A "REQUITED" POV: BOBBY
***October 9, 2021***
He was gazing at nothing in his backyard.
Sam, the oversized tricolor collie he'd adopted after a visit to the animal shelter a year earlier, was sniffing and snuffling through the already fallen leaves under the tree directly behind the porch. This was usually the next-to-the-last pleasant task of his Saturdays and Tuesdays, allowing Sam to wander the backyard, and then inside to a game of fetch before he showered and went to bed, a quiet completion to that night's trivia contest.
Tonight he was wound as tightly as an anchor chain, pain thrumming against him, his soul as bruised as it had been after his suspension from Major Case.
He'd thought it was going to be a lucky night and had felt particularly good as he did the usual four-block walk from his house to the Dark Crystal, the restaurant/bar owned by Richard Carver, son of ADA Ron Carver who he'd worked with at Major Case, and his partner TJ. He loved Shard and TJ like his own familyhell, for the past year they had been his family, just like everyone else: Sharon Kovacs, the head server who always sent him home with a treat if TJ forgot; Mickey Dolan the greeter and server; Tilde Svenson and Zhou Shanyuon, the preps; Carmella Innocenzi, the bartender; even Ibin Farouk, who kept the place immaculate and the Department of Health off their backs. And his little gig as The Wizard, a short-term position which he thought he would hate, had turned out to be the highlight of his weeks. The Facebook response had overwhelmed him; sometimes now he passed on info himself to Tim Stratton rather than Stratton having to glean it on his own.
He found he enjoyed getting there early, setting up his table, and people-watching as he ate a leisurely dinner while the players began to drift in, after all these months recognizing the faces and who was there and who was absentand resisting the impulse to flee when Maureen Leighton and her posse of "Smitten Kittens" showed up, because he was on to her game immediately and had no intention of being ensnared. Everything about her screamed "predatory" and she was all flash and no personality. Eames...Alex Eames with her open, honest face, even if she'd been dressed in sackcloth, would have outshone Leighton and her $300 shoes any day.
He'd noticed Phil Cochran was late, then had further wondered if other trivia hosts knew their regulars as closely as he knew his: the Agatha Christie fans who'd come in to scoff a month earlier and were now regulars; the quartet of science majors from the local university who thought it would be a doddle and came twice a week complaining about the complexity of the questionsbut still they came! The Carroll family: grandmother, dad, and three adult children. The Strayers, a young married couple who played on their own. The bridge club from Newtown. The quartet who worked at Raytheon, occasionally joined by a player from Rhode Island (who had once worked for Raytheon). And there was "Let's Get Quizzical," with Phil and his girlfriend and their two friends, middling to good players.
When he saw Phil tonight his first thought had been "Where is Rebecca?" Phil came every week with his girlfriend, an attractive redhead who was a nurse.
Then that thought was kicked to the curb by the woman beside Phil. She was masked, but he knew that walk, that hair, those clothes, even the crinkle of her eyes. He could have described how she smelled, how her handshake felt, the curve of her cheek, and the eye she would give him when he was trying to unnerve a suspect.
Christ. How could Bogart not come to mind? "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine."
What was she doing here? Wasn't she still with the NYPD?
When Sharon brought the table their drinks, the masks had to drop. He kept his head down as best as possible not to be seen and at the same time see her. Eames. Still that memorable face: the upraised (often defiant) chin, the small nose, the decisive brown eyes. But...not quite Eames. Did she looked a little wan? Thin? Something about her eyes that wasn't right? Something...missing?
His Wizard persona told him sternly: Keep your eye on the clock.
Shard bustled into the restaurant from the kitchen and passed near the windows to speak to Mickey at the door. He saw Eames' head tilt upward suddenly and she followed him with her eyes. For the first time he saw the old Eames in the glimmer of interest, how she watched him alertly as he chatted with Mickey and then circled back to the kitchen, stopping at a table to greet one of the diners. Had she noted Shard's resemblance to his father? Of courseshe was too observant to have missed it. He was taller, of course, his face a bit more angular, but when he smiled he was Ron's son all over.
But no expression of recognition appeared. She was still trying to make the connection in her mind. He could see it might be difficult. It had been fifteen years since they'd worked with Carver almost every day.
He had to start tonight's contest. Once he spoke over the sound system she would recognize his voice. Would she speak to him during intermission?
What was he going to say?
She stopped calling.
I could have called.
He keyed his microphone. Tonight of all nights there was a screech of feedback and he could hear his voice echo in distorted waves off the walls. Tim Stratton, who kept the Dark Crystal's Facebook page, was a handy sound tech as well, and immediately popped up to correct the fault. "Welcome to The Wizard's world, folks. Remember, unless you're eating, I want to see a big sea of masks. Please be respectful to your fellow diners."
Suddenly she was coughing and choking on something, and Phil and his friends were trying to help her, and she'd clutched at her belly and then made a dashright in front of him, every motion of her body so familiar and why the hell hadn't he just jumped down and tried to help her? But instead he was frozen in place. And ten minutes later she returned, her head deliberately averted away from him, still bent over as if ill and he was still immobile, watching, watching, watching, as she went back to the table and picked up somethingher purse, of courseand walked out.
And he'd just sat there, heart hammering, short of breath. Unable to move. She'd been so close, almost close enough to smell the sweet lilac scent she preferred, almost close enough to touch The clock had ticked to 7:45. He said something, the same thing he always said fifteen minutes out, but it sounded badly garbled to him.
She had to have known.
He managed to keep breathing. To be blasé when Shard asked him what was wrong. When he rose and mechanically went through his magic routines. The crowd probably was looking at him oddly, but he wasn't paying attention to them tonight. He just had to get through. During intermission he sat with his head down, breathing, just breathing, in...out, ignoring the pain. By the second half the pain had numbed somewhat. He paid attention to his breathing and kept his mind on the figures of the final scores, and managed to get through, and then he packed up and left. Shard met him at the back door with a paper bag. TJ always saved him a dessert.
"Not tonight," he'd said shortly, leaving his friend speechless at the door.
It had felt like hours to walk the four blocks home. The air seemed shot with mist and his shoes were as heavy as if ten pounds of lead shot were in each sole. Sam bounded to meet him at the door and picked up his mood almost immediately; instead of dancing on his feet he had thrust his nose in Bobby's hand, whining.
He'd said to the dog, as if he'd understand, "She left when she heard my voice." And then he knelt and buried his face in Sam's ruff until he was under control again.
Now Sam was thrusting his head under his hand and he petted the dog absently.
Declan Gage had always told him to think, to gather the facts, put them in coherent order, make sense of them. Of course, that admonishment didn't affect him as it had years earlier, before Gage's sanity had slipped over the edge. But the instruction was still valid. What were the facts?
Alexandra Eames had walked into the Dark Crystal with Phil Cochran. He flipped her face and Phil's back and forth in his brain. Was he crazy or was there some vague resemblancethe chin or the nose or...
Cochran. He'd gone to Johnny Eames' funeral, just before he'd left for Albany, a foggy, cold day in November. He'd had a difficult time talking to Alex; she'd been flanked by her sister at one side, her brother on the other, and the latter's grim face each time he approached made him realize that Jack Eames held his leaving against him. But he was at the graveside service and he remembered the existing gravestone with Johnny Eames' wife's name "Elizabeth Cochran" chiseled upon it.
Was Phil a cousin?
Her being there couldn't have been deliberate. No one knew his identity except for Tim and the crew at the Dark Crystal, and none of them were telling; The Wizard's persona was kept a secret. It was like that from the first, so he could have dumped the hosting job at any time. And it had been necessary for him to wear a COVID mask that obscured his face, although who the hell would have known Robert Goren from Brooklyn in a tiny town in Connecticut? He'd expected photos to get out through the internet, but people rarely snapped him with the mask downmaybe the crowd loved the mystery as much as he relished it?
So...Rebecca Balcer couldn't come. She worked at a hospital; Phil had mentioned as much one night when he sauntered up to get his score sheets and answer sheets and pencils. With the COVID-19 mess, not a small step to guess she was working a second shift. Or a replacement shift.
His mind clicked back to Eames' face. Something wrong...she looked thin...distracted.
Phil invited her-
Out tonight to cheer her up?
His cell phone was in his trouser pocket and he rolled it over in his long fingers.
I haven't talked to her in two years.
She stopped calling.
I could have called.
I still could call.
The fear deep within him crawled out, laid its claws in his soul.
If he did call, he would have his answer, but the answer might not be the one he wanted to hear.
If he didn't call, there was still hope because all the possibilities remained.
Even his therapist would tell him this line of thinking was illogical.
"What are the facts, Bobby?" Dec's ghostly voice.
He remembered the way her interest had been piqued by Shard. It was the one thing in the few minutes she had been there that had completely captured her old curiosity. The tilt of her head...the way her face had become animated as she tried to figure it out. Was she trying to figure out, even now, why he looked so familiar?
His "puzzles," she called them once. But they'd been her puzzles, too. She wanted the answers as badly as he did, always. It was what made her a good detective.
If he'd walked in the Dark Crystal and seen Shard for the first time, could he have resisted the puzzle?
He walked to the edge of the porch, Sam close by his side, absently rubbing the left side of his neck as he fit the pieces together.
The spark of hope that sustained him glimmered.
He had to believe her instincts would be true. That despite the voice she'd heard, that she'd fled from, she wouldn't be able to resist solving the rest of the mystery. "Who are you? Your face looks familiar. I know you from somewhere."
When she came to find Shard, she would find him.
Then at last he'd have to face the outcome whatever it was. Face to face.