Doppleganger


Disclaimer:
The Equalizer and all its characters are property of Universal and The Powers That Be. No copyright infringement is intended.


Author's Note: I had not seen the episode, "Coal Black Soul" prior to writing this story, so it won't do you any good to point out the similarities--only now, after the fact, I'm aware of them. Oh well, coincidences do happen, and this story is proof of that, I suppose. A great deal of credit goes to three people who guided me along and kept me going: Andrea, who knew I could do it, Anna, who gave me valuable Mickey tips and spelling help, and Paige, who deserves every hug I can spare. Without these three, I might never have finished this or considered a sequel.

Robert McCall was annoyed. The weather outside was especially foul, his schedule was cluttered with small but unavoidable errands, and he could feel the beginnings of a cold seeping through his sinuses. Any single one of these things normally wouldn't bother him, but all three on the same morning were enough to set his teeth on edge. Stonily he sipped his tea and thought about staying in, catching up on a Tom Clancy novel instead of dashing to and fro today.

It would be rather nice, he thought, if people would arrange to get into trouble in the spring rather than the fall--skip all mayhem from November through March and truly concentrate on the 'Peace on Earth, Good Will to Man' part of the holidays for once.

The phone rang. Sighing, he listened as the answering machine picked it up. After his message, a deep male voice breathlessly broke in.

"McCall, Mickey here. You need to know that I saw Janet uptown near the Plaza a few minutes ago." The urgency in the man's voice made McCall sit up. "Dunno if Cosovi has men stationed there, but it's possible. She went into the little building in the middle of Forty-third. Want me to check it out?"

McCall picked up the phone and barked, "No--" Dropping into a softer, more controlled tone he added, "No, I'll handle it myself--thank you."

"Fine. Better you than me." A click and the call disconnected, leaving McCall holding the receiver, looking into space and thinking.

What the hell is she doing back here, let alone uptown?

Janet Angelina Cosovi should have been safely out of the country--an escape McCall himself had arranged three weeks ago. What could possibly bring her back into the lion's den of her mafioso husband's fury? There were no children, no close family or relatives in New York--

Puzzling over this question, he quickly finished his tea and pulled on his greatcoat.

  

1221 Forty-third was a two-story little old lady of New York architecture; a brownstone with touches of neoclassic design showing the wear of decades and the weather. Formerly a boarding house, she was now a charming mix of professional offices, all modest endeavors. In the cold rain, she looked a little down at the heels.

Down in front, McCall scanned the street, spotting the two trenchcoated goons a block away. Swiftly he stepped into the building foyer and glanced at the plaque in the lobby: a dentist, a tax accountant, a psychiatrist and two graphic design companies--nothing vitally critical to a woman with a contract out on her life. McCall sighed and turned to the dentist's office, opening the door and glancing in.

Five clients looked up. All children--no help there. Across the hall was one of the graphic design studios and he crossed to the door there. It was locked, and the note on the door indicated that they would be closed for remodeling until the 17th of the month. McCall took the stairs, two at a time.

On the second-floor landing, he spotted the doors for the second graphic design business and the psychiatrist's office. McCall opted for the for the former first. Three heads bent over a slide table looked up at him.

"Can I help you?" a painfully thin young man in trendy business clothes asked softly. McCall shook his head after a quick glance around.

"My mistake--" He closed the door and took a moment to listen; the main lobby door below was opening, the sound of rain louder when it did. McCall opened the last door swiftly, stepping in and closing it behind him as he did so.

"I'm sorry, are you hear for an appointment?" came a deep and sexy voice. Startled, McCall looked down into a pair of clear grey eyes and a ready smile. A chill rushed through him as he recognized the woman's uncanny physical resemblance to Janet Cosovi: the same erect willowy frame, the same waist-length dark hair, the same high Slavic cheekbones.

"Miss--"

"--Doctor Baron. Lydia Baron," she corrected with a hint of annoyance. "While I admire the flattery, I'm too long in the tooth to be called Miss anymore." That voice was definitely not Janet--it flowed like a smooth black coffee, musical and rich, hinting of bayou origins and Bourbon street patois.

McCall's own annoyance grew; through the door behind him he could hear the elevator coming up to the second floor. He met Doctor Baron's steady gaze and gave a tight little smile of his own.

"Doctor Baron, you are in a great deal of danger. Suffice it to say that you are the mirror image of a woman targeted by an insane husband. This man has just sent two very large and violent men to deal with his wife and I doubt in their ability to discriminate you from her. We must leave immediately." While he spoke he moved past her to the window facing the street, looking for the fire escape. A quick tug and the window flew up. Doctor Baron crossed her arms and watched him with amusement.

"You want me to climb out of the window into the pouring rain with you and escape?"

"No I want you to sprout wings and fly--" he replied with impatient sarcasm. "We have precious little time, Doctor Baron, and I'm not really in the mood either to argue with you or fight with them."

As she looked at him, her demeanor shifted when she heard heavy footfalls on the landing outside the door. A flash of fear illuminated her face as the doorknob rattled behind her. Gracefully quick, she grabbed her purse, crossed the room and reached the window. He helped her over the sill onto the fire escape just as a gunshot took the doorknob off. She gasped. McCall gave her a light push to hurry her down the steps and followed her into the drizzling wetness of the day.

At the foot of the stairs she tripped and fell into a puddle; McCall yanked her up by her upper arm, hurrying her along the street to the waiting Jaguar.

"Stop!" Doctor Baron shrieked, but McCall paid no attention. She was difficult to hang on to; she struggled against his gloved grip as he unceremoniously shoved her into the car. A quick glance behind them confirmed that the goons were clambering down the fire escape. McCall pulled the Jag out into traffic, letting the big engine take them down the street and into the safety of the mid morning commuter traffic.

"I don't believe this--" moaned Doctor Baron, slumping in the passenger seat. "I'm driving to God knows where with a total stranger, I'm dripping wet and covered with mud, I don't even have my coat--"

"You're still alive," McCall snapped out tersely. He concentrated on driving, his thoughts his own as the woman next to him listlessly pulled on her seat belt. After fifteen silent minutes, they pulled into the parking garage of an apartment building on the upper west side of Manhattan. After he turned off the engine, he spoke without looking at her.

"This is a safe place. I suggest you take a shower and use the phone to cancel any appointments you have for today, Doctor."

"A safe house--right," her wonderful voice radiated skepticism. "I don't even know who you are, let alone why I ever let you talk me into a mad dash through the rain to end up damaging the upholstery of your car."

"Ah. It's Scotchguarded," he broke in with dour amusement. Facing her for the first time, he held out a hand. "My name is Robert McCall and I suppose you might call me a freelance specialist for sticky situations. Janet Cosovi, your doppelganger, hired me nearly a month ago to get her safely away from her husband."

"Cosovi?" Doctor Baron arched an elegant eyebrow as she looked at him in surprise. She shook the proffered hand with a quick, light grip. "As in the mobster Dominic Cosovi?"

"One and the same," McCall got out of the car.

"That explains a few things." Seeing his intent expression, she climbed out of the car as she continued speaking, "The salesclerks jumping to wait on me, the preferred parking--it wasn't really for me, it was for her."

"Undoubtedly," McCall nodded, leading the way. "But Mrs. Cosovi decided that those perks weren't enough to compensate for living with a psychotic. And unfortunately, neither one of us ever suspected that someone else might get caught in the cross fire. I take it you haven't lived in the city long?" They took an elevator up to a silent hallway and finally reached a door at the far end.

Doctor Baron made a face. "Not in Manhattan. I moved my office here only three weeks ago. I was on Staten Island for years."

He unlocked the door and ushered her in; she caught a glimpse of a clean quiet apartment. Impersonal. McCall stepped into the kitchen and turned the burner on under the tea kettle there. He spoke over his shoulder to her.

"You need a cup of something hot. Take a shower first, then we'll have a talk."

She stared at him for a long moment, shifting her weight from one leg to the other as she shook her head in exasperation.

"We're going to have to do some work on that obsessive control streak of yours--it's very retentive. And what exactly did you expect me to wear after my shower, Mr. McCall?"

He refused to smile, even though his eyes twinkled and he pointed his chin towards another doorway. "There are clothes in the bedroom, Doctor Baron. Nothing fancy, but serviceable--I'm sure you'll find something in your size. Now if you'll excuse me, I have a few calls to make--" He turned his back to her and reached for the phone on the counter.

  

In the time it took her to shower, dry off and dress, Robert McCall learned quite a lot about Doctor Lydia Emmeline Baron. Those few calls yielded interesting information: She'd been born in New Orleans, graduated from Tulane with her medical degree, done internships in psychiatric medicine in both Louisiana and New York, and had settled in private practice for the last eight years. She had a few speeding tickets, voted regularly and subscribed to Time, The New Yorker, and Theatre Life magazines. She'd married Martin Swann, a history professor at NYU and subsequently been widowed four years ago when he died in an airline crash. No children, one dog.

McCall was lost in thought as she stepped into the kitchen and settled in, catlike, on the chair at the other end of the table.

"Two sugars, no lemon, no milk." she replied before he'd even asked; he raised an eyebrow. She'd braided her wet mane into a long tail, and the green and white New York Jets sweatshirt and black leggings looked rather good on her. She sighed, offering an explanation.

"You're British, therefore something hot means tea, and tea means either lemon or milk, depending on your regional background."

"You're well-informed," he replied, pouring her cup first, and then one for himself.

"My late husband was from Wales. I learned the tea drill early on." Something in the dryness of her reply made him look up and study her features sharply. She hid her expression behind the cup, sipping it quietly.

"I could make you something else--coffee perhaps, " McCall offered belatedly. She shook her head, a chagrined expression on her face.

"No, tea's fine. You'd have to have known Martin to get the joke anyway--it's nothing." Her quiet dismissal ended it, and McCall moved on to another topic even as he filed away the incident in his mind.

"As I see it, we have a problem," he opened cautiously. "You physically resemble the wife of a sociopathic killer."

"A wife who has managed to escape said killer, " Lydia mused. "That act alone will inflame his feelings of betrayal and inadequacy. In his frustration, he's undoubtedly been projecting his rage onto his associates. Now that a convenient scapegoat is available all of them will be searching for me--the associates as eagerly as the killer himself."

"Spoken like a psychiatrist," McCall wryly commented. "But an accurate assessment of the situation. Cosovi's legendary temper has been flaring of late, causing quite a few people to keep checking over their shoulders these days. The question is--"

"--What are we going to do?" Lydia finished for him. She set her cup down and pursed her mouth. Amused, McCall watched her think out loud.

"Easiest option would be to change my appearance: cut and dye my hair. Not my favorite choice," she mourned. He cocked his head sympathetically.

"Understandable, but better shorn than dead."

"True," Lydia agreed absently. "Jonelle at the Shear Delight has been frothing at the mouth to get her clippers on me for years. And after that?"

"Leaving the city would be wise."

"Leaving my clients would be foolish," Lydia countered. "I can't afford to re- establish somewhere else at this point. My move from Staten Island has used up most of my free capital as it is." She gave a sigh, and let her long fingers delicately play on the rim of her cup. The sight seemed oddly sensual to McCall, and he forced himself to look up as he spoke again.

"Then one step at a time--coiffure first, I suppose."

"Not today. I have a date tonight, Mr. McCall and I have no intention of inflicting a new hairstyle on Trevor without warning. Tomorrow will be soon enough."

McCall stared at Lydia; she sipped her tea unconcernedly. He slowly placed both palms on the table, took a breath, and spoke with great concentration.

"Doctor Baron, you don't seem to appreciate the gravity of your situation. Dominic Cosovi has in the vernacular, 'made his bones' dozens of times over." His voice grew harder. "By best estimate, he has a criminal network of roughly four hundred people working for him, and each will have a vested interest in finding you." He stopped, letting his words and their implications hang there.

"I'm aware of that," she replied, her anger just as controlled as his. "But Mr. McCall, I'm not about to spend my days hiding in fear because someone wants to kill me. I will not put my life on hold. If I do--" she paused, and her rich voice softened, "--then he's as good as murdered me already."

Something in her forthright anger made a very small smile quickly cross McCall's features; only a few clients truly understood the odds right from the beginning. He sighed.

"Very well. You know that returning to your home is out of the question for the moment--"

Lydia reached into her purse, flashing a cell phone and pair of credit cards. "Oh modern amenities are wonderful things. I'll call and get a neighbor to care for my dog while I'm out of town, and arrange to meet Trevor at the theatre so your safe house here stays safe."

"You've worked this all out, have you? And are you planning on telling your beau about the price on your head?" he remarked mockingly. For some reason McCall was enjoying himself. It was a rare event, to duel with someone possessing as much sang froid as himself. Lydia nodded, playing with the cup once more.

"I'd be surprised if he didn't tell me all about it. Do relax, Mr. McCall, I'll be perfectly safe in a crowded theatre."

"I believe Lincoln said the same thing before the curtain went up on Our American Cousin," he snapped back. Lydia just smiled.

"Back here safe and sound before midnight. You're off the hook tonight."

Hardly, he thought to himself. Hardly.

  

"I think we should have traded places," Mickey grumbled into the portable phone.

"Oh?" McCall murmured into the receiver as he turned the page of his novel with his free hand. Outside the safe house the rain poured down steadily.

"Yeah. I don't think I can take much more of the Mikado. I'm right over the orchestra pit, and all those bouncy tunes have a way of invading my head and staying."

"It's called culture, it's good for you," came the sardonic reply. An audible snort was the response to this insight, and McCall grinned briefly.

"Anyway, things seem pretty uneventful. Her escort was whispering to her all through the first act. Mr. Debonair is quite the operetta critic." Mickey observed. "Now she's giving him the evil eye anytime he tries to talk."

"While this is all vaguely entertaining, could you spare a moment and tell me if you see anyone of the Cosa Nostra persuasion in the audience?"

"One possible, but he hasn't even looked her way. Show's ending in about forty minutes and I'll be down to pick her up before the doors open."

"Good." McCall muttered, engrossed in his novel. The phone clicked off, and during the next hour he managed to read three chapters before a sense of unease made him close the book and check his watch. As his hand reached for the phone, he heard the sound of footsteps coming down the hall. Drawing his gun, McCall stepped lightly to one side of the doorway and waited, poised. A key rattled in the lock.

And in stalked Lydia. McCall bit his lips to keep from smiling at the sorry and bedraggled state she was in. Water dripped from her hair and torn, soaked clothes; she viciously kicked off her high heels letting them fly across the room to clatter on the kitchen floor. McCall watched peel off her sodden coat with quick angry gestures as he set the gun down.

"What happened?" he asked, although he had already guessed.

"I got mugged," she growled, carrying the coat to the kitchen sink. Her wet hair clung to her face and McCall took a moment to bring her some towels. "They managed to snatch my purse right at the doorway of the theatre, lousy bastards."

"So Mickey dropped you off and went to check on your house, " he mused. Lydia nodded, wrapping her damp mane up in a terrycloth turban.

"He figured they'd grabbed my purse for the information more than the money." She told him over her shoulder. McCall leaned on the door sill, arms crossed.

"He's right. And what he finds on Staten Island may not be very pretty." McCall warned lightly.

"Thank God Mrs. Suskind has Barnum at her house tonight."

Neither spoke again for a few minutes. Casually, Lydia turned her back to him and asked,

"Unzip me please? I need a long shower to decompress."

With a wry smile he complied, tugging the tiny tab down the length of her dress. In one quick glance he noticed the charming curve of her shoulderblades, the delicate ridge of her spine, the white lines crisscrossing the back of her ribs on her left side. McCall narrowed his eyes, trying to remember where he'd seen that sort of scar before. Sensing his scrutiny, Lydia jerkily pulled away, murmuring her thanks.

"Are you all right?" he asked gently. Lydia shrugged, then looked up into his face.

"Suffering from shock and adrenaline fade I suppose." A small smile crossed her face. "Trevor's in worse shape--insisted that we drop him off at the hospital. I'll have to check on him tomorrow, poor dear." The smile faded. "You'll let me know if Mr. Kostmayer finds out anything?"

McCall nodded in return, and watched her pad off to the shower. He picked up the phone and hit the speed dialer. Mickey picked up on the first ring.

"Talk to me--" McCall demanded in a low and controlled voice. Mickey sighed.

"Professionals. Got the bag, but she racked one of them up pretty good. Someone's taught this lady some karate."

"Really?"

"Really. The dirtbag she left writhing on the sidewalk will be singing Yumyum's part for a week. I didn't want to risk leaving her in the care of that manikin she's dating, so I dropped her off and headed out here."

"And?" McCall demanded impatiently. The line was silent a moment and he sighed. "That bad?"

"Totally ransacked. Not even a salvageable antimacassar." Mickey admitted softly. "It's a damned good thing her dog wasn't here."

"Mmmm," McCall agreed.

"Round him up and bring him over?"

"A Great Dane? Here?" The indignant tone amused Mickey, who unsuccessfully covered his laugh with a cough. "He'll keep until tomorrow I should think."

"Right. I'll bring him by first thing." Kostmayer hung up. McCall sighed, eyeing the carpet and the furniture.

"And hundred and fifty pounds of slobbery clumsiness--" he grumbled to himself.

"Did you say something?" Lydia stepped out from the bathroom. McCall drew in a sharp breath; his annoyance about the dog abruptly derailed by the sight of her in blue silk pajamas. Blue silk that clung sensually to every curve.

"Mr. Kostmayer will be bringing your dog here in the morning," he managed to mutter, moving into the kitchen.

"Barnum is a good dog," she protested, seeing the look on his face. "Obedience trained."

"Carpet trained is all that concerns me," he replied as he poured two glasses of wine. Lydia laughed.

  

McCall looked up from his book to see if Lydia had finished her police report paperwork. Overwhelmed by events of the day, she had fallen asleep on the sofa. Slumbering, she looked younger, more vulnerable. As he studied her, she shifted, curling on her side into an S shape. McCall tossed the extra blanket over her prone form, tucking it in along the cushions to prevent it from falling off.

He hid a smile and strode off to the bedroom, turning out lights as he went. Outside the rain had turned into sleet and sharp gusts of wind howled down the dark streets.

A few hours later McCall awoke. Alert but calm he lay for a moment, waiting in the dark, listening. A soft shuffling sound, fabric on carpet caught his ear.

"Lydia."

"Y-y-y-yes." She chattered back in a whisper. In the darkness he couldn't see anything of Lydia except a vague shape in the open doorway. As he sat up, McCall drew in a breath, suddenly aware of the chill permeating the room. The clock on the night table was dark. He reached for the lamp; it didn't work.

"The power's off."

"Yes I k-k-know," came her curt reply. "Has been for about th-th-three hours. I'm freezing out there."

"Good old reliable Con Ed," came his sarcastic snort. "I don't remember if there are any more blankets in the linen closet--"

"Just--l-l-l-let me get into bed with you."

There was a slightly shocked, slightly amused pause on his part. McCall who had never blushed in his entire career, was grateful for the darkness, which hid his nonplussed expression.

"I beg your pardon?"

"It's not a p-p-pass, it's a matter of compassion, all right? I'm never going to get some sleep if I d-d-d-don't get warm," Lydia muttered impatiently.

McCall harrumphed. "Well. You're certainly putting a lot of faith in my abilities to behave like a gentleman," he shot back, a tad more defensively than he meant to.

Lydia hissed out a frustrated huff, shifting from leg to leg; he could hear the howl of the wind outside.

"Mr. McCall, today alone I have been abducted, r-r-robbed and had my house ransacked. Believe me, the last thing I'm worried about is your shocked sensibilities. So scoot over."

She padded over to the left side of the bed and dropped the blanket from her shoulders as she slid under the covers beside him. A grateful sigh escaped her as she settled in; she rolled away from him. McCall copied her position and soon felt her chilly back pressing to his. He twitched.

"Good God, you must have permafrost on your spine," he growled. Lydia muffled a snort.

"Think that's cold, wait until you feel my feet . . ."

"Put your feet on me, and I will shoot you," McCall flatly announced. Lydia made no noise, but the slight vibration of her back told him she was stifling a laugh.

"Go to sleep," he added in a softer tone. Bit by bit she relaxed against him, and after a while he too, plagued by doubts, dropped off.

The cold grey light of a rainy morning filtered through the window, giving the room a cave-like feel. McCall didn't open his eyes right away, but took a moment to collect his thoughts as he stifled a yawn. A sudden twitch reminded him that he wasn't alone in the bed. He froze, assessing his position, and cursed himself for his moment of indecisiveness a few hours earlier.

Spooning. Dear God, this was all he needed right now. To be curled around a client and a rather delectable one, if we're admitting the truth, he chided himself, and in a completely indefensible position should Mickey Kostmayer pop in. That would be the crowning irony, he knew--to see the mocking expression of cynical amusement on that young/old face.

McCall shifted, uncomfortably aware of another annoying fact. This one was a biological quirk typical of men in the morning, and having Lydia's proximity pressing against it certainly didn't help matters. For the second time in the last few hours, McCall found his face reddening.

How did he get in these situations?

Slowly, to prevent waking her, he tried to extricate himself. It was certainly made more difficult by her sleepily grinding her rear against him in slow sensuous circles. For a moment he gave in to darkly lustful thoughts. To hell with being a gentleman--two swift tugs could get her out of that silk, and then he'd be free to play erotic arpeggios up and down her naked body--

McCall gritted his teeth, rolled away from her and sat up, casting a baleful glance over his shoulder.

"Yet another unsung and noble action . . ." he muttered to himself as he reached for his glasses. A low laugh from the bed startled him.

"You get my vote," Lydia mumbled.

"Ah. I believe there's a word to describe a woman like you--" he began. Lydia sleepily rolled over and held up a hand to stop him.

"I know there is. Forgive me--I haven't woken up next to anyone in years; baser instincts dominate my subconscious."

"That is a pseudo-psychiatric excuse if ever I've heard one," McCall grumbled. He rose from the bed and glared at her. "Everyone's subconscious is dominated by baser instincts. No, you'll have to do better than that to avoid being labeled something far more Anglo-Saxon in my book."

"Which book is that? Your little black book? I can just see my entry now--Baron, Lydia--full time shrink and part-time cock teaser," she snapped back, sitting up.

"--Crude, vulgar, certainly, but if the shoe fits--" came his cutting and lofty reply. Unexpectedly Lydia laughed. She clutched one of the pillows to her chest as the giggles bubbled out. McCall watched her in patient confusion for a few seconds.

"Now what?"

"It's just . . . funny," she gasped. "You standing there with that 'holier-than-thou' attitude and that marvelous erection jutting against your pajama fly like a conductor's baton . . ."

Sucking in a deep breath, and trying to gather the tattered remains of his dignity around him, McCall spun sharply and headed for the bathroom, slamming the door. He took far longer than usual in the shower and glowered at himself in the mirror as he shaved.

Holier-than-thou indeed! Well what did she expect? He wasn't made of stone, and damn her for crawling into the bed anyway. In his anger, he growled at his reflection. Never mind that she'd used the adjective 'marvelous' and that the very memory of her admiring tone made him throb slightly, no it was the overall point that mattered.

He paused. She was singing in the kitchen. He sighed.

Maybe Cosovi was the one in trouble now.

When he came into the kitchen, expression carefully neutral, Lydia looked up from the tea she was pouring and took a deep breath. For the first time since he'd met her, she had her long hair loose, spilling over her shoulders in a glossy wave of deep brown, touched here and there with strands of silver. She bit her lip.

"I'm sorry," she blurted. McCall said nothing but sat down at the table and watched as she poured a cup for him. "Normally I'm not so . . ."

" . . . blunt?" he offered distantly. Lydia winced. Gracefully she sat opposite him and stirred her cup.

"Rude. Everything that's happened in the last few days has been hard to take. When I become stressed, I lash out. Being rude is sometimes my way of . . . whistling in the dark."

McCall pondered this quietly for a long moment, sipping his tea. Then he cocked his head, set his cup down and asked,

"Those scars on your back-- how did you get them?"

Lydia understood at once: tit for tat, one personal observation for another, with the advantage in McCall's court. She looked away before replying.

"I was stabbed. Five times," she hugged herself and spoke again, the words coming slowly.

"I made the mistake of turning away at the wrong moment. He was already in a rage, and managed to knock me to the ground. He broke the knife on one of my ribs."

McCall said nothing, but his lips tightened in empathetic anger. Lydia brushed a strand of hair from her face.

"But really, I was lucky. He was stabbing too low to reach my heart and too high for my kidney--"

"--Your assailant--was he apprehended?" McCall demanded in a steely tone. Lydia gave him a twisted smile in return.

"In a manner of speaking."

"Where is he now?"

"Dead."

"Ah," McCall relaxed. "You're certain?"

She nodded. "Oh yes. As his widow, I'm certain."

A knock on the door interrupted them and she rose to answer it, leaving him sitting there, slightly stunned and trying to absorb the impact of her final reply. It seemed incomprehensible that Lydia was the victim of domestic abuse--her confidence, her strong self-esteem, all of those were the hallmarks of a strong independent personality.

And yet--her offhand remark about the tea came back to him. The memory of her pursed lips hinted at something unsaid . . . McCall wondered if Jonah could pull up medical records when the sounds of doggy whimpers and excited voices reached him. He roused himself enough to join Mickey, Lydia and a large harlequin Great Dane in the living room.

"--Quite a brisk pace all around the deck, scaring seagulls," Mickey commented. He looked at the older man in quiet acknowledgement. "McCall."

"Mickey. So this is Barnum."

At the sound of his name, the dog looked up at McCall from his ungraceful sprawl on the floor. His elegant ears pricked up, his tail thumped briefly. Lydia patted his head and the thumping increased.

"Well thank you for bringing him," Lydia smiled delightedly. "I'll see if the dog walkers can take him for a few hours and burn some of that energy off. Your arms must be sore, Mr. Kostmayer."

"A little," he agreed, rubbing a sweater-covered bicep. "And call me Mickey. But it's no big deal, right boy?" He squatted and dropped a firm hand across the dog's back. Barnum turned his head and licked Mickey's wrist enthusiastically. A shy grin crossed Mickey's face and McCall realized with an envious pang that the younger man had that rare rapport with animals that he himself did not.

"I'll run out and get some dog food."

"In a moment--" McCall agreed. "But first, an agenda for the day. I believe your salon appointment is a priority."

"Right. I'll get dressed and cancel my clients--" Lydia sighed. She left the room and Barnum trotted after her, leaving the two men to exchange serious looks. Mickey ran a hand through his hair.

"With the information they have, they'll be waiting--at her office, at her hangouts--"

"Agreed. I suggest you and Barnum take her to and from the salon." They heard Lydia order the dog out of the bedroom; he loped back to Mickey's feet and lay down dejectedly.

"Where are you going to be?"

"Watching. Waiting," McCall murmured. Mickey looked up sharply at him. Barnum yawned.

"You think they'll try at the hairdressers." Statement, not a question.

"I know it. If they have her appointment book, logic dictates that they'll anticipate the makeover."

Mickey gave a thoughtful whistle and Barnum pricked up his ears at the sound. McCall reached down and patted him firmly. Barnum's tail wagged.

"You want to follow them."

"And have a little talk with Mr. Cosovi."

Shear Delight was tucked between a bookstore and a deli on the upper west side. Lydia pointed it out and Mickey pulled the car over a block up from the salon.

"Sure you want to come in? Jonelle will try and talk you into a trim. Maybe even suggest a perm," she teased. Mickey made a face.

"Give me a barbershop any day--sports, politics, girly magazines--"

"Mister Kostmayer!"

"Hey--what you see is what you get, " he replied, unfazed. "Skin. No articles on how to save your relationship, or latest fashions or hot colors for Fall."

"You have a point," Lydia mused. "Maybe Jonelle should stock Playgirl instead of Cosmo--" she opened the door for Barnum to leap gracefully to the sidewalk. Mickey grinned.

"Ly-di-a! Finally!" A tall Haitian woman with dreadlocks wrapped in a colorful scarf came out to meet her. She patted Barnum and cast a questioning glance at Mickey.

"He's here to hang on to Barnum," Lydia commented. Jonelle nodded approvingly.

"You could use a trim too, shaggy mon."

"Nah. I'm growing a winter coat," Mickey rumbled with a small smile. Jonelle grinned back, throwing her hands up in good natured defeat. She turned to Lydia. "Now I was t'inking of a shoulder leng't cut, and maybe some burgundy highlights . . . " They all wandered into the shop.

Across the street in the Jag, McCall watched them with dour amusement. He could see the black Lexus three doors up the street, and the same goons from Lydia's office sitting in it. They seemed to be having a heated discussion, and he bet it concerned the dog they hadn't anticipated. That suited McCall--between Mickey and Barnum the men probably wouldn't be able to grab her, and when they were forced to withdraw he would simply tail them back to whatever hole they'd come from.

He settled down to wait.

Within an hour he caught sight of movement behind the picture window of Shear Delight. McCall sat up, tucking his book away. One of the men got out of the Lexus stiffly clutching his overcoat; the car pulled out slowly. On the sidewalk, the newly coifed Lydia and Mickey were talking, Barnum on the other side of Kostmayer. The man reached into his overcoat and McCall reacted, throwing the Jag into gear, cursing.

In the bizarre slow motion of frustration, he watched as the man swung the uncovered baseball bat at Barnum, striking the big dog squarely against the ribs. The animal slammed back into Mickey, knocking him down. The man swung three more times, and a piercing howls cut through the air; people turned and stared. McCall saw the attacker grab Lydia by the arm and shove her into the car, climbing in behind her. Only one car was between the Jag and the Lexus. McCall looked at the sidewalk.

Mickey struggled under the injured dog. He met McCall's laser gaze and shouted.

"Barnum--!"

"--I know, I know!" McCall shouted back. "Take care of him." With a last glance in the rear view mirror, he saw Mickey gingerly picking up the limp Great Dane. He gritted his teeth as a wave of black anger flooded through him.

With a few breaths he managed to get his rage under control; anger wouldn't help anything and he needed his energies focused to keep track of the Lexus up ahead. Grimly, McCall kept his gaze on the car and followed it.

  

The loading warehouse had been abandoned years before; it sat on the end of the pier over the waters of the ocean. Jersey City lay behind it, the cold and indifferent Atlantic lay before it. The Lexus drove up to the chain link gate and one of the men got out to unlock it. They drove through the opened gate and onto the pier to the warehouse.

Once the car stopped, the two men herded Lydia into the empty building and up a set of stairs to a second story office. Through the window there, the late afternoon sun glittered off the water. Lydia timidly looked around the office, noting the dust and decay. Her pulse thundered in her ears. Someone stepped into her line of vision.

"The look alike," the man in the dark suit spoke. His words were tinged with a hint of New York accent, his pitch a well modulated baritone. "Finally."

Lydia took a breath and lifted her chin. She met his gaze, and even through her fear felt the old assessment protocol kick in. Subject stimulated by intimidation of others. Dominic Cosovi smiled disarmingly. He moved nearer to her, studying her face.

"Close. Very, close. You're a little taller and your eyes are the wrong color, but other than that . . ." his words trailed away as he walked all the way around her. Subject's potential for violent humiliation of others high. Lydia gritted her teeth.

Dominic Cosovi wore a three-piece suit and a garishly yellow power tie. He was a short dark-haired man with heavy eyebrows and faint acne scars on his cheeks. At first glance he seemed innocuous enough; an investment banker an insurance salesman perhaps. Only the eyes, glittering with maniacal glee revealed any truth about the man within.

He stopped at her side. He smiled.

"Just like Janet. Oh this is going to be good. You'll be the practice session and when I find that bitch, she'll be the real thing." He reached out a hand, cupping her breast. Lydia jumped, her lips curling in fear and disgust. Sadistic tendencies clearly defined by sexual drive. Cosovi merely laughed at her reaction. He nodded to the waiting goon.

"Strip her. I want to see it all."

Helplessly, Lydia struggled, but two hard smacks across the face stunned her enough for the men to do their job. Efficiently, emotionlessly, they shredded and tore the clothing off of her, bundling it up. When they stepped back, taking the rags with them, she was in a heap on the cold floor, crossing her arms over herself, shaking uncontrollably.

"You two--watch the door downstairs. I don't want to be disturbed for a few hours," Cosovi announced to them. To Lydia he murmured, "Get up." his moderate tone was all the more chilling and Lydia slowly rose. She forced herself to look at him, and beyond her situation. She rolled her shoulders, willing them to relax. Cosovi circled her again. One of his hand brushed her scars. Biting her lips, Lydia stood still.

"Knifed in the back I see. Story of my life. Did you kill the bastard?"

She forced herself to speak up quietly, "No."

"You let him get away with this?" Cosovi came around to her face, a slight frown on his features. She shifted her weight, adjusting her stance.

"Actually, I shot him so full of thorazine he could barely blink." A faint flicker of sound caught her ear, a scratch from the doorway. She didn't dare shift her focus.

"That's no revenge, " he chided, his gaze roaming over her nude body. "Didn't you want him hurting? Didn't you want him dead?"

"That happened anyway," Lydia was all too aware of his arousal and suppressed a shudder. Cosovi laughed at her reaction and licked his lips.

"Ooooh tough little woman, aren't you? Got spirit--I like that. Makes the game more interesting--" he reached for her breasts again.

"Don't touch me! " Lydia shouted, her voice loud and firm. Even though she expected it, the red rage flaring up in Cosovi's eyes shocked Lydia and she stepped back defensively. He growled, his face a rictus of raw anger.

"I'll touch you all I want to, bitch! You don't understand--we've got hours and hours to kill." He quickly pulled out a switchblade and flicked it open, edge glittering in the light from the window. Lydia tensed. Cosovi waved it back and forth in from of her pale face. He stepped forward, driving her back.

"Oh Janet, you're backtalking me again aren't you? A man doesn't have to take that . . ."

Lydia made herself look carefully for an opening. As Cosovi swung at her, she moved, screaming. A quick grip on his forearms, a drop and backward roll, her feet into his solar plexus and he swiftly sailed over her head.

Screaming himself, Cosovi crashed through the window, plunging two stories down into the icy water below. Lydia lay gasping on the floor, the breath knocked out of her by her maneuver, fear and shock racing though her system. The door rattled. Sobbing Lydia rolled on her side into a fetal ball, waiting for a bullet to smash into her spine or skull.

"Lydia!--" McCall crossed the room in three swift strides and dropped to one knee at her side. She turned her head to look at him, eyes wide but unseeing. McCall's sharp gaze took in the broken glass and her position on the floor, awareness dawning on him.

"Dear God, you threw him out the window--" he muttered in stunned admiration as he tugged off his overcoat and draped it on her. "--And people have the audacity to accuse me of direct action at times--"

"H-h-him or me," Lydia rasped out, struggling to sit up. "I t-t-took a chance that he wasn't expecting defiance." Shakily, she clutched at the coat, wiping her streaming eyes with the heel of one grimy palm, her sobs subsiding into hiccups. After a few minutes, McCall moved to the window, looking down into the water.

"Current's taking the body out to sea. I doubt they'll ever recover much of him."

"And the others?" Bundled up, Lydia looked lost in his overcoat; it hung down to her shins. McCall shook his head. He reholstered his gun and tuned to face her, meeting her eyes for the first time. Wordlessly, swiftly she darted into his fierce embrace.

"Foolish, woman," he chided into her hair. "That was one hell of a risk."

"I was lucky," she agreed, her words muffled as she buried her face in his shirt front. Her shaking grew in intensity and McCall braced her against his chest for a long while.

" . . .Want to go home . . ." Lydia finally managed between spasms. McCall looked at her bare feet with a glance of concern; she shrugged helplessly.

"Right. Watch your step then," he directed. Slowly they walked out of the warehouse (McCall shielded her from the sight of the crumpled bodies at the doorway) and up the long pier to the gate. McCall made her wait while he brought the car to her; gratefully she slid into the front passenger seat, burying her bare toes in the soft carpeting.

They drove back to Manhattan in silence. Lydia dozed. McCall wondered if she dreamt at all.

  

He talked. After Lydia had showered and changed, after she'd listened to Mickey's phoned report on Barnum and while he prepared a meal of pasta, salad and wine, McCall filled the empty spaces between them with words. He told her amusing stories of camels and Arab urchins, daring stories of near escapes and lost chances, recollections of strange and interesting cases, of what the police would think of Cosovi's death. Better than anyone, McCall knew she needed time to recover from her ordeal, time to digest all that had happened.

Finally in the middle of an anecdote about the merits of California whites versus French whites, Lydia grabbed his wrist over the table and growled in her low musical voice,

"Enough chatter."

"Fine, fine," he agreed, secretly pleased that she was coming out of the shock. "Whatever you say."

"I'm aware of what you're doing, you know," Lydia glared at him, waving a fork full of pasta.

"Oh?" his tone took on an air of wounded innocence.

"White noise therapy. A soothing stream of meaningless sound designed to keep me from withdrawal," she replied impatiently. "It's useful for a primary trauma, but I've been through it before. Believe me, I'm still a little shaky, but I'm here, Robert. I don't need to hear anymore about wines, or camel spit or your Granny Evans in South Croydon."

"Good. I was running out of topics," he admitted with a brief smile. Lydia managed a chuckle and they finished their meal in silence. Afterwards, they cleared the table together and moved into the living room. Lydia limped. McCall looked over his glasses at her and she let out a long sigh, settling in on one end of the overstuffed sofa.

"Splinter from the pier. Can you believe it? After all that's happened today, this is all I have to show for it."

McCall brought the small first aid kit from the bathroom and sat on the other end of the sofa, turning to face her. Responding to his nod, Lydia dropped her feet into his lap. He took her right ankle in hand, slid the ballet slipper from it and examined the heel closely.

"Right there--" he stroked the heel with the edge of his thumbnail. Lydia squirmed and he tightened his grip. "Hold still--"

"Quit tickling," she counter demanded, a trifle breathless. McCall gave a huge put-upon sigh and studied the splinter again. It took willpower on his part to ignore the curve of her long calf, the provocative way her skirt rode up her thigh. He reached for the tweezers.

"This might hurt a bit."

"As long as you take your time and go slow, I can take anything you might do to me." the minute the words left her mouth she realized their innuendo and blushed. McCall harrumphed and bent to the task at hand. Deftly he managed to fish out the sliver of wood after a minute of probing.

"There," came his mutter of satisfaction. "Mission accomplished. I might not actually save you from being kidnapped or terrorized, but--" As he put a bandaid on her foot, she wriggled again, her free foot kneading his lap. McCall groaned, softly, pursing his lips.

"Have a care--" came his strained voice.

"Mmmmm. I'd rather have something else."

"Well you're about to get something else if you don't stop that--" McCall snapped. Lydia laughed.

"Promise? Or threat?" she stretched her bandaged foot up to touch his ear. McCall grabbed it and yanked; Lydia slid down the length of the sofa, ending up on her back with her knees on either side of his torso. McCall's expression was inscrutable. Her eyes flashed indignantly and she raised herself up on her elbows, blowing her hair out of her eyes.

"Threat. Definitely a threat," she muttered. McCall shook his head. He deliberately took off his glasses and set them on the end table, then leaned over her supine form, pinning her there between his hands.

"Actually I thought this looked rather--promising--at least from my point of view."

"Don't make this Cajun woman mad," Lydia warned, wrapping her arms around his neck, drawing him down closer.

"I believe I'm fairly safe," he replied smugly. "There aren't any windows in this room."

"Shut up and kiss m--"

He did, very effectively cutting off her words as he dropped his mouth onto hers. She couldn't believe his lips were so soft, so warm. Lydia arched up, returning the kiss hotly, her tongue flickering eagerly against his tongue. Gently McCall kissed his way to her ear, whispering,

"Lydia--?" A world of meaning in his soft tone. She nodded tightly, pressing kisses of her own on his neck, his throat, the underside of his chin.

"Yes I want this," she sighed. "And this, and this, and--"

"Acquisitive, aren't you?" he smiled against her cheek. She blushed.

"Impatient. I don't know about you Robert McCall, but it's been nearly four years for me--"

"Ah." he rumbled between light kisses across the bridge of her nose. "Well, It's rather like riding a bicycle, you know--it will all come back to you--"

"Hmmmm," she distracted herself by plucking at the buttons on his shirt, but McCall reluctantly sat up again and caught her hands; the look he gave her was serious.

"Lydia, there are things to be asked, first--" he told her. She thought for a moment, and then rolled her eyes, chuckling softly. With a wriggle, she managed to pull herself up to rise on her knees and meet his gaze.

"I've been on the Pill for years, Robert--regulates my cycle," she admitted calmly. He nodded, digesting this information even as his hands tugged her forward to his chest. They kissed again, longer this time. Lydia straddled McCall's lap and managed to open his shirt.

"Oh how lovely," she sighed, lightly rubbing the iron grey fur that covered his chest. He looked down, slightly startled, as if noticing it for the first time in a long while. Lydia leaned forward to kiss it, making him groan as her lips moved leisurely from spot to spot. McCall slid his hands up the sides of her thighs under her skirt to cup her hips and was rewarded when Lydia squirmed.

"Good for the goose, good for the gander--" he remarked in a deep voice. She tossed her head back and laughed. Lydia slid off of his lap and stood before him, grinding her hips as she impatiently let her skirt drop to the carpet. He gave an appreciative sigh as she added her blouse to the pile. Smiling, she extended a hand and pulled him off the sofa, leading him to the bedroom.

Once there, McCall wrapped her in his arms, his mouth traveling the side of her neck as he backed her up to the edge of the bed. When she felt it against the back of her knees, Lydia tightened her grip around McCall and let herself fall backwards. The move pulled him down on top of her in a warm crush of flesh and rumpled clothing. McCall's laugh, a low and amused sound reached her ear.

"Slow-ly, Lydia--no need to rush these things . . ."

Beyond patience, she ignored his words, one eager hand sliding across his furry chest, the other tugging at his belt. McCall moved swiftly. He rolled to the side of her, grabbing her wrists and pinning them both over her head in one strong fist. On her back, Lydia struggled until he let his free hand slide up under her brassiere to cup her breast, fingers tracing lazy patterns on the tender skin.

"Let me go--" she laughed in excited frustration as she writhed against his body. Ignoring her protests, he pushed the bra up to her throat and shifted his tactile attention to each breast in turn, teasing the erect nipples with a deliberately sensual touch that made her groan happily. She turned her hips to him and rubbed herself against his thigh.

"Ro--bert--"

"Now now--you were the one who labeled me as having an obsessive control streak," he breathed softly into her face. "Rather nice to have your diagnosis confirmed, isn't it?"

His hands were slow and gentle as ever. McCall pressed a series of moist kisses down the side of her throat and continued down the valley between her breasts. His free hand shifted to stroke her bare stomach and abdomen. Lightly, he slid fingertips under the edge of the elastic of her panties. Lydia whimpered, lifting her hips up.

"Please, Robert--I'm going out of my mind"-- she hissed.

"Ah."

He let go of her wrists. The minute he did, she grabbed his hand, pushing it under the thin silk of her panties. McCall brought his mouth to hers again, his tongue stroking in her wet mouth, his fingers stroking expertly through the gossamer between her thighs. The panties slowly slid to her knees. For long moments Lydia rocked herself against him and the only sounds were her muffled whimpers and the gentle creaking of the bed. Suddenly Lydia stiffened, and a long almost musical sigh passed from her mouth to his.

McCall slowly withdrew his hand, resting it on her bare stomach as she caught her breath. Her head lolled back and they lay quietly together for a while. Finally she turned to look at him in the dim light.

"Ohhhhh . . ." A pleasure-filled sigh escaped her smile. He kissed her damp forehead and whispered,

"Believe me, you're quite welcome."

Lydia shook her head and sat up, hands scrabbling along the prominent ridge straining against his slacks. McCall made a soft pleased sound deep in his throat as she managed to undo the waistband and tug the zipper down.

"Good for the gander . . ." she repeated, her warm hands freeing him from his trousers and boxers. Propped back on his elbows, McCall watched her, wary desire glinting in his eyes. Lydia nudged him onto his back and gracefully, elegantly, straddled him, gliding down the length of his cock in one slow stroke. A rumbling sigh escaped McCall's throat and his hands gripped her waist tightly. Lydia rose up on her knees, her palms resting on his strong furry chest. Her head dropped forward, long hair brushing against his face.

He pulled her down onto him again, hoarsely whispering, "Lydia . . "

She made a pleased sound and began to raise and lower herself on him in a steady rhythm, feeling him throb deep within her. McCall's hands slid down to her hips, and even as his mouth began to set in a tight line, she could feet the growing tension in his grip.

"Please, please, please, Robert--I want you--" Lydia urgently sighed. Hearing her, he thrust harder, soft growls escaping him. After a minute, McCall shuddered in mindless groaning release, fingers digging into her tender flesh, leaving small oval bruises that neither of them noticed until much later.

   

For a long while they were quiet, content to stretch out under the comforter, not sleeping or talking, simply holding each other. Lydia finally stirred, propping herself up on one elbow to look down at him. Her newly trimmed hair still fell in a glorious cascade to her shoulders.

"You're thinking about how to say goodbye," she remarked. Uneasily, McCall stirred, looking up at her in the dim light, an expression between sadness and surprise on his face. She smiled.

"Give me credit, Robert--I've spent a lot of time studying people in my line of work. You've gotten as close to me as you'll ever let yourself get with anyone, and it's making you very uncomfortable. I'd say you've been hurt on a regular basis starting at a young age, and now the protective wall around you has all but calcified. So it's time to run. Time to regain the distance you need to feel comfortable again."

"Yes, well--" he began, sighing. "It's not as if I'm in the habit of bedding clients--"

"--I'm not a client. I never hired you; you came to me," she pointed out as she brushed a strand of hair from her eyes. "Let's keep that very clear."

"Point of semantics," he growled. "Without my help, Cosovi would have kidnapped and killed you."

"Probably," she agreed. "But it was coincidence that brought us together, not a contractual agreement."

McCall tightened his jaw. He rolled over to mirror her position, his head propped on his elbow, facing her. "And what if I may ask, is the significance of that?"

"I hold a degree of independence here," she spoke carefully. "And I believe I was the one who seduced you."

"Oh you'll get no argument from me on that--" McCall managed a small smile. "Mind you, I didn't put up much of a fight--"

"No you put up something else. Several times as I recall," Lydia managed to wince and grin at the same time; McCall pinkened. He rolled on his back, pulling her to his chest; she allowed it, cuddling against the fur there contentedly.

"Anyway, oh virile one, my point here is that you're not comfortable with this yet. So you're trying to think of ways to break it off."

There was a pause.

"I hate psychiatrists. They're too damned insightful for their own good." McCall grumbled, his hands lightly stroking her back. Lydia chuckled.

"Echoes of Martin--he said the same thing time and time again."

"Tell me about him," came McCall's gentle request. Lydia gave a sigh.

"Oh very well. He was wonderful. Shorter than I, thin, wiry, hair always needed combing, wonderful dark eyes. We met at a charity thing upstate--he spilled a canapé down my dressfront. Told me later he'd done it on purpose just to meet me. Within a year we got married."

"Down your dress?" came McCall's dryly amused tone.

"Give me a break--you came in my door and dragged me out a window. Anyway, he started changing about two years later. Headaches, mood swings, temper flare-ups. The doctors did all the tests but couldn't come up with a cause. One night, he began screaming at me about how I couldn't make tea properly." She paused, and McCall protectively tightened his grip on her. Swallowing, she continued. "He threw the cups and teapot against the wall. When I went to clean them up--he stabbed me. I managed to hit the phone to the floor and got help."

McCall pressed his lips to the top of her head as she took a deep breath.

"A CAT scan finally caught the tumor. Malignant, judged inoperable, right in the center of the hypothalamus. He couldn't control his emotions, and spent months drugged up and restrained while I tried to find an expert to help him. I finally did, in London. They scheduled him for surgery there. Martin was on the plane, and I was about to go with him when I realized I'd left my purse in the terminal. I missed the plane, and the plane went down."

"I'm so sorry."

Lydia let out a long sigh; a sound of peaceful release.

"It's all right," she murmured. "I thought about it for two years and reached the conclusion that I wouldn't have traded our time together for anything. I'd do it all again, even the tumor, exactly the same way, in a heartbeat."

McCall grumbled. He tugged her hair until she turned her face up to him. He spoke, softly, urgently, his gaze locking onto hers.

"So that's your point, isn't it Lydia? That it's all worth it?"

"Give the man a cigar," she grinned crookedly. "You're doing what your conscience urges you to do--God forbid you change this late in the game, Robert. I won't spend my nights worrying about your vocation. I refuse to. You're just as likely to get wiped out by a crosstown bus or a bad oyster as you are by a bullet."

"Hmmm." He released her hair, brushing it away from her face, his expression inscrutable.

"I just want the chance to have you for a while without putting you on the defensive. So in the morning, I'm going to get dressed, haul myself back to Staten Island and start repairing my house. You've got time and space that way. Give yourself a week. Consider my offer. And when you've decided, have the courtesy to let me know--either way."

"That's it?" he demanded lightly. Lydia nodded and yawned hugely.

"That's it. A take-it-or-leave-it proposition with no strings attached."

"Well thank you very much--don't I even get a say in any of this, Lydia?" McCall's voice rose in disbelief and he frowned, perplexed.

"Of course you do love," She murmured sleepily. "You've got a entire week to talk yourself out of it--or into it."

And long after she'd drifted off, McCall lay awake, moodily staring into the darkness.


EPILOGUE


The soft chime of the doorbell alerted Barnum, who gave a single defiant bark and settled down again on the quilt in front of the fireplace. Lydia, up on the ladder yelled over her shoulder,

"Come in!" Carefully she wiped a paint-covered sleeve across her face and set the brush down on the splattered newspaper with the headline: MAFIA BOSS FOUND DEAD. Slowly she backed down the ladder and turned to face her visitor.

"Sorry about all the mess, but I--"

It was McCall. She stopped, mid-sentence and stared at him steadily. He looked wonderful, dressed in a thick black wool coat with matching black leather gloves and a bright red scarf, but his expression was bleak. Lydia took a step back, letting him into the room. Barnum raised his head to watch them.

"What I've got to say won't take very long," McCall began tersely. "I've done a hell of a lot of thinking in the last hundred and fifty-six hours. Most of it in a rather negative vein, I'm afraid."

"Ah," Lydia nodded and began to turn, pressing her lips together tightly to hid their tremble. McCall reached out a strong gloved hand, catching her upper arm and pulling her back to face him.

"Not all of it. There's still a cautious note of optimism in my nature. Microscopic at times, but there. God knows how it manages to exist, given everything that's ever tried to kill it off, but I can't deny its existence." He stopped and bit his lower lip with the air of a man uncertain of how to proceed. Lydia cocked her head and waited. Finally he spoke again; his words tumbling out in a rush.

"Very well. The premise is this: If you are willing to accept the nature of my work--the danger, the uncertainty, the tenuous truth of what I'm compelled to do and accept me for who I am--a melancholy, bitter, untrusting man--then I am willing to give this a try." He looked slightly haunted, slightly haggard.

It seemed a strange and timeless moment to Lydia as McCall stood waiting for her reply. She was aware of paint on her clothes, of the mindless chatter of a radio in the next room. His stare bored into hers, wary and wounded.

She licked her lips. "Agreed," Lydia finally whispered, holding out her hand. "Shall we shake on it?"

McCall took her by the wrist, yanking her forcefully into his arms, his kiss hot, eager, almost brutal. She groaned happily against his mouth, wrapping herself around him with complete disregard for the paint splatters that were transferring themselves onto his wool coat.

The End

Main Page    Guestbook