Walking Into Light
Most of the characters and situations belong to NBC and other entities, and I do not have permission to borrow them. No infringement is intended in any way, and this story is not for profit. All other characters are my invention, and if you want to mess with them, you have to ask me first. Any errors are mine, all mine, no you can't have any. Feedback is most appreciated--my address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Caveats-- I did a little research, and I realize that full recovery from the medical condition described herein is highly unlikely, but I wrote it anyway. Call it creative license--the same license that lets everybody fire so many bullets and so rarely reload! Also, this story was begun before Mr. Salerno revealed hints of the characters' futures, so here Frank has no family to worry about. An alternate universe, perhaps.
The first thing he was aware of was warmth. Blessed warmth. He had been so cold...
Frank kept his face relaxed, his eyes closed. No one watching him would be able to tell he was awake. If there was someone watching him.
He smelled woodsmoke and clean flannel, felt the warmth and weight of blankets, heard no sounds he could positively identify. He was lying on his back in a comfortable bed. And he had absolutely no idea where that bed was or how he'd ended up there.
Long moments of listening led him to the tentative conclusion that he was alone, at least for the moment. He turned his head, pretending to rise slowly out of sleep--
--And gasped with the sudden sick pain in his skull. He squeezed his eyes shut even further as dizziness and nausea exploded through him. A faint whining noise reached his ears, and a clicking pattern, but he was too busy keeping his stomach from rebellion to pay attention. He gritted his teeth, and slowly the nausea subsided.
"Thank you," said a quiet, low voice nearby. The words didn't seem to be directed to him. Then a rustle told him that someone was next to the bed. Warm fingers brushed his face, and then a cool, damp cloth covered his forehead and eyes.
"Welcome back," the voice said. "You had me worried for a bit."
Frank frowned and raised an annoyingly shaky hand to touch the cloth. "Where am I?"
"You don't remember?"
He couldn't pin down the gender of the speaker; the voice hovered in the tenor range. "No."
"Your car slid off the road. It's rather a loss, I'm afraid. You were a mess, but you were conscious enough to stay on your feet when I brought you back to my place."
He couldn't remember. Fear bit at him, but he forced it back down. A head injury often produced temporary memory problems. "Why aren't I at a hospital?"
A breath laced with amusement. "The reason your car slid off the road is one of the worst ice storms in years. The phone lines are very down. What you were doing out in it--"
He couldn't think. The pain in his head was swelling again, mushrooming outward and producing nothing but a desire to escape it. "I can't--"
He bit off the words. Give nothing away. Training was strong even in the midst of his confusion.
Another rustle. "Go back to sleep if you can. You're paper-white, no mean trick for you."
A hand resettled the cloth, and was gone, and Frank slid gratefully into pain-relieving sleep.
The next time he woke, he was aware of a strong thirst. He opened his eyes to complete darkness, but a cautious movement of his head against the pillow produced only a sharp headache, not the debilitating agony of before. Cautious exploration revealed a bandage on his temple. And cautious casting back turned up memories.
The very fact that he could remember left Frank weak with relief. He'd been driving back to Chicago, trying to beat the storm. It wouldn't look good for the commander of an elite UC team to be late back from vacation. But the storm had come up faster than he'd expected, and he'd been looking for someplace to stop on the rather desolate two-lane highway. Somewhere along the way he'd lost control of the car.
The memories after that were disjointed, but that was to be expected. He'd been terribly cold, cold beyond shivering, and he'd been unable to see anything through the night. The headlights must have been out. A voice--a shoulder--a dog barking--and eventually he could stop moving and rest.
He cleared his throat. He hated to wake whoever was looking after him, but he felt almost feverish with thirst. "Hello?" he said softly, not wanting to disturb the whole house. If there was more than one occupant.
Quiet footsteps, and Frank automatically analyzed them as being on wood or tile--too firm for carpet--and slightly uneven. "Ah. Sleeping Beauty awakes."
He blinked at that. "I'm sorry to wake you."
A long pause. "I wasn't asleep," the voice finally offered, sounding slightly puzzled. "How do you feel?"
"Not surprising," the voice said cheerfully. "One moment." Footsteps again, and Frank had to marvel at how his caretaker could move in pitch blackness. He--or she--must know this house intimately. Perhaps the other occupants would be disturbed by the light. Or maybe there isn't any power. If the phone lines are down, the power lines may be out too.
The feet returned to stop by his bed. "Can you sit up a bit?"
Frank pushed himself up against the headboard, trying to ignore the pain that blossomed with the movement, and his caretaker slid an arm behind him to help. He inhaled, but all he could smell was soap and woodsmoke. Then a glass touched his hand, and he took it and drank. Nothing in recent memory tasted so good as that water.
"Thank you," he said, holding out the glass. His head was pounding in earnest now.
"You're quite welcome," the voice said politely. "Try to get some more sleep."
Frank slid back down into the bed's embrace without protest. "What's your name?" he asked.
"Val." The footsteps retreated. Frank's eyes slid shut again.
The next time he woke it was still dark, but his head hardly hurt at all. Frank managed to pull himself into a sitting position and wondered if it was the same night. A sudden breathy snort made him twitch, but it was followed by the same whine he'd heard earlier, and he realized that there must be a dog nearby. "Val?" he said uncertainly into the darkness.
"You're looking better," Val said nearby, and Frank heard a rustle as of paper being laid down. He frowned.
"How can you tell?"
"Well, you were definitely in bad shape when I brought you in--dead pale and bleeding all over the place. Now you have more color."
Frank's stomach suddenly decided to move toward his feet. "Color?" he asked unsteadily.
"Yes. You look more normal."
His stomach was not only migrating, it was freezing as well. Frank blinked furiously. Raised a hand, palm toward his face. And saw nothing.
"Glory and trumpets," Val said incongruously. "That crack on the head seems to have done more damage than I thought."
Frank let his hand fall. "So it seems," he replied distantly, surprised that his voice was under control. Blind.
Val took a deep breath, and in the midst of his horror Frank flinched in anticipation of an outpouring of pity. But Val only said matter-of-factly, "You need to see a doctor."
"Do you have one available?" Frank asked sarcastically.
"Not at the moment. We're still iced in."
"I'm afraid not," and there was regret in Val's tone. "It survived your wreck no better than your car did. And I don't have one, or I would have called an ambulance when I first found you."
Frank closed his useless eyes, suddenly very tired. "Your neighbors?"
"The closest is three miles away, and the road is black glass. And I'm not leaving you long enough to try to get there on foot, it would take all day." A warm hand covered his gently. "You--what is your name anyway?"
"Frank. Frank Donovan."
"Frank. You need a doctor, and I promise I will get one as soon as I can. Your condition may very well be temporary. Head injuries are funny that way. In the meantime--do you have to use the bathroom?"
A tiny bubble of humor winked in his desolation; Val was certainly practical. "Yes."
"It's not far. Want to try walking?"
"Sure." It was better than any of the alternatives he could think of. He threw back the covers, realizing for the first time that his shoes and pants were no longer on him. But modesty seemed a pointless concept under the circumstances, even though he still didn't know whether Val was a man or a woman.
Standing up brought a vicious wave of dizziness and throbbing, but both subsided to manageable levels after a moment. Val put an arm around his waist, and he placed his own arm across flannel-covered shoulders. His caretaker was shorter than he was--not a difficult thing--but was probably about 5'9" or so, Frank guessed.
The bathroom was mere steps away, and small. Val told him where things were and retreated discreetly, closing the door. Frank made cautious use of the facilities and wished desperately for a shower. But already his legs were shaking, and his mind was still spinning with the realization and denial of his blindness. He washed face and hands and groped for the towel, feeling the rasp of a day's growth of beard. When he pulled the door open, Val was there to support him back to bed. Frank curled up, pulling up the blankets in a futile search for comfort. He heard Val walking away, the slight hitch in the footsteps, and let the shaking take him.
How could he be blind? What if it was permanent? He couldn't do his job if he couldn't see, couldn't lead his recalcitrant, brilliant team without sight. Without sight...
He didn't know how long he'd been sunk in his despairing mood, but his muscles were knotted tight when a snuffling sound made him jump. The sound came again, and a slight movement at the edge of the mattress had Frank straining his eyes uselessly. He put out a tentative hand, distracted, and it was met with a polite, wet nudge. A long muzzle settled into his palm.
Closing his aching eyes, he explored the dog's head with his fingers. Silky long fur, quite thick; ears that stood up but tipped over at the ends; a long and narrow skull. Not a large dog. Frank scratched automatically behind the quivering ears, and as if that had granted permission, the dog scrambled up and onto the bed with a grunt. It settled down quickly, pushing its back familiarly up against his abdomen and laying its head on its front paws. Frank ran a hand down the curve of its body, finding a long and plumy tail at the end, one that lifted briefly. The dog sighed on a long, comfortable note.
As though the sigh had released his own tension, Frank felt sleep overwhelming him again. He put one arm over the dog, accepting the silent comfort, and fled from his awful discovery into oblivion.
The dog leapt off the bed, completing the awakening that the exasperated word had begun. Frank turned automatically toward Val, wincing again at the blackness.
"I'm sorry about that. She shouldn't have bothered you."
Frank shook his head in denial and sat up. "That's okay. I don't mind."
Val sighed. "At least her paws are clean. D'you think you could eat something?"
"Sure." At the mention of food Frank's stomach growled. Val's uneven step approached, and a tray was laid across his lap.
"Toast at twelve o'clock, scrambled eggs at four, orange segments at seven. Glass of water on the top left, silverware and napkin on the right."
Frank explored the tray with a hesitant hand, stopping when he got to the glass and picking it up. "No coffee?"
"Not with a head injury. No caffeine for you." Val's matter-of-factness was again a relief.
He picked up the toast and bit into it, swallowing before speaking. "Where am I, exactly?"
"The middle of nowhere." The tenor voice rippled with amusement. "Illinois farmland, on Old Line Road. There's not much out here but field and fence, and the occasional copse of trees. If you'd any sense, you would have had your wreck in a nice populated city and been whisked off to a hospital in short order."
Frank snorted around a mouthful of egg. "And what do you do out here, Val? All by yourself?" He was guessing, but there had been no hint of anyone else in the house.
"Oh, I paint," came the cheerful reply. "And Miranda chases crows and rabbits. It's a nice quiet existence for the most part." He felt the faint breeze of a passing arm, and heard the chuckle of liquid as Val apparently refilled his glass. "And what do you do, Mr. Frank Donovan, that you carry a gun in the back seat of your car?"
"I'm a federal agent. Which you knew." Frank felt for the oranges.
"What? How could I know that?" Val asked, sounding genuinely puzzled.
"My jacket pocket?" Frank prodded. "My wallet and I.D.?"
"I didn't look," Val replied, sounding distinctly indignant. "That's an invasion of privacy."
Frank's brows went up. "But you found the gun?"
"The gun was fairly obvious."
He stared at where he guessed Val was sitting, genuinely surprised. This person was unusual.
"Eat," Val told him firmly. Frank shrugged inwardly and finished his breakfast. The first terrible shock of his loss of sight seemed to have passed off while he slept, and he could see the sense in Val's insistence that he wait for a doctor. But panic still beat wings deep inside him, and he piled stern patience on it. Wait. It may be temporary. Wait.
When he placed the napkin down on the tray, Val lifted it away, and he listened to the footsteps fade. When they were gone, he swung his legs over the side of the bed and stood up slowly. Dizziness hit, and he sat back down suddenly, but it subsided quickly, and he attributed it more to disorientation than his head injury. When he tried again, he was steady.
He walked first into Val's chair and then into the wall, but a few bruises later he'd found the bathroom without help. A moment's cautious exploration told him that the tub was porcelain, not fiberglass, and he discarded the idea of a shower. Too slippery. Too dangerous. But when his fingers encountered a stopper, he shrugged and fumbled it into the drain. If he took a bath instead, he wouldn't be able to fall from a sitting position.
A moment after he turned off the water, Val knocked on the door. "Yes?" Frank blinked uselessly in the steamy air.
"I brought in your bags," Val called through the door. "With your permission, I'll fish you out some clean clothes."
Frank had to smile a little at Val's insistence on his personal privacy. "Go ahead," he called back, and ran his fingers along the edge of the tub until he found the soap.
It was an interesting experience to make his way back to his bed wrapped only in a towel, but his low-voiced query brought no response--even Miranda seemed to be elsewhere. Of course, Frank thought wryly, they could both be standing on the other side of the room waving at me...but I don't think they are. He felt no subliminal skin-prickle that would betray the presence of someone.
He sat down on the bed and discovered he was sitting on a clean pair of pants. Dressing blind was not difficult so long as he made an extra effort to maintain his balance, but his head was aching again by the time he was done, and he stretched out on the counterpane, one hand gingerly exploring the gash on his temple. He'd removed the bandage to wash, and the scab was still tender.
Weariness caught up with him, bringing depression under its wings. Frank lay staring uselessly at the ceiling, feeling the blank darkness as a phantom pressure against his face. The thought of spending the rest of his life like this was unbearable. All his skills and training would be useless, and he would have to relinquish his team to someone else--someone who might not be as careful as they should be, someone who couldn't care about them the way Frank did. Someone who might get them killed.
This time no dog came to offer comfort, and sleep eluded him.
The smell of fresh bread was what finally led him out of his maze of angry, frightened thought. He extended his senses as widely as he could, suddenly aware that he had no idea what time of day it was, or even if it was day. Val had served him breakfast, but that might have only been because he'd been asleep. But faint music trailed in from another part of the house, and he could hear an occasional thump or rattle.
Curious, he sat up, this time with hardly any dizziness at all. His feet found the warm floorboards; he had left off the socks that Val had provided, deciding to go for the greater traction that bare soles provided. Frank thought about calling Val to ask if he could be guided into the rest of the house, then discarded the idea. He was blind, not helpless.
Carefully, Frank recalled the angle from which Val's footsteps had approached, and he strained his ears to judge the music. The doorway seemed to be down past the end of the bed, and to the right. Frank rose to his feet and stretched out a hand. He had to take two steps before his palm met the wall, and he nodded in satisfaction. Right where I remember.
Leaving his hand on the wall, he turned and began walking slowly toward where he thought the door must be. It came a little sooner than he expected it, and he stopped, straining his useless eyes, then stepped through the doorway. Pursing his lips, he whistled softly, trying to judge the dimensions of the next room by the way the sound echoed. Guessing, he extended his arms to either side, and smiled when his fingertips just brushed the walls. A hallway.
Feeling more confident, Frank moved closer to the right-hand wall and stepped forward--and nearly fell flat as his foot caught on the throw rug on the floor. He managed to catch himself against the wall and swore under his breath, annoyed at himself. That was stupid. He straightened and walked more carefully, pursuing the music, which sounded vaguely Celtic.
His guiding hand brushed past one door, which was closed--and narrow enough to make him think it was a closet. Then, a few steps later, he felt the air pressure against his face change in time to stop before he walked into another wall. A moment of exploration revealed another door set in the end of the hallway, this one only partly closed. He pushed it open.
A wave of warm bread smell, mixed with the sharpness of turpentine; a swell of drums and fiddle; a breath of warmer air against his skin. An indefinable change, a mix of air and sound, led him to guess at a much larger room before him. Then there was an inquiring sort of whine, and the click of approaching clawed feet. Frank smiled a little and lowered one hand, palm down. A silky head insinuated itself under his fingers. "Hello, Miranda."
A thump came from ahead and to his right, as of something being set down. "I was wondering if you'd emerge," Val said casually from that vicinity. "You're just in time for a snack."
Frank blinked, a bit taken aback at Val's unconcern, but figured amusedly that it was better than being fussed over. He heard footsteps approach, going from clear to muffled as Val stepped onto the carpet, and then a hand touched his elbow. "Come and sit down. You're still awfully pale, and I don't want you walking into one of my canvases."
Frank let Val lead him straight ahead to a comfortable sofa, and was secretly glad to sit down. His injury had left him frighteningly weak, and his head was beginning to ache again. "So what do you paint?" he asked as he settled into the deep cushion.
"Landscapes, people, reality mostly. Sometimes whatever comes into my head." He turned his head to follow Val's voice and decided that his rescuer was walking back toward whatever project his arrival had interrupted. "I generally work in oils, which would spoil that lovely sweater you're wearing should you bounce off one."
Frank leaned his head back, sniffing at the odd mixture of bread and solvent. "Is that a gentle way of telling me to stay put?"
Val chuckled. The volume of the music dropped a little, enough to make their conversation easier. "If you like. Trust me, tripping over an easel is not fun. I don't want to restrict you, but if you can wait to explore until I've put them safely away..."
"No problem." But Frank grimaced at the reminder of his helplessness. "What's the music?"
"Capercaille. Scots group."
"Ah." It was pleasant, folk music mixed with more modern sounds, but after a moment Frank realized that he couldn't even recognize the language the words were sung in, let alone understand them. I wonder if Alex would know it. And he winced again, struck once more by anger and worry.
He listened, partly to the music, partly to the sounds of Val moving around somewhere ahead of him. Eventually he decided that the further half of the big room must be a kitchen, and was then proven right when Val returned and placed a plate in his hand. "Bread and butter," Val said cheerfully, and walked away again.
It was very good bread, still warm from the oven, but Frank had scarcely taken one bite when a warm weight settled on his knee. Even before he reached out and touched the ears he realized that Miranda was hoping for her share. He made his gaze stern and turned his head down. "Are you allowed to have snacks?" he asked, and was answered with a beseeching whine.
Val laughed, apparently back in the kitchen. "She is, if you're feeling softhearted, but if I were you I wouldn't put that plate down until you're finished."
Frank took Val's advice and kept a grip on his plate. It was tempting to finish the last slice, but he left a crust on the plate before bending awkwardly down to place it on the floor. As he took his hand away he felt an eager nose diving toward the ceramic, and chuckled.
His stomach full, Frank tried to relax as much as possible; his head still hurt, but not unbearably. He listened to Val moving around the kitchen with that oddly uneven step and wondered again whether his rescuer was male or female, but he felt that asking, at this late date, would be a little silly. When--if--when my sight comes back, I'll find out.
The faint rasp of a tongue on ceramic ceased, and Miranda leapt up onto the couch, settling down beside him and half on his lap. He acceded to the silent request and began stroking the dog's ears; she sighed in pleasure and laid her head against his stomach. Eventually he became aware of a growing warmth on his face and chest. Puzzled, he touched his own cheek; then, guessing again, he felt the cushion beside him. It was cool to his fingertips. The conclusion was almost certain. "Val," he said, raising his voice over the music, "do you have a skylight?"
A low laugh reached his ears. "Oh, you're good," Val replied. And then Frank heard a soft exclamation. "Wait a minute," Val commanded, and he heard running, the hitch in Val's steps more pronounced. They curved around to behind him, and there was an impatient rustle of paper before they approached again. "Would you mind if I sketched you?"
"What?" Frank was not prepared for the question.
"I told you, I paint people sometimes. And you're in the perfect position. D'you mind?" There was a hint of impatience in the tenor voice.
"Not at all."
Apparently there was a seat opposite him, for Val sat down on something, and almost immediately Frank heard the scratching of a pencil or other instrument against paper. "Do I have to hold still?" he asked cautiously.
"No, no," Val said, already sounding abstracted. "Just don't move out of the sun."
Frank forbore to remind Val that he could not see the sun, and settled back in the couch. Val was apparently not the sort of artist who could talk while working. So he listened to the music--someone was singing fiercely about "four stone walls"--and petted the dog, and every so often heard Val flip over a page. The dog was snoring by the time Val sighed deeply.
"You've been very patient. Thank you."
"My pleasure." And in a sense it had been. It was at least some small thing he could do for the person who'd saved his life.
Val stood up across from him with a creak of wood. "The sun's a good sign--the roads might be usable by tomorrow. Let me check the phone again."
Frank blinked as Val moved away, feeling uneasy. A kernel of pain was beginning to make itself felt inside his skull. There was a click as Val picked up the receiver, and then another as it was set down again.
"We're in luck," Val said cheerfully. "It's working. Is there anyone in particular you want me to call, besides Emergency Services?"
"My badge has a number listed on the back," Frank instructed, suddenly breathless with the burgeoning pain. "Tell them where I am and they'll take care of everything."
Vaguely, Frank heard Val making a call, but all his concentration was taken up in fighting down sudden waves of nausea. The pain was even worse than when he'd first woken, and it was increasing. Then a strong hand was gripping his. "Frank! Frank, pay attention!" Val's fingers pressed against his forehead, his neck. "Oh botheration. Frank! Hang on."
Reality became foggy, washed away by pain. Frank was intermittently aware of Val's frantic voice, the heavy rhythmic thunder of helicopter blades, Miranda's ferocious deep barking. The cologne Jake wore, movement, Alex's voice murmuring something. And then he was gone, smothered in darkness.
Six months later
"Another dead end," Monica grumbled, and began dismantling the video camera.
Frank turned away from the third-story window, eyes narrowed in annoyance. "Apparently so." He, too, began putting equipment away in preparation for the long walk down the stairs to the van.
Cody, tucked away in the corner and surrounded by laptops like a clutch of cats, simply shrugged and pulled off his headset. "So where do we go next, boss?" he asked, stretching kinks out of his spine.
Frank gave him a not-quite-pleasant smile. "Why don't you tell me?"
The younger man rolled his eyes and started shutting down his computers, but after a moment he twisted in his seat to look at Frank. "Downtown maybe?"
"Where downtown?" Frank folded up a tripod.
"One of the big office buildings," Monica said. Frank nearly spoke up--he'd asked Cody, not her--but kept his mouth shut instead as the rapport between the two began to work.
"Yeah, so they could keep an eye on everything. Maybe even bring in a chopper." Cody was watching Monica now, and she tilted her head in thought.
"There's three buildings with restaurants on the upper floors. Lots of people going in and out," she offered.
"Mackelroy's, Roscoe's Sports Bar, and Blue Moon," Cody supplied. "I vote for Mackelroy's."
"Good thinking." Frank's approval took in both his team members.
"They have the best onion rings," Cody added impishly.
Frank ignored this sally. "Tomorrow morning, 5 a.m." He ignored their groans as well.
A few minutes of packing later, Frank and Monica headed down the narrow stairs, arms full of bags. The van was parked two blocks away, and Frank caught Monica watching him out of the corner of his eye as they joined the pedestrians on the sidewalk. It annoyed him. True, his recovery from his head injury had been all but miraculous, according to the doctors, but it was in the past, and he hated the idea of anyone treating him as fragile--least of all his own team members.
Frank's thoughts ranged back to that odd interlude in the ice-locked house. When he'd been released from the hospital, he'd made his way back to Val's property, but the house had been closed up, Val apparently gone elsewhere. Wanting to express his gratitude, he'd kept an intermittent check on the place, but so far there was nothing.
He could, of course, have Cody pull up the house's ownership records, but it seemed an invasion of privacy if it was not done in the line of duty. Val, Frank remembered with a slight smile, was particularly sensitive about privacy. And admit it to yourself, Donovan. You still want to know if Val is a man or a woman. It was not a question he had cared to ask his agents.
As they returned to their surveillance building, Monica's steps slowed. Frank glanced over his shoulder to see her gazing into one shop window, oddly intent. "Monica?" he asked.
She did not turn, only beckoned to him. "Come here. You have to see this."
Puzzled, Frank retraced his steps. The window opened into a small art gallery, and was filled with paintings in bright and energetic colors. "What is it?" he asked, trying to peer beyond the canvases.
"Look." Monica pointed at one of the larger paintings. "It looks like you."
Frank blinked, surprised. It was him. Sitting on a deep red couch, with a black-and-white dog half in his lap and sunshine pouring down over his head. His face in the painting was alert, half-smiling, and there was no hint that he could not see the artist, or anything at all.
Frank moved closer to the window, absorbed. The lower right-hand corner of the painting bore the artist's signature, a dash of bold letters. Valancy Jordan.
So Val is a woman, he thought, completely taken aback at the sight of his own face portrayed so vividly. Val had captured the silver in his hair, the tilt of his eyes; the hand lying on the dog's back was touched by a gleam of light from the watch he'd put on even though he could not see to read it.
He stepped back and glanced swiftly at the other paintings. Most of them were by Val, the style was obvious, but none of them held anything he recognized.
Cody passed by them, struggling with four bags. "Can I get some help here, or do you want me to bring it all myself?" he asked plaintively, and Monica sent one more glance Frank's way and then headed back up the stairs for another load.
Unbearably curious, Frank turned the other way, and pushed open the gallery door. His steps tapped on the wooden floor, but no one emerged from the back to find out who'd made them. The air was cool and dry and underlain with the scent of paint.
Frank paced slowly around the room. The gallery was showing a half-dozen artists, it seemed, not all of whom worked in just two dimensions, but Val's paintings and sketches took up almost all of one wall. He studied them, seeing Miranda in several, and had to smile at the canvas of the dog in full flight after a murder of crows. There were no more paintings of him, but an array of charcoal sketches portrayed him on that couch, sometimes looking down, sometimes cocking his head as though to catch a faint sound. One close-up of his hand resting on Miranda's ears was so realistic that he could almost feel that silky warmth, a ghost of a touch.
"Can I help you?" The polite voice at his elbow made him jump, and Frank cursed inwardly at his carelessness. He turned to find a small round man standing behind him, blinking benignly behind wire-framed glasses.
"Tell me about the artist," Frank said abruptly, gesturing at the wall of Val's artwork. The round man beamed.
"Valancy Jordan. One of our more popular artists." He trotted over to the nearby counter and returned with a catalog, flipping it open and handing it to Frank. "She--"
The man's pocket began to chime, and Frank watched as he pulled out a cellphone. "Excuse me a moment, would you?" he asked, and moved away without waiting for an answer.
Frank shrugged and looked down at the catalog, and his eyes widened. There was Val, in a photo that took up most of one page. She gazed out of the picture at him, a hint of amusement about her generous mouth. She was thin, almost bony with age; her eyes and mouth were set off with deep wrinkles, and her grey-streaked hair was pulled back in an untidy bun. White brows arched over dark eyes that were both piercing and kind. She wore a green flannel shirt and paint-stained jeans, and Miranda kept a wary watch at her feet.
Frank's gaze flicked to the next page, skimming over biographical details and the history of Val's work. But then he looked back up to the top of the page and the dates under Val's name. 1918-2002.
For an instant the numbers made no sense, and then he understood them. The little man was back, hovering in front of him, and Frank made himself ask. "When did she die?"
The other man shook his head sadly. "Just a few months ago." His sorrow seemed genuine. "It's such a loss. She was a great talent, and a great person."
Frank forced his shock back. He would deal with his emotions later, in private. "What havppened to her dog, do you know?"
"Miranda?" A small smile touched the man's wide face. "Did you know her?"
"Briefly." Frank closed the catalog. "May I keep this?"
"Certainly. Oh, wait here." The man bustled off.
Frank folded the catalog and slipped it into his jacket pocket, just in time to answer his own cellphone when it rang. "Donovan."
"We're all set," came Monica's voice. "Is something wrong?"
Frank gazed around the gallery at the bright splashes of color. "No. You two go ahead, I'll meet you back at the nest."
He snapped the phone shut before she could protest, and turned at the sound of a door opening. A familiar clicking sound reached his ears, and then Miranda emerged from the gallery's back room. Her ears went up when she saw him, and she charged over, tail waving, whining happily. Frank went down on one knee to greet her and she all but threw herself into his arms, nudging him with a very wet nose.
The gallery man laughed. "You sure do know her. Miranda's not friendly with just anyone."
Frank fended off another nosing and rubbed the dog's head. "I remember her well." As Miranda's frenzy subsided, he rose again, giving the dog one last pat.
"Well, any friend of Miranda's is a friend of mine." The other man held out a hand. "Thomas Lynn."
Frank shook it firmly. "Frank Donovan." And was taken aback when Lynn's face lit up.
"You're Frank Donovan? But this is incredible," Lynn said gleefully. "Val left you something, but no one was able to find you."
Once more taken aback, Frank could only stare at the round man. "Left me something?" he said finally. "I don't understand."
"That painting," and Lynn pointed toward the window. "I mean, it's you, I should have seen that when you first came in. But she wanted you to have it." The man's face softened at Frank's confusion. "If you give me your address I can have it sent to you. It's not dry yet, oils can take months to dry."
Frank managed a nod, and gave Lynn one of his business cards. Bending down, he scratched Miranda behind the ears and under the jaw, and then went back out onto the bright street. Looking at himself through the window, he seemed to hear the stirring sound of a fiddle again, to smell the twined scents of turpentine and fresh bread. He regretted the fact that he could never offer Val his thanks. But, he reflected, knowing her, she already knows. And he gave her a small salute, and strode off into the sunshine.