The Road to Avalon
by Cathryn Mortenz-Teal ("Kate")
"No way. Forget it, Nickie." Peter Caine punctuated the words by tossing aside the file he'd been reviewing. The folder slid from the mound of paperwork on top of his desk, butting against the edge of his phone and drawing his attention to the yellow Post-it note stuck to the receiver. "Lunch with Pop." Frowning, Peter spared an agitated glance for his watch. "Look, I'm running behind. Do you mind if we wrap this up?" He did a quick one-two beat with his index fingers on the edge of the desk like a drummer testing sticks, then pushed out of his chair. "You'll thank me later. No girl wants to be traded off to the next guy."
"I'm not trading her off," Nickie Elder protested, following on Peter's heels as he wound his way through the squad room. Around them the usual chaos of the 101st continued without abate: Strenlich bellowing for an update from Blake; Mary Margaret hustling by with a "hey ya, partner" on her way to a stakeout; the usual overflow of civilians and patrol alike at the front desk. Only Kermit was spared the disorder--the closed door to his office erecting a barrier between the commonplace and lilypad-land.
"Come on, Pete," Nickie whined. "You gotta bail me out on this one. I mean . . . I mean, look at it from my side. I-I finally meet a-a girl that's interested in me. Me! The--the guy who lives with his hands in formaldehyde, and eats chick-chicken salad with dead bo-bodies for lunchmates. D-d-do you have an-any idea how long it's taken me to find a girl who doesn't immediately turn green when sh-she learns what I do for a living?"
Nickie's stutter was kicking into high gear, indicating a lengthy tirade. Peter heard him draw breath like a fish sucking air, as he readied another appeal.
"Nickie, Nickie." Peter stopped the rapid-fire discourse with a hand to his friend's shoulder. "Look, you've never met this girl right? Just swapped letters and phone calls?" Nickie's head bobbed up and down in eager agreement. "Then trust me--you don't want your first impression to be a stranger picking her up at the bus terminal."
"But the DA's got me locked up on the Murphy case. I gotta go over records for court--expert testimony, and all that. Besides, didn't I help you out--committing a felony--as I recall, in Altamont. B&E instead of vacationing in the Bahamas. You owe me, Pete."
Peter drew to a halt, exhaling loudly. Closing his eyes, he pinched two fingers to the bridge of his nose. He could feel a headache coming, warning that somehow this was going to turn sour. He'd just pulled a double shift--not intended, but not unusual. The last thing he wanted to do was play escort to Nickie's girlfriend. Still . . . "Yeah, I guess I do owe you," he muttered softly. He'd forgotten about that stint in Altamont. Nickie had come through for him when he'd needed someone knowledgeable to review an autopsy report that just happened to be locked in the coroner's office. Odd how those things came back to haunt you.
Peter shifted, catching Nickie by the arm and drawing him out of the main aisle. He was getting edgy now, certain to be late for his lunch with Pop. Distractedly, he raked a hand through his hair. *How many demerits for keeping a Shamballa Master waiting?*
"All right, Nickie. What did you say her name was?"
The ME's face broke into a 1000 candle-watt grin. Licking his lips, he began rattling off information.
"Nancy. Nancy Elton. She's a podiatrist. We met . . . well not really met . . . but on the phone . . . when a medical journal I ordered went to her by mistake. See-see it was addressed N. Elder, but somehow it got sent to N. Elton. She lives in a small town up north--a place called Slonedale--and I guess things got crossed in the mail. Instead of sending it back, she looked me up and-and--"
"Okay, okay," Peter said quickly, holding up a hand to stop the rush of words. "I get the picture. What time do I need to pick her up?"
"Three. No four. That's it--four o'clock. Um . . . um, she said she'd wear a-a black jacket with a yellow scarf." Nickie's hands fluttered around his neck in a gesture indicating a scarf. *Either that or a lynching,* Peter thought with a fleeting grin.
"What's she look like?" he asked. Nickie's face went alarmingly blank. "Hair; eyes; height?" Peter prompted.
"Um . . . um, I don't know. We didn't really talk about that. Sh-she just said she was average." He grinned sheepishly. "Average is okay with me. Anyway--I-I won't be done with the DA until after seven. So um . . . if-if you could just get her something to eat . . . chat up all my good qualities. I could meet you at Chandler's around seven-thirty. I-I kinda took the liberty that you'd be agreeable. I left a message on her answering machine and sort of told her you'd pick her up. Okay, Peter? Pal?" Nickie's eyebrows rose hopefully. "Buddy?"
Peter exhaled loudly. "Sure."
"Pop? Pop, you in here?"
Jeweled candlelight flickered in the thick shadows of Kwai Chang Caine's meditation room, dappling the walls with crimson and gold. The air was fragrant and warm, underscored by the faint scent of sweet clover and the heavier musk of patchouli. Hesitating in the doorway, Peter sought his father's presence, encountering only emptiness.
A lump rose in his throat, and he swallowed uncertainly, trying to quell the rat-a-tat beat of his heart. "Dad?" The word came out a whisper, almost a plea. "*I am here, my son*," a familiar presence assured in his mind. As quickly as the terror surfaced, it faded. Peter drew a breath. Kwai Chang Caine had not abandoned him yet again. The priest was on the terrace.
Flexing his fingers, Peter tried to quell the tremor in his hands. Slipping one hand into the pocket of his burgundy sports jacket, he hooked the thumb of the other through his belt loop. Time to get his edge back--the brash confidence that had earned him a reputation as the 101st's cocky, hot-shot cop. *That Peter Caine.*
"Hey," he said stepping onto the terrace. "Sorry I'm late. Still up for lunch?"
Kwai Chang Caine looked up from the menagerie of herbs, flowering plants and vines he was tending. Long, deft fingers never stopped their administrations--stroking leaves and stalks, separating buds that had grown together, expertly flecking away dried growth. He lifted one shoulder in a patented shrug. "I am always available, Peter. It is your schedule that engenders conflicts."
*Was that a dig?* No, Kwai Chang Caine didn't do digs. In fact, he didn't do anything that a normal, emotional human being did. He was too controlled, too perfect. *Unlike his son--a walking nerve ending whose emotions erupt into fireworks with the slightest provocation. Pull it together, Pete. Your Pop's just . . . disciplined.*
Peter frowned at the understatement, hustling it aside. He clapped his hands together and rubbed the palms. "Okay, let's go. I'm starved. I know this great Mexican place around the corner from Juniper." He halted at the look of disapproval in his father's dark hazel eyes. "What's the matter, Pop? Too spicy?"
"I am sure I will find something," the elder Caine said after a moment's pause, but it was obvious he preferred a less adventurous menu. Peter grinned. Walking behind his father, he slipped his hands onto the priest's shoulders, squeezing gently. *So calm. Never any tension in him.* The dusty gold light of the afternoon sun drew glittering threads through his father's silvery hair--gem bright strands that rippled and flowed with his slightest movement. His tunic was blessedly warm beneath Peter's fingertips, heated like ocean sand by the sun's marigold haze.
Peter propped his chin on Caine's shoulder, content to simply bask in the other's presence. He watched as Caine stroked the velvety petals of a sage plant. He knew that gentle touch--had felt the same feathery caress against his cheek. "You know," he said, his voice soft this time, whisper-thin, "You keep adding to this terrace, there won't be any room left to walk around."
"Plants take very little and offer bountiful reward," Caine replied. He turned, forcing Peter to draw back. Raising a hand to his son's face, he swept Peter's bangs aside, long nimble fingers gently probing the flesh beneath. "I have an herbal tea that would ease your headache," he offered with knowing insight.
Peter glanced aside, momentarily veiling his eyes behind a soft shroud of lashes. He moved as if to speak, then shook his head, deciding better of it. His lips curled upward, a crooked half-grin. "Nothing a burrito won't handle. Come on, Pop. Lunch, remember?"
He drew a ragged breath, seeking an elusive inner calm. *Focus,* his father would say. Briefly he closed his eyes, trying to block the clamor of the terminal. With effort he was able to quell the distraction--willing it into the background until it became white noise, easily tamed. Jostled from behind, Peter grunted, but did not break his concentration. He felt it then--just a flicker at first, like the sputtering flame of a candle. It blossomed and grew--the peace and calm that came with self control.
Peter opened his eyes. Across the terminal he spotted a slender woman wearing a short black jacket. A pale yellow scarf encircled her neck, trailing back over her shoulder to disappear in a curling mass of cinnamon-colored hair. *Defiantly not average.* She glanced once in his direction then quickly away as though scanning the crowd for someone. A small travel bag rested by her feet.
Pushing through the crowd, Peter sprinted the short distance to her side, smiling as he drew abreast. "Hi. You must be Dr. Elton." He offered his hand. "I'm Peter Caine. Nickie Elder's a friend of mine. I think he left you a message, I'd be picking you up."
She hesitated, glancing from the hand to his face as though momentarily puzzled. Then she relaxed. A smile lifted the corners of her mouth and she wrapped her fingers around his. Eyes the color of dark chocolate crinkled at the corners.
"I get it. You're the window dressing."
"The pretty packaging," she clarified. "One look at you and I figure Nickie has to be a looker. He's got Mr. GQ for a buddy, right?" She disengaged her hand and adjusted her purse on her shoulder. Her eyes flicked away, dissecting the crowd. "Meanwhile, you decide if I'm up to Nickie's standards. If I pass the test, you talk up his good qualities. If I fail, you discourage me and I leave without troubling him. No wonder he asked you to play chauffeur."
Peter stared, utterly speechless. He cleared his throat and coughed into his hand. "Are you always this cynical?"
She laughed brightly. Belatedly he caught the look in her eyes and realized she'd been teasing. A heated blush stole over his cheeks. Thankfully her eyes were back in the crowd so she hadn't noticed. *Who the hell is she looking for?* There were alarms going off in his head, warning him that something wasn't quite right.
"So, do you have a car?" she asked, jarring him from his thoughts. "I'd like to get out of here and freshen up. Girl stuff, you know?"
He bit his lip.
"Sure." Stooping, he retrieved her bag, but the edge remained. With a hand beneath her elbow, he guided her through the milling crowd. The persistent feeling that something wasn't quite right, trailed playfully behind, nipping at his heels.
Peter glanced once at the closed bedroom door, then dialed the precinct. He'd brought Nancy Elton to his apartment, pointed out the bathroom, then quickly confiscated the phone. Still functioning on instinct, he lifted the receiver to his ear. Three crisp rings were followed by an even crisper voice.
"Kermit, it's Peter. I need a favor."
"It'll cost you, Kid. Favor bank's closed tight. I'm up to my ears in a records search for Strenlich."
"Then you won't mind doing another." Across the line, Peter could hear the uninterrupted patter of keys as Kermit pecked away at his computer. "I need everything you can get on a Nancy Elton. She's a podiatrist . . . lives in Slonedale. Oh, and Kermit--if you happen to hear from Nickie Elder, don't mention this, okay?"
The gentle patter of keys stopped. Peter could picture Kermit adjusting his trademark green glasses, the phone cradled between shoulder and chin. Someday he'd work up the nerve to ask Kermit about those glasses--someday he'd do more than just skirt the peripheral edge of friendship.
"Something wrong with our good friend the ME?" The tapping had resumed.
"No. Just trying to keep it that way." Peter paused. "Thanks, Kermit."
"On your cellular?"
"Yeah. That'll be fine."
Hanging up the phone, Peter turned to the window, gazing out across the skyline. He dug his hands into the pockets of his jeans and rocked back on his heels. A late afternoon haze had settled on the city, mottling the peaks of the taller buildings with a pallid gray fog. The sun dipped lower on the horizon, bleeding bands of milky red light across window panes and brick facades. Below, traffic crawled through the connecting streets like mice scurrying through a maze. How many times had he stood on the balcony and watched that same scene--his arms folded on the retaining wall, head tilted down, drinking in the vertigo and his own white-knuckled fear of heights? Sweat rolling off of him, the terror knotted tight in his stomach, until gasping he'd pushed away, stumbling into the safety of his apartment? Eighteen floors up. *Admit it, Caine. You like that edge--the punishing rush of flirting with danger.*
"I feel better," a voice announced behind him. "Thanks."
Turning, he found that Nancy had exited the bedroom. She'd changed clothes, donning a cranberry blouse and fawn-colored slacks. Her hair was brushed back from her face, tumbling over her shoulders in a lustrous cinnamon veil. Peter frowned. It wasn't that he didn't think Nickie capable of snaring such an attractive woman, it was just that she seemed, well . . . wrong, somehow. And why had she told Nickie that she was "average", unless she had a very humble sense of self-worth. *Pop would like that.*
"Are you hungry? We can get something--"
"I just need a moment to relax," she interrupted, dropping into the nearest chair. Peter walked around the couch and sat on the edge. Her eyes followed, making him feel oddly on display. "So . . ." she said when his gaze met hers. "You're Nickie's friend. You a coroner, too?"
"No." He laced his hands loosely. "I'm a cop."
"Oh . . ." Something flitted through her eyes. "Must be interesting. Traffic stops and all." Her lips curled, teasing.
He smiled without showing teeth, nodding his appreciation of the jest. "Homicide detective."
"Ah! A trifle more serious. Been doing it long?"
"Long enough." They were fencing words--parry, slash, disengage. It had a mechanical feel, like lines read in a play. "What about you? Enjoy your work?"
"It has its rewards," she conceded, and Peter knew instinctively that she wasn't talking about podiatry. *Nickie, what did you get me into?*A knock at the front door drew him from his thoughts. Nancy flinched and perched forward on the edge of her chair. Her eyes had widened like a deer trapped in headlights. "Who are you expecting?" she asked, voice strained, suddenly brittle.
Peter's eyes slid to the side. He stood. "No one. Should I be?"
She said nothing, watching as he slipped the 9mm Beretta free of its holster. *Use your head, Pete. Bad guys don't knock.* But it never hurt to be cautious. The sense of foreboding had returned, screaming like a freight-train. *Tell me I'm over reacting, Dr. Elton. Tell me to put the gun away.* Wetting his lips, he approached the door, the barrel of the automatic tipped to the ceiling. "Who's there?"
"Sorry Pete, it's Burt Gentry. Got a water leak in the unit below you. Need to check the plumbing . . ." Peter exhaled. *The building superintendent.* Lowering the gun, he opened the door. He had a brief image of Gentry's ruddy face--eyes wild and darting, sweat beading the brow line--and then his gaze encompassed the two thugs to the rear--one short, the other tall--and the snub-nosed .38 leveled at his waist.
Peter swung the door forward just as the shorter man lurched onto the threshold. He heard a muffled curse and then Burt Gentry was shoved through, barreling up against his shoulder. Peter flew backwards cracking his head against the wall. Pain erupted behind his eyes and splintered to the base of his skull. Momentarily dazed, he ground his teeth together. There was an annoying jangling in his ears, the taste of ash in his mouth. He stiff-armed Burt aside, lining up the Beretta even as his finger convulsed on the trigger. The explosion was deafening in the confined space.
"Hendricks, I'm hit!" the shorter man cried, dropping to his knees. His mouth pumped soundlessly as his fingers clutched the hole in his side. The taller man was already past Peter, stalking into the apartment. Peter pushed away from the wall, wincing at the pain in his head. With a distracted glance, he noted Burt Gentry crouched in the short corridor to the bedroom. The older man's normally ruddy complexion had grayed like the underbelly of a fish. That was when Peter heard Nancy Elton scream.
Hendricks had grabbed her by the arm and was hauling her towards the door. Cursing, Peter barreled forward, driving his shoulder into the other man's chest. His attack sent them both sprawling to the floor. He grunted, rolling swiftly free and sprang lithely to his feet. Hendricks was still struggling to stand when Peter's expertly placed roundhouse kick drove him into the carpet.
"Detective Caine!" Nancy Elton's shrill warning sent him diving to the side. He heard the high-pitched whistle of a bullet; felt a heated stitch of pain in his earlobe. Blood coursed down his neck, seeping into his hair and collar. He'd foolishly thought the shorter man incapacitated. Tucking chin to chest, he rolled. His gun arm was already lining to fire when he sprang to his feet.
"Damn!" The assailants had vanished out the door. Peter cursed again. He started to give chase but thought better of it when he saw Nancy Elton's face.
She took two steps towards him and crumbled
to the floor.
"Sorry, Detective," Burt Gentry was saying.
"They stuck a gun in my side and told me I had to do it, or they'd poke
holes in me no doctor could patch."
"It's okay, Burt," Peter said distractedly.
His attention was on the auburn-haired woman lying on his couch. Her face
was unnaturally pale. Soot-black lashes accented the ghostly pallor, cresting
her cheeks like velvet thread. Peter gathered her hand in his, frowning
at the chill touch of her fingers. "Dr. Elton? Nancy, come on. Wake up."
His voice persisted until she groaned. Slowly
her eyes opened. She struggled to sit, pressing one hand against her temple.
Her mouth was a thin white line. "Are they gone?"
Peter nodded. "They'll be back. We've got
to get out of here. Can you stand?"
"I think so."
He helped her to her feet then waited as
she steadied herself. His attention shifted to Burt. "You'd better go too.
I'll phone this in later."
"But where are you gonna go?"
"Better you don't know," Peter replied. With
an arm bracing her shoulders, he guided Nancy to the door. She glanced
up at him, gasped slightly, and tried to draw away.
Belatedly he remembered the nick on his earlobe.
He lifted a hand and probed the laceration. Wincing, he let his fingers
trail down his neck. His skin was sticky. He could feel blood on his collar,
more clotted in his hair. Drawing his hand away, he wiped his fingers on
"It's a graze," he assured her. "Looks worse
than it really is."
She seemed unconvinced but said nothing further.
Peter led her to the underground garage where his Stealth was parked. It
was only when he had pulled the car into traffic that she found the courage
to speak again.
"Where are you taking me?"
Peter's face was grim. He shifted the car
into fourth and hit the gas. "Chinatown."
Peter watched his father fuss over the girl.
Watched as the Shaolin priest offered a cup of some noxious medicinal tea.
Nancy was seated in a straight-back chair--one of the few that Caine kept.
Her thin fingers clutched the cup tightly, but could not mask the tremor
in her hands.
*Whatever's going on, this shook her
up too. She didn't expect it.* Peter hadn't gotten any information from
her during the ride to his father's apartment. He'd asked a few questions
but quit when it became apparent she was too frazzled to think straight.
He shifted, never patient, placing his hands on his hips as he watched
her scrutinize the tea.
"What is it?" she said suspiciously.
"Don't ask," Peter cautioned, but it was
Caine shrugged as if the answer were obvious.
"A mixture of ginseng, sweet violet, vervain, and lemon balm. Also some
lavender and ground fenugreek seed. Drink it. You will feel better." The
last, though uttered in the same tone of voice, carried the weight of command.
Obediently, Nancy drank the tea.
Peter's eyes shifted from the girl to his
father. "Could you excuse us, Pop? Dr. Elton and I need to talk."
"No--um . . . please." Nancy stood quickly.
She smiled nervously at Peter, then glanced to Caine as if seeking an ally.
"Not right now. Maybe there's somewhere I could lie down. Just for awhile?"
Caine bowed to the girl, loosely lacing his
hands at waist-level. "I will show you."
Peter watched them leave, frowning at the
way she'd handled his father. But then Caine was never so much as "handled"
as considerate to a fault. The cellular phone in his jacket pocket rang,
jarring him from his thoughts. Slipping the device free, he pressed it
to his good ear. "Caine."
"Got that profile you wanted." Kermit Griffin's
voice greeted over the line.
"And what do you want? The doctor's clean.
Has a small practice built at the expense of Mom and Dad--a Mr. & Mrs.
Dearborne. The mother comes from money, the father's retired -- had a very
posh teaching job at an ivy league college. One failed marriage, lasted
thirteen months, hence the name Elton. Contributing member of *Our Lady
of Heavenly Light*church, the *American Red Cross* and the local homeless
shelter. A regular girl scout. What are you fishing for, Kid?"
"Wish I knew. Did you get a photo?" Peter
"Yeah, it's here. Not unremarkable, but no diamond either. Brown hair, blue eyes. File says she's 5'3", 130 pounds."
Peter was silent, digesting the information.
He glanced at his watch. It was just after six. He had until seven-thirty
before meeting Nickie. With luck, he'd have this sorted out by then.
"Want to tell me what's going on?" he heard
"Can't. I don't really know myself." Peter
hesitated. "There is one thing though--I'm supposed to meet Nickie Elder
at Chandlers at seven-thirty. You could run interference for me in case
"And why would you be late?"
"It's been that kind of a day." Peter smiled
wryly. Too little sleep was catching up, exacting a toll as the adrenaline
began to fade. The headache was flirting at his temples, punishing this
time, and there was that annoying ache in his ear. He threaded a hand through
his hair, encountering a tender lump at the back of his skull. "Just tell
Nickie I met Dr. Elton at the terminal and that she's fine. Say we're stuck
in traffic or something. Be creative."
Kermit snorted. "Sure. Just one thing--why'd
I waste my time doing a records search on someone you're palling around
"Because the woman with me isn't Nancy Elton.
Better call the doctor's office and make sure she isn't missing."
Peter told him about the incident at his
apartment. He gave a description of the two attackers, as well as a description
of the woman pretending to be Nancy Elton. Kermit said he would take care
of the APB, plus question Burt Gentry to see if the building super could
shine any further light on the subject. "I'll let Simms know what's going
on. You at your father's place?"
"Yeah. Stay in touch." Peter ended the transmission.
He slipped the phone into his pocket just as his father returned to the
room. "Well? Is she sleeping?"
"She will be," Kwai Chang Caine replied.
He stepped directly in front of his son. "She seemed deeply troubled."
One eyebrow rose into the silvery fringe of his hair. "As are you." Cupping
Peter's chin, he tilted his son's face to the side for inspection. Reflexively,
Peter raised his arms and started to withdraw. The priest's fingers touched
his battered earlobe.
"You have been shot."
Peter pushed away. He lifted his own hand
to the wound and winced. He could feel dried blood beneath his fingertips--traced
its crusty path down his neck and beneath his collar. "It's a nick."
"Come. I will clean it." Once again the quietly
authoritative voice left no room for argument. Caine pointed to the raised
platform he used for a bed. "Sit there while I gather what I need. It will
be but a moment."
Peter swallowed and nodded mutely, too tired
to do anything but obey.
Kwai Chang Caine stepped into the kitchen
and retrieved a small bowl from the cupboard. He filled it with steaming
water, located a clean cloth and flicked it over his shoulder. Next he
carefully selected a few herbs, deftly crumbling the leaves into the cooling
water. He had been preparing for this moment all day--sensing Peter's agitation,
his uncertainty--knowing that a storm brewed on the horizon but not knowing
what manner of tempest they faced. By the time he returned to the main
room, Peter had stretched out on the raised platform, the back of one hand
resting on his forehead. One leg was raised, bent at the knee, the other
stretched in a long straight line, booted foot dangling over the edge of
the platform. As though sensing his presence, Peter jerked upright and
flushed guiltily. He swung his legs over the side.
Caine's mouth tightened only marginally.
*Stubborn. He requires rest, yet steadfastly refuses to sleep.* The
thought lingered, but he said nothing. Setting the bowl nearby, he began
to wash the blood from Peter's ear. "This girl is a friend of yours?" he
asked into the silence.
The need for sleep was radiating off Peter
in waves. He swallowed and a trickle of warm water ran down his neck soaking
into the fringe of his hair. When he spoke his voice was brittle.
"No. She's a friend of a friend, but she's
not even that." Caine watched his brow crinkle; watched his mouth tug into
a frown. "Nickie Elder asked me to meet her at the bus terminal."
Deftly Caine swabbed at the crust on Peter's
neck. The water in the basin had deepened in hue, braided with garnet-dark
strings like cracks in an eggshell. "Your friend, the medical examiner?"
"Yeah. Pop--" Peter hesitated, as though
uncertain. Caine stopped his administrations, sensing his son's confusion.
He drew back, smiling slightly. Lifting one finger, he swept the bangs
from Peter's hazel eyes, then gently traced the small scar beneath his
right brow. How that cut had bled! He could still recall young Peter coming
to him at the temple, his face and his hands dark with blood--the result
of a stumble near the lake, where a jagged piece of rock had protruded
from the bank.
"Dad?" Peter said softly. His gaze was clear,
glittering like cut glass. Caine was loathe to break their contact. He
allowed his touch to linger; threaded his fingers into Peter's thick hair.
"You are tired, Peter," he coaxed softly. "You need to rest."
"Um . . . no . . ." There was no strength
in the denial, only need. Caine slipped his arm around his son's back,
bracing him. Too late Peter sensed what was coming. "Don't--" he said,
raising an arm, turning his face away. But Caine's fingers were already
at his temple. The skilled touch, rarely used without his son's permission,
paved the passage for sleep. Peter uttered a low moan and crumbled in his
Gently, Caine eased him back on the platform,
careful to guide a pillow beneath his head. The splay of dark hair made
an inky nebula on the white pillowcase. Once again Caine smoothed the long
bangs from his eyes. Lost in sleep, Peter's face had the unlined look of
childhood. Caine smiled--slightly, sadly. Leaning forward, he pressed his
lips to Peter's forehead.
"Sleep well, my son," he whispered. He slid
to the floor, crossing his legs in a half-lotus, fully intending to sit
vigil through the night.
Kwai Chang Caine glanced up as Nancy Elton
appeared in the doorway. Her blouse looked wrinkled, obviously slept in,
and her long hair hung disheveled about her shoulders. She slipped her
thumb into the unruly mass and tried to tame it behind her ear. Caine watched
as her eyes shifted to Peter. His son was still stretched out on the platform,
one arm folded over his stomach, the other tossed above his head. His face
was turned to the side exposing the discoloration on his collar where blood
had turned the fabric dark. Nancy took another step into the room.
"Is he asleep?" she asked with a nod in Peter's
Caine unwound like a cat. As graceful as
a feline he came to his feet. "Yes. He hasn't slept in some time. A . .
. double-shift I believe it is called?"
"Great. And I dump this on him." Caine watched
as she rubbed a hand over her forehead, as if physically trying to eradicate
pain. Her fingers trembled.
"Something is troubling you." It was not
She hesitated, bit her lip. "Yes."
"My name isn't Dr. Elton. It's Callie. Callie
"Now we're getting somewhere," Kermit Griffin
announced from the doorway. Caine turned at the sound of the voice, not
surprised to see the ex-mercenary on the threshold. He had felt Kermit's
presence the moment he entered the building. The customary green glasses
were in place, giving him a somewhat sinister look in the diffused lighting.
A red tie and white shirt accented his coal black suit. Caine knew that
the Desert Eagle was tucked into his waistband, snug at his back, within
Callie Taylor stepped nervously to Caine's
side. Her fingers plucked at his sleeve, but her eyes never left the apparition
in the doorway.
"Do you know him?"
"Detective Griffin is Peter's friend. They
"You could use some, sweetheart," Kermit snapped and walked briskly into the room. His steps led him to the platform, where he gazed down at Peter, still lost in sleep. "When he didn't show at Chandler's I figured something happened--or more likely--knowing where he was, that you just 'quieted' him down for awhile. I got Nickie Elder taken care of . . . he knows what's happened. Dr. Elton's office gave him her number. She's at a medical conference in Buffalo. Convenient for anyone wanting to assume her identity for a brief time." This last was said pointedly with little regard for bruised feelings or diplomatic procedure. Even with his glasses in place, Kermit's gaze could make a person squirm.
Callie Taylor looked to Caine in mute appeal.
Kermit frowned. "How long will Peter be out? He should hear this."
Caine rolled one shoulder into a shrug. "I
can wake him if you think it is necessary."
"Very well. Perhaps you would see Miss Taylor
to the kitchen? I believe she could use some water."
"Yeah, whatever," Kermit muttered, clearly
disgusted. He stalked off, not waiting, and obviously not caring if the
Kwai Chang Caine sighed.
"Please go, Callie. You will be safe with
Kermit." Though it was clear she had reservations, the woman did as she
was told. Left alone with his son, Caine allowed his eyes to linger on
Peter's face. He was loathe to wake the young man. His son had slept little
more than three hours, not nearly enough time to replenish his strength
and renew the force of his ch'i. Caine knew that Peter often operated on
little sleep. It was part of his makeup--that raw hyperactivity which allowed
him to function when others would simply crumble. Still, there came a time
when even nerve endings and instinct encountered a dry well.
Caine rubbed his palms together building
up heat and warmth. Lightly he traced his hands in the air, fingertips
hovering just shy of Peter's skin. His hands made a path down the length
of Peter's body--once, twice--then his fingertips descended, tracing the
high feathery arch of his son's eyebrows, the chiseled lines of cheek and
jaw. "Peter . . ."
His son stirred, groaned. Though the transfer
of ch'i was not enough to sustain him for long, it would strengthen
him and allow him to function without the restorative aide of sleep.
"Peter," Caine said again, firmer this time.
It was the voice he had used at the temple. The voice that insisted his
son respond. Peter opened his eyes, groaned, and drew his knees up until
the soles of his boots rested on the platform. He covered his face with
"You shouldn't have put me out, Pop. God,
did I sleep at all?" He pushed his father's hands away and sat up. Caine
gave him a moment to orient himself. Peter lowered his eyes, his gaze heavily
lidded. Candlelight bled through his lashes and scrolled spider-thin shadows
on his cheeks. After a moment, he slid back his sleeve and glanced at his
watch. His lips curled in a thin smile and he cocked a finger at his father.
"9:45. Something's happened, or you would have let me sleep. What is it,
"Kermit is here."
"Kermit?" Peter's brows drew down sharply.
"Why? What's happened?"
"He is in the kitchen. The girl you thought
was Dr. Elton is with him. Her name is Callie Taylor. Your friend Nickie
Elder, knows what has happened, and has managed to contact the real Dr.
Elton. She is safe and is attending a medical conference. In Buffalo, I
Peter chuckled. "You managed to find all
this out while I slept? I'm impressed."
Caine rolled his shoulder into a liquid shrug.
"I am just repeating information that was offered. Perhaps you should see
"Yeah." Peter raked a hand through his hair,
combing loose strands into place. He stood and smoothed the wrinkles from
his jacket and shirt as best he could. "I could really use a shower."
"Maybe later. For now something to eat, I
think. I'll see what I can arrange while you talk to Kermit and the young
The "young lady" was looking decidedly nervous
by the time Peter entered the kitchen. He hadn't quite rid himself of the
daze that came from interrupted sleep, but Kermit's hostility sliced through
his fog with little preamble. "She's a ringer," he snapped at Peter while
stabbing a vicious finger in the girl's direction. "My guess is the boys
on the other end know Elder's going to testify on the Murphy case. They
set her up to take him out. Problem solved."
"No!" the girl protested. "It's not like
"Whoa! Just slow down!" Peter scrubbed his
palms against his eyes. The girl was obviously terrified but trying to
hide it. Her coffee-black eyes were limpid and wide, both imploring and
determined. Strands of cinnamon hair clung to the cameo-white skin of face
and neck. Peter stifled a groan. God, he could drown in a face like that!
"Look at her, Kermit. She's terrified. Is that the face of a veteran killer?"
Kermit snorted and turned away, folding his
arms across his chest. "Don't let her deceive you, Romeo. She's hiding
Peter pressed his lips together.
"It's not what you think." Callie Taylor
stepped closer to Peter as if sensing that he was the safe refuge in the
room. Her eyes flicked behind him, encompassing Caine.
"My father tends to leave police matters
to me," Peter said evenly, noting the direction of her gaze. He saw Kermit
look at him strangely and knew instinctively what the other was thinking:
*What a crock of shit! He sticks his nose in every chance he can!*
"Nancy's a friend," Callie said at last.
"I . . . met her at the gym. I was staying at her place--mine was being
painted--when Nickie called to invite her for the weekend. The recorder
took the message. After I played it back, I erased it."
"So Dr. Elton didn't even know about the
invitation?" Peter asked.
The girl shook her head. Lowering her eyes,
she twined her fingers together. "I knew Nancy would be out of town anyway--at
the conference. I called and left a message with Nickie's answering service
saying that I--that Dr. Elton--would be there. Since they'd never really
met, I thought I could pull it off . . . just for a while . . . that's
all I needed."
"For what?" Kermit asked, each word like
a slap in the face.
"I needed to disappear. Just for a little
"Why?" Peter's voice was soft. She was getting
to him, her vulnerability so different from the cynical facade she had
displayed at the bus terminal. He bit his lip struggling to clear his head
and remain neutral. A cop couldn't afford compassion--couldn't afford to
let his guard down when motive and intent had yet to be established.
Her eyes rose to his, no longer beseeching,
simply resigned. "I'm a courier."
Kermit pushed away from the wall. He took
three steps into the room but remained silent.
"I . . . deliver things," Callie explained.
Peter bristled. "You mean contraband?"
"No. Not illegal. Things that are . . . valuable.
Things that people don't want going through regular channels for one reason
or another: loss, theft, fear of having their name associated with the
items. Mostly it's artifacts or documents. The transactions are done in
secret so as not to draw attention. It's all very legitimate and mostly
"What are you carrying now?" Peter asked.
Callie wet her lips, looking from Peter,
to Caine, to Kermit. She hesitated as though debating her options, then
quietly slid back the sleeve of her blouse. A folded sheet of paper was
strapped to the underside of her arm.
Kermit's brows arched into the air. "You
naughty girl. Trading military secrets?"
"No! I told you, it's nothing illegal." Slipping
the paper free, she unfolded it and produced a thinner sheaf of parchment
from inside the protective covering. This she offered to Peter. Spreading
it flat on the breakfast table, he smoothed the creases with a sideways
sweep of his hand. The paper was dry, crinkling beneath his touch and yellowed
at the edges. The others gathered at his back.
"A map," Kermit said, peering over his shoulder.
"Old, but not ancient. Buried treasure?"
"Isn't that where all old maps lead?" Peter
asked, not taking his eyes from the document. He traced a finger across
the faded surface. "This writing. It's different. Not Chinese, and nothing
I recognize. Pop?"
"I believe it is Middle English," his father
responded quietly. "If you ask Miss Taylor, I am certain she will tell
you the map does not lead to buried treasure."
"Well?" Peter prompted the girl.
She wet her lips, nervous again. "It's .
. . supposed to lead to Avalon."
Peter exchanged a glance with Kermit. The
reference had soared over his head. The ex-mercenary, however, appeared
"The resting place of King Arthur," Caine
inserted into the silence.
Peter blanched. "Come on, Pop! Enough with
the mystical crap. I've had all the fun I can stand between Shamballa,
Shadow Assassins and the Bardo. I don't need a dead monarch in the mix."
"Some people believe Arthur isn't truly dead,"
Callie inserted quietly. "He's called the *Once and Future King,* meaning
that someday he'll return."
"Meaning there are enough wackos in the world
to buy any philosophy properly fed," Kermit snapped. "Arthur Pendragon
was a work of fiction--a bright light for a dark time."
"There is some evidence--" Caine said softly.
"We're missing the point!" Peter interrupted
loudly before the conversation veered out of control. He raised his hands
just high enough to gain their attention. "Whatever the validity of this
map, *someone* thinks it's worth killing for. I didn't take a near miss
from a .38 because a couple of guys wanted to debate literature. Now--"
his eyes shifted to Callie. "Where are you supposed to deliver it?"
"To a private collector in Albany. I thought
this side trip would put off whoever was following me. Then in a couple
of days I'd make the delivery. I-I knew someone didn't want me to complete
the job, but I never thought they'd try to kill--" she swallowed, unable
to complete the sentence. Peter's hand strayed to hers where it rested
on the table. His fingers curled reassuringly around her own.
Kermit scowled. "Who initiated the deal?"
"I don't know. I never have contact with
the seller. They simply engage the company I work for and I'm assigned
"Did it ever occur to you to contact the
police?" Peter asked. "At the very least to contact your employer?"
Callie sighed. "Look. I'm new at this, and
the money's really good. The better I do, the more cases I'm assigned.
I didn't want to screw-up."
"Better screwed than dead," Kermit countered
and Peter shot him a black glare.
"Detective Caine--" Peter turned when he
felt her tentative touch on his arm. "I have no right to involve you in
this, but I'm scared and--"
"It's all right. We'll work something out."
"Hook, line and sinker," Kermit muttered.
Peter pretended not to hear.
After a shower and a meal, things didn't
look quite so bleak. Peter had changed into a pair of black jeans and a
denim shirt that buttoned down the front--spare clothes he kept at his
father's apartment. Seated at the kitchen table, a cup of warm tea cradled
in his hands, he was studying the map when Callie entered the room. She
too had showered, though without the benefit of fresh clothing. Her blouse
was still wrinkled, her hair slightly damp, but there was a renewed glow
to her face. Color had crept back into her skin, infusing her cheeks with
a blush of rose.
"Tea?" Peter offered. "Sorry. Pop doesn't
keep coffee." She nodded mutely and sat at the table while Peter located
"Not bad," she said after a sip. "Much better
than that stuff your father made me drink."
Peter laughed. "Yeah, well, Pop's remedies
aren't really known for taste." He watched her smile--a thin fleeting twitch
of her lips--and then her mouth settled into a white line. Her eyes were
lowered, staring at the hands she held wrapped about the cup.
Again that fluttery smile. "Peter," she agreed.
"I can't stay here--"
"Just the night," he insisted. Reaching across
the table, he took her hand. Hesitantly her eyes rose. "I've got some time.
I'll see you to Albany. Once the map's delivered, you're in the clear."
"I couldn't ask you to do that. Can't you
just . . . call somebody? Another jurisdiction or something? Your friend
Kermit thinks I'm trouble."
Peter leaned back in his chair. "My friend
Kermit went home. Besides--I'm known for trouble. Ask anyone."
She shook her head. "Why would you do this?
Especially after I deceived you. Why would you help me?"
"Family curse," Peter said and grinned. "Call
it a legacy."
Before he could speak further, Caine appeared
in the doorway. His father's face was unnaturally grave. Instinctively,
Peter knew something was wrong. "What is it?" he asked, coming to his feet.
Caine remained silent. A quick arcing motion of his hand extinguished all
light in the room, plunging them into shadow. Peter licked his lips. He
motioned for Callie to come to his side.
Silently he drew his gun. The barrel gleamed
faintly, betraying a sliver of silver in the darkness. Callie's grip tightened
on his arm, and he glanced down to find her face upturned to his. "Stay
here," he said softly. His arm brushed hers, and then he was past, following
his father into the darkened apartment.
Kwai Chang Caine could feel his son hovering
at his back, hear the light tremor of his breath. He felt Peter's determination
to protect the girl, coupled with a grim resignation to use the gun, if
necessary. Halting his advance through the silent apartment, the priest
raised an arm to block his son.
Candles still flickered in the adjoining
meditation area, casting pools of shifting yellow light in the doorway.
Beyond the curtainless windows, the pale white light of a sickle moon provided
sparse illumination. Caine stilled, felt movement in the room and cocked
his head as he sensed a displacement in the air. Shadows bled into the
blackness, disengaged from the walls and slithered slowly forward. He felt
Peter tense and knew that his son was sighting the gun to fire. Before
he could squeeze off a shot, Caine stepped into his path, forcing him to
recoil. He heard Peter's sharp, shuddering intake of breath.
There followed a grunt as Peter shifted aside
and collided with someone. Caine ducked and extended his leg. One faceless
assailant went down, crumbling soundlessly to the floor. Before the man
could recover, Caine delivered a blow to his back. No sooner was the motion
completed, then another attacker flowed from the shadows. An arc of pale
moonlight illuminated the edge of the knife clutched in his hand. Caine
pivoted to the side, avoiding the strike. One hand clamped on his opponent's
wrist, bending the arm backwards until the knife clattered noisily to the
Behind him he heard the muffled sounds of
a struggle. From the corner of his eye he saw Peter duck a blow, spin and
execute a vicious kick to his assailant's chest. The man flew backwards,
his upraised arms cracking against a row of shelving. Clay pots and glass
jars wobbled precariously then tumbled to the floor, shattering on impact.
The man lurched to his feet and scrambled quickly for the door. The other
two had already fled.
"Let them go," Caine said, catching his son
by the shirt as he tried to barrel past. He wrenched Peter to a halt.
"Pop!" Peter cried in exasperation. Pulling
free of his father's grip, he shook his head in disbelief. With the back
of the Beretta pressed to his forehead, he turned in an agitated half-circle.
Caged energy radiated from him, crackling through the air like electricity.
He drew a breath and deliberately lowered the gun. "Why did you let them
"The answer does not lie with these men."
Caine motioned to the empty air to indicate the assailants who'd just fled.
"It lies with Callie."
"I'm trying to protect Callie," Peter snapped.
His eyes were cold and cutting. Angrily he holstered his gun.
"Perhaps," Caine suggested, "you should ask
who would want her to fail in her mission." He waited as Peter digested
the thought. "Certainly not the buyer of the map?"
The bristling anger receded, claws momentarily
sheathed. "The seller?" Peter said tentatively, testing the possibility
for fit. With his son's volatile emotions effectively diverted elsewhere,
Caine moved away and began lighting candles. After a moment Peter switched
on one of the few electrical lights in the apartment. Glass crunched beneath
his boot heels. Squatting, he carefully retrieved shards of the broken
bottles and jars. "But why? It doesn't make sense, Dad. He's already got
"Actually, only half of it," Callie announced
hesitantly from the doorway. Caine glanced over his shoulder. Peter stood
and extended a hand to the girl. She went willingly to his side, ducking
beneath the protective circle of his arm. "I heard the noise ."
"I'm sorry. They got away," Peter said, and
Caine had to glance aside to hide the smile that crept over his mouth.
The bristling hostility was gone from Peter's voice. His entire demeanor
had softened. "Are you saying the deal hasn't been finalized?"
"It's been contracted yes, but my understanding
of the agreement was half up front, half on delivery. The deposit was sizable."
"So . . ." Peter said slowly, setting the
broken slivers of glass he'd collected on the nearest shelf. "If the map
doesn't reach its destination, the buyer's out his deposit. The seller's
done his part--he's provided the map to the courier service. It's not his
fault if it gets stolen. Thefts happen. After a while, when things quiet
down he finds another buyer. Same scam, lots of money."
"You are assuming the seller is the one orchestrating
these attacks," Caine said evenly. Peter nodded.
"But why not just make duplicates?" Callie
asked. "That way he can sell to multiple buyers."
"That's no good." Peter pulled away from
her, pacing now as he worked out the details. "Too many in circulation
drives the value down. It's like a baseball card or any other collectable.
The map has to be authentic or it loses its value. This one's old, but
not ancient." He rolled one hand over the other in the air. "So it has
to be the oldest copy in existence. I mean, obviously this thing isn't
from the time of King Arthur, but it's been around a while. Probably hand-copied
by a scribe. Which makes it highly suspicious that the courier service
would trust its delivery to one of its newer, less experienced employees."
Peter stopped pacing. He turned to Callie and snapped his fingers. "Unless,
someone requested you specifically."
"Who?" she asked.
"Yeah . . . the million dollar question,"
Peter muttered. Caine watched as he combed a hand through his hair, nervous
tension building all over again. "I need to call Kermit, maybe swing by
the precinct. I think that--"
He stopped suddenly, his gaze darting to
the open doorway that unfolded into the hall. The creak of a loose floorboard
bent beneath the weight of an unseen intruder. Before anyone could move,
Peter jerked the Beretta free of its holster. He pivoted to the side, reaching
around the corner with his right hand. There followed a startled squeak
and a hasty shuffling of feet. Nickie Elder was wrenched into the room,
his back pinned to the wall, the muzzle of the Beretta wedged tight against
"Pete, Pete, it's me!" Nickie raised his
hands, palms outward in supplication. His face drained of color. "Come
on, is this how you greet a friend?"
Peter exhaled. Slowly, the fingers he held
curled into the fabric of Nickie's jacket, relaxed. He patted a hand against
his friend's chest, smoothing out rumpled clothing. "Sorry. I didn't realize
it was you." Peter holstered the Beretta. At his side, the medical examiner
rubbed the tender spot on his cheek. The detective glanced back over his
"You knew he was out there, didn't you, Pop?"
Caine shrugged. He had known the newcomer
didn't bode ill, thus he hadn't seen any reason to distract Peter. Given
his son's reaction however, Caine realized he may have miscalculated. Peter
was operating on a hair-trigger, making his normally mercurial personality,
that much more unpredictable. Coupled with the lack of sleep, and two recent
attacks, he was liable to shoot first and ask questions later.
"I am sorry, Peter. I felt your friend's presence, but did not know for certain who it was."
Caine bowed slightly in Nickie's direction.
"I apologize if my silence caused you to suffer any discomfort."
Peter frowned. His eyes were luminous in
the muted light. He glanced aside at the ME. "Nickie, what are you doing
"Wh-what do you think? Kermit shows up at
Chandler's and-and tells me some story about someone posing as-as Nancy
and. . ." his eyes sidled away, settling on Callie. She had been silent
since his entrance, hovering unobtrusively in the background. At the touch
of his gaze, she flinched almost guiltily and stepped closer to Caine.
The Shaolin priest placed a hand on her shoulder.
"Callie Taylor," he inclined his head to the ME, "This is Nickie Elder."
The girl wet her lips, swallowed uncomfortably.
"Hi," she said lamely.
Peter started pacing. "Nickie, I haven't
sorted all this out, but--"
The other's gaze swung away from Callie.
"It's a conspiracy," he blurted, pushing away from the wall. "Come on,
Pete--it's textbook Nickie Elder. A-a good news, bad news thing--kinda
like, y-your girlfriend arrived safely. Just one thing--she-she's not who
she says she is. In fact, we-we don't know what she's doing here. Could
be to set you up, Nick." His breath whistled through his teeth in frustration.
"Bet this stuff never happens to you," he muttered.
"Did you talk to Dr. Elton?" Peter asked,
and Caine heard the crisp edge in his voice.
Nickie sucked on his bottom lip. "Her office
gave me the number of the hotel where she's staying. I-I checked with the
front desk--she's registered, but was at the conference when I called,
so-so I left a message."
Peter exhaled. "Nickie, go home."
"Home?" The ME's gaze darted to the detective's
face. "You've g-gotta be kidding! Th-this is too important to screw up,
Peter. I-I-I just can't walk away. Th-this might b-be my one shot at happiness."
The stutter was kicking in again.
"Perhaps," Caine suggested, "It would help
to speak with Callie. Dr. Elton is a good friend of hers. Though your meeting
with the doctor has been delayed, surely it would not be unpleasant to
hear recollections and fond memories from the doctor's friend?"
Nickie eyed the girl suspiciously.
The priest held out his hand. "Please. There
is tea warming in the kitchen, fresh honey-laced bread in the cupboard."
Callie shifted uncertainly. "I didn't mean
to cause any harm," she said to Nickie. "Nancy really does like you. She
talks about you all the time."
Nickie lit up from the inside out, lips curling
in a pumpkin-wide grin. "Really?" Awkwardly, he poked a toe at the braided
rug beneath his feet. Color flamed bright red on his cheeks. "Maybe, y-you
could . . . um . . t-tell me about--"
"I'd be happy to," Callie said, and offered
her hand. Together they walked towards the kitchen.
"Does she really talk about me all the time?"
the medical examiner asked, his voice fading, as they disappeared from
sight. Caine's attention shifted to Peter.
"Not bad, Pop," his son mumbled. He stood
with his back to the wall. As Caine watched, his legs folded beneath him
and he slid down the length of wall, until he was sitting on the floor,
knees raised, hands resting loosely in his lap. He grinned crookedly, tiredly.
"You should farm out to Oprah."
"Who?" Caine moved beside him, joining him
on the floor.
Peter shook his head. "Never mind." His eyes
drifted shut and his head fell back, supported by the wall. Through the
thin fabric of his silk tunic, Caine could feel the heat of Peter's body,
where their arms touched. Tension constricted the muscles at Peter's shoulder,
knotted the tendons at the base of his neck. Wordlessly, Caine slipped
his hand beneath his son's collar, gently kneading the corded flesh. Peter
groaned and turned his head to the side, away from Caine. "God, that feels
"What will you do now?" Caine asked, never
ceasing his administrations.
Peter opened his eyes. "Don't know." He shifted,
angling his body to better feel the gentle pressure of Caine's skilled
fingers. The priest complied with the invitation, turning sideways and
bending one leg, so as to better meet the needs of his son. Peter's back
was to him now, and he used both hands to work the muscle at shoulders
"I'm trying, Dad. It isn't easy."
"Lean back," Caine instructed.
"Relax and lean back." Caine's voice was
softer now, coaxing. He applied gentle pressure with his hands, guiding
Peter back against his chest. His son shifted, trying to get comfortable,
stretching long legs before him. Caine worked the skin beneath his fingertips,
kneading flesh, until it warmed beneath his touch and the tension flowed
into liquid heat. He bowed his head, feeling the silky brush of Peter's
hair against his temple. The lingering fragrance of his son's shampoo tickled
his nostrils, underscored by the fainter whisper of after-shave.
"You were going to call Kermit," he reminded
"Yeah." Peter's voice was husky, bridled
once again with the need for sleep. Though the nervous tension had fled,
dissolving into weariness, an edge of anxiety remained. "I thought he could
hack into the courier service's records. Maybe find out who hired Callie."
"Can it not wait until morning?"
Peter sighed. "No. It cannot."
Caine felt his reluctance as he pushed away.
Drawing one knee up to his chest, he draped an arm over the thigh. "I've
got to go to the precinct, Dad."
"After you call Kermit?"
Stiffly, Peter rose to his feet. Caine unwound
gracefully and hovered nearby, lines of worry etching deep crevices in
his brow. As though sensing his concern, Peter glanced aside. The corners
of his mouth lifted in a fleeting grin. "Too bad you don't have any coffee.
I could really use the caffeine."
"A strong tea would suffice, but I do not
think a stimulant is the answer."
"Helps to be alert," Peter countered. He
turned as the sound of voices drew nearer--Nickie's babbling excitedly;
Callie's more subdued. The two appeared in the doorway.
"Pete," Nickie cried, striding into the room.
"Can you believe it--Nancy likes old movies and Civil War re-enactments.
What are the odds of-of finding a g-girl with t-tastes like my own?" He
shook his head in befuddled amazement. "And she doesn't even mind that
I'm a coroner."
Peter nodded, though his smile was not as
bright as it might have been. Shadow blackened the flesh beneath his eyes
and hollowed his cheekbones.
"That's great, Nickie. Look, I've got to
call Kermit, then I need to take Callie to the precinct. I think it's best
if you head home. Dr. Elton might be trying to get in touch with you. You
can fill her in on what's been happening; make arrangements for another
"Yeah, you're right, I'd sure hate to miss her call. Um . . . about the map--"
Peter glanced up sharply. Callie offered
the thinnest trace of a smile.
"I told him," she explained. "After all the
lying I'd done, it didn't seem right to keep that a secret too."
Peter's eyes shifted to the ME. "The map's
my problem, Nick."
"But you'll let me know how it turns out?"
With a wave and a smile, Elder departed.
"Peter . . ." The detective glanced down
to find Callie hovering anxiously at his side. "Can't the precinct wait
until morning?" she asked, "You really should rest."
Peter chuckled softly. "If I didn't know
better, I'd think you'd been conspiring with my father." He slipped an
arm around her shoulders, closing his eyes briefly as she leaned against
him. Caine watched his gaze sidle away, saw the thin upward sweep of his
mouth. Tired as he was, both his smile--and his voice, when he spoke--betrayed
a familiar cockiness that Caine had sorely missed. "Hey, Pop--any idea
where I left my phone?"
"Don't you ever sleep?" Sergeant Broderick
asked as Peter hustled by the booking desk.
"Screws up my metabolism," Peter shot back,
guiding Callie through the squad room. It was after eleven and the station
was fairly deserted. Most of the uniformed officers were out on patrol.
Peter gave a passing nod to Detective Morgan, inwardly groaning at the
gossip she was sure to spread about his late-night appearance with a redhead.
He guided Callie into Kermit's office. The
ex-mercenary was already busy, nimbly typing away at his computer keyboard.
Wads of balled up paper littered his desk and spewed over onto the floor.
Frowning, Peter toed through the pile. For a man who relied almost exclusively
on harddisks and computer-generated information, Kermit certainly knew
how to make the most of dead trees.
"You must have flown," Peter said closing
"Something like that. You'd think for a private
courier service our buddies would be a tad more stringent about security."
Kermit looked up and grinned. "God, I love the naive."
Peter stole a glance at Callie. He hadn't
had an opportunity to tell her about his discussion with Kermit. Apparently
he didn't have to. From the expression on her face she had figured it out
"You hacked into their records?" she asked,
"We need to know who hired your company,"
Peter said calmly. "More precisely, who hired you." His attention shifted
to Kermit. "Got a name?"
"Oh yeah." Kermit reclined in his chair.
He laced his hands over his stomach then adjusted his tie. *Only Kermit
would put on a tie for a rush hack job.* "Dearborne."
"Dear--" Peter stopped suddenly. "As in Dr.
Nancy Dearborne Elton?"
Kermit chuckled. "Too cool. As in Professor
Peter whistled softly. Leaning forward, he
planted his hands on the desk. "That earlier records search you did--did
it happen to say what Professor Dearborne's area of expertise was?"
Kermit's grin went ear-to-ear. "Medieval
"Shit!" Peter breathed.
Callie shook her head. "I don't understand
what you're talking about."
"It's simple," Kermit supplied. "You tell
Nancy Elton about your job; she mentions it to Daddy; he sees a way to
increase the family fortune. You're a new courier; the map gets stolen;
he blames it on the company for employing unqualified personnel. Meanwhile,
the guys he's hired for pocket change return with the map. He waits until
things quiet down, finds another buyer and runs the same scam. My guess
is, with this guy's background, the map's a fake anyway. He can't allow
it to be scrutinized too closely or the whole thing goes up in smoke."
Stunned, Callie dropped into the nearest
chair. "But Nancy--"
"It doesn't mean she did anything malicious,"
Peter said, moving to the chair beside her. "We don't know what her involvement
is. It may have been perfectly innocent--a remark she made in passing about
her new friend and your line of work. It was enough to stir her father's
Callie swallowed. "You mean he chose to investigate
Peter lowered his eyes, uncertain how to
respond. Worse still, was the thought of dumping all this on Nickie Elder.
The medical examiner had possibly just found the girl of his dreams. How
did he tell him, her father employed hired killers? *Hey Nick, remember
that map? Funny thing--*
He leaned forward, pinching the bridge of
"Well, kiddies, that's it for me," Kermit
announced to the awkward silence. He switched off his computer and stood.
"I'll tell Broderick to have someone pick up Dearborne for questioning.
I'd say those little attacks you've been experiencing will cease pretty
soon." He hesitated, adjusting his glasses. "Lock up for me, huh, Kid?"
"Sure, Kermit." Peter watched him leave.
Resting his elbows on his legs, he laced his hands between his knees. The
impossibly long day--*or was it two*--made him want nothing more,
than to crawl into bed and fall asleep--maps, medical examiners and podiatrists
"I've really screwed things up. For Nickie,
I mean," Callie said suddenly at his side. Her voice was hesitant, whisper
thin--the vulnerability both distracting and disturbing. Peter found he
wasn't so tired as to overlook the effect of her nearness. He cleared his
throat, attempting to focus.
"You didn't do anything. It's not your fault
Nancy's father decided to pad the family bank roll at your expense." Standing,
he caught her wrist and tugged her to her feet. Her head was lowered, eyes
carefully averted. "Hey--" Slipping a finger beneath her chin, he tilted
her head up. His mouth softened with a smile. "It'll work out. You'll see.
Nickie's a survivor. Besides, I've got a feeling we shouldn't discount
Nancy so quickly. Let's give her a little credit."
"I hope you're right," Callie whispered.
*So do I*, Peter thought, dreading the prospect
of plunking the whole ugly mess in medical examiner's lap.
That at least could wait until tomorrow.
Peter was glad to get outside and walk in
the night air, even if it was only the precinct parking lot. Around him
the sounds of the city unfolded, oddly comforting in their familiarity.
The distant drone of traffic, the muffled bark of a dog, even the whoop-whoop
of a fading siren--it all blended together in perfect harmony. He drew
a breath, hoping to ease the tension from his muscles. There was a crick
in his neck that had its root somewhere in his right shoulder blade. He
turned his head and closed his eyes, splaying his fingers beneath his collar.
"You look tired," Callie observed. Overhead
a tattered strip of clouds blotted the moon, turning her hair to a wine-red
Peter smiled slightly as he dug the car keys
from his pocket. "Oh I get it--battered packaging. No more window dressing.
What am I now--inventory clearance?"
She chuckled softly and he found he liked
the sound. Her fingers twined with his. Glancing down, he saw her face
change--the full lips settling into that grave white line that indicated
worry. When she looked up her gaze was guarded. "They would have killed
me. Killed you for trying to help."
He shrugged it off. "I don't think they ever
expected it to go that far. They certainly didn't anticipate you falling
in with a couple of cops." He traced his thumb over her knuckle, enjoying
the feel of her closeness. "Money does strange things to people."
They had reached his car, but he was loathe
to break the contact. He halted at the passenger door and laid one arm
across the roof. The other hand was still entwined with hers. "Need a place
to spend the night?" A cocky self-assured grin slipped over his face. With
effort he bit it away. "I'll sleep on the couch, I promise. Besides, as
tired as I am . . ."
Her eyebrows arched in mild surprise. Apparently
she hadn't been put off by his overblown self confidence. "Why, Detective
Caine! I thought you were Superman!"
"Just window dressing," he returned dryly
and leaned forward, lips lightly brushing her own. Her mouth opened invitingly.
With a low groan he folded his arms around her and deepened the kiss.
Peter opened the door of his apartment and
pocketed his keys. The drive from the precinct had been short, but the
lulling purr of the car had increased his need for sleep. Yawning, he fumbled
for the light switch. A sliver of perfume tickled his nose as Callie brushed
"Don't bother," his companion whispered near
his ear. A slight tug on his arm drew him into the living room, where moonlight
silvered the floor, admitted through the open slats of the vertical blinds.
"Hmm . . ." Fingers trailed down his cheek, coming to rest against his
lips. "It took you long enough to kiss me. What do I have to do, to get
you to move past that?"
He blinked, surprised by her boldness. Tipping
her chin up, he smiled with his eyes. "You're pushing all the right buttons."
"In that case . . ." Moving into his embrace,
she wrapped her arms around his neck and drew his head down. His mouth
found hers, coaxing her lips apart, then exploring with greater urgency.
When the kiss ended he drew her onto the sofa, tugging her against him.
His eyes were half-lidded. Callie's hand skimmed up the inside of his thigh,
eliciting a low moan.
"Seductress," he whispered, pleasantly aroused,
but his eyes dipped shut. The soft cradle of the sofa and the delicious
heat of her body next to his were gradually eroding his resolve to remain
He forced a glimpse through lash-heavy eyes,
the corner of his mouth tipping up in a sleepy grin.
"Wouldn't you'd be more comfortable in the
bedroom?" she whispered near his ear. He could feel her fingers, leisurely
threading the hair at his collar; the brush of her lips against his neck.
Inwardly he groaned. *Terrific! A
beautiful, willing partner, and I'm falling asleep*. Lifting one
hand, he grazed his knuckles across her cheek.
"Just give me a minute," he murmured, eyelids
"Peter." Her voice was sharper this time,
bordering on outrage. He grunted something unintelligible, then yawning,
burrowed deeper into the couch. A single stray thought flitted at the edge
of his consciousness: *Damn! I know I'm going to hate myself in the morning
. . .*
"Peter." Nickie Elder glanced up from his
desk and grinned. Standing, he steepled his fingers on the surface of the
desk, looking very much the young professional. Manilla file folders, half-completed
reports and pink message slips lay momentarily forgotten. Nearby, an open
day-runner proudly proclaimed, *lunch with Nancy.*
"Tomorrow's the day, huh?" Peter asked with
a glance for the calendar.
Nickie nodded and reached for a paper clip.
The edge had been bent out, twisted backwards, then folded in half. As
Peter watched, the shorter man played with the mangled end, coaxing it
to greater contortions.
"She's driving down, and this time I'm meeting
her. I blocked out the whole day. She's still a little embarrassed by everything
that's happened, but we've agreed to put it behind us. I'm just thankful
her involvement was as innocent as you thought. Kind of odd, huh? We haven't
even met, and already need a fresh start."
Peter raised one finger to his lips, suppressing
a smile. He didn't think he'd ever heard Nickie say so much without a single
stutter. Apparently, Nancy Elton was responsible for the new found confidence
the medical examiner had been exhibiting lately.
"What about Callie?" Nickie asked, easing
back into his chair. He tossed the mangled clip onto his desk. "I understand
the two of you have been heating up the phone lines."
"Don't be so quick to listen to gossip,"
Peter retorted, lips twitching in a crooked half grin. Dropping into the
nearest chair, he crossed his legs at the ankles. Elbows on the armrests,
he leaned forward and loosely laced his hands. "She's due in next Friday.
Hard to believe it's been three weeks already."
Nickie was right--they had been heating up
the phone lines. Peter had more than made up for that disastrous first
night at his apartment, when he'd fallen asleep. Even now, the memory of
Callie in his bed, brought a blush to his cheeks. Two days later, she had
returned home, and Peter had to be satisfied with long-distance calls.
Between her courier runs and his rotation shifts, there had been time for
little else. Though Callie was still employed by the same service, there
remained a lot to sort out with local police. The 48th precinct
was cooperating with the 101st, but thus far the investigation
seemed pretty cut and dry. Apprehended, Richard Dearborne had given a full
confession. As expected, the map was a fake. What was not expected, was
the revelation that the Dearborne money was beginning to run dry. Motive,
means, and opportunity--case closed.
"So . . ." Peter smiled at the man across
from him. "Do I get to meet the illustrious Dr. E?"
"Is that why you're here--to wangle an invitation?"
"Come on, Nick. After all I've been through,
don't I even get a peek at her?"
Nickie smiled. Rather smugly, Peter thought.
"Maybe," he conceded, but it was obvious
the ME wasn't ready to share.
"Your friend Callie is returning?" Kwai Chang
"My friend Callie is returning," Peter replied
as he watched his father tend his plants on the terrace balcony. She was
due in tomorrow--almost four weeks and countless phone calls since he'd
last seen her. In all likelihood, Nickie Elder and Nancy Elton had spent
more time together than he and Callie. Since meeting a week ago, the doctor
and the coroner had been all but inseparable. *Worth the wait,* Nickie
had said, grinning from ear-to-ear. For her part, the podiatrist was a
likeable sort, her low-keyed demeanor, the perfect counter-balance to Nickie's
"You will be happy to see Callie?" Caine
Peter laughed. "Yes, Pop. I'll be happy to
see her." He stepped to his father's side and leaned back against the waist-high
wall of the terrace, crossing his legs at the ankles. Caine faced in the
opposite direction, carefully pruning the herbs in a brick planter. Their
shoulders rested against one another.
"I am glad when you are happy," Caine said
Peter turned his head to stare at his father.
Early morning light infused the older man's face with pale color. The long
silvery hair was tucked behind one ear, stray ends splayed over the midnight
hue of his silk shirt. Peter's lips curled--a soft smile this time, almost
shy. Sometimes when he looked at his father he grew choked with emotion.
They'd been through so much together; were still learning from one another.
But that contact--that bond--sometimes nothing else mattered to him. Not
job, not friends, not lovers--just his father and his father's approval.
*I am glad when you are happy,* Caine had said, and it was like light flooding
his whole being.
"It is not like you to be quiet, Peter,"
Caine observed without turning.
"I was just . . . um . . . thinking."
"Yes. Which normally leads to talking--excessively,
where you are concerned."
Peter lowered his eyes and grinned. "One
of my many character flaws. I haven't had breakfast, Pop. How 'bout you?"
"As long as it does not involve--burritos,
I think I could be persuaded."
"Good." Peter turned and wrapped his arm
around his father's shoulders. He leaned in close, his lips nearly brushing
Caine's ear. "Love you, Dad," he whispered.
He felt a hand tighten on his shoulder, a
gentle squeeze that said more than words could ever manage. The hand lifted
and gently stroked his hair. Peter turned his face into the warm caress
as it slipped to his cheek.
"As I love you, my son."
Return to story index