The Long Weekend
The new number had been glued to her desk for hours, grading tests for her high school algebra classes.
A soft pool of yellow light enveloped the teacher, making her fuzzy crown of white hair glow like a halo, Reese thought. The gentle light sparkled off of the facets of the heavy crystal vase filled with red roses on her desk.
From his perch on a rooftop across the alley from his target's third floor window, he wondered how long past midnight she intended to work before calling it quits. Reese fretted that she was never going to finish her grading if she continued wasting her time studying the spent petals that had drifted onto the exams.
Finch had assured him that the machine had indeed generated the social security number of the teacher. But after two days of focused tracking, Reese could not determine what the danger that threatened her was.
To relieve the monotony of the long vigil, he checked in at midnight with Fusco to tease him about his new weight loss plan. And then he called Carter just to hear the tender exasperation in her voice.
He wanted to know what she was doing (watching an old movie on the old movie channel, something about Montgomery Clift and a priest) and what she was wearing (she refused to give him even a clue). The Pabst she was sipping sounded good. He imagined the cold bottle in her hand, its slippery neck pressed against her forehead to douse the heat. He hung up before the desire to join her overwhelmed his sense of duty to the number.
An hour later, after Finch bid him goodnight electronically, Reese did not bother to stifle a yawn.
He was bored with surveillance work.
Right up to the moment that he lost consciousness from a blow to the head.
When he came to, Fusco was tapping his cheeks and shaking his shoulders. At the first sign of alertness, the detective slanted his head out of Reese's line of sight and the sudden glare of the morning sun amplified the headache spiraling at the base of his skull.
Reese tried to bat away Fusco's pudgy hands, but the effort brought a wave of nausea. Reese closed his eyes and prayed that Fusco and the headache would disappear.
Neither complied with his wish.
"I can take care of this myself. Leave me alone." The boast sounded ridiculous even as he said it.
"You can't lie here all day, wise guy." Fusco was trying to keep his booming voice low, but the echo through Reese's head was excruciating.
"It's going to take me a few minutes to get up." An underestimation for sure, but it sounded like he knew what he was doing.
"Tell me what happened, Fusco. Quietly."
"I got a call from your mysterious little friend this morning. He said he hadn't heard from you since around midnight and you hadn't checked in at your usual time. So he told me where you were on stake-out and I cased the neighboring buildings. Found you on the rooftop, sleeping like a baby. You know, you look real cute when you're out cold. I shoulda took a picture. Carter woulda got a kick outta it."
"What happened to the school teacher I was following?"
"I don't know. That's probably the kind of complex and sophisticated research your computerized friend gives Carter to look into."
This last was said with an edge. It was four weeks since Fusco and Carter had discovered their mutual employment bond and neither was in a forgiving mood yet.
After a few more minutes, Fusco was able to help Reese down the fire escape and into his squad car. Reese wanted to go home, lie down, and sleep for a week, but he didn't want Fusco to know any of the addresses he frequented. So after phoning Finch, he sat silently in the detective's sedan until a black town car pulled into view.
Reese's gratitude to Fusco was genuine but he felt restrained by the need to keep his asset on his toes. He had already displayed enough ineptitude for one day without compounding it with abject groveling. Fusco would never let him live this down.
On the ride back to headquarters, Finch explained the outcome of their case with a level of detail that increased Reese's headache tenfold.
The nice lady math teacher had in fact been the mastermind of a sizeable Ponzi scheme which had over many years enticed hundreds of her colleagues and neighbors into giving up their life savings in pursuit of promised riches. She had recently been targeted for a violent death by several of the bankrupted victims of her scheme. Working together, the teachers had planned to fake a simple burglary which would disguise their assassination attempt. Several days before they intended to carry out their plot, it seemed that one of the would-be murderers had spotted Reese on the trail of their target. So in a two-pronged attack, the academic assassins eliminated Reese and the school teacher he was following.
He ended up with a bruised skull; she ended up in the morgue.
Reese spent until midafternoon lying on a couch in a darkened room off the buzzing computer hive in the library. The cold towel, aspirin, and simple omelet Finch gave him worked wonders as did the silent commiseration.
Neither man considered this case a success since their number had died. But neither could feel great remorse over her passing. Her victims were so numerous and so highly motivated that it was almost impossible to identify exactly who had finally committed the murder. Finch had no intention of providing any incriminating information to the police. The case was closed as far as they were concerned.
"We have no new numbers at present, Mr. Reese. You might as well take the rest of the week off."
Reese wasn't going to quibble, though he couldn't help observing, "It is three o'clock, Finch. But thanks anyway."
By the time the taxi deposited him at his hideaway above Pooja's Restaurant, Reese wanted nothing.
No food, no phone calls, no visitors.
Naturally, he got all three in abundance.
Before he had dragged himself up the three flights of stairs to his room, the waiters had alerted Reese's landlady, Mrs. Soni, to his dilapidated condition. She made a quick stop at his bed side to determine the extent of his injuries, pronounced them minor, and prescribed mulligatawny soup as a remedy for all aches and pains. She drew closed the yellow curtains on her way out and turned on the overhead fan to a low soothing setting.
Reese was just dozing off when the stew arrived in a brightly colored tureen on a silver platter. The Anglo-Indian soup, a favorite since his first week at Pooja's, was slightly different every time he tasted it. This afternoon, Mrs. Soni had relaxed her usual vegetarian recipe to include a substantial portion of shredded chicken in the spicy rice and lentil mix.
The last spoonful of mulligatawny had barely cooled on his tongue, when the cell phone started buzzing. Reese ignored the first two calls, but took the third on the assumption that Carter really did want something if she was this persistent.
"Are you all right? She never bothered with a greeting these days.
"Feeling fine and dandy. And you?"
"Fusco told me he scraped you off a roof top this morning with a lump the size of an ostrich egg on the back of your head."
Nice. He would have to get Fusco for that.
Reese wasn't sure how much Fusco knew about his relationship with Carter. But certainly this salvo indicated that the canny detective was probing for information and getting closer to putting all the puzzle pieces together.
Fusco now knew Carter worked with him, knew that she was a valued resource and back up, knew that she tracked his cases with extra care.
But did Fusco know she was sleeping with him?
Basic gum shoe techniques were a Fusco strong suit, so Reese figured it wouldn't be long before the outline of their personal relationship was sketched in.
Though privacy was his touchstone and deception his default, Reese didn't really care if Fusco found out about them. He was O.K. with the cop having this information, just as Finch did, as long as it didn't alter how they worked together.
Reese assumed, however, that Carter would not be quite so blasé about the breach of confidence.
He knew she had more to lose than he did, both professionally and personally. An unemployed white guy whose last known address was an abandoned warehouse, with no income, no family, no future, a violent past, and lots of enemies was not exactly a smart woman's dream come true. He was beat up, shot up, and chased down on a weekly basis and his only friend was a recluse with serious trust issues.
She knew exactly what he had done in New Rochelle and why.
But she stuck with him. Despite everything she knew about him, everything she had seen and learned about him. She trusted him and she stuck with him.
Reese wanted to be the man who inspired that kind of loyalty in a woman like Joss Carter. He would work his whole life to be that man.
As he mused in silence, he tuned back into her account of the day.
"…and the room was neat enough, even with all the blood on the desk. I don't think she knew exactly what hit her. CSI thought it was something round like a bat or a mallet or even a glass vase. We had to confiscate all the papers she was grading because of the blood spatter evidence. I saw lots of Ds and Fs so I don't think the kids will be sad to see those algebra tests disappear.
"Are you sure you're alright, John? You are awfully quiet, even for you."
"I'm O.K. Just tired."
"You don't sound good to me. I'm coming over right now."
She hung up on him before he could respond. That used to be his M.O. When did things change?
Reese was asleep again when Carter arrived. He vaguely registered her entering the room and was grateful that she didn't switch on the light as she undressed. Beside him in bed, she pressed her body against his back and kissed the lump on his head by way of greeting. She stroked his hair and his ears and his shoulders.
Despite the unsettled state of his head and stomach, Reese found himself reenergized. Her nearness lifted the pervasive gloom that pressed down on him, the feeling that just about everything that could go wrong had gone wrong all day long.
He hoped she had come for a booty call and not just to catch up on sleep. He liked it when she used him that way. Her wanting him was a mystery he would never solve and a turn on that would always thrill him.
"I thought you said you were tired." She whispered the mild accusation against his throat.
"Was. Past tense."
Afterwards, they lay side by side panting, sweaty, and sticking together at the shoulder and hip.
"I didn't come over here for that. Honest."
"No complaints from me."
But she had come over for something, he was sure of that. He would ask her about it in the morning.
Liquid sounds awoke Reese from his deep sleep shortly after dawn.
Without opening his eyes, he luxuriated in the gentle noises: Joss showering, then sipping coffee, then pouring milk into cereal. She slurped when she ate the Cheerios he knew Mrs. Soni had provided. The mango and papaya made a squishy sound as she chased the slices around the bowl with her spoon.
She was smiling when he opened his eyes at last.
His white shirt looked good on her. He liked the way it framed her brown throat and the hollows of her collarbones. He could see the swell of the tops of her breasts and he liked that also.
"I will eat this banana too, unless you want it."
He wanted it, but more than that he wanted to watch her eat it, so he shook his head.
No headache. The lump was still there, but the pain was gone. Mulligatawny, sex, and sleep in the proper doses had done the trick, it seemed.
After years of solitary living, he was used to a quiet morning routine. He was happy that Joss's presence never disrupted his habits. She seemed content to eat and read the news in silence, allowing him a bit of privacy by keeping the paper raised high in front of her eyes as he moved around the room.
"Did your case make the news?" He asked to let her know he was ready to begin a civil conversation.
"Yeah, metro section, third page. Only a few paragraphs, but the headline is good: 'Suspects Multiply in Algebra Murder.'"
She removed the yellow towel and gathered her damp hair in a tight bun at the top of her head. The little silver hoops went back into her ear lobes and a snug red t-shirt replaced his dress shirt. She pulled on the jeans she had neatly folded under the chair near the window and sat back to face him again.
He refilled his mug from the thermos on the table and resumed his place on the bed.
He wanted to get to the bottom of her quest of the night before. Whatever it was, she was troubled enough about it that she had left her apartment to come to him after a long day on the job.
He knew that Taylor was in Roanoke with his aunts for the summer. Given that precious opportunity for solitude at the end of a tough week, Joss normally would have preferred to spend a restful evening alone with her Nook and her nail polish. Whatever it was that drove her out of her cozy routine had to be important to her. And therefore to him as well.
But he didn't know how to raise the topic gracefully. So he skipped the finesse altogether.
"You came over here to ask me something last night. Want to spill?"
Rather than distressed, Joss looked relieved at this abrupt turn in the conversation.
She answered him with equal directness.
"Your friend Joan, the one in the abandoned warehouse. She knows something about my sister, I think."
"How do you figure?"
"When my C.I. Odette brought me there two weeks ago, we were looking for you. But Joan said she had seen me.
"She, uh, she said I was dead."
Joss looked down into her cup and Reese could see the sparkle of tiny tears along the dark spikes of her lashes. He stilled his breathing in hopes that she would continue her story.
"I think she must have seen my sister, Inez. She looks just like me in the face, only taller and thinner. And I guess, well, I guess Inez must be dead."
Reese had never heard this part of Joss's history and had not uncovered it in his investigations into her past. Until Joan's revelation, he had believed Joss was an only child.
In response to his gentle prompts, with halting phrases and occasional sobs or laughs, Joss told him her sister's story.
Seven years older and named after their mother, Inez was, in Joss's view, the perfect child. In form, Inez resembled their father Taylor with his long lines and elegant figure. Her face, like Jocelyn's, came from their mother's side of the family. Inez was tall, beautiful, talented, and smart with a bubbly, brassy personality that attracted admirers of both sexes. She finished college in three years, went straight to law school, and then to a job in the public defender's office.
Joss wasn't sure exactly when the cocaine became a habit rather than a hobby.
Inez was careful to keep her socializing separate from her family life, so it was only after their father's death that Joss began to sense a change in her older sister. Inez stopped accompanying their mother to church on Sundays, claiming she needed to sleep in to get ready for the week ahead. She skipped the large block parties in their old neighborhood that she had always loved. She even begged off joining her mother and sister for the summer family reunions in Virginia. Joss thought she looked as stunning as ever, but their mother wondered why Inez no longer came to their usual joint beauty parlor appointment on Saturday mornings.
Finally when their mother complained that Inez had not phoned in a month, Joss dropped in unannounced at the public defender's office to check up on her big sister. A secretary said casually that Inez no longer worked there, had not worked there for over eight months.
Eleven years had passed since Inez had last been in contact with her family.
In response to her candor, Reese did not mince words.
"So you want me to ask Joan what she knows about Inez."
"Yes, we can go together. I want to hear it straight from her."
"Not going to happen. You saw Joan. She trusts no one she doesn't know. She is not going to share anything important if you show up. Let me talk to her alone."
Joss resisted his plan, but the effort of telling Inez's story seemed to have worn her down. She accepted his promise with uncharacteristic docility.
"I'll call you tomorrow morning after I have a chance to catch up with Joan."
He didn't ask her how she would spend her day or offer to join her for the evening. He didn't pronounce slick platitudes about how everything would turn out alright. He was pretty sure it wouldn't.
The search for Joan was easier than Reese had feared. He found her by two that afternoon.
She was right where he had last seen her, sitting legs straight out on her mattress along the imposing south wall of the cathedral-like warehouse she called home. Despite temperatures blasting past eighty, she was wrapped in his old black wool overcoat and wore a white knit cap over her stringy red hair.
The sun slanting in the high windows captured Joan in a bolt of golden light that gave her face and figure a saintly romanticism, Reese felt.
She was his confessor, his confidante, his shield.
For almost a year, she had been his entire world.
He approached Joan carefully. She seemed to be dozing, even though her faded blue eyes were open and focused on the far end of the hall. Without calling her name, Reese walked slowly into her line of sight and crouched down at eyelevel before her.
The brilliant smile Joan gave him carved a path straight to his gut. She had missed him.
It was a long time, a decade or more, since someone had missed him with such fervor and purity. He felt guilty for not visiting her more often. For deserting her when he quit the streets to take up his job with Finch.
"John, you came back. You have been away so long I almost forgot your face."
She didn't seem to remember the time he spent with her just two weeks ago.
"I told Odette you would come back. She said no. But I said yes, you would."
"How is Odette?"
"Oh, she's fine. Never better. She's always fine. Odette likes to cruise around the streets. Looking for stuff. But she makes it back here most nights. I expect you'll see her before nightfall. If you're going to stick around that long."
"I'll stick around that long, Joan."
He shifted to take a place next to her on the mattress, folding his legs and positioning his elbows on his knees, his hands clasped before his face.
"Joan, I need to find out about somebody. Somebody you saw. Last time I was here with my friend Joss, do you remember her?"
Reese waited for the question to settle in.
"That's your girl? The pretty one who works with Odette?"
"Yes, that's right. Joss. You said you had seen her before. Do you know where you saw her?"
"Odette told me I shouldn't talk about that with anyone."
"But, Joan, you know you can talk with me. I won't tell anyone."
"Not even Odette?"
"Not even Odette, unless you say I can."
Joan nodded her agreement. For many moments she stared toward the far end of the warehouse, her eyes tracking a scene that seemed unrelated to the movements of the people clustered in small groups before her.
"I saw that girl Joss, back when she was much taller. Maybe two years before I met you. She used to come around here mostly during the mornings, searching for breakfast and such. I gave her what I could spare, a few others did too. She was polite enough, such pretty skin. But she wasn't doing nice things."
Joan fell into a reverie and Reese hesitated to rouse her. He touched his fingers to his lips and looked out toward the burnished sky.
"What was she doing, Joan? You can tell me. She can't be hurt anymore."
"No, she can't be hurt anymore. You're right."
She sighed and rubbed her pale face.
"That poor girl had a habit that was eating her alive. And she was sucking dick for dollars to buy the crack she needed. Other people do it; she wasn't special, that's for sure. But it was a real shame all the same."
Reese closed his eyes. He didn't want this to be Inez's story. But he needed to hear how it ended.
"What happened to her, Joan?"
"She died, or got killed, or just stopped living. I don't know which.
"The last time I saw her she was dead, lying stiff over in that corner down there."
Joan swept her hand toward the far end of the building.
"Everybody was gathered around in a clump, so I went down there to see what the racket was. That girl was lying on her back, her eyes and mouth open, her hands clutched in front of her like she was trying to climb up a wall. All the people were pulling at her clothing, tearing at her coat, her shoes, her dress, her scarf.
"It was horrible, John. I never saw anything like it. They tore everything off her, looking for money or drugs. Even her underwear. They flung her jacket off to one side after they turned the pockets inside out and found a few bills. I picked up the jacket and felt a lump under the lining up next to the sleeve. It was a safety pin with something fastened inside. I turned my back so they couldn't see what I was doing and I tore the lining. It was a little gold ring with a red stone she had pinned inside the jacket.
"I took that ring, John. I took it, even though it was wrong. God forgive me, I took it and kept it for myself."
He wanted to cry. For Inez. For Joss. For Joan. For himself.
"What happened to the body, Joan?"
"They stuffed it into an oil drum and burned it like trash, that's what happened."
"And the ring?"
"I gave it to Odette. I couldn't keep it. But I couldn't throw it away either. So I gave it to Odette. She still wears it on a chain around her neck."
Their thoughts ran along parallel paths, converging after several minutes when they spoke simultaneously.
"Joan, I need that ring. Get it back for me."
"Don't let me die like that, John. Nobody to mourn me, nobody to name me. Promise me you won't let that happen to me."
"It won't. You have my word, Joan."
The weary man and the old woman sat side by side until the sun set. They said nothing further as they watched the shafts of light piercing the great hall turn from gilt to umber to a gauzy plum.
At nightfall, Odette, resplendent in a pastel ensemble that included at least four taffeta gowns and two pairs of silk pants, swept into the warehouse. She found her companion and the somber man beside her seemingly rooted to their places on the mattress.
"Well, look what the cat dragged in."
Odette was in a buoyant mood which would not be dampened by the morose atmosphere billowing around her home.
"Or, get a load of the good-looking cat what got dragged in!"
The saucy song spouted up from Odette like a faithful geyser:
"Hey, good-looking! Whatcha got cooking? How's about cooking something up with me?"
"Odette, this is John. He's my friend."
"I remember him and his crazy gorgeous eyes from the last time he was here. How ya doing, John?"
"Why didn't you bring Joss back for a visit? Just like old times."
And the lithe woman launched into another song, inspired by the phrase or the encounter or something else altogether. Dreadlocks swinging, taffeta rustling in time to the plaintive tune, Odette sang and waved her long hands to conduct an accompanying orchestra.
"Seems like old times, having you to walk with/ Seems like old times having you to talk with/ And it's still a thrill just to have my arms around you/ Still the thrill that it was the day I found you…"
"Odette, knock it off. We're not in the mood." Joan's tone was sharp.
"Well, I can see that, killjoy. I was trying to put you people into the mood. But I guess that won't work."
She defiantly continued humming her cabaret song until she had completed all the verses and made a deep curtsey despite the silence from Joan and Reese.
Undaunted, their hostess flung down a large canvas satchel at Reese's feet. With a flourish she began pulling from it an assortment of food stuffs. Odette's scavenged dinner included half-eaten club sandwiches, falafel wraps, hot dogs bare of condiments, and two small bags of Fritos.
Joan seemed energized by this bounty and the two women quickly polished off the entire feast. They only asked once if Reese wanted a share and then rapidly ate his portion when he declined.
At the end of the meal, Joan pulled from under the mattress a small bottle of Four Roses bourbon and passed it to her companion.
Reese couldn't stand it any longer. He spoke to his friend in low urgent tones.
"Joan, I need that ring. Now."
Odette clutched at her chest and looked to Joan with stricken eyes.
"I told you never to tell anybody. Now look what you've gone and done."
"Give it to him, Odette. Just give it to him and no backtalk."
The two women stared at each other for a beat, but Joan's command prevailed, as always.
Odette drew up a silver chain around her neck until the ring emerged from her bodice. A quick jerk broke the chain and she placed the delicate gold circle in Reese's palm.
"It didn't belong to me anyway, I guess. But I sure enjoyed borrowing it for a while. Thank you for letting me wear it, John. I took good care of it for you, see?"
Odette offered a small smile and dropped her eyes. Then she curtseyed to him again.
The woman's gentle confusion enveloped Reese in an unnamable grief that threatened to overwhelm him. He couldn't bear to speak with Joan or Odette any more. He needed to go.
He crossed the broad wooden floor in a few strides. When he reached the staircase leading down to the warehouse entrance, he looked back at last.
Joan had her arm around Odette's shoulders. The women seemed to be crying, their foreheads pressed together for solace. But a quick brush of pastel taffeta across both faces erased their tears and they were soon smiling at each other.
He could hear that Odette had thought of a new song:
"You don't have to say you love me/Just be close at hand/ You don't have to stay forever/I will understand/ Believe me, believe me…"
Reese called Carter just before seven o'clock in the morning to tell her to be downstairs ready to go by eight.
"And wear boots. Not those pointy toed ones with four inch heels. Real boots."
Working with Finch into the small hours of that morning had left Reese exhausted but at peace.
With his boss's expert hacking skills and the aid of several well-placed and pliant acquaintances, Reese had been able to put his plan into effect. Together the two men had forged documents, altered records, coerced permissions, and secured access to controlled areas.
Reese didn't know if he could trick Carter forever, but if he could eliminate her immediate worries that would be a considerable victory.
He hadn't consumed anything all night apart from the coffee Finch forced upon him at dawn. So he was glad for the fried egg sandwich Carter produced from her purse once she had climbed into the battered tan station wagon.
As he ate and drove, Reese offered her an abbreviated explanation of their itinerary. They were headed to Hart Island, a tiny spit of land at the western end of Long Island Sound, in the farthest reaches of the Bronx.
She knew, of course, about Hart Island, the potter's field for New York City, where more than 850,000 unknown and unidentified dead were buried. Formerly a Civil War prisoner camp, an almshouse, a hospital, and then a city prison, the island was currently uninhabited except by the occupants of the massive public cemetery. Almost two thousand people were buried there each year. Access to Hart Island was strictly controlled by the city's Department of Correction.
When they arrived at the Fordham Street pier on City Island, Reese produced a sheet of white paper for the Transportation Department official who ran the single ferry which deposited visitors on Hart Island.
The document, heavily embossed and notarized with utter sincerity, identified them as Mr. and Mrs. Garcia, whose cousin Alfredo had recently been identified as having been buried erroneously on Hart Island. They wanted to visit poor Alfredo's grave and leave a wreath, Reese said.
The tremor in Mr. Garcia's voice and the glint of tears in his eyes, backed by the convincing documentation and a commanding new notation on the computer screen convinced the sleepy attendant that he should transport the grieving couple to Hart Island at once.
Carter remained silent throughout this performance and continued to sit mutely in the car as they crossed the narrow waterway to the island.
Reese too stayed silent. He wanted to say as little as possible to avoid as many outright lies as he could. So he let her reach the conclusions he knew she would draw on her own.
As they drove the mile long coastal road out of sight of the ferry, she finally asked for the answers she needed.
"Are we going to see Inez's grave? Is this where she is buried?"
"How do you know? How could you possibly know that?"
"I asked Joan for information. What she gave me was sketchy. But I could pin down an approximate date when Inez was last seen at the warehouse. From that, Finch located records indicating burials of indigent women in potter's field around that time."
He paused to let that half-truth sink in.
"The identifying information was conclusive, Joss. This is where she is."
He pointed toward a small rise, not even a hill really, that sloped away from the spot where they had parked.
"Help me carry these." He flung open the trunk of the station wagon, handed Carter a heavy black satchel, longer than a regulation gym bag, and picked up the other one for himself.
Together they lugged their duffels to the top of the rise and then continued the march for several more minutes to a bramble covered patch in the midst of a stand of oak trees.
"This it?" Carter sounded both dubious and hopeful.
"Yes, that's what the plot maps showed." He had never seen a map, but had led her to this spot on the inspiration of the moment.
"But it's a mess, John."
"I figured. That's why we brought these tools. We have work to do."
She unzipped her bag and inspected the shovel, rake, and pruning shears inside. His bag was equipped with another pair of shears, an axe and two small scythes as well as two pairs of heavy leather gloves.
"You thought of everything." She was whispering now.
"Finch did most of the planning, actually."
Reese hung his dress shirt on a nearby tree branch; Carter rolled the sleeves of her t-shirt above her shoulders. They flung themselves into the task of clearing the heavy vegetation from the grave site.
The labor was hard: hacking at tangled vines, digging up crusted roots, cutting down saplings and thorny weeds. Despite the leather gloves, their arms were soon scored with scratches past the elbows.
After ninety minutes of furious work, they paused to inspect their progress. Less than a third of the site had been laid bare.
Reese reached into his duffle bag and pulled out two green thermos bottles, sweating with condensation. Finch's icy lemonade was a godsend. Reese had to remind Carter to not guzzle it all down at once because the majority of their work was still ahead.
At noon, they paused again and this time it was Carter who searched her bag for a miracle. The ham sandwiches wrapped in old-fashioned wax paper that she found there were still slightly cool from their proximity to the thermos bottles.
"Finch did think of everything, didn't he?" She felt the little man's spirit close by, a sensation that was reinforced when Reese's cell buzzed at that moment.
"Yes, we found the site, Harold. Your map was excellent. Also your sandwiches hit the spot."
"John, tell him thank you for everything."
"Carter thinks you are a magician." She frowned at Reese as a prompt.
"And she says thank you for everything.
"He says you're welcome, Carter."
They kept working. The heat, the dappled gloom of the little forest, the humidity, the ponderous mossy scent of the newly turned soil, all of it pressed around them as the afternoon stretched on. Reese took off his t-shirt and Carter stripped to her bra; by the end even their sodden jeans felt heavy and the buckles on their belts gouged painfully into their torsos as they bent and stretched.
When they had cleared a sufficiently large plot, they searched through the stand of trees for smooth stones to outline the grave. Two trips carrying the stones in Reese's shirt resulted in a neat border around the resting place.
"Wait here. I need to get something from the car." Reese staggered down the hillside and out of sight.
When he returned five minutes later, he was carrying a burlap sack. His arms barely stretched around the bag's circumference. Panting, he placed the sack at Joss's feet and motioned for her to open it.
It was a small rose bush.
None of the buds had blossomed yet, but their tightly pressed lips revealed that the flowers would be deep red.
"For the head of the grave, I thought we could put this. I don't know if Inez liked red, but it seemed right from what you said about her."
"She liked red. Joss's eyes filled with tears and a few stray ones spilled down her cheeks.
They worked side by side to dig a deep enough hole and planted the rose bush together.
It looked beautiful.
To finish off the last of the lemonade, they sat on a fallen log near the foot of the grave and stared at the little rose bush in peaceable silence.
"Actually, I lied, Joss." Breaking the quiet seemed a sacrilege, but he needed to do it.
"I knew Inez liked red. Because of this."
He handed her the gold ring with the red stone.
She gasped and looked a question at him because she couldn't speak.
"Joan gave it to me yesterday. She said that Inez had given it to her the last time she saw her. I guess Inez wanted her to have it. So you would have it one day."
She nodded and laid her head against his shoulder. He put his arm around her and pressed her to him.
He had done what he could.
They returned to her brownstone at dusk. Reese urged her to take the first shower.
More than a shower, more than anything in the world, he wanted a beer. So he downed the Pabst in four long gulps standing in front of the open refrigerator. He unbuttoned his shirt and loosened his belt buckle and the cold air felt so good against his bare skin that he opened a second bottle just to prolong the sensation.
When he heard Joss turn off the water, he came to the bedroom with a beer for her to finish while he showered. The bathroom, all white subway tiles and white towels, smelled of the rose gels and lotions she had used.
Enveloped in her scent, he could feel the steam and hot water easing the tension along his back and shoulders. She had placed a new bar of Palmolive for him in the shower stall's highest niche. He let the soapy streams slip down his body, swirling away the thick grime and stench, the lies and the melancholy weirdness of the day.
He thought Joss might be asleep when he emerged from the bathroom. But she was sitting on one side of the bed, a tube of antiseptic ointment in her hand. A thin white cotton gown clung to her brown body. Naked, still dripping, he took the tube from her and slowly applied the salve to the cuts and scrapes on her arms.
Then she did the same for him, gently tracing the web of shared scratches that would turn into precious scars that would last forever.