***March 25, 2022***
While they closely resembled any other tourists exploring the National Mall during the Cherry Blossom Festival, a dog lover might make the comparison that, because he was tall and broad-shouldered and she was a head shorter and slight, it was as if a sturdy Newfoundland walked side-by-side with an elegant whippet. He looked bulkier than usual because he easily shouldered two rented folding canvas chairs, and since the day had been a little cooler than the previous two, his jacket flapped open in the fickle March breeze. She walked with him as if she'd always been there, face shaded by a woven broad-brimmed sun hat in case the clouds broke (he'd opted for a purple baseball cap with the name of their favorite restaurant emblazoned on it), carrying a picnic basket that had been assembled that morning by the staff of the boutique hotel they'd chosen for their belated honeymoon trip. They kept pace easily, born of years of constant law-enforcement-connected on-the-job walking; even with him in his sixties and her in her late fifties, they both walkedand she joggeddaily. Groups of tourists, some of them already shifting on aching feet despite it being only lunch time, cast envious eyes at their effortless gait.
The crowds that Friday were slightly thinner due to the clouds, but only rain would have kept them away from this final activity before returning home; they were departing Union Station at six, arriving at home in the "wee smalls" of Saturday morning after a drive from New Haven.
They settled on a picnic spot along the Tidal Basin that was relatively empty, and he set the chairs down at a ninety-degree angle to each other under a rampantly pinkish-white cherry tree still in full blossom. The jaunty little red-and-white checked picnic basket was fitted with fold-out tripod legs, and she set it between the chairs and opened the lid, smiling in anticipation. Inside were two plump Italian hoagies, stuffed with salami and capicola, provolone cheese, shredded lettuce and juicy tomatoes, seasoned with a little olive oil. Next came a small stack of extra napkins, and then, for dessert, a checkered cardboard box with two "triple threat brownies," specialty of the house at Hotel Garibaldi. At the very bottom, there was a flask of Sangria and two reusable plastic cups.
He extracted the wine and the cups, and set the latter in the built-in cup holders of the canvas chairs, then solemnly poured the Sangria into both containers.
She said dreamily, "This is the perfect example of 'mixed feelings.'"
"As in?" he prompted, with a head tilt.
"I'll be glad to be home again," she answered, "but I could sit under this tree with you forever."
"Our food would run out," he observed in good humor, "the blossoms would drop, then it would get warm and the mosquitoes would come outnot to mention the tourists"
"So you're being the sensible one today?" she said, grin flitting over her lips.
"Looks like it."
He lifted his cup and she followed suit.
"Salud!" he said affectionately, and tapped his cup against hers.
"Sláinte," she returned.
"Not bad," she said a moment later.
"But not as good as a good stiff bourbon?" he teased.
"Nope," she said decidedly.
They sipped their drinks for a few minutes, then she asked, "You have had a good time?"
"Enjoyed every minute," Robert Goren said, leaning back. "So much that you could start a tour service for finicky travelers. Like me." He looked contented. "Even the B&B out in the backwoods."
"As in the 'backwoods' within five miles of a Walmart? Besides, I think they enjoyed you more," Alexandra Eames Goren responded. For a prelude to their delayed honeymoon trip, she had chosen a bed and breakfast in the Blue Ridge Mountains run by two mystery aficionados. They called the B&B "Talboys" from Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey series, with the rooms of the restored Queen Anne home named and themed for crime novelists. Alex had booked the Agatha Christie mini-suite and Bobby had been delighted by the details of the chamber. Since business was slow in March, he was able to enjoy the decorating conventions of all five of the rooms and spent some hours the first evening with owners Ari and Kaye discussing thrifty additions they could make to the decor to enhance the theme of each. They'd also discovered Ari was a British expat and enjoyed some of Bobby's favorite television imports such as QI and Waking the Dead. "Didn't you exchange e-mails?"
"Ari's sending me a vintage copy of The Wimsey Papers."
"Oh, that explains it. I thought it was a flirtation," she teased.
"As if those two had eyes for anyone but each other," he scoffed. "It's not like women look at me anymore."
Alex looked indignant. "That's a fib! Two words: 'Maureen Leighton.' And even if it were true, Bobby, what does that say about me?"
"But you're the beautiful Princess Ozma," he said, giving her the "alias" under which she operated on trivia nights, "who, despite the bumps in their road, loves her creaky old Wizard for his soul."
"I don't know," she responded in a droll voice. "That was an odd-looking 'soul' I saw last night; long and firm and not creaky at all."
This prompted a flush that spread across his face to his ears, and she attempted to cover her own pinked cheeks by extracting the sandwiches and the napkins from the basket and distributing them. In companionable silence they savored the delicious hoagies while listening to the birds, the distant voices of fellow visitors, and the rustle of the trees in the breeze.
"All in all," she said a bit wryly, "today's lunch is quieter than yesterday's."
Bobby coughed. "Well, at least you got to meet the good as well as the bad"
. . . . .
***March 24, 2022***
"Must we?" he entreated as they began dressing on their next-to-last morning and she pulled out blazer, blouse, and skirt from the closet.
"Please?" she coaxed. "I want to meet them at their own level. I have my pride."
He tilted his head at her and her defiantly lifted chin, then smiled. "All right. We'll dress to impress."
He trimmed his beard when he shaved, and she added a simple single strand of pearls to her ensemble, so that, an hour later, when they were seated in the Hotel Garibaldi dining room, he in a charcoal grey suit, blue shirt, and grey and blue tie, her in a dark blue blazer and skirt, with blue blouse matching his shirt, they blended in with other guests in business attire preparing to attend meetings that morning. The server who had attended them all week, a short, middle-aged blond woman named Sheila, looked intrigued as she poured them coffee.
"You two are spiffed up today," she commented in a soft Virginia accent. "Obviously not going to the Zoo!"
"I'm getting the executive tour of the FBI this morning," Alex confided.
The server leaned over slightly to keep the conversation confidential, glancing at Bobby. "Were you part of the Bureau, sir?"
"Eight years," he answered.
"I would have never pegged you for an agent," Sheila responded in a low voice, then inclined her chin toward a table to their left, where two dour men and two serious women were eating their breakfast in silence. "Most of them act like those four, no sense of humor."
"Mr. Goren's always been unique," was Alex's playful response.
From the hotel they rode the Metro, then walked the remainder of the way to FBI headquarters. Alex sized up the concrete-and-glass structure and asked, "How many times have you actually been here?"
"Two or three times every couple of years: criminal law updates, refresher courses, changes in guidelines, new procedures, training classes, recerts. Not much difference from the NYPD. Stay to the left. Badged visitors have their own entrance. Oh" He paused. "Almost every part of this building is monitored. Don't say anything inside you wouldn't want to get out."
"I'll try not to mention Saturday night at the B&B then," she responded archly.
There was a serpentine line to enter the building through badged entry, since the access point was being handled by a single security guard. Bobby withdrew an ID card and his driver's license from his wallet while Alex did the same with her license, then Bobby amused himself as the line inched forward by creating offbeat profiles for each of the people ahead of them. She was chuckling at his absurdities until he scanned the open atrium beyond the reinforced glass wall in front of them, freezing in mid-word.
"Talk about 'of all the gin joints in all the places in all the world,'" he scowled, face darkening.
She followed his gaze. Not twenty yards from them was a man she would have described in forthright shorthand as "a hippo in a dress suit." He was tall but fleshy, with deeply jowled cheeks and an ample paunch, strawberry blonde hair gone grey and retreating on his forehead, pale blue eyes, his bulk made impressive with a dark blue Armani suit, white silk shirt, red-white-and-blue silk tie, and highly-polished shoes, a Rolex clearly visible under his left sleeve, pudgy fingers spotted with signet rings. His retinue, several male and female agents of varying ages and expressions, were waiting with him; those behind him didn't look happy to be there, but their watchful faces appeared ready to change at a pivot of the man's body.
"Let me guess," she said, examining him with distaste. "The infamous Harry Cavanaugh."
"And his unfortunate team."
"Should we say hello when we're done?" she asked, tongue in cheek, as they inched nearer to the security desk.
"I'm probably beneath his notice any longer, which is a relief, since I'd rather not speak with him." Then his mercurial face changed from dark to light when he recognized the tall, older Black woman at the check-in desk, ramrod straight as she ran temporary badges, her dreads, tucked behind her head, swaying back and forth as she worked. "Now here's someone worth meeting."
When it was finally their turn, the woman looked up to smile broadly when Bobby spoke up. "Grace Chadwick, how are you?"
"Bob Goren, you duffer, where have you been? I haven't seen you in a dog's age."
"That's probably because I retired two years ago," he said, giving her a fist bump even though most of the safety protocols had been removed.
"Did you? Oh...wait...I remember," and she scowled briefly and looked over her shoulder where Cavanaugh and company were still holding court. "You got caught in the mess when they transferred Penny Saltonstall out west." When she saw Alex's look of surprise, she laughed. "That's okay, hon. She and I go way back, and we have a deal, I call her 'Penny,' and she gets to call me 'Gracie.'"
Bobby added, "Alex, this is Grace Chadwick, and don't ask the Director what's going on in this building; it's Grace that knows the score. Grace, this is my wife, Alexandra Eames, and we're on a belated honeymoon."
"Congratulations!" Chadwick said and gave Alex a strong handshake, then, eyeing the restless occupants of the line, began briskly processing their visitors' badges.
"Harry still campaigning for the Director's job?"
"Oh, yeah, but you know him, he doesn't just look like one, he's got the ego of a blue whale, too," Chadwick scoffed. "Not even the last President was stupid enough to give him that job."
"Well, well," she added a few seconds later. "You have passkeys on hold for the Executive Lunchroom. Who do you know?"
"We're having lunch with another retiree; he's the one with the connections. T. C. Fornell?"
"Oh, I know Tobias." She winked at Bobby. "Another devilishly handsome dude." She handed out the two visitors' badges and the passkeys. "You enjoy yourself, Ms. Alexandra, even if they have taken all the interesting sections out of the building."
They were buzzed through the security gate of the plexiglass barrier, and then, on the opposite side, stopped to affix their badges. As Alex returned her driver's license to her wallet and pinned on her badge, she could see something large approaching in her peripheral vision to her right, and Bobby stiffening at her left.
"Robert Goren," said a dry, almost insulting voice laced with a Tennessee drawl. "I didn't think I'd see you here ever again."
She saw Bobby go on alert, then put on his neutral face, the one he'd used so many times in Major Case to cover up the fact that he thought the perp was a sinister presence, or an annoying asshole, or simply a whiny jerk. "Good morning, Harry."
Cavanaugh positioned himself deliberately in their way, his retinue flanking him as if creating a shield. Several of them looked expectant, as if they knew he was spoiling for some sort of encounter, but one tall, dark-haired Latina stood as far back as she dared, wearing an apologetic face. "I heard about your little escapade in December, Goren. 'Mr. Brilliant' cracked the case our agents couldn't. I'm sure you're very proud of yourself right now."
Bobby's therapist, Alex thought grimly, would have been proud of him, as he simply responded levelly, "I can't take credit for the whole breakthrough, Harry. The trigger at my end was a fluke. But I put in six weeks of solid work on that case, which Marc Thuringer's team used to close down the trafficking ring."
Alex fixed a critical eye on Cavanaugh in such a way that he could no longer ignore her, and his lip curled, ever so slightly, making Bobby stiffen. "So what brings you here today?"
He responded in the flattest voice Alex had ever heard him use. "We're meeting an old friend for lunch while I show my wife some of the sights."
Cavanaugh gave Alex the once-over as if she were a hiring consideration for a janitorial position. "Mrs....Goren."
Alex saw the color rise in Bobby's cheeks and flicked a glance to him. He acknowledged her by relaxing his shoulders, but still responded stiffly, "That's former Captain Alexandra V. Eames, NYPD, Special Taskforce DHS," and Cavanaugh appeared surprised. "Show some respect, please."
"You're Eames, the one he was always talking about?" Cavanaugh snorted. "Thought you were a figment of his imagination. You worked together eleven years? Can't fathom how you managed to deal with this misanthrope for so long."
She would not give Dr. Chaudry something to say to her, she thought as her temper flared, then steadied. Instead she channeled her captain's training as she squared her shoulders and met his gaze. "Are you certain you know what that word means, Agent Cavanaugh? In six months I don't believe I've met all of Bobby's friends. In fact I just made the acquaintance of one five minutes ago, and I'll meet another at lunch. And he has such a broad spectrum of them, from classic-car restoration experts to small-business entrepreneurs to gastropub enthusiasts...to the boys he mentors at Big Brothers." She managed an indulgent chuckle. "Next month after our collie is certified as a therapy dog, he'll probably make at least a dozen more friends at the Veteran's Hospital. 'Misanthrope' seems...mis-applied, don't you think?" She flashed a smile so genuine that one of the agents behind Cavanaugh looked impressed. "But I'm sure you have similar volunteer experiences in which you represent the Bureau."
Now, casually, Alex glanced down at her wrist, tapped her Fitbit. "Sorry, my alarm went off. I think it's time to meet our lunch date." She nodded cordially at Cavanaugh and his retinue. "We wouldn't want to be late. That would be...rude."
A second earlier he had bitten his lip to keep from laughing. Now Bobby briefly flashed a feral smile at Cavanaugh, ignoring at least two of his retinue who were biting their own lips to avoid making any sound, and offered her his arm. "It would certainly be rude." He gave Cavanaugh one final, appraising look and lied through his teeth. "Nice seeing you again, Harry."
They skirted the group at a measured walk, and it was only when he steered her left toward a bank of elevators and out of sight that he smothered a snort and freed her arm. He murmured into her right ear, "Damn, Eames, how did you manage that? I saw that evil look in your eye! You kept your temper and still managed to insult him. The only thing Harry's ever volunteered for is a second cocktail."
Mindful of what he'd said to him about whole-building surveillance, she stood on tiptoe to kiss his cheek, and hissed, "What an odious man!"
Bobby returned the kiss with a "Nice exit line, too," in a near whisper, then said in more natural tones. "We have a little more than an hour before we have to meet Fornell, so let me show you around this mausoleum. Grace is right, all the really interesting sections like Forensics are offsite now, but we can check out the Bureau's history gallery until it's time for lunch."
As they entered the elevator, she pulled out her phone and sent a text. A moment later his phone pinged.
They were standing in front of a display case showing the earliest relics from the Bureau's roots in 1908 when she said indignantly, "When you said Cavanaugh was an asshole, I thought you meant of the Moran variety. What a toxic and malignant waste of space! Who is he to belittle a former agent in public like that? If I'd spoken to any of my officers and detectives with that attitude, I would hope every single one of them reported me to a malfeasance committee who'd either fire me without a pension or demote me to permanent traffic duty on Staten Island! How in hell does he keep his job?"
"Harry Cavanaugh still has a job because he 'knows' certain people, which is coded language for 'he knows where too many bodies are buried.' I wish you could have told him to his face!" He bit back a smile. "We'd have had to peel Mike off the floor when he heard that line about Staten Island." He paused, then laughed, "Lewis, Shard and TJ, and the trivia competitors would get a kick out of the impressive adjectives you used about them."
"Well, there's an idea. Maybe we could sic Maureen Leighton on Harry," she answered, acerbic.
"I wouldn't risk it. She's still in her forties. They might breed," and only then did she smile.
"Bobby, you've never told mewhat happened that made him so angry that you felt you had to resign?" And when she saw his face become a study of conflicting emotions, she added ruefully, "Besides the fact that you're 'an acquired taste.'"
They strolled from exhibit to exhibit as he explained, "Cavanaugh was transferred to Albany with the idea he could form his own team. Instead he was assigned Penelope Saltonstall's Nightmare Trio; we were too good at our jobs to let go, but considered such mavericks no one else really wanted us. Me you know about. Karin Hirohara is what you might call a child prodigy; graduated high school at fourteen, university at seventeen. Blazed through Quantico. Unabashedly gay. At the other end of the spectrum was Ben Silerconservative Black manno, no, not MAGA-conservative, old-school "cloth coat" Republicanalso an ordained minister. Ironically, where other people had trouble with Karin, Ben didn't." He paused a beat. "We were...challenging.
"Penelope trusted us to do our jobs. We continued to do them, but Cavanaugh continually had to micromanage. He was even more 'hands on' than Ross. But unlike Ross, he was hands-on because when the case was closed he wanted the credit to boot him the next step up the promotion ladder.
"Without describing things I shouldn't, we had a tristate case with two prominent suspects. Suspect A had more evidence against him, but it was the type of evidence that Ron Carver wouldn't have accepted; he'd have demanded we get something better since what we had was chiefly circumstantial. We had minimal evidence against Suspect B, but it was solid and the prosecution could work with it. We were mindful that Suspect A was not blamelesshe was guilty of crimes, just not the particular crimes we were investigating. But Cavanaugh had a history with Suspect A, wanted to nail him quickly, and at first wanted us to forward only the evidence against him. Ben, who was, of the three of us, the least objectionable to Harry, persuaded him into also forwarding the evidence on Suspect B, as an 'alternative.'"
"I think I see where this is going," Alex said dryly. "You swapped the priority of the files, didn't you?"
"Ben and Karin concurred, but I did the deed. I figured of the three of us, I had the least to loseCavanaugh already hated me. The file went forward, and Suspect B got was coming to him. But Harry found out about the swapped files and from then on my life was hell and my days were numbered. That's how I was written up for 'insubordination.'"
"Surely whomever you forwarded the material to could have made that decision on their own?" She spared him a look that was more squad captain than wife, and he shrugged.
"If I were certain it was someone like you receiving the file, or someone like Deakins or Ross or Hannah, I would have freely let it go 'as is.' But otherwise I couldn't take that risk. Was I supposed to sacrifice my integrity, my instincts, and my experience because Harry had a vendetta going?" He gave her the earnest look that usually made her soften. "Ironically, Subject A did get his...'just desserts,' about four months after I resigned."
"You always had to push the outside of the envelope, didn't you?" She shook her head, but managed a small smile. "I suppose I should be glad you did, or we wouldn't be here right now."
"Look at thatyou managed to find something admirable about Harry." He took her hand and squeezed it affectionately, then they continued through the exhibits. As the minutes passed, Bobby's cell phone began to ping. It was only after about six or seven had come one after another that Alex asked, "Aren't you going to check those texts?"
"Don't need to. You don't understand the grapevine around here," he chuckled. "What you said to Cavanaugh, as innocuous as it sounded, is probably all over the building by now." In response his phone pinged twice more. Twenty minutes later, as they made their way back to the elevators, and his phone had pinged probably a dozen additional times, Bobby pulled it from his pocket and scrolled through messages as he walked, shielding the phone from view while he suppressed a grin. Finally he cast his eyes around, examining each wall of the elevator bank with appraising glances, and she followed his gaze, noting the location of each surveillance camera. He finally selected a spot between the elevators, stood with back to the wall and patted the space beside him. When they were side by side, he passed her his phone, open to his texts.
The last one she glimpsed was from "WS":
He whispered to her, "Wendy Stahl."
"No comment," Alex said shortly, thinking of the FBI agent who had recruited Captain Ross for undercover ops, a move that had been followed by his murder.
"You can read the rest of your fan mail at lunch," he added with a twinkle in his eye.
The 'Executive Lunchroom' turned out to be a quiet, cozy cafeteria-style restaurant on the ground floor, painted in swirls of soothing greens and blues with muted piano music playing in the background, and no sooner had they emerged from the elevator than someone strolled past them and gave them two big "thumbs up." This happened twice more as they wound through the cafeteria line, which offered several entrees, including New York strip steak and barbecue chicken, and featured a large salad bar. Fortifying themselves with steak, baked potato, and salad, they exited the line to see a man seated in a booth nearby motioning to them.
"There's Tobias," Bobby confirmed, and as they joined him, Fornell said cheerfully, "Welcome to the celebrity of the hour!"
Alex said ruefully, "The celebrity of the hour now wishes she'd kept her mouth shut."
Fornell protested, "Are you kidding? There are people on the seventh floor who are ready to parade you around the building on their shoulders. Cavanaugh's that disliked. You managed to shoot him down while carrying on a civilized conversation. That takes finesse." He deepened his voice. "I'm all for finesse."
Bobby chuckled, "She's received two dozen congratulatory texts and Carl's already asked us to come upstairs. Alex, this is Tobias Fornell, who left these hallowed halls five years ago. He's private security ops now, but he used to work frequently with the NCIS group at Quantico. Tobias, this is Alexandra Eames."
Fornell laid down his fork and knifehe'd been dissecting his barbecue chickenand gave her hand a firm shake. He was a slim, nearly bald man in his late 60s who still managed to maintain a slightly boyish demeanor even with his age and short-cropped full beard, with bright eyes and a contagious smile.
"What the hell," Bobby asked confidentially as he unwrapped his silverware, "got a burr under Cavanaugh's ass? He hasn't seen me in two years and probably threw a party when I left; why bother with me now?"
"Cristina Ruiz," Fornell returned with a cynical smile.
"What about Ruiz?" He explained to Alex, "She was the tall woman who was standing directly behind Cavanaugh and looked like she wanted to sink into the floor from embarrassment. She's a competent agent and one hell of a nice person, and doesn't deserve his attitude."
"Back in early December she unintentionally found a nice solid lead on your child trafficking caseThuringer included her data when they rounded up that bunch of scumbagsand Cavanaugh was counting on her lead cracking the case first to get another feather in his cap. Instead"
"Instead I snagged Scott Gibson, Penelope got the credit, and Marc's group closed the case." Bobby threw up his hands, exasperated.
Alex was listening with open mouth, forgetting her meal. "This jerk is that petty? Isn't the important part getting the perps off the street? Children were involved!"
Fornell said dourly, "No, no, Alex, the important part is Harry getting his ego boosted, followed by a fat promotion."
"A therapist could make a living on him for the rest of their life," Bobby said grimly. "Just seeing him gave me acid reflux. Can we talk about anything else?"
"You asked the question," Alex pointed out reasonably, returning to her steak.
"Because I thought I might get an answer that made sense," he grumbled, then tapped the table with a forefinger. "Tobias, did I understand correctly? L. J. Gibbs retired?"
Fornell nodded. "Sounds crazy, right? Yes, Jethro has left the building. Last time I heard from him, he was still in Alaska."
Bobby explained to Alex, "Gibbs was long-time head of the NCIS group at Quantico. Literally legendary." He flashed a knowing look at the man across from him. "He and Fornell share an ex-wife."
"Not at the same time," Fornell hastened to add. "So how's your trip going? Bobby said something about a B&B?"
Alex related her discovery of Talboys on a "Twenty B&Bs You Must Visit" website, and then, as they continued eating, they chatted about their visits to the African American Museum as well as the American Indian building, and the sobering odyssey that was the Holocaust Museum. But when Fornell asked them what they had liked best, they replied in unison, "International Spy Museum."
"Everyone says that," he chuckled.
Lunch concluded, they made their way to the seventh floor where Carl Weinberg kept his promise, although the toast was performed with apple juice. Alex took part in the gleeful celebration, feeling self-conscious, then retreated to the ladies' room. She entered at the same time as a tall redheaded woman about her age, who smiled and held the door for her, then introduced herself as Veronica Heller.
She said as the door closed, "We always wondered about the lady Bob was carrying a torch for."
Alex cocked her head at Heller. "Now, all the scuttlebutt tells me Bobby had an very active social life."
"Oh, he did," Veronica answered, shrugging. She had striking dark blue eyes and an attractive bow smile. "Various ladies dated him when he was in town, including me. He always showed us a good time, and...and we reciprocated. But we all knew it would never go further." She smiled indulgently. "There was always a line with Bob we couldn't cross."
"Did he take you dancing?" Alex asked curiously.
"Dancing dates were rare and special occasions, usually around the holidays. Little jazz pubs mostly, which I enjoyed. A few other ladies would have preferred clubbing, but that was never Bob's style. Most of the time it was films, or plays; the zoo, or somewhere historic. We went to Mount Vernon togetherI've lived in the area most of my life and, like most locals, never went to any of the tourist attractions. Bob knew more than the tourguide!"
Alex laughed. "That's nothing new."
Heller added, "And one Saturday we saw Waiting for Godot at the Kennedy Center."
"At least it wasn't a three-hour experimental film in Esperanto," responded Alex with a whimsical smile.
Veronica laughed. "Oh, heavens, I hope he didn't save that for you."
"I saw Casablanca."
"No one here ever got Casablanca," and Alex detected a note of envy. "Of course then there were the one or two ladies who never gave up. In fact, there was a woman here looking for Bob just last week. Jed Brayone of the guards downstairstold me yesterday," Veronica chattered as she peered in a mirror to check her face. "Long dark hairJed was fairly certain it was a wigbig liquid eyes, beautiful complexion, and a British accent, of all things. Of course, it's not like that's rare; we do have trainees that come here from the UK. I remember an Irish girl who had a dead crush on Bob. She was so disappointed when she discovered he wasn't assigned here."
Alex felt uneasy as she entered one of the stalls, knowing the one person who matched the description of a woman with extraordinary eyes and a British accent who affected a dark wig, and when she rejoined Bobby she was so quiet that he gave her a curious look as he said farewell to the group on seven. She roused herself to be charming with another group on the fourth floor, and yet more people on three, but finally they departed the building with Fornell in their wake.
"What's next for you today?" he asked as they stood at the curb.
"Bobby said he wanted to check out the bookstore at the Museum of American History before they close for the day," Alex said, still distracted by Heller's revelation.
"Then I'll leave you here," Fornell grinned. "You can probably hit a couple of the exhibits while he loses himself in the stacks." He thrust out a hand to Bobby. "Good seeing you, buddy."
"We're about halfway between Hartford and New Haven," Bobby said, returning the handshake. "Come by sometime."
"Come on Saturday," Alex smiled, "and watch NewEngland.com's 'award-winning trivia master' run his game."
Bobby corrected, "Our game," and Fornell chuckled. "I don't wander north that often, but I'll take it under advisement. Nice meeting you, Alex."
Fornell then headed to the east while they proceeded in the opposite direction, and, as soon as they were out of earshot, she began, "Bobby, I was talking to..."
His phone pinged twice in succession, then again, and he joked "Fan mail from some flounder?" but the 1960s television reference went over her head. The texts wiped the smile from his face.
Bobby halted, staring at his phone in disbelief, then wheeled, Alex a second later. Harry Cavanaugh and a smaller portion of his retinue were striding in their wake at a deliberate pace, the former with a swagger that foretold no good. He glanced behind his group briefly to see that there was no other audience forthcoming, then a slow, malicious smile spread across his face as they grew closer.
"It's like he's trying to provoke you into doing something physical."
"He is." Bobby acknowledged.
"Alpha dog syndrome."
"Did he miss this year's rabies booster?" Alex asked sharply, and they remained watchful as Cavanaugh finally came abreast of them. The group of five behind him didn't look happy except for one weasel-faced man Bobby recognized as a Cavanaugh sycophant. Alex felt a stab of sympathy for Ruiz, the only woman remaining, hanging back as far as she could.
"Harry," Bobby said with a fixed smile that told Alex that he was furious and fed up, "it's as if you can't get enough of me today. I never realized you missed me so much."
Someone behind Cavanaugh tittered, and with an expression that would have shattered glass, the portly man ran eyes over the five agents behind him. Each face was now emotionless. He emitted a warning cough, then turned back.
"All those folks back there think you're such a nice guy, Goren," Cavanaugh said amiably. "But do they really know you? Know about you?"
The back-burner pilot light holding Alex's anger to a simmer flared to life. "What exactly is it you're trying to insinuate, Agent Cavanaugh? Why not come out and say what you mean?"
"I supposed he's told you everything," Cavanaugh responded, regarding her with slightly more respect than earlier. "Or has he? About his family?"
Alex considered him suspiciously. Did Cavanaugh know about Mark Ford Brady? That was information she assumed was privy only to Elizabeth Rodgers, the late Danny Ross, Bobby, and herself. Right now she'd assume not and watch for traps. "You mean, did I know his mother suffered terribly from schizophrenia, that his father played both the ponies and the ladies, and that his brother was a junkie? I do know, and I don't believe in crap about the sins of the father being visited upon the children. As for my knowingit's not like it's private information, after all. None of it has ever been hidden. And as I'm certain you know because you had one of your flunkies research it, my family tree isn't exactly flawless. My dad chose to violate an NYPD regulation to make life a little better for my mother's final years, and he paid for it. My brother and sister and I managed to make it work out. That's what family does." She fastened her best disciplinary stare at Cavanaugh. "Bobby has plenty of family now, including family by choice. He doesn't need your approval."
"And you have nothing to say about this?" Cavanaugh was still challenging Bobby, now practically in his face.
"I do." Bobby said, filling the gap so they were eye-to-eye. "Even though she can very well take care of herself, stop harassing Alex." He was just slightly taller than his adversary. "It's beneath you."
"And if I don't?" Cavanaugh responded. His voice was glass-smooth, but aggression was in every inch of his stance.
Alex could see sparks of anger shift across Bobby's face. "Harry" Then to Cavanaugh's surprise he shook his head. "I don't understand what you want from me. A challenge to a duel? Or an uppercut to the jaw? In either case" and here he shook his head and threw hands up in surrender. "I don't want your drama. Alex and I have a day and a half left of our week away, and I want to enjoy it. You can stand here and rant as long as you like. We're leaving." He paused a beat. "Oh, and Harry?if you follow us, I'll call 911 and let the DC police handle this." He gave a half-hearted salute to Ruiz and the rest of the group. "Good luck."
Alex spared a final glare at Cavanaugh, who looked taken aback, then accepted the arm Bobby offered her and they walked on unmolested, only to have Cavanaugh call casually, "What about your other family, Robert Goren? The one you don't talk about?"
They didn't rise to the bait, and were finally at peace.
"That man is mentally ill," she said grimly after a few minutes. "'Other family'? He can't possibly mean everyone at the Dark Crystal. Is he talking about the boys?"
"It sounds more as if Harry's dug up another 'scoop' about me," Bobby said bitterly. "He came up with several during his tenure. I ignored them after the first few. When he first took over in Albany, he told everyone the reason I'd done so well was"
"Let me guess...he said you were boinking the boss."
"You should be doing Cavanaugh's job."
"No one could ever miss the way Penelope seems to take care of you," Alex pointed out.
He considered that for a dozen steps, then asked unexpectedly. "So, do you think I slept with her?"
She stopped in mid-stride, locking eyes with him, thoughtful. "I think...if I didn't know you so well, or know what I do of Penelope...that I might believe it. But I remember what you said to Jack, too. How you wouldn't have carried on any type of relationship with me if I had been your captain. You said, 'It would have undermined her integrity and her authority, and I couldn't do that to her.' You have too much respect to do that to Penelope, and I certainly can't see her doing that to you."
"And that summary proves that you have a better grasp of personalities than Cavanaugh." He offered her his arm. "Now can we stop talking about him? I apologizeI thought you'd enjoy the tour"
"I did, except for that stinker! Fornell's a great guy...I enjoyed meeting everyone elseI even talked to one of your old dates in the ladies' room. You took her to see Waiting for Godot." There was an impish look on her face. "Such a romantic night out!"
"That was Ronni Heller, and I remember it being a very nice evening. And she did tell me she enjoyed it."
She said loftily. "I preferred Casablanca."
He whispered, "That was always the intent."
. . . . .
***March 25, 2022***
They had finished the hoagies and were nibbling on the brownies when Alex lifted her head and stared in amazement at something several yards away.
"Bobby, check it out," she said in surprise. "When was the last time you saw something like that?"
He followed her gaze and his eyebrows arched. "I think back when I was an altar boy on Sunday mornings."
"I had no idea parents dressed kids like that any longer!"
Moving along a sidewalk a little over fifteen yards from them was a dark-haired older woman in a sensible navy blue skirt and dark blue blouse, supplemented by an unbuttoned grey all-weather coat. Like Alex, she wore a wide-brimmed hat, this one dark with a white ribbon around it, her hair in a plait down her back, her outfit completed with low-heeled leather shoes and dark stockings. She seemed absorbed with her cell phone while still occasionally flicking an eye on what evidently her charge.
The little girl she accompanied, the one who'd attracted Alex's attention, had blond curls clustered like grapes on her shoulders. She was dressed in what they would have termed "Sunday clothes" in their childhoods, a pale violet dress with an A-line skirt, white lace jabot around the collar, and a darker purple sash. An old-fashioned brimmed straw hat with a small bunch of daisies pinned at one side, leotards to match the sash, and black patent leather strap shoes completed the outfit. Over the dress she wore a light coat, dark blue with white piping, also open.
"She reminds me of Madeleine," Alex continued, and he tilted his head at her, so that she further explained, "It's a series of children's picture books. My nieces read them when they were small. Madeleine lives in an orphanagea nice one, compared to most orphanages in fictionrun by nuns. She's the youngest of the orphans and gets into all sorts of mischief."
Bobby's eyes followed the child as she scuffed along the sidewalk. She had a large hardback book under her right arm; when she came upon a cluster of flowers, she squatted before them, opened the book, and began to page through it with her left hand. "My best guess would be a diplomat's child. Many are still conservative in children's dress. The coat almost looks as if it belongs to a boarding school uniform, but they usually have a badge on the front left pocket. If there is one, it's not visible from here. She could be an American child with very traditional parents who attends a private school."
Just then the girl closed her book and stood up, noticed them watching her, then fixed a longer, more appraising stare in their direction. She tossed a swift glance over her shoulder at her adult companion still absorbed in her phone, and, lifting her chin in an almost familiar defiant gesture, walked directly toward them. When she was about two yards away, she halted, regarding them soberly.
"Good afternoon," she stated in a confident voice with a decided British accent.
Bobby arched his eyebrows, and Alex smiled. "Good afternoon, miss," he said, in equally formal tones, dipping his head in acknowledgment. He indicated her book. "What is it you're reading?"
"It's a manual for identifying flowers," she said, displaying The Mid-Atlantic Flower Identification Guide. "I'm on holiday from school and working on a project for nature class. I was looking up those yellow flowers. The text says they're forsythia." Having completed her once-over of them, she addressed Bobby. "My name's Mignon. And you don't look as I thought you would."
Bobby tilted his head at her, intrigued. "And how did you expect us to look?"
"I'm sorry, but I don't know your lady," the child said in a respectful voice more suited to an older teen, although now that she was so close they could tell she was no more than nine or ten. "I only know you. And I thought you would be dressed more elegantly. Like in the photograph."
Alex exchanged a puzzled look with him. "But we're on vacation," she explained gently.
"In the photo you are clean-shaven," Mignon continued earnestly. "And not as...large."
"I was clean-shaven when I was younger," Bobby said, attempting not to chuckle at the child's bluntness. "As well as thinner. But we all grow old, Mignon. What I don't understand is where you might have seen a photo of me. I don't recall ever having met you."
She briefly studied her shoes. "The photo's on our mantelpiece at home."
"A photograph...of me? At your home? Why would my photograph be on your mantelpiece?" Bobby asked, leaning forward uneasily.
"Because..." and she looked up with large limpid eyes that jolted Alex to her core and sent a shiver through her. "Because I'm certain you're my father."
Bobby stared at her, speechless, and it made the little girl so uncomfortable that she fastened eyes on her shoes again.
Finally, very gently, he continued, "I'm...flattered, Mignon. I must resemble your father quite closely for you to say that. But I don't have any children. I'm afraid I'm not your father."
The child looked startled. "But you must be! You look so much like the photo, and Maman has always told me it's my father. She mentions him often. He's very clever and reads all sorts of books. I love books, too, and Maman says that reminds her of him."
"It must be someone who resembles me. And I love books. But you did say I didn't look like you expected."
Mignon gave a discouraged sigh. "I was so certain it was you."
"I'm sorry I disappointed you. Are you looking for your father because you're not getting along with your mother?"
"Oh, no! Maman and I are best friends, and go on all sorts of adventures together: museums and parks and the zoological gardens. She buys me books and I have a jolly little dog, a bichon frise. Her name is Tipsy. We've always had wonderful times together. But not as much now that I'm away at school. That makes me sad."
Mignon checked over her shoulder to make certain her older caretaker had not noticed her defection, then chattered on, reminding Alex of Luciana Serrano, one of the children she and Bobby mentored at Big Brothers, Big Sisters. "I do love school! It's the Creatwood School in Cheshire. Normally someone my age is in Year 4, but I do so well I'm in Year 6 conditional. My favorite subjects are English and history, and I like natural science. Plus I play tennis and badminton, and I'm a member of the Laurel Club. That's an honor society. Maman and I read together, too. Right now our book is Mr. Melville's Moby-Dick."
Alex looked startled. "Isn't that a difficult book for your age? You're...how old? About nine?"
"I'll be nine in September. It is an abridged version, Maman says, for now, and when we read she explains any difficult terms to me. She's very bright, too."
"Yes," Bobby said, with a tense look in his eyes. "Yes, I believe she is. She sounds very special, Mignon. Is that your mother, there on her phone? I'm surprised she allows you to speak with strangers."
"No, that's not Maman," Mignon said regretfully. "I implored her to come with us today, but she had business to conduct this afternoon. It might have to do with Papa Marcel; she does help him sometimes. She likes it here in Washington, DC. It brings her happy memories. You see, this is where Maman says I was 'begun.'"
"'Begun'?" Alex repeated. "Do you mean"
"The correct word is 'conceived,' but that sounds ...scientific and formal, don't you think?" Mignon wore a sentimental smile. "It's my favorite of Maman's stories. So romantic. You see, she was in love with a man who worked here in the United States. Sometimes he worked here in this city. He's something like a policeman. I think in England they call it MI.5, but it's not called that here. She arranged to meet him before Christmas, when he was here for a conference, and she described the lovely Christmas decorations in the city and at the hotel, and how he had a small Christmas tree in the hotel room waiting for her." And then she shrugged. "But it didn't work out between them. I know she still hopes my real father will come back to her someday." She smiled. "I don't really mind. My stepfather is quite nice. Well, he calls himself my stepfather, but he already has another family. But he pays for my schooling and we have a very nice flat and can use the summerhouse in Nice during July and the chalet in Chamonix during skiing season, and he seems to like me. He buys me all sorts of pretty things and gave Tipsy to me as a Christmas gift. But I would love to meet my real father."
She finally turned back to smile at the older woman. "That's Luisa, my nanny. She's very kind to me. She's probably playing Candy Crush." Her voice dropped to a whisper. "She's addicted. Maman says she's foolish, wasting money on games."
At that moment the dark-haired woman chose to look up. Even at that distance they could make out the alarmed expression on her face, and she immediately hurried toward them, only to momentarily react when she saw them close upor was it simply the sight of Bobby's face, Alex wondered?–then touched the girl's arm. "Miss Mignon, you should not be bothering strangers. Please, sir, madam, I apologize for my charge."
Mignon said eagerly, "I saw it in your eyes! You noticed it, too, didn't you, Luisa? Doesn't he look like Papa's photo on the mantel? But he says he has no children."
The dark-haired woman, who had a faint accent which might have been Eastern European or perhaps Russian, said dubiously, "Miss Mignon, he does look like an older version of the man in the photo." She nodded politely at Alex, then continued to Bobby, "I'm sorry Miss Pepin has bothered you. You resemble very much her father's picture, sir."
Bobby reacted so subtly that Alex wondered if Mignon or Luisa caught it. He nodded almost automatically. "I've heard that everyone has a double...a doppelganger...somewhere in the world."
"I'm certain that must be it, sir."
"Is Miss...Pepin's mother nearby? Perhaps she could explain to Mignon" he asked, but his voice was wary.
"No, I'm sorry, sir. She had business out of the city today."
"Is Miss Pepin's mother French?" Alex queried.
"She's British, madam. Miss Pepin, we should be getting back."
"Yes, we're having a late luncheon at Il Rigoletto. That's one of Maman's favorite places. We'll have to bring her a dessert." Mignon smiled at them. "It was nice to meet you, Mr." Suddenly she looked embarrassed. "I'm so sorry! I was in such a hurry to speak to you that I didn't ask your names. It was rude of me."
Bobby said swiftly, "William and Frances Brady. We're glad to have met you, Mignon. And I'm sorry again to have disappointed you."
"It was a mistake. Maman says we all make them. But I didn't mean to be rude. Bon soir." Finally Mignon accepted her nanny's hand and they walked away, the girl sparing a final glance over her shoulder.
Alex waited, staring, until they were well out of earshot. "Well, that was odd."
He was still following the child with his eyes. "Odd indeed, because I know who she is. That's Nicole Wallace's daughter."
"Daughter? But didn't Nicole say during one of your interrogations that she couldn't have any more childr...oh, wait, I'm putting credence in something Nicole said. How stupid can I be?"
"Nicole has a way of doing that to people."
"And she...what? Stuck your photo in a frame and for the past eight years has told Mignon that you're her father?"
He said woodenly, "I can tell you that the idea isn't as farfetched as you might believe."
Alex leaned back in her chair, feeling as if she'd been kicked in the stomach. "Bobby" Then she looked at him, swallowed. "It's none of my business what you did or who you were with in those ten years we were separated. And I know you've been obsessed by this woman for years"
He rubbed the left side of his neck fretfully. "I didn't mean it to come to that. She started out as a psychological and intellectual challenge. But we had things in common enough that I allowed it to become an emotional one. I should have never permitted it to go that far. Even then it was never deliberate. If there was an impulse, it was brief. Alex, I will swear to you that I have never considered making love to Nicole Wallace...nor have I ever made love to Nicole...that I remember."
"That you remember?"
Once Mignon was out of eyeshot, he sat down heavily.
"I told you back in December that I was here nine years ago."
She nodded. "Before Christmas. 2012?"
"Yes. It was a Criminal Law Update and Refresher Seminar. One of those mandatory training classes required of us whether we liked it or not, two long weeks of classes and quizzes right before Christmas. The final day of this particular class was the winter solstice. The whole group was here in DC: myself, Karin, Ben, even Fenendra and Stephen who worked in Surveillance down the hall. In fact, Fornell was in that class as well. It was set up that directly after the final exam, our group from Albany would depart for the airport for a 7 p.m. flight home. So the night before the final exam, about fifteen of us, including Fornell, decided to eat at a restaurant the concierge had been pushing on us for most of the two weeks. 'Il Rigoletto,' I believe the place was."
"Yes, she did, and that's why I gave her false names."
"I suspect the concierge was getting kickback recommending the place to you?" Alex observed.
"Extremely probable, since it was very expensive. Delicious food, tiny portions. We arrived early, to beat the dinner crowd and be able get back quickly to review for the exam next day. That's what I was doing about 8 p.m. when dinner wore off and I ordered a ham and cheese from room service. I wolfed it down, went back to review. An hour later, when I wasn't on the toilet I was vomiting into it. I'll spare you further details. After swallowing every Pepto Bismol I had in my toiletry bag I had the hotel send me anything they could find. The concierge showed up at my door with several anti-diarrheal meds, all of which I ingestedI was so sick I didn't give a damn about drug interactions. Things settled a little before midnight. It had been so bad that I took another shower to feel clean, pulled on shorts and a t-shirt, and crawled into bed. Didn't get half my reviewing done and I had to be up at seven.
"Next thing I knew it was 'morning,'" and here he made air quotes, "and someone was pounding on my door. I thought I'd barely lifted my head from the pillowI had a splitting headache and was nauseatedwhen the hotel manager and the concierge let themselves into my room." Something in the tone of his voice made her sit up, heart pounding. "Alex, it was 4:30. PM. I had slept through the alarm, two phone calls from the instructor, two from Ben, three from Karin, three from Penelope, and two from the front desk. And I could hear the hotel manager whisper to the concierge in Spanish that he thought I'd 'been on a toot.'"
"It sounds as if you had bad case of food poisoning, and then overslept."
"They'd actually been hammering on the door for nearly five minutes before they let themselves in, and I was woozy for almost an hour after I was awakened. They did find a liquor bottle in my room. Jack Daniels. And another thing." Now his words were tumbling out. "When the manager and concierge found me, I was nude. And there were...crusty spots on the sheet."
Alex suppressed the lump in her throat. "Slow down, Bobby. Take your time," she bade; their eyes met and he took a cleansing breath followed by another, then began to relate the events as if it were a case he was investigating. "Of course this is before we knew Nicole had survived and was living in Paris, so I took it for what I thought it was: a shakedown. The Roosevelt's hosted Federal employees, including FBI, for years; they're very careful who they hire and do background checks, but occasionally the unscrupulous sneak through. We always have periodic reports of opportunists trying to blackmail agents. I contacted the appropriate people immediately, and they had a forensics team there within twenty minutes. CSU took blood, but there were no drugs left in my system, and I'd flushed the other...evidence. They found no fingerprints, except mine, on the liquor bottle, presumably placed there while I was unconscious. The...semen was mine. Oddly any vaginal fluids and fingerprints in the room couldn't be identified, except the fingerprints and other epithelials of the cleaning staff, the manager, the concierge, and myself. They confiscated my laptop for malwareit came up clean. My wallet was intact, but they tested that as well."
"What happened with your final class?"
He looked startled. "I stayed another night, in a different room. I had the test the next day. Alex, aren't you worried about this?"
"Did anyone try to shake you down?" she asked practically.
"I assumed they decided not to after seeing a dozen FBI CSU techs tramping through that room. When I left on Saturday it was still like a hornets' nest."
"So what you're thinking," she said, "after seeing this little girl, is that Nicole was the one who made you sick? Then she somehow drugged you so that you've forgotten the entire experience, but still were able to...perform...and somehow had sex with her without her leaving one bit of forensic evidence? Was she wrapped in plastic?"
He gave her a reproachful look for her practicality, then made a face. "I knowit sounds crazy, but- When I received the box that supposedly contained my nephew Donny's heart, how the hell was it ID'd as Nicole if it wasn't hers? She must have had some way to dick up the NYPD database years earlier, why not the FBI's? Nicole has managed to circumvent surveillance cameras, DNA evidence, the NYPD computer system, and any other number of things. Maybe I did become obsessed with her, but she was equally obsessed with me. Obsessed enough to kill my brother. And she seemingly has eyes and ears everywhere. Do you think that Mignon turned up today by accident? What are the odds?"
Alex's face was now troubled. "If she wasn't here by accident that means...what? I was the one who made all the arrangements for this trip. Is my laptop somehow compromised?" She looked at him, wide eyed. "It couldn't be yours, could it? I know you work through a VPN...but all that classified information- This is a hell lot more than a kid who says 'You're my daddy' if it's true."
"I was thinking that, too. We need to get back so I can call this in."
"So glad we packed this morning and everything is stowed in the hotel locker."
"Sorry for what? Because Nicole chose this exact moment to parade her spawn under your nose? You're right, it has to be deliberate." And then she remembered the previous day. "Bobby, could this be what Cavanaugh was spouting off about? Your 'other family,' he said. 'The one you don't talk about.'"
He slowed down even further, face twisted with black emotion, then set his jaw angrily and automatically fell into his long stride again, while she puffed and attempted to keep up, glad that her daily morning jog gave her stamina. "That sounds exactly what he was hinting at."
"And," she said, "something else. Veronica Heller told me a guard named Jed Bray reported a woman asking after you last weeka dark-haired woman he thought was in a wig, with doe eyes and a British accent. Sound familiar?" Then, in exasperation, "For Christ's sake, Bobby, I'm not a greyhound."
He stopped in his tracks. "I'm sorry. I feel like my head's about to explode. She's ruined"
"She hasn't ruined anything," Alex interrupted fiercely. "This has been...the best week, except for that asshat Cavanaugh."
"All I've done is drag you behind me to museums"
"And I loved every minute of them! Everywhere we went was somewhere I wanted to go. I would have told you if I didn't, and if you don't know that by now then maybe we need another joint counseling session with Dr. Chaudry. Look, maybe I would have preferred to stay at the B&B for the entire week. But it makes no difference. I enjoyed the museums, I enjoyed meeting your friends yesterday, and this trip has been all that I wanted it to be when I planned it. The only trip I'm tired of is your guilt trip when things go wrong."
Then she took his arm and steered him toward the Metro station stairs. "And now we'll walk at my pace."
"Yes, Captain Eames," he said in a subdued voice almost lost to the echoes underground.
When, twenty minutes later, they passed through the front entrance of the Hotel Garibaldi, the manager, Morris Pencomb, abandoned the front desk and hurried to meet them. "Mr. and Mrs. Goren"
Alex hefted the basket with a smile. "Mr. Pencomb, please give our compliments to the kitchen. This was outstanding."
The man beamed, accepting the basket and handing it off to an assistant who suddenly appeared at his side; the man also took the folding chairs Bobby wordlessly passed to him. "I'm very glad you enjoyed it, Mrs. Goren. The Italian hoagie is Ms. Soprato's specialty. Was the Sangria also to your liking?"
"Excellent," Bobby said, shifting impatiently.
"Good. I hope you'll give us a good review on Yelp and Trip Advisor," the manager said with a grin.
"Alex will. She takes care of the tech at our house. Mr. Pencomb, we"
"Please excuse me for interrupting, Mr. Goren," Pencomb continued, his voice lowered, "but a woman has shown up asking to speak with you. She says she's a friend of yours. Of course, I wouldn't allow a stranger in any of our hotel rooms even if you hadn't already checked out. I've placed her in one of the small conference rooms. She said the matter was of some...well, she actually used the term 'delicacy.'"
"A woman about our age?" Alex asked, suddenly alert.
"Yes, exactly, with dark hair"
"Expressive eyes, and a British accent?" Bobby hazarded, shooting a look at Alex.
"As someone with years of experience with international guests," Pencomb responded, "I would say she sounded more Australian." And then he regarded both of them curiously, for they were exchanging glances that resembled silent dialog instead.
"Mr. Pencomb" Bobby withdrew his wallet and showed Pencomb something inside. The hotel manager looked surprised, then pulled himself erect. "I'm sorry, Agent Goren."
"This didn't start out as a business trip, you understand," Bobby said, closing his wallet. "But we may need some assistance."
"The woman in there" Pencomb said in astonishment.
"Is a 'person of interest' in an old case, nothing more. But some Bureau operatives will probably arrive here soon, and when they present ID, I hope you'll give them your cooperation."
"Absolutely!anything they need," Pencomb promised.
"Is the room she's in unlocked?"
"Yes, sir. It's the Puglia Conference Room, the first one on your right down the conference wing hallway."
"Good. Is there surveillance in the room, by any chance?"
"You mean cameras? Yes, sir, we found that we had to install them to cut down on theft and damage during conferences. It's a sad thing"
"May we see the feed, please?"
"Come this way," and Pencomb escorted them to a small operations and security room behind the front desk. One wall was a bank of computer monitors, most observing stairwells and the elevators. Pencomb indicated one monitor that showed the interior of a small meeting room scattered with ubiquitous beige-upholstered hotel chairs and several long white tables. Sitting primly in one of the chairs was Nicole Wallace, her wig removed, her long, still honey-colored hair spilling over her shoulders, a Gucci purse in her lap, dressed in a conservative hunter green skirt and a white blouse, a lightweight steel-grey Burberry coat hung over her left arm. As if she knew she was being watched, she looked straight into the camera, then smiled.
Alex cleared her throat angrily.
"She did have dark hair when I first spoke to her, sir," Pencomb said, nonplused.
"The dark wig is a common disguise," Bobby assured him. His shoulders had straightened and he was watching Wallace with an intense, calculating expression Alex recognized from their years together at the NYPD's Major Case squad. In a minute, she knew, he'd begin rocking slightly back and forth on his heels. It helped him think. He was, she realized, like a hound that had come upon the right scent, and was back in the hunt.
"I don't want to...interfere with the operation of your hotel, Mr. Pencomb. I'd rather the guests not know we were even here. But keep alert. Is there someone who can monitor this screen for me until I enter that room and even then report any emergencies immediately?"
"I can do that for you, Agent Goren, and leave Ms. Paswan at the front desk," Pencomb said, referring to the desk clerk currently on duty.
"Good. Now I need to make some calls. Is there another room I can borrow for a few minutes where I'll have absolute privacy?"
Pencomb fished in his pockets and withdrew a red card key. "This is for the work center just past the lobby, Agent Goren. It's been off limits since the pandemic. Will that do?"
"Yes. One more thing: the hotel locker where our items are storedhas anyone else accessed it since our luggage was put in this morning?"
"Let me check that for you. It's an electronic system that logs each time the door is accessed." Pencomb slid down into a chair in front of a computer monitor and swiftly tapped a password into the system, then checked the locker program. "No, sir. The door hasn't been accessed since."
Alex asked, "Should we trust the computer?"
"With her? Not on your life," Bobby said shortly. "We'll get back to you, Mr. Pencomb. Expect reinforcements." Almost automatically, he added, "C'mon, Eames..."
She murmured as they walked away, "So the game is afoot?"
He gave her a grim smile, then strode into the work center ahead of her, already on his phone. He was speaking in a low tone, urgent, giving staccato instructions, nodding decisively at intervals, and sometimes she could hear only snatches of words. When he finally hung up and turned around, he found her regarding him expectantly.
"Wishing I'd seen you work an FBI case."
"You're doing it now."
"What's a sniffer unit?"
"In about ten minutes you'd see them come in if we waited in the lobby. I want full examination of anything belonging to us in that locker, especially your items."
"Hear me out. I've worried about this since the wedding card arrived, addressed only to me. I saw that as a threat, and I won't be satisfied until I know you're safe."
Alex sighed deeply. "But approaching with tactical gear and gas masks?"
"And on alert for syringes. I haven't forgotten Bernard Fremont."
"Who's coming to handle Nicole?"
"I've got Nicole."
"You don't think you're in more danger than I am?"
"We were shown Mignon for a reason...I've got to get to the bottom of it."
"Bobby, she's claimed enough of your life. Just turn her over"
"No!" Why was she so surprised at his intensity? "This has to end. And it ends with her and ends with me."
"Then what's my role?" she demanded. "I've been involved with Nicole as long as you have."
"You" His eyes turned reflective for a moment. "Even now I don't know how I'm going to handle this, and saying to you 'Follow my lead,' sounds a lot like me saying 'Follow behind me and carry my water.'" She flinched, crimson flaring in her cheeks. "All I can tell you is 'be Eames.' Be Captain Eames who doesn't take crap from her squad, be Lieutenant Eames who works with the big dogs and holds her own, be Detective Eames who doesn't take crap from her partner. As far as I'm concerned, be Alex Goren who just found out her husband was assaulted." Then he paused. "That is, if you want to work this with me."
She smiled at him thinly. "Oh, I want this. Remember, I've been sharpening my harpoon for months."
"Then, to quote Deakins, 'The Goren Show' is about to begin. With two for the price of one." He paused. "Nicole...look off to you?"
"A little stressed, I think, though she's hiding it well."
"We'll need to play on that."
To his surprise, when they re-entered the lobby, the first three people on the "sniffer unit" had already arrived, a trio of women in low-key outfits with gear in nondescript rolling suitcases so not to alarm the guests. Alex noted the person handling the team was Cristina Ruiz. Bobby called out "Cris!" and Ruiz pivoted, smiled, and he strode to meet her. Morris Pencomb joined them as well, and the three conferred, then Pencomb led the team to the rear and Bobby hurried back to Alex. "He's going to send the rest of the team through the back."
"You asked for Ruiz? Isn't Cavanaugh going to blow a gasket?"
"We could only hope. I asked Cris if she wanted the assignment and she said yes. She's up for promotion and it will get her away from Harry permanently."
Now they were in front of the door to the Puglia Room. Bobby took a breath-
And then slammed opened the door with such force that the metal doorknob made a dull clang against the cinderblock entry wall. "Hello, Nicole."
Alex gave her creditshe jumped, then recovered her composure in a second. "Good afternoon, Bobby," she purred and started to rise.
He thrust out his left hand in a "stop" gesture, ordering firmly, "Sit back down, Nicole."
"There's no need to be so hostile."
His voice notched up several decibels. "I said sit down, Nicole."
She stood up defiantly.
In quick, abrupt movements Alex hadn't seen in years, Bobby made long choppy strides along the perimeter of the room until he was behind Nicole Wallace, then threaded his way past several chairs, kicking them aside, to come at her from behind. She scarcely had time to start to turn when he firmly pushed her back into the chair by her shoulders. "Sit, Nicole, or I use my phone and call for backup."
Once she was seated again, staring at him with a stunned face, in one sweeping motion he dragged a conference table away from the wall and set it with a thud in front of her, like a barrier. From the pocket of his jacket he withdrew a legal pad and a pen and slapped both on the table before her. Then finally he grabbed two free chairs, one with each hand, and thumped them down on the opposite side of the table, set back about a foot, gesturing unobtrusively with his right hand for Alex to take a seat.
She smiled. They were going to start with "bad cop." She gave Nicole the most supercilious smile she could manage ("Let's see Harry Cavanaugh match this," she thought to herself), and sat down, arms crossed before her, spine ramrod stiff, fixing a glare on Nicole.
"Better," Bobby said severely, taking the other seat, and setting a small rectangular recording device on the table. "For the record, this conversation is being recorded. Agent Robert O. Goren, Friday, March 25, 2022. Ms. Wallace, do you agree to be recorded?"
"And if I don't?" she inquired icily.
"I make a phone call, and Alex and I will be free to get ready for our train instead of wasting time with you."
"Back to your little dovecote in Connecticut?" The sneer was nearly visible.
"'A man's home is his castle,' Nicole," he said, briefly mocking her accent. "And the 'dovecote' is ours" He shot a fond look at Alex. "since every castle needs its queen."
Nicole composed herself. "This conversation is between the two of us. I don't see why she needs to be here."
"You keep forgetting," Alex said in a tone that implied that she knew Nicole had not forgotten anything, "that I'm his wife and whatever affects Bobby affects me. I'm not going anywhere."
"Then be prepared to hear things you might not want to hear," was the scornful reply.
"Yesterday I talked to Bobby's moron ex-supervisor who hates his guts, one of his old girlfriends, and several of the people he used to work with. This morning I heard an implausible story from a beautiful, bright little girl followed by an interesting case study from Bobby. I don't think you'll tell me anything that will surprise me," was Alex's icy response.
"You're being recorded, Nicole. Are you aware and do you consent?" Bobby repeated in equally frosty tones.
"Yes!" she said in exasperation. "Now, what is the writing paper and pen for? Do you expect me to write out a confession?"
"I don't know, Nicole. Do you have something to confess? Have you murdered any of my family members lately? Oh, that's right, for once you haven't. No, I'm going to ask questions, Nicole, and you are going to answer them. Some of the questions involve names, phone numbers, addresses, e-mail addresses. Those you'll write down." When she started to speak, he added, pointing a forefinger at her, "Remember, the only reason you're dealing with me and not some nameless FBI interrogator is because you waved Mignon under our noses a few hours ago. Have you been following us personally, Nicole, or are you spending Marcel Pepin's hard-earned euros on having us followed? Because otherwise I don't see how she and your nanny Luisa managed to show up in the random spot where we had a picnic lunch today. Was your informant also there yesterday when Harry Cavanaugh started ragging me about 'family that you don't talk about'? Or was that your doing via a nice anonymous phone message?"
Nicole didn't answer, but her face changed color, which gave him his answer.
"I remember our old interrogation sessions, Nicole. I'd give something, then you'd give something. Tit for tat. So, as a courtesy, let me offer you...an apology."
Alex eyed him with interest.
"I believe on one occasion I said you would never be a fit mother. That you were a monster who couldn't be trusted with children. I was wrong, Nicole." She looked at him suspiciously as his voice switched from aggressive to patient. "Mignon is...beautiful. She's bright, engaging, well-read, well-spoken, diverse, socially balanced...a child psychologist's dream. You have brought her up magnificently. She's a child any mother would be proud of."
"I am proud of her," Nicole said softly. "And I love her dearly."
"Then what was today about?"
"Since Mignon is now old enough to attend boarding school, I felt that her father needs a larger role in determining her future."
"You and Marcel will need to speak together soon," he responded mildly. "I'm sure you'll think of some way to manage it."
Nicole sighed. "You know who her father is, Bobby. She's already told you."
"And, as I told her, I must resemble closely whatever photo of her father you've decided to keep on display. But I have no children, Nicole."
"Then how did you manage such a thing?" His voice was sharp. "I don't remember donating any semen for an in-vitro job."
"Now you're being revolting, Bobby."
Alex leaned back in her chair. "Really? I didn't find it revolting at all, and I got a very nice nephew out of it."
If looks could have killed, Nicole would have blasted a hole through her and left scorch marks on the edges, but Alex only smiled.
"So, the story you fed Mignon was...true?" His voice raised an octave as he imitated Mignon's treble. "'She arranged to meet him before Christmas, when he was here for a conference, and...he had a small Christmas tree in the hotel room waiting for her.' I didn't arrange anything, and there was no Christmas tree in my room. Maybe you dozed off in the middle of a Hallmark movie?"
"Oh, Bobby, she's a child, and an imaginative one. So I added a tiny romantic element to the storyso what? It was one of her favorite bedtime tales, so why not sparkle it up a bit?"
"You 'sparkled up' the entire thing, Nicole. I have no recollection of ever having made love to you..." and then his voice coarsened, "...or even banging you against the wall in a hallway."
Her face went scarlet and she started to rise; he waved his cell phone again and bellowed "Sit down!" She did the latter, but spit, "That's a lie, Robert Goren! An unforgivable lie."
"Then you tell me how it was, Nicole." He sat back slightly, crossing his legs. "Likehow you knew I'd be at that particular hotel in 2012 and what room I was in."
She continued angrily, "Marcel has had many friends in the United States over the years. In the past, one of them...was an intelligence agent. He was married and told his wife everything, and, poor neglected darling, she was so bored when he was away on his little clandestine James Bond missions that she rattled on endlessly to me. She was the one who told me about the periodic FBI training and the agents staying at the Roosevelt. It was simple enough to merely call and ask to speak to youtell them you were my boyfriend, or my husband, or my son, and if you had been staying there for a class, they'd have connected me to your room. It's not as if your staying there was classified."
He pointed to the legal pad. "Her name. His name. Contact info."
"I will not!"
This time he simply held up the phone as a silent threat.
"I can't tell you. It might get back to Marcel."
"We won't involve Marcel. I'm sure the Police Nationale can find some way to question the couple that won't involve him. I'll speak to Joachim St.-Clair myself if you like."
"That rummy old bastard!" With her teeth gritted Nicole scratched some words and numbers on the legal pad.
"What happened next?" Bobby's voice was quiet.
"I took stock. As American women are so fond of saying, my biological clock was ticking." She gave a tiny, almost feral smile. "Not as many 'eggs ripe and ready,' you see, as before," and then her smile widened as Alex scowled. "So the next time I found out you were checked in at the Rooseveltwhich, happily, coincided with my cycleI took the next flight into the city. No one cared. I arrived the second evening of your stay. I wasn't certain what I was going to do; I had several options. But it turned out my original plan was the easiest. At the beginning of the two weeks I put on a dark wig and posed as a representative from Il Rigoletto. I batted my eyelashes at the concierge enough to convince him we were in dire need of more clientele and could he please send some our way, especially those lovely Federal customers on per diem."
Bobby chuckled cynically. "You do realize a Federal per diem isn't like a corporate business expense account, right?"
"That surprised me when I learned about it later. After hearing about those scandals involving six thousand dollar seats for the loo, I expected you would eat better. But I do know something about people on any type of business trip, based on years with Marcel. They usually like to have a special night out when matters wrap up, even if the meal costs somewhat more. You form a little family, even in that short a time. Simple psychology."
"Very astute of you."
"I also cozied up to the lift operator. The 'little people' behind the scenes always have grievances, and they love it when you sympathize with them. I also let him...how do you say it here? 'Get a little handsy'? Such a lonely, lonely man." Her smile was now smug. "All that special attention was rewarded; I received a full tour of the workings of the hotel, where I oohed and ahhhed at all the right places. I found where the cleaning staff kept their spare uniforms, how the hotel kitchen delivered room service, where the extra card keys were kept, all sorts of useful things...it was very enlightening. I even discovered access to the computer system and found out your room number."
Bobby tapped the table imperiously. "His name. Description. Whatever other info you know about him." He looked sideways at Alex. "Everyone grumbled when they set up new security measures for TDY stays in 2013. I don't think they'll complain any longer when they hear this testimony."
"Bobby, that was so long ago. Almost ten years. I don't remember the name," Nicole said insolently, yet on a body language level Alex could see her position herself and use her eyes to come on to Bobby.
He was having none of it. "Don't give me that bullshit, Nicole," and his mood flipped abruptly. He was trying, Alex knew, to keep her off balance. "You of all people don't forget anythingyou store it up to use later. You're like menames, numbers, addresses, little quirks, details, none of that ever goes away, always up in that attic" On each word his voice grew louder until it bounced off the walls of the small room, and on the final five he tapped his temple hard with his left forefinger. "Name and contact info or I call in the troops."
Resentfully she scribbled down more words, some numbers, then continued in a hard voice, "So there I was, in the hotel when your group went off to dinner, and I was there in the lobby, dressed as one of the maids, when you returned. I remember that cute redhead flirting with you, Bobby. I was terribly jealous."
Alex saw Nicole's eyes slide sideways, to see if she had taken the bait; she attempted to look bored, idly wondering if the redhead had been Veronica Heller.
Nicole continued to address this portion of the tale to Alex. "He took the stairs, you know, two at the time, as always. While he was out to dinner I'd planted a tiny listening device in his room, so I knew exactly when he called room service. I changed my clothing and was standing in the corridor wearing a big soft robe over nightclothes, looking all feminine and helpless when the bellman arrived with Bobby's sandwich. Oh, I was shameless. I told him I was Bobby's fiancée and I was in town to surprise him, and please, could I leave a little note with his order, and knock on the door myself? Of course he was only too happy to help with a romantic conspiracy. It wasn't a note, of course, it was a thin gelatine wafer of Dormeral made to dissolve on the tongue. I put it on the slice of cheese so you'd never notice the slightly sweet taste it has."
Bobby was staring at her dispassionately. "Really, Nicole, what a waste. You should be working for the CIA. Or the NSA."
"Or writing Jason Bourne films," Alex added dourly.
Nicole's eyes flicked to her impatiently, but she continued in a reserved tone, "Now I'm the one that must apologize to you, Bobby," and to Alex's surprise she sounded sincere. "I never intended that the Dormeral make you ill. It's used frequently now in French hospitals, but then it was quite new; it was just on the cusp of being approved"
"You used an unapproved drug on me." Bobby's response was a statement more than a question, but there was annoyance underscoring it.
"I read all the literature very carefully before considering its use," she said defensively. "Marcel invests in the firm that manufactures it, and we had the brochures at hand. It's a preoperative relaxant. Testing was carried out for two years, and there were minimal reactions, and not one reaction like the one you experienced."
Alex shifted in her chair, leaned forward, her eyes narrowed and voice and face hard. "So, let me get this straight. You drugged and raped my husband."
"It was not rape. The Dormeral was just...to relax him." Nicole's face was flushed.
"And so say the hundreds of men who've roofied innocent women in bars for years," Alex retorted sharply. "But you had to use it on him, didn't you, because you knew he'd never willingly open his arms to you."
"You would think that, wouldn't you?" Nicole responded spitefully. "It isn't true, is it, Bobby?"
He blinked at her like an amiable bear, but his face was flushed, and when he did speak, his voice had a sting like a lash. "Open my arms to you? I would never willingly come near you, Nicole. Do you know why? Because every time I see your face, I see the face of my brother Frank. You remember my brother, right, Nicole? Right? Francis Xavier Goren? The man you left stretched out on a urine-spattered, dog-shit smeared, cigarette butt-scattered pavement, dead?" He rose, squaring his shoulders and making himself as tall as possible, his restless fingers flexing in agitation. "And don't say," and here he launched into a cutting imitation of her accent, "'he was just a millstone around your neck, Bobby.' Maybe he was. But he was my fucking brother. When I was small and my mother sat catatonic in front of the television, he made me peanut butter sandwiches so I'd have a meal. Before I hit a growth spurt, he used to follow me to church on Sundays, me with my altar boy robe over my arm, so the big boys wouldn't beat me up. He may have been a dead loss by the time his life ended, but I still loved him."
He drew in a breath, sat down, slid back into the dispassionate voice once more. "Go on. What happened next?"
Nicole's face had paled by the time he had finished and she took a few seconds to steady herself. "I could hear you being ill on the listening device. Vomiting. Groaning. It made my heart ache"
"Heart!" and Alex practically hooted. "I take it this is more 'sparkle' for Mignon's 'favorite story'? You don't have a heart, even if the one that was delivered to Bobby wasn't yours!"
Nicole bit back a retort and instead continued, "-and I didn't quite know what to do. I was waiting in the empty room across from yours and saw the concierge arrive with the medications you'd ordered. And then...after some time, they seemed to work. When it had been quiet for a half hour, I used the passkey and the room was dark, and you were in bed.
"The first thing I did was remove the listening device from the bedside table. Then I slipped off my robe, and switched on the lamp. I had no intention of 'coming as a thief in the night,' you see, and I'd found a beautiful pale blue peignoir for the occasion, one that left nothing to the imagination," and here she gave Alex an insolent look. "and I think I had planned to kiss you. But then you opened your eyes and stared straight at me, and said 'I've been dreaming of you for weeks,' and you pulled me into your bed. It wasn't rape."
Bobby repeated coldly, as if he were giving a deposition, "I have no recollection of ever having made love to you, Nicole. Moreover a person under the influence of drugs cannot give proper consent, the same as a person under the influence of alcohol. Whether anyone was harmed is immaterial. It was rape. Not to mention assault of a Federal law enforcement agent during the performance of his duties, which is a Federal offense."
"What a shame," Alex added, "on top of all those murder charges still pending. Including the charge for the death of Bobby's brother."
Nicole said superciliously, "I don't think Bobby will send the mother of his child to prison."
His smile was thin. "She's not my child, Nicole."
"You'll be answering differently," Nicole retorted, "when the DNA test proves you wrong."
As he leaned back in the chair, Alex realized he wasn't feigning the exhaustion that was sketched under his eyes. "Nicole, why are you here? You did realize by deliberately re-entering the United States you could be arrested for your crimes, didn't you? What proved so important that you felt compelled to do this?"
Was that...just the tiniest hint of desperation crossing Nicole's face? Alex had already noticed that she was not quite her insouciant self. But she kept up the facade as she responded imperiously, "I already told you, Bobby, that since Mignon is now old enough to attend boarding school, I felt that her father needed a larger role in determining her future. That's you. She needs your guidance. You need to be a part of her life. Live with her mother, be her father, go to her school functions, provide"
"Oh, I understand now," and Alex let out a gasp of strained laughter. "Don't you see, Bobby? She expects you to abandon meperhaps in return for a divorce, I'm given custody of our 'dovecote' and the dog?and fly abroad with her to live out her French fantasy of one big happy family." The humor vanished, and she narrowed her eyes and leaned forward. "What's wrong, Nicole? Is dear, faithful Marcel's eye finally beginning to stray? Is he showing signs of putting you aside for some young, busty bimbo to romp in the hay with? Is Bobby your...fallback old age insurance?"
Nicole started to rise, fury suffusing her face, when Bobby jumped to his feet. "Sit down, Nicole. Now."
She stared at him for nearly a full minute, then sank into the chair again. "My relationship with Marcel has nothing to do with anything we're discussing. Nothing you said is true. What I'm looking for is the best thing for Mignon. Now that you've seen her, Bobby, you must know that she's your child."
"I know no such thing. What about her proves this is true?"
The blunt question surprised her. "You have only to listen to her. Look how intelligent she is! She's even left handed."
He rubbed his eyes with the palms of his hands, and now his voice was surprisingly gentle. "Nicole, I...I can't believe this. Listen to yourself. You're well read. You will have read all the arguments about nature vs. nurture. And I know you understand that human beings can't be bred for bloodlines like poodles!" The last few words suddenly struck him as funny, and abruptly he gave a short bark of a laugh and a trace of the Brooklyn boy that had been appeared in his voice. "Was this...hey, was this the whole reason for your li'l cloak and dagger seduction? You needed me for stud service? I" and here he whooped with laughter, almost hystericallyAlex's throat contracted, because she was genuinely unable to tell if he were acting or actually losing controlfinally dropping his head into his hands. When his face lifted a few seconds later, he was still scarlet and chuckling. "Geez, Nicole, I didn't even get my stud fee! I didn't expect cashI mean, that woulda been crass, y'know? like I was a hooker you hired for the nightbut you coulda left me a Barnes & Noble gift card. I mean, fair's fair, right? Wowwwww!"
Even Alex flinched at the cruelty of the comment, and Nicole was open-mouthed as he waved his hands in the air, then wiped his eyes, took a breath, his personality shifting yet again until his voice was sober enough to address graduate students at a lecture hall. "Seriously, Nicole, you know there's no guarantee that two intelligent people will have a super-intelligent or even an equally-intelligent child. In fact, the opposite is almost always true: the most ordinary of couples are the ones who are usually surprised with genius-level offspring. Hell, there's a current American television series that plays upon that factand it's not the only television series to have addressed it."
Nicole recovered enough to attempt, "She's eight, Bobby, and in Year 6...surely"
"You know why Mignon is as she is? It's you, Nicole." He staring at her earnestly, gesturing as he talked. "You did what you couldn't do previously with the little daughter you murdered, you forgot the jealousy and the rivalry and instead put all your bottled-up love into Mignon's upbringing. You cuddled her, kissed her, fed her imagination, you read her books, you allowed her to question and found her answers, you took her to museums and gardens and zoos, to the shore, to the mountainsyou opened up the whole world for her, and she blossomed under that affection and attention. She's curious, spontaneous, verbally adroit, quick, socially precociousa child who's been loved and knows she's loved. She's not bright because you mixed two curious minds, she's bright because you allowed her to be."
Nicole looked at him steadily with her large eyes. She said in nearly a whisper, "She's still yours, Bobby. I made certain of it. We made love three times. It would have been more except for your being ill. I used a cap and made sure nothing escaped. When morning arrivedbefore your alarm went offI left and flew immediately home"
"Where," Alex added, "you contacted poor cuckolded Marceloh, I know he's not your husband, honey, but by the way you treat him he might as well beand told him you were pining for his touch, and to please come to you, and I'm sure he rushed to your side as soon as possible. Then when you started to show he'd have no fears it wasn't his child."
Nicole looked at her with hatred. "You dried-up little cunt..."
Alex spit, "I can defend myself, Bobby!"
"Always, Captain Eames," he responded soberly. "'And though she be but little, she is fierce.' But you shouldn't have to. Nicole, one more outburst like that and I'll carry out my threat." And when there wasn't an immediate response, he added, "You will not speak like that to the only woman I have ever loved."
Nicole averted her head as if he had slapped her.
But still she said evenly, "The DNA will tell the truth, Bobby."
"It will. Whether you'll want to hear it or not is another thing. So let me tell you the truth instead, Nicole. But...one more thing first. One more tit you're required to give me for tat." He leaned forward and tapped the legal pad. "Your mole at 1PP. Is he or she still there?"
"Why should I tell you anything else with the way I've been treated today?"
"As opposed to the way I was treated nearly ten years ago? That's rich! Because the truth will set you free, Nicole, and you'll stop believing this absurd fantasy you created for yourself."
Nicole picked up the pen, then threw it down. "No! Memorize it yourself," she said angrily. "You have your little recording device, after all. Her name was Carmen Aiello and she was employed as a forensics clerk. Another one of the 'little people' no one ever notices, and so unhappy and resentful about being turned down for promotion twice. She entered false information into the system for me as well, so that any forensic evidence the FBI found in your hotel room was identified as belonging to a dead woman. I have no fucking idea whether she's still helping 'the greatest detectives in the world' or not, nor do I care. Her services cost me a packet, and I had the devil of a time explaining to Marcel how I'd 'lost' so much money at the gambling tables in Monte Carlo, and then the bitch attempted to extort more from me. I finally had to threaten her to get her to stop."
"Killed her brother, too?" Alex asked blandly.
"I poisoned her cat and that was enough to make the cowardly little cow back off. If you're planning to tell me a story, Bobby, I suggest you begin."
Bobby regarded her. It was the end of their game. He inhaled deeply, an action coupled with a shuddering sound as if he had been weeping and was trying to regain his breath. "You remember my mother, Nicole. God knows you chaffed me often enough about her." Again he mimicked her speech. "'How old were you when you first realized your mommy wasn't like all the other mommies?' And various other barbs calculated to sting. Oh, they did. After she died...I had to think seriously about my future. I still hoped for a long-term relationship. Back then I still hoped for children. You knew that.
"In fact, that's partially what this maneuver with Mignon has been about, hasn't it?" Now he waved the fingers of his left hand upside down, like a pendulum. "Dangle Robert Goren's heart's desire in front of his eyes. I also knew that anyone in a relationship with me either already had to know," and here his eyes flicked to Alex, "or would have to be told my family medical history; that my mother's condition could possibly manifest in me. And that it could be handed down to my children. Believe me, I thought about children. Beautiful children like the kids I work with at Big Brothers. Like Carlos and Ana. Like Mignon. Like my cousin Molly. Like Alex's nephew and her nieces." He paused, his eyes distant, almost as if he were talking to himself. "My mother...suffered so much." He swallowed and now his speech was thick. "And she was quite aware of what was happening to her. How could I do that"
His voice broke and failed.
Alex put her fingertips to her lips, suddenly understanding what he was trying to say. When she had told Nicole "I don't think you'll tell me anything that will surprise me," she hadn't realized it would be Bobby who would do it instead.
"Easter weekend." she said quietly, as if Nicole wasn't there, and Bobby's eyes met hers again. "Easter weekend, 2012."
"You still remember that phone call?" and he wore a peculiar half-smile.
"I do. When I called you that Saturday to wish you a happy Easter, you sounded groggy. You told me you'd fallen asleep on the sofa. And the first thing" She paused, then continued. "And the first thing I thought was 'Bobby, asleep on the sofa, on a Saturday afternoon? That doesn't sound like my Bobby at all.'"
"'My Bobby?'" he asked, one brow arched.
"Figure of speech."
She asked carefully, "You took all the followup tests?"
He nodded. "By the time July came, they weren't necessary any longer."
"No. The surgeon said it was...very unselfish of me. Respectful. Responsible. And several other adjectives of obituary prose."
Alex reached out her left hand, laid it on his right.
Nicole was watching them with growing bewilderment and anger. "Will...one of you tell me what's going on?"
"You tell her, Eames. Please," Bobby said wearily.
Alex turned to Nicole. Her impulse was to scream, or shout, or spit. Instead she just said crisply, "He can't be Mignon's father, Nicole. He had a vasectomy...so there would be no chance he'd ever pass on schizophrenia to a child." A pause. "From July 2012 on, he was shooting blanks."
Nicole paused in shock, then exploded. "You bastard!"
"That's where you and Bobby differ, Nicole," Alex said, voice steady. "You...do have a lot in common. I'll wager the two of you could sit for hours debating the obscure themes in any classic novel. I'd be in your dust. But you still don't understand him. He always does what's right. Even if it hurts." She looked at him regretfully. "Even if it hurts him."
Bobby regarded Nicole with pity. "So, our visit to the past is complete. That brings us to the present. Keep in mind I'm doing this for Mignon, Nicole, not for you. Leave now. Walk out the door. Go directly back to your hotel. Pack up your daughter and your nanny, and go to the airport, and get them out of the country. Do it now. I don't care where. Canada. Mexico. Bermuda. The Bahamas. Peru if you prefer. Leave. Bottom line: not out of this country by midnight, all three of you will be arrested."
She stood frozen, staring. "You can't order me about"
He waved his phone at her with an effort. "This is a limited time offer, Nicole."
"Tick-tick-tick" Alex added.
For a moment, they saw Nicole's lower lip tremble.
"Tell Mignon the truth about Marcel. Please. You owe her that. She is fond of him." Bobby added.
Without a word, Nicole stood up, wiping her face of emotion, then pulled on her coat, and stalked out, slamming the door behind her.
"So, you're letting her go?"
"You know I can't do that. She's not going anywhere without someone knowing where she is." He chuckled wanly, held up his phone, tapped it a few times. A map appeared on the screen, with a dot moving upon it. "Remember when I pushed her down in the chair? I didn't want to get that close to her, but I couldn't think of another way to do it. I attached a tracker to the left side of her neck; it was on the underside of my thumb initially. New technology, two millimeter diameter, looks like skin, you can barely feel it when running your hand over it. There's always a possibility she might notice it, but right now she has a lot of things on her mind. It'll track her for three to four more days, until it gradually deteriorates from sun and bathing."
"But you said"
"'Go to the airport and get them out of the country.' If she misunderstood, it's not on me."
A knock came on the Puglia Room door, and then a red-haired woman in a navy blue pantsuit and white blouse entered. "Bob?"
He smiled. "Hello, Ronni. Is she tracking for you?"
"Loud and clear. She's on the move, too. Just saw her hop in a taxi."
"I don't think she misunderstood what I told her. Just stay on her, and stay back. She can be dangerous when cornered. She should go to her hotel, then leave with her daughter and the nanny. Neither of the latter should be detained at the airport."
"Got it. Is there a reason you picked an all-female team for this run?"
He snorted. "Because Nicole has proven over the years she's entirely too influential with men. I thought you and Ruiz and the others would be less susceptible to her lies." His voice turned regretful. "But don't let yourself think that being female exempts you. Ella Miyazaki ended up in the morgue that way." He shifted restlessly. "How's the sniffer team doing?" He looked at his watch and groaned. "I wish I had time to lie down, but it looks like we need to leave for Union Station. The Acela's at six."
"I'll page Ruiz," Veronica Heller said briskly, and left.
"Tell me," Alex said, an amused look on her face, "just what is your status with the FBI?"
He cocked his head at her. "I'm retired, Alex. You know that." But at the same time a tiny smile appeared. "Officially." He paused. "I didn't completely understand Karin's reference the one time she teased me about it, because I don't watch Star Trek, but the inference was clear. She says that sometimes I operate under 'a little-known Starfleet reactivation clause.'"
"And you've been working Nicole since you got the call from Penelope last October, haven't you?"
"A little bit here, little bit there."
"But you never connected"
"What happened at the Roosevelt and the fact that Nicole had a daughter? Not a clue. The most terrifying thing is that it nearly worked."
There was another rap on the door and Cristina Ruiz entered, with a rolling cart behind her.
"Here you go, Bobby."
Bobby rose, eyeing the items on the cart. "This is all you've completed checking, Cris?"
"Bob, you warned us to be thorough. I prioritized the items I thought you'd most like to take home with you. If you want, you can take the rest of your luggage right now, but I'd much prefer we take our time. Everyone at headquarters, except for Harry, likes youand Alexand we don't want anything to happen to either of you. I definitely don't want Chadwick pissed at me; she probably knows someone who could eff-up my promotion until the fall if I miss something." She gave him a friendly grin. "Someone will drive the rest of the items to you tomorrow, or at the latest on Monday. Alex" and she looked up, "I'd advise abandoning all the toiletries."
"Since I'm not on the $300-a-jar beauty plan, it's nothing I can't replace," Alex answered agreeably. "Please manage to save my hairbrush?"
"Trust me, I understand, and I will. We've cleared both laptopsthey're physically clean and they have no malwareand their power cords and the mice. I also have the phone chargers, both sets of house and car keys, and the camera. Anything else?"
"Claim ticket for our car at the New Haven Amtrak station."
Ruiz handed it out of her pocket.
"Then we seem to be set."
"I'll find someone to take you to Union Station," she smiled. "When you began interrogating Wallace, I dismissed Mr. Pencomb and watched the entire session from his ops room. You've both had a long afternoon. Safe trip. Come again, okay? We'll try to dial down the excitement next time. Maybe Harry will do everyone a favor and retire."
"Maybe he'll choose Lake Superior as a retirement location," Alex said, adding darkly. "Preferably the deepest part."
They followed Ruiz into the hotel lobby, where the clientele seemed unruffled. Evidently her teaming with Pencomb had gone smoothly and the sniffer team was working without having raised any alarms. Then Ruiz vanished, and after a few minutes Pencomb emerged from the hotel restaurant, carrying a paper bag with the Hotel Garibaldi logo.
"On the house," he said, handing the bag to Alex. "I appreciate your keeping things quiet. It's two roast beef specials and a couple more brownies."
Bobby fished his wallet from his pocket. "Mr. Pencomb, not only is your food worth paying for, but you know very well that this has a monetary value of more than $20 and I can't accept it."
"Are you certain? I really am thankful for this being on the hush-hush."
"The last thing I want is mandatory attendance at an Ethics Class." Bobby handed over the appropriate remuneration. "Thank you; we'll enjoy this on the train. And we're sorry for the extra activity."
"Oh, I don't know. So long as it didn't involve firearms or explosives, it just added a little excitement to the day."
"I've had enough excitement with mine, thank you," Alex said dryly. "But the sandwiches will hit the spot. The Garibaldi gets a guaranteed five stars from me."
Ten minutes later they had tucked keys and parking voucher in pockets, hefted laptops and the camera, and were transported to Union Station by a very young probationer who seemed pleased to be driving the two people who had created for him an afternoon unencumbered by tedious desk duties. Until boarding time they sat quietly in Union Station, Bobby re-reading a battered Christie paperback he'd left in his jacket, Alex checking Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and making Bobby smile at a photo of their collie and budgie that Sharon Kovacs had texted while she was house-sitting, labeled "Waiting for you to come home."
Finally settled in their seats in the club car, Bobby groaned, pushed his laptop aside and scrolled through his texts instead.
::Thanks for the recommend, Bob. Wallace on way to airport with child/nanny. We've got this. Ruiz::
"Harry will never forgive you," Alex commented.
"I hope so. I prefer to never speak to him and of him ever again."
He put his arm around her and a few minutes later he had fallen asleep. She smiled drowsily in return, secured the laptop and camera straps around her arm, leaned on him and dozed off as well.
. . . . .
"Coffee?" she asked, waving the paper cup under his nose two hours later.
Bobby took a deep breath. "That smells so good."
"Break out the sandwiches and we'll eat."
A half-hour later, fortified with strong coffee, roast beef sandwiches, and chocolate, they rocked contentedly with the motion of the train.
"So, how do you think Phil did substituting as The Wizard?" she asked.
"I may never get it back from him. He sent me fifteen texts Tuesday night, sounding hopped up on adrenaline, Guinness, and TJ's wings."
She laughed. "Maybe you should have tried harder to persuade Tim to take a turn instead."
"I never thought Tim would do it. He's not the type."
Alex finished a final bite of brownie. "Bobby"
"What are the FBI's chances of keeping Nicole to answer for her crimes?"
"At this point I'd suspect fifty-fifty because I don't know how much influence Marcel Pepin still holds. He's had a central role in French politics for almost two decades and he and his party members may still have some pull with the State Department. We'll see." He looked uncomfortable and she could feel him tense. "To be honest, maybe I don't want to take Mignon's Maman from her. Nor do I relish testifying about what happened at the Roosevelt. The debriefing will be difficult enough." He saw her eyes flicker. "I'm sorry if that disappoints you."
Alex said soberly, "A man who makes a major life choice to protect a theoretical child would naturally have consideration for an actual child who adores her mother...and I...can't say I blame him."
He relaxed, then tilted his head at her inquiringly. "There's a question still pending, Princess OzmaI recognize that look."
"I'm going back to wearing a mask," Alex said tartly. "All right...everything you told Nicole...that was the truth?"
"All of it. What's on your mind?"
"I don't know...how to phrase this." She bit her lip. "Bobby, you're...a very...enthusiastic lover. And...I don't see...she said three times...and you don't remember anything?"
"Eameswhat precisely did I say to her?"
"You told her that you didn't remember making...love" Now she tilted her own head, thinking. "No, what you kept emphasizing was that you didn't remember making love to her.'"
He nodded. "I went to sleep about midnight. I woke after four in the afternoon. I do not remember having sex with anyone. What I do remember is what I thought was a very erotic dream. I looked up Dormeral. It has mild hallucinogenic properties. So I don't doubt that what Nicole said was probably true. She switched on the light and, half asleep, wrung out from being sick, all I saw was a female figure in blue, someone I had been dreaming about...someone who used to wear blue quite frequently...when I worked with her." A wry expression flashed on his face. "But...you can see why I might not have wanted to mention that fact to Nicole."
She had to collect herself before she could face him again.
"I was thinking," he said thoughtfully, stroking her cheek with a forefinger. "Talboys is pet friendlywhy not e-mail Kaye and ask when peak leaf season is...out in the backwoods? We could drive down this time instead of taking the train, and bring Sam and Bandit with us. Sam would love it, and Bandit would have every bird in the forest to sing along with."
"All that driving just for a couple of days?" she asked.
"Hell, no. We'll do the entire week." He grinned at her. "I'll bring some booksif I get bored, I can always go to Walmart."
"Oh, no need for that," she said with a smile, "I'm sure I can find some way to keep you occupied."
He kissed her forehead. "I like that idea even better than the books."