It was something that she rarely, if ever, did, but crossing off each passing day on the calendar only seemed appropriate at the present. She'd been doing it for four days now, sitting and staring at the big red X each time, calculating how much time was left until his return. She felt completely foolish about it, like a schoolgirl with a crush. The first day, it was all in fun, something to make her laugh at anything, even if it had to be herself. The next three, it was something of a "why not?" scenario, in which she justified her actions by needing something to properly end the day. Today, it was an excuse to look at the calendar, to let the excitement begin to take hold, for at the bottom of the next day's notes was a little reminder. "Flight returns, 8:15 PM."
She glanced at her watch, thinking, "Twenty-six hours," to herself, with a smile. She could stand it that long. Now she could start planning how she'd greet him at the airport. A kiss wouldn't seem strange to anyone passing, on their way to their own destinations.
She folded her arms over her desk, sliding forward until her chin rested down. It would be too much for anyone who knew who they were. Gossip columns would have a field day with it. They went crazy enough, as it was, whenever pictures were taken of them glancing at each other, standing a certain way.
Self-titled experts would be consulted, and they would explain why his hand at her elbow meant they were intimate with one another. She could see it all now. A seemingly innocent little old lady sells her story, her eye-witness account of the kiss that sealed the deal for the public. The title would be some alliterated catch. "Famed Attorney Caught Canoodling In Concourse."
Their relationship was nothing to be ashamed of, in reality. She began working for him, they fell for each other, and that was that. Still, the public held on to the notion that when a boss and his secretary are more than just that, there is an illicit back story involved. The man left his wife for the alluring lady who answered his phone calls just right. His children starved while the coy lady of the office fought a bitter war against the lady of the house. Of course, it was nothing of the sort for them. Neither of them had ever been married. No children would starve if they hopped a flight to Reno for a quick wedding. The papers would still dig deep to try to find some scandal. She imagined the public would know more about her than her closest friends did. Everything from the fact that she had a gap between her front teeth fixed ten years ago to what she had for lunch last Thursday would be fodder for the "experts" to examine. She could only imagine what they'd dig up on him. Maybe they'd contact Laura, to see if there was a connection between her sudden departure, and the prowling secretary's appearance. She sat up and laughed at the notion of Laura ever being considered a victim. The woman's sole purpose in life was to advance her own career at the expense of others.
Her thoughts were forced to a halt when she heard the familiar knock on the door to his office's private entrance. She scooted away from her desk and quickly went in to hear what was possibly her favorite phrase- only she wished it'd come out of another man's mouth.
"Hello, beautiful!" Paul grinned, as he breezed through the door. "I had a feeling you'd still be here."
"And it's a good thing, too. You might have been accused of breaking and entering."
"Never," he laughed. "I've got too much dirt on Perry for him to press charges."
He lit a cigarette and slid down into his usual chair, casually swinging his leg up over the arm. Relaxed as he was, there was something that didn't seem right. He could usually go days without sleep and still appear fresh and alert. Now, he sat before her, looking a rumpled mess. His eyes had a sort of lost look, as though he was in some distant place, in his mind, on someone's trail. He was without a jacket, exposing his wrinkled shirt and rolled-up shirt sleeves.
"Paul," she began, hesitantly, as she pulled a chair up, opposite him. "Is there... is something wrong?"
"Nah," he shrugged, bringing his attention back to her. "Nothing I can't handle."
"I don't believe you," she smiled, crossing her arms. "Look at yourself."
He raised his arms, one by one, then glanced down at his shirt, "A man's got to work, Della."
"Yes, but you're not a bus boy, Paul. Add a little cap to that get up, and I'd ask you to bring me some more coffee cups."
"I hereby retract my greeting and replace it with, 'I liked your hair better when it was longer.'"
"Oh, don't be so moody. Just tell me. God knows we have no secrets around here."
He raised an eyebrow, and she laughed at her statement. "Alright, from the public, yes, but from each other, no."
He leaned forward, motioning for her to pass him an ashtray. As soon as he had extinguished it, he lit another, exhaling slowly as he sat back. "Rita."
It would figure, with Paul. Dodging bullets, he could handle. Being charged with a murder he didn't commit, he could handle. A woman he'd fallen like a ton of bricks for, the first woman she thought Paul might give up his flirtatious ways for? There was no hope. He sometimes referred to her as "Blonde Della." Rita had, at first, been confused by it, until she called to have lunch with Della to ask her what it meant. Personality wise, they were very opposite. Where Rita exuded femininity, Della was far more adventurous. But Paul had asked her to marry him, once, and she said she wouldn't do that to him. She wouldn't jeopardize his job and try to ask things of him that he couldn't do. Della had to explain that she shared the same sort of relationship with Perry. Only it was the general public that Della had to worry about. She didn't want Perry's reputation to be hurt by any silly gossip. That day at lunch, Della got the feeling that there was more to Rita's reasons than not wanting to change Paul. It was when Rita said, "Who knows what I might have been in New York," that Della suspected Rita knew more about her past than she let on. She'd appeared about a year ago as Rita Bradford, quickly reverting to Rita Wasselle when she found that her husband had divorced her, upon her disappearance. She claimed to have no memory of nearly two years of her life, and employed Paul to find out for her. He never got anywhere with it, but kept his promise of brightening her future.
"What about her?" she asked, hoping she wouldn't be solicited for relationship advice. The most awkward moments of her life could all be pinned down to conversations about relationships.
"She's gone again."
"What do you mean, gone?" It was a stupid question, she thought, once it had escaped her lips, but at the very least it might coax him into telling her more.
"Disappeared. No one knows where she went. I've checked everything. If there's a passenger list involved, I've checked it. I talked to her apartment building superintendent, and she hasn't seen her in days. She's vanished."
"When was she last seen?"
"Well, she'd been working at the bank, and a couple days ago, she just never returned from her lunch. One of the girls she'd gotten pretty friendly with called me. Rita said she was going to the restaurant about a block away for some coffee. According to the people there, they've never seen her. A Brinks truck driver saw her leave the building and head west, in his side mirror. And that's where it cuts off."
"But she seemed to be getting along so well, Paul. Didn't the doctor she saw say that her missing time could have been put in motion by the sudden jolt of facing a divorce? Just the shock of it all?"
"That's exactly what he said. And you're absolutely right- nothing seemed out of the ordinary. I just saw her this past Saturday and everything was normal. And Tuesday she's up and gone again. Thursday, still no sign of her."
"I wish you would have told me this sooner," she said quietly, reaching for the cigarette box on Perry's desk. She didn't smoke often, but when she was nervous, it was all she wanted to do. Rita wanted to keep their conversation private. She didn't want Paul to think she was angry with him. But perhaps the privacy was because she knew the wheels in Della's mind were turning. "A while back, right after you began that 'Blonde Della' thing-"
"It was only a joke," he countered, unnecessarily defending himself.
"I know it was... but we had lunch together. She said something that, well, she wanted the conversation to stay between us. But she said, 'Who knows what I might have been in New York?' It wasn't so much the statement, as it was the way she said it. I got the impression that she knew something, or had remembered something. And when she asked to keep it private... well, maybe she thought you'd find out."
"But find out what? No names to go on, no leads."
"Maybe she didn't want you to pressure her into giving some clue. Maybe someone had found her, threatened her. I know it's been months ago, but do you think-"
"She might be in real trouble," he sighed, pressing his fingertips to his forehead.
"We need to get into her apartment. There might be something there, some clue as to-"
"Wait a minute," he interrupted, turning in his seat. "What's this 'we' stuff?"
"I want to help, Paul. She's a friend of mine, and I know how much she means to you."
"Ohhh no. Perry would have my head on a platter if anything happened to you while he was gone."
"Perry has me committing more crimes in the name of justice than you can shake a stick at! It won't be any different than any other time. Everything will be just fine."
They silently finished their cigarettes as she waited for a response. It would be ridiculous of him to say no. He was obviously hurting for information, and she was the only one to give him anything, so far. She was at just the right position to be able to think clearly. Not blinded by love, or disappointment that she might have caused Rita's disappearance. She saw a little of that, in Paul. That demeanor wasn't just frustration in a case. It was closer to being depressed that he could have driven this woman away.
"Alright," he finally relented, "but if anything happens-"
"Nothing will happen!" she protested.
"Just be careful."
"I'm always careful. Now, what's her address?" she asked, getting up to grab a notepad.
"That's where we run into problems. I asked Miss Houghton if I could see her apartment. She was very adamant about not letting anyone in. Seems there was a problem a few years back, and she almost got herself into a lot of trouble by letting in someone she thought was a friend of a tenant. They were talking about accessory to murder charges."
"Sounds like a dandy place," she remarked, dryly.
"Well, believe me, if I had known anything about that, Rita would not have been living there."
"Is there anything she would have had... anything that could prove that I belong there?"
"Short of a set of keys, which I'm sure are in the purse that went missing right along with her, I'm not sure what might convince Miss Houghton."
"Didn't she keep a notebook... not really a diary, but a reminder notebook?"
"Probably in the purse, too."
"Don't be so quick to assume, Paul! It's isn't like you at all."
"I'll see about checking her desk at the bank in the morning. If I find anything, I'll give you a call."
He stood and brushed a few stray ashes from his shirt. As he reached for the door, she stopped him.
"Go home and change, Paul. No one's going to tell you anything if you look like you just crawled out of a gutter," she laughed.
"Good night," he replied, rolling his eyes.