THE GALLERY

CHAPTER 1: TWO YEARS LATER

McCall's Apartment

McCall sighed when he heard the knock on the door, then got slowly up off the couch, leaving his tea lying on the table for the moment, and opened the door to a smiling Mickey Kostmayer.

"Care to tell me what's so amusing?" Robert asked drily, as he ushered his friend in and Mickey shook his head, rolling his eyes. "Just because I'm smiling, doesn't mean something is funny." He retorted. As they sat on the sofa, Mickey unfurled the newspaper he had clutched in his hand, then passed it to Robert. "Thought you might wanna see this." He told him. "Page four. Article on bottom left."

McCall frowned momentarily, then looked at the page Kostmayer had referred to, and a slow smile lit up his face at what he saw:

'LOCAL TALENT TO EXHIBIT ART WORK'

'New York native Nicole Baker, 19, a student at local art college, 'The Gallery', is to display an exhibition of her most recent work at the college on September 25th...'

There was a little more to the article, but not the slightest allusion to the fact that Nicole had previously been a homeless street waif, for which McCall was grateful. He was sure Nicole wanted nothing more than to forget those years.

Mickey grinned at Robert's pleased expression. "I knew you hadn't forgotten her." He said. "Good to know she's doing well, huh?"

McCall certainly had not forgotten her. He never forgot any of the people he had helped, and it always cheered him if he chanced to learn that they had put their particular trauma behind them.

He'd hoped that Nicole would make something of her life, and he was genuinely delighted that she had.

"I think this calls for a drink." Robert proclaimed, still smiling. News like this made what he did worthwhile...

'THE GALLERY'-3 DAYS BEFORE THE EXHIBITION

The college had rarely seen a busier day. People ran everywhere, and the entire building was a hub of chaos, as preparations were made for the exhibition.

Nicole was in her room, when her friend Melissa Roberts came bursting in, full of infectious enthusiasm. "Hey, how's the artist doing?" She grinned. "You nervous?"

"Are you trying to embarrass the Hell out of me?" Nicole's smile softened the sarcasm, which wouldn't have deterred Melissa in the least, anyway. She was the eternal optimist, only two years Nicole's senior, who saw good in everything and everyone. Like Nicole, she had been in foster care, but had been treated considerably better by the system, and had the sunny personality to prove it. Nicole's cynicism was a sometimes stark contrast, but the two girls had still hit it off immediately, after her arrival two years before.

"Ok," Melissa threw up her hands in cheery surrender, pushing errant chestnut curls out of her face. "But you gotta be excited at least, right?"

"You were right first time." Nicole replied, not quite succeeding in keeping the worry out of her voice. "I'm so nervous I can barely breathe. I'm not even that good, Mel. What if nobody wants any of my stuff? What if nobody even comes? I can't-"

"Whoa, whoa," Melissa raised her hands, palms-up, the smile fading only slightly. "I didn't know asking you if you were nervous was gonna result in you having a nervous breakdown!" She reached over and squeezed her shoulder, then added, "Nicki, your stuff is amazing, everybody can see that. Amy wouldn't want to show off your work if she didn't think so."

Amy Knox was manager and, most recently, outright owner of The Gallery. She was herself an accomplished artist, and it was common knowledge that she had an eye for talent.

It was Amy who had interviewed Nicole, who had told her, when she had completed several different drawings and paintings for her, that she had a gift, had expressed apparently sincere astonishment that she'd had no formal art training whatsoever-and offered her a place in the college on the spot.

She had Robert McCall and Mickey Kostmayer to thank for all of this, of course, as well as Amy herself, who had, in their own way, seen something in her she'd failed to see in herself. Two years after Robert had secured the interview, she hadn't seen any trace of him, or of Mickey for that matter, but she had the distinct impression that neither man would or could be found unless they wanted to be. In a way, though, she felt sad that she hadn't seen them-while she was happy here, had made friends and genuinely loved her work, McCall and Kostmayer had been the first people to enter her life who had truly earned and merited her trust.

She missed them...

(Nicole won't have a chance to miss Robert and Mickey for much longer, as a shocking disappearance forces her to reconnect with the men who saved her life. So far, I only intend to use McCall and Kostmayer in this story too-though I am thinking of introducing Control and Scott McCall in cameo appearances. Please read & review. Thank you!)

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