She could see him in the reflection of her computer screen.
And then he was beside her, pushing aside the curtain of hair from her face with two fingers so he could kiss her under her left ear. She smiled.
"We did buy a desk for the spare bedroom" Robert Goren began.
"And I have a desk in the shed," Alexandra Eames Goren continued with an arch of her brow, "and it's a gorgeous spring day outside." Now she looked over her left shoulder at him from where she was sitting cross-legged on the sofa in a V-neck flowered-print blouse and periwinkle-blue capris, barefoot, working on her laptop and enjoying the breeze coming through the top of the screen door. "But I've gotten used to working here and having you kiss my neck when you emerge from your 'lair.' And I can't hear Bandit sing out in the shed."
The white-and-grey budgie relaxing on top of his cage next to Bobby's armchair chirped at the sound of his name, then launched himself to land on Bobby's head, wobbling on his lame foot. But he stepped willingly to Bobby's outstretched hand when proffered and rode it down to their eye level, where he rubbed his beak against Bobby's forefinger.
"Hi!" he intoned in Alex's voice, bobbing his head at her.
"You are a little flirt," she said, and Bobby gently scratched the smug little bird under his beak with his index finger; Bandit happily fluffed his head, then uttered a pleased little tweedle.
Abruptly a large furry form thrust between them, and Sam the oversized tricolor collie snuffled inquiringly at the bird on Bobby's hand, and then at Alex. Her face being nearest, he nosed her cheek and she petted his ruff.
"Just an ordinary day with the Gorens," Alex said reflectively. "You know, my mother would be amazed at how incredibly domestic I've become."
"My mom would still be saying 'it's about time you settled down, Bobby!'" Then his ever-curious eyes automatically flickered down to the screen of her laptop. "Is that a new chapter? 'Acquired Taste'? What's this? I thought you were only doing rewrites"
"Holly asked me to expand some things." She adjusted the screen so he could read it more comfortably; he'd have to know sooner or later. Three paragraphs in he averted his eyes, flushing. "Alex...no. This is"
"I know: 'your book and not mine,'" she repeated mechanically, looking up at him with grave caramel-colored eyes. "I can recite it in my sleep. Holly says this is important; it's the heart of the book. I can't tell my story about being in Major Case without talking more about you. Or after Major Case, for that matter. For better or for worse, we've been intertwined for the past twenty years. That's over one-third of my life, and two thirds of my career."
He sank down on the sofa next to her, prompting Bandit to fly back to his cage, and she added, "I asked Dr. Chaudry about this. She said I had to tell my own truth." When he didn't answer, she reached out and smoothed the silver-and-brown curls at the top of his head, secretly glad he'd let his hair grow out.
He said tentatively, "Even the aftermath of my suspension?"
"Especially that," she answered, although she too would have avoided readdressing that period of their lives if possible. "We could have broken. We didn't. It got us through what came next."
She heard him swallow, then added, "By the way, she'd like to see your book."
"I told you," he said restlessly, "it wasn't a book. It was...getting my resentments on paper."
"She's still interested," Alex replied, the "she" referring to her editor at Hastings House, Holly Lewin, "and says there's a good market for memoirs like yours."
"That's a good thing?" he asked cynically.
"Holly tells me it's reassuring to those still undergoing trauma, or just having escaped it, that things can...turn around." She patted his leg. "Dr. Chaudry told me once that you were one of her success stories. I'm sure she wishes there were more stories like yours."
When she inhaled deeply, there was a shudder to it, and he slid next to her, enveloping her in his arms; they held on to each other, he with his nose buried in her hair, she with her head tucked under his chin, both breathing in the scents of each other.
He murmured in her ear finally, "Have you settled on a title yet?"
"Everything I thought of sounds cheesy," she fretted. "Even Holly can't provide one that satisfies me." She gave a little snort that turned into to a hiccup. "Maybe that could be a contest for trivia nights. 'Choose a name for Princess Ozma's book and get a free meal!'"
He gave a low chuckle just as the cell phone in his pocket buzzed, and he released his hold on her to extract it, tapped the screen, and stared at it with some interest as well as with relief. "Bruno." She looked curious when he mentioned their elderly next-door neighbor. "He says a limousine just pulled up next to our gate. He's better than our security system camera."
"Limo Why would a limo be" Sam jumped out of the way as she pushed the laptop aside and slipped off the sofa to peek out the blinds on the big front window of their small Cape Cod-style house.
Bobby ambled behind her, pivoting to look out the window of the screen door. "Well, son of a bitch."
A black limousine was indeed parked outside the chain-link fence surrounding their yard, and two very broad-shouldered men in suits, one white, one Black, were emerging from the front seats, the former in a chauffeur's uniform.
"Are those...diplomatic flags?" Alex asked, transfixed.
"French flags," he said, and stirred restlessly.
"You don't think" She stared at him, open-mouthed, then collected herself and practically bristled. "Don't tell me that man intends that she" and he knew exactly who Alex referred to with the pronoun, "come into my house" And now she glared at him. "Did you know about this?"
"No, or I might have made arrangements to be away. But I did get word late last night that the State Department and their French counterpart concluded their negotiations and that Marcel Pepin was free to take 'Miss Madeleine Haynes' home so long as he signed documentation swearing that she would never set foot in the United Statesincluding any US territories and possessionsagain. If she does, there will hell to pay and other political bafflegab." He paused. "Nicole won't go to prison, not for Frank or any other charge, but I think within reason she will be under house arrest. Pepin wasn't pleased with Nicole's excursion to the States, and I was told the only reason he made pleas on her behalf was due to Mignon. I wager one of those men is her new handler."
Alex scoffed as they watched a tall, silver-haired man in an expensive business suit step from the limo, the chauffeur holding open the door for him. "Even he has to know Nicole can wrap any man around her little finger."
An unfamiliar woman who appeared to be in her late 40s, solidly built with wide shoulders, exited the limo next. She wore a neutral grey pantsuit and sensible shoes, and something about her bearing, her unobtrusive manner, and sleek, economical hairstyle screamed "Cop!" at both of them, and Bobby said dryly, "I see I was wrong."
Nicole Wallace now emerged from the limo. She looked as if she'd walked out of a 1960s photoshoot, in a light short-sleeved full-skirted spring-green dress with tiny blue flowers worked upon it and comfortable cork-soled woven sandals, a stylish cream-leather purse slung over one shoulder, the blond hair spilling down her back held in place with a white headband, but her face was emotionless as her eyes roamed the grey-and-white house and tidy yard. Then, briefly, her smile blossomed and her face came alive as she helped the final occupant from the vehicle, a lively girl of eight or nine, with her mother's hair and expressive eyes and a sunny smile. In contrast to the last time they had seen her, the child was simply outfitted, with hair pulled back in a ponytail, wearing a short-sleeved, button-down bright pink blouse and brown shorts and pink sandals, looking like any other child in their neighborhood.
Alex would have smiled in welcome for the child if it wasn't for her mother at her side. "Bobby, I don't want that woman in our house."
"If it makes a difference to you," Bobby said softly, noting the change of pronoun, "part of the agreement with Pepin includes the fact that I have a scaled-down debriefing; it will be done in closed quarters with Penelope, Cristina Ruiz, and one adjudicator, and you are allowed to attend."
Alex looked up at him and sighed. She knew he had been dreading the debriefing and having to admit he had been drugged into a sexual relationship ten years earlier in a hotel in Washington, DC. But her face was still stormy, and he finished quietly, "Barring that, would you do it for diplomacy's sake?"
She watched the chauffeur nod his head and reach into the back seat, emerging with a wine bottle padded with straw. "After the bullshit that's been happening in DC for the past few years, I suppose if nothing else I could properly represent my country."
Abruptly she turned from the window. "Inside, Bandit," she called, directing the budgie back into his cage. Then she quickly saved her work and closed her laptop, setting it on the end table; at the same time Bobby quickly shifted the records' box she'd had at her feet to the stairway at the rear of the room. Alex consoled herself that at least everything was presentable, including the front yard, which had been very bare when she had first seen it last Octobershe'd advertised online in mid-April and hired a mother/son team to replant the little fir that had been their Christmas tree next to the front stoop under the bedroom window, and place under the big picture window of the living room ruby red and pink rose bushes. The pair had lined the flower beds with curved bricks and the effect was neat and pleasant.
"What's happening?" she asked Bobby, who'd returned to the front door. "Do I have time to put on some makeup?"
He looked at her quizzically. "What for? You look beautiful." And when she put her hands on her hips, exasperated, he smiled. "They're talking. Go ahead."
When she reappeared a few minutes later, her face was washed and she'd applied scant mascara and a tinge of blush and lipstick, and pulled on sandals. He tilted his head at her. "You still look beautiful," he told her frankly, and she smiled and shook her head, then marched to the door. Marcel Pepin's party was now coming up the front walk; she could already hear Mignon chattering happily.
Alex inhaled, lifted her chin, exhaled. "Let's do this," she said resolutely, pushing open the screen door, and he followed her out on the front stoop.
"Bonjour, Mr. and Mrs. Goren," Marcel Pepin said, as he approached, unhurried, unruffled, the attitude that had made and had kept him a diplomat and French government official for many years. The little girl had broken from Nicole's side and walked beside "Papa Marcel," as she called him, and Bobby smiled at both of them. "Good morning, Monsieur Pepin, good morning, Mignon...good morning, Madeleine," addressing Nicole Wallace by her nom de guerre. He squatted down to face the child at her level. "I remember your saying you had a little dog, but do you like big dogs?"
Mignon's face lit up and Alex could see her mother reflected in big eyes and bright smile, "Nicole unspoiled by abuse," Bobby had called Mignon. "I love all dogs, Monsieur Goren."
Straightening, Bobby reached behind him and opened the screen door and Sam came gamboling out, pausing in front of the girl at his "Sam, halt!" command. Alex continued smartly, "Sam, sitgreet!" and the collie dropped to his haunches and offered Mignon his right paw. She squealed, "He's beautiful!" and shook the big paw, then gave the collie a hug.
Bobby assured Pepin, "No need to worry about her. Sam's trained as a therapy dog. We visit the Veteran's Administration Hospital on Thursday afternoons."
Pepin considered the earnest eyes gazing at him from Sam's side. "You may play with the dog if you wish."
She said ingenuously, "Mayn't I see the little cottage first? It's so quaint."
Nicole cleared her throat, then pointed out softly, "Mignon, that wasn't polite."
The girl looked at Bobby and Alex with wide eyes. "I didn't mean to be impolite. It's a lovely house, but I've never seen one so small."
Pepin started to reprove her, but Alex only smiled, extending her hand, and to her surprise Nicole looked grateful that the child was accepted. "I know you weren't being rude, Mignon. Come inside and meet someone else special."
Mignon danced through the door, then Nicole followed, flashing only a sideways glance at Bobby and then at Alex, and finally Pepin. Bobby beckoned to the other three, waiting in a knot a few feet away. "Please come in, all of you." There was whispered consultation and the dark-haired woman entered, with the two men remaining outside, keeping watch.
Mignon had already discovered Bandit, who was hanging from the bars of his big cage staring at them with bright black shoebutton eyes. Despite his lame right leg, he was an extroverted little creature, and the sight of a half-dozen additional humans just made him hyper. "Maman, look! La perruche ondulée...how do you say it?"
"Budge-ri-gar, dearest," Nicole said fondly. "They fly wild where I come from, but in Australia they're green and yellow instead of white and grey."
She did not approach the birdcage, but remained at the center of the room regarding the wall over the sofa, where smaller framed photographs encircled a larger one taken at their wedding, with both laughing at something to their right. Alex sidestepped beside her; her proximity made Nicole shift uneasily. "The formal wedding portrait's in our bedroom," she said coolly, "but we chose that for out here because we both liked it so much. Mike Logan was making his best man's speechteasing Bobby about his penchant for odd books. The other photos are family and friends: my sister and her husbandand my nephew Eddie, my brother and sister-in-law and their daughters, Bobby's mom and dad, his brother Frank" and here she glared from the corner of her eye, pleased when Nicole averted her face, "my mother and father, our friend Mike Logan, Bobby's buddy Lewis, and Russ Jenkins and the kids Bobby and I mentor at Big Brothers. The panorama shot at the very bottom is the crowd at the Dark Crystal where we do trivia on Saturdays and Tuesdays."
"Don't you have a rather unfair advantage?" Nicole asked thinly. "Bobby's team will win every week."
"You don't know? I thought you kept up with all Bobby's moves," Alex countered in needling tones. "We don't play, we run the game. Bobby creates the questionsand does assorted magic tricksand I read them."
Marcel Pepin, standing next to Bobby, the two of them directly behind the two women, gave him a questioning look, and Nicole, for the first time facing Alex directly, said, skeptical. "I heard a rumor to that effect, but discounted it as nonsense. Bobby? Operating a pub quiz?"
"An award-winning one," Alex said smugly. "He's The Wizard." Then she smiled at the chauffeur and the male bodyguard through the screen. "You look thirsty out there, gentlemen. Please come into the kitchen with us and have some lemonade. Mignon, you'd like some lemonade?"
Mignon had focused her attention on Bandit as the adults conversed, but now she piped up, "Yes, please," and it was chiefly to her that Bobby directed the pocket tour of the small house as they passed from living room into the hall. Alex suppressed a chuckle when he mentioned there were books upstairs, because the child showed signs of reversing direction to the stairway, only to have Nicole catch her arm and remonstrate her.
Seven adults and a small child were close quarters in the tiny kitchen, but Alex retrieved paper cups from the closet and calmly poured a portion of lemonade on ice for each person, Bobby handing them out, and then reopened the back door so that a cool breeze flooded in from the porch. In late April they had screened in the area, which now contained a glass-topped table and six metal chairs, and tomatoes growing on the vine in two large pots, one in each corner.
Pepin inclined a chin toward the glass-topped table as he addressed his three employees. "Etienne, Miss Cornetto, Mr. Croft, please take a seat on le porche and enjoy your drinks," and silently the trio nodded and vacated the area, the chauffeur handing off the straw-encased bottle to Pepin before exiting. Then Bobby noticed Mignon standing quietly between the refrigerator and the counter, watching them all as she sipped lemonade.
"Mignon," he requested, "could I ask you a favor?"
She collected herself, gulped the remainder of the lemonade. He held out his hand and retrieved the cup from her. "Yes, Monsieur Goren?"
"Sam hasn't had a good run all day," he said, lowering his voice as if he were confiding in her. "Could you do us a favor and take him out back to play? His favorite ball is in the toy box next to the porch door."
She straightened with brown eyes alight, relieved of the boredom of having to sit still and listen to the adults chatter. "Oh, yes! Thank you! Come along, Sam!" And she danced out the back door as Bobby whistled for the dog; she grabbed the ball just as Sam joined her on the porch, and the two bounced out the screened porch door.
"Very..." Pepin said with a smile. "Diplomatic?"
"'Slick' is what I call it," Alex said with a grin, and then opened one leaf of the seemingly-small gateleg kitchen table. Now there was room for four, and Bobby disappeared into the spare room only to return with two full-size folding chairs which matched the two already there. "Bobby's a Pied Piper with kids. He's volunteered at Big Brothers, Big Sisters for about two years now. Please sit. Would either of you like more lemonade?"
Nicole demurred, arranging her skirt around her and retreating back into her shell, but Pepin accepted the offer, then, with a little bow, presented the wine bottle to Bobby. "A tardy congratulation on your marriage, Mr. and Mrs. Goren. Please accept this from my personal collection."
Bobby gingerly took the bottle from him. "Chateau Montrose 1965. Monsieur, this is...v-very kind of you."
Pepin nodded. "An excellent vintage and I believe that it is Mrs. Goren's birth year. I hope you will use it to drink her health on son anniversaire."
Alex said sincerely, "Thank you, Monsieur Pepin. We will enjoy it."
Pepin bobbed his head in acknowledgment, then asked, "The boys you work with...are these troubled children?"
"Economically deprived, chiefly," Bobby related, pouring himself more lemonade. "Most are parentless, due either to drugs or death. The most trouble we have is high spirits. Children have energy. They need to work it off, and many schools don't provide for recess any longer. Then they act out at school and get labeled as 'problem' kids."
"And do you also attend, Madame Goren?" Pepin asked Alex.
"I wouldn't miss it. The first time I went along, one of the boys had his little sister with him, since their grandmothertheir guardianhad a doctor's appointment. I suppose you could say we...bonded, and now Carlos and Ana occasionally stay with us when their grandmother has doctors' appointments. We cared for them over a long weekend in December, too." She looked wistful. "That was fun, except for the kids being worried about their abuela. But once Ana started showing up weekly at Big Brothers, some other boys felt comfortable enough to bring sisters or cousins. We have nearly as many girls as boys now. Sometimes we shoot hoops with the boys, sometimes we have 'girl talk.' It's...fun," and here she smiled mischievously, "even if I don't really have the height for basketball."
She caught Bobby's eye and they shared a few seconds of discussion just using their eyes, and then he swallowed the last of his lemonade, asking lightly, "I didn't expect this caliber of visit today, Monsieur Pepin. To what do we owe the honor?"
Nicole visibly paled and she sat up stiffly, eyes darting from cupboards to appliances to the freshly painted walls of the cheerful, restored kitchen, finally fixing on the framed photo Alex had recently hung over the table: Sam in his therapy dog vest sitting in front of the living room bookcase, with Bandit perched cheekily on his head, posing for the camera. Bobby was regarding her with dark, patient eyes as Pepin said formally, "I have brought Madeleine here to make an apology to you. Her behavior"
"It isn't necessary," Bobby said bluntly after a quick glance at Alex, who bit back a smile. Why did I know?
Pepin also straightened in his chair with a faint expression of disapproval. He was in his early seventies, slim, nearly as tall as Bobby, the silver threading his hair and collecting in solid mass on his sideburns and a recently-acquired moustache, dignity in every movement of his carefully schooled face. "This was one of the conditions I insisted on for her return home."
"Madeleine and I," Bobby stated firmly, "resolved everything in Washington, DC. That was part of my personal conditions in allowing her to escort Mignon and Luisa Carvallo to the airport."
Pepin eyed Nicole curiously. "You did not mention this."
Nicole responded evenly, meeting his eyes for a brief moment only. "I was...embarrassed."
Suddenly the door of the porch thumped and Mignon, excited, appeared in the doorway. "Maman, come see! There's a Wendy house in the garden!"
Alex asked, curious, "A what?"
"What British children call a playhouse," Bobby answered, then stood up and stretched, smiling briefly at Nicole and Pepin. "It started out life as a shed. Alex and I use it as an office now."
To his surprise, Alex stood up, pushing her chair back. "Why don't you two gentlemen sit and chat, and I'll lead the tour of the shed?"
"Miss Cornetto will accompany you," Pepin said crisply with a flick of his eyenot a request, but a commandand the brunette woman on the porch rose obediently, stepping away from the table to wait for them.
Alex's eyes flicked to Bobby, amusement dancing in them. "You might offer Monsieur Pepin something a little stronger than lemonade."
"May I borrow the bottle of bourbon your brother sent?" he asked with tilted head.
"Knock yourself out." She motioned to Nicole. "Let's go show Mignon the shed."
Miss Cornetto unobtrusively fell into step behind them as they left the porch. Mignon took Nicole's hand, peering at Alex curiously. "I've had a jolly game with Sam!" Indeed, the dog was now loping in a slow circle around them, panting happily.
"He looks like he enjoyed it," Alex said, then murmured to Nicole beside her, "You have a sheepdog?"
"To protect you from me, the wolf," Nicole responded with disdain.
"You did ask for it. But please don't tell me she strip searches you," Alex returned quietly.
"No, but uncomfortably close." A pause. "So Bobby likes bourbon?"
"He's more of a Guinness guy. The bourbon's mine."
They paused under the shade of the big sugar maple tree and Nicole loosed Mignon's hand. "Go on, pet," she said, making a shooing motion with her hand, "go on ahead!" and only after the girl scampered off with Sam in tow did she ask bluntly, "Why are you even doing this? I know you despise me."
Alex looked ahead where Mignon was playing tag with the collie, saying coolly. "Because Bobby has an uncanny way of making you look at things differently. I look at your daughter and see another little girl whose father did unspeakable things to her instead of his being one of the two persons she could trust most in the world. And I thank my lucky stars for parents who loved me."
Taken aback by the response, Nicole instead directed her attention to a trellis which had been erected some steps from the tree. It was draped in thick green leaves climbing both sides and almost filling the top, shading the bench that it arched over.
"From another century," she commented, pointing it out. "for the 'mistress of the house' to enjoy a summer breeze. What's the vine?"
"Lilacs. Bobby planted them for me. They won't bloom this year due to the shock of transplanting. Next yearI hope."
"Your favorite flower," Nicole observed; when Alex glanced at her, she added, "I recognize the scent you're wearing. Aerin Lilac?"
"From Sephora, yes."
"And the bracelet you keep touching?"
Damn her, Alex thought. She doesn't miss a thing, does she? She'd scarcely removed the silver bracelet with its custom R♡A-engraved clasp since he'd given it to her. "It was a New Year's Eve gift. Bobby said it was a late Christmas gift, but I've never believed it."
They were now in front of the 10x10 shed, which matched the house in color. Two screened-in windows flanked a narrow screened door, and from outside the two desks that served as workspaces were visible.
"Painters and an electrician did the basics," Alex said, offhand. "Bobby fixed it up in March."
"I can tell which is Bobby's desk from here," answered Nicole. Indeed the desk on the right, as they faced the shed, was stacked with books and papers.
"He does leave his mark on things."
Mignon climbed up the few steps of the structure, then asked pleadingly, "Please may I go in, Madame Goren?"
"You may," said Alex, and in a flash the child was inside, with Nicole calling after her, "Be carefuldon't break anything!" She considered Alex for a minute, then commented, "You're very kind to her."
"I like her," Alex remarked honestly. "She's a wonderful little girl. I could only wish for a daughter like that." And when Nicole pivoted to look at her, she added in a lower voice, hoping that Miss Cornetto couldn't hear. "Bobby said you're pretty much under house arrest?"
Nicole looked at her with narrowed eyes, and then answered, flip, "Not what you hoped, I knowme in a cage like an animal, pissing in front of the world. It is rather a gilded cage I've drawn, but it's still a cage. At least I'm with my daughter when she's not at school. I suppose once she leaves for university, as you Yanks put it, 'all bets are off.'"
Alex looked over her shoulder at Miss Cornetto, a discreet distance away, who had hooded eyes fixed on Nicole. "You never really answered Bobby's question. Why'd you come back? You were...footloose and fancy free, all over Europe. Mignon mentioned July at the seashore, skiing in the mountains, a beautiful home, Marcel's company when he could tear himself away from his real family...and you risked it all for a gamble that might not work? Why?"
Nicole bit her lower lip, eyes on the wooden steps ahead of her. "Because, as much as it pains me to admit it, you were partially right. Marcel is showing signs of...potential straying. When we attend functions, I find him chatting with lush young things. And I hear...reports. He hasn't sent me home alone...yet, but I foresee the day it happens. But last spring I...acquired a sympathetic contact who told me Bobby was alone. And...the last thing I heard about him was that he wasn't doing well. Mignon had gone away to school, so I just took the chance, packed a bag and hopped on an airplane. It was a lark at that point, to travel about unrecognized. But by the time I arrived, I discovered you were back in the picture."
"Which explains the wedding card, directed only at Bobby. You realize that only made him suspicious."
"That I'd end up like his brother. While Bobby and I were questioning you at the hotel, the FBI was combing through our luggage. He was afraid you'd sabotaged it in some way."
To her annoyance, Nicole looked pleased. "So I did manage to unsettle him?"
"You don't need to sound so pleased about it." Alex retorted, adding in a goading voice, "You had quite a tour of the country this winter and spring. Spotted in November at various places in New England, identified, but too slowly in New York City in December; hopscotching various locations in the Los Angeles area in Januaryexcept for five days when you completely fell off the radarside trip to Mexico, maybe?then you left little trails in Las Vegas, Dallas, Chicago...Mignon's postcard collection must be the envy of her schoolmates."
"And you know this...how?" Nicole said with insolence.
"Bobby followed you between his other cases since October. It was a...game for him. You played wellyou were always one step, or two, ahead of the FBI. Then you vanished in March."
"Ah, well, that was a little 'side-trip,' as you phrase it, to Quebec," Nicole said pertly. She was watching Mignon now seated at what was Alex's desk, busily doing something with a pencil.
"Then somehow you magically appeared for the final week and just happened to be in Washington, DC, the same week we were?"
"Intelligence from my contact."
"Who was...male or female?"
"My initial contact was a woman, via another of Marcel's diplomatic friends. Later, very rarely, I spoke with a man." Nicole gave Alex a sly sideways glance. "Once a cop, always a cop, I see. You're still interrogating me."
Alex parried, "My father would have said 'What's bred in the bone will come out in the flesh.' My dad was a cop, and his father was, too. And I was trying to determine if someone took advantage of your prejudices."
Nicole bristled. "You're implying someone...took advantage of me? Is this your theoryor Bobby's?"
"Hadn't discussed it with him. I think it was more than coincidental that someone tipped you off that we were in DC that week. Who was it who called you last year to tell you Bobby was in bad shape, the woman or man, and exactly when did they call?"
Nicole looked at her scornfully, then flashed a glance at Miss Cornetto, who watched her with a bored expression that Alex recognized as sham. "It was the woman, and it was some time in mid-Octoberdo you expect me to remember seven months ago?"
She had done the same thing in DC. "But, Nicole, I thought you were like Bobby and remembered everything."
Nicole responded acidly, "So perhaps I do remember: it was the Sunday of that holiday weekend you Americans refuse to acknowledge any longer due to the imperialistic nature of the explorer."
Alex brushed off her sarcasm. "Columbus Day, then. Sunday the tenth. Tell me about her voice...what she sounded like."
"That I will never forget, although I mustn't quibble based on the useful intelligence she provided," scoffed Nicole. "She had one of those 'lah-de-dah' snooty-rich American voiceswait, do you know the film Auntie Mame?"
Alex nodded. "A favorite of my mother's, in fact."
"Remember the girl the nephew wanted to marry, the little cow who spoke as if she had lockjaw?"
"You mean Gloria, the 'Aryan from Darien'?"
"Yes." Nicole made a sour face. "I'm not certain what horrified me more, her sheep's brain or that irritating voice. But my contact spoke similarly, perhaps with a little less nasal quality."
Nicole's "dreadful girl" paired with "irritating voice" left a flickering suspicion in Alex's subconscious. "And the man's voice?"
Nicole crossed her arms, regarding her with lifted chin. "Look, shouldn't we just trot back to One Police Plaza and rent out an interrogation room?"
"Patience," Alex responded airily. "Almost finished. When he called, did the man you spoke with have what's known as a Southern drawl? Not the overdone type in American films. Those are as fake as hell."
Now Nicole looked puzzled. "The man never telephoned me, so I only heard from him if I contacted her. But, yes, Detective Eames, he could have been one of Dolly Parton's neighbors."
Bingo! But she merely gave a crooked smile. "You were had, Nicole." She paused. "And so were we."
Nicole gave her a sour look. "A rather unsatisfactory interrogation. Bobby always used to let me ask questions."
"I remember. Tit for tat. You get one question."
"Whatever do you two talk about? Because I never did think you had anything in common."
Alex simply laughed. "What do all married couples talk about? "What shall we have for dinner?' 'What do we need at the grocery store?' 'We need to stop for gas.' 'Have you fed the dog?'" And then she gave Nicole a suggestive grin. "And some very satisfying pillow talk."
"Maman!" called Mignon. "Come see what I've drawn!"
"Yes, sweetheart," Nicole responded, with a glare at Alex, and crossed to the shed, Miss Cornetto close on her heels, followed by Alex. Mignon was still sitting in Alex's office chair, swinging her legs as she set down her pencil, when they entered the structure, so she sank into Bobby's. Her eyes surveyed the chaos on his desknot his work, which was locked up nightly in the safe, but some booksThe Hunt for History at the very top, reminding her of the conundrum they'd been drawn into on New Year's Evevarious piles of potential trivia questions, stacks of "BBC History" and "Smithsonian" magazines, Post-It notes and flags peeking from the pages and stuck on the desk.
"That's quite good, darling," Nicole praised, holding up Mignon's drawing for Alex to see.
She recognized the subject instantly. "That is a nice picture of Sam. Your art teacher must be pleased with you."
"He is!" Mignon said eagerly. Having finished the picture, she was out of the chair, planting herself before Alex. "Please, Madame Goren, what's December 10?"
Alex looked puzzled. "December 10?"
"On the bench," Mignon explained, pointing behind her to the built-in that ran the length of the rear of the shed. Alex bit her lip. As his final act of the shed remodel, Bobby had repainted the bench and written a date on it with a black paint pen, such a blatantly romantic gesture that it made her misty-eyed each time she saw it. Instead she smiled at the little girl. "In the United States we put the month first and then the date."
Mignon recalculated. "Oh. ThenOctober 12? 2021. Last year."
"I remember your saying that you like romantic stories," Alex recalled, standing up, then resting her hand on Mignon's shoulder and pointing. "Mr. Goren painted that. It's where he kissed me for the first time."
"Ooooh, that is romantic," Mignon said with a sweet smile. "What happened? Is there a story?"
Alex saw Nicole straighten and her eyes flicker as if she were interested as well, and explained, "We'd just seen one another in person again after ten years. He gave me a tour of the house, then we walked here...and were just chatting...about things...and finally I thought it was time for me to leave for home, but he kissed me instead. And that's when I realized that he and 'the little cottage' were home."
Just then they could hear male voices outside, followed by Pepin calling, "Madeleine?"
"Papa Marcel!" Mignon said, brightening, and vanished out the door.
"Well, well, well," Nicole murmured, and at first Alex thought she was being sarcastic, but she continued mildly, "Whatever happened to Alexandra Eames, the Ice Queen?" When she looked startled, Nicole added, "That's how I always saw you, you know, the Ice Queen, passing judgment with your pretty little nose stuck in the air, utterly disdainful of we mortals, and wondered how Bobby managed to tolerate you."
"I was doing my job, not running a friendship service. Did I hurt your feelings by not serving you tea and scones? You never knew me," Alex retorted, stung.
Nicole smiled, a genuine smile, with a small shake of her head. "Oh, I understand public personasafter all, I've had enough of them. Butyou have changed." She paused. "Once Bobby said I had a fortress for a heart, which in retrospect I found humorous, since that's what I thought of you. Was it Bobby who brought down your battlements?"
I don't have to answer you, Alex thought resentfully, but Nicole seemed more inquisitive rather than insolent, and she remembered her statement a half hour earlier: my mother would be amazed at how incredibly domestic I've become. Tentatively, she answered, "I suppose as we worked together Bobby broke down some of the barriers I put up after my husband died." Memories fresh from her manuscript reminded her of her initial resistance to his unorthodox interrogations, followed by grudging acceptance; how quickly that turned to comfortable routine which seemed too soon lost, and she chewed her lip for a few seconds. What had she said to Olivia Benson two months ago? "What is it about me that I can't own up to how I feel?"
She looked Nicole directly in the eye. "As for what happened to me...I lost my best friend, then achieved my life's desireand realized it no longer satisfied me. Then within six months, I lost my faith, I lost my home, I lost the pet my best friend had given me. I rebuilt those 'battlements' like the moving boxes I had stacked in my apartment hallway." Then she smiled. "But when I found my best friend again they came tumbling down."
"Madeleine," Pepin said reprovingly, and for the first time the two of them noticed Miss Cornetto had shifted her position in front of the door to let Pepin and Bobby through, with Mignon between them. "It is time we were leaving."
"I told Papa Marcel about the bench!" the child announced, grabbing her father's hand and pulling him to the back of the shed. "See! That's when Madame knew she was home."
Bobby tilted his head with a smile.
"Why don't we tell your Papa the rest of that story on the airplane, my love?" Nicole said briskly, taking Mignon's hand. "I believe that right now we're required at the airport."
"Oh...and I've had such a jolly time!" Mignon mourned. "Maybe" And she looked earnestly at Pepin. "Perhaps we could spend a few days at Nice before going home?"
Pepin regarded her indulgently. "We will weigh our options once we arrive at Orly."
"Is that a 'yes' or a 'no'?" asked the little girl solemnly.
"It is a 'perhaps,'" he returned, face stern.
She sighed. "I suppose that'll have to do," but her voice was still upbeat, as if she knew she could sway Pepin. Nicole emitted a tiny cough. "Oh!" And she whirled to curtsey at Alex and Bobby. "Thank you for allowing me to play with Sam and see your cottage and draw in your Wendy house and see the bench! I'll have to tell Renata at school about the bench. She loves romantic stories!"
"You're very welcome," Bobby said soberly, bowing in return, and Alex mirrored the curtsey and the girl's smile.
"Don't forget your drawing of Sam," she added.
"You may keep it," declared Mignon, like a small princess, "as a souvenir of my visit."
Bobby examined the drawing. "It's excellent, Mignon. Thank you."
A dour Miss Cornetto held open the screened door of the shed to permit Pepin, then Nicole, and finally Mignon to descend the steps. Bobby caught the door from her and let Alex go before him, then locked up and set the alarm.
"So, what type of...'girl talk' did you ladies indulge in?" Pepin asked conversationally as they strolled the sidewalk to the street.
"Oh, you know. Just...girl talk," Alex said quickly. "My perfume. The lilac arbor. And we talked about Mignon. Her drawing skills are exceptional for her age. When I was eight I still drew stick figures."
"She is very intelligent and talented," Pepin said, giving one simple caress to the little girl's head. "I intend that she have the best education and hope that she will choose a good career."
"I wish to be just like Maman," said Mignon artlessly, and Nicole gave a startled, small laugh. "Oh, dearest girl, you will do much better than your mummy. I know it."
Her expression was troubled once more, and Alex had to balance her frustration at Nicole getting off "scot free" again and her equal irritation at Pepin's automatic paternalistic acceptance of himself as determiner of everyone's fates. Nicole trapped herself, she argued silently, and she's a murderer and deserves worse than what she has. Frank Goren and Ella Miyazaki are dead, among others, and she'll have gourmet food, a maid, her child, and a swanky flat. But at the same time: Bird with clipped wings in a gilded cage.
This was the way Bobby saw everything, from every side, she knew. No wonder some cases left him emotionally shattered.
Miss Cornetto escorted Nicole and Mignon to the opposite side of the limousine, while Etienne returned to the driver's seat. Mr. Croft stood at ease with watchful eyes beside Pepin as he offered his hand to Bobby. "We thank you for your hospitality. It was good to speak with you, Mr. Goren." Then he took Alex's proffered hand and gave it a light kiss, as she had seen in movies. "Thank you, Mrs. Goren, for being so kind to Madeleine and to Mignon."
"It was our pleasure to have you and your family as our guests," Bobby said quietly.
"Have a safe trip." Alex decided that a noncommittal platitude was all she could manage. "We enjoyed your visit."
The truth was that she had, if at least to see Mignon again. The little girl waved cheerfully, then ducked inside the limousine, and Alex was surprised to find Nicole's eyes fixed on her instead of Bobby. "Thank your lucky stars," she said lightly over the sound of the birds chirping in the trees around them, and it seemed to Alex that she gazed at the tiny property in envy.
Alex parried, "You have your luck next to you," and Nicole considered, then smiled in understanding before entering the limousine with the imposing Miss Cornetto at her heels.
Pepin nodded. "Au revoir." And then he too disappeared into the vehicle as well, followed by Croft. The engine purred to life and in another minute had pulled away, passed Bruno Volpe's house, and then turned left on Main Street.
"I had no idea I was so good at breaching walls," Bobby told Alex softly, and she looked startled, then realized he had heard her entire final speech to Nicole. He put his arm around her and said in a hushed voice, "Whatever you do, don't drop the wine bottle. It's worth at least a month's rent in the city."
"You can't be serious!" and when he nodded in the affirmative, she expelled a breath. "So what did you and 'dear Marcel' talk about?"
He was silent a moment, then said thoughtfully, "Alex, I almost imagine...that if it wasn't for Evangeline Pepin, they would be married. But Pepin knows better than to challenge the Duplantier family. Even with his age and experience, a divorce would bring his career down in flames."
"Funny," she answered, "I had that same feeling, as if in some twisted way she really does love him, despite all her baggage. Doesn't he realize, though, what she's done?"
He sighed. "Nicole's still very much his blind spot. He knows about the abuse in her past, and what she was capable of paired with Bernard Fremont, but excuses it because he said she was young, and traumatized, and was led into it, and paid her debt in the Thai prison. The child she murdered...the others...Ella...Frank...logically I'm certain he knows the truth, but his own feelings make him push facts aside." He regarded her gravely. "If someone brought me evidence...that you killed someone deliberately...maybe I wouldn't believe it, either."
"I would hope you would believe the truth." She paused. "Nicole and I"
"Knowing you, it wasn't 'just girl talk.' Did she tell you she was the one who called Cavanaugh?"
"In so many words. But there's something fishy about that." Then she confessed, "Bobby, a couple of weeks after I was moved in, I was talking with Shard. I asked him...how you reacted the Saturday night...I walked out. I know I should have asked you instead, but"
Bobby looked down at his running shoes. "I...uh...did not go well into that good night," he misquoted absently.
"I remembered what Nicole said in DC and asked her about the person who told her you were 'doing badly.' She said it was a 'kind' contact that she'd encouraged, a woman, who told her you were 'doing badly' the day after...after I set you off."
He looked at her mutely, head tilted. "Don't you see," Alex added. "This woman was at the Dark Crystal that night."
"She heard me flub my fifteen minute check. She saw the way I acted for the rest of the night," he said slowly.
"Someone," Alex finished, "whom Nicole said sounded like 'an Aryan from Darien.' Sound familiar?"
Disbelief crossed his face. "Maureen...Leighton? I thought she was just"
"A high-maintenance pest who hoped to seduce you?"
He was still trying to process it, counting things off on his fingers. "She never did come back after October 12after almost six months of perfect attendance. Early March. She came alone at first, then joined the Smitten Kittens"
"They proceeded her?"
"By a week or two. But why?"
"In league with Cavanaugh? Nicole said she talked to Cavanaugh only via her contact." She made a face. "I still remember the stupid joke I made in DC about matchmaking them together."
"But then Harry decided surveillance was unnecessary once you showed up? Remember, he knew nothing about you, only your name, that we'd worked together. Unless...Nicole fed him information on you?"
Alex said grimly. "I don't understand, either."
They stood a few minutes enjoying the breeze and still gazing in the direction where the limousine had vanished, then he took her arm, steering her back toward the house. "You surprised me when you volunteered to show her around."
"I saw the way she looked around," Alex explained wryly. "Nicole, of all people, with her Paris apartment, skiing in Chamonix, and July in Nice! Don't think I was being...diplomatic. Or friendly. I wanted to get her alone and question her, but I'm afraid I also fell for a very base emotion, so I took the opportunity to indulge it. Nicole was envious of me, and I wanted to rub her nose in itand I did. It was childish...and what are you smiling about, Bobby?"
"God forbid you get to be human once in a while," he answered wryly.
She started to retort, checked herself, then blurted, "Nicole called me an ice queen." She paused. "Is that what you thought when we first met?"
He shrugged. "I knew you kept your work life and your private life separate."
"That doesn't really answer my question."
He stared at the grass for a long minute. "'Ice queen'? No. But I knew...something had hurt you in the past and that you kept your private self...protected. I understoodI did the same thing. I didn't know about Joe until later, but when I did things made more sense. And I knew even before I found out about the reassignment letter that you were skeptical of my methods at first. I still remember the first time you complimented me on an interrogation." He chuckled. "I felt like I'd aced my graduation final."
Now Alex smiled, ducking her head slightly. "I don't know how you...prepare a wine like Chateau Montrose to serve properly. But maybe we could toast with it now. Because Nicole did do me one favor...now I have the title for my book. Ice Blue."
He regarded her solemnly. "Let's not open the wine now, Eames. We'll save it...for when Ice Blue hits the bookstores."
. . . . .
Penelope Saltonstall stood before the slightly elevated dais in the small meeting room, regarding the adjudicator thoughtfully. They were minimally acquainted, having peripherally worked together in the past, and like her, the woman was blond, all business, and dressed in a conservative black pantsuit and low-heeled shoes. There the resemblance ceased. Saltonstall was the older of the two at sixty-seven, her silvered blond hair in a French braid, her face round, her brown eyes grave in a sharp, narrowed glance that missed nothing. The adjudicator was at the edge of her fifties, her short smartly-cut ash-blond hair carefully coiffed, with observant, cool grey eyes in a more oval visage, at five-foot nine having four inches on her mature counterpart. In two of the score of hotel-type chairs lined up before the dais, two additional women were sitting quietly, one red-headed and in her early fifties, the other a Latina in her mid-thirties, both in business attire.
"May I ask," the adjudicator said with a touch of amusement, "why the three of you are giving me the stink eye? This is a debriefing, not an inquisition, and I assure you I don't have it 'in' for Agent Goren."
"That's good to know, ma'am," said Veronica Heller stiffly.
"Because certain people do," added Cristina Ruiz.
"I assume this is the reason Agent Heller is here?" The woman sighed. "Understand this: when someone in my position is advised by a long-term Bureau executive that there are continued...alleged aberrations by a lower-level agent, you can't expect me not to conduct an investigation. I assure you that I've conducted my own, very thorough, investigation of Agent Goren, and that I have not completely relied on the word of the person..." and here she cleared her throat, "...who Agent Grace Chadwick referred to as 'a solid-gold asshole.'"
Heller, who'd been sucking on a hard candy, choked and then coughed. Ruiz arched one eyebrow. "Chadwick was being circumspect, Special Agent Loughran."
The adjudicator made an "ahem" noise in her throat. "Yes, I heard the unexpurgated version from Tobias Fornell. He said that since he was retired there was no need to be polite. It took awhile." Then she picked up a thick stack of envelopes upon the table she had her materials spread upon and wagged them at her audience. "Penelope, where did these come from?"
"I brought them, Nora," said Saltonstall with a small smile. "I take it you've read them?"
"Oh, yes." Loughran flipped through them idly. "Michael Logan, ex-NYPD. Richard N. Carver and Tomas J. Gomes, proprietors of a Connecticut restaurant. Oh, and a letter from a 12-year-old and his sister! Just a small representation. Apparently these people all think I'm the Dragon Lady."
Heller said bluntly, "If you threaten Bob you are."
"We have protocols to follow, Agent Heller," said Loughran patiently, "especially due to the continued...shenanigans of Ms. Wallace."
"Oh, please!" Saltonstall protested. "Robert Goren and Alexandra Eames tried to get Wallace under wraps for years. She's used sex, subversion, digital hacking, barefaced lies, bribery, pharmaceuticals, poison, international law, and shyster lawyers to get from under their thumbs. This time we had her dead to rights, with a solid confession and an airtight case, and the State Department simply waddled their fat-cat rears in and took it away"
"And you know the only reason Goren asked for leniency was due to the child!"
"All right, all right," and Loughran consulted her watch. "It's almost eleven. I assume Agent Goren has already arrived."
"He and Alexandra Eames have been in the hallway for over an hour, and he's wearing the pattern off the floor," Saltonstall answered dryly.
"Well, call them in."
Saltonstall started for the door, then paused, turning. "Watch out for Eames. She bites."
Loughran returned a catlike smile. "Oh, I've researched her thoroughly, too. I'll bet she does."
"Bobby, I'm going to need Dramamine if you don't sit down."
Wordless, he waved his hands and continued to pace back and forth in front of the bench Alex had claimed outside the meeting room, her left arm resting on his old battered leather binder and her brand-new dark blue one.
"Penelope said this morning there was nothing to worry about," Alex argued. "Now, sit. Please."
Bobby dropped to the bench, his legs still jittering. "I just"
"I know. It's...embarrassing for you. But if I were the one who'd been roofied and raped, you would be telling me over and over that it wasn't my fault."
"Of course I would!" and he threw his head back. "But I'm supposed to know better"
"Oh, and I'm not! Thank you so much. Supposed to know better than to order room service? In a hotel that the FBI assured you was safe? Give me a break, Bobby. Why do you always feel like you have to answer to a higher standard? Because of Brady? Your dad? Your mom? Declan Gage?" And then she repeated what he'd said to her two weeks earlier, "God forbid you get to be human once in a while."
Bobby expelled a breath. "Must you always be sensible?"
"Wasn't that always my job?" Alex returned. She paused, smiled. "Besides, I know something you don't."
"What's that, Princess Ozma?" he quipped, relaxing slightly.
"Your book. Holly thinks it's going to be a hit. She's never said anything like that about my book."
He stared at her. "I e-mailed it to her only Saturday."
"She spent all day Sunday reading ittold me she couldn't put it down, and that it's...'damn near perfect.'" She ticked off items on her fingers. "Needs bridging narratives, minor editing, maybe a little additional exposition. But she said you wrote your truth, and that shines through. She said you made her cry."
"Your Holly? The grammatical martinet?"
"My Holly. So, Mister Goren, if for any reason the FBI doesn't want you, Hastings House does."
They heard the abrupt clunk of a meeting room door opening, and Penelope Saltonstall, smiling, appeared. "Come along, Robert. Agent Nora Loughran's conducting the debriefing; she's promised me she won't bite. I did, however, warn her about Alexandra."
"Gee, thanks," Alex answered wryly, scooping up both binders before Bobby could reach for them, and they followed her. As they opened the door and started into the small room Alex said conversationally, "You'll never guess who dropped in on us two weeks ago."
Saltonstall said blandly, "Let's see...Marcel Pepin and Madeleine Haynes and their child?"
Bobby saw Alex's face and shook his head. "Eames, you can't play that game with Penelope. She has ears everywhere." Then he grinned at Saltonstall. "You'd have been proud of your unofficial 'fourth member of the team.' She extracted some very interesting intelligence from Nicole."
Saltonstall stopped for a moment. "Which was?"
Alex said, "Nicole had a contact feeding her info about Bobby, someone attending Bobby's trivia nights at the Dark Crystal. It turned out this woman, Maureen Leighton, had ties to Cavanaugh."
"Now, that is interesting," Saltonstall said, impressed, pivoting to continue into the room. "Good for you. I have info even Pepin doesn't know. Did you meet Nicole's bodyguard?"
"Miss Cornetto? That's one imposing lady," Bobby answered.
"Got the scoop from my contact at the CIA. She's ex-Interpol."
Alex snorted. "So everyone's had it with-." Then she halted abruptly, nearly dropping both binders. Bobby simply froze in place, mouth parted slightly, no words emerging, as they reached the front of the room to discover Agent Loughran had traded her seat on the dais for one facing Ruiz and Heller, rearranging seats so a single chair was to her left and a pair to her right, with one at center holding a small recording device.
"No reason to be formal, is there?" she asked innocently, and then sharpened her voice with a 'lah-de-dah snooty-rich American' nasal accent, "since we all know each other." Then she reverted to her normal voice and attempted to look blasé. "Maureen's my middle name, and Leighton my maiden name. I started my career at the FBI as an undercover operative. I still like to keep in practice occasionally. Besides," and there was a glint in her eye, "I enjoyed your game."
Bobby met her eyes, she regarded him intently in return, and a slow grin formed on his face. "Checkmate." He emitted a soft laugh, then offered Loughran his hand. "Pleased to officially meet you, Special Agent Loughran. I'm Robert Goren. Or maybe you know me better as The Wizard."
Alex also extended her hand, a smile flickering on her lips. "I'm Alexandra Eames. But you...already knew that."
Saltonstall stared accusingly at Loughran. "You were working my agent?"
Cristina Ruiz said ruefully, "She did say she carried on her own, very thorough investigation."
Bobby motioned Alex to one of the pair of seats and then sat down himself. Silently she handed him his binder. "You never came back once Alex arrived."
Loughran shook her head. "No need. My investigation was complete, I already had what I needed the Tuesday before, including the truthalthough I'll admit that Saturday night gave me one last little shiv to drive into Wallace. Besides, that final night I saw your face. And I saw her face, and it proved Cavanaugh was talking through his hat."
"So what exactly did Harry tell you? That I was"
"Unnaturally interested in...possibly intimately involved with...hopelessly ensnared by Wallace."
"How kind of Agent Cavanaugh to misinterpret yet again," Alex retorted bitterly. "The late Captain Ross...among others...called Nicole Bobby's 'white whale.' He wasn't involved with her"
"Eames," Bobby said softly, "it's okay."
"Sorry." Her face showed no regret for defending him.
"But Alex is right, Agent Loughran. Wallace and I...crossed rapiers. Sharpened our wits on each other. Fenced. She was the ultimate challenge. And maybe that aspect was wrong to pursue. But it never meant I didn't want to bring her in."
"Not in question any longer, Agent Goren," Loughran responded briskly. "And if I did still think so, your friends within the Bureau" and here she looked from Ruiz to Heller to Saltonstall, "would certainly do their best to dissuade me. Not to mention these personal missives Agent Saltonstall passed to me, all positive testimonials...according to these, compared to you Mother Teresa is Lizzie Borden."
When she lifted a thick handful of envelopes from her lap, she could see Bobby's face turn crimson. "Our f-friends...they" he stammered.
"Don't misunderstand me," Loughran returned gravely. "I know this makes you uncomfortable. You're...very lucky to have friends like this." She pulled envelopes one by one. "Nine retired NYPD...a New York judge...three current NYPD...one NYPD turned FBI...your therapist"
"Most of the guests at your wedding," Saltonstall interjected.
"Five agents from DC, your two former partners, and Tobias Fornell." Then she smiled. "Oh...surprise, Shard and TJ. A group letter from Sharon and the staff at the Dark Crystal. Bruno Volpe, a neighbor. Russell Jenkins, on Big Brothers stationery. Elizabeth and Stephen Hogan are Alexandra's sister and brother-in-law. Edward Hogan? Their son?"
"Yes," said Alex, biting her lip. "I was his surrogate mother."
"John P. and Patricia Eames must be brother and sister-in-law? And Philip Cochran?"
"Cousin," Alex added.
"Cousin," Bobby said easily.
"Mostly teen boys, I assume, from the atrocious handwriting: Rafael Sanchez, Hector Sanchez, Felipe Sanchez, Buzzy Hershwitz, Carmelita Espinoza, etc. And one separate letter from 'Mr. Carlos Serrano' and 'Ms. Luciana Serrano,' ages twelve and ten respectively" Now Loughran was having to suppress laughter. "There are more, but I'd like to get home to Litchfield sometime today. How did this even happen?"
Bobby and Alex exchanged glances. "Phil," they said, almost in unison.
"And then" Loughran paused. "Then this entertaining missive was given to me this morning by special messenger, par avion from Paris, France. It says," and here she donned a pair of reading glasses and pulled one sheet of paper from an envelope, "and I quote,
'To Whom It May Concern,
If you imagine that Robert Goren (or Alexandra Eames)
Ruiz made a choking sound.
"Ms. Wallace," Loughran concluded, "doesn't mince words, does she?"
"She always did sharpen them well before using," Bobby observed, intrigued. "So you were working us both at once. Interesting."
"Both of you as well as Harry Cavanaugh. An enjoyable personality juggle. You I was mostly observing. Asked around about you, of course. Answer was always the same: big, brilliant straight arrow. Good for a nice date or two, don't expect commitment, your heart was already claimed. Cavanaugh...all I had to do was pretend I was amenable to his 'cause' and listen to him rant. The grief that man gave me in January! Good job on that child trafficking case, by the way. And Wallace...wouldn't even talk about you, but I did enjoy planting rumors at her expense."
"You were the one who told her Pepin was flirting with other women," Alex realized.
"Not only that, but that one of the women thought her little girl was très adorable and would be a pleasure to raise. So I take it my arrows hit their mark."
"Straight to the heart no one ever thought she had. You scared her. And Nicole doesn't frighten easily," Bobby said soberly.
Loughran removed her glasses. "Well, she's no longer our problem, thanks to the State Department. In any case," she concluded, collecting the envelopes in a pile and snapping a rubber band around them, then tossing them to Bobby, "if you can kindly let your friends and family know not to put a hit out on me"
"Yes, ma'am," he said, regarding the envelopes like precious jewels.
"Yes, ma'am," Alex added smartly, meeting Loughran's eyes, "if you promise us something."
Loughran chuckled. "Promise, Ms. Eames? You think you're in a position to extract a promise from me? Promise what?"
"Take down Harry Cavanaugh," Alex said simply.
And then the room was silent.
"You lot do understand I'm just one person in a big bureaucracy, I hope," said Loughran finally, then she gave a grim, feral smile, "but let's say I'll do my damnest."
"Fair enough," Alex said with satisfaction as she saw Bobby relax.
Loughran must have noted it as well. "All right, folks, let's do this," cuing the recorder. "Nora M. Loughran, presiding, debriefing of Agent Robert O. Goren, Thursday, May 26, 2022, per the events of Thursday, December 20, 2012, and Friday, March 25, 2022, with the assistance of Alexandra V. Eames, for any insights provided for the events of March 25, 2022." She took up a notepad and pen. "Agent Goren, before we go into the events of 2012, I'd like to review the events of March 25, 2022, in order to set up the reasons for investigation into the events of December 20, 2012."
"Very good, Agent Loughran."
Alex smiled. Bobby was sitting solidly in his chair, hands resting on his binder, breathing evenly, feet square on the floor, cool and collected, as if he were telling a story to the kids at Big Brothers, Big Sisters, or reading a trivia question on the dais at the Dark Crystal. He was telling the truth, his truth, as he had in the slim manuscript he'd given Holly Lewin, with no regrets. "On the afternoon of March 25, 2022, my wife Alexandra Eames and I were at the Tidal Basin enjoying a picnic lunch when we noticed a blond child and an older woman approaching us..."
Something she'd said two weeks ago, just before unexpected visitors arrived, popped into Alex's head and she settled back in her chair, waiting for the moment she was needed, keeping her smile to herself. Just an ordinary day with the Gorens.