Chapter 10: Recovery

Crystal gladly accepted the cool compress Mac handed her and allowed him to place it on her forehead as she lay back on her couch. Mac lowered himself onto the carpet and sat alongside her with his legs strewn out. He kicked off his boots and wriggled his aching feet. His sense of victory was short lived and in its place was a gut feeling of despair and pity for nearly everyone involved. He rubbed the tension in his neck and soon felt Crystal's hand take over the massage. He smiled wearily and lowered his head.

The mystery was finally solved, and they were waiting for Stanley Greenbaum to confirm Mac's suspicion on the toxic agents that killed the poor models. It was three days since the cemetery incident. This was the first day Crystal wanted to even speak to anyone. She hid her emotions well, but Mac saw the anguish within her. Right now she needed a friend. She needed him.

Multiple scandals and accusations plagued Claude Dupont, and the fashion mogul was forced to close down the Jezebel Agency indefinitely. The man would be spending countless hours in and out of court as lawsuit after lawsuit was piled on him for breaking contracts, among other shady dealings.

"I almost can't believe it's over, yet another fine mess." Crystal said distractedly.

"It wasn't one of my usual cases, but it had its moments. I just still can't believe that pretty young thing orchestrated all these murderous crimes."

"This is the strongest argument against parental neglect I've ever seen. She's a wacko and she's gonna get what she deserves, they can fry her, bag her and tag her." Crystal's head pounded again and she stopped massaging Mac's neck and lay on her pillow. The aspirin should have been kicking in already. She opened one eye and saw Mac staring glumly at her.

"You don't agree with me do you? I mean about Lindsey."

"I didn't say that."

"You don't have to, Mac. It's all over your face. You were attached to her in a way. I can understand that. She had everyone fooled with that humble, 'I'm a good girl that wants to be a nurse' act of hers. But what she did was reprehensible and she was in a sound mind. It was all for her sick revenge and her poor, 'my daddy don't love me so I have to kill all these girls to get his attention' sob story."

"Don't forget her mother was a decadent sleaze of a woman that twisted her mind like a pretzel." Mac added dourly and Crystal glowered at him.

"I'll be popping the champagne the day Henry calls and tells us she's getting buzzed!"

"Ya know, New York hasn't fried anyone since 1963, there's a moratorium on it. As far as I know, anyway."

"Just point me to the damn switch and I'll pull it! God, I hate all this red tape!" Crystal rose up hastily from the couch and tossed down her compress. She fumbled through her kitchen cabinets looking for something to calm her nerves.

Mac bit his lip, deciding it best to change the subject. He had almost forgotten in all the excitement what Lindsey personally did to Crystal inside that old warehouse. He watched his partner pull out a whiskey glass and down two shots of the drink. He went behind her and rubbed her trembling shoulders, lowering his face against the nape of her neck.

"I'm sorry, Crys." He whispered softly. "We'll drop the case talk for now. I want to know how you're feeling."

She let out a slight laugh. "How I'm feeling?" Crystal swung around, her dark eyes bathed in tears. "How do you think, Harper? I was drugged, locked in a coffin and nearly burned alive and suffocated! You tell me?"

Her tears fell and her hands shook so violently that Mac had to take the glass out of them. He embraced her, and she sobbed against his chest, digging her fingers into his back and tugging him as close as possible.

"I'm so…so…glad you came to save me." She stammered.

Mac kept silent, and brushed his hands over her body, keeping her as calm and secure as possible. She eventually gulped down her tears and pulled back. She could care less how she looked in front of him; it only added significance to what she was going to say next. Mac patiently kept his focus on her, and stroked loose strands of hair off her face as he waited for her to speak.

"I…I don't think I can do this anymore, Mac. It's obvious to me now. I never had the right stuff to be an agent. At least not like you or even other women out there undercover. I always knew it, but I just wanted to follow in my father's footsteps so badly. I wanted to solve his murder and become something he could be proud of."

Mac sighed, he was expecting this kind of revelation from her, but it still struck his heart to hear it. He had grown very fond of Crystal as a partner and had looked forward to working on more cases, teaching her to be a top field agent like he was. He was her Mr. Delancey. The whole concept of that quirky cover had grown on him just as his love for her.

"Crystal, you don't believe your father wouldn't have been proud of his little girl if she became a make up artist, or photographer or something along the lines of what you really wanted?" He asked.

Crystal rolled her eyes. "My dad found it so amusing that I was such a 'girly-girl' since he was so tough. He said he liked that; it reminded him of my mom. She was a really gentle woman, quilting, knitting, cooking, baking. She even did watercolor and pottery! She was so much more than I'll ever be."

Mac chose his words carefully. "I wouldn't say that. You are incredible in your own way. Crystal, I'm not going to force any decisions on you. I'll miss you so much, pretty lady. I just want ya to know that having you as a partner has been an amazing experience."

"Is that all that was amazing?" She stared hard at him. The curves of her dimpled mouth enticed him.

Mac enjoyed teasing her. He tapped her nose lightly. "Every second was spectacular. You ooze potential, ya know that?"

Crystal smirked. "Oh, I see, you wanted your very own Outrider Pygmalion, huh? Well Govnah! I tain't gonna be swaayaed by yur charms!"

Mac wrinkled his nose. "I didn't think it was possible to butcher a cockney accent. But there it is."

"Hey! I thought my Eliza Doolittle was pretty good."

"I think Henry Higgins would have thrown you out on your arse."

Crystal laughed a little more. Mac always knew how to cheer her up. She wiped her eyes and poured another shot. She gave it to him. "I think you could use one of these yourself, father Flannigan."

Mac blushed. She was referring to his little preaching moment with Paulo. She grinned proudly at him and patted his cheek. "I'm not going to tease you further on that one. You did what you had to do. It was necessary. That was a brilliant strategy and very touching. I cried through the whole thing."

"You really lost it when Fred scraped the dirt."

Crystal inhaled sharply. "Please, don't mention it. I'll be having nightmares for weeks on that one alone. I've been a hermit for a while. Did Henry call to confirm? Was it really Stella down there in that grave?"

Mac chugged his drink and nodded ruefully. "It was a big mess. That pitiful woman, all she ever wanted was to be loved by Claude."

"Claude could never love anyone but himself." Crystal fumed. "If only she had seen that."

"I think she did, but it was too late. The hooks were already in her and she had given up her freedom to 'choose' long ago. She made herself indispensable to him, even though he flung it in her face." Mac took the bottle from Crystal before she could pour more. "I think you've had enough of this hard stuff, and I still gotta drive back to the studio."

A sudden apprehension seized Crystal and she grasped his arm. "Wait…you don't have to leave right now? I…I can start dinner. I was going to. I have some stuff in here." She rummaged through her refrigerator, pulling out loose bags of vegetables and tossing a rock solid chunk of steak onto the counter. The ice crystals had already made a permanent home upon it. She shrugged.

"Well it needs a little defrosting, but we can play games while we wait!" She scurried over to a closet inside her bedroom and patted around the top shelf. "I have Monopoly, the game of Life, we can play cards and…"

Mac came into the room and held her arm. "In other words, you don't want me to leave."

Crystal released the game box and it clattered on the floor. She clutched him. "No! Please, Mac, stay with me tonight. It's ridiculous, but I'm so scared!" She admitted tearfully.

Mac clasped her face in his hands and he leaned down to kiss her. "It's not ridiculous. You suffered a trauma. Probably more than you care to admit. I won't leave you. I promise."

Crystal licked her lips and her insides jumped. "Thank you, Mac. I do need you." She closed her eyes and waited for another, perhaps more passionate kiss, even a flourishing lift, but there was none of that. Mac had went back to the living room and tossed himself on the couch, keeping his long feet up on the coffee table.

"Where's that clicker? I'm starved, why don't we just order out some Chinese or something? I'll spring for it. I owe ya for that last night when we had Italian."

"I'd say I got my money's worth that time." She blew him a kiss.

Mac caught it and put it in his plaid shirt pocket. "I may need that for later." He winked.

Crystal went back to the kitchen then returned and slapped the menu against his chest. "Mr. Foo's is the best, real stuff. I want sticky rice, and some chicken and broccoli. Oh, and an egg roll. He makes them fresh everyday. His English is limited, so maybe you should try ordering in Chinese. I love hearing you speak in a foreign tongue." She added, sliding next to him and stroking his bicep.

Mac grinned saucily. "Sure, no problem."

As Mac made the call, Crystal hung on every syllable he uttered in Chinese and when he finished the order he grinned proudly.

"What do you think? I wish we had some German restaurants or something around here, that's getting rusty, yet it's the easiest language I learned."

Crystal leaned over him. "That's gut. How long did Foo say?"

"A half hour. Busy night."

She pressed her lips onto his feverishly. "I can wait!"

Five minutes later, the phone rang…and rang…and rang…and rang until her answering machine picked up.

"Hello, this is Stanley Greenbaum the Chief M.E, I couldn't reach Mr. Harper, so I figured I'd leave you a message to call me back, Miss Dugan. We had another specialist come in and test the samples and we found that…"

Mac leaped over the couch and grabbed for the phone. He gazed at Crystal and she folded her arms and shook her head sulkily. The whiskey had hit her harder than she thought and Mac smelled it on her breath when he first came over. He crossed his eyes and pouted, but then straightened up as Stanley explained the contents of the toxins.

"Yeah, I understand all those compounds, Mr. Greenbaum, but…I knew it!"

Crystal hurried to his side. "What? Knew what?"

"Oh, hold on, Mr. Greenbaum." Mac cupped the phone. "Dioxin poisoning. I remember seeing its effects at some point when I was a green beret. The worst outbreak was in 1976 in Seveso, Italy. Over ten-thousand people exposed to it. We saw slides of the outbreak. It was like watching a George Romero zombie flick. Very sad."

"Dioxin? Oh! You mean that stuff they use to kill plants? I remember my dad talking about it once, some of its molecules were used in the Agent Orange during Vietnam."

"Yeah, it's an aromatic poisoning, but somehow Fred and Lindsey were able to get it or some of the compounds into Claude's body lotions. Or maybe their perfumes? I'll have to press the doc later on for that." Mac spoke again to the doctor. "Yes, I'll tell Henry for you. I really appreciate you putting a rush on this. It was only a guess, but it was a good one. Yeah, it's very rare. No one's ever seen anything like it. Chloracne? That's what it's called?"

"What's chloracne?" Crystal asked.

"The awful cysts and pock mocks that appeared on the model's faces." Mac explained. "Oh wow, that's horrible. Okay Doctor Greenbaum, I'm really glad you called here. Thanks."

Mac hung up the phone. He swung his arms up and clasped his hands behind his head, his expression troubled. "Apparently, Dioxin is a slow acting agent. These girls were dying slowly for weeks but they didn't quite notice until they started getting sick one at a time."

"How do you know they were getting sick?"

"The M.E. said some of the other models have come forward with stories. They realized something was wrong with the girls when they would miss photo sessions, and all the vomiting and pains they had. They kinda dismissed it as…"

"Let me guess, eating disorders and drug use?"

"Right. The chloracne was the last thing to show up before they each died."

Crystal threw her pillow against the wall. "And you want to feel bad for Lindsey? This is disgraceful!"

Mac paced her living room. "I feel bad for the whole situation, Crys."

Crystal set up plates and silverware on the small table in the kitchen. "Yeah, I know. Well, now we don't have to wonder anymore about what killed them. I'll say it again, everything thing is a mess!"

The food came and Mac and Crystal settled down to eat. They forced themselves to talk of other things besides the case and enjoy a few card games and some late-night comedic television. Against his better judgment, Crystal had a few more drinks and it finally strung her out. Mac gallantly put her to bed despite her flirty, alcohol fueled-advances, but he stayed right by her side and rocked her to sleep.

The following morning Mac tiptoed around the apartment getting ready to leave for the studio. Crystal had had a hard time sleeping for days, but now she was nearly dead to the world. Mac softly kissed her temple and left a note on the bed stand. He'd meet her for dinner tonight. Right now he had an early photo shoot with Dani and the girls. He stepped outside and buttoned his coat higher. He enjoyed the cool winds as he walked briskly toward his destination. He wasn't in the mood for New York's public transportation; he needed to think. Crystal told him that she would need some down time to be completely alone. She had to reset all her priorities and figure out where she wanted to go with the rest of her life. She was hoping to rent a cabin in the woods of Colorado or someplace similar and enjoy nature. Mac planned to act nonchalant, but he would make sure to press Henry for all the specific details of her trip.

Mac came to the building that housed the studio. He grinned as he entered the elevator. If Crystal couldn't figure out what to do with herself—then Mac would do it for her. She assumed she would become a civilian again and continue to work in the modeling and fashion industry. He was going to see to it that Dani hired her in some capacity, and then Henry could possibly use her as an unofficial Outrider, like he did Dani. Mac couldn't shake the gnawing desire in him. He never wanted to be too far from Crystalyn Dugan, no matter what the cost. With that thought he realized it was the first time he truly smiled in days.

It was time to get back to his original business, playing dress-up in the fast-paced world of high fashion, and the most important facet in his life, giving aid to those in critical situations with no outside help. The elevator doors opened and he walked out grinning like a fool. He loved this life.

The End.