The Grain

"Where are you now, Mr. Reese?"

Finch knew precisely where his friend was at all times, but the discipline of the question and the answer was a bracing one for their operation, he believed.

He placed the cell on speaker to ease the stiffness in his neck and set it down next to the laptop computer on his desk.

"Leaving Aqueduct now. Heading back to Manhattan."

"Was your surveillance of our Dominican jockey fruitful?"

"Well, Ortiz went around in circles all day. But I did get some leads on who might be bent out of shape if he continues to cooperate with the D.A. on that doping investigation."

"Anyone in addition to the trainer and the veterinarian?"

He thought he heard Reese sigh slightly.

"Couple of Elias's goons were lounging around the stables all afternoon. They didn't look like horse lovers to me. I'm going to look into the mob connection a little further. I think they're the ones gunning to shut up Ortiz."

"I know you disagree, Mr. Reese, but I wonder if the Lilliputian jockey's Brobdingnagian wife might also be a suspect. She won't be too happy about her husband losing his highly lucrative livelihood, will she?"

"I'm sure that if there was something of substance in that sentence, Harold, you would translate it. Sure, I'll check her out too. But I think she's as loyal as they come. She really seems to love the little guy."

"I never like to be cynical, but money is often thicker than love, Mr. Reese."

"Yeah well, maybe something will turn up from tonight's stakeout at their home."

He could hear the engine idling at a stop light and then the sounds of the car revving into high gear again.

"Finch, have you seen Carter?"

"No, why?"

"She owes me a dinner. Fried chicken again, I guess. But still, a bet is a bet. It's been two and a half weeks and I still haven't collected. It's overdue."

"I don't think I'll be in contact with her, John. But I'll be sure to pass along your concern if I am."

Not precisely accurate, he thought, as he extinguished the phone and dropped it in his cardigan pocket.

But there was a tiny grain of truth there which prevented it from being an outright lie, he assured himself.

Finch glanced again at the laptop screen which provided a feed from the camera stationed above the door of his residence. He watched Detective Carter climb slowly from the taxi that had brought her to his street.

Powering down the computer, he hurried to the vestibule and peered from behind heavy velvet curtains as Carter made her way up the steps to his home.

This was the second time in eighteen months that she had visited him here. The first time was in pursuit of her investigation of the robbery at the downtown records hall.

Then he had noted how she bounded up the limestone staircase, a look of determination on her keen face. Despite her prickly questions during that brief interview, he had found it easy to throw her off the trail of his collaboration with John using a simple array of half-truths and omissions.

Now her tread was slower and she placed her feet carefully on each step as she approached his green door. She balanced in her left hand a large gold-rimmed china tea cup mounded with an extravagant cluster of lavender and purple roses.

She was here by his invitation, but her heavy knock suggested that she was hesitant about the meeting.

He wondered if he was making the right decision in allowing her to visit him here in this refuge, a place he had permitted no one but his housekeeper to enter for more than three years.

He felt exposed. But wasn't that the point, after all? He had to give something to get something.

"Come in, Detective. I'm glad you could join me on such short notice."

"Mr. Burdette, I presume?"

The irony dripping from her words was diluted by the soft light in her gaze and the smile she gave him.

"Only sometimes, Detective. Not today."

He pulled the door wide and stood aside to let her into the front room. As she entered, he scanned the parlor, seeing the space as a smart curious woman might view it.

He noted the dark green drapery that puddled to the floor at every window. The velvet fabric almost looked black in the low light. If he hadn't been in such a hurry, he would have chosen to wear something other than a wool cardigan that almost perfectly matched the somber color of the curtains.

Between the drapes and the dark swirling patterns of the oriental rugs on the floors, the place suddenly felt gloomy and stuffy.

Dove gray walls framed by beige moldings contributed to the subdued atmosphere. Most times he found that color combination soothing and comfortable. But now, with Carter walking through it, he was struck by how bland, even depressing, the space must appear.

He was glad that Danvers the housekeeper had gotten his afternoon text message: the rooms were spotless, every law book dusted, each framed map on the walls straightened, fresh flowers in vases on the side tables.

Unfortunately, however, Danvers had chosen white lilies which only heightened the funereal atmosphere.

Just the touch Finch wanted to avoid.

But he was glad for the large portfolio spread out on the leather ottoman in front of the sofa. He had decided not to put away his cherished collection of Grace's soft pastel landscapes and whimsical animal portraits. The art works offered a welcome spot of brightness, he felt.

Carter would not know who the artist was, of course, but he hoped she might appreciate the gentle spirit and intelligent optimism of the images nonetheless.

As he hung her camelhair topcoat on a tree near the door, he noted that the garment actually was from a menswear designer, not simply a woman's variation on the classic style. Its color complimented her skin tone certainly, but its boxy shape disguised her curves in a way that Finch considered unflattering. He wondered why she wore it.

The saturated burgundy of her silk shirt appropriated the fall colors in a beautiful manner. She was wearing a vest which matched her black trousers. But leaving the vest's buttons undone gave her an uncharacteristically frazzled look.

"I have hot water already boiling for tea, if you would like some, Detective."

"That would be perfect, thank you. It's really getting so cold now that the sun sets before five."

He had intended to have his guest stay in the living room while he prepared the cups, but she followed him into the kitchen and took a seat on a high stool next to the island.

He recognized the naturalness of her curiosity and strangely no longer felt a need to hide from her appraising gaze.

He was inordinately pleased that Carter seemed impressed with the size of the kitchen and its rather grand décor.

In the remodeling after the accident, Finch had removed all of the upper cabinets in the kitchen, which emphasized the majestic height of the space. He liked the warmth of the deep cherry wood against the bright stainless steel appliances and the crispness of the black and white tile floor.

To him it was just the right combination of modern and traditional without seeming antiseptic or clinical.

He had spent enough time in hospitals to want to avoid having his own home look like one.

Carter sat silently at the island, her elbows propped on the gray marble countertop, her hands clutching a steaming mug of chamomile. The cup of lavender roses she had brought was placed to her right.

Observing her through the secret camera on Fusco's desk over the previous week, he had thought she looked tired, her skin sallow and dry, her eyes puffy, dull.

In person now, her appearance confirmed those impressions. He noted that she held herself gingerly and moved with great care, as if she feared she might break.

There was no good way to broach the subject at hand, so Finch began to prepare the simple dinner he had planned for them without saying a word.

He was unsurprised that Danvers had overstocked the refrigerator with two cartons of eggs although he only needed four for the soufflé. Huge craggy chunks of Parmesan and Gruyere were in front of the milk carton and the canister of flour was set out on the counter next to the stove.

Two slender loaves of French bread from Mignonne's on the corner were angled next to five plump red tomatoes near the refrigerator.

Danvers, as usual, had prepared everything down to the smallest detail.

A set of glass bowls of varying sizes was lined up near the flour and the small saucepan was already on the burner ready to be fired up. Spoons and measuring cups of several sizes were deployed in strict array along the counter. The massive Mix Master stood at attention, newly polished even though it had not been used in months.

Danvers was indeed the model employee in Finch's estimation: faithful, meticulous, uncurious, and strong as an ox.

Three years ago Finch had hesitated over the literary irony of hiring a housekeeper named Danvers. But then he decided that Danvers had never heard of du Maurier and as long as there was no hint of pyromania, the joke would stay a private one.

After all the fictional Danvers had been devoted to a dead employer and what was he if not a ghost himself?

Finch bent awkwardly to position the rack in the lower third of the oven and pre-heated it to 400 degrees.

He didn't cook often anymore but he still knew how to make an impressive meal when he needed to.

"If you will grate the cheeses into these two bowls, I will start the base sauce."

This wasn't a cooking class, so he didn't feel the need to discuss every step of his process with her. In fact, explaining it would eliminate the magic of what was, at bottom, a fairly simple dish.

"So, Detective Carter, you decided to bring the flowers here. Why?"

Maybe this was the way into the conversation he wanted them to have.

"I don't get flowers at the office all that often, you know."

Her voice sounded strained although the words were lightly cast.

"In fact, the last time I got a bouquet it was from Elias. Condolences for my death." They both chuffed in mild amusement, relieved to recall a success from their shared past.

"How did you know they were from me?"

"Taylor's allowance isn't big enough, my mother just saw me in person yesterday, and John wouldn't have a reason to send roses. So I figured it had to be you."

"Why didn't you keep them? That's what I'd hoped you would do."

Warming the milk required he keep his eyes on the small saucepan to prevent scorching, but his attention was fully on her now.

"I didn't want Fusco to start a big ruckus at the office. He was already revving up with the teasing: 'So, you got a secret admirer, huh Carter? Or a super super-secret admirer, maybe?'"

She did an apt imitation of her partner's broad jocular accent.

"But you could have taken the flowers home. I wish you had." He was going to press now that they were started on the path.

"I didn't want Taylor asking questions or John snooping around for answers. You know that once he got it in his head there was some mystery he would never let go until he had shaken it out of me."

She pushed the bowl full of grated Gruyere across the counter toward Finch and picked up the slab of Parmesan to complete her task.

She sighed and seemed to come to a resolution.

"So, Finch, you didn't ask me here to play Julia Child, I guess." He braced himself in unease at the direct approach she had chosen.

"The flowers were get well wishes, right? You gonna tell me how you found out about my… my health issues?"

Her voice was small and brittle now.

"That's what you invited me here for isn't it? To gloat about your snazzy spy techniques?"

"That is decidedly not why I invited you, Detective." He was hurt and he wanted that to sound in his tone.

She said nothing further, but continued raking the cheese across the metal grater at a furious pace.

"I did notice that you took two days of sick leave last week. You can't be surprised to learn that when you first joined forces with us I looked through your personnel files. And I know from those files that you haven't taken a single sick day during the past five years except to attend to the medical appointments of your son."

It was, of course, not as simple as that.

But he had no intention of telling Carter about the elaborate facial recognition programs that detected minor increases in her weight over the past six weeks. About the subtle spikes in her temperature and her caloric intake noted by the machine. About gait monitoring programs which recorded that she was walking more slowly than in previous months.

About all the other bio-medical data that his machine had correlated and analyzed to produce a single conclusion: she was pregnant.

Or rather, she had been pregnant.

"So you didn't hack into my doctor's records to track down information about me? That would have been pretty easy for you, I figure."

It had indeed been quite easy to do, of course.

He knew about the hastily scheduled visits to her gynecologist. He had read the doctor's digital reports and the stark conclusions recorded there.

But he would never tell her that.

"No, Detective, I didn't hack your doctor's records. I respect your privacy and John's. But I do worry about you. You aren't asking me to not do that, are you?"

The grunt she emitted as she finished grating the Parmesan could have been skepticism at his expression of sympathy or the result of scraping her knuckles.

While she soaped her hands at the sink, Finch retrieved a tiny round Band-Aid from the bathroom. He gave it to her with a small joke to ease the tension.

"Not exactly 'skin-color' is it? I don't know why they make that claim."

Carter accepted the unspoken offer of truce and applied the pale patch to her finger with a small laugh.

"I did take those two days off sick like you said. I just needed to rest at home for a bit, take it easy, get myself back on the right track, health-wise. Nothing to worry about, but I'm grateful for your concern, Harold."

"And are you feeling better now? It must have been a relief to be able to get out of town for a few days with your mother last weekend."

Her eyebrows rocketed upwards and she pursed her lips at this latest revelation of how closely he monitored her movements. But he pressed on.

"Atlantic City wouldn't exactly be my idea of a relaxing retreat from the pressures of daily life. But to each his own."

"Or her own. I wanted to go to a bed-and-breakfast in Vermont. Some kind of quiet old farmhouse with a spa for lots of massages, facials. Plenty of blueberry pancakes and lazy mornings.

"She wanted AC. So of course that's where we ended up."

Carter was smiling, but he could sense the fond exasperation in her tight tone.

As he whisked the flour into the melted butter, she told him details of the weekend with her mother.

Riding a chartered bus to southern New Jersey with a jolly crowd of widows and retirees.

Being shocked at the golden opulence of the Belleza Grande where her mother had booked an unnecessarily lavish suite.

Sleeping from right after dinner to two in the morning when her tireless mother returned to recount her exploits at the gaming tables.

"I just didn't have the energy to wade through all those people in polyester and sequins at the blackjack tables. So I stayed up in the suite and conked out by eight. But my mother had a ball. She won a bit and lost a bit and made four or five friends for life.

"She's a force of nature, Harold. You'll have to meet her one day."

He slowly poured in the warm milk, whisking it until the sauce was smooth. Keeping his eyes on the pot, he returned it to the heat, and continued stirring even as he threw out a leading question.

"Did your mother play blackjack only? Or did she try the slot machines as well?"

"In fact, she did. Made out real well too. How did you know?"

He was silent but let a smile curl one corner of his mouth.

"She kept telling me to come down and try out one particular machine in the lower lobby of the hotel. Said her mojo was working real well on that machine and that she was sure her winning streak would work for me too."

"Was it the third machine to the left of the pillar directly in front of the ladies room on the lower level?"

He kept his eyes on the saucepan as he added paprika, salt, and nutmeg to the mixture.

"Yeah, it was! How did you know? …Harold, you didn't!"

"What the New Jersey Casino Control Commission doesn't know won't hurt them. I suggest we keep this little secret between us for now. You never know when it may come in handy again. And besides, Detective, your jurisdiction doesn't extend to southern New Jersey, does it?"

He added the four separated egg yolks one at a time to the base, whisking each one carefully to blend it thoroughly. The color of the sauce was a beautiful pale yellow, like a canary's breast, he thought.

"We were just there two nights and she really cleaned up at that machine. Saturday night, I thought her pocketbook would bust it was so full of quarters. All that jangling woke me up when she came in the door around two thirty in the morning."

Carter was chuckling and Finch felt his face warm with the pleasure of making her laugh for him.

"I'm glad you had a good time, Jocelyn."

"Yeah, it was good to get away, rest up, not think about work or anything. Just be with my mother."

She sounded wistful as she continued.

"During the afternoons we walked along the boardwalk a bit and we got manicures together and ate some great seafood. Just simple stuff like that.

"I got to spend time with her and she really talked with me for a change. Not just joking or gossiping or lecturing. Really talking."

"What did she speak about?" He could bring this around to where he wanted it to go with the right prodding, he was sure.

"About herself, about our family. Things I never knew about me and my sister. It happened early Sunday morning, when she came back into our bedroom, her purse clinking with all that change. She sat on the bed and just started talking and talking. I don't know why. Real intimate stuff. Maybe she figured I was still asleep or something. I don't know. Maybe she really did want me to hear, but didn't want to face me straight on."

She sniffled a little, but when he didn't turn around she continued her story.

"She told me how she had met my dad in college, how they got married right after graduation, how they tried to have a baby right away but couldn't. I never knew that. And I never knew why there was a seven year gap between my older sister and me. Inez and I used to wonder sometimes, but we never knew for sure. Mama told me she lost two babies before she had me. Never made it past the second month, she said.

"Precious little grains, she called them."

He paused in his stirring and gripped the bowl in both hands until the knuckles turned white.

"I wish she had told me that before. I mean, why didn't she? It was my story as much as it was hers, wasn't it? It happened to me too, didn't it?"

She rushed on and he felt as though she wasn't talking to him anymore.

"We lost two babies before Taylor came and then just after his second birthday, we lost another one. I thought it was just me, just something I was doing wrong. Too much work, too much activity, too much tension. Something I could control if only I tried harder. But Mama knew all along. She knew what we went through and she didn't say a word then. Why was that?"

He heard her hiccupping a dry sob and turned to face her.

"Maybe she was afraid you would blame her somehow. Maybe she just didn't know how to give comfort."

No tears yet, but he didn't want her to cry. So he threw out an abrupt distraction.

"Jocelyn, you've got to help me or else we are never going to eat."

As with the Band-Aid, she accepted his lead in shifting the emotional climate of the conversation.

At his instruction, she found the lettuce, cucumbers, and green peppers in the refrigerator. She sliced them quickly into a simple salad, adding the quartered tomatoes while he beat the egg whites into a dramatic cloud of stiff peaks.

After he mixed the whites into the soufflé base he had her sprinkle in the Gruyere. As he poured the batter, she steadied the soufflé dish, redolent of the tangy smell of the melted Parmesan cheese coating its bottom.

He saw that she gripped the dish's fluted sides with fierce intensity and knew that the storm had not passed yet.

"So, we've got about twenty-five minutes until the soufflé's ready. We can wait in the living room where it's more comfortable."

Their conversation was lighter then, away from the kitchen. He sipped a small flute of dark amber sherry, which she declined in favor of more chamomile.

He talked about his vinyl collection, his old books, Grace's sketches and pastels. He lingered so long over one elaborate seascape of fantasy creatures in pale pink, tangerine, and aqua that he thought his sentiments must be evident. He found, to his surprise, that he didn't mind if Joss guessed the truth about the artist behind these illustrations.

He wished his leather couch was softer. He wished he had purchased those velvet upholstered armchairs he had investigated online. He wished he had put higher watt bulbs in the lamps. He wished the lilies were all lavender roses.

She didn't seem to mind at all however and so, as the minutes passed, he felt more at ease.

But then the infernal pain started again, clawing from his leg to his back to his neck, reminding him that it was time for the next dose of medicine. It seemed too early for it, but he concluded that standing so long at the stove had aggravated his injuries beyond the point of resistance.

He always tried as best he could to keep the interval between doses as wide as possible. But there was no fighting the pain when its grip began to tighten.

So he excused himself and retreated to his bedroom to count out the required pills.

From the bathroom he made a quick call to John. The stakeout of the jockey at his home in the Bronx was uneventful so far. No sign of the trainer, the owner, the vet, or the mobsters who threatened him. The wife was watching a reality show on the television in their bedroom while her man dozed beside her.

As he ended the call, Finch could hear the disaster in his kitchen unfolding.

The oven door opening with a creak. Joss's bewildered wail. The door slammed shut again.

As he hobbled into the kitchen, she was standing in front of the oven, a long loaf of bread in one hand, a green padded mitt covering the other.

"I just thought I would put the bread in for a minute to warm it up. I didn't know that would happen."

He opened the oven and looked at the deflated soufflé. Its depressed top was brown at the edges and a lovely rich gold toward the center, but all sunken and lop-sided.

A mitt on each hand, he grabbed the white dish and transferred it to the island countertop.

She kept her eyes trained on the flattened mess in the dish.

"I'm so sorry. I ruined it, didn't I? All that careful work and now I ruined it just like that."

Tears slid down her cheeks as she spoke, dripping onto her blouse, leaving dark spots.

"It's not ruined, you know. We can still eat it. It will taste perfectly fine."

He moved toward her and hesitated only a moment. His arms folded around her and he pressed her to his chest, the oven mitts crossed over her back like quilted wings.

He had to know.

"Did it look beautiful? When you first opened the oven? Was it puffed and high and lovely?"

"It was beautiful, Harold. Just perfect. Thank you so much for making it for me."

"It was my pleasure, Jocelyn."

He gathered her tighter to him, unwilling to shift their positions.

She sobbed into the scratchy wool at his shoulder.

"I always hated that miserable metaphor."

"What metaphor?"

"Bun in the oven."

"None of this matters, Jocelyn. None of it. This doesn't have to be a metaphor unless you want it to be one. You can choose not to."

Clumsily, he wiped away her tears with a thick green oven mitt, stroking her cheeks over and over with the quilted fabric until she started to laugh again.

Together, they pulled an arm chair from the living room into his little office alcove. Pushing away the stacks of books and the laptop, they sat on either side of his desk and ate the salad, the bread and the soufflé.

It was subtly flavored with the complicated tastes of the cheeses and the seasonings, crisp on its top with a spongy center that paid tribute to the eggs that were its foundation.

It wasn't the frothy concoction it should have been, but it was good and they ate it all.

She accepted a glass of Cabernet then and as she sipped it, he asked the question on his mind all evening.

"Will you tell John?"

"I can't do it, Harold. I just can't."

She shook her head and looked down at the scattered crumbs on the plates between them.

"There's nothing he can do now. All he would do is worry and rant and fret for no purpose."

He remained silent and she continued with greater urgency.

"And you can't tell him either. Promise me, Harold. Promise me you won't tell. You know him; he would take on all that guilt for nothing."

He knew she was right, so he made the promise she asked.

When she was ready to go, he called Danvers who brought the black town car around to the curb in front of his home.

"Don't walk down with me, Harold. There's no need."

They stood in the open door as he helped her on with her coat.

"It's no trouble at all."

He regretted the way he lurched as he accompanied her down the flight of stone steps.

Halfway to the bottom, he grasped her elbow. Taking support? Giving support? He couldn't tell which.

But she didn't seem to mind and so once again, he was set at ease.

He handed her into the limousine and gave instructions to Danvers.

In the hushed night, under drifting clouds that looked like frozen exhalations, he watched until the car rounded the corner and then he started the long climb back up the stairs.