Special Agent Donnelly leaned back against the driver's seat in the dark car. The rain splattered fitfully and trickled down the windshield. It was cold; he drew his trench coat closed at the neck. Soon he'd need to start the engine and run the heater for a while, if only to keep the windows from fogging up.
If he had any sense at all, he thought, he'd start the engine and go home.
The Man in the Suit was not going to show up. Not tonight, maybe not ever. He wasn't even sure the woman inside knew him. It was a logical hunch, nothing more.
He rubbed his eyes, then peered out through the rain again. In the twilight, the Chaos Café was brightly lit, inviting. People stopped and stayed a while now; they were on their way home from work, they had time to sit and linger. In an hour or so the commuters would clear out, and an hour after that the punks would show up, the hard-core gamers, the students, the hippies. The café had a rhythm of its own, and everyone was welcome there.
Everyone but him.
Go home, Ellis, he told himself. The Man isn't here and he isn't going to show.
He was very tired. It wasn't even physical exhaustion; most of it was mental, emotional. He'd spent the whole day behind a desk, filling out paperwork on crooked cops. And crooked former FBI agents. It was depressing. He was tired, cold, hungry. Too tired to turn the key and take himself home, even though he knew that's what he should do. Get out of the cold. Get something to eat, take a hot shower, go to bed early. It all seemed like too much effort. It was easier just to sit and wait for something that wasn't going to happen.
His cell phone rang.
Donnelly sighed heavily. Shower, dinner, bed vanished from his horizon. He was going back to work. It was almost a relief. He drew the phone out and looked at it.
The number was blocked.
Frowning, he clicked the phone on. "Donnelly."
"Don't you have someone to go home to?" a woman asked quietly.
Donnelly looked toward the café. Christine Fitzgerald was standing by the front window, looking right at him, her own phone against her ear.
"No," he answered honestly. "Not anymore."
"Then you might as well come in out of the rain."
The phone went dead and she moved away from the window.
He sat very still for a moment. The woman had taken a chunk out of his ass the last time he'd seen her. Now she was inviting him in? Why? To take a bite out of the other side?
Well, symmetry was good, he supposed.
He didn't have to wonder how she'd known he was watching her. He'd broken into her apartment, seen the massive computer system she ran in what should have been her dining room. Her surveillance capabilities were at least as good as the Bureau's. And if it wasn't officially sanctioned by the government, it was certainly granted a blind eye.
Part of the government was afraid of her. And part was afraid they'd need her help one day. Either way, she was untouchable. He'd been made emphatically aware of that fact.
Come in out of the rain. It sounded like a fine idea. And since she'd invited him, it couldn't be perceived as harassment. Which he'd been warned very sternly against.
Donnelly turned his collar up against the rain, got out of the car, and walked to the café.
There was a big computer-printed sign on the door that read:
YES, WE KNOW.
SHE WAS IN A CAR ACCIDENT.
YES, SHE SAW A DOCTOR.
NO, IT DOESN'T HURT.
EXCEPT WHEN YOU TOUCH IT.
NO, YOU CAN'T TOUCH IT.
YES, IT'S GETTING BETTER.
YES, SHE KNOWS IT LOOKS AWFUL.
NO, YOU SHOULDN'T SAY ANYTHING ABOUT HOW AWFUL IT LOOKS.
The agent shook his head. He'd been informed about Christine Fitzgerald's incident at LaGuardia. It hadn't been a car accident; she'd been assaulted. He'd read the police reports and the airport security write-ups. Watched the surveillance video. The fight was what had led him to hope that the Man in the Suit would show up. But he'd been tied up with the HR arrests, and if the Man had come to check on her, Donnelly had missed him.
He didn't have nearly enough evidence to put a 24-hour watch on the café.
Donnelly opened the door and went inside. The brightness made him blink, but the warmth wrapped around him like welcome. The café murmured politely. Later, he knew, it would be loud.
Christine Fitzgerald waited just inside. "Hey," she said casually.
"Hey," he answered. She held her arms out, and he realized she wanted his wet coat. He started to take it off, then stopped, stared at her. "Good Lord."
The entire right side of the young woman's face was bruised. He reached towards her, paused when she flinched back. Then she steadied, turned her face. He reached out very carefully, brushed his fingertips across the bruise. It was a week old, colored a little red and black, but mostly purple and green, with a tinge of yellow at the edges, and it spread from her cheekbone to her jawline. He'd known it was there, but seeing it up close was jarring. "You should have ducked."
"If I'd ducked, he wouldn't be in jail." She held her hands out again. Donnelly shrugged out of his coat and handed it to her. She hung it on a hook with several others, then gestured to a table in the far corner. "I'll be right back."
Christine walked to the bar. Donnelly watched her as he made his way to the table. She had been so angry the last time he'd been here, cold and brittle and sarcastic. Now she was warm, friendly. As if all had been forgiven.
He wasn't convinced he'd done anything he needed to be forgiven for, but it was a relief to not have her on the attack.
Donnelly sat down at the little table in the corner, with his back to the wall. It made him comfortable to be able to survey the entire café. He wondered if she'd picked the table for him for that reason.
She came back with two mugs in one hand and a big bowl in the other. Donnelly reached for the bowl. "Careful," Christine warned. "Hot."
It was. Donnelly set it down carefully. Christine sat down across from him, pushed one mug over to him. Handed him a spoon. "Eat."
He looked down at the bowl. "Matzoh ball soup?"
"You don't have a hot food license."
Her mouth tightened into a grim smile. "Which means I can't sell it to you, Agent Donnelly. But nothing says I can't share my dinner with you. Eat."
Slowly, Donnelly spooned up a bite and ate. It was ridiculously good, rich and warm and exactly what he hadn't known he'd wanted. This was not soup from a mix. It was from a recipe that probably started with the words, 'kill one chicken'. The flavor said it had been simmered all day. He took another bite, and then a third. "Thank you."
Christine's smile turned soft. "You're welcome." She sipped her coffee.
"Why are you sharing your dinner with me?"
"You look like you need it."
"I suppose I do." He continued to eat. It was warming, filling. Comfort food. He needed the comfort.
"You've had a busy week."
He nodded. Seventy-five cops under arrest, and a handful of FBI agents, and a mayoral candidate. It had been a zoo. "Lots of arrests."
"You don't seem very happy about it."
"I'm tired," Donnelly allowed. "So much processing, so much paperwork. And …" He stopped. "It's a lot of work."
The woman nodded, silent, and suddenly he couldn't keep from talking. "All those corrupt cops. Not one of them started out that way. No one becomes a cop to get rich. Every one of them stood up in front of their families and took an oath to protect and serve, and absolutely meant it." He sighed. "Don't get me wrong. I'm glad they're off the street, off the job. But so many, who started out so noble …"
"… and fell so far," Christine finished for him, when he didn't.
She was silent for a moment. "I may have been a bit harsh, the last time you were here. I'm sorry."
He was surprised by the apology. He had the feeling it was genuine, not prompted by sympathy. "You had other things on your mind," he said. "I understand why you feel the way you do. You're not entirely wrong." He put his spoon down, reached into his pocket, and brought out the picture that he always carried. "Where can I find the Man in the Suit?"
Christine shook her head. "You know, usually I'm the most obsessive person here. But I think you've got me beat."
He put the picture away and returned to his soup. It had been just a pro forma question; he hadn't expected her to answer. He ate and watched the woman. She sipped her coffee and watched him. She was calm, easy in the silence. A woman with nothing to hide. Or a woman very skilled at hiding things.
He reached the bottom of the bowl. "More?" Christine offered.
"If it's no trouble."
She stood up, took the bowl, and went to the bar. Donnelly watched her again. She was relaxed, comfortable. The first time he'd met her, she was on edge, tired, her nerves jangled. And less than a day later, a massive child pornography ring and a double murder had been dumped anonymously in Donnelly's lap. He knew it had come from Christine Fitzgerald, though he could not prove it. It was no wonder she'd been short-tempered that morning. He'd been chasing one man. She'd been dealing with a whole nest of predators. And she was a civilian.
More or less.
She returned with another bowl of soup and a plate with a fat cinnamon roll. Donnelly was about to protest that he wasn't that hungry. But it wasn't true. He was starving. He ate. She waited.
"You're right, you know," he finally said. "I am obsessed." He ran his face over his face and back through his hair. "I have to find him."
Donnelly frowned at her. "Why? Because he's a killer. Because he's a criminal. I don't even know what he's doing any more. He shows up at these crime scenes, and sometimes it seems like he's in on it, he's behind the crimes, and other times it seems like he's trying to stop it. I don't even know what he wants, if he's working with the CIA or with organized crime or with HR … or if he's just some vigilante out on his own. I don't know. But I know he's dangerous. And he has to be stopped."
Christine sipped her coffee again. "He's outside your understanding."
"He's outside everything. He thinks he's beyond the law. "
"And that's the unforgivable sin for you, isn't it?"
Donnelly wiped his mouth on a napkin, studied her. But she wasn't mocking him, or if she was she was being incredibly subtle about it. He got the feeling she was trying to figure him out. Her eyes seemed disconcertingly perceptive.
"It is," he finally said. "The law is the law. It's there for a reason."
"What if the law's wrong?"
"Then you change it. You fight it, you protest, you vote. We have a system for that. But you don't break it. This man," he shook his head, "and men like him, they're tearing society apart, one thread at a time. The criminals, the corrupt cops, the judges, the politicians … people can't trust the system any more. Order breaks down, society crumbles. Chaos reigns."
Which was the only response he could expect, he realized, from a woman who had named her cybercafé Chaos. He was a little embarrassed by his rant, and yet he couldn't seem to stop it. "You don't know what it's like, when the social order breaks down. The kind of hell a city turns into. And the weak suffer the most. The old, the poor, the children …" He stopped short. "But you do know. You know that better than most."
He'd been through her background, of course. He knew about her mentally ill father, her alcoholic mother. Her years of drug use. He even knew how she'd first met Detective Fusco — though their continuing friendship puzzled him. This woman knew about living outside law and order, on the fringes of society. He would have thought she'd be on his side.
"You survived it," he went on, "but not everyone is as strong as you, or as smart. The laws exist to protect them. The police, courts … but that protection crumbles with every criminal who gets away with a crime, and with every vigilante, no matter how good his intentions are. Because one step leads to the next step, to the next … and then there are seventy-five corrupt cops."
"That's really hard for you. That it's so big, wide-spread?"
"If it had just been cops … but FBI agents, I expect us to be better …" He stopped, smirked at himself. "I'm disappointed. And I feel idiotic for being disappointed. I should know better."
"You want the world to be black and white. Good guys and bad guys."
"Right and wrong. Rule of law."
Christine nodded. "The law says you can beat your child in the airport. If I'd ducked, he wouldn't be in jail."
Donnelly sighed, looked toward the window. It was nearly full dark; the rain came down harder. "I know it's not that simple. But there are lines. Clear lines. " He ran his hand over his face again. "Sometimes I feel like I'm the only one who can see them anymore."
"You're a genuine idealist, Agent Donnelly."
It still didn't sound like she was mocking him. "I suppose I am."
"Your soup's getting cold."
Donnelly took another bite. The soup was lukewarm, and he was finally starting to feel full. It was still delicious. "Your world is all shades of gray, isn't it? And it doesn't bother you?"
"I was born in chaos," Christine answered quietly, "and reborn in it."
That, Donnelly thought in surprise, was a damned interesting turn of phrase. "On 9/11?" he ventured.
"Yes." She was silent for a moment. "I was on my way to meet my dealer. I was going to buy a week's worth of smack and shoot it all at once." She met Donnelly's eyes squarely. "I was going to kill myself. And then, just like that, I was surrounded by thousands of people who desperately wanted to live." She studied him, making sure he was following her. "The attack on the Towers was absolutely evil. But it saved my life. The world isn't black and white, Agent Donnelly. It never has been."
Christine Fitzgerald did not, he sensed, share that kind of personal revelation easily or often. He didn't know why she'd shared it with him. He felt oddly honored, and then immediately wondered if he was being played. The apology, the meal, the unexpected kindness. The revelation. Subtle interrogation could be a two-way street.
For all he knew, the Man in the Suit was here and she'd stalled Donnelly with soup long enough to let him get away.
Which was, he knew in the next breath, utterly asinine. She had to know that he was there alone. She could have left him in the car out front and let the Suit sneak out the back with no trouble at all.
So what the hell was she up to?
He took the last bite of soup, tore off a piece of the cinnamon roll and chewed it. Sipped his coffee. No answer came to him. "Black and white or gray, I won't stop until I find him."
Christine nodded, unsurprised. "Have you ever read Les Miserables?"
"If you're going to tell me that I have the same fanatical attitudes as Javert, I've heard it before." He had, from his wife, now his ex. At the end of an evening that had started out as a nice dinner and a show, the musical of her choice, and ended in yet another screaming argument when he got called in to work. Her exact words were, 'You're just exactly like him and you're going to die alone like he did!'
"I wasn't going to say that."
"Okay, I was," she admitted, "but I was going to be a lot less blunt. It has some valid and useful discussion of lawful versus moral in the real world. So have you read it?"
"No," Donnelly admitted. "But I've seen the show."
Christine sighed. "Right. That almost counts."
"You don't like musicals?"
"I love them. But that's not the point. Besides, the movie was better."
He frowned. "It's not out until Christmas."
"Not the new one. The drama. 1935. Frederick March, Charles Laughton. Black and white. Just like you like it."
Donnelly chuckled dryly. "It sounds lovely."
"It's running tonight, at the art house." She gestured to the stack of free local papers by the door. "That's why I was thinking about it."
"Are you going?"
"I thought about it." She looked toward the window, caught her reflection in the glass. Her hand came up to her bruised cheek. "But I am not un-self-conscious enough to go out like this."
"Theaters are dark."
"Theater lobbies aren't." She looked at the reflection for a moment longer. Then she shrugged, looked away.
"Would you go with me?"
Christine blinked, the surprise obvious in her eyes. "What?"
"Would you go with me, to see the movie?" He was actually as surprised as she was, but he hid it better — he hoped. If she was playing a game, he had the upper hand for the moment.
"Are you asking me on a date, Agent Donnelly?"
He shrugged, striving to seem nonchalant. "Ellis."
"My name. It's Ellis."
"Like the island?"
He felt color creeping into his cheeks. "Yes. My grandfather picked it."
"A name like that and second generation Irish to boot. It's no wonder you're an idealist."
"I suppose so. Will you go?"
Christine stared at him across the table. Her eyes were bright, sparkling blue, and Donnelly had the uneasy feeling that she was looking right through him. His mouth felt unexpectedly dry, and he took another hopefully casual sip of coffee. Whether he called it a date or not, he hadn't planned to ask her out. Hell, he hadn't even planned to come into the café.
But he desperately hoped she wouldn't say no.
He sensed that she was wavering and he pushed. "You seem to think I need a refresher. You want to see the movie. And you're understandably reluctant to go alone. It seems like an obvious solution."
She glanced at the clock on the wall. "If you feed the baby while I change, we can make this."
Donnelly blinked at her, aware that the surprise tables had just been savagely turned. "What baby?"
"She's not human, don't worry." She slid to her feet. "I'll show you. Bring your coffee if you want."
Christine snagged his dishes and carried them to the bar, then led him to a small hidden elevator. It creaked, but carried them smoothly to the third floor. Donnelly followed her across the little lobby and waited while she keyed the security code that opened the heavy steel door to her apartment. "Way easier than climbing in through the window, huh?"
Donnelly stopped just inside the door. He could feel himself blushing again. There was no point in denying that he'd broken into her apartment and searched it without a warrant; she obviously had surveillance inside her apartment as well as outside. "I'm sorry," he said sincerely. "I should not have done that, and I apologize."
She shrugged, smiled gently. "If I'd wanted to keep you out, I wouldn't have left the window open."
He moved further into the apartment, closed the door behind him. "Why did you?"
"To see what you'd do." She got a tiny baby bottle out of the refrigerator and held it under hot running water from the tap. It looked like a doll's bottle, but the liquid inside was apparently real. "But I have to admit, now that I know you better, it seems out of character for you to have taken the bait."
"You were so aggressive, I was sure you were hiding something."
"I hide a lot of things," she agreed.
"And the whole child pornography ring seemed like it might be a deliberate distraction."
She shut off the tap, wiped off the bottle with a towel, and shook it firmly. "If I knew what you were talking about, which of course I don't …"
"Of course not," Donnelly agreed.
"… I'd be insulted that you thought I would sit on that kind of information for even a minute, waiting for an opportune moment to use it."
Donnelly nodded. "If you knew what I was talking about, I'd probably have to apologize again. Although it is rather curious that it came directly to me. The FBI has its own division for that sort of thing."
"Maybe," she answered quietly, "whoever sent it thought it was too important to be entrusted to anyone but you."
Her eyes met his, and he had that uncanny sense again that she was peering directly into his mind. Get what I'm telling you, she seemed to whisper inside him. Understand this. Believe this. The children were far more important to me than your Man in the Suit.
Christine looked away, gestured to the couch. She leaned over a crate in the corner and came up with a small gray … rat? She wrapped it in a white wash cloth and brought it over to him.
The kitten peered at him with blue-gray eyes and mewed loudly.
"You have a cat," Donnelly said. It was so unexpectedly —normal. He took the little bundle awkwardly; his hands felt ridiculously big and clumsy. The kitten couldn't be more than a week or two old.
"This is Smokey," Christine answered. "A friend found her in a trash can. She's my first step toward eventual crazy-cat-lady-dom."
"She's so tiny." He shifted the kitten around, settled her against his chest.
"But loud." She waited while he got the little creature started on her bottle. Smokey clearly knew the routine; she didn't need much guidance. "Be right back."
She went into the bedroom, pushed the door mostly closed.
Donnelly looked around. He wasn't quite sure what had happened. An hour ago he'd been sitting in his car, running a little quiet unofficial surveillance. Now he was in his subject's apartment, bottle-feeding her newborn kitten and apparently headed for their first date. Or non-date, maybe; he'd muddied the issue and now he wasn't sure. It didn't really matter. She was going out with him. She knew he'd broken into her home, and that his main interest in her was her possible connection to a fugitive, and yet she was going out with him.
Somehow it all seemed to make sense.
The dining room area, where her computer had been, was empty except for the desk chair.
"Where's your computer?" he asked loudly.
"Hiding," she called back.
"Oh." He studied the area. If he hadn't known there was a hidden system there, he might not have spotted it. Not at first look, anyhow. The fact that she'd left it open when she'd let him break into the apartment said that she'd wanted him to see it, obviously. But why? As a sort of apology for her verbal attack? As another means of distraction? Or just because she thought he'd find it anyhow?
Ellis Donnelly was accustomed to knowing exactly what was going on in every situation. It troubled him that he couldn't figure this woman out.
Christine called, "What do you know about covering bruises, Ellis?"
"I know that that one is too big and dark to cover. You'll only make it look worse. Just leave it."
There was a long pause. "Okay."
Maybe he was reading way too much into this. She'd wanted to see the movie, but not alone, and he'd offered to go with her. Maybe that was all there was to it. But now she was genuinely anxious about leaving the security of her café. "Christine?" he called again. "We could go another time, if you'd rather."
There was another pause. "Thank you," she finally answered, "but I need to not hide anymore. It's getting to be a habit." She came out of the bedroom. She was wearing a long black skirt, with a v-necked black top under a red brocade jacket. She'd put on some lipstick and eye shadow, but hadn't tried to cover the bruise. Less than five minutes, he noted. It was impressive. "But if you'd rather not be seen with me …"
Donnelly shook his head emphatically. Bruise and all, she was unexpectedly beautiful. He wondered if she was overdressed for an art house movie, but of course he was still wearing a suit, so maybe she was just matching up. "Of course, everyone will think I hit you."
"That's what I meant."
"I can take it." He checked on the bottle; the kitten had drained the last drop. "Do I need to, uh, burp her or something?"
"No, but put her in her litter box. It tends to be kind of an in-and-out process."
He stood and put the kitten back in her crate, which was outfitted with a bed made from a flannel shirt, a shallow water dish, and a pie pan full of litter.
Christine took the bottle from him, rinsed it thoroughly and set it beside the sink. Then she went to the closet and brought out her coat. Donnelly took it and held it for her, and there was a moment of clumsiness; evidently she didn't date many men who held her coat.
She hesitated again. "You're sure about this?"
He wasn't sure if she was offering him a graceful exit or looking for one for herself. His mouth felt a little dry again, and his hands a little damp. "I'm sure." He gestured toward the kitten. "Will she be okay while we're gone?"
"I'll leave her in the café. Zubec will feed her if he needs to." She gathered two more bottles from the refrigerator, then grabbed her cell phone and her small purse, and finally picked up the kitten. "And I'm sure you'll call the health department and tell them I have a live animal in a food establishment."
Donnelly nodded solemnly. "I'll add it to my report about the soup. But I won't call it in until morning."
"You're a prince." Christine rolled her eyes and led him out to the elevator again.
It was seven blocks to the movie theater; they took a big golf umbrella from the café and went on foot. After the awkwardness with her coat, Donnelly simply took charge of how they walked. He put Christine on his left, so that he was between her and the street, and drew her hand through the bend of his elbow as he held the umbrella. She didn't object. She'd worn sensibly flat shoes, so they were able to walk fairly quickly.
Having her on his left had a benefit he hadn't anticipated: When a couple approached from the other direction, she simply pressed her face against his shoulder, hiding the bruise from their view.
He knew she thought he'd planned that, and he didn't bother to correct her.
There were maybe two dozen people milling around behind the glass windows of the theater's lobby. Christine paused, then tugged his elbow lightly, drew him back the way they'd come.
"Back door," she murmured. She led him into an alley beside the building — fantastic place for an ambush, Donnelly thought, and then dismissed it — and drew out her cell phone. Whoever she called answered on the third audible ring. "Hey, it's Scottie. Can you let me in the back?"
She put her phone away and continued down the alley to the back door of the theater. A minute later a scraggly young man with a long blond ponytail pushed the door open from the inside. "Hey, Scottie," he said, gesturing them in.
Donnelly folded the umbrella and followed her in. They entered a dusty walkway behind the screen.
"How's the face?" Ponytail asked.
"Not up for public viewing. Can we sit in the box?"
"Sure, sure." The young man looked Donnelly up and down, then turned back to Christine. "It's good you're getting out. See you later."
He went away and left them alone. Christine led Donnelly down the walkway, through a fire door, up steep, narrow stairs, through another door, around a corner and down another hall.
"Do you know everybody in the whole city?" Donnelly wondered.
"Not yet," she answered. "But when you're the girl who can get projector parts overnight, you get to sit in the box if you want to." She came to a cheap pine door, out of place in a fine oak doorframe, and jiggled the knob. It was locked, but she lifted the handled and pushed and it popped open.
The little room inside had been elegant once, a hundred years ago when the theater was new. It contained eight wide velvet-covered seats, in two rows, with plenty of leg room between them. The front of the booth was open to the main auditorium, separated by a low wall topped by a tarnished brass railing. It was far too low for current safety standards. Donnelly stepped over to it and looked down. Beneath, the seats of the main theater were half-full. He leaned out a little and looked up. The box was directly beneath the projection booth. Their view of the screen was unobstructed.
The house lights were still up, but the box was dim. Donnelly guessed that anyone looking up from the floor could see their outlines, but not their faces. Certainly not Christine's bruise. He looked around the box again. The velvet on the seats was crushed and faded. The brocade wallpaper was peeling in spots. But for tonight, it was perfect.
By then, of course, Christine had already taken off her coat on her own and was spreading it over one of the rear chairs to dry. Donnelly leaned the umbrella in the corner and did the same with his own coat. "Would you like some popcorn or something?" he offered.
She started to refuse, then reconsidered. The smell of fresh popcorn wafted up from the theater floor, irresistible. "I would, actually. Can you find your way back?"
Donnelly leveled a look at her.
"Sorry," she said with a chuckle. "Forgot who I was with for a minute."
"Something to drink?"
"Ginger ale, if they have any."
"I'll be right back."
She moved to the front row, started to settle into one of the center seats. "Ellis?"
He stopped at the door and looked back.
Whether this was a date or not, he realized, she'd needed this, badly. Just someone to take her hand and get her out the door. It was probably the most useful thing he'd done all day. The look in her eyes made his mouth go dry again, and his pulse raced in a distinctly unprofessional manner. He shrugged. "It's just popcorn."
He caught her faint smile in the half-light. "Idiot," she muttered gently.
"I'll be right back," he said again, because he didn't know what else to say.
The theater ran cartoons before the movie, the old black and white Mickey Mouse ones with uncensored violence. Donnelly didn't want to laugh at them, butthe slapstick was almost irresistible. Once Christine started to giggle, he stopped trying to resist.
Jean Valjean: You never temper justice with mercy?
Inspector Javert: No, we might as well understand each other, Monsieur Madeliene. I administer the law - good, bad, or indifferent - it's no business of mine, but the law to the letter!
Charles Laughton's Javert was a great deal more brutal than the musical version of the character. Donnelly found himself flinching every time the man spoke. The words were frequently familiar, echoing his own inner dialog, but the rigid callousness was unbearable. He found himself glancing at the woman next to him, watching for her reaction.
"What?" she whispered, the third time he looked over.
"What are you doing here?" he whispered back.
"If that's how you see me," he gestured toward the screen, "why are you here with me?"
Christine looked at him squarely. "I never said that was how I saw you."
"You were going to, before I interrupted you."
Unexpectedly, she put her hand on top of his on the armrest, curved her fingers to lace them lightly under his. "You have a rigid world view, Ellis. Black and white. That doesn't mean you're like him. You're not cruel."
Donnelly studied her for a long moment. "How do you know?"
A funny little smile played around her eyes. "People talk. If you know who to ask." She looked back toward the screen.
Which immediately raised the questions for Donnelly. Who did she know and what had she asked? Detective Fusco, certainly, but beyond that he really had no idea. He knew she had connections in Washington, but he'd gotten his hand slapped, sharply, for even inquiring about them. So who had she talked to, and what had they said about him?
And welcome, he thought wryly, to being on the other side of an investigation. "And you trust your sources?" he asked.
"I let you feed my kitten, didn't I?"
He sat back. He hadn't considered that her handing him the tiny kitten was an act of trust. It would never have crossed his mind to hurt the little thing intentionally. But that, he supposed, was the point – he wouldn't hurt it, he wouldn't even think of it. Christine had known that about him.
But that was a safe assumption, he thought further. There were very few people in the world who would intentionally harm a helpless creature, particularly one that was small and cute. So she's only correctly guessed that he was one of the vast majority of decent people in the world. Not a particularly daring deduction.
He watched the movie a moment more. And then it came to him. Laughton's Javert might well have drown the kitten in a bucket sooner than be bothered with it.
So the woman beside him didn't consider him a kitten-killing monster. That should not have been a great relief to him. It wasn't an especially rousing endorsement. 'Oh, you can trust him, he wouldn't murder a kitten.' But somehow it felt like an enormous compliment, an unwarranted but very welcome display of her faith.
And her hand still rested on his.
He moved his fingers just a little, curling them to hold her fingers just a little more securely.
Christine shifted, rested her shoulder against his. "You should still read the book. In the original French, if possible."
Donnelly cast desperately for something, anything, to say. "Do you read French?"
"Not since high school."
She released his hand to reach for more popcorn. They watched the movie in silence for a few minutes. Once the Javert question was settled, Donnelly found that it was really quite good.
In a lull, Christine whispered, "Where was high school?"
"Minnesota. Duluth." Her shoulder was still comfortably against his. "And thank you for not asking when that was."
"As long as you're over eighteen, I don't really care when."
Donnelly glanced at her again. It was subtle, gentle, but she was unmistakably flirting with him. "That's an … interesting perspective."
She glanced back. The playful smile was back in her eyes. "I have several of them."
"I bet you do." He let his eyes stay on hers, willing her to know that he knew she was flirting, that he liked it, and that he would gladly have flirted back if he'd had any idea how to.
Christine looked away first, but the smile didn't fade before she did.
They both turned back to the movie. Donnelly shifted in his seat so that the contact at their shoulders extended all the way down to their elbows. Christine didn't move away.
"Where do I know that actor from?" Donnelly whispered.
He waited, then pointed. "That one."
"Enjolras. That's John Carradine. You mostly know him for fathering other actors."
"Ahhh." Donnelly nodded. He'd seen the man in other roles, but Christine was mostly right. "David and Keith and …"
"Robert," she supplied. "And there's another one. The obscure one."
They were silent for a moment. Christine reached for her phone.
"That's cheating," Donnelly said.
"Information age," she answered, but she put the phone away.
In the last third of the movie, Christine wiggled. She slipped her shoes off and drew her feet up onto her seat, her knees under her full skirt, and hugged them lightly.
"Are you cold?" Donnelly whispered.
She glanced at him, startled. "No, I'm fine."
"Sorry." She put her feet back down. It was clear to Donnelly that she hadn't been aware of what she was doing. In the dim light he couldn't be sure, but he thought that her cheeks flushed. She leaned just a little away from him, breaking the long contact of their arms.
Donnelly looked to the screen again. They'd reached the battle scenes, arguably the most dramatic part of the movie. He didn't see anything in particular that should be upsetting her. But her body was still tense. "Do you want to go?" he offered.
Christine shook her head, looking fixedly at the screen.
He sighed and settled back into his seat. "Chris," he said suddenly.
"Chris Carradine. The obscure one."
She chuckled. "Dayyyyyyum you're good."
Donnelly smiled, smugly satisfied with the small victory, and with having jolted her out of her — whatever that was.
After a moment, Christine reached out and touched his fingers again. He turned his hand over on the arm rest. She slid her palm against his, and their fingers interlaced lightly. They stayed that way for the rest of the movie.
Inspector Javert: Right or wrong, the law is the law and it must be obeyed to the letter.
When they slipped out the back door into the alley, it had stopped raining. Donnelly kept the umbrella folded and tried to button his coat. The umbrella slipped out of his hand, and he paused to retrieve it. Christine went ahead, just a few steps, but at the mouth of the alley she ran into the crowd of people leaving by the front doors of the theater. She started to retreat, but someone spotted her, grabbed her arm. "Oh my God, Scottie, what the hell happened to your face?"
Donnelly consciously gathered his full Special Agent status and moved. He turned sideways and shoved gently but firmly between Christine and the woman who was talking to her. "I'm sorry," he announced with official finality, "but Miss Fitzgerald is not at liberty to discuss an ongoing investigation at this time." He turned again, got his arm behind Christine, his hand flat on the center of her back, shielded her with his own body and guided her firmly out of the crowd. "Excuse us."
It felt good to know what he was doing again. This extraction technique was text book; he'd done a hundred times, a thousand, with victims and with criminals. He kept his hand on her back to steer her, detain her, throw her to the ground if shots were fired or she tried to flee. It was purely muscle memory and he was good at it. This was his game, his turf. After hours of challenges and confusion, he was back to himself again.
No one, he noticed, attempted to interfere as he took her away. But possibly they took her cue from her lack of protest. And Christine Fitzgerald definitely did not protest.
He guided her for half a block, until they were well clear. Then he relaxed, started to remove his hand. She made a small sound of protest and her body bumped against his, probably inadvertently. He maintained the physical contact, slid his hand down her back and let it settle on her opposite hip as they walked. Christine sighed very softly and settled against him. After a moment her arm came up around his waist.
Donnelly adjusted his arm a little. It felt good to have her there, tucked in against his side, absolutely safe. It felt good to protect her, though he knew there was no real threat here.
It felt right.
It didn't last. At the corner, as they waited for the walk light, she slid away, put a little distance between their bodies. "I'm sorry."
"Why?" he asked, surprised.
Christine touched her bruised face. "I don't know why I'm so freaked out by this. I know I didn't do anything wrong. I just … I hate having to explain it."
"You hate being the center of attention," Donnelly told her gently. "You hate being noticed at all."
She looked at him, her blue eyes for once uncertain.
"You're the girl who can get projector parts overnight," he continued with certainty, "and you're happiest that way. You don't want to be the girl up on the silver screen."
I'd be willing to bet you're the girl who survived by making sure no one ever noticed you, he thought. But she was already skittish; he didn't say that aloud.
Christine nodded. "I suppose so."
The light changed. Donnelly touched her elbow, just to indicate that they could cross. She moved, but she also slipped her hand through the bend of his elbow again. It felt like the most natural thing in the world.
"Thank you," she said after they crossed the street, "for talking me into this. I needed to get out."
"Thank you for letting me talk you into it. I actually enjoyed the movie. I didn't expect to."
"Then why did you go?"
Donnelly considered. Because there was a sliver of a chance that the Man in the Suit might show up. Because I thought I'd gain some insight into you, and through that into him. Because I was too tired to go home alone again. They were all honest reasons. "Because you gave me soup."
She nodded thoughtfully. "Fair enough." She sounded if she'd heard all his reasons, spoken and unspoken.
"But you lied to me."
She glanced at him. "I did?"
"You promised me it was a black and white movie. But all I saw was shades of gray."
"Real life, Ellis. Sorry."
"Can't be helped, I suppose."
They walked a little further, and she seemed calmer. Donnelly could see the lights of the café ahead. Now or never, he thought. "I, uh, I picked up a flyer at the concession stand. They run classic movies every Thursday night."
"I know. I live right down the street."
Donnelly nodded, a little embarrassed. "I know. I was just … I wondered if maybe we could … do this again some time."
She looked at him for a long moment. "We could," she agreed quietly. "But you should know up front that I'll become invisible if we do."
"I was cursed at my christening by an evil fairy. Any time I go out with a guy, by about the third date he finds out how weird I really am and suddenly he can't see me anymore." She shrugged. "I become invisible."
He chuckled uneasily. "You're not that weird."
"You have no idea."
"You think you're the only one who runs background checks?" Donnelly asked. "I know all about you, Miss Fitzgerald."
"I'm sure you like to think so."
"Was that a challenge?"
Christine shook her head. "Sometimes two dates, sometimes up to five, but three is the solid average. Believe me, I will become invisible."
"Maybe you've just been dating the wrong men."
"Maybe. But more likely they've been dating the wrong woman."
"Next week, then?" Donnelly asked.
"Persistent, aren't you?"
"You already knew that about me."
She looked at him again, smiled uncertainly. "Sure. Why not?"
"Unless I have to work," he amended. "I cancel a lot of social engagements, I'm afraid. "
"Yeah, I might have expected that."
"At least I used to. Now I've just stopped making them, mostly."
"We'll keep it easy," Christine promised. "I think after this I'll be okay to go on my own, anyhow."
"Good. I mean, not good, but … good."
They reached the front of the Chaos Café. Through the windows, Donnelly could see that it was packed. It was also very loud. Christine groaned audibly.
"Back door?" he offered.
They continued to walk, past the building and around the side. "You know this has no legs, right?" Christine said quietly.
"This. You and me. It's got no chance."
"Why?" He could think of a dozen reasons without even trying, but he wanted to hear which one she'd picked out.
"For starters, because you abhor chaos and I live there."
They turned around the back of the café. It was dark there, but it felt inviting rather than dangerous. Donnelly stopped, took Christine's hand and turned her toward him. "Have you ever considered that your relationships might last more than a few dates if you didn't shoot them on sight?"
She laughed easily. "You may have a point. But tell me you think I'm wrong."
Donnelly sighed. It had been an unexpectedly nice evening, interesting, challenging, insightful, and he hated for it to end so abruptly. "I want to think you're wrong."
"Close enough." She moved to the back stairs, stepped up onto the first step without releasing his hand. With the difference in their heights, that one step put her at eye level with him. "And that being said, do you want to come upstairs?"
He stared at her, utterly dumbstruck. She couldn't actually be …
She leaned forward and kissed him. It wasn't a demanding kiss; it was soft, gentle. But it was definitely an invitation.
He was too startled even to respond. He simply froze.
She read it as rejection. Her lips curved into a little smile against his, and she backed away. Donnelly moved with her, leaning to keep their lips touching. He brought his free hand up to cradle the back of her head, to draw her closer, but only lightly, in case he had somehow misinterpreted, in case she wanted to stop. She didn't stop. He felt her hand on his shoulder. Her lips parted. Her tongue parted his. Still careful, still inquiring. Still giving him a chance to back away.
He didn't want to back away. He wanted to stand there in the chilly darkness and kiss her forever. He let go of her hand and put his on her waist. Hers came up to his other shoulder. Her fingers traced along the back of his neck, and he shivered a little, not from cold, though her fingers were chilly. He tightened his arms, drew her body closer to his.
He loved that she'd climbed that one step. It made everything so much easier. And never mind that she'd certainly learned it from some earlier boyfriend. It didn't matter.
One of them shifted, or maybe they both did, and the kiss changed, deepened. Moved from flirty introductory kissing to kissing with intent. And oh, God, Donnelly thought, this woman knew how to kiss with intent. Her lips, her tongue were everywhere, one minute fluttering, the next strong and firm. If she could kiss like that, he could only imagine what she could do with the rest of her body. Without coats between them, or jackets or skirts or …
His brain was suddenly filled with two very different voices. The first was utterly lost in the wonder, the delight of the woman in his arms. But the other voice was coldly practical. Women like Christine Fitzgerald – beautiful, smart, resourceful women who could make more money in two weeks that he'd bring home in a year —did not simply throw themselves at men like Ellis Donnelly. Not on a first date. Not after weeks of fancy gifts and expensive meals and clever lines and witty banter, even if he could ever manage to put those things together. Not when he'd been younger and more attractive. Not ever.
But she was right there, the first voice argued. She was in his arms. Her tongue was dancing across his mouth like he was some newly discovered confection. She tasted of popcorn and ginger ale, chicken soup and coffee. She would always taste of coffee, he knew. He liked coffee.
Maybe her relationships would last longer, the practical voice observed, if she didn't put out on the first date.
Not that he was complaining. She was there and he could have her. All he had to do was nod and lead her up those stairs and claim her.
Practicalities. He didn't have a condom with him. He wasn't that hopeful any more. But Christine was a decidedly modern girl; she probably had a stash of her own. He tried to remember if he'd seen any when he'd searched her apartment.
But women like her didn't throw themselves at men like him. Not for a tub of popcorn and a soft drink. Not unless they wanted something.
To distract him from the Man in the Suit. Or to find out what Donnelly knew about him.
Christine drew back. Not far, not so far that they weren't still breathing the same air. Just far enough that their lips parted and their eyes met. "And just like that," she murmured, "there are three of us here."
"I'm sorry," Donnelly whispered frantically. "I'm sorry."
"Let him go, Ellis. Just for tonight."
She was right there. Real and willing and wondrously warm. The finest woman that Ellis Donnelly was ever likely to have any chance with. And all she asked was that he put his fugitive out of his mind for the night. For a few hours …
Donnelly closed his eyes. "I'm sorry," he said again.
Christine sighed very softly. Then she leaned forward again and kissed him on the forehead. "Don't be sorry. You are what you are."
"Fanatic, obsessive, inflexible," he listed bitterly.
"And beautiful in your constancy."
He opened his eyes. That should have sounded like bullshit and somehow it didn't, perhaps because her breath was still warming the air he breathed. She was still in his arms. Her eyes held his, bright, observant, understanding. Accepting.
He wanted her, as much as he'd ever wanted anything in his life. Almost. "Please," he whispered frantically, "do you know where he is?"
Her eyes never wavered. "No."
Donnelly had run enough interrogations to know what she wasn't lying. But it had been a poor question, much too specific. Do you know where he is? No, not right now. Follow up, he thought quickly. Have you ever met him? Do you know how to reach him? Do you know anything about him that you haven't told me? Ask now, quickly, before she retreats, before she throws her defenses up.
He looked into her eyes and thought of all the questions that he should ask, and he asked nothing. He didn't want to see her look away, or not answer, or lie. And even if she looked him straight in the eye and told him God's truth, he would not believe her. He could not.
He didn't want to ask her questions. He wanted to kiss her again.
He couldn't not kiss her again, because there was every chance he'd never get another opportunity. But the minute their lips met, he knew that it was already too late. It had changed. This was not kissing with intent. It was kissing with desperate regret.
Donnelly stopped kissing her, but drew her tight into his arms. "After I catch him …" he promised bleakly.
"What if you catch him, Ellis, and he really is Jean Valjean?" she asked quietly.
Is she trying to protect him? Or is she trying to protect me? He didn't know. He might never know. Donnelly shook his head, leaned away from her again. "I suppose I'll throw myself in the river."
Christine trembled, just a little. "Come see me before you do that, okay? Give me a chance to talk you out of it." She traced her fingers over his cheek.
Her hand was cold. He turned his face, caught her fingers to his lips. "Why?"
"Because the world is all shades of gray." She slipped back from him, out of his arms. "But it still needs people who can see in black and white."
He held only her hand now, and the night had turned genuinely cold. She needed to be inside. Donnelly pressed a kiss into her palm, folded her fingers over it. "Good night, Christine."
"Good night, Ellis."
She started up the stairs. "Christine?" he called. She stopped, turned. "Do you want me to get the kitten for you?"
"I'll sneak down and get her later, when it quiets down. But thank you." Christine climbed the rest of the stairs to the third floor and went inside. She closed the door softly, but the electronic lock clunked with finality.
Donnelly stood where he was. Regret ran through his veins like rain. He wasn't wrong, and she wasn't, either. They could not have been together, not tonight, without the Man in the Suit's presence between them like a ghost. And until Donnelly caught him, or he was certain Christine didn't know him, it would always be that way.
God almighty, Ellis, can't you just leave it at the office? He couldn't count how many times his former wife had said that. And now, on his first semi-official date in years, he was right back there again. Can't you take a weekend off? Can't you take the night off? He couldn't. It was Law and Justice, his Light, his True North. His quest. His obsession. He could never leave it, not for a minute.
Let him go, Ellis. Just for tonight.
It wasn't too much to ask. It was just more than he could give.
Unexpectedly, Christine's door opened and she stepped out onto the stairs again. "Ellis?"
"I'm still here," he answered.
She tossed something small. Donnelly caught it out of the air. It was a book, of course. A paperback version of Les Miserables. In English. "Thanks," he called dubiously.
But he'd been through her background. Christine Fitzgerald maxed out her library card nearly every week. Books were precious to her, and that she was sharing one with him, one that she loved well enough to buy rather than borrow, was undeniably significant.
"It's the Julie Rose translation. Probably the least unabridged of all of them. Read the book, Ellis. It's good." She shrugged. "At least it's in black and white."
"Just the way I like it," he agreed grimly.
He looked up at her for a long moment. She looked back at him. The two flights of steps between them might as well have been an ocean. But she was reaching out to him anyhow. Throwing him a lifeline, in the form of a paperback book.
"Why?" Donnelly asked softly.
Christine took a long breath, exhaled a soft cloud around her face. "Because Eponine doesn't get out of it alive, either."
She went back inside and closed the door.
Donnelly tucked the book inside his coat and walked slowly back to his car. Behind the wheel, he took it out and flipped through it. There were no notes or pictures or maps tucked inside. Nothing that pointed to the Man in the Suit.
Just a book. In black and white, as promised. There weren't even any pictures, except on the cover.
He tried to remember exactly where in the movie Christine had begun to curl up in her seat. Eponine doesn't get out of it alive, either.
The rain spattered on his windshield again. He looked out toward the café. Chaos was bustling, bright and warm and inviting. Everyone was welcome.
She was probably right, too, that the relationship was doomed from the start. You abhor chaos and I live there. All of her relationships had been very short-term and casual. All of his had been long and serious and ended in deep unhappiness on both sides. She was young and pretty and impulsive. He was none of those things. And yet when he closed his eyes, he felt the touch of her hand on his.
It had been doomed before it even began. But right now its loss felt tragic.
He let his eyes travel up the front of the building. On the third floor, a soft light glowed behind one of the windows. Christine was there. Her kiss would still taste of popcorn and ginger ale. All he had to do was climb the stairs and knock on the door, tell her that he was wrong and take her in his arms. All he had to do was leave the Man in the Suit behind him for a few hours.
He couldn't do it. And she understood that. So she'd given him what was, in her view, the next best thing.
Ellis Donnelly put the book on the seat next to him and started the car.