OR: Chapter One
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The black Jeep Cherokee threw up a backwash of fallen leaves as it followed the old, secondary highway into town. Jason Gideon tossed his sunglasses into the shotgun seat; the late afternoon sunshine had disappeared behind a sheet of gray clouds. He slowed as the highway became a city street, passing through a residential area of small, well-kept homes, then, the standard display of old mansions, and finally Main Street.
Small, mid-western towns follow a pattern, he thought, just like everything else.
He consulted a scrap of paper in his shirt pocket and turned right at the corner of Main and Center. A few blocks later, he parked in the lot of a small corporate complex.
Gideon got out and looked around. The complex continued on the other side of Center Street with a building of matched dark brick, undergoing construction. Center Street continued on south, arching over a railroad yard. The library across the street to the west looked new, but many of the surrounding homes seemed in poor repair or abandoned.
A town in transition, he thought.
When he called his old college roommate the previous night, Rance had said his corporation “kept the town alive.” Remembering Rance’s ego, Gideon ignored the comment, but gave it more credit now.
He quick-stepped across the lot and pushed through the main doors. A young, Latina woman smiled behind a reception desk, and called immediately when Gideon gave her Rance’s name. Soon, the elevator pinged its arrival.
“My God, Jason!” Rance cried, bursting from the elevator doors. His old friend looked odd in a business suit with thin, iron-gray hair and marked jowls. The last time Gideon saw him, Rance had beaten him in a game of foosball at their favorite campus watering hole. That was the day they graduated.
“Good to see you, Rance.”
He noted the man’s firm handshake, expensive dental work, and fading summer tan. He took Gideon back to the elevator, chatting about how fit Jason looked and if he found the building without any trouble. On the executive floor, Rance ushered him to his office. He kept up a stream of lively, friendly banter; obviously a man used to making people comfortable.
With a glance, Gideon took in the many service awards on one wall; a small, staged photograph of Rance with a slim, smiling woman and two teenage boys; larger photographs of Rance shaking hands with other men and women in suits—one of them John McCain. His stylish smoked-glass and chrome desk held very little—a telephone, a slim laptop, and a Blackberry.
Rance led them to a corner of windows with two leather chairs. “Water?” he asked.
“Sure,” Gideon said, sitting.
Rance slid open a panel on the ornate credenza and fished two small bottles of water from a hidden refrigeration unit.
“So,” he said, plopping into the other chair. “How the hell are you, buddy?”
Gideon reiterated what he’d told Rance earlier—he’d taken a sabbatical from his work with the FBI to drive around the country.
“Why drive?” Rance asked. “Surely you could see the sights faster if you flew.”
A smile slipped across Gideon’s face. “Yes, I could,” he said.
Rance asked about Gideon’s work. He kept his accounts bland, but Rance dominated most of the conversation anyway. He relayed his company’s long metamorphosis into the giant he now captained, the mission statement, long-term goals, and vital position in the town’s economy. Gideon listened politely, hearing more about Rance than his company. He smiled inwardly. In school, Rance wanted to blaze new business trails into renewable energy sources, organic farming cooperatives, and nurturing environments for employees. He wondered how much of that idealistic boy remained in the businessman.
Gideon heard about the slim woman in the picture (wife number three) and the boys (both varsity football players on the high school team), their home abutting the country club, and Rance’s passion for golf and snowmobiling. He also had an antique foosball table in his game room.
Eventually, Rance slowed his oratory. Gideon sat forward, holding his unopened water bottle in both hands.
“Sarah died,” he said.
“Sarah,” Rance repeated, frowning.
A light bulb went off. “Sarah. Sarah from school?”
“She died? How?”
“She was murdered.” The words formed and left his mouth like all the others. It surprised him. Not long ago, he couldn’t touch the memory let alone say the words.
“Wow, that’s awful. Did you two keep in touch?”
Gideon nodded. “We stayed good friends.”
“I’m sorry, buddy. I heard Jeff Mackenzie died last year of a heart attack. I guess we’re at that age now.”
Gideon’s mouth popped open for a second, and then snapped shut. He, Sarah and Rance went nearly everywhere together senior year—their study table at the library, pizza at Fatso’s, parties at Sigma Delta Phi, ice-skating at the river. Sarah beat them both at foosball. Always.
Gideon looked at his water bottle. People change. Lives go on. Time erases connections.
Not always. He thought about his cousin in Port Canaveral. When he found Marshall, still refurbishing his old sailboat, Gideon picked up a planer and worked with him for two weeks. They didn’t say much; they didn’t have to. They fell into the same rhythm they had as kids in Chicago. Some connections Time couldn’t touch.
He looked up and smiled at Rance. “It’s been great to see you.”
The businessman grinned, stood, and held out his hand. “You, too, buddy.”
Gideon stood and shook his hand. “I’ll find my way out. Take care.”
He rode the elevator in a state of bemusement. What determined which connections disappeared over time and which ones continued as vibrant as ever? He last saw Marshall in 1969 when his family moved to Florida, but forty years changed nothing. Fred Haberstram, a friend from his Langley days, immediately offered him a teaching position when Gideon stopped in Kansas City.
“I know you,” Fred had said. “You’re not on sabbatical. The College of Criminology will snap you up in a second. We need your brain and your heart.”
Gideon walked out into the graying October day, a breeze picking up and setting down dirt-brown leaves. He steered his Jeep back to Main Street. He had seen an inn there. Historic, the sign said. He pulled around to the back and entered through the back door.
Do I want to teach? He taught the cadets at Quantico how to stay sane as an agent—what the hell did he really know about that? Could he still tell students they kept the world in balance? He used to believe it, just like he believed in hope, just like he used to trust in others. He couldn’t even trust himself anymore.
The image came unbidden—Sarah, dead, her blood pooled on his bed and sprayed across his bedroom walls. Frank, the serial killer who got away, came for Gideon and found Sarah instead. Innocent Sarah.
Gideon rubbed his forehead as he wove through the back hallways of the inn. When he, Sarah and Rance knew each other, hope filled them up like fresh air. They trusted each other, trusted their futures. They believed the world spun with a purpose. When Frank slaughtered Sarah, Gideon lost every anchor. Nothing made sense. There was no purpose.
One valiant streak of sunlight sliced through the gathering clouds. Diane gripped her ankle behind her back and studied the sky. Not ominous enough for rain, yet, but soon. Time enough to try this running thing.
Traffic on Third Street zipped past. Quittin’ time at Tara, she thought, stretching the other leg. Her reluctant muscles whimpered. She jogged slowly to the corner to see if her baggy old shorts would stay up. She safety-pinned the waistband in the spring, and added another in the summer. Then she pinned them to her underwear when she started running at the YMCA track. Now the limp, grey cloth flapped around her thighs and the worn-out crotch hung half way to her knees.
Enough, she thought, trotting across Linn Street. When my next check comes—new shorts.
Lengthening her stride on the sidewalk, she scrabbled for the right pace. The whole running thing still stumped her. She used to think joggers looked like prison camp survivors—emaciated and in agony. Self-torture. How dumb. Magazines babbled about the “joggers’ high.” It’s probably when they stop, she used to grumble smugly. And here she was, running down the street, trying to find the sweet spot.
A tiny Hispanic boy waddled up to the sidewalk, eyes wide, a blue plastic cup clamped in his mouth.
“Hola, bebe,” Diane said.
He stopped chewing and watched her, dark saucer eyes in his smudgy face. Back in the alley, dogs set up an alarm.
The sidewalk’s gentle incline headed toward the House of Compassion. A small knot of colorless people shuffled outside the old church, smoking one last cigarette before going into the basement for the evening meal. Lots of tattoos. Lots of hard faces. Diane smiled at the group as she crossed Church Street. None acknowledged her.
“There, but for…” she whispered, throwing out a wide spray of gratitude into the ethers.
Her hips quit their complaining and her knees steadied, but she tripped over the uneven sidewalk. She kept her balance with a few flat-footed stomps, and then regained her rhythm.
Crap sidewalks. Car-eating potholes. Terminal economy. This can’t be the little town I grew up in, she thought. Still…it’s October.
Diane shuffled at the corner of Third and Main, waiting for the lazy stream of cars to thin. Dusk stretched from the lampposts, autumn cool growing there and expanding. She could smell the dust from thousands of acres of picked corn and soybeans. It triggered something in her hindbrain, signaling that she was safe, and fed, and golden. On a clear day, the added particulates turned the sky a Maxfield Parrish-blue. Magic. With summer behind and winter ahead, October held both in a shifting balance. Natural change. Reliable change.
A car tooted and she waved at her coffee shop-friend, Jenny. It surprised her to be recognized on the street. Be recognized anywhere.
I guess I am home, she mused.
Changed into a T-shirt and sweat pants, Gideon pushed through the front door of the Galileo Inn and stopped on the sidewalk. He needed to sweat, to make blood hammer in his ears. If he had his gun, he’d find a range and rip through a dozen targets.
He twisted, feeling his spine pop and the muscles of his lower back let go. Bending, stretching, he ignored the thoughts chasing each other in his head and concentrated on the satisfactory ache of his body being called into action. He let one simple thought past his security.
Run, eat, sleep, start for Chicago in the morning.
He glanced up the street toward the sleepy downtown, then turned and watched a red-tailed hawk circle high above the western trees. It wasn’t much of a decision.
Diane ran past the gracious, Civil War-era houses. Most of them looked loved on their double-lot lawns, with wrap-around porches and big swings. But a few sagged in forgotten disrepair—rental properties. She remembered the sad houses from her youth when they talked to each other across the street in soft southern voices. Before the “sad old town” song started up again in her head, she turned away and focused on the clouds rolling in from the west.
Then, tripped on the broken sidewalk, and flew.
Gideon saw the woman go down. A block ahead of him and on the opposite side of the street, she sailed over the sidewalk, landing on knees, hands, and what looked like her face. Training sent him running down the block and across the street, cutting expertly between traffic. When he reached her, she sat awkwardly, pinching off a nosebleed with the sleeve of her T-shirt. Blood trickled from her forehead and cheek where the sidewalk scraped off the skin, also from her knees. Blood splotched her shirt and thighs where she’d wiped the pulpy heels of her hands. Not deep wounds, but messy.
“Here, let’s see,” he said, squatting beside her.
Startled, she let him pull her hand away from her face. Smoky-blue eyes darted over him. “You saw that?” she asked. “Swell.”
He pulled a handkerchief out of his sweatpants pocket and pressed it to her forehead. “I haven’t heard ‘swell’ since I was a kid.” He modulated his voice into an easy, calm cadence. Safe.
Her eyes relaxed, but she followed his movements. Their eyes met for a moment.
“I’ve got it,” she said, her hand following his to the handkerchief. Then, her cheeky, pleasant face broke into a smile, and he felt himself smiling back.
“Who said it, your grandma?” she asked.
“Who said ‘swell’? Your grandma?” She took one last swipe at her nose.
“My Uncle Tibby.”
“Nice to meet you, Tibby’s nephew.”
“Jason Gideon,” he said.
“You’re very kind, Jason Gideon, but you could be a serial killer for all I know. Do you wait for klutzy joggers to fall on their faces before you make your move?”
Gideon liked this woman. If he was really a serial killer his van would be parked around the corner with his kill kit, and he wouldn’t chat her up on the sidewalk. But, he appreciated her alertness in a vulnerable situation. A smart woman.
Instead of answering, he stood up and offered his hand. “Can you get up?” He grasped her arm and pulled her to her feet. She was lighter than she looked in her baggy clothes.
He kept his hand around her arm as she wobbled, sucking air through her teeth, then flexed her knees. Blood dried in stripes down her legs.
He looked up and down the street. “Let’s see if we can find someplace to clean those scrapes.”
A tidy, brick and stone one-story sat between two mansion-turned-apartments. Trimmed arborvitae guarded the front door and beds of pansies ran along the house front.
Elderly couple, Gideon thought, or single woman.
“I think my mom’s friend lives there.” The woman next to him pointed to the same house. “I’m Diane Clary, by the way. Sorry, I just can’t see you as a killer.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” Gideon said.
They started back up the street, Gideon holding her arm lightly as she tried not to limp. After a few more steps, she pulled her arm away.
“Do you always carry a hanky while you jog?” She held the bloody one away from her head, looked at it, and pressed it back in place.
“Habit,” he said.
“It’s interesting what people carry with them.”
Gideon looked at her. “It says quite a bit about them.”
“Right. Did your mom teach you to carry a hanky?”
“My grandfather worked on the railroad,” he said. “I wanted one like his, but…” He shrugged. “Mothers.”
“Mmm,” Diane murmured meaningfully. “Tell me more about your mother.”
Gideon laughed and held out his hand. “Your turn.”
She reached in her short’s pocket and pulled out a ring of keys. He looked them over, then handed them back.
“You’re practical,” he said. “Trustworthy, caring, responsible, but you struggle with your income. And you’ve recently lost a significant amount of weight.”
“What? From my keys?”
“I cheated,” he admitted. “Your shorts are four or five sizes too big.”
“And you’re from one of the coasts,” she countered, “but you grew up in the Midwest.”
“Don’t you want to know how I figured that out?”
“My dialect is mid-western,” he said, “but people from California and the East Coast say ‘pardon’ instead of ‘what’ when they need something repeated. You’re very good.”
“Thanks,” she said dubiously, “but I think I’m the amateur here.”
They reached the small house. Diane took the steps up from the sidewalk slowly. “I haven’t creamed myself like this since I used to fall off my bike. I’d pick gravel out of my knees all summer.”
“I used to take the railroad tracks too fast and skid into the cinders.”
“Ooo. Just as bad.”
They topped the stoop, and Diane reached for the storm door. Gideon grabbed her hand back.
“Wait,” he ordered quietly.
The front door hung ajar, the jam splintered. His hand slapped his hip before he remembered. No gun. Instead, he pulled out his cell phone.
“Call 911,” he told Diane. “Tell them an unarmed FBI agent is on scene. Don’t come in here.”
She stared, round-eyed, for a moment, then grabbed the phone and hurried down the steps. A very smart woman.
Gideon peered through a narrow window at the top of the door. Stairway. Living room to the right. Kitchen to the left. Corner of an overturned kitchen table. Something—flour—on the floor. He teased open the storm door and shouldered the front door, listening. Shuffling, rustling in the back of the house. Gideon scanned the kitchen. Cooking utensils on the floor. The smell of something—cookies, maybe—burning. Something more acrid—urine and feces. No victim in sight. Peering around the corner into the living room, he hugged the wall and moved toward the sounds.
Standing on Mrs. Wickersham’s front lawn, Diane snapped the cell phone shut with a disgusted kind of panic.
“Is the intruder armed?” How do I know? Just get the hell over here!
She hurried down an incline to the alley alongside the little house. Worry drove her—for Mrs. Wickersham, for the interesting-looking man who turned out to be a FBI agent. She trotted beside the house, craning to see into the high windows, but lace covered them all.
The back door slammed open. A figure sailed over the porch railing and landed in the alley. Diane could have reached out and grabbed the black skater cap off his head, but she was too stunned to move.
“Jason!” she yelled as the boy ran. “Jason!”
She ran after him. Black T-shirt. Baggy shorts. Skinny. What am I doing!?
“Hey!” she yelled at the kid. “What did you do?! What did…”
Jason rushed past her. “Stay back!” he yelled.
She couldn’t. She ran after them, through a vegetable garden and across a driveway. Jason sprang in a flying tackle and slapped the boy to the ground. Panting, he straddled the kid, pinning his arms behind him. The boy bucked and squirmed.
“Give it up, son,” Jason said between breaths. “You’re caught.”
His eyes flicked to Diane, then back to the kid. “Go wait for the police,” he told her.”
“Mrs. Wickersham,” she panted. “Is she okay?”
He shook his head, still breathing hard. “I didn’t see her.”
“Where is she?!” Diane yelled at the boy. “What did you do?!”
The boy turned his head painfully against the asphalt. “I didn’t touch her,” he protested.
“Where is she?” Jason asked calmly, adding more pressure to the thin wrists. “Where?”
The boy started to cry. Diane backed away. He looked like every teenage boy. He probably wanted his mom. Scared. Like she was scared.
“In the kitchen closet,” he blurted, and then cried in big gulping sobs.
Diane ran back the way she’d come, leaping over potted mums and sprinting up the alley. When she reached the front door, a police car whooped its siren in front of the house. She hurried down the sidewalk to them.
“Jason’s got the boy back there in the alley.” She waved wildly behind her. “Mrs. Wickersham…”
“Hold on,” a sturdy officer said, coming up from the street. “Just slow down. Are you hurt, ma’am?”
“He’s back in the alley,” she said, grabbing the man’s arm, “the boy who broke in. Jason—the FBI agent—pinned him. But, we’ve got to find Mrs. Wickersham. She’s in the house.”
The officer looked over his shoulder to his partner. By some silent agreement, the cop got back in the car, made a tight circle in the street and headed down the alley.
Diane ran up the steps to the front door and slammed it open. The officer gently pushed her aside.
“Edith?” she called, behind the officer’s back.
She slipped in flour on the kitchen floor. The policeman stepped around skid marks leading to the small pantry. When he opened the door, a frail bundle tumbled out, along with a rain of canned goods.
“Oh, oh,” the tiny woman cried, batting tuna and tomato sauce away from her face. Then she flailed at the officer. “No, no!”
“It’s all right, ma’am,” he said softly. “I’m a police officer.”
Her eyes rolled wildly in a too-pale face. Diane knelt beside her and took a cold hand.
“He stuffed me inside,” she complained weakly, plucking at the policeman’s sleeve, “like a bag of trash. A bag of trash.”
“She’s in shock,” Diane said, jumping up and running into the living room. She grabbed needlepoint pillows and an afghan off the couch, then hurried back.
The officer gently untangled the struggling woman from plastic buckets, mops and brooms. Together they laid her gently on the floor, propped up her lower legs and tucked the afghan around her. She shivered violently.
“Making cookies for the social,” Mrs. Wickersham muttered, her head in a drift of flour. “I never heard a thing, not one thing.”
The officer looked at Diane. She nodded and sat closer as he rose. He talked into a radio on his shoulder.
“It’s Diane, Edith,” she said calmly, “Jan’s daughter. Can you look at me?”
She laid her hand alongside Mrs. Wickersham’s bloodless cheek and guided her face toward her. “That’s right, there you are. Edith, are you hurt anywhere?”
“Nnnnn,” she moaned, her teeth clacking as she shook. Then, her pale eyes locked with Diane’s and she whispered, “I messed myself.”
“That’s okay,” Diane said, rubbing her arm. “I would too if I had such a scare. Try to take a deep breath.”
Mrs. Wickersham drew in a shuddering breath and sighed it out. Diane looked back as the front screen door banged shut. Jason and the two officers stood in the hallway, their voices low. Relaxed and easy, they might have been on a coffee break, talking about the weather. Jason looked at her—dark eyes in that interesting face. How could anyone look so commanding in a ratty T-shirt and sweatpants? She heard a warbling wail in the distance.
“The ambulance is coming,” she told the quieting woman. “Who should I call?”
“My-my daughter,” she said, but gripped Diane’s hand. “Don’t leave me,” she whispered.
“I won’t, sweetheart. I’m right here.”
“How did you happen to be in town, Agent Gideon?” Officer Beaman asked as they made way for the EMTs.
Gideon heard the practiced nonchalance in the senior partner’s voice, but the question still held an edge.
“Rance Emerly was my roommate in college,” he said quietly. “I came to visit him. I planned to drive on to Chicago tomorrow.”
“You saw Emerly today?”
“You won’t mind if we check that, do you?”
“I’d be disappointed if you didn’t.”
He watched the activity around the victim—EMTs checking her vitals, Diane on the phone, the junior officer deciding whether or not to question her now. Diane looked at Gideon, her pale eyes wide, but calm. She touched her elbow and pointed at him. He had his own set of scrapes now.
“You know you were foolish to enter this house,” Beaman stated as the gurney rolled past them.
Gideon pursed his lips. “Not really.”
He reached for the front door and pointed to a faint pattern of circles and jagged lines. “Kid’s tread where he kicked open the door—it’s a popular shoe worn by pre-teens and teens. The damage in the kitchen…” He stepped aside so Beaman could see. “…only his scuffle with Mrs. Wickersham, and only his shoe prints in the flour. I knew we had a lone teenager. Statistically, he might have carried a knife, but…” Gideon shrugged. “I didn’t think so.”
Beaman squinted into the kitchen then turned his assessing gaze back to Gideon. He didn’t mind. He respected a cop who did his job.
“We’ve got your statement, Agent Gideon—“
“Just ‘Gideon’. As I said, I’m retired.”
“We’ll check on that, too, sir. I’d like you to stay in town until you hear from me. I have your cell number.”
The female EMT returned with a small kit and pulled out a kitchen chair. Diane sat on it, talking quietly to the younger officer. He scribbled in his notepad as the EMT scrubbed away the dried blood and cleaned her scrapes.
“Could you call a ride for Ms. Clary? I don’t know where she lives, but—“
“The other squad car can take you both where you need to go.”
Beaman stepped around him and beckoned his partner. The younger man pocketed his notebook, nodded and brushed past Gideon.
Get the camera, he wanted to say, watching the officer walk back to the squad car. The boy in the back leaned his head against the window. He had as much as confessed, but a shot of the shoe print was evidence. Never ignore the evidence.
“I guess they’re done with me.” Diane stood beside him, a gauze patch on her forehead and antibiotic ointment glistening on her cheek.
“Me, too. Ever ride in a police car?” He ushered her out the door.
“Only in the front.”
This woman did make him smile. “They’ll give us a ride home.”
Streetlights glowed in the growing dusk, the warmth of the day gone with the sun. Diane shivered. Across the street, faces peered out windows. So Midwestern. No clots of gawkers on the sidewalk, just polite curiosity expressed in the confines of their own homes. As they made their way to the street, another officer opened the back door of his unit. Diane peered inside. Then, she looked at the cop holding the door and straightened up.
“I don’t mean to be rude or anything, but it smells like vomit,” she said.
The cop shrugged. “It’s Friday.”
She turned back to Gideon. “I’m fine to walk, really.
“Thank you, officer,” Gideon said, smiling. “It looks like we’re walking.”
“Don’t get me wrong,” Diane said as they regained the sidewalk, “I don’t mind vomit. I just don’t care to stick my feet in it.”
“Um,” she said, “where are we going?”
They stopped at the corner of Ninth Street as a car crept by.
“How about dinner?”
“Great. I’m starving. Aren’t you?”
“I could eat.”
They crossed Ninth and continued up the street.
“You handled yourself well back there,” Gideon said. “Nurse?”
She nodded. “Retired.”
He peered at her. She wasn’t old enough to be retired.
“So,” she said. “FBI.”
“Just passing through.”
He saw her teeth flash.
“You’ve got a nice, Gary Cooper—Man of Few Words shtick. How’s that work for you, Agent Gideon?”
“Usually just fine, but I’m guessing not tonight.”
“Not if you’re buying me dinner.”
They walked in silence for a half block. Diane rubbed her cold arms.
“So, you do that kind of thing every day?”
“Something like that.”
Diane sighed. “I can wait all night.”
Gideon smiled in the dark. “I was a profiler. I studied a criminal’s behavior to get inside his head.”
“You studied what was in his pockets.”
“Was it dangerous work?”
“How did your wife handle that?”
She looked at him, her face shadowed by the growing dark. “You’ve been fiddling with your wedding ring all night. My guess is that she’s not with you and you’re missing her.”
Gideon reached for the ring on his finger, then dropped his hands.
Diane stopped. “Oh. Oh, I’m sorry. That was too personal. It’s just that we…shit. I’m really sorry.”
“It’s okay. I’ve been divorced a long time. I just can’t seem to take the ring off.”
“I get that.” They continued walking. “It took me five years to change my name back when I got divorced. Some habits are so ingrained.”
“Some of them have teeth,” he said.
Gideon leaned across the bar. “Excuse me,” he said firmly.
The bartender turned. Tyler Hildebrandt, Diane noted. Firefighter cum barkeep. Hildebrandt looked from Gideon to Diane and back again.
“Yes, sir,” he said.
“Could you get some ice for this lady’s cheek?”
“Gees, Diane,” he said, grabbing a clean bar towel, “what hit you?”
She shrugged. “The sidewalk.”
“I’ll run upstairs and get you a sweatshirt,” Gideon said. “Be right back.”
“Thanks.” She watched him disappear through the doorway into the inn.
Hildebrandt twisted the ice-filled towel and handed it to her. “You know him?”
“We just met.” She closed her eyes against the cool pressure of the ice.
“On the sidewalk?”
“That’s right.” She smiled sweetly.
A waitress called, and Hildebrandt waved Diane away, turned and went back to work. Light from the backlit bar shone around him, gleaming on mahogany and the brocade upholstery of the restaurant’s furniture. Diners sat at two of the four booths—suits with expensive haircuts. She heard laughter and tumbling conversation behind draped curtains in the party room. It was a small restaurant. Intimate, Ash, the owner, preferred to called it. Whatever the proper spin, The Galileo was out of Diane’s orbital price range by several solar systems.
Therese bustled by in the casual black on black server attire. She taught high school English with Diane’s best friend. Therese stopped when she saw Diane.
“Oh—My—God!” she exclaimed, her Brenda Vaccarro voice a bomb in the small room. “Girl, what happened?”
Gideon stepped next to Diane and handed her a plain, gray sweatshirt. Setting the ice on the bar, she pulled it over her head. It smelled of laundry soap with a touch of Old Spice. When her head reappeared, Therese’s expression had changed. Her eyebrows now entered the stratosphere.
“We’ll be eating dinner,” Gideon said.
“Yes.” Therese seemed to mentally shake herself like a wet dog. “Okay. Just sit anywhere.”
“Everyone here seems to know you,” Gideon observed as he lead her to an empty booth.
“There’s a café on that side.” She gestured to an open doorway. “I go there most mornings for coffee.”
“A regular?” He smiled, sliding behind the table.
“A fixture. Thanks for the sweatshirt. I think I can feel my fingers now.”
Therese brought them water, menus and the forgotten ice bag.
“Do you have a special?” Gideon asked.
“We do! Baked chicken breasts served with zucchini, summer squash and red baby potatoes.
“That sounds fine.” He looked at Diane, who nodded. “And hot tea—green tea if you have it.”
“Perfect,” said Diane.
“We also have a yummy pumpkin walnut soup.”
Diane rubbed her cold thighs. “Oh, that sounds good.”
Gideon nodded at Therese.
“All righty, then.” She finished scribbling on her order pad. “I’ll be right back with your tea.” She gave them a bright smile and whirled around to the kitchen.
Gideon raised his eyebrows.
Diane laughed. “I think Therese’s making up a little story about us.”
“Mmm. A creative type. Too bad she doesn’t know the real story. It’s much better.”
Diane sipped her water. “What will happen to that boy?”
“Depends,” he said, leaning back. “He’s looking at breaking and entering, assault, theft, resisting arrest. Depends on what Mrs. Wickersham does. Depends on his record and his age…”
“It sounds bad.”
Gideon nodded. “He certainly changed the direction of his life tonight.”
Therese returned with their tea and the soup. Diane took a spoonful—meaty, nutty and hot, just like she had hoped. She watched her companion taste his tea, slurp it a little like wine, and seem satisfied. This guy was substantial. He wore his confidence quietly, but still the power of it made people’s heads turn. She saw how the suits in the other booths watched them walk across the room. Intelligence practically poured out of him. All that substance and his long-fingered hands held the teacup delicately, as if it had no handle.
Probably eats a lot of Chinese food, she thought.
A skinny ribbon of panic uncurled in her gut. Years of therapy rose up like steam from her tea cup. If she had still been searching for a strong, manly man to compensate for her dad, this would be the guy. And his voice! One of those tenors with a rich timbre. It was a good thing he didn’t say much, because his voice filled words with so many layers of music and meaning she wasn’t sure which to focus on. Dangerous territory.
He looked over the rim of his cup at her, holding her gaze. Thick lashes framed his dark eyes—beautiful eyes. Diane bent over her soup, her spoon rattling against the bowl.
“No more questions?” Jason asked.
Heat rushed up from Diane’s nervous stomach. “Was I grilling you? I’m sorry.”
He waved the apology away. “Think nuthin’ of it, ma’am.” His voice loosened into a West Kansas drawl. “Stranger in town—like t’make folk skittish.”
Diane smiled and tried to relax. “Here in Dodge,” she said, matching his accent, “strangers go toe up sooner’n’ not. Best t’watch yer back, mister.”
“Thank ye kindly, ma’am.” He touched an imaginary hat brim.
“Jamaican,” she said, finishing her soup. “Can you do a Jamaican accent? I always end up sounding East Indian.”
Mouth full, he shook his head, swallowed. “Inside U.S. borders only.”
“You have a good ear,” he told her. “Not a common skill. Being able to reproduce an accent, subtly like you do, is more rare. The CIA could use you.”
“CIA? I thought you work for the FBI.”
“Worked,” he corrected. “BAU agents don’t go under cover.”
“BAU,” Diane repeated, sipping tea. “Those are the people who study criminal behavior.”
She sat back and gripped her hands in her lap. The pain helped her stay calm. “I’d love to hear about your work, but I’m not asking. You can talk about it if you want or change the subject. It’s up to you.”
Jason smiled crookedly, but Therese arrived with their meal before he could speak. She set the steaming plates in front of them, along with a basket of dark bread.
“How we doin’?” she asked Diane, grinning.
“Fine,” Jason said. “More tea, please.”
“Sure,” she said, looking from him to Diane and back. “I’ll bring a pot, shall I?”
Jason cut into the tender chicken. Italian spices floated up in the steam.
“I haven’t talked about my work in a while,” he said. “A good friend died in July. I’ve been traveling since then.”
“I’m so sorry.”
Diane watched his down-turned face. When he looked up, the pain and sorrow etched there shocked her. Instinctively, she started to reach for him, but stopped herself.
“Traveling sounds like a good idea,” she said, forcing herself to eat. “Healing.”
Jason blew air, puffing his lips. “Maybe. I just didn’t see any point in staying with the FBI.”
“And yet, you became Agent Gideon tonight.”
His crooked smile answered. “Like riding a bicycle, I guess,”
“Same as nursing,” she agreed. “It’s not really something you do, it’s something you are.”
Jason nodded, cutting more chicken. “You said you’re retired?”
Diane ignored the comment. “My last job was wonderful. I counseled people all over the country who received home health care.”
“You have a gentle way,” he said. “I’m sure your clients appreciated you.”
“Thanks.” She smiled at him, chewing. “In another life, I’d study more psychology. I never get tired of finding out how people think.”
He grunted amiably. “A natural profiler.”
Therese brought their pot of tea, and Jason refilled their cups.
Diane watched the steam curl up. “You see such tiny details. When did you start paying attention to people?”
He laughed a little. “I can’t remember a time when I didn’t. Maybe when I read Jung’s Psychology and Religion in high school—or was it Beyond Good and Evil…”
Diane’s fork clattered to the table. “You read Nietzsche in high school?”
“My dad taught philosophy at the University of Chicago. When he saw the books I started to bring home, he set out others he thought I’d like—James Hillman, Michel Foucault.”
“How wonderful. I read Lord of the Rings and Steinbeck in high school, and I thought I was smart.”
He smiled. “Army Intelligence recruited me out of college, then the Bureau.”
“I’m a little jealous of people whose lives take a distinct direction. Mine’s all over the place—no pattern whatsoever.”
“Impossible,” he said around a mouthful of bread. He chewed and swallowed. “Everyone’s life has a pattern. I’d see yours if I knew you better. And besides, straight lines just move a person through time faster. A lot gets missed.”
“Maybe,” she admitted, “but starting and stopping, and getting yanked back and forth doesn’t necessarily make a person well-rounded either.”
He studied her a moment, then split a red potato. “That’s a fairly violent description.”
She swallowed. “Metaphorically speaking, that is.”
He looked at her again. “So, how does a retired nurse spend her time?”
“Right now, I’m making art.”
“What kind of art?”
“I find stuff at garage sales and junkyards and put them together.”
“Interesting. I’ve dabbled at drawing, but I’m more an appreciator of art than a participant.”
“Oh, poo,” Diane said. “Everyone’s an artist, or should be.”
“You haven’t seen my drawings.”
“Doesn’t matter. If it makes you happy, if you lose time doing it, your soul is speaking. And that’s art.”
Jason gazed at her, pain resurfacing in his features, but softly. “My soul hasn’t spoken in some time.”
Diane bit her lips, and this time she did reach across the table for him. When she slipped her fingers over his, she expected a jolt, some cosmic, Tantric reaction. But, it was just a hand, attached to someone lost.
Parked in the lot next to Diane’s apartment building, she sat in the Cherokee, rubbing her scabbed hands together as if they were cold.
“Thanks again for dinner…and for driving me home. It was just a few blocks. I would have been fine walking.”
“Absolutely not,” he said mildly. After a pause, he continued. “Since I need to stay in town awhile, I’d like to check on Mrs. Wickersham. Would you go with me tomorrow?”
“How about meeting for coffee beforehand.”
“The Galileo Café?”
He nodded. “Say 8:30.”
She peeled off the sweatshirt and laid it on the armrest. “See you tomorrow.”
She tried not to fly out of the car, even managed to turn and wave at him before unlocking the security door. But when she got inside, she realized she hadn’t taken a breath in a while.
“ShitHellFuckDamn,” she sighed.
◊ ◊ ◊