puzzled tricolor collie lying on his dog bed and the tiny bird peering at her from his upper perch. "Good-bye, kids," she said softly, then lifted her chin, armed the home security system, and finally shut and locked the front door, closing the screen door firmly, her laptop case fast in her left hand.
"You might want to leave Bruno a message that we've gone away, although he knows Sharon's car," she suggested as she joined Bobby on the sidewalk, referring to their elderly next-door neighbor. The sharply angled sun was throwing long shadows across their front lawn, and the morning air was still chill, so she settled more deeply into her jacket.
"I'll call about nine." Bobby smiled, more naturally now. "I wouldn't want him to lose his beauty sleep."