Author's Note: Long time no post, eh? I'm just glad I was able to get this finished! It was about all I worked on over Christmas break, but I've had the first part sitting around for a while before I finally worked my way through it. Welcome to another detective story, following the events of A Knock at the Door. Some of those events are alluded to, but it's not necessary to have read it beforehand.
Those of you who are waiting for my Star Wars/FF7 crossover to update, fear not! That is what I'll be working on next. I've had several awesome reviews from you, both for that story and others, but a lot of you don't log in when you review, so I'm unable to express my appreciation! If you log in, I will do my best to reply. :)
This was written for Theme #18: Under the Moon/ Music Box, for 30 Screams on LiveJournal. I'm planning to use each prompt in a detective episode. Hope you enjoy! There will be more detective fun to come in the future.
Oh, and many thanks to LuckyLadybug for previewing and suggestions, and paying attention to the details that I missed. It never even entered my mind that Daylight Savings Time might come into play. I'm glad someone's paying attention!
The Girl in the Music Box
An FF7 Detective Story
The summer's heat just would not give anyone a break. It lay thick and heavy upon the city like a jar of honey shattered upon the kitchen floor, but with none of the sweetness and all of the pests. And I don't mean the buzzing kind either, although those were plenty as we sat with the windows open, trying to get a rare breeze. I mean the lowlifes crawling through the darkened corridors of the streets. As the heat soared, so, it seemed, did the desperation of thousands in the city, everyone anxious for relief from whatever fire they felt against their backs. The thieves, the muggers, the murderers … all were out in force. It made even the police desperate, shorthanded as they were against the recent wave of crime.
You would think it would mean that business would pick up for me and Sephiroth, world-class detectives extraordinaire, but you would be sadly mistaken, and me with you. It seemed that all we could snag these days were the petty crimes and trivial disputes. They were hardly enough to interest Sephiroth, so we turned most of them down. Though we did end up taking one or two, just to keep the cash flowing. Not that it was very much, mind you, but at least it was something.
"No, ma'am, I'm afraid I really can't help you find your glasses," I spoke into the telephone receiver. "No, I … I … You say the cat took them? I don't … Well, has he had a reading problem lately? … He doesn't read? Then I don't think he needs the glasses for anything. … No, I'm pretty sure about that. … I don't think the dog needs them either. Have you checked the nightstand? … How about under your bed, then? … Yes, I will. Yes … Well, there you go! I'm glad I could help. … No, please don't call again. … I'm sure. Thanks. Bye."
I slammed the receiver onto the phone, and let my head thunk onto the desk.
"Yes, Zackary?" a patient, but amused voice replied.
"Kill me now. I can't take it anymore."
There was a snort, and I slowly raised my head to see my partner hiding his amusement behind the newspaper.
"I can't do that. Who would I have to answer the telephones?"
"You can do it," I grumbled. "Or bribe some kid off the street."
"Nonsense. That would be a waste of perfectly good resources."
I raised an eyebrow, or tried to, but I don't think it worked. "What, me, you, or the money you used to bribe the kid?"
"Hmph." I glared at the raised newspaper, then returned my gaze to the phone. For the next few moments, I wished as hard as I could for a random bolt of lightning to strike it. But, sadly, nothing happened, so I gave up and grabbed my own copy of the newspaper.
I wasn't originally intending to read it, instead planning to use it to swat a fly that had been bugging me for the past twenty minutes, but something on the page caught my eye, and I paused to scan it.
RARE BIRD FLIES THE COOP
St. George, Staten Is. – For the second time in three weeks, a rare bird has gone missing
from the home of Dr. Robert Harley. Found and rescued once before, the Ceylon Magpie
has again appeared to master the locks on its cage and break free.
"I don't understand it," said Dr. Harley. "Once, I can see. These birds are rather
intelligent. But twice? Even after I had the locks replaced? It should be impossible!"
Robert Harley is offering a sizable reward for any information leading to the return of
the magpie. He requests that all residents of St. George keep an eye out for the bright
blue and red bird. It is about the size of a raven and, as a magpie, is irresistibly attracted
to shiny objects. It cannot be confused with any other bird in the area. A thorough
description and contact information follows.
I whistled. "Well, would you look at that. Old Harley's lost his bird again! That guy has the worst luck."
"Hey, d'you think we could find his bird again for him? Then again, I'm not sure I really want to. Chasin' that thing down once was enough for me." I winced at the recollection of the nasty scratches inflicted by the thorns in the bird's nest. Though it had definitely all been worth it … The memory of Aerith's kiss floated into my mind.
"Hm. I may consider it, if he calls us. Though it might turn out to be more of an imposition when I have no one to answer the phones after I send you."
"After you send …? Heeey!" I leaned across the desk, jabbing a finger into it. "There was a 'we' in that question. As in you and me. I'm not gonna climb through all the park's trees by myself!"
"Why not? You managed perfectly well with Miss Gainsborough watching. I'm sure you could ask her to accompany you again, if you wanted." He smirked.
I felt my face turn scarlet. "Jeez, Seph-"
I waved a hand. "-It's not what you think!"
"No! We're just friends."
"Ah, I see. Just friends." He didn't sound convinced.
"Yeah! Just friends, that's all it is," I insisted.
Hmph. I sunk lower into my chair and turned my attention to the half-chewed pencil sitting on the top of my green desk pad. Giving it a flick, I sent it rolling several inches away, and watched as it came to a stop. Flicking it back, I proceeded to repeat the action several more times, casting a glance across the way to see if the slight noise of unproductivity would begin to annoy my boss.
The newspaper rustled. "Zackary …"
Suddenly, the phone rang. I snatched it up before the irritating chime had a chance to end. "Detective Sephiroth's office, First-Class Detective Extraordinaire Zack Fair speaking!" I ignored the snort from the other end of the room.
The old familiar voice on the other end of the line made me grin. "Angeal! How's it goin'? Haven't heard from you in a while, you wouldn't believe-" He interrupted me, the seriousness of his tone unmistakable. I frowned, listening, then grabbed my pencil to jot down a few notes. "Right … okay … We'll be right there!"
I hung up and turned to Seph, who had set down his paper to listen. "There's been a kidnapping from a house on Fifth Avenue between Sixty-Eighth and Sixty-Ninth. It's a little girl that's missing, and the department is asking for our help."
Sephiroth was already standing, donning his fedora. "Let's go."
The mother was sobbing into her husband's shoulder as if there was no tomorrow, and really, I couldn't blame her. Having your little girl snatched away must feel like the end of the world. The man held her tight, trying to soothe her, but really, he wasn't in a position to do much soothing himself – he was angry, and his eyes were red.
This was the scene Seph and I stumbled upon as we arrived at the luxurious mansion halfway between Sixty-Eighth and Sixty-Ninth, the one with a sunny view of Central Park. It was a sprawling, two-story number, painted light yellow with pale, sea-green shutters on every window. A porch in the same color stretched across the entire face of the building, slim columns and latticework on the railings lending it an elegant appearance. The place was surrounded with greenery and neatly trimmed gardens; the park across the road almost seemed like an extension of the lawn.
The police had already arrived, as you should have guessed, and were currently questioning the distraught parents. Angeal Hewley was there; as Chief of Police, these people must've been very influential to warrant his presence. He led the questioning, so I hadn't had a chance to greet him properly since we'd arrived. He was very conscious of the delicate situation, jotting down notes in a ragged old notepad.
Adele and Emmerson Calder: these were the two victims of this awful crime. Mr. Calder was a brown-haired, brown-eyed businessman; he owned his own real-estate company, and, as the housing market was up, was doing very well for himself. A little on the pudgy side, he still seemed like he'd be a cheerful fellow with a kind expression … if he didn't currently look as if he'd like to rip the arms off of whoever had made off with his little girl.
Mrs. Adele Calder was his complete opposite, in terms of appearance, at any rate. Slim and shapely, she had golden locks that spilled down in sunny waves to the middle of her back, and her tear-filled blue eyes held a depth of emotion that made you feel like your heart had just torn in two. She was an actress. I remembered reading about some of her films in the papers.
The last person of the Calder household was a Miss Gwynn Irvine, or Gwen for short. She stood to the side, wringing her hands. She was the couple's housekeeper and nanny, having watched over the little girl since she was three. She was mousy and brown-haired, and quite beside herself, but was making an admirable attempt in keeping herself together. I had given her a supportive smile as she looked our way when we entered the living room, but she simply brought a fist to her mouth to hold in her grief, and turned away, shoulders shaking.
Oh, but who's the missing girl, you ask? I'll tell you. Jennifer Evelyn Calder, affectionately called Jenny or just Jen, was five years old, and going on six; her birthday was due in two weeks. She had curly, light brown hair and large blue eyes, and she was adorable; I know because I was currently examining a photo of her in my hands, and trying to ignore the way her innocent eyes tugged on my heart. She squeezed a stuffed bunny under one arm, and clutched what looked like a small, ornamental box in the other. It had a tiny ballerina on the top of it.
I'd relate to you, word-for-word, the conversation that passed between Mr. Calder and Chief Hewley, but it was so broken up that I'll summarize instead. The Calders had left for their routine, Sunday afternoon drive, leaving little Jennifer in the care of the maid, Gwen Irvine. As usual, Gwen and Jenny headed for the park. They hadn't been there but half an hour, when Gwen turned her back for just a moment, and Jenny was gone. She'd seen a black sedan speeding away, but it had disappeared before she'd been able to notice any more specific characteristics.
I frowned. If that was all we had to go on, this was going to be a difficult case. I glanced at Seph. If I knew how he worked, and I did, like the back of my hand, he'd want to investigate the house, especially the rooms of the maid, the parents, and the little girl, to determine whether there might be anything of interest there. Then, once the parents and the housekeeper had had a chance to calm down, he'd question them again, to see if their stories held up and whether they knew of anyone who might have had an interest in the little girl.
Already, the police were questioning them on this point.
If I knew Angeal, and I did, like the back of my other hand, he'd have already sent a team of investigators out to comb the park and see if they might catch the kidnapper right away. That would be a lucky break! I doubted it would happen, but it was the first few hours, the first few days, that were the most critical in a kidnapping investigation. Who knows what the criminal might want with her, or where he'd take her? Poor kid! She must be so frightened … I wanted to run out there right now and look myself, but I knew it wouldn't do any good.
I jumped when I felt a hand come down on my shoulder, and jerked my head around to look up at Seph.
"Steady, Zack." I almost didn't notice his rare use of the shortened form of my name. "It won't be any help if you run off without knowing what you're chasing."
Guess I must've been more fidgety than I thought. "Yeah, I know … But I can't stand that we're stuck here! What if one more person is all they need to find her? We could be out there right now doing something useful!"
"We're detectives, not police officers. Let them do their jobs." He looked me in the eye. "You'll be of more help here, with me, than you will be running around out there. Understand?"
I gave a heartfelt sigh, then nodded, reluctantly. "Yeah …" I scanned the others in the room. "… But why call us in now? Not that I'm complaining, but … isn't it early in the case to be calling in detectives, when the police haven't even finished their search?"
Sephiroth nodded. "I believe it is simply a matter of our clients' social standing. A famous actor and well-known businessman … Chief Hewley wants to show that he is making the best possible effort to find their daughter, whether or not we turn out to be unnecessary."
"Too bad we can't give everyone those same chances," I muttered, frowning. How was that fair, pulling out all the stops for these people, just because they were rich and famous? There were so many others, less fortunate, that would never be given the same opportunity, even when they were just as deserving! Not that I begrudged the Calders the extra help in finding their daughter, but it just wasn't fair.
"Hewley likely has the mayor breathing down his neck to find a solution. Otherwise, the police department cannot afford to call in private detectives for every situation. They are doing the best they can. We should consider it fortunate that they are able to employ additional resources in this case, despite its high-profile nature."
I sighed again. "Guess you're right …" Blowing the bangs out of my eyes, I glanced back down at the picture of Jenny. "Dang, she's cute, Seph. What would a kidnapper want with a girl like her?"
"I prefer not to speculate too much … but the most likely motive would be to hold her for ransom. Given the status of her parents, it would be a logical assumption."
"Think we'll get a ransom note?"
"Probably not before tomorrow, to give the parents sufficient time to panic," he replied, dryly.
I scowled. "That's just cruel!"
"We would not be here if it wasn't."
It was several more minutes before the police had finished questioning the Calders. The details aren't too interesting, but it did provide us with a short list of people who might have had an interest in the family. I'll relate those to you later; right now we were headed upstairs to little Jenny's room.
There was a small commotion when the parents first realized what we were doing – apparently, they hadn't expected their house to be searched, as victims of the crime. Angeal explained to them that it was all part of the procedure – all we knew for certain was that a little girl was missing. The parents were indignant, of course, at the implications of that, but after Angeal offered to return with a search warrant, they relented, and let us continue.
The tour among the upper floor was relatively short. The parents' room didn't reveal much of anything – it held the usual array of furniture, classier, of course, than anything I would ever have. The maid's room was small, in comparison, tucked away in a corner, and much more reminiscent of my own humble place. It consisted of a bed, a tiny closet, a small writing desk, and not much else. The furniture too, was simple – sturdy, but rather plain construction. Sure thrifty were these Calders.
Finally, we were guided to Jenny's bedroom by Gwen Irvine, the maid. Mrs. Calder and her husband followed shortly after. It was a large room, done up in soft, pastel colors. Warm, yellow lamps provided the lighting, and a large bay window offered a sun-lit view of Central Park across the way. The window was framed by violet curtains sporting a unicorn print, which the frilly bedcovers and pillows matched. A parade of plush animals danced over the bed and onto the floor, while their fellow cohorts cheered from the bench beneath the window. Graceful ballerina figurines lined the dresser across from the foot of the bed, and a pink rocking horse sat in the corner.
I stared at the rocking horse. I'd always wanted one of those. Well, not a pink one, of course.
We stepped inside, our shoes sinking into the plush, blue and pink rug. The room was a child's dream. Jenny must have loved it here. Moving further inside to give the others room to enter, I crossed over to the dresser. I could hardly imagine growing up with a room this large – there was plenty of space for a child to play, and with the number of toys around, I guessed that Jenny had spent a lot of time here, even inviting friends over to have tea parties or play with dolls. She certainly had a lot of them! And, near the window, were a miniature table and three chairs, with the necessary tea set carefully arranged on the table's surface. A little brown-haired doll sat on one chair; the other two were empty.
As I surveyed the room, I listened to the maid confirm, in her strong Scottish accent, my thoughts about the time Jenny spent playing in the room. Mornings were spent in lessons with Gwen. After lunch came piano practice, then Jenny was allowed the afternoons to play. Evenings were reserved for a family dinner, and bedtime for little Jenny came early.
A decorative little box on the dresser caught my eye, and I picked it up, turning it over in my hands. I recognized it as the same box in the photograph. Made of white porcelain, it was gilded in slightly worn golden paint; fancy designs wrapped around the sides of it. Little legs at each corner lifted it from the surface it usually rested upon, and centered on the top was a tiny ballerina. Judging by the small, golden key in the side of it, it was a music box. I gave the key a few turns.
Simple, delicate chimes began playing, clear and beautiful, a sweet melody that I had no name for. It was somehow peaceful and comforting, almost like a mother's lullaby. As the notes played, the little ballerina spun slowly, gracefully dancing in time to the music. I watched. It was utterly enchanting.
A moment later, a throat cleared, startling me from my reverie. I glanced up, only to see the entire party of Gwen, the Calders, and Sephiroth staring back at me. Sephiroth raised an eyebrow, giving me a distinctly odd look. Mrs. Calder had a hand to her mouth, and looked about ready to tear up, which left me wondering what kind of insensitive cad I was for so blatantly reminding her that her daughter was not here to play with the box.
I coughed, feeling my face heat up. Hastily setting the music box back on the dresser, I turned my attention back to the others, rubbing the back of my neck and offering an apologetic smile.
"Right … uh … so … Jenny – she had the run of the house then, in the afternoons?"
"No …" it was Mr. Calder who spoke up. "Jenny knew … knows … better than to scamper about the house in such an undignified manner. She was allowed to play in her room. On Sundays, she went to the park with Gwen."
I blinked. "… Right … Her friends visited her here, then? Or met in the park?"
Jenny's mother answered. "There are few children around of appropriate upbringing. Jenny preferred spending her time with Gwen." At this, the maid nodded slowly. "But, occasionally, she would have visitors."
Jenny liked playing alone? My dubious expression must have showed, because Mrs. Calder said, rather snappishly, "Well, we can't all raise our children to be ruffians playing in the street, can we? What kind of life would that give them? We wanted Jenny to have the best –" She broke off, again bringing her hand to her mouth, and shaking her head. "… I'm sorry, I can't …" She turned away, shoulders trembling. Mr. Calder put an arm around her, and began to escort her out of the room. He glanced once more at us, then at Gwen.
"Gwen, would you …?"
"I'll stay with them, sir." Her voice trembled slightly, but she was strong.
I sighed, blowing a lock of hair out of my face, and turned to regard the rest of the bedroom. Ruffians playing in the street? Jeez, what a princess. I shoved my hands into my pockets. I didn't want to think bad of her, losing her daughter and all. But that got on my nerves.
I heard Seph cross to the window. I took a moment to survey the closet, finding nothing more interesting than several cute dresses, and went to join him.
The sprawling lawn below was lush and green, defying the wilting heat of the summer. Beyond the street, Central Park was cool and shaded, a little slice of Heaven promising a welcome retreat. A couple of kids chased a barking dog past a park bench, and a boy ran up a small hill, trying to launch a kite.
How could Jenny want to play alone, with that view? Maybe it was fanciful thinking, but I imagined her sitting here on the bench with all her plush toys and watching the kids out in the park, perhaps wishing she could join in. Why had her parents kept her away?
"It would not be difficult to spy on this house and determine Jenny's schedule." Sephiroth's musings broke me from my own.
"Hm? Oh, right. Yeah, you could just sit on the park bench over there and watch the place. Heck, you'd probably even see inside this room. I'll bet Jenny knew who kidnapped her – she'd be able to see 'em from here while she was watching the other kids play."
I heard Sephiroth shift beside me, and knew he had turned to look down at me.
"… What makes you think she watched the other kids from here?"
"… Oh, well …" I shifted to the other foot, suddenly a bit uncomfortable at being caught in my own imaginings. "Well … wouldn't you? I mean, jeez, if you were locked up all the time, even a place as nice as this would start to look boring." Abruptly, I whirled on the maid, who stood waiting near the doorway. "Didn't she have any other friends?" I demanded. "She couldn't have just played by herself all the time!"
Gwen actually appeared rather remorseful, and lowered her eyes to study her clasped hands. "She did, most times. As the mistress said, Jenny was to have a proper upbringing." She hesitated, apparently about to say something more, but then remained quiet.
I couldn't believe this! "So she didn't have any friends at all?"
"… I was her friend."
Her subdued words gave me pause, before I threw up my hands in exasperation. "Great. Heck of a way for a kid to live. Surrounded by finery, all prim and proper, but not even allowed to get out and have fun and be a kid-"
"Zackary." I felt a strong hand grip my arm, and found Seph glaring disapprovingly at me. There was a slight crease between his brows, as if he was confused. "What is wrong with you?"
Well, let him be confused. I shrugged away. "Nothin'. It's just that a kid should have a chance to live, you know?"
He searched my face. "Why are you taking issue with this? How Jenny Calder was raised is none of our concern. Your personal feelings have no bearing on the matter."
"The Calders acted only in Jenny's best interests," Gwen offered, though she remained staring at the floor.
"This is irrelevant, Zackary, unless it is somehow related to the little girl's disappearance, which may or may not be so. In any case, getting upset about it will only cloud your judgment."
Sephiroth finished with a note of finality, indicating that I had also better be done with the argument. I didn't want to be done, but he was right, and I couldn't come up with anything to say that he couldn't counter. So I huffed and turned my back to him, crossing my arms. The least he could have done was show some compassion too. Honestly, the man could be as heartless as a block of ice.
I shifted my gaze to glare sullenly down upon the heads of the stuffed animals on the window bench. Several of them gazed forlornly out the window, much as my imagined Jenny was doing. And, though it could have been more of my imagination, the much-loved plushies didn't seem as much loved as they should have been, most of them looking almost new. In fact, now that I thought of it, even the rocking horse had been in pristine condition. Either she'd taken really good care of it, or it just hadn't seen much use. The only items I'd spied so far that were a bit worn were the music box and the doll sitting at the little table – she had a bit of dirt smudged on one cheek.
"Zackary." I looked up. Having finished his inspection of the window and finding nothing else of interest in the room, Sephiroth was waiting for me at the door. I hmph'd and made my way over to him, feeling a little like an errant pooch.
Why did Sephiroth have to completely dismiss my ideas? What if little Jenny, forbidden from making friends and playing with the other children, had simply run away? Surely her feelings about things had been important too!
But did that match what we knew? Gwen reported that she'd seen a vehicle pull away with Jenny inside.
… No. To be precise, the maid had had her back turned when Jenny vanished. She'd then seen a car take off, but it wasn't necessarily connected to the girl's disappearance. What if Jenny was simply out hiding somewhere in the park? With the park being so large, and the police combing through it, it was likely they would still find her there! She was only five, after all. She couldn't hide forever! If I was her, I'd soon forget about hiding and run off to play with the kids that I'd been so wishing to play with for so long.
That was it! That had to be the answer. It fit perfectly with all the bits of the puzzle I'd pieced together.
Eagerly, I glanced at Seph, wanting to describe my theory. But his face was distant, eyes reviewing details only his mind could see, and I recalled the way he'd simply written off my ideas just moments ago. I felt my expression fall, and I turned my face away so he wouldn't see the disappointment reflected there. … Maybe I would just wait for the police to report back when they'd found Jenny. Yes. Then Sephiroth would see that I'd been right!
We arrived at the downstairs living room to the scene of Angeal Hewley conversing quietly with his cops. Mr. and Mrs. Calder sat nearby on the large sofa; Emmerson held his wife's hands, murmuring and running his thumb over her fingers in an attempt to soothe. She nodded on occasion, dabbing at her eyes with a handkerchief. I followed Sephiroth over to Angeal.
He turned to meet us, giving Sephiroth a nod of acknowledgement. "Sephiroth." His eyes flicked in my direction. "Zack."
I opened my mouth, but Sephiroth cut the greeting short. I bounced impatiently on my toes, the proper welcome foiled again.
"Angeal. Any ideas?" the detective asked.
Grimly, Angeal shook his head. "You know everything I do, at the moment. You've heard most of what they've had to say; of course, you're free to question them again as you like. It looks like a standard kidnapping – straightforward and quick. We're hoping the kidnapper is someone known to the family, as it often turns out to be … But you know as well as I do that the Calders have money, people know they have money, and someone out there might want to take advantage of it." He shifted to observe the parents. "It's a good guess that the kidnapping wasn't random – it would be risky to snatch a child with her guardian right there, so I can only assume that Jenny Calder was specifically targeted, and the kidnapper saw their outing as the best opportunity."
At this, I felt ready to burst with wanting to voice my theory, but managed to refrain. Angeal noticed my fidgeting and raised an eyebrow before Sephiroth once again took his attention.
My partner nodded slowly. "It doesn't entirely rule out a purely random, opportunistic crime, of course," he mused, "but that will depend on the accuracy of Miss Irvine's report."
Speaking of the maid, she was just now descending the stairs, slowly, as if her feet were encased in lead. Her eyes were drawn to the anguished couple, and she looked away, her own face a picture of torment. She stopped at the last step, clutching the banister tightly.
I made to go to her, but Sephiroth beat me to the punch. I hung back, deciding to take the opportunity to see what Angeal thought of my idea.
"Hey, Angeal." I grinned at my old mentor, still itching to give him a hug, but the time for the greeting had passed, and the current situation cast a dour atmosphere over everything, anyway.
"Zack." His tone was business, but his eyes smiled back. Pocketing his notepad, he turned his attention to me for a brief respite from this cheerless work. "How is official detective life treating you these days? " His lips curled up into a slight smirk.
"Heh. Well," I rubbed the back of my neck in a somewhat sheepish manner, memories of unofficial detective life running through my mind, with Inspector Angeal Hewley, now Chief of Police, at his wits end trying to keep me out of it. "You know. Not too bad now that I don't have you breathing down my neck. I can finally get things done proper!"
He grunted. "One more pain in the neck finally out of my hair – I can sleep easy at night knowing I'll at last be able to get my work done."
I jammed a hand into my pocket and tilted my fedora just so, leaning in with my own smirk. "You mean you're just afraid of me showing you up, old man."
"More like tired of the boys at the office cracking jokes about the pathetic, lost puppy I picked up."
"Aw, you know you miss me!"
"As I miss the flies buzzing around my lunch."
"Ouch." I cringed, clutching at my heart as if mortally wounded. "That's harsh, Angeal, even from you!" I adopted a woebegone expression. "Don't you love me anymore?"
Finally, that got a chuckle out of him. "'Anymore?' You say that like there was something to continue in the first place."
Dang, he was getting good. I conceded defeat. Stiffening, I choked out, "You got me! Detective Zack Fair down for the count, heart crushed and trod upon by Angeal's shiny black police boots …"
Angeal rolled his eyes. "Overdramatic as usual, Zack. Glad to see you haven't changed. Sephiroth treating you well, by the way?"
"Thrilled to see you too, Angeal! And yeah, it's good. It's … interesting." My eyes wandered over to see the man in question conversing with the maid. Remembering my purpose, I broached the new subject. "Say, uh, Angeal …" Suddenly nervous at what he might think of the idea, though I had no real reason to be, I shifted from foot to foot. "… How sure are you that Jenny was really … kidnapped?"
"How sure …?" He frowned, puzzled by the question. "Reasonably so. After all, she did disappear. Why do you-?"
"Well, I mean, what if she just … ran away, instead?"
"Ran away? What makes you think that? She seemed like a well-behaved little girl. I don't think she'd worry Miss Irvine like that. Besides, she would need to be rather quick to make her getaway without being seen, wouldn't she?"
"Oh come on, Angeal, you know as well as I do how quick little kids can be!"
He gave me a wry look. "Indeed, I do."
I coughed. "Anyway … My point is that, with Jenny being cooped up all the time away from all the other kids, she finally decided to get out and have some fun on her own for once! Wouldn't you, if you were stuck in your room all day with nothing to do but watch the other kids from your window? I'm betting that she's just hiding somewhere in the park!"
Angeal brought a hand to his chin, giving me a long, evaluating look, as he considered the idea. "… You think she was that lonely?"
"Lonely, sad, frustrated, bored … whatever you want to call it, I think she wanted someone other than the maid to play with! Someone her own age, a chance to run wild without constricting rules … she was going nuts with the monotony of this place!"
He frowned, silent for a moment. "… Have you told this to Sephiroth?"
I shook my head, waving a hand. "Nah, I … he'd just dismiss it." Shoving both hands into my pockets, I blew the bangs out of my eyes, again finding my gaze sliding over to the other detective. "… Sometimes, I feel like he doesn't even give me a chance." I muttered this last bit, not really planning to have said it.
Feeling a hand squeeze my shoulder, I glanced back to Angeal. "I think you need to give him more credit," he said, quietly. "Sephiroth deals in hard facts; he doesn't respond well to feelings. It's not a bad idea, but you need to have something more concrete than idle speculation to back it up."
Something more concrete? How was I going to get anything concrete about a little girl's feelings …? My eyes fell once more upon Sephiroth and the maid. Of course! Who better to know a girl's inner feelings than the one who practically raised her?
I started toward them, but their attention, and mine, were abruptly drawn to the commotion of the front door opening and three cops striding purposefully into the room. After spotting Angeal, they headed in our direction. The chief stepped forward to meet them.
In low tones, they explained that the sweep of the park had been conducted, multiple people interviewed. They'd also had teams check the surrounding neighborhoods, with one result: Jenny was nowhere to be found, nor had anyone seen a little girl matching her description.
Jenny was nowhere to be found?
My heart sank, and my tongue turned to ash.
Angeal glanced over to me. "Still think she simply ran away?"
The rest of the afternoon and early evening was just as disheartening as the first. The sole indication that Jenny had ever been in the park was a white and fuzzy stuffed rabbit plush half hidden beneath a bush in the dirt, found during the sweep of the place. As with the music box, it matched the toy in the photograph I still held, and Gwen, the maid, confirmed it was Jenny's.
It had been found on the opposite side of the park from where Jenny had been taken. The general feeling was that the kidnappers had driven their vehicle on a route around the park, at least to that point, tossed the toy for some unknown reason, and continued to speed away. Present discussions circled around possible reasons for losing the toy and needing to loop the park.
"Obviously, they wanted to throw us off the trail. Plant a lead that would have us off looking in the wrong place."
"What are you talkin' about? The maid saw them over here! They'd be saps not to notice it what with the commotion she raised! It'd be pointless to drive all the way around just to ditch the thing."
"You're a sap, O'Malley. Little kid prob'ly put up a fight and beat the guys with it, so they got rid of it, so's they wouldn't hafta deal with 'er."
"You're both saps. We're looking in the wrong place, I'm telling you …"
There were two groups of us, clustered around a map of Central Park Angeal had had one of his boys fetch. One side debated the relative merits of leaving the rabbit where it was found, and the other attempted to reason out how the circuitous route affected where the kidnappers had gone, or, looking at it another way, how where they'd gone merited the route taken around the park.
Needless to say, we weren't getting anywhere quick. We'd plotted the homes of the contacts given to us by the Calders, and only one might have justified the route, and that was pushing it. Then again, I felt the whole thing was pushing it, as any kidnapper wise to the possibility of being tailed would take a circuitous route in the first place just to throw the tail off. Any of the contacts could have just as easily been responsible as not.
Sephiroth stood back from the group, observing, but having already decided early on that the value of this activity was minimal, if not nonexistent. I joined him, doffing my hat to run a weary hand through my hair.
"Yes. We should leave this to the experts."
Let the grunts do their grunt work. I grinned. "Does Angeal know how highly you regard his forces?"
He grunted in response.
"So, boss, what now?"
"Now, we wait." He stepped away from the table, turned, and began striding toward the foyer.
That took me by surprise. "Wha-? Wait?" I hurried to catch up with him. "What for? Don't ya want to get out there and catch the guys? What about interviewing the other people on our list? We still got a … a Mrs. Caroway …" I struggled to remember the names, "uh … Redford somethin'-or-other …"
"For the ransom note." Reaching the entryway, he snatched his jacket from the hook and shrugged it on.
… Oh. "… But can't we still check these people out while we're waiting?"
At this, he turned to me. "Zackary. If you were the kidnapper, and the police interviewed you before you had sent the ransom note, would you still send the ransom note?"
I had to pause at this and give it some thought. Would I? "Ah … I don't know. I suppose not, if I thought they were already wise to me. … But then again, maybe I would, if I got a thrill out of it. Maybe I'd do it just to spite them."
Sephiroth nodded. "Good. On the one hand, we can attempt to determine the character of the kidnapper by questioning the contacts first. On the other, it may deprive us of a valuable piece of evidence, it may not work depending on how well the suspects may act, and it may give us nothing if the kidnapper is someone else entirely."
"… Oh. Right. So … wait for the ransom note first to be sure we get it, and then see about comparing it to the suspects?"
"For now," Sephiroth confirmed. He glanced out the window bordering the door. "Now, quickly." Swiftly pulling the door open, he stepped to the side, out of direct view of the street. A man on the other side stumbled slightly, about to knock. He blinked in surprise, straightening his hat, and immediately set eyes upon the mass of police officers beyond the foyer. Face lighting up, he ignored me and shouted toward them.
"I say! I say, Chief Hewley, if I might ask you a few questions …"
Oh Gaia. Reporters.
As Angeal looked up, I saw a long-suffering expression cross his face. "Who let him in here …?" His eyes fell upon me and Sephiroth. I gave him a bit of a sheepish wave and stuck close to Sephiroth's heels as he quickly exited. "Sephiroth!"
Behind us, the reporter echoed. "Sephiroth? Was that Sephiroth? Wait! Sir, if I might-"
The door slammed shut, giving the reporter nothing but a fleeting glimpse of Seph's silvery hair. As he tugged his hat low, not that it did one bit of good, I could almost hear his smirk.
The much-awaited ransom note did not manifest the next day as we'd expected, or the day after. By the evening of the third day, we all knew we were in trouble, and Sephiroth had gone to consult with Angeal about the progress – or lack of – the cops had made in scouring the city for information. I was given the task of inviting myself to a vigil at the Calder's place, where we assumed several of their friends and acquaintances would arrive in a show of support. It would be an excellent opportunity to gather information both from those who actually came … and those who didn't.
It would also be the first time I'd gone to interview anyone completely on my own. I was a little nervous, to be honest. I knew my tendency to accidently blurt things out could get this case sunk faster than the Titanic attempting to dance the Breakaway with an iceberg.
I arrived at eight, and waved off the taxi. The sun was low, shadows rolling long across the ground, but doing little to banish the heat still rising from the sidewalks. The air was stagnant and muggy, though I still wore my tie, wanting to make a good impression. I did leave my jacket back at the office – it was just too much to stand.
A few steps shy of the door, I paused, possessed by some unknown feeling, and took in my immediate surroundings. Had the kidnapper possibly watched from here, lurking in the bushes to catalogue the Calder's comings and goings? Had he entered through this very door, a friend, for afternoon tea with the missus, or to talk business with Mr. Calder? Had he known them well? Or had he simply seized on a passing opportunity? Both thoughts chilled me. How much did we really know about anyone we knew? How much attention do passing strangers really give us?
Golden light flickered upon the surrounding greenery, still but for that insignificant movement of air. Insects droned somewhere beyond my sight. I turned, looking across the street to the fields of Central Park. It was still, too, though not quite deserted. A couple strolled along a meandering path, and a man checked his watch upon that park bench.
Finally shrugging off the strange feeling, I knocked. Gwen Irvine answered. Surprise lit up her face, but she let me in, and guided me to the sitting room.
Thankfully, the Calders were not angered by my presence as I'd feared they would be. Rather, they were touched when I explained that, although Sephiroth couldn't make it, we wanted to support them in whatever way we could. Though we were working strictly for the police on this matter, we were, of course, there for anything they might need.
I felt a little guilty at the not-quite lie, especially when Mrs. Calder took my hand and uttered her thanks so sincerely, but I managed to brush it off. Instead, after nodding my own thanks to the cup of tea she placed in my hands, I sat down and turned my attention to the others in the room.
The first person my gaze landed upon was a Mr. Bruce Redford. It was natural that I seize upon him first, given his appearance and the way he dominated the room. I recognized him from the descriptions given earlier, and what we'd been able to dig up on everyone. Like Mr. Calder, he was a fellow property manager, and doing quite well in raking in his own share of the dough. He was a friend more than a business associate, tall, imposing, and built. His passion was boxing, and he did rather well at it, I hear. He had a thick neck, thick arms, and a thick head, though apparently not enough to be a handicap. He was deaf in one ear and spoke in a loud, booming voice, fitted for both performances he played.
I tried speaking to him once or twice, but he couldn't hear me over the sound of his own accomplishments. So I turned to the lady beside him instead, an elderly, dignified woman Adele Calder knew from the theatre. Mrs. Jane Caroway was also an actress, widowed, and well respected both in and out of the theatrical circles. I wouldn't know anything about that sort of thing, but I'm sure Seph might. Her dark attire, regal appearance, strong voice and arcing brow were a perfect match for the profound dramas I still imagined he once performed. Her hair was brown and graying, but her blue eyes pierced my own, and I wondered what she saw with them.
We spoke a short while about this and that, while I tried to determine what interest she might have in a little girl. Redford, I'd nearly written off entirely, as he was about as complex as a sack of potatoes, but Mrs. Caroway revealed little of herself. She was captivating, though, in the way that she spoke, a clear, distinguished voice, and I thought I might like to go see her at the theatre someday. Her eyes softened, as the evening wore on, and she said that I reminded her of her grandchildren.
The last two gathered there were Mr. Greyson Wright and his wife, Nora. Friends of the family, Mr. Wright was retired, a veteran of the Great War. Already past his prime when he shipped out, he was an older fellow now, though not nearly as aged as Mrs. Caroway. He was a Brit, with the accent to prove it; his voice was a bit rough, as he'd suffered from chlorine poisoning during the War. Still, he was enthusiastic and lively, the type of man who'd happily tell his grandchildren fantastic war stories for hours. I liked him almost immediately. He was a bit portly, wore his mustache bushy, and carried a cane with which he liked to rap the floor for emphasis, which occurred frequently. His wife wore a patient, tolerating smile.
Speaking of Nora, she was thinner than her husband, and remained quiet for the most part, seemingly content to let him do most of the talking for them. She was kindly, the sort of lady who might take in a lost and beaten traveler, only to fix them a large breakfast in the morning and insist they stay the week. Dignified in her own way, she was a good deal more open than Mrs. Caroway, and though I should have resisted, I often sought encouraging nods from her as I fumbled my way through the opening conversations.
That was it for the visitors, few though they were, and I understood that no one else of immediate interest had refused the invitation to the vigil. Angeal had had flowers sent, irises for hope, and though I hadn't thought to bring anything myself, it seemed that my presence was welcome enough – everyone expressed their appreciation at the work being done to find the kidnapper and bring Jenny home safely.
I won't transcribe the majority of the conversations that evening, since they were long, and not all that revealing. Each visitor expressed their sympathy for the Calders in their own way, Mrs. Caroway and Wright giving Adele a shoulder to cry on, and the men taking Mr. Calder aside and pledging their undying support. Redford unhelpfully boomed out his willingness to beat the culprit to a pulp, while Mr. Wright informed them that he would organize a civilian search party to back up the work the police were doing.
As the night wore on, the conversation turned from poor Jenny and speculation on the kidnapper to more idle chitchat, meant, I suppose, to give the Calders some relief from worry for their daughter. I soon found myself the focus of attention, as everyone seemed curious about my detective work, and what was it like working for the Great Sephiroth, and wasn't I a bit young to be doing this on my own?
"It's quite brave of you, dear, to be doing this line of work. It's not cut out for everybody," commented Mrs. Caroway.
"Goodness, yes." Mrs. Wright clutched Adele's hand. "Can you imagine, Adele, how dangerous it must be? Why, solving murders and saving lives, standing up to the mob … My, how exciting! I couldn't fathom … You must be fearless!"
Before I could stammer out a reply, Mr. Wright interrupted in his gruff voice. "I say, Nora, give the boy a chance to speak! He's out to prove himself, aren't you, lad? Ready to find his place, take on the world … much as I once was, I'll add! Keen on defending queen and country from those forces that might rip it apart … Hmm, or president and country in this case, I suppose …"
I rubbed the back of my neck in slight embarrassment at the attention, something I seemed to be doing a lot lately. "Ah, well …" Was I out to prove myself? I wasn't really sure. "It's just … a job, you know. Something to be doing. Something I've always wanted to be doing, yeah, but I wouldn't go as far as to say … Well, that is, I'm doing it to help people, sure. I guess that's why I'm doing it." And then I held up my hands so they wouldn't get the wrong idea. "But it's not as exciting as you make it out to be, really, I mean, there's a lot of boring stuff …"
"Aw, he's being modest," Mrs. Wright told the others, patting my knee. "He's just hoping to be somebody's hero, aren't you?"
Somebody's … hero …? … Huh. Maybe …
"A hero!" Mr. Wright thumped my back in approval, nearly giving me the opportunity to experience breathing my tea. "Well put, my boy! There's something this town needs – a true, red-blooded hero, someone to put crime in its place." He shook his head abruptly. "Too much of it these days … too much." At that, the atmosphere sobered, everyone recalling the reason they were all there.
… A hero, huh? Maybe it was silly, but … I kinda liked the sound of that. Jenny's face appeared in my mind, and I thought how she could sure use a hero of her own right now.
Mr. Wright cleared his throat, interrupting the uncomfortable silence. In a manner at odds to his formerly brash attitude, he gently reached over to take Adele Calder's hand.
"I am sorry, my dear. We've kept you too late, and you need your rest. Never fear, we will do everything in our power to help you. We'll get Jenny back. I promise."
They stood. Adele gripped his hand tightly and managed a brave smile, though her eyes shimmered.
"Thank you, Greyson. And you, too, Nora, and Jane, Bruce. Thank you so much. Emmerson and I …" Here, her husband stepped up to wrap an arm around her. "We're so profoundly grateful for your support. I don't know what we'd do if …" She trailed off, at a loss.
Mrs. Caroway stepped forward. "If there's anything we can do, Adele … please, just ask." She gave her a kind smile.
Tearful, Mrs. Calder nodded. They all spoke their good-nights and good-byes, and Emmerson escorted his wife upstairs.
With the night concluded, we all filed toward the exit. Redford was the first to leave, followed by Mrs. Caroway. Mr. and Mrs. Wright were last. Just before he left, Mr. Wright turned to me one last time.
"I see a lot of potential in you, my boy," he said. "You'll do great things. You're determined, I can see that. You've got spirit." He nodded, firmly. "Don't ever lose that, because you'll need it."
Unsure quite how to take this, I simply nodded in reply.
He paused then, for a moment, mustache working. Then he cleared his throat and continued, gruffly. "Despite what I may have said to Adele … I know there's only so much any of us can do." He glanced down, and when he looked back up, I saw the helplessness in his eyes. "Little Jenny … she's like a granddaughter to me. … Please … if there's anything I can do that might … however remotely … be of service …"
I hesitated, then set a hand on his shoulder. "I promise, Mr. Wright, Nora. I'll find her. I won't stop until I do, and I won't let anything happen to her." A little surprised by the conviction I heard in my own voice, I continued, "We'll find the people who did this and make sure they never get the chance to do it again."
Finally, Mr. Wright nodded once, turning to leave. As he departed I heard him mutter, "Good kid. Good kid."
I sighed, watching them go into the dark. There were a lot of promises made tonight, and I honestly didn't know if any of them could be kept. How powerless were we, in the face of such a simple act of cruelty?
… A hero, huh?
Just as I started to go, I felt a light hand on my arm. Turning, I found Gwen there. She seemed unsure, and glanced over her shoulder in a furtive manner.
"Mr. Fair …" she began quietly, revealing something beneath her apron and pressing it into my hands. "Please, take this with you. It causes the mistress much grief to look upon it, as Jenny loved it so, and she goes into the room every day …"
I held the item up. It was the music box I'd taken a fancy to three days ago.
"… A-are you sure? But-"
"Yes. Please, it does no good here, but maybe it will help … in a way, I don't know …" She wrung her hands. "Just … take it, please. For her sake. No one will know."
"Well … alright, then …" I gazed at it doubtfully, then pulled out a handkerchief to wrap it in. "No reason why not, I guess … But let me know if you change your mind. I'll keep it safe."
She nodded. Still flustered, she cast her gaze about outside, before returning it to me. "Thank you, Mr. Fair." She did a little curtsey, then hurriedly pulled the door shut. The warm light from inside vanished with it.
I stared at the door a moment, shrugged, then turned to go, debating the merits of heading back to the office to give my report to Sephiroth, or simply going home for the night. Settling on the latter, I strode to the curb and down a little ways, past the bench, now empty. Spotting a taxi, I flagged it down and was soon on my way home.
"And so that's it, Seph." I leaned back in my office chair, tie undone, and stretched, hearing joints pop. "They all seemed so … sincere. Mr. and Mrs. Wright, anyway, and Redford couldn't bluster his way past a two year old. Might strong-arm ya into a deal, but as for snatchin' a kid and facing up to her parents …" I shook my head. "The only one capable of any guile, really, was Mrs. Caroway, but she seemed on the level in her own way. She was an actress, though, so I dunno …"
"Mrs. Caroway, hm? Jane Caroway …" he mused to himself.
"Yeah …" I tried to smother a grin and cast a sly glance his direction. Attempting nonchalance, I couldn't stop a small thrill at finally succeeding in digging up some more information on my enigmatic partner. "Know her?"
He made a noncommittal grunt. Immediate disappointment settled in. Finally, though, he made a small movement with his hand.
"I think we can presume the she, likewise, has no business in this affair."
Now we're talkin'! "Oh yeah? How so?"
He leveled a glance in my direction. "I trust your judgment, Zackary," he replied, matter-of-factly. I could see the knowing amusement in his eyes.
Ohh, you …
The phone interrupted our staring contest, and I snatched it up. It was Angeal, with a list of business associates and regular callers for us to check out. Apparently, they'd done what they could to wring out every scrap of information from the Calders, whether or not it would prove to be useful. As it was, it was just about the only thing any of us could do, at the moment – we were pretty much at a loss otherwise. Several of the names checked out with people Seph had already gone to see, but I recorded the others, asked some questions, and finally took up my hat. Locking the office, we left to do some more legwork.
The remainder of the week passed this way, while our options slowly dwindled. We heard that Gwen Irvine had asked to be let go, in light of her "failure" to keep little Jenny safe. The Calders were resistant, however, and tried to convince her to stay. I grew restless, and chose to make regular trips there, around eight in the evening after our investigations for the day, just to touch base and see if we could brainstorm anything that might be of help. It proved to be ineffective for the most part, nothing new coming to light. Heck, even the weather and the scenery stayed the same, down to the man with the watch on the park bench across the way.
It was another late day, approaching the time I'd normally leave for the Calders before heading home for the night. I was sprawled at my desk and not moping, mind you, no matter what Sephiroth might decide to call it. But I was staring gloomily at the little music box in the center of my desk pad. I toyed with it a bit, as I thought. It was just so … frustrating, and disheartening, being unable to come up with anything that might help Jenny. Her photograph sat next to my hand; I picked it up and fingered the edge, then propped it against the porcelain box.
How was it that, with all the resources of the police force, with Angeal Hewley, and the Great and Famous Detective Sephiroth working nonstop to crack this case, that Jenny still remained missing? Were we really that powerless? I glanced up at Seph where he, once again, perused the papers. We'd put out an ad for information, and Seph had actually deigned to consent to an interview, but, though it had netted us some leads, they'd all been dead ends. He'd now taken to browsing papers from other cities on the off chance that something, somewhere, would be telling of where the kidnappers had gone.
I sighed, setting my head down upon an arm on the desk, and returned my attention to the box. Where were you Jenny? Were you safe? Scared? Hurt? I felt like I knew so much about her, like I could see her, there, twirling around in a little pink dress, like the miniature golden ballerina atop the box. I almost felt like I could feel her, reaching out to me, that if only I knew … something, I could find where she was. Reaching out, I slowly turned the little key, hearing it click, and set the ballerina to dancing. The music played, pure and sweet, the melody somehow … hopeful, and I imagined Jenny, somewhere, listening to it.
A hat dropped onto my head, blocking my view of the box. Tilting the brim up, I spied Sephiroth standing there, so gave him a bit of a wry grin.
"Go home, Zack," he said, quietly. "Get some rest."
My grin melted away, and I straightened in the chair, glancing down to toy with the photograph again.
"I can't, Seph, I gotta do something." I glanced at my watch. "Besides, it's almost time for me to leave for the Calders anyway." I shrugged. "Gotta let them know we're still doing something, after all this time …" Even if I didn't really know myself what that something was, I left unsaid.
I shifted, uncomfortably, while Sephiroth watched, before finally daring to ask the question that had been burning the back of my mind the past several days.
"Seph, do you think she's … Do you think they …?"
He spoke, relieving me of the need to finish the question. "I honestly don't know, Zack. There aren't many things someone would kidnap a child for, if not for ransom."
Slowly, I nodded, discouraged. "… Right …" Suddenly, I felt something snap inside me, and slammed my fist into the desk, making the little music box jump. "Dammit, Seph, it can't end this way! There has to be something we can do aside from this … this … glorified nothing! Haven't you thought of anything? You're the famous detective! You're supposed to be able to solve anything; this is supposed to be cake compared to what you've faced before, why haven't you-"
Unexpectedly, the phone rang, cutting into my tirade. I stood, breathing hard, glaring at Sephiroth for a moment, before I finally picked up.
"Yeah, Sephiroth's off-" What I heard on the other end cut me off. "What? Are you- are you sure? When? … Okay, be right there." I glanced up, brow crinkling in confusion. "It was the Calders … the maid, Gwen's vanished. They say they found letters proving she kidnapped Jenny."
They had the letters for us when we arrived; Sephiroth took them. A quick glance through revealed that, sure enough, Gwen Irvine had been in communication with someone about taking the little girl. We didn't have time to study them, however; Gwen had left not long ago, and we needed to hurry if we were to make use of whatever slim chance we had to find her before she got away for good.
"Okay, okay … Did she say anything about visiting any relatives? Friends? Did she ever hint at any place she had any inclination to go?"
"No, no!" Adele Calder shook her head, distraught. "Her only family was overseas … she never mentioned any friends, though I'm sure she had some … Oh, how could we have missed this? She was right under our own roof!"
"Okay, uh …" How to proceed, how to proceed … Sephiroth hurried down the stairs, having checked the maid's room. I whirled toward him. "Did you find anything?"
A shake of the head. "No."
Great. Okay, think, Zack, think. I scanned the room. It was in disarray from our hurried search. Sephiroth did the same, taking in everything from the misplaced documents to the overturned photographs, to the dying embers in the fireplace. Nothing. Agitated, I turned on my heel and strode outside, running a hand through my hair. The oppressive heat did nothing to clear my head, and I cast about, trying to latch on to something, anything.
Nothing helped. I was at a loss.
As my mind searched, I idly noted that the man on the bench was gone; automatically, I checked the time. Ten past eight. Great. Now what could we …?
Ten past eight. Ten past eight? I did a double-take. Sure, ten past eight, and the man was gone. What difference did it make?
Wait. There was something there. Something …
Ten past eight. The man would usually have been there at this time – I'd seen him every day this week. Why was today different?
It was different because Gwen Irvine was also gone.
I stopped, slowly bringing my gaze to settle on the vacant bench. A bench which just happened to be directly across the road from the Calders, which just happened to be empty of the same, lonely man who'd been sitting there for days on end, on the very evening Gwen decided to cut loose and run. Coincidence?
I stared for a moment longer, then spun and stuck my head back inside.
"Emmerson! When did you say Gwen went missing?"
He looked up from his search, frowning. "Today, this evening, sometime …"
"When? What time, come on, be specific!"
He glanced at his wife. "Ah … maybe half an hour before we called you, an hour at the most …"
Okay, okay, why would the time be important? The man had always been waiting on the bench at the same time, checking his watch … I seized upon the idea as it suddenly hit me.
"Seph!" I turned to my boss. "Are there any trains leaving the state around this time, after eight?" I knew he had a working knowledge of the timetables for most of Grand Central's outbound trains, having used the transportation often enough himself.
His eyes grew distant. "… Yes, a few." Already understanding where this was headed and assuming I knew what I was doing, he strode to the door, calling back to the Calders, "Phone the police, tell them to be on the lookout for Miss Irvine at Grand Central Station, specifically the concourse for the outbound through traffic."
The Calders glanced at each other as I turned to join Seph. "But … how do you …"
Making the car, I slid in, and we were on our way.
It was ten minutes down Fifth and over to Lexington before we pulled up to Grand Central's Forty-Second Street entrance. We'd beaten the police there. I was already off and running before Sephiroth had the car parked. Bounding up to the station, I ducked inside. Making my way through the throngs of people, I arrived at the waiting room and stopped short, confronted with rows upon rows of benches; tall backs prevented me from easily scanning the crowds. I paced halfway along the room, peering down the rows, before slipping through and across to the Main Concourse; I knew Sephiroth would take the lower concourse for the local traffic, just to cover all bases. Directly in front of me, centered in the cavernous room, was the Information desk, topped by the golden, four-sided clock. Immediately to either side of me, flanking the entrance, were the ticket booths. I spun to face them, glancing upward to the arrival and departure times.
"Which one, which one …?" I muttered to myself. Was she back in the waiting room or out here somewhere? I didn't know, and kept glancing back to the benches down the wide entryway. At last, my gaze brushed a time: 8:45, bound for Chicago via Detroit. It was 8:27 right now.
I didn't know if that was the right one, or even if Gwen would be headed out of state, but heck, this whole thing was a gamble on my part, anyway. Turning away, I began scanning faces and walking further into the concourse. Late-day sun, about to vanish, streamed at a shallow angle through the towering windows, past the star-studded ceiling, and veiled the constellations there in a golden haze.
This was never going to work. Even if we got here on time, there were too many people; we'd never find her before the train left!
Keep moving, keep moving … I spun, left and right, searching. What would she wear? Hat, or no? Would she be alone or with the man I'd seen before? Crowds brushed past on either side of me, like schools of fish, constantly in motion, seeking to confuse. Faces upon faces, none of them recognizable … The light through the windows faded, and suddenly night was upon the city. I wondered whether this had all been a mistake. Was Seph having any better luck? Was she even here? Maybe I'd missed her entirely; I didn't even know what to look for …
The four-faced clock read 8:35.
About to dart up the grand staircase on the western side of the room in a desperate bid for a better vantage point, I glimpsed a familiar face. Whirling back, I searched again, sure I'd seen her … There! Striding quickly away, almost too quick, was a short, brown-haired woman. I couldn't see much of her face from here, but what I could see looked about right, so I took a chance and ran. She disappeared under the arching entrance way onto the tracks.
Pushing between the bunching travelers, I nearly lost her again as I came upon the tracks. Gleaming steel trains stretched away on either side before me, and I nearly lost my footing as someone plowed into my back. But I spotted her again, further down, and sped after her. Finally catching up, I seized her elbow.
"You're not going anywhere, Miss Irvine. Now tell me where-"
"No! You don't understand!" Before I could finish, she'd walloped me hard with something she was carrying and broke away while I stumbled. Blinking, I gingerly touched the side of my head. My fingers came away red. "Jeez, lady," I muttered. Giving my head a shake to clear it, I followed after her again. What the heck was she carrying, a brick?
A train whistle sounded, the five minute warning. I'd nearly caught up to her again when she ducked into a car. Skidding to a stop, I burst in after her, but the sudden press of people exiting forced me back. Fighting through them, I spied her making her way out the other side of the train and back onto the platform. What was she doing? Was she even trying to make her train? It was back the other way!
Grumbling, I followed, hopped off the train, and found her speeding up the platform and out a side exit. Spotting the familiar uniforms of a couple police officers that had taken so long to get here, I yelled at them: "Find Sephiroth!" Then, beating it after her, I made it out, only to lose track of which way she'd gone. Dang. She was slipperier than a frog on ice, and with night having fallen, it was going to be harder to find her if I lost her now!
After a too-long moment of hesitation, I chose a direction based on a gut feeling and tore off. The press of people rapidly grew less as I left the station behind, and I hoped she hadn't somehow doubled around and gone back in. It would be too late for the train, anyway, if the 8:45 was the one she was hoping to make, and I was pretty sure it was.
Several minutes passed as my feet slapped the sidewalk. Glancing between cross streets lit only by the occasional working lamp and the rising moon, I was beginning to lose hope – I'd guessed wrongly, after all. I was on the verge of heading back, when the rapid tapping of heels caught my attention. I looked, was rewarded with the sight of my quarry down one street ducking into a dark alley, and rushed to catch up.
It took but another moment for me to reach her, when there was an unexpected shout and someone tackled me from the side. I yelped in surprise, struggled and threw him off, only for him to come back swinging. I managed to block the blow, but not very well; it glanced off the side of my head. Reeling back, I caught another blow to the stomach, but succeeded in bringing the guy down with me. We fell hard.
I'm no stranger to scuffles like this, so I began to lay into him, but didn't get very far before he again kneed me in the stomach and scrambled away. Attempting to follow, I didn't even get off the ground before I heard a distinctive click that chilled my blood. Slowly, I looked up.
For the first time in my life, I found myself staring into the barrel of a gun. It was a deceptively small thing, but seemed to carry the weight of a hundred worlds upon it. Black as the surrounding night and darker than the alley, it was etched by a pale, faint glow … painting death by moonlight.
I froze. He wouldn't really …
Shaking his head and backing up, the man snarled at me. His face was shadowed by the night and his fedora, but I could see enough. "You people just don't give up, do you? Well, I got news for you, pal, you aren't getting away with anything this time." With his free hand, he wiped at the corner of his mouth, grimacing at the line of blood he found there. Then he shot me a look of hatred fit to kill by itself, and steadied the weapon. "You won't get away with anything ever again."
Slowly, I held up my hands. "H-hey, there, pal … take it easy. You don't really wanna kill me, do you? I have no idea what you're talkin' about, honest!" At his unimpressed look, my mouth went dry. I licked my lips, nervously. "L-look, I … if you're in league with the maid, then why don't we just talk it over? I'm sure we can come to some kind of … understanding."
He narrowed his eyes. "I'm done talking with you. You'll never take her back." He firmed his aim and pulled the trigger.
There was a woman's scream, and I jerked, violently. My eyes squeezed shut; the only thing I heard was the fading echo of the gun's report.
I … I was still alive.
Hesitantly, heart hammering in my ears, I lowered my arms from the defensive position I'd taken, and glanced up at the man. His arm had been shoved to the side; Gwen Irvine stood there, shaking, afraid.
"Don't kill him, please!" she pleaded. "He's a good man, he's not one of them!" Her eyes met his, begging. "He just wishes to help Jenny," she finished, more quietly.
"Please. Let him go." He attempted to raise the weapon; she held onto it. "Let him go."
The man's face hardened. I thought for sure he'd have another go at it, but he finally sighed, lowering the weapon.
"Let's go." His jaw was tight, and it seemed to me that he trembled slightly, in the moonlight.
Gwen turned to me. "Please don't follow us. You don't understand. It really is not what it looks like …"
"Sure, lady. Whatever you say," I said, unconvinced. I'd never admit it, but I was shaken. I felt betrayed by someone who I'd thought had confided in me, and as for the gun … My eyes were fastened to it. I didn't make a move to get up, as the man still gripped the weapon as if he had a mind to use it.
"Gwen!" the man warned.
She bit her lip, hesitated, then rustled toward me. "Here." Producing something small from her purse, she pressed it into my hand. "Take it. It may help you."
I held the object up. It was a small key.
"Please don't follow," she beseeched me once more. She glanced at the man beside her, nodded. They were about to leave when I drew courage and spoke up.
"Is Jenny safe?" I demanded.
The man whirled on me. "What difference does it make?" he snarled.
Abruptly I got angry. "All the difference in the world, you-" I started to get up; he trained the gun once more upon me. "Gaia, no, wait!" My heart leapt. I raised my hands, stayed put. "No, just … Gaia, don't shoot, don't …" At once, all the fight drained out of me – I was fixated once more on the weapon, but I still needed to know. Keeping a hand up in what I hoped was a placating gesture, I pressed on. "Just … just tell me, is she safe?" He hesitated. "Is she safe?"
There was a long moment in which I thought he'd simply turn around and leave. Finally he said, "She's safe." Then, hustling around the corner out of the alley, they left.
Letting my breath out in a gust, I sagged into the concrete. Taking off my hat, I ran a trembling hand through my hair. I stared in the direction they'd gone, too conscious of how close that had been. The image of the moonlit gun stayed frozen in my mind.
Five minutes later, rapid footsteps approached the position where I still sat. They paused at the entrance to the alley behind me, then quickened once more. I didn't even have the energy to turn and look.
"Zack!" It was Sephiroth. "Are you all right?" He knelt beside me and gripped my shoulder, turning me to face him. I averted my eyes.
"Yeah, I'm fine," I said, even though I wasn't. Not to be dissuaded, he turned my head toward him, catching sight of the blood. "Ow! Leave me alone." I pushed his hand away.
He stilled. "… I heard a gunshot," he finally commented.
A brief shiver ran through me and I fisted my hand, hiding it when it, too, began to shake. "Yeah," I replied, quietly.
There was a long moment while he examined my face and then the alleyway.
"They got away?"
My response was even softer. I examined the ground. "…Yeah."
Another long moment passed. I was afraid to look up to see what he was thinking. Finally he stood and pulled me up.
"Come on." His voice was low, matching the stillness of our surroundings. I heard no judgment within it.
We walked back the way I had come. Rather casually, he laid an arm across my shoulders. I was glad for it, and didn't brush it off.
It was lunchtime. I sat in my office once more, thinking over what had occurred last night. Sephiroth had brought sandwiches, generous of him, but, for once, I wasn't hungry. I couldn't get my mind off of what had happened. The sandwich was left, neglected and cooling, at the corner of my desk.
I'd already told Seph about it. I was positive my attacker had been the man from the bench – he'd had the same hat, looked about the same. But what I couldn't figure out was why? Who was he? Why was he Gwen's accomplice? Or was she his? I'd guessed they'd worked together to snatch the kid – what got me most was that I hadn't even seen it coming. Of course we should've suspected Gwen, but she'd been the one to report the kidnapping, and she'd been so upset … I'd thought it was genuine.
I've been so stupid.
It seemed clear, now, that the old stuffed rabbit had marked the real location of the kidnapping, and that Gwen had tried at first, not very well, to hide that fact. Not that it would have made one bit of difference, one way or the other, at the time. Maybe she hadn't even known the rabbit had been dropped, simply doing whatever she could to conceal whatever evidence there might have been, yet still make herself a victim of the crime. If only we'd put two and two together back at the beginning!
But what set her off now? We were well on our way to chasing wild geese – if she'd simply laid low, the case would've gone cold, she could have quit nice and easy, and no one would be the wiser. Or, why hadn't she just made her getaway right at the beginning? Had she been too afraid she'd never make it if she went then? Everything was a mess. My head hurt.
I fingered the bandage over the corner of my temple, wincing at the slight pressure to the injury. Never had found out what it was that Gwen cracked me with.
"Leave it alone," Sephiroth warned. I glanced up to meet his eyes. "It'll reopen."
Sighing, my hand dropped. I went back to toying with the music box.
We were back to square one.
No one knew where Gwen and her accomplice had gone. They could still be in the city, somewhere, as easily as halfway across the country. The police had spread the word and were on the lookout for her and her accomplice – I'd done my best to provide a description, vague though it was. And as for me and Sephiroth … well, we'd dug up maps for the train routes – the one she likely would have taken terminated at Chicago, sure, but there were so many branching routes along the way that her final destination was impossible to determine. Turning to the letters we'd gotten from the Calders, Sephiroth scoured through them, looking for addresses.
The letters detailed the setup for the kidnapping – Gwen would meet the man in the park, and he would take the girl with him. Whether he travelled by car or train wasn't specified, but everything else was there. Dates, times, waiting for the usual Sunday morning outing … down to contingency plans for Gwen being discovered. I supposed she'd been feeling threatened for a while, and finally made a break for it, either shortly before or after the Calders found her correspondence.
Circumstances indicated that there was at least one more person involved, though it was vague from the letters. Someone would have had to stay with Jenny while the man came for Gwen, after all.
The letters had provided us a name: Dawson. What they didn't provide us was an address. Or even a reason why. Gwen sure had taken care to cover all her tracks.
I should have followed.
Gun or no gun, I should have followed! It was our last chance to find Jenny, one we'd never thought we'd get, and I blew it. Dammit, what was wrong with me? I could've tailed 'em, stayed far enough back that they wouldn't see me. It was dark enough, even if there weren't a lot of people around, and I'd probably be fine! We could have found where they might've holed up, got some clue to where they were headed … heck, I could've called for backup once they'd gone to ground, and we still could've gotten them! We could be on the road to wherever they'd hidden Jenny, if only I hadn't just …
I don't know. I don't even know what to call it. Failure, that's what it was.
"Now that is odd, indeed," commented Sephiroth from his desk. My gaze rose to find him staring at me. Had he found something? "Zackary Fair, not eating lunch. Unusual."
I glowered, not amused. "So what? I'm not hungry. What difference does it make?"
"Quite a bit, considering you're always pestering me to buy something."
I frowned. Fine. I dragged the sandwich over and unwrapped it. I would have eaten it, but somehow it was just … unappetizing. After picking at it for a moment, I shoved it away, and buried my head into the arms upon my desk.
"I'm not hungry," I repeated.
There were several minutes of silence. Maybe Sephiroth was waiting for me to say something more. He rarely offers anything himself, after all.
But I didn't say anything else.
Finally, there was a quiet sigh. "Zackary. No one blames you for what happened last night. There was a gun; no one expected it. They used it to their advantage, and escaped. Such is what often happens when guns are-"
"No!" My head shot up and I slammed a hand into the desk. "I could have done something. I could have stopped them from getting away-"
"-But I didn't. You don't know, Sephiroth. You weren't there." My hand fisted, and I gritted my teeth. "At the least, I could've followed 'em. But I didn't. I could've tried to talk 'em out of it, or gotten some more information … but I didn't. There's so much that I could've done! But I didn't!" Frustrated now, I buried a hand into my hair. "I could have done something, anything would've been better than just sitting there, but there was a gun and I … and I froze and I … I don't even know why, and …"
"You were afraid."
"No I wasn't!" I denied it. "I wasn't afraid, I dunno what it was, it was just … it was stupid." I realized that my hands had started to shake, so I gripped the front of the desk to stop them. "I was … surprised, I was angry – Gwen, I trusted her, I thought she'd been so upset by Jenny's kidnapping, and then she was the one who'd done it in the first place … and the gun was there, and I couldn't get it out of my mind, and the guy actually shot it, he was really gonna … if Gwen hadn't …"
"Zack. Zack." Sephiroth's patient voice cut through my tirade. Then he continued, quietly. "… You've never faced a gun before, have you." It wasn't a question.
"Well, sure I … I mean, there were guns, with Angeal, people had guns … I just never …"
"You've never actually faced one."
Slowly, I shook my head, swallowing hard. "… It was just so … final. It was … when I realized what it could do, and that I might …"
"It's alright. You did exactly what I would have wanted you to do."
I stared at him, startled. "… What? I-I did?"
A nod. "It's not important that you didn't follow them."
"But … what about Jenny? What about her life? If they're using guns, they could …"
Sephiroth stood, which was enough to cut me off, and came around his desk and over to me. In a rare gesture, he knelt to bring himself to eye-level, setting a comforting hand upon my shoulder. I trembled.
"Zack, Jenny's life is important, but so is yours. I do not want you sacrificing your life needlessly. While you may feel you could have accomplished more had you taken the risk, it could easily have ended up badly, too. And you cannot help anyone when you are dead."
"… But …"
"It is natural to be afraid. I am glad it kept you from doing something foolish." I tried to say something else, but he continued, "And it will get easier – don't beat yourself up over it. … Even I find myself afraid at times."
I sniffed and ran a hand across my eyes, nodding, and turning away. A shudder ran through me once more, but I finally brought myself under control. "… I find that hard to believe," I managed to respond, in an attempt to be light. I couldn't smile like I wanted and my chest was tight, but … the pressure was easing.
"Really?" Sephiroth leaned back, and I saw something sparkle in his eyes. "Let's see you face down Angeal, then, when he learns of your injury. He's like a mother bear watching after his cub. The thought of his anger has me petrified."
I couldn't help it – I chuckled then, relaxing at Seph's not-quite smile. Maybe he was right, after all. There was still hope for the case – I had a key to investigate, and Sephiroth had letters to send in for prints. And, though I knew he was joking, the thought of anyone being afraid of Angeal was enough to make me laugh. He'd always been a big softy, he wasn't frightening at all …
As Sephiroth strode back to his desk, I cleared my throat. "Ah, Seph, you wouldn't … you wouldn't tell Angeal what happened … right?"
Despite still having something to go on, we made zero progress that day. The fingerprints had come back negative, not surprising … that is, we identified Gwen's, the Calder's and Seph's of course, but the set of unidentified prints had no match. The Calders reported that they'd never heard of this Dawson fellow, and the key Gwen had left me matched nothing in the Calder household.
I arrived at the office the next day, worn out and discouraged once more. I'd thought for sure we'd find something in Gwen's room the key belonged to, since we'd missed her letters the first time around. But she'd apparently kept them on her. It had been a moment of inattention when she'd left the letters in her room that had allowed the Calders to find them.
Slumping into my chair, I picked up the music box and wound it. As the music played, I wondered further about things.
Sephiroth had mentioned something strange. He said he'd thought the letters seemed … unfinished, as if something was missing. He couldn't put his finger on what it was, but he was sure that there had to be more to the letters than what he had.
He'd also said that the day of Gwen's getaway, the Calders had been burning something in the fireplace. I remembered seeing ashes at the time, but had thought little of it, thinking it normal. It was the peak of summer, though, he reminded me, so the use of the fireplace was strange, indeed. What had they been burning?
The letters, was the obvious answer. But why?
And what purpose was there to Gwen giving me the key? What was it she wanted us to find? It was almost absurd – she'd already gotten away with Jenny. Was she having a change of heart?
I hoped when the man said Jenny was safe that she'd stay that way. Despite Gwen's crime, I couldn't fathom her responsible for hurting someone, not after she'd saved my life.
Well, ignoring the part where she tried to bash in my brains, that is.
A sigh. I watched the ballerina turn, graceful, elegant, carefree. I could only hope that Jenny was like that ballerina. Idly, I studied the box, sliding a thumb over the gilded trim as I listened. Unexpectedly, my finger brushed something in the back that made me freeze. Slowly, I shifted it again. Sure enough, something moved.
Puzzled, I turned the box around to examine it more closely. There was a small, gold rose in the center of it. Carefully, deliberately, I pushed at it. It slid to the left on tiny hinges. A miniature keyhole was revealed.
My jaw dropped. Was this …? Heart quickening, I fished in my pocket for the key Gwen had given me. I looked between the two for a moment, and then, not daring to hope, fit the key into the hole. It clicked into place. I turned it.
There was a quiet snick, and the top of the box popped open, just a little. Wondering, I lifted it, ever so gently, and peered inside.
There was a photograph. Larger than the inside of the box allowed, it had been forced inside anyway, curving to fit the space. I tugged it out.
It was Jenny. A much younger Jenny, but I recognized her bright eyes and curly hair. In the photograph with her were two other people, holding her close and smiling. They were people I'd never seen before, except … there was something familiar about the man, and the woman could have been Jenny's twin, if it weren't for the fact that she was about thirty years older than the girl in the photograph. In fact, if I didn't know any better, I'd say …
Slowly, I flipped the picture over. There was a short caption on the back, in faded pencil. It said:
Luke, Carol & Marie Dawson
"… Uh, Seph, I think you should see this."
It took a while, but we finally had the evidence we needed to settle this case for good. Sephiroth, looking up the maker's mark on the music box, actually tracked it down to a small town just outside of Bay City, Michigan. There was a shop there, owned by a German immigrant, who made and sold music boxes. He recognized the one Sephiroth showed him, and, more importantly, remembered selling it about six years ago to the proud parents of a little girl. He knew them still, and pointed Sephiroth to them.
When we finally confronted Emmerson and Adele Calder, they vehemently denied it … at first. They presented birth records for Jenny, but it didn't take long for us to determine that they'd been forged, and, thanks to Angeal, we found old, forgotten records from a hospital in Bay City of Jenny's … Marie's … birth.
Finally, we'd found her … safe, at home, back with her parents … her real parents … after a three year absence.
The case went to court, but it was cut and dry. We did learn, however, the story behind the kidnapping case that wasn't – or was, rather, but not the way we'd imagined.
The Dawsons and Calders had been acquaintances. More than that, they'd been neighbors, friends. Living just outside Bay City, the Calders, under the names Adele and Emmerson White, even then, had been doing well for themselves. Not so for Luke and Carol Dawson – they'd been plagued with financial problems, yet had been blessed with a little girl – Marie. Despite everything, they were happy.
And despite everything, the Calders – the Whites - were not happy. As the years wore on, they found themselves unable to have a child of their own. Heartbroken, despairing, they came to look upon Luke and Carol with envy. Eventually, they began to believe that they could better provide for the little girl and deserved to have her … for her own well-being. Using Marie's best interests as justification – surely she would be happier with a family who could afford to provide her with everything – they abducted her.
One day, the Dawsons arrived home to find the house empty. They'd left Marie with the Whites for the day, but the Whites were gone, too – vanished, as if they'd never been there, along with Marie's records, stolen from the Dawson household. Realizing what had happened, Luke and Carol contacted the police, but the getaway had been too quick, too well planned … Lacking the money to hire a detective, Marie, they thought, was gone for good. Luke and Carol were devastated.
Marie had been just three years old.
Two years later, the Whites, now the Calders, with their beautiful five-year-old Jennifer Evelyn, have been happily settled in Manhattan. They'd made several friends, good friends who never suspected, and they'd gotten a maid, Gwynn Irvine, who'd been with them for nearly the entire extent of those two years, watching over Jenny and raising her as if she was her own daughter.
But, one day, Gwen stumbled upon a newspaper article with a photo of the Dawsons and their daughter, and began to wonder, absurd as it seemed, whether the five-year old girl at the house was really theirs. Though hesitant, she wrote to the original family, requesting that they describe the girl. Now, Gwen knew Jenny very well, so she was confident that nothing would come of this, and that would be that. But from the detail in the description, she began to suspect otherwise. Taking a chance, Gwen dug further, discovering that the Calders had moved to Manhattan just two years ago – they hadn't lived there for several more, as she, and everyone else, were led to believe – and she came to realize that the family's tendency to keep Jenny hidden was rather strange. Eventually, through further communication, she was sent the key to Jenny's music box – taken, perhaps to appease the little girl when she was kidnapped, and still with her. Gwen found the photo inside and knew the truth.
She offered to contact the police, but the Dawsons were fearful that the Calders would disappear again if they found out, and they knew that they no longer had anything to prove that Jenny was really theirs, believing the only copies of her records were gone. So they decided to wait and concoct a plan. Their chance came almost a year later, just shy of Jenny's sixth birthday.
The rest of the story is as I've related already, with Adele and Emmerson burning the incriminating letters and leaving just enough behind to document Gwen's culpability. It left me with mixed feelings as I stood there outside the courthouse after the trial, with Sephiroth, as the Calders at last met the Dawsons face to face.
Luke and Carol were emotional, expected, of course, since they, at last, had the law on their side and Marie where she belonged. It had been a long three years for them, agonizing, I'm sure, to know that your baby girl was living with someone else and that there was nothing you could do about it. It was a stroke of luck that Gwen had seen the newspaper article at all, and, more than that, was curious enough to write the Dawsons about her. In some other future, Marie would have vanished for good.
On the other side, Emmerson was stiff and red-faced, but Adele was broken up, suppressing, without much luck, the tears in her eyes. They pleaded with Luke and Carol to see things their way, to give Marie a real chance at happiness. They wanted what was best for her, that was all – look at her now, she was beautiful, happy, and they loved her. As far as little Marie was concerned, they were her parents. Couldn't the Dawsons see that? Never mind that she'd been born a Dawson, she was Jennifer Calder now. They'd done the right thing. Marie deserved everything, and they were going to give it to her. They could provide for her in a way that Luke and Carol never could.
Of course, the Dawsons, Luke, at least, was infuriated. I could see that it was all he could do not to lay into Emmerson and beat him to within an inch of his life. He's no killer, but he was ready to kill for his little girl – I knew it, the night I tracked him down. But Adele appealed to their former friendship in a desperate plea to get Carol to listen to reason. It was not to be, of course. That trust had been betrayed in the worst possible way. Both women knew it, and I think both regretted it, but it could never be recovered.
Luke and Emmerson spoke little to each other, as the police readied to take the Calders away. And neither did Carol and Adele, really, after Adele's appeal … well, not in words, anyway. Gwen was there, too, but she watched, only, from the sidelines. I could see her tearing up. I wondered how she felt about what she'd done. I didn't quite know how I felt about it.
After Emmerson and Adele were led away, the Dawsons spoke their thanks to Sephiroth and I. Strangely, it gave me very little satisfaction.
Just before they turned to leave, I knelt down to get face-to-face with little Marie. I wondered if she'd answer to her real name.
"Hey, there, Marie," I said, smiling. She held Carol's hand, half-hidden behind her leg. "Bet you've had quite the adventure, huh?"
Shy, Marie simply nodded at me.
Carol knelt, gently tugging Marie out in front of her. Dabbing at her own eyes with a handkerchief, she spoke, "Honey, this is one of the men who helped to find you and bring you home. Wasn't that nice of him?"
There was a long moment, before Marie nodded.
"Why don't you go thank him, sweetheart?"
When no thanks seemed forthcoming, Carol smiled apologetically. I grinned back. "It's no problem." Returning my attention to Marie, I pulled something out of my coat pocket and unwrapped it. "Marie, I have something that belongs to you. Here." Revealing the music box, I wound it and set it playing one last time. "You remember this, right?"
Blue eyes widening, Marie nodded. She watched the little ballerina. Just when I thought she still wouldn't move to take it, she scampered toward me and lifted it from my outstretched hand, then scampered back.
Carol smiled. "She says thank you."
I smirked. "I figured." Standing, I once again addressed the little girl. "You take good care of that, Marie, you hear? It's a very special music box. It'll bring you good luck."
Carol stood, as well. "Thank you, Detectives Zack Fair and Sephiroth." She glanced between the two of us, eyes shining once more. "You're her heroes, you really are. And ours. I don't know what we'd do without you. If there's anything at all we can do to repay you … We don't have much, but you're welcome to anything …"
Sephiroth interrupted. "That's not necessary, Mrs. Dawson. Seeing Marie back home where she belongs is enough for us."
I nodded. "I'm just glad we were able to puzzle everything out! Really, though, you don't owe us anything. I think Gwen over there is who you really need to thank."
At her name, Gwen started, but remained silent.
Luke cleared his throat, then stepped forward to shake Sephiroth's hand, and mine. "You have our eternal gratitude. Having my baby girl back … Well, it's a father's dream." His voice was gruff, and he was unable to say any more. "Thank you."
Carol stepped up to give each of us a kiss on the cheek. I glanced at Seph to see how he'd take it, but he was as stoic as ever. Just as we were about to leave, however, I felt a tug on my pants. Glancing down, I spied little Marie there. I knelt.
"Well, hello there, Marie. What can I do for you?"
Still silent, she pushed her music box toward me. Confused, I took it.
"Don't you want it?"
She shook her head.
"… Are you giving it to me?"
A shy nod, and then she kissed my cheek and ran back into her mother's arms. Carol lifted her up. I stood, giving her a questioning look.
It's fine, she mouthed. Out loud, she said, "What's this, no goodbye kiss for Mister Sephiroth? He helped too, you know."
Marie looked at Sephiroth, tall and imposing, and promptly buried her face into her mother's shoulder. I chuckled.
"I guess not." Carol shot him an apologetic glance. Finally, with her husband wrapping an arm around her shoulder, they thanked us again and left for their waiting taxi.
I grinned and turned to my partner. "Well, Seph-"
"-That's that! Another case solved and shelved. Shame your damsel in distress had no good-bye kiss for you, though." I didn't even bother to hide the amusement in my voice.
"Zackary, that doesn't say much when you need to rely on children to boost your ego."
"That's not what it is! She obviously likes me better than you."
"So? Good taste develops early."
There was a sigh. Sephiroth, choosing not to dignify that with a comment, led the way back to the office.
That was the end of the case, yet I often found myself thinking about it, weeks later. The music box was no help, a reminder perched on the corner of my desk.
Had it really been the right thing to do, giving Marie back to her real parents? Sure, she was young, she'd get over it just fine, and she'd seemed to remember something of her real mom and dad, too. And I'm all for reuniting kids with their parents. What happened shouldn't have happened in the first place. Ever.
But it had. It had, and Marie had spent three happy years with her new parents, as Jennifer. In spite of everything I'd taken issue with before, she would have had a happy life, just the same, if she'd never been reunited with her family. They would have given her everything. She would have been well-clothed, well-fed, gotten an education she could be proud of …
Was that so wrong?
Carol Dawson had said I was a hero. Was that true?
I didn't feel like one.
Who's to say Marie shouldn't have stayed with the Calders? Maybe Adele and Emmerson had a point. Wishing the best for your kid … for someone else's kid … and doing everything in your power to provide that … wasn't that what was important? The Calders loved Marie. Whether their actions stemmed mostly from a desire for her well-being or their own selfishness, there was still that. And isn't that everything?
I wondered what kind of life Marie would have now, now that she was back with her real parents. They hadn't looked any better off than they'd been before Marie had been kidnapped. Certainly not impoverished by any means, but clearly unable to provide for her in the way the Calders could.
I found myself wondering, wandering in circles, and unable to arrive at a good answer. I finally had to put the music box away on the shelf, where I wouldn't look at it anymore. I … I was unable to see the Calders as in the wrong, and it bothered me.
Sephiroth could see that it bothered me, too. He didn't know why it troubled me so much, and I didn't tell him. Out of respect, he chose not to pry.
I kinda wished he had.