KEEPSAKE

f-Snow Dunes Beach 1.22.2014_1940

Helen stood at the foot of the steep stairs that led to her attic, and reconsidered the risk of going up. There was a handrail she could grasp all the way to the top, relieving some of the strain on her wobbly knees.

But coming down . . .

She saw herself in the minutes ahead, both of her arms wrapped around the old cardboard box that she had to retrieve, which was awkwardly shaped and difficult to hold on to, setting her up for a hip-shattering tumble if she wasn’t very careful.

She shifted her weight from one foot to the other; looked toward the window at the end of her second floor hallway. The light was fading. In an hour the darkness would descend completely, and if the box wasn’t down soon she’d have to wait until tomorrow, Christmas Eve.

She didn’t want to wait. She wanted all of her decorations up now; wanted a house full of colored lights to ward off the gloom.

She took the first step and then the second before she felt the stab of pain under her left kneecap. She cursed with a “damn it” that came out louder than she’d intended, reminding her of the house’s emptiness, the solitude of the night ahead. She grasped the rail, feeling angry that the box had been shoved up into the attic in the first place, as if it had intentionally been put out of her reach.

“Oh, damn him,” she said, putting the anger where it belonged; fortifying herself for the next step as the phone began to ring.

* * *

John sat next to the café’s large front window and looked out Lewes, Delaware’s Second Street. The main commercial avenue of the historic bayside town was decorated with wreaths and ornaments on every storefront, and the sidewalks were crowded with families and couples who made him self-conscious of being alone, a 26-year-old man with a potted poinsettia and a gift-wrapped box of lemon scones

Now or never, he thought, and dialed Helen Marvel.

The phone rang several times.

Should have called her before now, he thought. Set this up, thought it through –

“Hello!”

He felt a catch in his breath at the loudness of her voice, a tensing in his backbone as he sat up a little straighter.

“Helen?”

“Who’s this?”

“It’s me, John.”

There were several seconds of silence.

“Oh . . . John. How are you?”

He exhaled, his shoulders loosening with her upbeat tone. “I’m good.”

“Are you well?”

“Yes,” he said, because physically it was true. He sat forward, at the edge of the cafe chair, which felt a bit too small for his weight and size.

“I’m here,” he said. “In Lewes.”

“For Christmas?”

“Yes, that’s right.”

There was a pause. “Why aren’t you with your family?”

He remembered how he had answered the same question two Christmases before.

“They’re in upstate New York. It was too far to go with just a couple of days off.”

“Oh,” she said, as if she didn’t quite believe him.

“I’d like to come over if I can,” he said. “I have some presents for you.”

“Oh I don’t need any . . . presents.”

He heard a quiver in her voice, a vulnerability that was completely out of the character he knew.

“Well I have them. Can I please come by?”

Of course you can, John,” she replied, as if he hadn’t had to ask.

* * *

Helen might have termed John Falzone’s surprise visit and his willingness to deal with her attic stairs as a divine intervention if she hadn’t given up any belief that there was some kind of Godly direction in her life. Still, it was nice seeing him trot up on his stocky young legs, knowing he wasn’t the least bit worried about falling down. Nice to see his handsome young face at her door even though she knew he had been fibbing when he said he was only visiting Lewes for the holidays because his family lived too far away.

He was twisting the facts a little last time too.

She heard the creak of his weight on the attic floorboards, felt a twinge around her heart.

Because he was in love.

She moved around the parlor with her electric candles. There were half a dozen of them, a gift from her grandson Tom, two Christmases before.

“From both of us.”

She heard Tom’s voice in her mind, a memory of that same visit with Tom and John, finally acknowledging they were more than college roommates even though she had known better for years. She relished the memory as she went to every corner of the room, concentrating on the precise placement of each candle.

“Mission accomplished,” John said from the top of the stairs, holding the box carefully in his nicely formed arms.

He made it halfway down before sneezing loudly.

“Bless you,” she said. “My house is a hundred years old. It gets dusty.”

He set the box down on the coffee table and sneezed again, then rubbed his nose with the back of his sleeve.

“You need a Kleenex?” she asked.

“Nah. I’m okay. It’s like you said – the dust.”

That’s as good an excuse as any, she thought. There was a fleck of insulation in his black hair and his blue eyes were bloodshot. Two minutes of rummaging through the junk in her attic had brought him to the edge of tears.

She glanced down at the floor to save him from embarrassment, then stepped toward her writing desk and pulled a pair of scissors from the drawer and gently pressed them along the seam at the top of the box.

“I taped it up tight last year but only expected to store it in the coat closet,” she said.

John cleared his throat. “How’d it end up in the attic?”

“That was Red’s brilliant idea. He put it up there and told me afterwards.”

“Red was here at Christmas?”

She looked at the console table next to the vestibule, which held at least a dozen framed family photos. There was only one shot of Tom’s father, Richard McCoy, nicknamed “Red” for the tint of his hair, alongside her daughter Cathy on their wedding day. She had removed all of the photos of Red with Tom and Cathy in later years.

“He showed up on Christmas day,” she said. “Suffering from the worst hangover of his life from the looks of it. He came back a week later to help me put everything away.”

“Oh. He didn’t tell me.”

For a moment she thought she heard him wrong. It was hard to even imagine Red McCoy and John Falzone in the same room.

“You’ve talked to Red?”

He nodded. She waited for him to elaborate but he avoided her eyes, and looked down at the box.

“Do you need help with that?”

She still held the scissors. The treasure in the box was fragile, and there was a mild tremor in her hand.

“Maybe I do,” she said. “It’s the most important decoration I have.”

He took the scissors and deftly sliced the masking-taped seam at the top, then carefully reached into the box and lifted the ceramic Christmas tree from the Styrofoam popcorn packing. The tree was made from a kit that Tom had bought as an eight-year-old at a crafts store. It had required a bit of skill and a lot of effort to assemble and paint. It was a significant undertaking for a little boy, but the quality of Tom’s work had not surprised her.

John carefully held the base of the tree with both hands, and set it down on the table. “I remember this from two years ago.”

“Then you know about the year he made it.”

He nodded.

“The year my daughter finally accepted what Red was really like.”

Her mind went back to the memory of Cathy, red-eyed and white knuckled as she gripped the steering wheel during what was supposed to be a pleasant mother-daughter drive through town to look at the Christmas decorations; Cathy’s voice halting and strained as she talked about Red’s infidelities and her decision to finally cut him loose.

Not really something you want to talk about on a holiday, she thought.

But in the next instant she was talking about it some more.

“Children don’t miss much. Tom knew something was wrong between his mom and dad that year. A lot of kids would have acted out in some way, but he just concentrated all his attention on building and painting this little tree, for his grandmother. At a time when he was most vulnerable, he chose to do something for someone else.”

John smiled. “He loved you like crazy Helen.”

“I know. Unfortunately for some reason he loved his dad too, even with all the mess he put Tom through.”

She carefully unwound the power cord at the base of the tree as she recounted some of her worst memories of her daughter’s ex-husband. The son of a farmer who sold out to real estate developers, leaving him a pile of money that he gambled away. A father who always seemed disappointed in Tom, punishing him for striking out in little league, ridiculing him in front of his friends on a hunting trip when Tom couldn’t bring himself to fire his gun, belittling his decision to study engineering instead of finance at the University of Delaware, despite Red’s assurances that his deep roots in real estate would have made it easy for Tom to become the millionaire Red had always wanted to be.

“And on top of that he was a bigot, and too damn foolish to keep his feelings to himself and too dense to even think of what it was doing to Tom – .”

God, Helen . . . “

John’s voice was quiet, a subdued interruption. He was sitting slightly forward on the couch, his eyes full of concern and a bit of admonishment, she thought, at how long she had rattled on.

Like a bitter old woman. At Christmastime, for God’s sake.

She felt a pang of guilt, because in truth there was more to Red McCoy than she was accustomed to admitting. Like herself, he was born and raised and forever rooted to Sussex County, where attitudes and old ways were slow to change.

“I’m sorry John – sometimes I don’t know when to shut up.” She tried to offer him a wry smile, but couldn’t quite make it work. “I admit he’s not all bad . . . not anymore. He calls me at least twice a week; pretends he has to check in on me because I’m an old lady. Although I know it’s just because he’s a sad man who wants someone to talk to.”

“Your prodigal son-in-law,” John said.

“Yes . . . that’s right . . . That man never could hold a poker face – I can always tell when he’s feeling shaky, trying to wear me down so I’ll forgive him. And of course I don’t have the heart to turn him away, since he’s trying so damn hard.”

John sat back slightly, with a deep, gentle laugh that surprised her.

“What’s so funny?”

“Nothing, crankypants.”

He laughed again, and after a moment she was laughing with him, thinking about the nickname that she had coined for herself.

“Tom loved calling you that,” John said.

“Good thing he had my permission.” She made a shooing motion with her hand. “The little brat.”

“He said you earned it after hearing you complain so much about that blizzard back when he was a kid.”

She nodded, the moment of levity staying with her as she thought of the week Tom had spent with her as a 15-year-old when the Wilmington schools shut down due 30 inches of snow. It was shortly after Cathy had been taken by cancer, and once again young Tom’s emotions and energies had been directed away from the sorrow of losing his mother and toward helping others as he shoveled sidewalks from one end of the street to the other. There were four houses occupied by old widows like herself. The shoveling had saved them from being shut-in and they had celebrated with a potluck dinner in her kitchen; her grandson the star of the show.

“He loved coming here,” John said. “He called it his escape.”

“That’s the way I wanted it to be for him,” she said. “A place where he would always feel happy.”

“Well you succeeded.” John’s smile was relaxed, easy now. “I started thinking of him as the two Toms because he was a whole different person here. It was where he learned to surf – .”

“That was the summer he was here for two whole months. I taught him how to play Rummy, Hearts and Poker . . . and how to make my crab cakes.”

“Yeah he told me. Back fin and lump together, with Old Bay and Italian breadcrumbs.”

“It took both of us to do it right.”

“And an hour to clean up afterwards.” John laughed again. “Taking him out to the Yacht Club would have been easier.”

She made another shooing motion. “Fancy name for nothing more than a little restaurant with some boat slips – .”

“Fancy enough to make him feel special when you took him there that Easter when he was 10. In his little blue blazer and white shirt and red bow tie.”

The detailed description surprised her. “Is that what he told you?”

“Yep – plus you showed me the pictures the last time we played cards.”

She felt a tremor in her smile as she remembered the last night of cards between the three of them; a half hour of Texas Hold ‘Em, which offered a big advantage to herself and John because, unlike both Tom and his father, they actually could both keep a “poker face.” But then John had insisted they switch to three-hand Gin Rummy, a game that depended more on luck and calculation and less on hiding emotions – “better for just passing the time,” as John had put it.

Because he wanted to make the night better for Tom, she thought. To give him a better chance to win a few games.

It was a gesture that characterized the way they would have been for life. John with his perpetually pleasant calmness; a ballast that steadied Tom’s temperamental and impulsive nature. A perfect pair, even if they were both a bit too sensitive for their own good.

“He talked a lot about you, too,” she said.

There was a small twitch in his cheek. “Really?”

She nodded. “He told me you were crazy about dogs and old people, and that you made friends easily and were loyal to the end. He also told me how important it was for you to always tell the truth.”

He sat slightly forward, hanging on every word, she thought.

“You made him happy,” she said. “No doubt in my mind.”

There was a tensing in his shoulders, a surprising reaction to the words she had thought he would be thrilled to hear. She watched the drop of his Adams apple as he broke her gaze and looked down at the floor, and said:

“He had a plan.”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

He looked up. In a matter of seconds he had gone pale, as if he was about to tell her something terrible.

“What kind of plan, John? You can tell me. Please.”

* * *

And so he did, wondering all the while if he was truly living up to Helen Marvel’s expectation of complete truth as he described the rest of that Christmas holiday two years earlier. About Tom’s easy happiness after a three days of big meals and beach-walking and endless card games with his grandmother. About the long walk they took before the long drive back to the group house at school where they always slept in separate rooms. And about the moment they turned a corner and saw the For Sale sign on the bungalow on Savannah Road, vacant but with a Christmas tree at the front window.

“The realtor was Jack Simpson. He was just locking up after showing it to someone else,” he said. “He saw us on the sidewalk and waved. And then we went in.”

“Must have been the Burton’s house,” Helen said. “She and I came up together. They had to move because of the stairs. And I know Jack – he was a volunteer football coach when Red played at the high school. “

He nodded. Tom had told him more than once about her connections to virtually everyone in the small town, and her wariness of the realtors, like Jack Simpson, who were selling so many of its houses to “summer people who were taking over.”

He stared down at the braided rug on her pine floor, and continued.

“Something happened to Tom when we went in. He asked all kinds of questions about the history of the house. And then he made a crazy, surprise decision. He told Jack he wanted to buy it with the money his mom left him, and when we got back to the car he said he wanted to share it . . . with me.”

He heard the crack in his voice, but kept on.

“We planned the whole thing out on the way back to school – how we’d take down some inside walls to open it up, without losing any of the details, like the craftsman stairway. We knew we’d have to get the fireplace relined, and we wanted to refinish the pine floors ourselves. We talked about how we could go there off and on all year, whenever we wanted to get away, and how he ‘d surprise you with the news, as soon as the contract was signed, and about how being here would give him a chance to take better care of you – .”

“Oh my . . . word.” Helen raised her hand, halting him, then pressed it against the base of her neck and closed her eyes.

He watched the rise and fall of her chest, a deep breath to calm herself down, then leaned forward and touched her elbow. “Are you all right?”

She nodded, slowly.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.” She met his eyes again. “So what happened?”

He thought of the underlying truth in what he had told her about the two Toms. In Lewes he was forever the gentle boy who spent his days smiling and unguarded, true to himself, as Helen might have put it.

But not in Newark, at the University of Delaware, where he was always his father’s son: the star goalie they called “the Terminator” for his absolute absence of fear. A frustrating enigma to the young women who openly pursued him and a guy who stayed at the pinnacle of popularity among his fraternity brothers despite a tendency to pick fights after drinking too much – a trait inherited directly from the great Red McCoy, star running back on the football team 30 years before.

“John?”

Her voice was steadier now. She sat very still, tense with expectation.

“The house was empty when we got back. All of the roommates were still gone for the break. Tom was still in a happy state of mind. We ate the turkey and pie you sent us home with and drank wine and talked about what it was going to be like to live here, at least some of the time. We were feeling so great – because we were completely alone. And when we finally went to bed we went to his room, which was one of two on the third floor.”

“What happened then?”

Her tone was hard, demanding.

“We’d had a lot to drink. We left the bedroom door open. Weren’t really thinking – because the house was empty. We went to sleep. He held me. Most of the night. But then . . .”

He paused, and shut his eyes.

“The lights came on.”

His mind went back to the sudden brightness that had filled the room, the memory of the other third floor roommate, arriving home drunk and stumbling in the hallway, his eyes wide at the sight of the two of them in bed.

And then the memory of Tom’s reaction – pushing him away as if he was suddenly radioactive, and the shock, and shame, on Tom’s face as the roommate stepped back into the hallway, still watching them as he couldn’t believe what he had seen.

“And then it was over.”

* * *

But it wasn’t really, Helen thought. More of a turning point, toward a bad direction.

She hadn’t known about Tom’s intention to use the money Cathy had left him to buy Elsie Burton’s house on Savannah Road. But she had known something had happened that Christmas. Something that led to the phone call a week later, when Tom had mentioned he had moved out of his house at school. And when she had asked “what about John?” he had simply said.

“He stayed.”

So much meaning in those two words, she thought now. Separation. An end.

John was sitting back on the couch, his arms at his sides. He looked sad, depleted, but at ease, as if he was relieved to have gotten the story out. She felt the urge to talk about Red again, to tell him more about how Tom had grown up, with constant reminders of his father’s old country-boy attitudes. A childhood of hearing again and again that his true nature made him unworthy.

She stopped herself, because by now John had to know most of everything else she might have told him about Red, who still lived in Newark and still went to every football game, like all of the other old-timers forever tethered to the school and its teams.

Too close to escape from once the news began to travel, she thought, understanding for the first time the terrible decision Tom made after that Christmas.

She looked at John again, and knew she needed to give him a break from all of the sad reminiscing. “It’s after five o’clock. Would you like a drink?”

“Sure,” he said, and started to get up. “I can help.”

“No, let the old lady do it.” She said, and placed her palm on the wall to steady herself as she stood up. “I have some wine, and beer – and that good bourbon we had last time you were here.”

He gave her a grateful smile. “Bourbon would be good.”

She flipped the wall switches in the dining room and pantry as she headed back toward the kitchen, then took two lead crystal tumblers from the glass-fronted cabinet. She filled them with ice and a long pour of Woodford Reserve and topped them with a splash of water.

John was back up and moving around as she stepped back into the parlor. The poinsettia he had brought her was now on the console, surrounded by the photos. The garland was wrapped around the balustrade. The cord to Tom’s ceramic tree was dangling off the side of the table between the sofa and her wing chair, probably because he hadn’t yet figured out where to plug it in, but John had placed the tree right where she liked it.

Like he automatically knows where everything’s supposed to be.

It was a comforting thought, a sense that he was taking care of her as Tom would have. She gave him his drink, and took a long sip of her own. The scent of the good bourbon filled her head; the taste taking her back to Tom’s last visit; the sight of him stepping out her front door.

She felt the floor tilting beneath her; a shakiness in her knees.

John gave her the same concerned look he had given her minutes before.

“Don’t worry,” she told him. “I’m all right.”

But she felt lightheaded as she sat down, and bothered by the depressing tone of the conversation so far. Make it happier, she thought. Ask him what he’s been up to for a change. What’s he been doing with his time these past few months?

“I’ll never forget the day he left,” John said.

She wasn’t sure how to respond. After a moment he met her eyes, and frowned.

“Oh yeah Helen.” His voice had a tinny sound, an echo. “He left me too. Because he wanted a change. Wanted to be different than he was.”

Wanted he had to redeem himself to Red, she thought. To prove he was a man.

“It’s still a mess over there,” he said.

Over there.

Afghanistan.

She looked toward the front door, the sight of her last goodbye, and felt a weight on her chest. Her heartbeat quickened at the thought of what Tom had done, his rash and terrible decision to leave college – to enlist – .

“You must be proud of him,” John said. “He was a hero.”

He was a hero here too, shoveling my walk, fixing the things in my house, always loving, my beautiful, beautiful boy.

“It wasn’t worth his life, John.”

Her words hung in the air. Hard and judging as she saw the flash at the corner of her vision; her worst imagining of the explosion of that roadside bomb that killed him, and felt the pressure of a fist, closing around her heart as the light dimmed. John’s eyes widened as he stood up and came toward her; asking “are you all right?” in a barely audible voice, looking at her and not at the cord for the tree that dangled from the table, under his foot –

The cord tensed and pulled the tree to the edge of the table. John saw it the instant she saw it and tried to catch it but the movement of his foot yanked it over the edge.

They watched it fall together in the wavy slowness of a dream as it hit the carpet that just barely muffled the crack of ceramic as it broke apart.

* * *

Later, she would remember the night through senses and images – the tightness in her chest; the electrical cord under John’s foot; and the touch of his fingertips at her collar as he rushed to loosen the buttons, and asked if she could breathe.

She nodded, and inhaled, knowing from the steady flow of air into her lungs that the episode wasn’t as bad as she had feared.

Not quite a heart attack, she thought. Not yet.

One more breath, and then she assured him, “I’m all right. Honestly. I’m fine.”

He watched her for a few more seconds before he looked down at the fallen tree, and then sat back down on the edge of the sofa and put his hands in front of his face, as if he couldn’t bear the sight of it.

She leaned forward, remembering the night Tom had presented it to her, gripping it so carefully around the base, his freckled face beaming with happiness over her gleeful reaction.

A hard lump came to her throat. She was an instant away from crying, but it looked like John was going to beat her to it.

Have to calm him down, she thought. Act like it doesn’t matter, at least not so much.

She gripped the armrests with both hands, girding herself as she told him:

“Oh John don’t worry it’s just . . . “

“The most important decoration you have. From Tom – .”

She felt her heart quickening again. “Why don’t you see if you can put it back on the table?”

He slowly squatted down, taking a moment to look a little closer at the damage before slipping his hands beneath the base of the tree and lifting it up. There were at least three shards that fell back to the carpet, but she could see that at least some of the tree remained intact.

You could call him “clumsypants,” she thought. Make him laugh.

The look on his face stopped her. His skin was still beet-red and his big hands were still shaky as he carefully set it down.

She gave it a gentle three-quarter turn, so the good side was at the front, and looked again at the decorations John had set out around the room. By any account it was going to be a terrible Christmas, being alone because she had told Red she hadn’t wanted company, and maybe even worse now that John had come by with his recollections, and with the mishap that would probably stick in her mind for the rest of her days.

Still, the sadness she would have expected to feel was somehow numbed, overwhelmed by the sense of John’s sorrow as he gazed at the broken tree.

Because he loved Tom as much as you did.

She felt oddly grateful for the realization; his reaction to the damage the most telling testament to the depth of his feelings as he took another long sip of bourbon, and held it in his mouth for several seconds before he swallowed, and met her eyes again.

“There’s something else I have to tell you,” he said. “About me. And Red.”

* * *

Through all the weeks of planning it was the uncertainty that had remained constant. Even now he wasn’t sure which way it would go. But he felt a slight pressure around his shoulders as he looked around the room, a feeling of being observed, and encouraged. It was the same feeling he had had in the early morning hours as he crossed the long bay bridge that led to the eastern shore, under a gray December sky, driving toward the uncertain reward that awaited him in the small coastal town. The start of a day he had been planning for months, every moment of it moving him toward this conversation.

“Red told me what happened the day before the service,” he said. “When he saw you at the funeral home, where you wouldn’t talk to him.”

She tilted her head with a frown. “When did he tell you that?”

“Not till a few weeks later. Red and I had known each other for the whole four years Tom and I were . . . together. But he always kept his distance. I’d pretended I didn’t care even though I did.

“But then I started seeing him, everywhere. By himself at school, pounding like a maniac at the boxing bag in the gym on the same days I worked out. Watching me from across the room at a fundraiser the soccer team held in Tom’s honor. And then – so randomly – on a Tuesday afternoon when I got the job offer in Washington, and then went out to the cemetery to visit Tom’s grave. He was standing next to my Jeep in the parking lot when I came out. Waiting for me.”

He paused, his throat tightening with the memory, sad but strangely happy now.

“He looked like he wanted to kick my ass.”

He laughed, but Helen shook her head, seeing no humor in it.

“I know that sounds ridiculous,” he said. “But you know what he’s like. So . . . gruff, with that hard knocks attitude of his. But there he was, making a point to shake my hand, telling me he needed to talk to me, and then asking – and sort of begging – if I’d come to his apartment for a drink.”

“I know about that apartment,” Helen said. “He lived with a woman there, for awhile.”

“Yeah well he lives there alone now.” He nodded toward the console, next to the door. “He’s got a table full of pictures too. They’re all of your family . . . lots of pictures of Cathy and Tom, and you.”

Her jaw slackened. She crossed her arms over her chest, still working to hold onto her anger.

“He wanted me to know he was sorry. For everything that had happened.”

She looked past him, toward the photos, and then down at the floor as he took a deep breath and told her:

“He and I made a plan too. That’s why I’m with you here, tonight.”

* * *

In the end it was the audacity of the bargain Red made with Jack Simpson that got to her; forcing her to acknowledge that years ago she had liked Red very much, before it was clear that he was going to hurt Cathy; before she came to the understanding, when Tom was just a little boy, of the way he would treat him as he became a man.

Because they had once been alike; Sussex County natives, children and cousins of farmers and fisherman and boat pilots. Good, simple people, she thought, as John told her the rest of the story about Red’s apology.

“The money your daughter left Tom was still in a savings account when he shipped out,” John said. “It went to Red when . . . Tom was killed. Red hadn’t known Tom wanted to buy the house here in Lewes. But he and Jack had talked about it after the funeral. Jack told him about the day Tom and I saw it, and about what Tom had wanted to do. And about how he knew we were together.”

She gave him a questioning look.

“Yeah, I know,” he said. “Jack’s a tough old bird, like Red. Cranky – .”

He smiled, but his eyes were glazed.

“But he’s smart, and kind. And the thing about a guy like that, an old timer who’s been selling houses here for 30 years, is that he knows where all of the other old ladies like your friend Peggy live, and when they decide to move.”

He paused, as the words sank in. She looked toward the tall windows that faced her front porch; counted back how many months it had been since Peggy Squires had moved from her pretty Victorian house at the end of Market Street, and remembered the Sold sign she had noticed that morning.

“It’s mine,” John said, as if he had read her mind. “Thanks to Red, who made the down payment, and to Jack, who made it happen.”

“I don’t . . . understand,” she said, even though she did as she looked toward the console and the photos and the poinsettia at the center, and thought of the photos that had been there in the past; thought of the maddening persistence of Red McCoy’s attention, never quite enough to earn her forgiveness.

Crankypants

She swallowed against the tightness at the top of her throat, felt another sensation in her heart, a thumping, steady beat as she looked back at John again. He tilted his head to the side, with a smile that said come-on-now, as if he felt her bitterness, fading away.

All right Red. You’ve finally done it.

Broken me down.

She looked at the tree again.

“John, do me a favor. Look behind the table. There’s an outlet there.”

He rose up, and then reached down. “I see it.”

“Why don’t you plug it in?”

He sighed, looking as if he couldn’t quite manage another disappointment.

“Go ahead. No reason not to try.”

She followed the motion of his arm as he grasped the cord, and then the plug, and pushed it into the outlet,

The bulbs on the tree flickered and cut off, then flickered on again before holding steady.

She clapped her hands. “Will you look at that?”

He stared at it for a long moment before the tension left his shoulders.

“My new house has a workshop in the basement,” he said. “I can use Epoxy to put it back together. And I can paint over the seam. It’ll never be perfect, but only the two of us will know that.”

Our secret, she thought. “That’s a lot of work John.”

“That’s okay,” He leaned down and kissed her forehead. “You can add it to my list of projects. All the things you need done.”

She frowned. “John, you really don’t need – .”

“Part of the deal. Red wants me here as much as I want to be here. Watching over you. Oh and by the way Cranky – .”

“Oh stop it.” She rolled her eyes, now glazed with tears.

“Merry Christmas.”

Merry Christmas to you too, she thought.

“We should play some cards,” he said. “Hearts or Texas Hold ‘Em – your choice.”

There was a drawer in the table that held the tree. She opened it slowly and carefully, and pulled out the deck she kept handy for Solitaire on her days alone.

“Or a little Rummy,” she said. “Just to pass the time.”

# # #

DOUBLE ABDUCTION – EXCERPT

EXCERPT FROM DOUBLE ABDUCTION

ONE

Stealing a child in broad daylight could be tricky, but the shopping mall almost made it simple. Blending easily with the crowd, the abductor followed Mary Bennett and her brother Michael from a distance of 30 feet, feeling a restrained sense of excitement as Mary’s son, five-year-old Justin Bennett, took advantage of a moment of inattention and slipped away.

Eyes trained like a laser at the top of Justin’s head, the abductor followed. There was a moment of hesitation when the child stood among a large, slow-moving group of shoppers, looking back at his mother and his uncle to see if they had turned around and noticed his absence. Seeing their backs, Justin followed through, heading quickly and more deeply into the crowd.

The abductor moved swiftly, following the child back toward the direction from which Michael, Mary and Justin had come earlier. Spotting the boy’s likely destination long before Justin could see the store sign above the adult bodies in the crowd, the abductor walked ahead, passing within four feet of him. Justin Bennett had a dark red wine stain on his right cheek. It was a birthmark that would have brought him misery in adolescence. As a five-year-old it made him easy to identify, which made taking him riskier still.

Moving ahead, but glancing occasionally back to ensure Justin was making progress, the abductor made quick notice of two exits, one on each side of the mall, and both within a 30 second walk of the store where Justin Bennett was surely headed. Once the grab was made, it would be easy to get to the van on the second level of the garage. Once inside, his little body would be laid down on the back seat floor and covered with a blanket, unnoticeable to the attendant as the van exited the lot.

After that the task would be simple, nothing to do but get Justin Bennett to the relay point one hour away. Shortly afterwards, the boy would be dead.

The store that drew Justin away from his mother and uncle sold discount shoes from shelves that went up nearly six feet, with narrow aisles in between. The aisles were crowded with stray samples and half-empty shoeboxes, and the single clerk on duty was flustered by a long line of customers at the counter.

The child was apparently drawn back to the store by a double life-sized standup cutout of Captain Steel, a Saturday morning cartoon character that was now branded to a line of children’s shoes. Today for Justin Bennett the character was like a Pied Piper, a bright burst of color from 20 feet away. For marketing purposes the cutout had been placed in the middle of the store, to draw customers deeper into the midst of the merchandise.

Hidden by the tall shelving, the abductor stood four feet behind the display – a perch that was just a little over an arm’s length away from the statue. The abductor was fairly certain that the child wouldn’t have time to protest, but it was important to plan ahead just in case. With a quick but careful movement, the prick of the needle would feel like nothing more than a light scratch on the boy’s arm. Within 30 seconds the liquid Valium shot into his bloodstream would render him semi-conscious. He would be carried silently away, the wine-stained cheek hidden by the abductor’s shoulder, looking like an anonymous child headed for an afternoon nap.

A muscular little boy in denim coveralls, Justin approached the display with a grin. His eyes were wide as he stared open-mouthed, then quietly uttered “cool.”

“Justin!”

The abductor jumped back at the woman’s voice, retreating behind the tall shelves an instant before Mary Bennett rushed down the aisle and grabbed her son. Mary was shaking, holding Justin as if protecting him from an attack of pit bulls. Attracted by the commotion, the other shoppers had left their own aisles and were gathering around her now.

Still concealed, the abductor watched through a narrow opening in the shelves as Michael Bennett came through the crowd. Apparently brother and sister had split up for the panicked search. Michael’s face was pale, his breathing labored. He looked as if he’d run two miles.

Stopping a few steps away from Mary, who still held the boy tightly, he leaned forward, his hands on his knees, and waited until his sister met his eyes.

“He okay?” Michael asked her.

She nodded, and looked back down at her son.

“We were worried little buddy.” Michael reached over and touched Justin’s shoulder. “We got scared when you ran off like that — .”

“You were supposed to be holding his hand.”

The coldness in Mary Bennett’s voice made Michael visibly tense.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“I know you’re sorry Michael. But that wouldn’t have helped us.”

Even through the narrow space between the shelves it was easy to see the sag of Michael Bennett’s shoulders. At 25, Michael was in peak condition and he had obviously been working out with heavy weights, trying to look like the bodyguard he no doubt imagined himself to be. From the tone in his sister’s voice the moment of inattention would cost him dearly.

And it would hurt her trust in him even more.

The abductor felt a small sense of satisfaction, something to counter the frustration of losing a perfect opportunity. Michael and his sister were standing near the front now, chatting with the clerk, who was offering Justin a lollipop. Mary was shaking her head, saying no. Her light brown, shoulder-length hair had the texture of silk and during the search several strands had loosened from a barrette and drifted forward across her high, narrow cheeks. She was 5’8 and a good 10 pounds thinner than she should have been, one of those wiry women who always seemed harried and nervous.

But beautiful still.

It hurt to see her so close to being happy. After five years she seemed to be healing, but the blow that was coming would take her down hard. It might even push her over the edge. Loveless, childless, empty, she would be reduced to a shell of her former self.

The abductor thought about that for just a moment, acknowledging that the horror ahead was far worse than she deserved.

But there was no other choice. Tomorrow, or the next day — whenever the chance arose — Justin Bennett had to be eliminated, his voice silenced long before the inevitable questions could be asked.

Michael and Mary Bennett were walking out of the store and back into the mall now. Between them, holding their hands, Justin Bennett was a tiny, beloved, flesh and blood link.

A bond about to be broken.

TWO

Steps away from the dance floor, near the front of a swelling crowd, Harland Till watched as Bobby Freed spun and swayed to the thumping beat.

A white male in his mid-20s, Freed was dressed to lure in a sleeveless white t-shirt and tight, tattered jeans. His hair was shorn military-style above broad cheekbones and a heavy jaw. His skin was pockmarked and leathery from years of sun. Blue-gray tattoos on his biceps shined with sweat.

Looking past him, Till had a spectacular view of Club Night and its crowd. Up to the mezzanine where the couples – male-female, female-female, male-male – kissed and groped. Back toward the long, curving bar, tended by men and women moving in swift, easy rhythm as they tilted the bottles to fill glass after glass. Toward the two mirrored walls at the corner of the dance floor, where he watched a reflection of Bobby Freed’s pumping fists, the swaying of his muscled arms, the gyrations of his hips.

Watched and waited, knowing that Freed would eventually meet his eyes.

Till glanced away when it happened, but he glanced back a moment later, wearing the hint of a smile as he moved closer, his shoulders rolling with the beat as the hip-hop music video morphed into soft-core gay pornography on a screen rising two stories high.

As if on cue, the light around the dancers became a rapid-fire strobe, capturing Freed in hypnotic poses. Poses that tempted, and provoked, as Till held his gaze, then nodded toward the bar at the rear of the room.

The rendezvous happened exactly as Till had hoped it would, free of small talk and any other diversion as he pressed Freed’s back against the bar, slipping his leg between the man’s thighs and speaking directly into his ear.

Minutes later they were in the nightclub’s back parking lot, agreeing to the specifics about what would happen next. With only the slightest bit of indecision Freed consented, giving Till the address and room number of a hotel just a few minutes away from the club.

Till watched as Freed got into a beat-up pick-up truck, but felt a twinge of anxiety at the sight of the truck’s burned-out taillight and out-of-state license plate. Mounting his Harley, giving the man a bit of a head start, he made sure he followed at a safe distance, from which it would be easy to simply speed away if Freed happened to be pulled over. Till had already been back to Club Night too many times since the last incident, and he wanted to minimize the chances of having a D.C. cop doing a check of his own license.

The hotel was what Till expected, and hoped-for, a rundown low-rise on New York Avenue. He watched Freed park the truck, then drove the bike around the block twice to plan his exit. Interstate 95 was nearby and it cut right through the center of the city. He knew that he could be on it and heading north or south in less than two minutes.

He parked several car lengths behind the truck, in the darkness under a burned-out streetlight. The Harley had a small, locked compartment behind the seat, inside of which Till kept the backpack with all of his traveling gear. The bag was heavy and there was a distinct clinking sound as Till brought it out and set it down. He kept a baseball cap with a large bill in one side compartment and a roll of duct tape, two thin towels, some sturdy twine and several pairs of sheer rubber gloves in the other. The condoms he had bought earlier in the evening were in the pocket of his jeans.

Wearing the cap with the bill pointing slightly downward, he slung the backpack onto his back and walked into the lobby. The clerk was reading a magazine behind the counter. Till headed straight to the bank of elevators, hoping to look like a guest accustomed to coming and going. But with a stroke of luck a phone underneath the counter rang as he walked by. The clerk answered it, and turned around to face the boxes that held the room keys as Till moved swiftly across the lobby.

He pushed the button for the elevator but thought better about it as he listened to its slow, groaning approach. It was already past 2 a.m. but the hotel looked like a place accustomed to all-night traffic. People who might remember him. The stairs were a better option, and he was relieved to find the heavy stairwell door unlocked.

He exited at the third floor. The hallway was brightly lit, the carpeting tattered. The sweet, fruity scent of cleaning fluid filled his lungs as he moved toward Bobby Freed’s room.

He knocked lightly, stepping inside immediately as Freed came to the door. With only a hushed “hello” Till clasped him by the belt and pulled him close, halting any possible conversation with a long, open-mouthed kiss, pausing only to turn the deadlock and slip the chain into place.

He was pleased to see the drugs that had been laid out before his arrival: Several lines of cocaine on a pocket mirror, a fat marijuana cigarette in the ceramic ashtray, a bottle of amyl nitrate on the table next to the bed. Stripping down to white cotton briefs, Freed did three lines and took two long hits of the joint as Till set the backpack next to the bed and slowly undressed in front of him. Freed did not seem to notice as Till then pushed both his clothes and his shoes far underneath the bed.

Reggae music from the radio was low and rhythmic as Bobby Freed slipped out of his briefs and reclined back on the bed, stretching his arms and catching his breath as Till bound his wrists. For a long moment Till’s mind skipped back to the dozens of photographs of Bobby Freed that he had committed to memory. Under the light of the bedside lamp, Freed’s long body bore several more tattoos. As Till had expected, Freed’s nipples and navel were pierced with several small silver rings. The skin at the underside of his penis was pierced with a ring of gold.

Freed watched him put on a condom and groaned with pleasure as Till climbed on top of him, showing no fear as Till grasped Freed’s wrists and used his weight to hold him down.

The rest happened quickly, in seconds of gasps and moans over the creaking bed and the pulsing music and the flurry of images spinning through Till’s mind; Till forcing himself not to cry out loud with the sudden, final release.

For several seconds afterward Freed appeared to be completely relaxed, his eyes fluttering shut. He was already beginning to doze as Till rolled over and reached down to the backpack next to the bed.

Slipped his hand into the center pocket and gripped the leather-bound handle above the long, narrow steel blade.

Turned his face back toward Bobby Freed, who was breathing calmly, wearing a subtle, contented smile. Till felt his own desire dissolving completely as he ran the fingers of his left hand down the man’s torso, tracing the sign of a cross over Freed’s abdomen as Freed opened his eyes.

“You wanna untie me now?”

Freed’s voice was an unexpected interruption to the reverie. Till had hoped he would simply drift off to sleep. But if he was talking he could soon be screaming . . .

“Yeah,” Till said. “Let me get somethin’ to cut it with.”

The roll of black duct tape was between the two thin towels. Till glanced back and saw Bobby Freed’s eyes fluttering shut again as he let go of the knife and leaned down just a bit lower. He cleared his throat to cover the sound as he pulled off a long piece of tape and bit the edge to tear it off the roll. Then with a quick but careful movement he pushed the whole bag underneath the bed so that it sat next to his clothes and shoes.

Holding both ends of the tape, he slowly rose, keeping the tape out of sight as he climbed back on top of Freed. Till used his weight to hold him down as Freed opened his eyes again.

Till let Bobby Freed look into his eyes for a long moment, and felt the angry smile coming to his own face.

“Get ready,” Till whispered. “Cause here it comes — .”

Till brought the tape down quickly, slapping it over Freed’s half-open mouth, pressing with both hands to secure it as Freed reared up, eyes wide with panic, his bound hands slapping Till’s chest as Till reached down to the floor, Till still managing, just barely, to hold him down as he grabbed the knife again, Freed’s eyes going even wider as Till raised it high above his chest, holding the handle with both hands in a tight double fist, holding it as if he were about to perform a ritual as he whispered . . .

“Fucker . . . ” and thrust the knife down, the blade plunging between Bobby Freed’s ribs; Freed bucking and lurching as Till pulled it free . . . and brought it back down again, and again; out and down and out and down in a spastic flurry, the blood shooting up like a bright red geyser with Bobby Freed’s last silent scream.

* * *

The afterward feeling came on quickly, sweeping over him in gentle, peaceful waves as he slid off the body and stood next to the bed. The blood had drenched both of them and the stink of it filled the room. There were splatters on the lamps, the tables and virtually every other surface that Till could see. Taking a long, deep breath, he turned in a slow circle to survey the scene that surrounded him.

The scene like so many others, in hotel rooms and apartments and distant houses in several different states. Some of the victims, like this one, wore familiar faces on familiar bodies. Others were simply anonymous; men who had made themselves available for quick, furtive thrills with virtually no questions or worries about what could happen.

Till looked back at the victim, remembering the first time he had seen him on a Web site, his slim, muscled body naked and tense with arousal, eyes looking straight into the camera. Till had felt the victim’s stare calling him, luring him.

You got what you deserved, Till thought. Yessir . . . got it in spades.

The clock next to the bed read 2:20. Time to get moving. Till’s mind cleared quickly as he began the steps for a secure exit.

He went first to the bathroom, ran warm water in the sink, rinsed the blood from his hands and wiped them dry. Slipped the condom from his wilted penis and wrapped it in a washcloth that would be carried away in his bag and discarded later. He then went back into the room and carefully reached underneath the bed, putting one hand below the backpack and the other above it to keep it up off the carpet as he brought it out.

He took it straight to the bathroom, which was still clean and white, laid it down on the back of the toilet. Went back and repeated the same motion with his clothes and shoes, keeping them away from the blood, clean and dry.

The shower came next — hot, soapy and not too long — Till becoming more aware of the time and everything he still needed to do. He gave the knife a good washing as well, even though it would need to be fully soaked and cleaned of all residue later, when he was safely away. When he was dry he put on most of his clothes, leaving his socks and shoes on a clean spot of carpeting just inside the hotel room door and rolling up the legs of his pants.

Back in the bathroom, he pulled a pair of rubber gloves from the backpack and grabbed a clean towel. At the bathroom doorway he paused, remembering every surface that he had touched. He had little reason to worry. He had never been arrested, or fingerprinted, so there was no evidence that he knew of to link him to any of his crimes. But he was never sloppy or overly confident, and the steps that he took next were crucial to the ritual.

He started at the doorway, wiping the deadbolt and the chain, moved to the bedside table and headboard, finished with the shiny metal and porcelain surfaces in the bathroom. Went back to the entrance to the room and mentally traced his actions to make sure there was no place he had missed.

It was nearly 3 a.m. now. Time to get out. But the last step of the ritual beckoned as Till went to the pile of clothes that the victim had left next to the bed. They were splattered with blood, but with his fingertips he was able to lift the wallet out of the back pocket. The plastic sleeves inside revealed a driver’s license from West Virginia and a membership card to a health club. Till carefully took out the cash: two $50 bills and three 20s. Not a lot, but a nice addition to his own stash. Slipping the money into his pocket, he glanced over at the shoulder bag that the victim had placed in the corner of the room. If the victim had traveled here from West Virginia without credit cards he probably had more cash, which he probably would have left back at his hotel room to avoid carrying it around.

Still wearing the gloves, Till carefully lifted the bag and reached inside.

On top of the victim’s clothing was a camera, in a leather case, along with a snap-on telephoto lens. It looked expensive, and would probably be worth at least $100 if he could fence it, Till thought, although he had never been stupid enough to take anything that could connect him to a victim. Tilting the bag toward the light, he fished around some more, then turned the bag around to check the pockets on the other side.

He felt two envelopes as he reached in; one large and thin and another smaller one from the PhotoExpress store he had seen just down the block.

He glanced at the clock again, knowing he needed to get moving as he opened the larger envelope. It contained an issue of the Washington Blade, a gay newspaper, and what looked like transcripts from an Internet chat room. Till had always had trouble reading but he usually managed by going through passages several times and finding familiar words. The type on the transcripts was small and hard to read but there were several words that did stand out . . . words that made him feel lightheaded as his eyes went back and forth over the first two pages . . .

Damnation,” he whispered.

His hands were shaking as he opened the second envelope and reached inside . . . panic fluttering in his chest as he flipped through the photographs of the little boy playing in a yard . . . a beautiful little boy laughing and running and jumping into the arms of a grown man . . .

A beautiful little boy turned nearly ugly by the dark red wine stain on the side of his face.

* * *

Officer Gloria Towson took the call at 9:45 a.m., cutting quickly through the alleys even through she knew the call about a “disturbance” at the Capitol Hotel would probably amount to nothing more than a fight to oust one of the homeless white guys who occasionally tried to sleep in the lobby. But she quickened her pace at the sight of the maid who looked as if she had collapsed in the lobby chair and the shock on the face of the clerk who simply said “room 305” as she came through the revolving door . . . took the stairs two at a time to reach the third floor . . . felt the muscles tensing between her broad shoulders as she saw the wide-open door near the end of the hall . . .

And gasped as she reached the threshold.

“Oh God.” Her hand went to her gun as the images and smells assaulted her mind . . . the naked man who had been savaged on the bed . . . the odor of stale marijuana lingering in the air . . . the blood splattered into every corner of the room.

She stepped back, wondering if she had already screwed up by getting too close to the scene, then looked down at the dry, clean carpeting under her feet and realized she had stopped just in time. She heard the ding of the elevator door and turned to see the clerk getting off, his eyes wide with curiosity as he said something about the floor being “nearly empty” and the only other “guests” running straight down to the lobby after glimpsing the sight that had caused the maid to scream.

“Good, that’s good.” She held her arm out, motioning him back. “I need to ask you to go back downstairs now. Please. And don’t let anyone leave. Keep that lady — the maid — who saw this in the lobby till we can interview her. Please. Jesus.”

“Are you okay ma’am — .”

Yes.” She paused, took a deep, calming breath. “You’ll need to stay down there for awhile too, until we can get a statement.”

She turned away, back toward the room. Priority one at a scene was “officer safety.” She did not believe she was in danger; the killer was surely long gone.

Priority two was the “health and welfare of the victim” and under most circumstances she would be expected to check for life signs but . . . no, not here.

Priority three was “protection of the scene.” She pulled the radio from her belt, a surreal chill radiating through her whole body as she called it in, blurting out that the victim’s wrists were bound even though it was a detail the dispatcher did not need to know. She stayed just outside the doorway to make sure that no one — from curious guests to the first wave of patrol officers who would soon be filling the hallway — contaminated the crime scene.

She realized then what she had forgotten. The hotel room was small and from the doorway she could see every corner, but the bathroom was only partly visible through the open door. Procedure dictated that she check for any other victims without damaging the scene.

Gloria took out her gun. “Police. Is anyone here? We’re coming in.”

There was a narrow perimeter of carpeting that appeared to be free of bloodstains and she walked sideways along it toward the bathroom. She crouched and peered around the doorway and was relieved to see that she could do a visual sweep of the inside without entering. The curtain in the tub was open; the tub was empty. There was no other victim.

She retraced her steps as she moved back to the hall, eyes sweeping side to side and taking in more details. In the far corner, the victim’s traveling bag appeared to have been emptied; a pile of clothes left on the floor. The radio was on, tuned to a station where the newscaster spoke with a lilting Caribbean accent. There were marks in the bloodstained carpet that looked like they had been made by bare feet. And there was a photograph lying in blood near the foot of the bed.

A little boy. Gloria squinted, but the photograph was partially obscured by the tousled bedspread and it was difficult to pick out the details from five feet away. There was a strange shadow on the child’s face and he appeared to be looking sideways, not at the camera.

The sound of an approaching siren took her attention back to the doorway and the crime scene that had to be protected. Less than a minute later there were four other patrol officers in the hallway. Gloria stayed at the door to stop anyone from entering and pulled the notebook from her back pocket to begin her log, writing down the names and badge numbers of the other officers as they arrived and assuring herself that she had done everything right as Louis D’Amecourt stepped out of the elevator and met her eyes.

D’Amecourt, the Fifth District Commander, coming down the hall with surprising speed and already looking as if he had something to say.

D’Amecourt grilling her but not looking at her as he stood at the threshold, staring into the room, every question putting her more on edge. What time did she get the call? Who discovered the victim? Had she trampled on, touched or done anything else to damage the crime scene?

She gave him short, succinct answers, which she knew measured up. But she was still on edge as homicide detective Tommy Payne came through the stairwell door. Payne looked warily at D’Amecourt as he approached the scene, and gave her a little wave when he met her eyes.

“Hey Glo.”

D’Amecourt flinched at Payne’s greeting, the use of her first name.

“Hey Tommy.” Her voice croaked. “Thanks for — .”

“Okay Towson, we’ll take it from here,” D’Amecourt said.

“I have witnesses to interview,” Gloria told him. “The maid downstairs and some people who were staying in the rooms on this floor — .”

“Just make sure they don’t go anywhere. We’ll talk to them in a minute,” D’Amecourt said sharply.

“I was the first on the scene. I’d like to get their statements.”

“You heard me Towson. You’re done.”

Well goddamn you too. Her jaw was locked and it was impossible to keep the anger out of her eyes as she stared back at D’Amecourt, waiting for him to look away.

“I’m sure you’ve taken good care of everything so far,” Payne came to her rescue, which only made her feel worse. But the chirping of her cell phone cut through the air before she could respond.

“You can take that down in the lobby,” D’Amecourt said dismissively.

“We’ll do a debrief in a little while,” Payne said, his gentle gaze promising her that they would.

“Okay,” she said quietly, unable to resist another harsh look at D’Amecourt as she turned away. She answered the phone while walking down the hall and was relieved to hear the voice of Booker, her husband of four months, who was also a police officer but off-duty for the day.

She gave him the details in the stairwell, telling him what a bastard D’Amecourt was, as if Booker didn’t already know.

“He came in here like a freight train,” she told him. “Like he was desperate to run me out.”

“What about Tommy Payne?”

“Payne was okay, but he knows I am pissed off.”

“D’Amecourt’s always been hands-on Glo.”

“Well he’s freakier than usual today. I think there’s something going on.”

“What do you mean?”

Gloria paused, thinking about the possibility that D’Amecourt was reacting not to her but to the crime scene itself. “Something about the way he acted. Like maybe he was scared of something.”

“Yeah right.” Booker’s laugh was short and hollow. “Only thing that man’s scared of is an empty bottle.”

Gloria looked back through the narrow glass window in the heavy stairwell door. There were two new officers guarding the scene now, and apparently D’Amecourt and Payne were both inside the room. As the Commander of the Fifth District, it made sense that D’Amecourt might have come to the scene, and that he would keep an eye on the processing carried out by a homicide detective under his watch. But it still surprised her that he was among the first to arrive.

She told Booker that she would call him later, that she needed to go down to the lobby to make sure that anyone who might have seen anything stayed put. But curiosity kept her rooted to the spot as she hung up, and moments later she was heading back down the hall and looking for an excuse to go back to the scene.

Both of the officers at the doorway, Rutherford and Sanchez, nodded stiffly as she approached, and neither man looked as if he would move an inch. But the door was still open and she had a clear view of D’Amecourt, stooping down alongside the pile of clothing on the floor.

With his back to her, she scanned the room again, her eyes coming back to the victim, the blood-soaked sheets, the empty space under the bed where she had seen the child’s photograph just moments before.

THREE

Refusing to be paranoid about premonitions, Michael Bennett sat on the edge of the bed as Justin hugged his stuffed spaniel dog and whispered:

“Momma was scarwed, Uncle Mike.”

Justin had a froggy, elfin voice, and he had always had trouble with “w”s, “l”s and “r”s.

“She made me scarwed too.”

The sadness in Justin’s eyes brought a small ache to the back of Michael’s throat as he pulled the covers up under the boy’s chin, then patted them down to create the snugness that Justin craved. Then he sat down on the bed and placed his palms on both sides of Justin’s face.

“Your mom loves you very much,” he said. “And it’s true, she does get upset when she turns around and you’re not right there.”

Justin blinked, and Michael knew he was ashamed that he had violated one of his mother’s “most important rules.” Michael decided to speak matter-of-factly, to take the opportunity to make a point.

“You have to remember, when you’re out with your mom, or with me, it’s very important that you stay close by . . . you have to hold our hands like you were supposed to today. Do you understand?”

Justin frowned for a moment, then nodded. Relaxing, finally, Michael stretched out beside him and listened to the child’s gentle breathing.

“But what about on the wides?”

“What do you mean?”

“Uncle Michael,” Justin chastised him now. “When you wide the ponies you have to hold on with both hands.”

“Oh yeah, right,” Michael smiled at the earnestness in Justin’s eyes.

“And also when you dwive the little cars,” Justin told him. “Both hands on the wheel. That’s what you said last time, remember, Uncle Mike?”

“Yeah I remember,” Michael said. His sister’s ever-present apprehension had made last month’s trip to the AdventureWorld amusement park tense at first, but she had eventually relaxed. Pestered to submission, Mary had agreed to let Justin go again. This time, tomorrow, with his Uncle Michael alone.

Michael gave Justin a serious look. “I’ll tell you what. Because you’re getting to be a big boy now . . . When you’re on the rides, you do have to keep a grip on the reigns or the wheel. And when you’re with your mom or me, you have to hold her hand or mine. But guess what else?”

“What, Uncle Mike?”

“Tomorrow you get to on a couple of the rides by yourself. We’ll start with the merry-go-round, and then move onto the cars. You think you’re up for that?”

Justin nodded and grinned, then frowned again.

“But where will you be, Uncle Mike?”

Michael thought about it a moment, knowing he had to balance his own fears with Justin’s need for independence. Then with what Justin called his “crazy face,” he leaned closer.

“I’ll be right here. Grrrrrrrr,” Michael growled and giggled and tickled him. “All right, little boy?”

“All wight Uncle MIKE!” Justin let out a peal of laughter, kicking his legs under the covers as Michael tickled and squeezed him again and again.

* * *

Later he would regret the tickling and the squeezing, and he would have nightmares about what happened next.

“Michael, what are you doing?”

Mary’s voice startled him. He was in the basement, at the workbench. He hadn’t heard her come down the stairs.

“I’ve got Justin’s ID bracelet. I’m working on the clasp.”

Mary came closer. She was wearing a light blue nightgown and a frumpy white terry cloth robe. Under the harsh light Michael saw new lines around her eyes and wondered if the scare at the mall had aged her.

“Are you fixing it, or taking it apart?” Mary joked.

“I’m bending it so it won’t come loose again.”

“It came loose?”

Michael rolled his eyes. “No, Miss Overreact to Everything. I was wrestling with Justin and realized that it was about to, which is why I’m fixing it.”

Michael felt her watching as he closed the rings on either side of the clasp. Justin had been complaining about the tightness of the bracelet, and about a taunt he’d gotten from another little boy at kindergarten who told him jewelry was for girls. There was no possibility of his nephew going without the bracelet, which listed his name, address and telephone number, but Michael had decided earlier today that the least he could do was make it more comfortable. The bracelet was designed to be lengthened as Justin grew, but when he had started working on it earlier the clasp had jammed, and it had almost slipped off when he tickled Justin in bed. Michael felt responsible; the late-night repair at the workbench wouldn’t have been necessary if he hadn’t fiddled with the bracelet in the first place.

“I didn’t overreact, Michael. And I don’t appreciate you joking about it either.”

The tone of Mary’s voice made it clear she was still thinking about the morning’s incident. The rest of the day had gone by without any discussion of it. Michael had hoped she wouldn’t mention it again.

He sighed, knowing now that she would have to talk it through. “You mean at the mall.”

“Of course that’s what I mean.”

“I feel awful about it.” He lowered the bracelet and looked at her. “But it’s okay. Justin was fine.”

“Well it scared the hell out of me,” she said harshly. “Michael we have to be careful with him.”

She said “we,” he thought, with some relief. “I know.”

“I’m not saying it was completely your fault.”

“And I’m not saying it wasn’t,” he offered. “It was just for a few seconds that I wasn’t holding on to him, but that’s what you were counting on me to do.”

“Then we’ll share the blame.” Mary made an attempt to smile, and gave his forearm a squeeze. “Okay?”

“Yeah.” The look in her eyes bothered him. She still thinks you’re a screw-up, he thought.

He went back to the bracelet. The clasp felt secure now. “Okay, it’s done. See?”

He handed it to her and she held it under the light, squinting slightly as she checked it. After a moment she shuddered.

“What’s wrong?”

She looked at him, blinked quickly, then shook her head dismissively. “I just had a strange feeling.”

“What kind of feeling?”

“I don’t know. Just sort of . . . sad.”

Michael found himself nodding slightly. He had had similar feelings off and on all day. Feelings that intensified as Mary met his eyes.

“Oh never mind.” Mary tried to smile. “I’m sure it’s just my imagination, turnin’ me into an old hag.”

Michael laughed. His sister was a mere 31, the same age their parents had been when they had died. The rest of their childhoods and the past five years in particular had been a battleground of risk and redemption, both stemming from the tragedy that could have made them enemies but had brought them far closer instead.

“You don’t have time to be a hag.” He put his arm around her shoulder. “You’re too busy bein’ my big sissy.”

“I thought you were the sissy, Michael.”

“Then you ain’t seen me pumpin’ iron, darlin’.”

“Yeah well I also ain’t seen you workin’ the iron either, darlin’.” She elbowed his stomach and handed the bracelet back. “It’s your turn this week, and since I happen to work in a legitimate dining establishment I prefer it when my fine polyester aprons look nice.”

“Yikes, I fail again,” he moaned.

“Yes that’s you Michael.” Abruptly, she kissed him on the cheek. “Failure Boy extraordinaire.”

The words hung in the air as he watched her go up the narrow stairs and into the kitchen, feeling a rush of gratitude that, after everything, she didn’t really believe it. The bracelet felt delicate in his hand as he switched off the light.

And saw the flash in the window.

It had come to him in an instant, a beam of white light that hit him directly in the face. The basement windows were at eye level, and when he moved closer he realized the flash had come from headlights belonging to a car that had pulled up to the curb. The three-level townhouse Michael, Mary and Justin lived in was on a corner in the woodsiest section of Northwest Washington, on a short side street that backed up to parkland. There were only four other houses on the block. Michael continued to stare at the car at the curb, watching to see who got out.

For several seconds nothing happened. As his eyes adjusted to the light he was able to see the outline of the car, something out of the late 1960s, he thought. A muscle car, maybe. He felt a catch in his breath, the mere shape of the car bringing back a memory that he instantly tried to push out of his mind.

With a revving of the engine, the car backed up, paused, and pulled away.

Probably just someone turning around. The incident at the mall had jangled his nerves, but he had to stop thinking about disaster at every turn.

Just put it out of your mind, he thought, and headed up the stairs.

* * *

The feeling of being watched struck him again as he stepped out of the shower. He had stayed under the hot water for a long time. The windows were steamy but it wasn’t hard to imagine that under the bright overhead light someone could see him from the dark woods at the back of the house. With a swipe of the towel on the glass he looked out and saw nothing but old trees and the passing headlights of traffic on the Rock Creek Parkway 100 yards behind.

He shut the blinds and wrapped the towel around his middle, then stepped into the attic bedroom that comprised the third floor of the house. The feeling of unease faded away as the thumping beat of club music filled the room. The beat was catchy, and he tapped a rhythm against his thigh as he moved toward the dresser.

He caught sight of himself in the full-length mirror and was pleased.

“So it’s working,” he said out loud as he thought of the harder-than-usual workout the day before. He flexed his right arm, then twisted to the left, a semi-serious attempt at a muscle-boy pose, which he held for no more than five seconds before he laughed and turned it into a parody. Sometimes it amazed him that despite everything he had done more than just survive. Somehow between the faith of his sister and the support of his very untraditional family he had found it possible to look forward to the common joys of everyday life. Health. Success. A future of open doors. The last few years had taught him to relish it all.

Thanks to Justin, he thought. And a second chance a hundred times better than you deserve.

The music was reaching a fever pitch. It heightened his anticipation for the night ahead as he ran his fingers through his towel-dried hair and slipped into a pair of baggy jeans and a bright white t-shirt. It was already the first week of October, but several warm days in a long Indian summer had only deepened his tan, giving his confidence another boost as he stood in front of the mirror again.

You look happy.

His mind flashed on the face of someone he had met a week before. The name and phone number that had been scrawled on the matchbook. The smile meeting his across the bar.

Ready to try again.

He was ready to slip out into the night when he accidentally kicked over the stack of magazines and papers he hadn’t gotten around to throwing out. He remembered Mary’s comment about the ironing. She was right; he hadn’t paid as much attention to his own household chores as he should have recently. Knowing it would take just a minute to make some headway, he decided to sift through the pile and toss everything he didn’t need to save.

At the bottom of the stack was an article Mary had written weeks earlier for the Washington Blade. Michael picked it up and felt a familiar clenching in his gut as he thumbed through the article, which began with a harrowing description of the abduction and death of her first son, Benjamin, five years before. He was still anxious about the many details his sister had chosen to reveal, but comforted by the way the story evolved into a description of her “deep appreciation” for his role as a father figure to Justin, and the happiness of “our odd little” family at present.

As if we’ve moved right on, he thought. No more worries. No more questions —

The attic room had storage built under the eaves. It was a good hiding place for the box that contained items he hoped neither his sister nor anyone else would ever see. Knowing that this issue of the Blade was something he would keep forever, Michael slipped it into the box.

With one more look in the mirror and a dash of cologne at the back of his neck, he headed back downstairs. On the second floor were two bedrooms, one for Justin, and a larger one at the front of the house for Mary. Her door was partially open as he walked by and he could hear the television turned to low volume. When he opened the door a little wider he saw she had dozed off. He stepped into the room and was just reaching over to turn the television off when he saw what she was holding.

His breath came up short, his mood plunging as he gazed at the light brown teddy bear in Mary’s arms. Benjamin’s bear. Michael had noticed that it was missing from Justin’s room earlier in the afternoon and carefully not asked his sister where it was.

Feeling suddenly like a trespasser, he stepped back. A creak in the floor sent a shiver up his back and made him step even more quickly out of the room.

In the hallway he felt his heart racing.

Calm down, think of something else.

Justin was afraid of the dark, and he liked to keep his door open to let in light from the hallway. Standing in the doorway, Michael could tell he was now sleeping soundly with the stuffed cocker spaniel in his arms. He stood there for nearly a minute, reminding himself that the windows were locked. The house was alarmed. Justin and Mary were completely safe.

It was a mental checklist he went through three more times as he stepped outside and slipped behind the wheel of the Jeep. He was at the end of the block before he realized he hadn’t turned on his lights. Doing so sent his mind moving forward as he headed more deeply into the city, toward the noise and distraction of Club Night, where thoughts of Mary and Justin and the incident at the mall would quickly fade away.

Down the block, forgotten by now, the muscle car pulled up to the curb again.

* * *

Mary heard the door shut: nothing more than a click that for some reason sounded louder, like a punctuation mark to all of the conflicts of the day.

She had dozed off in front of the television with her arms wrapped snugly around the teddy bear that now belonged in Justin’s room. The stress had worn her down and brought tears to her eyes as she drifted into the netherworld between consciousness and sleep. It was in that state that the memories were most difficult to manage. She had already been awake when Michael had stepped into the room, but had kept her eyes closed. She just hadn’t been up to conversation.

Now that he was gone, she suddenly wished that he wasn’t.

“Sorry little brother,” she muttered into the darkness. She still felt badly about snapping at him in the shoe store, but she almost wanted to hit him, to call him stupid for letting his attention wander. And yet for the rest of the afternoon she had been haunted by the look on his face at the moment they realized Justin was gone.

You can’t keep doing this, she told herself. You have to move on.

Knowing how difficult it could be to get back to sleep, she decided to head downstairs to study. She brought Benjamin’s bear with her and propped it up on the breakfast table. She eyed the scotch bottle in the glass-fronted cabinet but opted for the more sensible choice of a club soda instead. Within minutes the words from the textbook on libel laws were blurred by tears. After reading the same page three times with little comprehension, she was ready to give up.

But still wide-awake. At 10:15 she needed to be winding down, getting ready for the day that would follow. She was working a lunch shift at O’Malley’s, the popular restaurant and pub owned but no longer managed by her Uncle Martin. She would be serving her regular tables and a special gathering, hosted by Martin, of his political supporters. It’ll be good money and an easy time, he had joked. If any one of those blowhards gives you trouble, I’ll be right there.

The recollection cheered her. Uncle Martin and Aunt Joan were the lifeblood of the recovery that her shrink had tried to convince her she had reached. In her darkest periods she prayed they would never be farther than a phone call away.

Even now, she thought as she looked at the clock, knowing that Joan usually stayed up until 11 and then “wound down” by reading crime novels for half an hour or so before going to bed. Picking up the phone, she was ready to excuse herself immediately if the woman was too immersed in one to chat, although she couldn’t think of a minute in her whole life that her cherished aunt hadn’t given her full attention.

“Hello?” Joan’s voice was upbeat, as expected.

“Are you busy?” Mary pictured her sitting in the leather club chair alongside the big carved mantel in her historic Cleveland Park home, drinking a glass of sherry. It had been three weeks since the two of them had seen each other. Joan had busy gearing up for Martin’s city council reelection campaign and Mary missed her more than ever. “Can you talk?”

“Of course I can baby. How are ya’?”

“Crappy,” Mary answered with her usual honesty, and then described the scare at the mall and the sense of fear that had stayed with her for the rest of the day.

“I can only imagine what it must have been like.” Joan’s voice was comforting as always. Mary could feel her gentle smile. “It’s so easy to overreact when something like that happens.”

“I know, but — .”

“Besides, how can you compete with Captain Steel?” Joan chuckled. “Defender of the Universe.”

“And ‘Protector of the World.'” Mary laughed. Over the past month the Saturday morning cartoon character had become Justin’s absolute favorite. But she was still anxious at how easily the 12-foot tall plastic statue had lured her son away.

She decided to change the subject. “So any way, how are you? Did you get some shopping done today too?”

“Are you kidding?” Joan had recently retired from a long, successful career as an Assistant District Attorney, a difficult job given her constant anger over the inability of the system to protect innocent victims. Working as a campaign-aide to her husband, a city councilman, had proven to be only slightly less draining.

“I’ve been pinned to the desk all day. This event of Martin’s is going to be the death of me,” Joan said. “I think I was at it for seven hours without a break before being chained to the phone for a conference call that took another two.”

“It’s going to be great.” But sad, Mary thought. She had helped her aunt write a portion of Martin’s speech for the event, which would dedicate a new pediatric AIDS wing at George Washington Hospital, where Martin would share the podium with the Mayor, the university president and probably a celebrity or two.

She heard the call-waiting beep, looked at the clock. “God, who could be calling so late?”

“You have to go?”

“I guess so,” she sighed wearily. “There’s never enough time to just relax anymore.”

“I feel the same way,” Joan said. “Especially with the pressure we’re starting to get from the Moral Minority.”

Mary recognized the reference to Martin’s most significant opposition, a Republican running on a law and order platform, who continuously bolstered his position by citing the high homicide rate in the city’s tougher neighborhoods, an implicit criticism of Joan’s previous effectiveness as a prosecutor. After an impassioned public debate two nights earlier, Louis D’Amecourt, one of the best-known police officials in the city, had been interviewed by a local newscaster. D’Amecourt had put up an appearance of neutrality, but his support of Martin’s opposition was pretty clear. Mary had had a distinct feeling that D’Amecourt was still motivated by personal animosity, and that he would have done anything to see her uncle defeated.

“So you’re pretty sure they’ll be back?” she said.

“Oh yeah, marching on that same old bandwagon –.”

The call-waiting click came again.

“Ugh!” Mary snapped. “It’s probably a damn telephone solicitor.

“Probably. You take care honey.”

“You too.” She felt another pang of regret at having to say goodbye, a renewed uneasiness as she disconnected.

With another click she was on the new line.

“Hello?”

“Mary. It’s me. Scott.”

Scott. The voice knocked her breathless as she pressed her back against the wall, looked at the locked door. The kitchen window. The darkness outside.

“I’m home,” Scott said. “In D.C. I need to see you.”

She gripped the phone tighter, and thought of the last time she had seen him, five years earlier, on his way to prison. Thought of the letters, the phone calls, the lurking presence of him every day since.

“I’ll beg you if I have to. Come on Mary, please . . . “

Excerpts

Enjoy excerpts from my books.

DoubleAbductioncover     DoubleBindcover