Chapter One

Nick looked at the girl behind the bar, trying hard to think where he’d seen her before. Long and tall, with a figure that reminded him a little of Sara’s but with a few more curves . . .

She caught his glance and her smile deepened a little; whoever the bartender was, she seemed to remember him. Nick stepped forward and smiled back.

“Three Beck’s, please.”

“Coming right up, honey,” she replied in a husky sweet voice. Nick leaned on the counter, SURE he’d heard that voice before. He lazily looked at the bartender’s back while she fished out his bottles from one of the little refrigerators under the central island.

Whoever she was, she filled out a low-slung pair of jeans nicely, he admitted. When she’d turned around, cold bottles in hand, she caught his glance and laughed softly. “Lookin’s free, but these are two fifty each.”

Nick fished out his wallet and dropped a ten, flashing another smile at her. “Keep the change, Miss.”

“Thank you, cowboy,” she replied, scooping it up. Nick noticed her long slender arms, the wide leather band on her wrist; the branded logo on it made him laugh.

“Another Longhorn alumni! Sweet!”

“Class of eighty-nine,” the bartender admitted, “Although I haven’t been back since, I still support the home team.”

Nick looked up at her, and studied her features. She was thin-faced, and not particularly pretty, but her eyes were big and velvety brown, and her smile was amazingly warm. He cleared his throat.

“I know you hear this all the time, but I am pretty sure I’ve met you before.”

The bartender’s smile faltered a tiny bit, and she sighed. “Oh well, it was sweet while it lasted. Yeah, I remember you too, honey. You came in to the Cock Pit last year looking for Marlene.”

Nick stared for a second, feeling a quick flush over his face as recognition flooded through him: the bartender with the Lone Star tee-shirt. He blinked, and she pushed the three beers towards him, her smile slightly sad now. “Drink ‘em before they get warm.”

“Uh, right. Yeah, thanks—“ he mumbled, feeling eight kinds of stupid. As he carried the beers back to the table and handed them to Warrick and Greg, he settled back down, turning his chair away from the bar. The noise level was soothing, and he twisted the cap off his beer, downing the first mouthful quickly.

“Saw you havin’ a little conversation there, Nick---“ Greg smiled. Nick managed a grin back.

“She’s . . . a Texas Alum—you know how we Longhorns gotta stick together.”

“Riight. Good excuse,” Greg teased. Mention of the team let Warrick bring up the previous night’s football game and the conversation turned to sports; Nick contented himself to contributing periodically as he slowly shifted his chair back and let his attention drift back to the bar for the next forty minutes. He watched the bartender out of the corner of his eye, studying her long sweet lines, her quick grace in lining up glasses and mixing cocktails.

She wasn’t pretty. Not by conventional standards. Nick could see the broad shoulders, the slight bulge of Adam’s apple on her throat. Her hair was straight and cut in a lanky style; efficient for the job, and she had a bit of an overbite too.

Not his type by any means. Nick kept looking.

Hell of a bouncy chest though, high and nicely accentuated through her thin tee-shirt. Implants or not, her tits looked great, and jiggled in a way that kept catching his eye. She had a way of rolling her hips, too, that made him think of slow dancing and sweet hungry grinding in the dark. And that ass . . . there wasn’t a damn thing wrong with those peaches, no way, Jose. His hands could cup those pert cheeks and—

“I said NICK, what time is it?” Greg broke into his concentration. Startled, Nick glanced down at his watch and mumbled “Two-twenty—“

“Thank you. Nice to know you’re paying attention to the group,” Greg acidly commented, but his words were softened by the twinkle in his eyes. Warrick laughed, and set his bottle down, then gave a deep sigh.

“Yeah, well fun as this little get together is, I gotta get home. Tina and I have a few projects to get to,” he lasciviously intoned, making it clear they weren’t hanging drapes or painting the garage. Nick laughed, and Greg smirked.

“So the marriage thing’s working out for you man?” Greg demanded. Warrick’s smile widened for a moment. Nick looked back at the bartender.

“It works,” Warrick replied. “And that’s all YOU need to hear about it.” He rose from the table and Greg did too, stretching a little and giving a discouraged sigh.

“Fine—I guess I’ll just mosey on too then. Coming, Nick?”

He shook his head. “Nah,” came his mumble. “I’ll see you guys on Monday.”

“Okay, take care,” Warrick tossed over his shoulder. Greg gave a wave and followed him out. Nick watched them go, and turned his attention back to the table, aimlessly playing with the bottle caps for a few moments; stacking them, setting them in patterns on the tabletop. He wondered why he was so restless, so unsettled.

So . . . horny, Nick admitted to himself with a mingled sense of shame and annoyance.

With a sigh he began to finish off his beer and think over his options for the night. None of them seemed too promising since the few women here were all in the company of other men. Nick glanced again towards the bartender as the fleeting consideration crossed his mind once more.

She looked up right then, as if alerted to his interest, and for a moment they locked gazes across the room, the tug of attraction as recognizable as a whistle, pulling at both ends of the stare. Finally the bartender looked away, her attention coming back to the patron waving a few bills in her direction.

Nick drew in a breath. He felt a sense of tingle across his skin, arousing and a little frightening—the carryover of guilt and thrill from childhood, when you nearly got caught doing something or seeing something adult. Carefully, he shifted in his chair, wondering if she’d felt it as well. Probably not, he argued with himself, since she’s not my type.

Out of the corner of his eye he studied her again, watching carefully this time, looking more critically. More objectively.

So she was tall. Not something he’d ever had a problem with in terms of women. She had an easy graceful way of moving, and her smiles were real. He even gave her credit for a great education and school loyalty as well. And still, the nagging truth bothered him.

She used to be a guy. Nick wrestled with the idea. Somewhere down the line she CHOSE to change.

The transgender case had been a hard one to work; no doubt about it. The crimes committed against the victims had been horrific and grotesque, and in the end Nick had found himself feeling profoundly sorry for them, unlike his gut response to Bruce.

Not that sex is ever an easy issue for anybody, Nick admitted to himself. Everyone’s got a little bit of a dark side to them. For a moment he thought about his friends, trying to picture their own little sexual vices. Greg’s probably into restraints, and I’m pretty sure Catherine’s got plenty of personal toys.

He wasn’t sure he wanted to consider Grissom’s sex life, but a small corner of his mouth quirked up in self-acknowledgment that his boss did indeed HAVE one. They all do, even if they don’t talk about them much, Nick sighed inwardly. And then there’s me—alone again, naturally. He tried not to feel sorry for himself; he’d survived a hell of a lot this last year, more than most men, but the loneliness lingered. Carefully Nick began to rise out of his chair when he heard the crash.

A cluster of patrons did too, and craned over the bar; Nick hurried over and caught sight of someone on the floor behind it. The bartender lay in a growing puddle of blood, a steel moneybox on the floor within fingertip reach. Nick pressed his palms to the bar and vaulted over, bending down to look at the woman while calmly calling up, “Hey, somebody get me some water—“

She was coming to, but the gash along the top of her head continued to bleed; a heavy woman with long Rasta braids came up along behind the bar, her low voice rumbling angrily. “Damn it, Starr honey, you okay? Anybody see what happened?”

“She was making change,” A patron volunteered shamefacedly. “All I had was a hundred, so she was pulling down that box you have up overhead on the shelf.”

“She slipped,” someone else announced. “The box hit her in the head. Stupid place to keep it.”

Nick had a wet napkin pressed to the wound; already the bartender’s eyes were open, and pain-filled. She blinked a little, and put a hand down to push herself to a sitting position.

“Oh damn that hurts,” she moaned “Ow, ow, ow—“

“Yeah it’s going to for a while,” Nick replied, applying pressure to the wound. The Rasta woman leaned over and watched for a few seconds then sighed.

“Starr honey, you sit tight; I’ll call an ambulance—“

“—No! Mina, it’s not THAT bad!” the bartender argued. Nick looked into her eyes carefully and shook his head.

“’Fraid it is,” he muttered, “I know head wounds bleed a lot but you’re probably going to need at least two stitches. Look, let me take you to the Emergency room—that way you won’t need to call an ambulance, but you’ll get treated quicker, okay?” Seeing the woman’s doubt he, added in a lower voice, “We Longhorns gotta stick together, you know?”

“You think I’m gonna let a complete strange take MY Starr—“ Mina began in a slightly angry tone, but the bartender broke in, smiling with a wince to it.

“It’s okay Mina, he’s with the Crime Lab—he’s a cop. Sort of—“ she amended. Nick fished out his wallet and flashed his ID; to her credit, Mina took her time studying it, then handed it back reluctantly. Nick fished out one of his business cards and gave it to her.

“My supervisor’s number is on it too.”

“Starr?” Mina asked softly, questioningly. Most of the patrons had gone back to drinking or talking, and only the three of them were left behind the counter. Starr slowly began to get up; Nick helped her, gripping her forearm to stabilize her. She smelled nice; some sort of vanilla perfume.

“It’s okay. If Mr. Stokes is willing to drive me—“ she muttered weakly. “Can you close up alone?”

“Yep,” Mina replied gently. “Okay then, baby. You CALL me once you get there, you hear? And don’t worry about the schedule for tomorrow. I’ll get Charlie to cover for you.” She shot Nick a serious look and he nodded back.

*** *** ***

Nick waited. In the harsh light of the curtained bay everything looked a little bleached out, including the figure sitting on the exam table. He carefully pulled the wad of napkin away, pleased to see the cut already beginning to clot a bit.

“They might have to cut a little of your hair,” he warned. Starr gave a resigned sigh. Nick noted she had little pearl earrings.

“I was thinking of cutting it anyway—“

“—Nah, I don’t think you should—it kinda frames your face,” he commented. For a second Starr blinked, then a slow smile crossed her face and she let her gaze skirt away as she cleared her throat.

“That sounded a little bit flirty, Mr. Stokes.”

Nick blushed, aware that she was right, but before he could speak the curtain whooshed back and a slightly older man with green hornrims and a thick nose looked in on them.

“Miss Jankowitz? I’m Doctor Graff, here to take a look at your laceration.” his voice held a soft hint of flat Midwestern tones, a broad flattening of his As. He moved over, peeled away the napkin and gave a little nod. “Oh my my, yes, that’s a nasty one. What happened?”

“A money box fell on my head.”

“Pennies from Heaven,” the doctor replied, earning a groan from both Starr and Nick. He chuckled as he pulled over the suture kit. “Now now—if you know how bad that was, I don’t think your concussion can be too serious. Let’s check your eyes—“

A quick flashlight flick into each; Nick felt Starr flinch a little; without thinking about it he took her hand. It was slender and very cool in his, and the look she shot him out of the corner of her eye was grateful. Nick smiled back uncertainly while the doctor tut tutted a bit.

“Okay, a mild concussion. You’ll have a headache for while. You’ll need a couple of stitches too, I’m afraid.”

“Okay,” Starr agreed in a very small voice, and Nick gave in to the urge to squeeze the hand in his, very gently.

*** *** ***

Her apartment was a duplex off the end of a loop, an odd little unit standing all alone by a water treatment reservoir and right on the edge of the desert. Nick parked and came around to help her out; Starr shot him a gentle smirk.

“God you ARE Texan down to the boots, aren’t you?”

“Come on—you know Grandma training goes to the bone,” he commented with a flash of a grin; Starr laughed softly, rising up to stand. At full height she rose over him by two inches, but watching her stretch didn’t bother Nick. Not in the least when there was so much to look at. He fished in his pocket for his cell phone.

“I think you owe your boss a call.”

“Yeah,” Starr agree, taking the little phone from him as they walked up the sidewalk to the front door. Nick noted the floodlight on the corner of the garage flick on as they tripped the motion detector and inwardly he approved. On the front door was a huge wreath of dried chili peppers woven through cornhusks, and the sight of it touched him a little with a pang of homesickness. Starr dug for her keys in her purse, pulling them out as she brought the phone to her ear.

“Mina? Yeah, I’m home . . . Three stitches . . . . yes, he was a perfect gentleman . . . . Mina!” came the tantalizing bits of conversation as Starr unlocked the door and winked at Nick. He followed her inside as she flicked on lights and walked through the apartment. Brick tile floors, adobe walls and woven baskets decorated the place. Nick eyed the sunken living room and grinned at the cowhide patten sofas. The wide screen TV stopped him in his tracks and he sighed with envy. Starr smirked a bit, covering the mouthpiece of the phone as she whispered,

“Channel 56—I think arena football’s on—“ then she turned back to her conversation. Nick found the remote on the little end table and clicked the screen on, then sat on the sofa, lost in the joys of the Dallas Desperados and Las Vegas Gladiators in a close third quarter grudge match. After a few minutes Starr handed him a bowl of corn chips and he gave her a sheepish nod as she perched on the arm of the sofa.

“My money’s on the Gladiators—former soccer players—speed and stamina,” she confided confidently.

“Yeah, but they’re on their second string quarterback—Menendez got carried off second quarter.”

“What? No way!” Starr blurted, staring at the screen. “Did they say what for?”

“Something about a late hit. Mighta dislocated his shoulder,” Nick supplied. “Dallas’s offence has been riding a hard blitz game.”

“Damned rednecks—“ Star grumbled without malice. “Good thing I didn’t bet with Wally tonight. He’ll probably be smirking about it tomorrow, the rat.”

They watched in silence a few moments longer, and Nick crunched his way though most of the bowl of chips before guiltily checking his watch. “Oh man, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to impose.”

Starr shook her head. She was still perched on the sofa arm, slouching easily, her eyes on the screen. “You’re not. If it hadn’t been for your good deed I’d be trying to explain to my medical insurance why I needed an ambulance for three stitches.” She turned to flash him a shy smile. “Really Nick, that was amazingly nice of you and I appreciate it.”

Nick felt himself smiling back. From his position on the sofa he had a nice view of her long limbs, and the halo of the lamp was bright enough to show the shadow of her nipples through her thin teeshirt. He looked away, surprised and a little annoyed at how much that sight affected him.

“No big deal—Longhorns stick together, right?”

“Right,” Starr admitted with a low laugh. “Listen, you come back to Mina’s and you’ll have a night of beers on the house, guaranteed, okay?”

“Sounds good. Guess I should be going—“

Nick rose up off the sofa and walked to the door, taking in the Southwest décor once more with a little pang. Starr followed him to the front door and lingered there, brushing her hair back from her eyes and not meeting his gaze. She awkwardly patted his shoulder. “Ah, thanks. You didn’t have to help and you did anyway. That’s rare.”

Nick reached for her hand and gave a quick squeeze. “I wanted to, Starr. You take care of those stitches and I’ll see you around the bar sometimes, okay?”

“Okay—“ Starr agreed. She stood at the doorway, a long coltish figure in bare feet and low jeans and watched him climb into his car, until he drove out of sight. When he had, she gave a low, discouraged sigh and turned back into her duplex. “Sure honey. Yeah, you’ll be back when the devil needs ice skates—“

*** *** ***

Nick missed it by six that evening. After turning his apartment inside out, the realization dawned as he pulled on his jacket. With a glance at his watch he figured he had enough time to stop by and get the cell phone back before work, so he took off for the little duplex in the shadow of the reservoir. The problem was that no one answered his knocks or the doorbell.

As he began to walk away in discouragement he noticed a thin old man watering the lawn next door. Nick stopped and looked at him slightly alarmed; the man wore a Hawaiian print shirt in a shade of purple so loud it was almost violent, with big green hibiscus flowers blooming like alien spores on it. Added to that he wore plaid Bermuda shorts in black and yellow, with red high top sneakers. He was bald on top, with a fringe of white hair around his head, and under his beaky nose he had a thick mustache to match. Nick cleared his throat. The old man glanced over at him and turned back to the lawn.

“Excuse me, but have you seen Starr?”

“Yes,” the old man replied in a voice so low it rivaled a foghorn. The sound, deep and rich seemed to rise up from the highttops, and Nick grinned a little, but the man said nothing more. He tried again.

“Have you seen her today?”


Another pause. Nick checked his watch. “All right, do you know where she is right now?”


“Could you please TELL me?”

“I could,” The old man agreed in his amazingly deep croak. Silence again, while Nick fought the urge to yell. Instead he took a deep breath and tried once more.

“Can you tell me where I can find her right now?”

“If you ask me, yes.”

“I DID ask you!” came the frustrated reply. The old man shook his head and turned the hose off, then looked at Nick sharply.

“You did NOT, young feller. You asked if I HAD seen her and if I COULD tell you, which isn’t the same as asking if I WOULD tell you. Semantics, yes, but important in the nature of communication, eh? “

“All right then sir,” Nick mentally counted to ten as he inwardly filed Starr’s neighbor under ‘N for nutcase’. “Where is Starr Jankowitz?”

Las Vegas Nevada,” came the dry reply. “Somewhere within a thirty mile radius of our current position. Given her habitual schedule I daresay she’s either en route to Tonsessi’s Art Shop on the corner of 8th and Sunset, or shopping for groceries at Corti Brothers on Mayfaire and Route Eight.”

Nick concentrated hard for a moment longer, debating between his options at this news. The old man broke into his musings before he could reach a decision.

“You the buckaroo who brought her home from the hospital last night?”

“Yes sir,” Nick admitted, trying to ease away towards his car. The old man eyed him sharply, and gave a nod.

“What did you leave behind?”

“My cell phone,” This time Nick’s tone held an unspoken question in it, and the old man gave a low thunder rumble of a chuckle.

“Considering your state of agitation I logically assumed it was something like that. So why didn’t you call yourself?” The man demanded. Nick blinked a bit, realizing exactly how practical the suggestion was and wondering how he’d missed it. The old man shook his head and took a few seconds to begin coiling the hose in slow, arthritic gestures. “Never mind. Nobody ever thinks of calling their own numbers. What’s your name?”

“Nick Stokes,” Nick replied automatically, his manners kicking in. The old man held out his hand and Nick carefully shook it, surprised at how strong his grip was.

“Wallace Ditmeyer, retired. Starr’s my tenant, and neighbor.”

“You’re the one she had a bet with?” he blurted, remembering Starr’s comment. Wally nodded sagely, a hint of a smile under his mustache.

“That gal never learns. She may love sports, but she’s no damn gambler, that’s for sure. I warned her Dallas was out for blood but did she listen? Now she owes me enchiladas that I intend to collect in full.”

Nick grinned and Wally grinned back as he toyed with the hose for a moment longer. He looked at Nick once more, seeming to size him up. “Does Starr HAVE your number?”

“Nnnnno, I don’t think she does,” Nick admitted with a hint of frustration. Wally rolled his eyes and motioned to the apartment on the other side of the duplex.

“Then I think you ought to give her a call and arrange to meet up with her somewhere. Fair enough?”

Nick nodded, realizing the suggestion made more sense than chasing after Ms Jankowitz all over Las Vegas. He followed Wally into his duplex as the old man waved to a rotary wall phone in the kitchen. Nick blinked at it for a moment, trying to remember how to use one, then carefully picked up the receiver and dialed. He looked around the sparse kitchen as he listened to the ringing of his own cell phone, and it dawned on him that Wally Ditmeyer was a man of dated décor.

Nothing in the entire kitchen looked newer than about nineteen sixty-seven. Nothing. Nick felt as if he’d walked onto the set of some black and white sitcom—from the rounded edged refrigerator with the car door handle to the Texaco clock over the stove to the red and white checked curtains at the sink window—all of it clean, but out of date. Wally was out of sight.

“Hello?” came the slightly wary voice at the other end of the line. Nick relaxed a bit.

“Hey Starr—still have my phone, huh?” he teased, leaning against the wall as he spoke. A soft laugh answered him.

“Yep. Spotted it on the kitchen counter when I got up. I wasn’t sure whether to leave it at home or take it to the bar on the off chance you’d go there to get it.”

“Smart thinking. I’m at your neighbor’s house now.”

“Wally,” came the affectionate sigh. “So—what’s best for you?”

“Well,” Nick confessed, “I’m running late as it is, but I don’t want you to wait up or anything. Are you close to the Strip?”

“Within a mile—why?” Starr replied absently. In the background Nick heard a cash register chiming.

“I can give you directions to the crime lab and meet up with you there—if that doesn’t bother you.”

“No bother,” Starr replied quickly. Nick liked the sound of her voice over the line, husky and low, and for a moment he smiled into the receiver. Finally he spoke again, laying out the directions clearly.

*** *** ***

He walked in, looking around and feeling a growing disappointment; Starr wasn’t in the reception area. He asked at the counter, expecting a headshake, but Nora, the swing shift receptionist nodded.

“Oh yes, she’s here—she had a pass for the morgue so she’s probably back there. Pretty gal, Nicholas!”

“Thanks,” Nick muttered, feeling a flush on his face. He walked determinedly down the long glass halls towards the morgue wondering about Starr’s pass. She didn’t look like a cadet, and hadn’t mentioned it—he passed Sara and Catherine, waving at them both through the DNA lab wall, and continued on.

Pushing carefully at the double doors, Nick looked in to see Doc Robbins and David both looking over Starr’s shoulders as she sat at the coroner’s desk and sketched something on what looked like the back of a medical sketch sheet.

“Part of it is knowing how many layers down the client wants, and what they’re trying to feature. Venial work is different from neuron or muscular emphasis. . . “ Starr murmured in her twang. She had a fistful of pencils and pens, and switched her tool twice as Nick approached.

“Oh hey Starr . . . I was expecting to see you out front,” he murmured, trying not to sound negative. She looked up and flashed him a brilliant smile, those big eyes brown and soft.

“Sorry, sorry—I meant to stay out front, but I’ve never used my Association pass before and thought I’d be able to take a peek in and be back before you arrived—“

“She’s good,” David gravely commented, pushing his glasses up and leaning down to look at the artwork. Nick realized what the subject was and blinked a little. A severed hand. He looked at the kidney pan on the coroner’s desk and realized Starr was drawing from a live model. Or in this case, a dead one.

“You’re an artist?”

“She’s a medical illustrator, Nick. And a pretty good one, considering she’s using just Xerox paper, Sharpie markers and Ticonderoga pencils as her medium, “Doc Robbins pointed out. “I’m impressed.”

“Me too—all I can draw are stick people. Ugly stick people,” David admitted mournfully. Nick flashed him a grin as Starr clucked a bit.

“Oh come on—everyone was an absolute beginner at everything at some point, Mr. Phillips.”

“David,” he offered shyly. Nick patted his shoulder, a little harder than usual.

“Super Dave. So you draw body parts?”

“I draw body parts. Whole bodies, organs, limbs—whatever the client wants or needs. It’s good work, but not always steady.”

“Hence the bar gig,” Nick commented, suddenly understanding things. Starr nodded, and as she did so the little bandage at her temple came into view. He stepped closer, and looked at it while Doc Robbins and David exchanged an amused glance behind his back. “Head looks better.”

“Doesn’t feel it yet,” she mournfully complained. “I want it to clear by eight tonight so I can watch Argentina wipe out Germany in the semi-finals.”

“Soccer?” Nick smiled. Starr nodded as she added a last touch to the drawing.

“Yep. No bets this time, but the goalie for Argentina is muy guapo, and between his moves and my salsa I’ll be sitting pretty.”

Argentina is favored by three goals,” David agreed, earning glances from both Nick and Starr. Robbins discreetly picked up the basin with the hand and carried it off.

“I didn’t know you were a soccer fan,” Nick murmured. David gave a shrug.

“Not everyone’s cut out for football.”

“Good point,” Starr agreed, getting to her feet. She fished in the pocket of her denim jacket and pulled out the small silver cell phone, “And I think this is YOURS—“ she handed it to Nick.

He took it from her, shoving it deep in his front right pocket. “Thank you. Listen, you want some coffee or something?” It came out awkwardly; out of the corner of his eye Nick saw David give a fractional wince and turn away, but Starr smiled, velvety eyes soft as she nodded.

*** *** ***

Argentina played hard, but in the end, Germany managed a last minute penalty kick that gave them one goal up, and the game ended with their victory. Nick enjoyed it more than he thought he would; soccer normally wasn’t his thing, but Starr had argued the game’s finer points of appeal and in the end he’d allowed himself to be invited over to watch for himself.

It hadn’t taken a lot to persuade him, either. Afterwards he’d helped Starr clean up the snack dishes, and they’d talked for a while before he’d left, taking a warm sense of camaraderie. That feeling grew over the next two months. Nick found comfort in the constancy of sports and the growing familiarity of Starr’s sofa. He’d taken to dropping by a few nights a week to watch whatever offerings they could both agree on, and little by little what had begun as a common bond had shifted into an easy friendship, albeit one that still left Nick a little troubled at times.

After a few weeks, Nick told Starr about his ordeal.

He hadn’t meant to, but the latest case he was working on brought back memories, and three days running Nick had woken up stifling screams into his pillow, his body covered in cold sweat. The smell of his fear, that acrid bite of bile and salt forced him to the shower each time, and finally Nick drove himself to Starr’s, ringing her doorbell at nine on a Thursday morning, half hoping she’d be at work.

She wasn’t. Starr answered the door with a paintbrush crosswise in her mouth. She wore tiny denim shorts and a long-sleeved green tee shirt. Her big brown eyes widened at seeing him, and her door opened wider. Carefully she pulled her brush out.

“Honey, you look godawful,” she murmured gently. Nick gave her a sheepish grin, but didn’t answer for a moment. Starr motioned for him to come in, and the minute he did, a little of the tension in his chest loosened.

“I’m sorry about barging on by, but I’m not . . . “ Nick gulped a little, “Not sleepin’ too good at the moment and I could sure use a distraction.”

“Bowling, talk shows or reruns,” Starr replied with a smile, waving towards the sunken living room. Nick ducked his head and brushed by her; the unexpected contact startled him, and he faltered a bit before increasing his speed and making his way to his spot on the sofa. For a moment he sighed, then noticed the art pad on the side table as he fished for the remote.

“Oh hey I’m sorry—did you have work to do?”

“Preliminary sketches. I could use a foot though,” Starr commented, leaning over the back of the sofa and eyeing Nick’s boots. He followed her glance and for a moment his dimples deepened.

“A foot? You have to be kidding, right?”

“Nope,” Starr giggled. “I may have a bid in for fungal powder, and if they like my sketches I could get the job. Don’t you want your toes to be the spokes-tootsies for Itch Be Gone?”

Nick’s expression said it all; Starr laughed out loud, dropping her brush as she did so and she bent to retrieve it, shooting him an affectionate look “Oh come on, Nick—nobody will ever know it’s your foot but me, okay? I can’t draw my own—the angle’s all wrong, and Wally’s is too old. Please?” she pleaded.

That did it, and with reluctance, Nick slowly toed off his boots and socks. Starr motioned for him to prop them up on the coffee table and scurried to get her sketchpad. Settling gracefully on the carpet, she began to draw as Nick picked up the remote and surfed the channels. He turned the volume lower, and sighed; Starr didn’t look up, but her husky whisper came out. “Wanna talk about it?”

Nick licked his dry lips and closed his eyes. “About seven months ago . . . I was sort of kidnapped. A psycho who was getting revenge for his daughter’s conviction buried me in a box.”

“God! That was on the news—that was you?” Starr breathed softly. She didn’t move, sensing the delicacy of the moment. It had taken a lot for Nick to bring it up, that was clear, and she didn’t want to risk him clamming up before he’d said what he wanted to say. He nodded slowly, eyes locked on the life insurance commercial on the screen.

“Yeah. It was a pretty bad time for me. I got myself some therapy, and most of the time I’m good, but I can’t . . . “ Nick hesitated, swallowing hard. “I can’t control my dreams, you know? When I’m awake I have ways to cope, people to talk to, but if something gets to me and sleep on it, I have nightmares.”

Starr paused, and slowly reached out her hand, touching Nick’s bare ankle. She gave it a reassuring squeeze, then risked a look up at his face. Nick’s expression was scrunched up and he blinked. “So we’ve been on this case with a lot of evidence buried in a back yard, and every time I see a spade full of dirt scooped up, hear the sound of it clumped onto the ground . . . “

“ . . . It brings memories back, a little bit,” Starr finished gently. Grateful she understood, Nick nodded very slowly. They didn’t speak for a while, and Starr continued to sketch as Nick relaxed again. He’d settled on a sports recapping station, and as the scores from dozens of games were discussed, he gently fell asleep. Starr waited until the sound of his soft breathing evened out, and then she set her pad down.

“God you poor man,” she sighed to herself. The story had been covered in the media, the horrific details memorable to her even now, and Starr felt her initial horror morph into something deeper at the sight of the slumbering man on her sofa.

Bad enough that evil like that happened in this world, but when it happened to people she knew-- Rising to her feet, Starr moved to her bedroom and returned with a blanket, carefully dropping it on Nick, who didn’t stir, even when she tucked it in around him. She carefully moved to the other end, her usual spot on the sofa and leaned back, relaxing a bit now that Nick was sleeping. She kept sketching. Gradually though, the warmth of the afternoon and the drone of the TV proved hard to overcome, and Starr herself dropped off to sleep.

Filly 2                                               
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