******October 9, 2021***
«Milbury, Connecticut. I'm spending Saturday night in Milbury, Connecticut. Is this a sign of desperation?»
Alexandra Eames navigated the narrow main street in her Honda CRV until her phone's GPS intoned "You have arrived at your destination," which turned out to be a parking lot next to a locked and shuttered Rite-Aid drug store. A space was free halfway down the length of the building, and she pulled into it, relieved at not having to walk far and that the lot was at least decently lightedthe destination address Phil Cochran had given her was directly next door. In fact, she saw him waiting in front, hands shoved into the pockets of his jeans, shifting from leg to leg, facing in the opposite direction. People were eddying around him to get to the entrance of the restaurant.
She stopped in her tracks when she saw the sandwich board-style sign he was standing in front of, its chalkboard front covered in promotional text.
"Phil," she said in exasperation, "this is your idea of a good time for Saturday night? Pub trivia?"
Her cousin wheeled to face her. He was nearly ten years younger than she was, but a foot taller, with sleek dark hair and a sharp, narrow face like almost all the relatives on her mother's side of the family, dressed in what had to be the restaurant's giveaway shirt, a shocking-purple and black polo shirt that had the logo "Dark Crystal" on it, and black jeans. "Hey, Lizzie told me you were bored. Actually, she said 'depressed,' but I discounted that because she always worries over you. Do you have a better alternative?" He paused. "Besides, you'll love it. Becky and I come every Saturday night, but tonight she had to work a double shift at the emergency room. Quit being a stick in the mud."
Alex was still examining the sign. "Match wits with The Wizard! Connecticut's favorite trivia connection!" she read aloud. "New England.com award-winner for best pub trivia." The New England.com review had been enlarged professionally and, encased between Lucite sheets, was prominently displayed at the top of the sandwich board. She looked at Phil skeptically. "I don't know, Phil. Jack was the one into trivia, not me. Besides, when you've seen one pub trivia contest, you've pretty much seen them all."
"I'll guarantee you haven't seen this one. That's why the write-up and the awards. The Wizard doesn't just do 'trivia,' he does 'trivia amped.'" She hadn't seen Phil this animated since Super Bowl 51 and suppressed a smile. "Did you check out the license plates in the parking lot? There are people like me who come here from Hartford, and New London, and even over the line in Rhode Island, and everyone knows a Rhode Islander doesn't drive more than an hour without finding a motel! There's even a guy here from Manhattan tonight. Check out Main Street," and here he waved a hand, "There were five other restaurants out there, and they're all gone, but the Dark Crystal is still here. That's because of The Wizard. Oh, the food is great, but people actually come here to have their minds challenged." He glared at her. "You didn't used to be so much of a grump."
"Gee, thanks," she responded tersely. "Maybe I got old."
«Yeah, Allie, what's got a stick in your butt lately?»
She hated that small inner voice that kept taunting her.
He'd crossed his arms in front of him in the obstinate way she remembered from past family gatherings, she a teen amused by his presumption and he a contrary elementary school kid. "Or you could go home and watch Netflix."
She sighed. Even three-part trivia questions sounded more appealing than another Netflix night. "All right. I'm still in."
He looked her up and down. "I don't remember telling you that you had to dress up."
"What's with the way I'm dressed? This was what I used to wear for work," she protested. Grey slacks, heeled but sensible boots, a pale pink scoop-necked top, her grey blazer, things she felt comfortable in.
"Earth to Allie: you've been retired for nine months. Relax. Jeans and a sweatshirt and sneakers would have done."
"There's no use arguing with you." She tilted her head backward to examine the upper stories of the vintage building, the herringbone-patterned red brickwork ornamented by scrolled concrete sills and lintels around the windows. A lamp burned in one front window, behind translucent curtains. "1904, huh?"
"Used to be a five-and-ten store. There are some black-and-white photos near the restrooms. Let's go in, I'm dying for a beer."
Once inside Dark Crystal, she became more optimistic about her fate. The place was larger than it looked from the outside and no overly-loud music drowned out the murmur of the diners. The high ceilings were of whitewashed embossed tin tiles, criss-crossed with industrial pipes painted in dark grey and striped with the ubiquitous purple, and draped from them were miniature white Christmas lights with the odd blue or purple bulb thrown in. Art Deco style jazz-greats posters dotted the wallshe was fairly sure that was Duke Ellington playing at reduced volume on the sound systemand square black tables with bistro chairs were neatly spaced apart, each with a purple crystal centerpiece along with the black-and-violet napkin holders. The floor tiles, black-and-white check, completed the vintage feel. It was only 7:30, but most of the tables were elbow-to-elbow with chattering threesomes and foursomes, some of them already armed with score sheets and pencils, all of them suitably masked. The dining area itself was a squat L-shape, with the short bar of the L far to the back. The bar area was against the back wall, with multicolor liquor bottles lined up against a mirrored background, and three big flat-screen televisions, each set on a different sports channel, mounted above where they could be seen from every seat. Next to the bar, a purple-splashed black swinging door led to the kitchen. There were only four seats at the bar, but each of those was already occupied as well.
"Deondre and Emilia already have our seats," Phil said, pointing out a table near the side window, directly in front of the bar. "C'mon."
In a moment she was seated at the table with Phil's friends, who already had their drink orders in. Deondre Taylor was a short Black man with a full beard. His lower arms were tattooed with dragon motifs, and he worked, like Phil, at the Hartford Insurance agency. Emelia Pereaia had her blond-streaked hair in cornrows and wore shocking-red glasses and a mischievous smile. Alex knew from Phil's e-mail that she was a veterinary technician who lived in Bethel. Like Phil, they were wearing Dark Crystal polo shirts. Alex extended a hand to each, made small talk, ordered an ice water, even as she noted reluctantly that she was the oldest person at the table, although certainly not the oldest person in the establishment: this "trivia amped" gimmick seemed to appeal to all ages and sexes, from the obvious college students at a table near the front doors to four older women seated near them. Even though all three of her table companions were now enthusing about the prowess of The Wizard, she had half her attention elsewhere, mind gnawing on Phil's words earlier.
Lizzie thought she was "depressed"? What the hell was that all about? Couldn't someone just coast for a while? For as long as she could recall, she'd been on a driven, predetermined course: a degree in law enforcement, the police academy, police officer, detective, head of task force, captain. She'd seen things no one else wanted to see, coped with all sorts of personalitiessome odder than others, had triumphs and losses. A lot of losses recently, though not so much as others had, and she certainly had no cause to complain.
"Earth to Allie..." Phil sang out again, and she dragged her mind back to the present.
She had to admit that this was nicer than the last pub quiz location she'd been inbut of course that had included the detriment of being part of a murder investigation. From her seat she could see a raised dais straight ahead and a figure sitting at a table upon it, head bent over what were presumably notes on tonight's game. Male was all that she could tick off from that distance, as he was wearing a dark, wide-brimmed hat and a dark cloak lined with green satin. Green for the Emerald City as in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz? This, then, must be the infamous "Wizard." A mural behind the dais was a take-off of Van Gogh's "Starry Night," but shot with purples and greens.
Now her attention was taken at the entrance, where a tall African-American man had appeared, chatting with the server in charge of allocating tables. He was nattily dressed in a bright purple-blue blazer and darker blue slacks, and his face looked particularly familiar.
"Phil," and she indicated toward the door, "is that the owner?"
He craned his neck to look around her as he opened his menu. "Who...oh, yeah, that's Shard. He and his partner TJ own the place."
"I've seen him somewhere before," she said thoughtfully, tilting her head. "It's uncanny."
"How would you know anymore, Allie? You've seen so many faces in your work," he teased, and as his friends looked at him questioningly, "Allie used to be with the NYPD. She probably saw a hundred people a day. Don't tell me you arrested him!"
"No. Not anyone I remember arresting. Someone I worked with, though...I think. Can't recall whether it was Vice or Major Case or Homeland Security."
"Wow!" Emilia said. "You worked for all those?"
"I did. Longest on Major Case...no, it's not coming to me. My former partner would have had him pegged in a minute."
"What's Major Case?" Emilia persisted.
"Policespeak for high-profile crime." Alex shook her head. "Somewhere you want to stay far away from, from either side of the fence." She looked faraway for a moment. "It eats people aliveand I'm not talking about the perps."
Phil leaned back with his mug of Sam Adams. "We used to tease Allie that she was gonna marry her partner, they spent so much time together."
"And I," she pointed out, "always told the lot of you to stop being ridiculous. It wasn't that kind of relationship. We had each other's backs, we kept each other safe, we were family. I just as likely would have married you."
"Now you're being revolting," her cousin chaffed. "From what I remember, you sure could argue like a married couple."
«Including the time you wanted to murder him, after you almost did.»
Phil craned his neck toward the back of the L. "Em, you want to go up and get our things? Looks like we're about to get our first warning." Alex sipped on her water as The Wizard cleared his throat over the loudspeaker, there was a screech of protest from the sound system, followed by a distorted voice announcing, "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." A redheaded young man promptly popped from his seat to adjust the microphone.
At that moment, she felt her throat close and coughed, gasped, and then doubled up, glass slipping from her hand and hitting the table, teetering so perilously that it nearly upended. Emelia's hand shot out to steady it.
"You okay, Allie?" Phil asked, slapping her between the shoulder blades.
"Stop...don't. Went down...the wrong pipe...where's the restroom?" Alex coughed again, then took a deep breath, gasped, choked again and coughed a third time.
Deondre pushed her glass toward her. "Take another sip, Alex. That should help."
"No," she said, pressing on her stomach. "I think I need the restroom."
"It's back there," and Emilia pointed to the portion of the L directly in front of the dais, "to the right of where The Wizard is sitting. See the sign? You okay, Alex? Should I come with you?"
She was grateful they couldn't see her flinch behind her mask. "No, it's okay. Thanks for the offer. Be back in just a minute," and bolted from her chair.
Phil watched her, perplexed, as she fled, head down, and his uneasiness grew as his Apple watch counted ten minutes before she returned, her eyes slightly glassy.
"I'm so sorry," she said without preamble, "I know I promised to play with you, but I think I need to go home. I had szechuan for lunch this afternoon and I think it's taking its revenge."
Phil pushed his chair back with an audible scrape, stood up. "I'll take you home, Allie."
"No!" She put out her hand, pushing him back down. Her voice was raspy. "No, please. You sit. No use ruining your night, too. I'm okayI think I'm just going to have to be somewhere where I can sit closer to a bathroom." Before anyone else could speak, she snatched her purse from the table. "I'm going now while the going's good."
Thank goodness, she thought as she hurried to her car, they hadn't seen her in the restroom stall, debating what to do next.
Shut up, dammit.
She retraced her route up the dark road, managing to put off thinking until she pulled into the designated parking spot near her apartment, and only then the recriminations hammered her. What the hell had she done? She'd survived officer-involved shoots, murder scenes that would have gutted a civilian, distasteful perps, suspects hitting on her, and a kidnapping. And one little thing she couldn't cope with?
«Don't think. Don't think. Don't think.»
How infuriating that by 9:00 p.m. on a Saturday night she'd had a shower and thrown herself into bed, because in sleep she didn't have to argue with herself. Nor was there any sleeping late next day: Phil phoned her Sunday morning to check on her. Shortly thereafter the phone shrilled again: her sister Lizzie, of course, to whom she told the same sob story about the szechuan. At that moment she hated the family grapevine.
«Liar. But then what's one more little lie?»
She sequestered herself Sunday with a book and a blanket, ginger tea and soda crackers, to convince her body she was actually sick, but her brain would have none of it. By early afternoon she'd found herself on Yelp and Trip Advisor, reading reviews of the Dark Crystal. By all reports she'd also missed a great meal: reviews raved about chicken wings, potato skins, "Rhode Island recipe" clam cakes, and some cocktail called "The Wizard's Spell" which appeared to be largely creme de menthe. Chiefly the accolades were for the "fiendishly difficult" trivia. The "guy from Rhode Island" Phil had mentioned had even written a detailed review (including, she noted wryly, a referral to a Holiday Inn in Newtown).
Forced confinement, however, gave her the uneasy feeling that Lizzie was correct. This apartment stay had only been meant as a bridge, like the "gap year" you might take between high school and college. She'd never meant to be settled here, but from her vantage seated on the overstuffed discount store sofa, she knew she'd never really lived here, either, reminded daily by full boxes stacked in the hallway. Even her framed photos remained in a plastic tote rather than on a wall. She was in the city religiously each Friday, as well as any time the urge to shop struck her, not that she usually returned with anything; mostly it was just somewhere to go and something to do. Amtrak had more of her money than the local businesses.
Restless, she pushed the blanket aside and padded on stocking feet to the hallway made even narrower by the boxes, where one stack was tilting too much for her comfort. The top box was stained with soot and water, but she raised the lid nevertheless and was struck with the familiar musty scent of aged paper, plus the sight of a box of thumb drives resting on top, and, in addition, a stack of floppy disks, along with a USB floppy disk reader that worked with her laptop.
"Allie, you're welcome to keep those at our house as long as you want."
"No, I want to take them with me. I've been thinkingwhile I'm away I could put all these notes in order, maybe do something with them."
"Used in a book, maybe?" Lizzie had sounded delighted.
She'd smiled that day. "That's the general idea."
«And here they sit untouched.»
She stood staring into the box, fixed on a folder label that had Robert Goren's backhanded handwriting on it. And it only struck her at that moment...was this damnable feeling of emptiness why he'd risked everything to take that odious undercover job? The one that she'd screamed like a banshee at him about, that had nearly broken the trust they'd built up together, that had nearly broken him?
Now there was a memory best left tucked in the past.
Pushing the lid back on the box and shifting it so that it looked slightly more balanced, she returned to the sofa, shoving her laptop aside. Instead she went back to a favorite book she was re-reading for the third or fourth time. She turned the page and a Post-It note bookmark fluttered into her lap. On it was scribbled a time and a place, reminding her of when she'd last read the book. She scowled at the note, made a motion to toss it, then smoothed it out instead and stuck it back between one of the title pages, immersing herself into the story once more.
By Monday morning she was back to her retirement routine: a long morning run, yogurt and English muffin/marmalade breakfast with an orange juice chaser, a call back to Lizzie (just to assure her that she had recovered and to forestall followup phone calls), a quick visit to the drugstore. She felt she'd paid her penance when, upon returning from CVS, she ran into her next door neighbor, Mrs. Perrino, an encounter she usually tried to avoid. Really, Mrs. Perrino was a sweetheart, but she was apple-cheeked and grandmotherly at 75 and too overly-concerned that there was "poor Alex," still in "the prime of her life" and no one to love. And how she could talk! She commiserated with Alex about her sudden "mal-de-meal" and sympathized that she couldn't even enjoy a fun Saturday evening at a popular location, for it turned out even she know all about the Dark Crystal and its infamous "Wizard."
"I hear," she told Alex in that deliciously gossipy tone that grandmotherly women seemed to cultivate, "that they even have their own Facebook fan page!" Mrs. Perrino was a big Facebook user; she kept up with innumerable grandchildren, nieces, and nephews there, and got most of her news and gossip from social media as well.
Alex could take or leave social media, but had signed up on Facebook largely to follow her nephew Eddie. The Dark Crystal's lively Facebook feed was clotted with post upon post directed to The Wizard, complimenting his trivia skills and offering suggestions for categories, but he kept his anonymity: any inquiries were answered by an "apprentice" named Timothy who moderated the page and all photos showed only an enigmatic figure in hat and cape, face averted from the camera. And, oh, heavens...groupies of the female persuasion abounded! Several sent posts that made her blush. After working Vice she figured that habit had been burned out of her.
How could she not go back and check this out? And perhaps figure out why Dark Crystal's co-owner looked so familiar? That would be a harmless mystery worth solving with no deaths, no recriminations, no conflicts.
Tuesday morning she waffled. But her internal voice only got more insistent with each hour, and she found herself in front of her closet by late afternoon, pondering what to wear. Phil's assessment of her outfit on Saturday had annoyed her, and she finally compromised on a pair of denim slacks, comfortable shoes, and a button-down bright blue top, topped with her favorite grey blazer for familiarity's sake.
What had Phil told her? Trivia started at seven on Tuesdays, so the players could be home in good time for work or classes the next day. So she'd left early, threading her way back through rush hour traffic to arrive at the Dark Crystal by 5:30 p.m. By luck, she found a parking space right at the corner of the defunct Rite-Aid, although the restaurant seemed nearly as popular on Tuesday as it had been on Saturday. The savory scents which had so attracted her the first night assailed her nostrils, reminding her she'd skipped lunch. With luck, she could have a good meal, find out the answer to what puzzled her, and be on her way home.
«Home sweet home that you love so much»
Almost immediately, a young man with moussed black hair swept into the shape of a wave, wearing a button-down black shirt with purple piping over storm-grey trousers, showed her to a small table at the center of the dining area. From this vantage she could clearly see the dais with The Wizard's table. He was already squirreled up in his corner in hat and cape, still at work on notes. How early did he get here?
She had barely taken her seat and studied the menu before the server, Sharon, arrived, a perky young woman in her 20s with cinnamon-colored hair scraped back into a ponytail, wearing the Dark Crystal's signature purple and black polo shirt, and she appeared so quickly Alex thought there might be some real magic in the place. But of course it was Tuesday. What kind of crowd came out on Tuesday, even for "the best pub trivia in New England"? Unfortunately she didn't see the man Phil had pointed out as "Shard."
"What would you like to drink, ma'am?" Sharon asked, pen poised over an order pad. Alex chose sparkling blackberry water, and the server added, "If you already know what you want, I'll be happy to take your order now, too."
Let's see what else this place has going for it, she thought. "I'll have an order of the Thai spicy wings and an order of potato skins." And run harder next morning, presumably. She usually ordered a salad and chicken breast, but let's be exclusive tonight.
Amazingly, Sharon was back with her drink in only a few minutes. The dining area was warm, so she removed her blazer, laying it over the back of her chair, and then sat sipping her beverage and enjoying the jazz soundscaping. The wings arrived in less than fifteen minutes, and the potato skins in another five. Did everyone get served this quickly? Not only that, but Philand the Yelp reviewswere right, the food was delicious, the wings large, juicy, and succulent with the Thai sauce providing just enough bite, the potato skins heaped to bursting with bacon and cheese and chives. If she were a regular visitor, she'd probably have to kiss her waistline goodbye.
Funny...she noticed Sharon had laid the check down along with her order. Was that the routine here? Or did it look like she was going to skip out without paying? Fishing it from under the plate, she flipped it to discover the total was...zero. Printed neatly underneath in backhanded script were the words "Compliments of The Wizard."
This was too much. She abruptly rose, squared her shoulders, and skirted two other tables to end up at the foot of the dais, ready to speak.
The Wizard looked up and gave her the wry quirk of a smile she'd so totally expected. "Hello, Eames. I was hoping you'd come by to say hello." And then the smile vanished. "Or...were you going to run out like you did on Saturday night?"
She huffed at being caught out. "I wasn't feeling well."
He cocked his head in a way that sent a thousand echoes down her spine. "Well, I'm sure that's what you told your date and his friends"
She said indignantly, "He wasn't my date. It was my cousin Phil."
"But it was a lie," said Robert Goren, looking down from his elevated seat as if he were God on Judgment Day.
She was mindful to keep her voice low, but it was edged with a sting. "Oh, that's right, Bobby. You always went for the confession, didn't you? Okay, here's mine: I copped out. No apologies for the pun. I made you the moment you opened your mouth, even with the feedback. I was embarrassed because we'd fallen out of touch and I didn't know what to say to you. So now I've said it. Hello. And I'll finish. Good-bye."
She spun on her heel only to hear him push his chair back to thud against the wall and scramble off the platform. Hands were on her shoulders. "Eames. Eames. Stop." A breath. "I was a dick. I'm sorry."
Her shoulders remained tense under his hands, and he added, "When you didn't stop to say hello Saturday, I got my feelings hurt. But that's no excuse for my being an ass."
She exhaled, turned around, looked up at him. He was unmasked and put up his hands in surrender. "I'm safe, or I should be anyway. Been jabbed three times."
"Same here," and she pulled down her mask. "My sister has rheumatoid arthritis. Since I see her once a week, she got a third shot and so did I."
"Sorry to hear that. It's good to see you, Eames," and he pulled her into a bear hug. Even his cologne smelled of the past.
When he finally released her, she couldn't resist the question that had been pent up since Saturday night. "Don't get me wrongthis place is great, especially the music and the service, and the food is to die forbut what on earth are you doing here, and in that outfit?"
He lowered his head, meeting her eyes. "It's a long story," and then he motioned to the dais. "C'mon up, let's talk."
"I just came by to say hi and try the food. I hadn't planned to stay long." Even to her own ears it sounded half-assed.
He pointed back toward her table. "But...you haven't even finished eating yet. Sharon?" From another table, the server popped up her head. He pointed to Alex's table, the food, then beckoned her to bring it up, and Sharon grinned and nodded. "When you have a minute. Thanks!"
The dais sat about a foot higher than the floor, wide enough to accommodate two narrow tables. Goren's was cluttered with his own meal, a stack of printer paper, his old faithful leather portfolio looking much the worse for wear, pens, plus a shallow cardboard box where Alex could see score sheets and a container of pencils. The second table was empty and it was here Sharon laid out her meal, the sparkling water, napkins, and utensils, as well as the blazer she'd left on her chair. "You need anything else, Ms. Eames?"
Alex shook her head. "No, thank you. I appreciate you bringing it over."
Sharon inclined her head to Goren. "Anything for The Wizard."
Once she was out of earshot, Alex asked, "How does she know my name?"
"Same way she comped your dinner."
"I'd prefer it if you let me pay."
He said stubbornly, "My guest, my treat."
She regarded the shifting activity of the Dark Crystal from his vantage point and commented lightly, "My cousin Phil was right. You're the head honcho around here."
"Nah," he responded, popping a chicken tender in his mouth. When he finally swallowed, "I'm just the draw. Shard and TJ have done all the work. I'm just having fun."
"And that's why you're playing Dungeonmaster at a trivia game in the wilds of Connecticut?"
He was unmoved by the jibe. "Alex Trebek," he corrected. "Or at least Art Fleming. Technically Robert Earle."
"You're going to have to explain that in English, not in names."
"When Shard and TJ bought this place last year, I told them they were crazy. Crazier than me. Five restaurants on Main Street died a slow death in 2020; when they opened, the last two were taking their last gasps. But they needed a strong back to help clean out the place and I needed the cash." His hands were in motion while he talked, and it was so familiar she had to swallow hard to clear a lump from her throat. "Construction cleanup is boring and dirty, so I'd talk, come up with odd things as we worked, and Shard latched on it...said who else but me had all these obscure facts bouncing around in their head? So the trivia idea was his. But he didn't want the usual questions: Super Bowl stats, bull you'd see on TMZ, how many Kardashian sisters, basic history. So what I gave him was more College Bowl-level trivia. Original College Bowl, not the half-assed reboot they're playing now. Remember that quiz show, College Bowl...on Sunday afternoons? I used to watch it as a kid, see if I could get any of the questions." He rocked back and forth in the high-backed office chair when she nodded, then nibbled another chicken tender, looking thoughtful. "I told him I'd moderate for the first couple of weeks, until they found someone else to read the questions. After a month, I was enjoying it so much I quit asking for a way out. Here I am."
She sipped her drink. "I almost told myself it wasn't you on Saturday. Something about you seemed familiar long before you said something, but you look different. You're relaxed, Bobby. I don't think I've ever seen you this relaxedor at least not in a long time. You look good."
He stretched back in the chair, and for a moment his eyes flickered at her appraisingly, but he merely smiled lazily. "So do you. In fact, if I didn't know better, I'd say you had a portrait in your closet."
"Flatterer," she scoffed.
"Only stating the truth." Now his face took on a questioning expression. "You're...retired?"
"I must look relaxed, too. In January." A beat. "And before you say it, too, all I heard was 'Alexandra, I thought you were going to die in the saddle.' Sorry. I didn't sign up to be the old grey mare."
He always did go straight to the point. She puffed out a breath, let her eyes drift momentarily, tugged at her lower lip a little. "So many things. Internal politics. Somebody making moves on my job with no attempt to hide it. Too old to deal with jerks piton-climbing over my body to get to the top. And then the paperwork. Mostly the paperwork. Every year it multiplied exponentially. Especially after George Floyd." Her eyes flickered with sorrow. "That just hit so hard. I knew none of my people would do such a thing. Absolute trust in all of them, and they knew I wouldn't stand for it, either. But I knew...those power-mad bullies were out there and that some of my people knew them. I didn't want to be associated with people like that any longer. And maybe I was just restless." She paused a moment, then added reluctantly, "The final straw was the Laurier case."
"Hell, I didn't know you got stuck with that. I remember the blowup in the papers."
"Since the Senator blabbed in his paranoid delusional way to every reporter who would listen that the death had to be domestic terrorism, it was slapped on my desk before Rodgers had the body back at the morgue. And if it wasn't bad enough that a ten-year-old boy died" She stumbled on the words and Goren leaned forward, stretching a hand toward her. "bad enough, and then you find out it was his twelve-year-old brother who killed him, because he wouldn't share a Nintendo Switch." She dropped hands in her lap. "I nearly quit on the spot."
He let her eat more of her meal before venturing, "And your sister? She okay except for the arthritis?"
"Lizzie's fine." A beat, then she smiled wistfully. "My nephew Eddie's fine, too, not that I see him much any longer. He's at Cornell studying civil engineering. There's a girlfriend...and a motorcycle. Too busy for Aunt Allie now." She looked downcast for a moment, then sat up straight in her chair. "That's enough about me, Bobby Goren. You moved to Connecticut to take a job with a friend"
He rubbed at the side of his neck as he often did when thinking. "Not...exactly. I was only supposed to be here for three months. Things...got out of hand."
She pursed her lips. "Okay, last time we did talk, everything was fine. You were still under Jacobs at the FBI office in Albany. Still working with Ben and Karin as a regular team. I remember you talking about TDY to Denver, DC, Chicago...oh, and Bostonyou sent me that T-shirt after I made captain...'Wicked Smaht.'" She flashed a small grin in recollection. "What happened from there?"
"I don't know if there's a 'Reader's Digest' condensed version condensed enough," he said fretfully, leaning forward on the table. "Jacobs only hired me; I was working with Saltonstall. Penelope. Have you heard of her? Old Boston family, legacy attorneys...Saltonstall joined the FBI, which had her on the outs with her relatives. The Feds loved her because she was a good closer, but they didn't quite know what to make of her methods. Sound familiar?" She arched eyebrows at him and he continued, "Well...Saltonstall, despite her encounters with the powers that be, got promoted to the main office in Los Angeles two years ago...then...Cavanaugh" and now he scowled, face flushing. "Cavanaugh was a prick."
His voice had raised slightly and she put a finger to her lips, so his next words were nearly hissed. "He was all about moving up the promotion ladder, not about working the cases. A shit politician wannabe"
He tempered his volume once more. "He wanted us out, all Saltonstall's old guard, Karin Hiroharano way she deserved what happenedand Ben Siler, and me...especially me. Got a nice fat reprimand in my file for 'insubordination.'"
Her dismay must have shown clearly on her face, because he hurriedly continued, "I was justified...okay, maybe I was just pissed. After that, I figured I'd better get the hell out or I'd lose whatever good karma I'd built up."
"Which explains why your e-mails bounced."
He nodded. "That was January last year. My shrink said it was the best thing I ever did, but talk about being at sea.
"After I moved to Albany, I started seeing Dr. Chaudry. Gyson recommended her. During one of our first sessions I had told her that my idea of a good vacation was two weeks at the Smithsonian, so after I quit she told me, 'Mr. Goren, if you were any other patient I would encourage you to take a month-long cruise to the Caribbean; instead why not go somewhere quiet for a while? Near museums if you must.' I made a short-term agreement for three months on a place near New Haven. I could hit Mystic Seaport, the trolley museum, the Mark Twain house, the Florence Griswold Museum Had to sell my place in Brooklynreal estate prices had hit the roof again and half the bill collectors in New York State were still on my tailso I uprooted everything, even my books, for which I'm grateful, considering what happened next."
"Let me guess," she said slowly. "That was...March 2020? Lockdown."
When he didn't answer, she realized his brooding glance was directed elsewhere, and scooted her chair next to him. "Bobby?"
"This is the bad part, Eames." His voice was low. "Things worked out at first"
"Bobby?" came a deep voice from the other side of the table. "Everything okay?"
"Oh, hell." Goren flashed a look at the clock on the wall above his table. "I've missed my half hour check-in."
While he scrambled for his microphone, she turned toward Shard, smiling as she finally solved the mystery that had arisen Saturday. "Sorry. Didn't mean to distract him."
"Now who could blame him for being distracted?" Shard said with a grin, leaning against her table. "Alex Eames? Bobby said you might be by tonight."
«That certain, was he?»
He offered her a hand, then laughed and switched to a fist bump. "Sorry, I still forget. Richard Carver." He pronounced it "Ri-shard," in the French manner, accounting for the nickname. When he smiled the resemblance was uncanny, and his voice was in the same low register, although his face was more angular and his brush-cut hair was tipped with mixed blue and silver points, and he was at least six inches taller than the person she remembered.
"I know. As soon as you came close I realized who you were. The last time I saw you, you were thirteen and you were touring 1PP with your dad, Ron Carver." And that, she added to herself, explainsat least partiallywhy Bobby has stuck around so long.
"That's Judge Carver as of last year." He was beaming.
She laughed. "Well, if anyone deserved it, your dad didjust from what the two of us put him through. When you talk to him give him my congratulations and tell him I asked after him."
"I...will." She followed his glance, caught the expression on Goren's face as he turned away from the microphone, his eyes alight.
Shard said with a slow smile so like his father's. "I believe my wunderkind has an idea."
Alex sighed. "I know that look. He does indeed."
"Eames, I have a great idea."
"How about helping me tonight?"
She threw up her hands in front of her. "By doing what? I don't know anything about moderating a trivia contest."
"Moderating's my gig. You read the questions." He put a stack of printer paper in front of her. "See? All listed by round." His voice grew persuasive. 'C'mon, Eames. You've addressed task forces and the pressyou can do this in your sleep. Just have fun with it. I can do my schtick"
«Bobby has schtick?»
"and it will be a change of pace for the audience. Most of the folks here are regularsthey showed up last year when we were doing trivia out in the parking lot with patio heaters on cold days; it'll mix things up for them. Except" He bit his lip, looked at Shard, back at her. Shard raised his chin, considering her, and suddenly she felt left out of a conversation.
«Damn, have I've lost my ability to translate Goren eye-speak?»
Shard raised a forefinger. "I getchabut I have an idea. I'll be right back."
She glanced from his disappearing figure to Goren's face. "What are you two getting me into?"
A burst of chatter arose from the doors, since the crowd was increasing rapidly as time ticked down, and the tall redheaded young man that Alex had seen on Saturday night disengaged himself from a knot of people to make his way to the back wall. "Getting a late start tonight, sir?"
Goren thumbed at Alex. "Talking too much to a friend. Alex, this is Timothy"
"Stratton," she finished. "I know. You run B The Wizard's Facebook page."
"Hey, you checked it out?cool! Hope you like it," he added, offering her a fist bump; she could only see his hazel eyes, but they were bright with interest. "I'm just grabbing my stuffgot here late; working on my thesis all daynice to meet you." He looked pointedly at Goren. "Fair warning: the Smitten Kittens are here tonight and Ms. Leighton's headin' your way."
Goren made a face as if he'd swallowed a lemon, and Timothy's eyes crinkled as he hurried to join his own group.
"Smitten...Kittens?" Alex said with raised eyebrows. "Wait, are those the groupies I read about on Facebook?"
Goren gave her a sideways glance, then his expression snapped automatically to an artificial smile that usually proved convincing to anyone not in on his tells. "Maureen, happy to see you. How are things going this week?"
Alex regarded the woman in question from head to toe with suppressed amusement, from her impeccably coiffed ash-blond hair to the carefully chosen casual clothes that nevertheless sold at prices that made credit cards sob, and good heavens, were those Jimmy Choo sandals she woreand were those merely rhinestones on the straps or were they Swarovski crystals? And let's not mention the way she was so obviously flirting while pretending to be fumble-fingered and dropping pencils so that Goren would hand them back!
And what was Goren saying nowintroducing Ms. Perfect to her?
"and she's going to be co-hosting with me tonight."
"Pleased to meet you," Maureen said precisely, extending a well-manicured hand, her face schooled in a fixed, polite smile.
«Oooh, diamond solitaire and all. Bet that mani-pedi cost a bundle, too.»
Alex rose, but responded as if she were going for a fist bump, and Maureen retreated, not allowing a scowl to touch her deliberately schooled face, but oh, so obviously annoyed.
Once Maureen was out of earshot she heard Shard's muffled laugh behind her.
Alex said, suppressing a grin, "Now I'm in trouble. If looks could kill, I'd be scorched earth." She gave Goren a prim look. "Are all your groupies so friendly?"
"Shard, what did you find?" Goren asked, completely dodging the question by focusing on Shard's offering. "That's...the Miss Crystal cloak from opening dayperfect."
"Wait...I'm not wearing a costume!" Alex protested.
"Eames." Goren was behind her. "It's not a costume. Just...a cape."
He settled it on her shoulders, silky soft violet fabric shot through with silver threads, smoothed it in place, and she found she had to restrain the shiver that went through her.
«We're not doing this.»
"And there you go." Shard completed the outfit by setting a small silver circlet on the top of her head.
"Not a tiara, too?"
Goren observed mildly, "Not your first time, though. Didn't you tell me you were prom queen?"
"I was seventeen at the time, for God's sake." She lifted her hands to her head. "I'll look ridiculous."
He caught her fingers gently before they touched the circlet. "You will look" He tilted his head, smiling a little. "Lovely."
«Wait, that was water I ordered, wasn't it?»
Still, she found it difficult to meet his enthusiasm with cynicism and lowered her hands. "All right. You win." She added sarcastically, "I'll study my homework instead."
She took her seat and Goren went back to his prep, making an announcement at the fifteen minute mark. As she reviewed the questions, a troubled crease appeared between her eyebrows. "Bobby?"
He was just cuing his microphone and gave her a puzzled look.
"These questions. Chinese calligraphy. Santeria. The Riemann hypothesis. These are...elements from our old cases."
"What's the use of having all that information in my head if I don't use it?" And then he returned to his microphone.
"All right, folks, we're at the five minute mark, so anyone who's playing and who doesn't have their supplies please come up and get them now. We will be starting promptly at seven o'clock." He paused. "We have a special guest tonight, a colleague of mine of long standing, who'll be helping me with the questions." He extended a hand to Eames. "Please welcome Glinda the Good."
There was applause and some scattered laughter from the crowd, and a few latecomers rushing up for their pencils and answer sheets grinned at her as they passed. She hissed from her table, "'Glinda the Good'?"
He gave her one of his unfathomable looks. "You didn't expect me to call you the Wicked Witch of the West, did you?"
«I will get you for this, Bobby Goren.»
. . . . .
The first half of the game was livelier than she expected. She'd suffered through bad pub trivia years earlier with her younger brother, with soporific presenters alternating with those who thought they were God's gift to Jeopardy addicts. Goren made it fast and fun, with rapid patter, a few bad card tricks deliberately fashioned to be bad coupled with more clever sleight-of-hand, and sly, complicated puns that often took a moment to sink in but left the gamers laughing. It seemed to her that the manic intensity he used to pour into his work had now been redirected into something that made him more comfortable in his own skin. But had his instinct for solving puzzles been redirected as well, or was that still simmering under the surface?
She made no effort to compete with him, but read the questions in an arch, proper accent with a glimmer of merriment under the surface. The reviewers hadn't been wrong; the questions indeed bordered on the "fiendish," and the players often emitted audible groans as she posed a new conundrum. After she'd navigated a couple, she saw Shard grin and give her a thumbs-up from the bar area.
When halftime arrived, she leaned back, stretched. "You win, Bobby. This has been fun."
He set the microphone down, took a pull at the Guinness he was nursing. "I wasn't trying to win."
"I know." She arched an eyebrow as she peered out at the tables. "Although I'm worried nowwhen I leave tonight, are you sure Maureen won't be out there laying for me with a tire iron?"
He said mildly, "I hope not. I'd be her next target." He rose, stretched. "We can always give her more to think about."
Alex craned her neck to the right as she felt the soft cape lift from her back and bunch upon her neck, and then his hands began to massage her shoulders. In a few seconds she felt boneless.
«If you were a cat, you'd be purring.»
"So you...came how far to get here tonight?" he asked tentatively.
"About twenty minutes by the road," she said with satisfaction. "From Southbury." She paused a moment, arching her shoulders under his ministering hands. "Although my lease is up in a few weeks and I'm not certain if I want to stay."
"I didn't think you'd ever leave New York," he said in a low voice.
"It wasn't exactly my choice. 2020 for me was about a lot more than the pandemic." Before she could suppress it, a shiver ran through her body, and it took her a minute to collect herself. "There was an electrical short in my kitchenall that old wiring. My house caught fire two days after Christmas, and I lost almost everything except for my photos, my laptop, my papers, my clothes, and a few small pieces of furniture that were salvaged from the rear el of the house. I collected the insurance money...and I suppose I ran."
She shivered again, but this time it was because his fingers had switched attention to the soft skin behind her ears and he was rubbing at the base of her skull with his thumbs. He was hesitant as he asked, "What about...the little bird? The one I gave you after...the other died? Or don't they live that long?" He was deliberately not mentioning Jo Gage's name, and that was of some comfort. She had a sudden flashback of him appearing on her doorstep several weeks after she'd been released from the hospital, gently carrying a little cardboard box with air holes in it which she opened to find a wide-eyed white-faced blue parakeet with the juvenile striping still on his forehead. "I still had him...until that night. Smoke inhalation. Not a mark on him, but he was gone when the firefighters found him."
Tears were forming but she squeezed them back fiercely. She had less luck repressing a sniffle.
"I wasn't thinking straight for a while, probably because the smoke alarm took so long to wake me that I nearly didn't make it out. They kept me overnight at the hospital, and Lizzie and Jack both were there fussing over me when all I wanted was to be left alone. As for why I'm here...because of a book. Or a couple of books." He was back to massaging her shoulders again, but she glanced up and from that vantage she could see a perplexed expression on his face. "I know, it sounds ridiculous, but the last two weeks I was carrying Eddie, I was sleeping in Lizzie's guest room. Steve's mom Rose had just passed on a month earlier and he had stored her favorite books in a night stand next to the bed.
"One night Eddie would...not...be...quiet. I swear he was tap-dancing on my bladder! Since I couldn't sleep, I grabbed one of the books. Not my usual reada memoir of a woman who bought a Colonial-era farmhouse in Connecticut with a friendbut that night it was comforting. After the fire Lizzie took me in again, and the books were still there. Steve let me take them with me when I left. So when I was looking for a place to live, on a whim I checked out her old hometown."
"I know the author you're talking about: Gladys Taber. The Southbury Land Trust and the Phillips Farm. Gave them a donation last year."
"There was an apartment available. I took it. As simple as that." She stirred restlessly. "Maybe too simple. But I put my life into neutral and left myself stuck there. I can't quite decide what to do next. Not impatient for another job, still want more to do. Does that sound unreasonable?"
His hands tightened on her shoulders and she wondered what had disturbed him. "Why should it? You're just taking stock before you move on," was his noncommittal answer. "And you're still recovering from the fire. After all, that house was your refuge, all tied up with memories of your husband and a pet you loved."
«He'd heard that sniffle all right.»
Then he added with clear mischief in his voice, "So...um...what's the verdict on Maureen? Is she checking us out? I don't dare look."
«Is this the only reason you're giving me a massage?»
Alex's eyes flickered out to the tables and the Smitten Kittens. "She's looking, all right," she chuckled. "We are bad people, Bobby."
"We've got about four minutes before the second round starts," He paused, cleared his throat, then did it again, and when he spoke again, he was trying too hard to be casual. "When we're finished here, you want to come over for coffee? I promise you fresh brewed, not squad room reheat, and no Starbucks flavorings."
"I'd like that. After all, it's not like the world will end if I do my weekly grocery shopping tomorrow a few hours late." She looked up at him with a cynical smile. "That's my big mission early Wednesday mornings, you know. Really high stakes."
"Wednesday's my weekly video appointment with Dr. Chaudry, then I go to Big Brothers, and Russ Jenkins and I keep an eye on the boys who come in after school to play basketball. Sometimes we play pickup with them, and sometimes they just sit down and...what did they call it when we were kids? Rap?...with us. Sometimes we try to help. Most of the time we just shut up and listen, because that's what they need." He looked up at the clock. "Time for round two."
. . . . .
"After adding up all the scores, tonight's winners are We're Just Guessingcongratulations on another expert job of guessing!" A cheer came from the group of 20-somethings in the far corner. "That entitles you to a gift certificate for next time. In second place, the new guys, Agatha Quiztie " (here four older women made high fives) "-congrats and a gift certificate. In third place for the fourth week in a rowwill this be your modus operandi from now on?10 Pints to Gryffindor, and you get our Dark Crystal mug, a collector's itemthis week anyway. Thanks all for playing, and be sure to come back Saturday."
The Smitten Kittens, Alex noticed with satisfaction, came in dead last.
Goren had already finished packing his notes into the venerable leather binder when he saw her reach up to take off the tiara. "Eames! Not now!"
"Don't take it off here." He gestured with his hands. "We want to preserve the mystery, right?"
"If you say so," she responded, surprised at his intensity.
Timothy threaded his way through the crowd. Most of the trivia players were leaving, but there was a late-night crowd already straggling in, and the jazz music started up again. "Hope you'll be back on Saturday, Alex."
"I'll try. Did I hear you say you were writing a thesis?"
"Yeah, I'm pre-med at Yale. Doing a paper on the possible clinical use of puffer fish poison." He offered her a farewell fist bump and she returned it. "Again, nice to meet you. The recaps will be up in two hours, sir."
"Take your time. Good night, Tim."
He vanished into the crowd. Alex asked lightly, "Doesn't he know you're really Bruce Wayne?"
Goren shot her a sideways look and she arched eyebrows and mouthed "Gotcha!"
"Tim likes to preserve the illusion, too. Just wish he'd stop calling me 'sir'makes me feel like I'm superannuated." He indicated a door next to the kitchen. "Through there."
This proved to be a narrow service hallway painted in shades of green. At left the kitchen was still pumping out savory scents of wings, onion rings. and fries. To the right were a row of doors: an employees-only restroom, what looked like an office with a hand-lettered sign proclaiming "Private, No Admittance," and a final, unmarked room that turned out to be a supply closet. Here among the mops and shelves Goren pulled off his cape and folded it neatly into a big duffel bag, with the broad-brimmed hat on top. Under The Wizard's finery he was dressed in a black hooded sweatshirt embossed with a white book design that said "A library card is a guy's best friend" and a pair of grey jeans, finished off by a pair of black Dr. Martens. Now she could get a good look at him, too; he'd trimmed the full beard he had worn previously into a smaller Van Dyke, and his hair was rumpled from the hat. Very little of the dark hair he'd had when she'd met him as a restless junior detective was left; instead most it was a soft silver mixed with lighter brown. Ah, well, it wasn't like her stylist wasn't having to do a few touchups these days.
Alex almost reluctantly pulled off the soft cape and folded it around the delicate tiara. "What shall I do with my Glinda outfit?"
"Just drop it into my bag. You can wear it on Saturday."
"And what," she challenged, "makes you think I'll be back on Saturday?"
"You already said you had a good time. And you told Tim you'd try."
She bit her lip, started to speak, stopped, then admitted. "Yes, I had a good time. In fact I haven't laughed so much in ages."
"And do you have plans for this Saturday?"
"No. It's on Friday I visit my sister."
His voice was speculative. "No date?"
She let him wait a couple of beats before answering. "No."
"Then why not come back? You wowed most of the crowd...except Maureen, of course."
She rolled her eyes, but gently laid both cape and tiara into the duffel. "So what's the deal with The Wizard persona? Was that Shard or TJ's idea?"
"Mine, but it was an accident. The restaurant was originally called 'Oz' because it had an Australian theme. What better than to be The Wizard of...well, you know. Not my most creative moment. By the time I found out about the name change I liked The Wizard idea too much to change, and I'd bought the outfit. Got the cape on discount just before Halloween."
"It's a Slytherin cape, you know."
"I know. Their color is green and I wanted to keep the Emerald City motif. Besides, didn't the Sorting Hat almost put Harry in Slytherin? It's also for people with ambition. Most of the Wizarding World seems to link ambition with evil."
"You've read Harry Potter?"
He chuckled as she pulled her blazer back on. "During lockdown I read practically anything. I'll bet your nephew went through a big Harry Potter phase."
"Eddie and my niece Sophia, too. You have no idea. I bought him a stuffed owl, her Harry Potter journals, got wands for both of them one Christmas, not to mention several Halloween outfits." She added almost plaintively, "Now I think you promised me some decent coffee."
He dangled a paper bag from his previously free hand, then tucked it into the duffel. "And a couple of slices of key lime pie. TJ always saves me a dessert, or Sharon will if he forgets." He chuckled. "I guess Shard and TJ are the closest thing I've had to family in a couple of years. And Sharon and Tim and the other guys at the Crystal."
The exit door at the end of the service hall opened out into a parking lot for the employees, surrounded by trees, and they fell into step together as if no time at all had passed. "My hat now, that's a different story. It's a genuine Maxwell Grant 'Shadow' hat reproduction."
"From the radio series?"
"The pulp seriespredates the radio series. The real classic stuff."
They emerged from the parking lot at the street next to the restaurant; he directed her across, past the shuttered gas station. Once they reached the main street, she surveyed its length once again, noting the empty storefronts, including an ice cream store and an Asian fusion café. "All closed, huh?"
He pointed out the glow to their left. "Except for the Starbuck's."
"Those things never die," she sniffed darkly.
Together they proceeded down Main Street. She let him set the pace and he proceeded at a relaxed amble, swinging the leather binder in one hand, the duffel slung over his right shoulder like a sailor's seabag. Once past the gas station, the small business district dwindled into the suburban, with older, veranda-fronted homes on either side of the street, set back behind deep lawns dotted with mature trees or behind squat hedges. They glimmered with lights in windows, some downstairs, some behind curtains upstairs, a few with front doors illuminated. It was warm enough that crickets still thrummed a constant song, and brisk enough that the rising breeze sent a trickle of cool air down her collar. A tiny sliver of moon was overhead, glowing strongly in a sky not overpowered by blazing city streetlights, the trees planted along the sidewalk in various stages of color change and many already dropping leaves. The breeze rattled the drying leaves left on the trees like soft breaths, and except for the occasional rumble of a car engine, it was so quiet she could hear her heels click.
"I need to finish my story," he said finally.
"You don't" she protested.
A wry smile crossed his face. "If I do, maybe you'll understand why I'm" a pause, "'playing Dungeonmaster at a trivia game in the wilds of Connecticut.'" Another pause. "So the entire world was quarantined, and for a while things were okay. I walked in the morning, walked at night, sorted old notes I made, read, read more, tried to write. Did what everyone else did, went online, even watched cooking videosdid you know that there are colonial-era cooking tutorials? But more and more in the mornings after my walk, I'd get into the car, go to the supermarket, and pick up a six pack. Then it was the package store and it was a fifth of something, and by evening I wasn't fit for a second walk, and the weeks started getting hazy." His pace slowed as the memories flooded back. "I suppose I should have taken it as a warning when I started understanding why my brother...well, you know. Finally on the tenth week I was ten minutes late calling Dr. Chaudrysince I moved we were doing my sessions via Zoom, you know, on the computerbecause I could barely function. She's always been patient with me, put up with a lot of shit, but that morning she gave me a look I can't even describe and said 'Mr. Goren, if you will not do me the courtesy of showing up to our sessions sober, I would advise you to find another therapist.'"
He came to a halt, pain clouding his face.
"Bobby" she insisted, touching his arm. "You're here. You got past it."
He met her eyes, then gave a ghost of a smile. "Yeah, but you know meI did it the hard way. First I lost my temper. I threw things. Left a dent in the wall that lost me my security deposit. Killed an alarm clock and two drinking glasses. How dare she! Isn't that what I went to her for, week after week, to help me with this shit? What the hell was I paying her for? Then I broke down and cried, like the sloppy drunk I was at that point. Fell asleep in the middle of the floor and woke up next morning with virtual elephants stomping my head into the carpet and reeking of vomit.
"So...dumped the bottles, took a shower, cleaned the apartment, sat down at the kitchen table, and wrote out a schedule. My own private Bobby Boot Camp. That's what working with Shard and TJ was, part of "boot camp." TJ would send me real estate listings; that's how I found where I live. The two of them helped me move. Then I found a walking partner. Started working on a bookor that's what I called it. And not only called Dr. Chaudry and apologized, but did it in writing."
"A book?" She thought of the boxes in her hallway.
He started down the sidewalk again, walking backward until she caught up with him. "More like dumping all my resentments on paper. A story about a kid like me, growing up like I did, getting through it. Nothing much to it. Thought about a memoir about Major Case...but it never seemed to be working out." He turned his head toward her. "That's what you ought to do, Eames. Write a book about your time at Major Case. Or Vice, or your whole career."
"Already beat you to itor the idea, at least. I'd told so many stories so many times to Lizzie and the rest of the family that I figured it would be simple to sit down and write it all out. It's what I was supposed to be doing these past nine months. They've stopped asking me how it's going. It hasn't been going anywhere; I couldn't even decide where to start."
"You could always talk about coping with the whack-job they partnered you with." He grinned. "A story like yours would be very popular now. Women who are pilots, CEOs, political figures, and scientists are already telling their storieswhy not a book about a smart, strong, tenacious police officer?"
"I believe Jane Tennison already has that part sewn up."
"Non-fictional police officer," he parried.
It hardly seemed they had gone four blocks, but suddenly they were at another corner, under a streetlight. "This is our turn."
She pointed four blocks down the street. "Turns out this smart, strong tenacious former police officer and the detail-oriented trivia Wizard both forgot my car."
Sheepishly, he followed her gaze. "Next thing you know they're going to stick us in a home." She started to turn back, but he caught her arm. "Hold on."
He pulled out his cell phone, tapped a few times on the screen, waited.
"Shard?...yeah, it's me. Eames and I were so busy gabbing we walked off and left her car in the parking lot. Can you guys keep an eye on it until she comes back?"
Even without his speakerphone being on, she could hear Shard say clearly over the jazz music, "Did she lock it?" and mouthed "yes" at him.
"Eames always locks her car," Goren said, grinning. "She's anal that way."
She could hear Shard laugh and respond affably, "Sure, tell her not to worry. We'll keep an eye on it until she comes back in a couple of hours."
And then he must have added something in a lower tone because she clearly saw Goren turn scarlet, even under the inadequate beam of the streetlight, and then he fumbled his words before hanging up.
«Bobby can blush. Who knew?»
They turned the corner, at a lot with a Colonial-style house set at center, and she said nostalgically, "My mother always dreamed about having a Colonial like that, always somewhere up in Scarsdale or out in Greenwich...she'd get this faraway look on her face and talk about having a flower garden, and watching us kids play in the healthy sunlight. Oh, we were all for it since I wanted a pony and my brother asked for a German shepherd! Now you need at least a couple of mil to afford one. Maybe that's why I was so taken with the Taber book; I was remembering my mother."
He sounded wistful. "I remember when neighborhoods like this were Disneyland to me. You know, in the Dick and Jane readers at school? I'd wonder what it was like to have a dad who mowed the lawn and played ball with you instead of playing the ponies and asking you to lie to your mom, and have a mom who baked cookies and who smiled all the time, and a brother who helped you instead of taking turns bullying you and ignoring you. Screw Disneythat was real Fantasyland. I wanted to live there." He shrugged. "Maybe that's why I'm here now." He thumbed at the next house, a neat little dark grey Cape Cod trimmed in white, with a small lawn in front. "There you go, Chez Goren. Tiny but all mine for now."
"You've bought it?"
"Rent-to-own." He tilted his head slightly before opening the front gate of the chain-link fence that surrounded the property and ushering her inside. "But I'm thinking about it."
A short concrete walkway led to a small flight of concrete steps before a front door set between a picture window on the right and a smaller window on the left; a trio of staggered small panes took up the top half of the door. "And you'll get to meet my walking buddy."
Her heart gave a small, hard thump. "Bobby, if you have friends over"
He gave her an odd look. "You're overthinking this."
The door swung inward to reveal a small living room with a worn hardwood floor and pale silver-grey walls, minimally furnished: black leather sofa with a built-in recliner against the left wall; big dark-grey Laz-Y-Boy recliner positioned under the front window with a cheap Parsons table next to it, stacked with books; flatscreen television mounted on the wall between the two windows at right, with an IKEA sideboard underneath holding a DVD player and rows of DVDs; overflowing bookcase on the far wall; and a stairway leading to the second story. She barely had time to take it in before there was a loud thud from the upper floor, what sounded like a galloping horse, and something large, furry, and mostly black pounded down the stairs and skittered across the floor to throw itself first at Goren, and then at her.
The animal responded promptly, falling into a sit and presenting her with a panting, happy face.
"You...rescued a bear?" she quipped, catching her breath.
"It's a collie," Goren protested, squatting down to give the massive dog a hard rub behind the ears. "Aren't you?" It leaned into his hand, looking blissful.
"You can't fool me. I watched Lassie as a kidcollies don't get this big."
"I had him DNA tested. He is a collie. But he's also eighty pounds."
She squatted down, too, and the dog happily abandoned Goren to sniff this enticing new human, give her a big swipe across the cheek with his tongue, and then shove his chunky, mostly black head under her hand so she would pet him. "Oh, all right. What a good boy." She looked up. "He's a tricolor. I've never seen one except in photos." She crooned to the happy dog beating his tail against the floor, "What a beautiful boy!" and then asked "You named him Sam?"
"He came as 'Samson,' but I call him Sam," Goren explained. "I went to the shelter looking for a terrier." He grinned. "I like terriers; they've got...attitude. But at the shelter there's a trick: they walk you past the big dogs first." He stroked Sam's head again. "This guy had been adopted when the pandemic began. But his owner went back to work at his office, so he returned him." A scowl crossed his face, the one she'd seen dozens of times when someone was being abused. "Like he was an appliance bought at Macy's that was no use any longer. He was at the back of his pen, but when I walked by he stood up and came to me, offered me his paw. How could I turn that down?"
He rumpled the dog's ruff one more time. "Let me give you the nickel tour, and then I gotta let him out. Usually I walk him, but I generally skip it on trivia nights." He opened his palms wide. "Living room." He pointed to the stairs. "Saving the best for last. Here," and he stood back up, taking her hand to help her to her feet.
The house was indeed tiny. An archway at the rear left of the living roomwas that a dial phone on the wall? he laughed when she asked, and added "And it still works"led to a very short hallway tiled in pale green with black trim. The room that was now to their left was his bedroom; she could see it crowded with a mattress and box spring on a nondescript platform base and a tall, out-of-place colonial highboy which he pointed out with, "That was my mom's. The one nice piece of furniture she had left." Ahead of them was a small, blue-and-black tiled bathroom, opposite on the hall was a door. "Basement," he explained, tapping the door. "The former owners made a 'rumpus room' out of part of it, wood paneling, drop ceilingthe whole 60s thing." The hall opened into the kitchen: fridge, stove, two small counters centered with a sink under a window at left. An unsteady-looking card table and a couple of folding chairs functioned as an eating place. The fourth room had a futon covered in a blue denim bedspread and two more bookcases crammed full.
«Practically a branch of the public library.»
He pointed to the back door. "There's a porchjust a concrete pad with a roof. A couple of trees out back, and a small shed." His eyes were anticipatory now as he wheeled to go back to the living room. "Come upstairs into my lair."
He took the hardwood stairs two at a time, and then waited, fidgeting, for her to reach the top. She understood why as she ran her eyes up and down the room that ran the length of the house's second floor, then laughed. "The Wizard's Lair. It's definitely you."
The room itself had been drywalled and painted pale beige, with simple frosted-glass overhead fixtures. Very little of the walls was visible as it was filled end to end with nothing but bookcases, books cramming the shelves, some paperbacks stacked two rows deep, bookcases with small piles of other books in front of them. The only spots not covered with books were the window at the south end, which had a large safe underneath it, and the window at the north end, which had a plain desk set before it, flanked by two battered stools that had more books stacked on them, and a big office chair.
"I can see why you wouldn't want to move again," she said dryly.
The desk was nearly covered with stacks of paper, but she smiled when she saw two framed photos wedged on the cluttered surface. One was of a young Frances Goren, and the other was a print of the photo Captain Hannah had snapped on the day Goren left Major Case. He was holding the plaque they'd presented him in his right hand, and his left arm was casually draped around Eames' shoulders. She noted the strained, frozen smile on her face; just the image brought back the memory of the squad room and the smell of stale coffee, paper, gun oil, holster leather, metal, floor cleaner, and the overly-sweet sheet cake from the local supermarket.
She felt his arm drape upon her shoulder as if in imitation of the photo. "You guys did a great job on that party. Almost wanted to give the plaque back and start back all over again."
«Almost. Oh, that word.»
"What about that coffee?" she said in a small but hopeful voice.
"I'm on it," he said, swinging away from her. "Come out and see the back and I'll let Sam out at the same time."
She followed him down the stairs and discovered he'd hung all his NYPD memorabilia on the two adjoining walls that formed the landing. There were his police academy graduation photograph, all his certificates, his ribbons pinned to a velvet-lined cardboard square, and one final photo. "Bobby...where did this come from?"
He turned to see her tapping the photo. "I think...Deakins sent that to me. Someone took it at the first holiday party after I joined Major Case. He didn't know who, but he thought I might like it."
A memory flooded back: there she was in that slinky red dress Lizzie had badgered her into wearing, in her highest heels, eyes cast up at a skinny branch of mistletoe some joker had hung near the captain's door. She found out later one of his aides had put it up, hoping to catch Deakins. Instead next to her was Goren, grinning broadly with one eyebrow arched waggishly.
She asked archly, "I can't rememberdid you try to kiss me?"
"Not me," and he raised his hands in feigned self-defense. "I'd been on your last nerve all week and had one too many glasses of punch. Third time would not have been the charm."
Once back to the kitchen, an errant wind blew a golden-and-orange maple leaf inside as he opened the back door. "You need a sweater?"
"No, I'll be okay. These days my personal thermostat is set to 'overheat.'"
Sam plunged out the door between them, barking, and then, after rolling in a patch of leaves, disappeared into darkness. Goren reached back inside and there was suddenly a flood of light to the back yard so they could walk down the porch steps and into the yard.
"And that's the shed," he said perfunctorily as they passed a tree. "Electrified and everything. Kind of a fancy job for this house."
She stopped in her tracks, staring.
"Eames?" And when she didn't answer, "Alex?"
She realized it would sound like a non-sequitur the moment she said it. "Did I mention I was taking a class?"
"I don't think so." His voice was puzzled. "You finishing up a degree?"
"No, I was bored and restless, and it was something to do at night. Mrs. Perrinowho's the sweet elderly Dolly Levi-clone who lives next door to metalked me into it. In fact, I just opened up the 'continuing education' catalog to the 'creativity' section, closed my eyes, and dangled my finger over it and stabbed at a class. Stupid now that I think of it, but it seemed the thing to do at the time. I have a drawing class on Mondays and Thursdays. This just reminded me"
She strolled to the shed, which was more like a small playhouse than a structure to hold tools; it had a narrow glass door with two big windows on either side of it, the whole building about 10x10. Inside there was a bare bulb dangling from the ceiling and a built-in bench at the back.
"I follow you," he said thoughtfully, following her in. "It does look like an artist's studio. Windows face west, for the sunset, and you can see all the way to Newtown after the leaves drop. Or a writer's studio, too. But" he indicated with both hands, continuing in a practical way, "there are screens for the windows in the basement. Could just be a place to come out and get cool in summer and watch the sunset. Or an extra-fancy potting shed. Hell, with the electrical plugs you could put a wine fridge out here, or a beer cooler and turn it into a man cave. That was Mike's idea, anyway."
"Mike? Mike Logan? You're still in touch with Logan?" Her voice rose an octave.
"Yeah. He shows up on Sunday every two or three weeks. If there's a good game on, we'll drive into Bethel to a sports bar he likes, more often we sit watching whatever game he's following in my living room with a couple of beers. Depending on the game sometimes I'm reading through most of it and we don't say more than three dozen words to each other."
"And that's the wonder of male bonding."
She took a seat on the built-in bench and he came to sit beside her, a bare handspan separating them. And then there was silence, but she saw his legs jittering. Something else
"You quit calling." It wasn't an accusation, just a statement of fact.
«Oh, no, you're not getting away with that.»
"You could have called me," she pointed out.
He considered. "I figured...when you stopped calling, you'd finally ended up some place where...where you were keeping busy and were happy."
"And therefore didn't want to talk to you any longer?" Without intending to, she sharpened her voice. "Dammit, how many therapists have you seen since I've known you?"
He winced. "If you count Olivet, three."
"And three therapists later you still haven't gotten it through your head, have you? You're not Mark Ford Brady. Or William Goren. You're Robert, and you're a nice guy who made it through a hell that would have killed anyone else and by some miracle has come out a decent human being. It's bad enough if you're still devaluing yourself, but I'm more sorry you thought I was so shallow."
She added testily, "The only reason you haven't heard from me is that I was a technological moron. You and your handwritten notes can laugh at me now! I bought a new phone, transferred my contacts, and stupidly didn't confirm my new phone was backing up. My phone died, everything was wiped out, and any phone number I did have written down for you was long out of date, your e-mail didn't work any longer, and everyone I called said you'd dropped off the face of the earth. And the longer I didn't hear from you, the easier it was to believe you didn't want to talk with me any longer. I didn't realize you were still in contact with Logan. Him I could have found." She pulled out her phone, opened her contacts list to a new entry, handed it to him. "So let's try this again."
Wordlessly he handed over his own phone, and she bent over it, keeping her eyes fastened to the screen with her hair curtaining her flushed face as she tapped in the information with staccato clicks that even to her own ears sounded angry.
When he finished, he waggled her phone at her and asked unexpectedly, "Could I see the drawings you've done for your class?"
She shot him a disbelieving look. "Do you see a sketchbook anywhere on me?"
Although his voice was gentle, he was giving her that same knowing expression he'd used in so many interrogation rooms. "No, but you said you see your sister once a week. You'd show her the stuff you were working on in class, but maybe you wouldn't want to drag a sketchbook into the city with you. Or maybe you'd send her a text with a picture from your latest class." He wagged the phone again. "It's probably here."
«Goren-logic. Why must he always be right?»
With a sigh she took the phone back to scroll through it.
"You never struck me as that interested in art." He flashed a reminiscent smile. "Or maybe it was just that you didn't seem all that amenable to it at work. Did you like art class in school?"
"Maybe because at work it was always connected to a murder," she returned cynically. "But it wasn't my favorite school subject, if that's what you mean. Unless if by 'art' you count my scribbling all over those ugly brown-paper-bag book covers we hadthe usual stuff: graffiti, unicorns, the name of my eighth grade crush in big puffy letters that I colored in with Flair pens." A smile finally flickered. "By the time high school came around I was over all that and used the covers for practicing my future signature line instead: 'Captain Alexandra V. Eames.'"
"Here," she said finally, "that's the album I have for my work. The first one's from about six weeks ago." She handed her phone back and then looked over his shoulder as he swiped one by one through her pieces, the first a still life.
"I can't tell you how much I hate those still life exercises," she added. "Fruit. Vases. Bowls. Boring."
"Yeah, but they teach you the basics of composition, shading, shape"
She nudged him. "You're mansplaining, Bobby," and he had the grace to look abashed.
There were several other uninspired still life compositions, then one he blinked at.
"It's a rabbit," she said fiercely. "And I don't want to hear it. Everyone else laughed, too. And yes, I know it looks like a guinea pig with funny legs!"
Some experiments with colored pencil followed.
"This one's nice. Plein air."
"I thought it was a fall tree and a bench," she said primly, and he smiled and continued.
The next four were figure studies. The first, of a young woman, embarrassed her, the proportions were so badly skewed; the remainder were better, but still uninspired. He nodded without comment, and she quipped, "You can see I'll never give Rubens a run for his money."
As his finger poised for the next swipe, she said suddenly, "Well, they're all more of the same, really," trying to retrieve the phone from him, but he had already found the one she'd forgotten was next and realized she didn't want him to see. "No use looking at any more"
He was staring at the screen, transfixed. "When did you do this?"
Too late. She sighed. "Last week, when it was raining. What a miserable day." Damp, cold, everything dripping, all that was worst about autumn rains, when you shivered in a quilted raincoat and the chill trickled into your bones until you were frozen from head to toe tips. "Mr. Scarlatti said he wanted us out of our 'comfort zone' that night, to try something a little more experimental, silhouettes, and asked us to use any of the photographs pinned up in the room as a prompt, but to add another element to it. There was one of the New York skyline that I used for the background." She pointed to rough black rectangles, scattered with tiny white squares to represent lighted windows, against a grey-shaded sky, a few diagonal slashes to give the impression of rain. "It reminded me of the night we realized we reached a dead end with the Commissioner's au pair having gone missing. It poured that night, too, remember? We were in Jersey, looking across at the skyline"
He brushed his fingers over the dark figure she had placed in the foreground; it was roughly sketched and then blacked in, but it was clearly that of a man looking out at the city, his shoulders slumped, his head bowed, his trench coat flapping around his legs. "This is me."
He looked questioningly at her and she nodded.
"So now you know my little secret," she said with more bravado than she felt. "Not a week goes by where I'm not reminded of you. Sometimes it's a Jeopardy answer, or a news story with an odd fact and I think 'Bobby would have known that,' or a news story, or a Facebook piece about obscure German dialects...or a note you wrote to me that falls out of one of my books because I kept them all and used that one as a bookmark." She sighed, then took her phone from his hand, and slid it back into her pocket, handing his own back. "Maybe I should skip the coffee and get going instead."
A gust of wind came up, rattling the branches of the trees outside, and a handful of colorful leaves came clattering through the open door of the shed, distracting her, but she clearly heard him mutter "Oh, what the hell"
Next moment he had pulled her into his arms and was kissing her, one fierce, gentle, passionate, and apologetic all at once. It took her a mere second to wind her arms around his neck and respond. The kiss...his touch...the warmth of him even in the chilly shed electrified her.
And at the same time...warm...safe...home.
«Is someone shooting off fireworks somewhere?»
When they finally broke apart for air, she wondered if she looked as dazed as he did.
He finally took a deep breath, but his words were unexpected.
"Where is that dog?" he finally managed, voice raspy. "Sam! Come on! It's time to go in."
The collie appeared in the doorway, looking as startled as she felt, a half-dozen scarlet and golden leaves tangled into his fur, and Goren rose stiffly, extending his hand to her. Wordless, she clasped it tightly, rose from the bench, moved as if sleepwalking.
Click. The light was shut off. The shed door closed with a thud, the lock with a snap, each move methodical. Everything seemed louder and brighter and sharper-edged than it had five minutes earlier, and Alex followed him back to the house in an almost dreamlike state. She could feel her pulse hammer at the back of her head. The screen door thumped open and shut, Sam's toenails clattered across the floor, the back door clicked shut, the deadbolt shot home, the light switches snapped closed, leaving the kitchen illuminated only by a night light over the sink.
The house was that small; a mere dozen steps took them from the kitchen door to the end of the hall with the living room to the left, the bedroom to the right. Sam bounced in front of them, snatching a rubber bone from next to the sofa, as if this was the next stage of a nightly ritual.
Instead Goren said firmly, "Bedtime, Sam," indicating the dog blanket next to the stairs. The collie sat down, looking grieved, dropping his bone, and Goren released her hand to move to the dog's side, speaking to him in a low voice, pulling out the leaves in his coat one by one as he talked.
There was a safe exit just a few steps away from her. And a new entrance directly before her.
«No more life in neutral, Allie.»
She slipped by both Goren and Sam, heading for the front door, and only then did she notice the small security system keypad next to it, and a smile flickered. "Why don't I finish locking up for you, Bobby?"
While it took him a second or two to parse the sentence, he was then on his feet in an instant and across the room; once he reached her, it was as if the words wouldn't come. When they did tumble out, his voice was husky. "Y-You can still leave. It's just out the door, down the street, four blocks back to your car, back to Southbury, and away from m-me and my crazy ideas." And then he averted his head, gaze pinned to the floor.
She used his own trick against him, pivoted her body till she could get into eye contact again.
«Remember, Bobby, I learned from the master. Or should I say The Wizard?»
"I want the truth," she said bluntly. "Is that what you want me to do? Because if it is, I will."
"No," he said in a low voice, eyes finally meeting hers without flinching.
She stood on tiptoe, kissed him on the mouth gently. "Then I'm not worried. I'm exactly where I want to be." Then she added lightly, "Is your security code five digits or four?"
"Your code number. Five or four digits?" Her forefinger hovered over the keypad.
"Nolet me see if I'm right. 3-2...6-3-7." The green light flicked on. "Or, if I remember the letters on my telephone keypad correctly, E-A-M-E-S. Looks like I'm not the only one with secrets."
He smiled wryly. "Nice to know I picked the right T-shirt. You always were 'wicked smaht.'"
"Let me in on one more secret: what did Shard say to you on the phone? After he said he could look after my car for a couple of hours?"
Goren coughed. "Um...he said you could pick it up after breakfast, too," and she laughed, laying her head against his chest.
His eyes were soft as he enfolded her in his arms, whispering in her ear, "You'll be gentle with me, Alex? I'm a little bit out of practice."
"Which makes two of us. Don't worry about itI think between the two of us we can pick up all the clues."
"Turn off the lights, love,
I will protect you.
I will love you.
I will build entire kingdoms with you in the dark."