Chapter 1: Chapter 1
When Meg Thatcher opened the door of her apartment, her face was sore from forcing it to remain calm and composed. She had been able to hold onto the expressionless mask for ten blocks as she walked through the harsh January wind. Snow had fallen gently around her, not heavily but enough to sprinkle her hair and black jacket with sparkling flakes. She hadn't felt the cold or the gentle brushing of the snow against her cheeks. She was too numb. Numb inside. Numb outside. Numb and even more frozen than the city around her.
It had been hard to keep from showing what was going on in her mind and in her chest. She had passed strangers in the streets and familiar faces in the hallway. She fought so that none of them would know. Her pain, her shame, belonged to no one but herself.
As she walked inside, the apartment that had been her home for six months welcomed her, embracing her like an old friend. Its warmth surrounded her, and Meg felt the ice that had filled her begin to crack and give way.
Still fighting, she set her teeth and tightened the muscles in her face. She kept her features completely blank as she took off her jacket and hung it on the peg by the door. She slipped out of her shoes, absently noting that her toes were wet and very cold, and turned to close the door.
The click of the door sounded like a roar in her head as it shattered the ice in her chest and her control right along with it.
Allowing her body to sag against the door, she felt a lump so big it threatened to choke her come to her throat. She tried without success to swallow it as her eyes burned and filled with tears.
Somewhere inside of her, she screamed at the loss of control, but there was nothing she could do as the first sob seized her and she felt the first tear touch her cheek. It tickled as it dripped slowly down her face, and Meg couldn't find the strength to brush it away.
In fact, she couldn't find the strength to remain upright. Her knees started to tremble seconds before they buckled and she slid down the door to the floor. The first sob was followed by another and another, and Meg was helpless against the onslaught. She couldn't move. She couldn't think.
It hurt. It hurt so much.
Somehow, she managed to draw her body together so she could curl into a ball. Each sob felt like a knife to her chest, over and over, and she wished she would just die from the wounds already so that the agony would stop.
The light moved through the room as day slowly turned to night. Meg's tears stopped and dried, but still she lay there, huddled on the floor unable to move.
This is what it must feel like to be broken, her mind whispered, and she wondered if she'd ever be able to move again.
Meg stifled a yawn as she unlocked the Consulate door. It was late fall, and the air was slightly nippy and smelled faintly of snow. She was still wearing her light jacket, and the cold wind was biting right through it. At least she had decided on slacks that morning so it didn't have complete access to her knees and legs.
Inside the building, all was quiet and dark. Even so, it didn't feel empty, and Meg knew that just down the hall there was an office with a light on where a man would be softly discussing his morning plans with his deaf wolf. In some manner she could never fathom, the wolf would answer back and the two of them would begin the day. It sounded crazy, but she found it oddly comforting.
She shut the door firmly behind her, shutting out the chill before briskly rubbing her hands together. She hadn't thought to bring her gloves, and her fingers were almost numb.
Because it was so late in the year, and because she was about an hour early, the foyer was still dim, so as soon as a little feeling came back into her hands, she snapped on the light. Turnbull's neat desk greeted her as it did every morning, though this morning there was no cheerful Mountie at it to echo the sentiment. Despite his absence, she caught herself almost saying, “Good morning, Turnbull,” to his empty chair.
She made her way to her office, soaking up the heat that was starting to lick at her skin and thaw out her nose. She just wished she had that cup of coffee Turnbull brought her every morning to start the warming process from the inside.
Just as the thought was running through her mind, she snapped on her own light, revealing a steaming mug in the middle of her desk. Her mouth dropped slightly at the sight. Fraser. It must have been Fraser. Sometimes his innocent disregard for her thoughts and feelings disgruntled her, but there were other times that he was thoughtful and sweet. She'd have to remember to either thank him or do something to repay the favour later.
She hurried across the room and sunk into her chair. Gratefully, she reached out and wrapped both hands around the mug. It was hot to the touch and felt like heaven. She intended to drink every drop before she even contemplated starting her work for the day.
Meg only had time to take one sip, almost moaning in pleasure as its heat wiped away the last of her inner chill, before there was a knock at her open door. When she looked up, she saw Fraser standing there with his Stetson in his hands.
“Good morning, sir.”
“Good morning, Fraser.”
“I hope the coffee is to your liking.”
“Yes, it is. Thank you.”
“What time is Detective Vecchio picking you up this morning?”
“In a few minutes, sir.”
Her eyebrows rose. “This early?”
“He has the 8 am shift. Is this a problem?”
She waved a hand at him. “No. I was just curious. Did you want something?”
“Oh, yes, sir. Someone called for you last night.”
She waited and when he didn't say more, she prodded, “And did he leave a message?”
“He didn't give his name. He just said that he would call today, and that he had something to ask you.”
Meg frowned at this. “Did it sound official, Fraser?”
“Not really, sir, but I wouldn't presume to judge.”
When he left the room, Meg wondered who the call had been from. Most people who knew her work number also knew her working hours and wouldn't call after six pm.
As she took another sip of her coffee—still scalding hot despite her conversation with Fraser, she was glad to note—Meg concluded that wondering and guessing wouldn't do her any good. The only way she'd get answers was if the the caller phoned again. Besides, she didn't have time for guessing games; she just had too much to do.
It was not long after that when she heard the front door open. There was a cheerful, “Good morning, Diefenbaker,” and Meg felt herself smiling into her cup.
The smile was gone before Turnbull was at her door, his face as cheery as his voice.
“Good morning, sir,” he announced.
“Good morning, Turnbull,” she said solemnly. “You're here early this morning.”
“Yes, I wanted to help you get a jump start on the paperwork, sir.”
“Fair enough. Why don't you grab a pen and some forms and we'll use my desk?”
His eyes widened. “Your desk?”
“Yes, Turnbull. Are you deaf?” Her desire to smile was quickly fleeing.
“No, sir. Of course not, sir. I will be back in a jiffy.”
She put down her cup and massaged her temples as he disappeared. It was going to be a long day.
Once more, Meg heard the door open and close. Since both of her employees were already there, she had to assume it was Fraser's friend and partner, Ray Kowalski. Of course, no one called him Kowalski. His last name had been changed months before when he had taken over the identity of the real Ray Vecchio. Meg preferred Kowalski—both the name and the man—but she never would have admitted it to his face.
“Hey, Turnbull.” The Detective's voice floated through her door.
“Hello, Detective Vecchio. How are you this morning?”
“Can't complain. Fraser here?”
“I believe he's in his office.”
Meg got up and went to her door. She leaned on the frame and as Ray went past, she said, “Make sure he's back in time for his shift, Detective.”
Kowalski stopped and glanced at her. “Sure, Inspector.”
She felt a tinge of annoyance. “On time.”
He frowned. “I said, 'Sure.'”
She locked gazes with him, making sure he knew how serious she was. The Detective didn't even flinch and, strangely, she found herself noticing that he had nice eyes. The thought annoyed her even more, so she broke eye contact and went back into her office. This time, she shut the door behind her.
The day went by slowly. The paperwork seemed endless and Turnbull's inexhaustible cheerfulness didn't help. Meg welcomed the interruption when it came.
The phone rang, its cry jarring in silence filled only with the sound of scratching pens. In fact, it was so jarring that Turnbull jumped, making an ugly blue line down the middle of his form. Meg lifted her eyebrow at him, and he hastily reached for the phone.
“Good afternoon. Canadian Consulate. Constable Turnbull speaking...Yes, sir...Yes, sir...May I ask who is calling?...No, sir....I will ask.” He put his hand over the mouthpiece and said, “There is a gentleman on the phone for you, sir. He refused to give his name. Will you take the call?”
“Yes. You are dismissed for lunch. Be back by two.”
“Yes, sir.” He stood, handing her the phone.
Meg waited until he had left the room before she said, “Hello. Inspector Meg Thatcher speaking.”
Her stomach dropped at the voice. It was soft but masculine, tinged with an accent that had been stronger the last time she had heard it. Almost twenty years had passed since then, but she never could have forgotten the sound of it.
She took a deep breath before saying calmly, “Yes, this is Meg Thatcher. How may I help you?”
There was silence on the line, and it lasted long enough for her to wonder if she had imagined that the voice belonged to who she thought it did. Maybe it was just a wrong number and the stranger on the end was pausing to formulate an apology.
“Hello. I'm not sure if you remember me. My name is André Laurent...”
The rest of his words were drowned out by the sudden pounding of blood in her ears. Hearing his name made her body go cold and then flush hot. A floodgate of memories crowded in on her. They were so strong that she was suddenly there again, naïve and seventeen. She remembered the joy and she remembered the pain. Their echoes hit her so hard that for a moment she couldn't breathe.
The man on the other end of the line stopped talking, and Meg forced her lips to form words that seemed like just a faint reflection of their undeniable truth.
“Yes,” she said, years of practice had made her voice emotionless and serene. “I remember you.”
The small café was very busy. The tables, both inside and outside, were crowded and full of chatter. Everyone seemed happy, and the éclairs that La Vie et L'amour were famous for were selling faster than the baker could make them.
Meg moved through the chaos confidently, though just a month before she had been timid and afraid she would drop things on customers or trip over chair legs and human feet. She carried a tray full of soup outside into the bright sunshine of mid summer. Along the way, she stopped and spoke to the customers, practicing her French.
Outside, she delivered her soup, smiling warmly at the elderly couple's frail, “Merci.”
She was about to return when a young man sitting alone caught her eye. Not usually one to think much about romance—there never really seemed to be time in her ordered universe—she surprised herself by stopping to stare.
He looked slightly older than she was, lean and so tall that he had trouble fitting his legs under the small café table. Curly dark hair brushed his shoulders, and dark eyes studied the pad he was writing on intently. No, not writing, she realized. Drawing.
Curiously, she made her way over to him. He looked up when her shadow fell across his paper. His displeased frown turned to warmth when their eyes met.
His voice was smooth and made a flutter go through Meg's stomach. She felt her cheeks heat and dropped her eyes.
“Oh, you are American?”
Meg straightened her back and eyed him defiantly. “Canadian.”
“Excusez-moi,” he said without sarcasm.
“That's all right. What are you drawing?”
He moved his hand so she could see the picture he had been sketching. It was of the elderly couple and even though it was drawn in pencil they seemed real enough to move. He had captured a deep and lasting love between them, showing a gentle hand clasp and a tenderness in their eyes. It was so lovely, it took Meg's breath away.
“Thank you...May I ask your name?”
“It's Meg. I work here at the café.” She felt stupid as soon as she said it. Her apron and tray would have shown him that already. Once more, she felt rather shy.
“Yes, I see.” His serious eyes sparkled with amusement for a moment. “My parents are friends of the owners and want me to paint their new sign.”
“You paint, too?”
“Painting is my passion,” he told her, and she could hear it there in his voice. “But I also draw and take pictures. One day, I'm going to be famous all over the world.”
After seeing his sketch, she could believe it. “I've never met an artist before.”
“Do you draw or paint?”
She chuckled softly at this and shook her head, causing the hair she had pinned up to fall into her eyes. “No. I can't draw anything.” Then, feeling a bit brave, she admitted, “I sing a little.”
“I'd love to hear you sometime.”
Her face flushed again. “I'm not that good...”
A woman's voice called out from inside the café, and she sounded exasperated.
“Meg?...Oh, cette fille!...Meg, viens ici.”
Meg started and suddenly remembered she was supposed to be working.
“Un moment,” she called back before saying to the artist, “I've got to go.”
He touched her hand gently. Meg didn't usually like to be touched, but the caress of his fingers sent a pleasant shiver through her.
“I'll see you again.” It wasn't a question.
“I'm here almost every day,” she said a little breathlessly.
Her employer called her name again, so Meg had to turn and hurry back inside. As she went, she wondered if she really would see the handsome artist again, and she realized that she hadn't even asked his name.
“It's been so long,” he said hesitantly, “I didn't know if you would. I've been thinking of you lately.”
She hadn't been thinking of him. She had forced him from her mind a long time before, and his memory only came back to haunt her when she was especially sad or really drunk, the first of which happened more than she'd like and the second almost never.
Her voice wanted to be soft. It wanted to be hurt and vulnerable. Meg didn't let it. She hardened it and sharpened it. It became as cold as the feeling he had left her with the last time she had seen him.
“Did you want something?” she asked.
He sighed. “I deserve that, I suppose. I was hoping that time had softened some of the hate you must have felt.”
She had never hated him. Even after what happened, she just couldn't force herself to hate him. She loved him too much. It made it worse, in a way, knowing that he had carelessly hurt her so badly and she could not make herself stop loving him...needing him. Because of this, she had ended up hating herself instead, and she had for a long time.
“Why are you calling me, André?” She didn't add, “Why now?”
“I'm in Chicago.”
“What?” Her hand tightened on the receiver.
“I've been here about three months. The Sketch is going to do a showing of my work. Paintings and photographs. I saw an article on you in the paper, and I thought I'd call...You're going to be in it.”
“Me?” Meg's stomach clenched.
“You were beautiful, Meg. From what I could tell from that grainy newspaper picture, you still are.”
“But...but, André...those pictures...”
“Were some of the best I've ever done. I'd like you to come to my studio and see the ones I'll be including. There are about five of the photographs and one of the paintings.”
She didn't have to ask which one. When he had finished, she had hardly been able to believe that the painting was of her. That amazing girl looked nothing like the plain, serious bookworm that Meg had always believed herself to be.
“I'm...I'm working.” Her voice had softened against her will.
“Come after work. I'll be here late. Do you have a pen? I'll give you the address.”
She wanted to say no, but she found herself silently writing down his instructions. As she did, she wondered if he had changed at all, and she was ashamed that she was looking forward to seeing him again.
“You'll come, won't you?” he continued when she still didn't speak for several moments after he had stopped.
“I'll come,” she promised. “Now, I've got to get back to work.”
“Bien, ma chère. I'll see you then.”
“Good bye, André.”
She bit her lip as she set the phone back in its cradle. Her brain was buzzing with conflicting thoughts. She wondered how it would feel to see him again. Would she be happy or would it hurt almost too much to bear? She let her mind and body think and feel what it wanted for several seconds before pushing it all away. She had work to do.
“Do not do that, Fraser,” Ray said. “I don't want to hear it.”
“All I was saying is...”
Ray held up his hand and said firmly, “No.”
“I have no idea why it irritates you.”
“Well, it does. Can we move on?”
Fraser looked a little hurt as he said, “Of course, Ray. Where would you like to go for lunch?”
It was closer to two than twelve, but the two of them had been working hard chasing down a suspect, and this was the first time they had to grab a bite to eat.
“Doesn't matter. What are you hungry for?” He stood up from his desk and stretched, his bones popping.
“Something fast. The Inspector is expecting me back at the Consulate at three.”
“Oh, yeah. She already warned me that we'd better not be late. She'll freeze me with her ice scepter or somethin'.”
“Yeah. I saw that in a movie once. Good word. Works with the Ice Queen.”
Fraser frowned. “Ray.”
“I call em like I see em.”
When Fraser didn't argue, Ray felt a flash of triumph. Fraser was his best friend, but he rarely let Ray get the last word in anything.
As the two of them passed by Frannie's desk, Ray saw a shiny pamphlet on it. Mostly, it caught his eye because the woman on the front was naked.
He stopped short. “What's this?”
“What's what?” Fraser asked, so Ray waved the pamphlet at him.
“That appears to be a nude photograph.” Ray had expected Fraser to blush and stammer, so his matter-of-fact tone was a surprise until Ray noticed Fraser's eyes were averted.
“That's exactly what it appears to be.” Ray read the words above the beautiful young woman's head. “An artist is showing some pictures and paintings this weekend.” He opened it up and saw there were several more examples of the artist's work. All women. All naked.
“Hmmn. Maybe this is something we should go to, Fraser.”
“Are you interested in art, Ray?”
He showed Fraser the inside. “Sometimes.” This time he got the blush he had been expecting and grinned. “Now, this is some art I could really enjoy.”
Actually, the pictures were tasteful and he was just teasing Fraser. Mostly.
“I think I'm busy that day,” Fraser said, gently taking the paper from Ray's hand and laying it back on Frannie's desk.
Some men who are beautiful in their teens grow out of it as they age. They go bald, or they get fat or old. Not so with André, Meg observed as he opened the door. He was just as beautiful as the last time she saw him. In fact, time had matured his boyish good looks into a dark, sophisticated charm.
“Meg,” he said, his eyes lighting up.
“Hello, André,” she said coolly, making sure no hint of emotion showed on her face.
She was still angry with him, she realized as she entered the loft. That anger floated to the surface, and with it a grief she thought she had squelched long ago.
“I'm glad you decided to come. It's good to see you.”
“I wish I could say the same.”
If he found her words harsh, there was no indication of it in his face. He studied her openly, his eyes traveling quickly over her.
“You haven't changed a bit.”
Neither had he. He still tried to say the things he believed a woman wanted to hear. But she wasn't seventeen anymore, and she knew better than to believe the words just because he said them.
“Of course I have,” she replied curtly. “It's been seventeen years.”
He smiled then, a warm smile that reached his eyes. “You really haven't changed much.”
Meg wanted to argue with him and tell him what she had learned. She no longer trusted just because she wanted to trust. She knew how to protect herself from the Andrés of the world. Her reality was a bleak one, and there was no room in it for the dreams he would try to plant in her head.
“You wanted me here, and I'm here. Now, tell me more about this showing...”
Ray yawned as he hurried up the Consulate steps. His eyes felt gritty and his head was fuzzy. The zombie movie marathon had seemed like a good idea at the time, but now that he was arriving at work with only a few hours of sleep he was starting to regret it. He knew Fraser would be wide eyed and eager to meet the day, and that somehow made it worse.
When he tried the door, it was unlocked, but the building was quiet and empty. Unlike the day before, he had arrived before Thatcher and Turnbull, which he liked. He was in no mood to deal with one's endless cheer and the other's dry and sometimes hostile sarcasm. Not that he didn't like them. It was completely the opposite, actually. He counted Turnbull among his good friends, and he admired the Inspector for refusing to take any of his crap.
“Fraser, you ready?” he yelled, closing the door behind him and shivering a little as he found the air inside almost as cold as the air outside.
His words echoed in the empty room, making him wince.
Fraser appeared a moment later, dressed in jeans, a sweater, and a flannel jacket instead of his usual serge and Sam Browne. Even so, he still had his stetson in his hands.
“No need to shout, Ray. I'm here.”
“Sorry, buddy. I thought you were upstairs.”
The building's only shower was an ensuite off of the Queen's bedroom. Since Fraser lived at the Consulate, Thatcher had given him permission to use it as long as there were no guests and he cleaned it himself.
Diefenbaker was trotting behind Fraser, but as soon as he saw Ray, he hurried forward hopefully. Ray stuck his hand in his pocket, feeling around to see if he had anything to offer as a treat. Triumphantly, he hauled out a semi smushed Twinkie. Dief was so excited at the sight that he jumped up, pushing Ray slightly back and making him laugh.
“All right. All right. Give me a minute.”
“Dief. Dief. Dief. Dief,” Fraser said, but the wolf ignored him—probably because he was mostly deaf.
“Lighten up, Fraser,” Ray told him, carefully taking off the wrapper and dropping the edible bits to the floor.
While he was putting the piece of cellophane into the garbage can beside Turnbull's desk, his phone began to ring. The plastic stuck to his fingers, and he had to shake them several times to knock it off. He finally answered his phone on the fourth ring.
“Hey, Ray.” It was Frannie, who also had the early shift, and who sounded as sleepy as he felt.
“Mornin'. What's up?”
“I got a possible break and enter here Welsh wants you to look at.”
“What about dispatch?”
“I thought I'd give you the heads up. They should be calling you any second. Is Fraser there?”
Oh, so that was it.
“No, Frannie. He's not. You're outta luck.” He hung up, frowning.
“Everything all right, Ray?”
“Yeah. We're gonna get a call.”
As he said it, the phone rang again. He answered and the familiar voice on the other end gave him details and an address. There wasn't much to tell, and he only got a little more from dispatch than he had from Frannie.
He hurried out of the Consulate with Fraser and Dief behind him, pausing only long enough for Fraser to lock the door.
It was only a few minutes later when they drove up to an old apartment building in a part of the city that wasn't upscale but it wasn't West Racine either. The building was more character old than dilapidated old, and even Ray noticed the interesting architecture.
“Third floor,” he told Fraser as they got out of the car, leaving Dief behind to doze off his Twinkie. “Door is ajar, and the elderly neighbor is worried. She didn't dare to check herself.”
Fraser nodded as he accepted this information.
There was no security at the door as they stepped inside, but the lobby was bright and cheerful. There was no elevator either, and Ray grumbled as he and Fraser made their way up the stairs. The paint in the stairwell was faded by years but very clean. The building itself was quiet, and it was almost easy to believe no one lived there.
There were only two apartments per floor, so it wasn't hard to see which one was the one they were there to check out. They didn't even need the number he had hastily scribbled in his notebook so he wouldn't forget.
Ray approached the door cautiously, drawing his gun. “Mr. Laurent, are you home?”
The name had tickled his mind when the woman working dispatch had said it, and he had the same feeling now as the name came out of his own mouth.
There was no answer to his question, so Ray reached out and touched the door. “Mr. Laurent, I'm with the police. I'm coming in. Don't be alarmed.”
He pushed gently, and the door opened to reveal a dark and quiet apartment. It was a large space, with the kitchen and living room combined into one. The walls were beige and the kitchen cabinets and counter top were unyielding black. The blahness was softened by the three or four paintings spread around the space. Most of them were small canvases, but there was a huge one over the red bricked fireplace. Ray's eyes widened when he saw it, and he suddenly realized where he had heard the name before.
“Blood,” Fraser said, breaking into Ray's thoughts and forcing them away from the beautiful blond bathing.
“On the floor. There's blood.”
Fraser knelt, drawing Ray's eyes to the spot he was studying. It was blood, all right. Just sprinkles, but enough that it was unmistakable—especially on Laurent's pristine white rug.
“There's a trail.”
The two of them followed the trail further into the apartment. It led towards the painting, past the kitchen. A glass of wine was sitting on the counter, and a plate was on the table.
In the middle of the living room, a huge couch, as white as the rug, sat facing the fireplace. As they got closer to it, Ray spotted something he had missed because he had been studying Laurent's painting.
“Look, Fraser. Feet.”
Fraser nodded absently and moved around the back of the couch.
“More than feet, Ray. There's a whole man here.” Fraser knelt again. “Dead.”
Ray looked down at the man Fraser was examining. Definitely dead—well, if the butcher knife in his chest had anything to do with it, anyway.
The man was about Ray's age, maybe a little older, and his shirt—originally white, Ray was not surprised to notice—was soaked in blood. It had seeped outward from the knife, spreading to cover most of his torso. There was a lot of blood, but not nearly as much as there would have been if his killer had taken the knife with him...or her. Mixed in with the blood were spots of something else, and it was splattered over the victim's hands and his pants as well. It took Ray a moment to realize it was paint.
“I know this guy, Fraser.”
Fraser looked up at him. “You do?”
“Yeah. Frannie's paper thing. He's on the back. He's the artist that works with naked chicks.”
“I think it's time to call this in.”
“I'm on it.” Ray had already been reaching for his phone. Before he had even finished his sentence, he was dialing.
Meg woke feeling terrible. Her head and eyes hurt, her mouth was dry and tasted like vomit, and she had slept in her clothes. The shrillness of her alarm sliced through her mind, seeming to rip it to shreds. When she turned to shut it off, a groan escaped her, and she realized her whole body felt as bad as her head.
This was why she almost never drank. Alcohol had never been her friend. It forced her to relax, it robbed her control, and every time she drank more than a glass or two, she forgot propriety and did something stupid.
At least she hadn't slept with him. That, if nothing else, was something to be looked on with pride. She had maintained her distance and decorum despite the fact that she had wanted to rage or to cry or to pretend no time had passed and throw herself into his arms. When she left him, she had been perfectly sober. It was afterwards, when she was locked away in her own home where no one could see her or judge her, that she had allowed herself to remember.
That's what had led to that first glass of Scotch. She didn't even like Scotch, but the first glass had led to a second, and the second to a third. She had passed out sometime after the end of the bottle.
As she struggled to get out of bed, she briefly considered calling in sick. She shoved the thought aside, knowing there was just too much to do. Besides that, she was a firm believer in living with the consequences of your actions.
In the bathroom, she found a bottle of Advil and quickly took some before brushing her teeth. She blearily studied the woman in the mirror and thought she looked nothing like the girl in the picture sitting on her coffee table.
She frowned, brushing a little harder than necessary as she thought of accepting that picture from him.
“So, you'll remember that there were good times as well as bad,” he had said.
That's not what she saw at all. She saw a girl who was about to have her heart and all her dreams shattered. A beautiful girl, Meg had to admit. If there was one thing André was good at, it was making a woman look beautiful—whether she was clothed or not. He had a secret way of bringing out beauty that worked really well. He started from the inside. He gave her compliments, treated her as if she were beautiful. When a woman was beautiful to herself, she became beautiful to others. It was too bad his methods were so often laced with lies. This thought made her shut her medicine cabinet with more force than necessary, the echo of it rebounding through her aching skull.
When the throbbing eased a little, she chastised herself for being weak. So her heart had been broken. So the memory still had the power to hurt her. It had been seventeen years, and it was time to get over it already.
She would go to his exhibit. She would go and force herself to look at his work. She would talk to him and mingle with the crowd. Her eyes would not turn away with embarrassment when they met the eyes of the girl in that painting. She would accept the girl that smiled there so sweetly and allow her to feel the joy of finally finding a place that felt like home. It was time to put the past back where it had been all these years and move on with her life.
Feeling a little better emotionally, if not physically, Meg slipped out of her clothes and started the water in the shower.
After contemplating telling Turnbull to go to hell, she decided that wasn't very professional. With a sigh, she put down her pen and gently rubbed her forehead.
"All right, Turnbull. I'll take the call."
"Line one, sir."
"Thank you." She pressed the button and continued, "Inspector Meg Thatcher speaking."
"Meg? I know you don't like personal calls at work, but this is important."
It was another lightly accented voice, but this one caused her as much happiness as the other had distress.
Annette, like André, was a friend she had made the year she spent in Paris. Annette was the only friend from that period of time that Meg still talked to, and she knew Meg better than any other person on the planet.
"Oui. Comment-ça vas?"
The voice was warm and concerned and for some reason, it made Meg's hand convulse on the receiver.
"I am highly hung over," she replied honestly.
"Are you okay?"
"I don't know." Another honest answer, one she would never share with anyone else.
"Then I'm too late."
"Too late for what?"
"I called to tell you about..." She paused as if searching for words. "...that bastard."
Meg swallowed. "You're talking about André, aren't you?"
"I heard yesterday that he was doing a showing in Chicago, and I had to call you. I wanted to warn you. I'm so sorry I wasn't on time."
She hardened her voice. "It's okay, Annette. I'm not seventeen anymore."
"You forget that I was there, Meg. I remember what happened."
"It was a long time ago."
The apartment was dim. It wasn't because it was dark outside but because the shades had been pulled all the way down to keep out the light. What once had been a cheery place, with picture-covered walls the color of the ocean, was now a gloomy home to shades of gray.
On the small antique futon that served as both couch and bed, a small form was huddled, wrapped in an afghan crocheted from bright tones of red and blue and purple and green. Even the blanket looked subdued in the transformed room, but the person it sheltered didn't notice. Her thoughts were all turned inward.
It had been three days. They felt like an eternity. She couldn't remember a time when she hadn't been sitting there watching the images go around and around in her head. She couldn't remember eating or sleeping, though she thought she might have gone to the bathroom once or twice.
She had always thought of herself as a strong person, but somehow finding the strength to get up and cross the room to the small kitchenette to make herself a sandwich eluded her. If she would have cared at all, she would have been ashamed.
There was a knock on her apartment door, and the noise made her flinch. She didn't answer the voice. Instead, she just drew her afghan more tightly around her. For the first time in a long time, she wished her mother were there to rock her and hold her as she had when Meg was very small.
"Meg, are you in there? Ouvre la porte, Meg. It's Annette."
Meg wanted to tell her friend to go away, but the words skittered away from her and remained unsaid.
There was a soft click as the door opened, and Meg blinked as the sudden light burned her eyes. Tears welled up there, surprising her. She felt so empty that she was sure there were none left.
"Oh, sweetie, are you okay?"
The gentle words reached her, but Meg was still trying to decipher their meaning when Annette settled onto the futon beside her.
"I..." she started but stopped, helpless.
"It's okay," Annette said, "You're going to be all right."
"I..." Meg tried again. "I left him."
Annette reached forward and touched Meg's face. It was surprisingly comforting. "I know."
Her face tightened, but she just said, "It doesn't matter."
Meg knew. Way down in her gut, she knew. But this was something she didn't want to think about.
Annette's long, thin arm wrapped around Meg's shoulders over the blanket, and she drew her close for a firm hug.
"Do you?" She meant to demand this, but it came out sounding wistful.
Annette gave her another squeeze and said, "Yes, I do, and I've come here to make you do something you're probably going to hate me for."
Meg pulled away to look into her friend's pretty face. She frowned and asked harshly, "What do you mean?"
"What I mean, Meg Thatcher, is that you've been sitting her in the dark for two or three days. Do you think he's home sitting in the dark? Of course not. He's painting or riding his motorcycle or one of those other things he does that he thinks makes him so attractive."
Her words sliced through Meg, and she wanted to cover her head like a child so she wouldn't have to listen.
"What you're going to do today is get up. Eat. Take a shower. Change your clothes. You're going to go down and see Madame LeBlanc so that she knows you are still alive. Then, the two of us are going to go to the Louvre. I know you love it there."
Meg groaned. "I will never like art again."
"Don't be silly."
Meg felt her lip begin to tremble. Angrily, she forced it to stop. "I think I'm fine here. Thanks."
When she tried to turn away, Annette caught her shoulder. "This is not up for negotiations. You are going to live your life without him, Meg, and this is the first minute of the rest of it. Now, get up."
It was Annette's turn to frown. "I don't believe you."
The thought of getting up and going out made Meg want to throw up. Her stomach clenched and her chest tightened.
"I'm so empty."
"Then go out there and fill yourself up. Don't let him do this to you. You're stronger than you think."
She got to her feet and reached for Meg's hand. Meg just stared at her at first, unable to move. Then, slowly, she put her hand in Annette's and allowed her friend to pull her to her feet.
André had taught her to live, that was true. At seventeen, her whole life before him had been a long, endless wasteland of serious responsibility. He was gone now, but Annette was right, she was strong enough to learn to live again, with him or without him.
Gratefully, she squeezed Annette's fingers. "All right. I'm ready."
"There are some things you don't forget," Annette said softly, and Meg wasn't sure if she was talking about Meg or herself.
"How did you find out?"
"He called me."
"He called you?" Her disbelief was plain, even with an ocean between them.
"What did he want? Did you go see him?"
"Yes," Meg admitted quietly.
"What happened? Tell me everything."
Meg shrugged, though her friend couldn't see it. "That's about it."
"He called and told me about the show and invited me to his studio...and I went. Annette, I'm going to be in it." She said this last bit in horrified fascination. If any of the people she knew from Chicago linked that fresh faced, happy girl with her, there could be some serious complications. Despite that, even thought she was completely nude in the pictures, she couldn't help but be almost proud that André thought they were good enough to show the world.
"So, I went. I wanted to tell him to leave me out of it, but..."
"André's still André." Her voice showed disgust, but Meg knew it was for the artist and not for her--at least that's what she hoped.
"I wasn't there long," Meg continued. "We talked a bit. He wanted to reminisce. Imagine, after what he did...I didn't let him. I gave him my permission, and then I got the hell out of there."
"And the hangover?"
She admitted, "I went home and got drunk."
It wasn't every day you met the biggest demon from your past, she rationalized to herself. Still, she was ashamed that she had let him steal so much of her power and self control from her.
"How do you feel? Besides the hangover, I mean."
Meg paused to reflect on her answer. "I'm okay."
"Are you sure?"
"Kind of sad, but fine."
"All right, if you're sure."
“I'm sorry this happened.”
“I'm not.” Meg realized this was true the moment the words were out of her mouth. “It was bound to happen sooner or later. It's good to know I've grown enough to face it and really move on.” She glanced at her clock. “I'd really better go. I'll call you when I have more time to talk. Thanks so much for calling.”
“Good-bye. Je t'aime.”
Meg set the phone in its cradle feeling somehow lighter. It had felt good to talk about the last twenty-four hours with someone; it helped to put the whole thing into perspective. She really should have thought to call Annette herself. There was no one in Chicago—no one else in her life, really—that she could talk to so frankly and honestly. Most of the time, she felt as if she were reaching out to people from behind a thick glass wall and nothing could get in or out, but it was different with Annette. At just a few words, the wall always tumbled. They had been best friends for far too long for it to stand its ground.
Pushing everything else out of her mind, Meg picked up her pen and looked down at the form she had been filling. She ran her eyes over it, trying to remember what she had been doing.
She had just started working again when there was a light tap on her door.
Meg winced but said, “Come in.”
Fraser appeared, dressed in jeans and a sweater. Her eyes widened.
“Is there a reason you're not in uniform, Fraser?”
“Detective Vecchio just dropped me off, sir. I just wanted to let you know I'm here for my shift.”
“All right. Dismissed.”
He closed the door behind him when he left.
Ray absently thanked the landlord before firmly closing the door in the man's face and stepping into the bright studio.
He hated doing this kind of thing without Fraser. Usually, where there were two of them, they saw almost everything. Observation, Ray had to admit, was definitely one of his partner's strong points. Unfortunately, Fraser had an early shift at the Consulate, so Ray would be going through André Laurent's work space alone.
The studio was large and filled with canvases. Some were empty and some held pretty women in different poses and some were works in progress. Ray saw one that was just from the shoulders up and another that was a very detailed torso.
There was a white, paint-spattered tarp on the floor. In one corner of the room sat a small table. On it was a glass filled with paint brushes, and underneath was an old, battered leather bag. Another table near Ray was filled with papers and more of those pamphlets like the one Ray had found on Frannie's desk. They were perched precariously and looked as if they would fall at any moment. Across one wall sat a row of filing cabinets. There were bankers' boxes on top. One corner of the room had a wire across it, and several photographs, both black and white and colored, were pinned to it. Ray guessed that the blanket behind the line cut the dark room off from the rest of the loft.
Ray didn't know where to start. The room was full of possible suspects, and he had to find out if any of them had hated André Laurent enough to kill him. If he were lucky, he might stumble on something that showed the artist's movements on the last day of his life. André's apartment had already been swept, and Ray wanted to go over his studio before the tests came back.
After a moment of indecision, Ray headed over to the filing cabinets. He forced himself to keep his mind on the task at hand, even though his eyes wanted to wander to the scantily clad and naked women in the paintings around him. Whatever else he had been, Laurent was a very talented painter, and the figures in his work seemed real enough to walk out of their frames and talk to Ray. The painter's talent seemed to go beyond lifelike, though. There was something in the faces of those women that Ray just couldn't put his finger on. They seemed so honest. It wasn't that they were all happy, though a good many of them were, because there was one of a small dark haired young woman who looked so sad that Ray had to stop a moment to stare at her on his way by.
The first thing Ray found when he opened one of the filing cabinets was that Laurent kept meticulous records. The second thing he discovered was that the artist had painted, photographed, and sketched thousands of women—and even a few men—over his lifetime. If every one was a suspect, it was going to take Ray years to go through them all. Just the thought made him groan.
Ray slammed the cabinet closed and went over to study the papers on the table by the door. He tidied the pamphlets, a habit he had picked up from Fraser, and started going through the rest of the mess. Most of it looked like sales receipts, but there were a couple of pieces that seemed interesting. Ray decided he was going to have to call the guys to come take everything into evidence so they could go over it slowly in case nothing from Laurent's apartment proved useful. Before he moved on, he took one of the pamphlets and shoved it in his pocket. The action made him flush in embarrassment, but he did it anyway.
Wondering if the brown leather bag held more papers, Ray slipped it out from under the other table. Whatever it held made it heavy, and it bulged at the sides.
When he unzipped it, he found three large portfolios, each of them about twenty years old, if the dates on the covers were right. He picked up the one labeled “1980-1981” out of the bag and put it on the table. It was tightly tied together with strong string, and Ray had to work to get the knot undone. When he finally did, he opened the portfolio to discover it was full of photographs. The first one was of a blond young woman standing waist deep in a lake.
He flipped the page and studied the next one and then the next one. He whistled in appreciation as he realized that Laurent had been as talented with a camera as he had been with a brush. All of his models seemed completely comfortable despite their lack of clothing, and many of them had warm, open, trusting faces.
Ray noticed that in many of the pictures, even though the women were nude, there was more suggestion than reveal. Towels, shadows, arms, legs, leaves. Laurent seemed to like the suggestion of nudity as much as the nudity itself. Many men who did this kind of work would be considered perverts, but even Ray—who knew nothing about art—could see the difference between Laurent's stuff and the porn found on a magazine rack.
As Ray looked at more and more of the pictures, he realized he was admiring the women as much for the inner beauty that shone in their faces as for their physical attributes. Despite their nakedness, the pictures seemed to be more about the women themselves than about their bodies.
Fascinated, after Ray put down the portfolio, he picked up the next one. He couldn't believe that the kid who had taken these had been maybe twenty years old.
Ray slowly flipped through this one as he had the first, wondering how a kid could make women relax that much. When Ray had been that age, he couldn't even talk to women. If he would have suggested they take their clothes off so he could take pictures, one of them would have punched him in the face.
The thought amused him, and he smiled.
The smile was still on his face when he flipped the page and saw a young girl, probably in her late teens. She was young enough that it felt almost wrong to be looking at her. Still, even mixed in with all the other beauties, she stood out. Ray didn't know if it was because she looked almost familiar somehow or because of her expression. Ray didn't think he'd ever seen anyone look so blissfully happy. Her face practically shone with it, and there was an innocence about her, a lighthearted and warm innocence that spoke of love and trust.
There were quite a few pictures of the girl, and as Ray went through them he had a strong feeling that he had seen her somewhere before. As he was mulling this over, he noticed that there were blank spaces in the portfolio where some of the pictures had been taken out. He wondered if they were going to be used in Laurent's show.
He was still pondering whether he had ever met the girl in the pictures when he came to one that made him stop. The girl was sitting with her arms wrapped around her legs. Her chin was propped up on her knees, and she looked deep in thought. If not for the sheer amount of skin, she might not have been naked at all, everything was so artfully covered. Seeing that solemn face, Ray's sense of familiarity deepened, and he met the eyes of the girl in the photograph—eyes that danced in amusement in contrast to her serious expression. Ray's breath caught in his throat as it suddenly hit him.
He had seen that face before. He had seen that expression before. Not often, but enough for him to finally realize what he just hadn't been getting.
He had spent most of the past half hour looking at naked pictures of the Ice Queen.
It was almost a full minute before he forced himself to breathe again. It couldn't be her, his mind told him, but it was a weak protest. He knew that he was right. Swallowing, he started flipping backwards through the pages.
Ray could see it now. Very young, full of smiles, happy, innocent, but still Meg Thatcher. He tried not to gawk as his mind confirmed the truth.
He wondered where that girl had gone. When had she grown cold and distant? When had that open warmth turned into a thick wall of silence? She grew up, Ray supposed, just like everyone did. It was a shame, though, that she had lost the joy he was studying so carefully along the way.
He closed the portfolio and placed it on the table on top of the other two. Curious, he went back to the filing cabinet and opened up the one labeled “T”. Guilt mixed with the curiosity, and he worried briefly about invading the Ice Queen's privacy. Still, he had to know if she were a suspect. She had known the victim, he had the means to blackmail her, and she was living in Chicago.
If Ray had any doubts about the identity of the girl, they were squashed when he found her name in the cabinet. The file was a little thicker than most of the ones he had initially looked at. He wondered if it was because there were quite a few pictures of her.
He took out her file and flicked it open. First, there were negatives, notes on the photographs, and some small snapshots of paintings. He moved through these things quickly before coming to a letter. His eyes ran over it, and he sucked in a breath. It was a love letter. From the Inspector. To the victim. It was old and faded, and the girl writing it was the one in the pictures not the cold, logical woman he saw every day. The letter spoke of things that told Ray that the two of them had been deeply involved and that Thatcher had been completely infatuated. Ray wondered if the feeling had been mutual.
This meant that the Inspector was a person of interest. He would have to interview her and ask her embarrassing questions that he didn't really want to know the answers to. Or maybe he did.
Sighing, he took out his phone to call the station so he could get someone to pick up Laurent's pictures and files. Hopefully, there were be more people of interest in them. For now, it was time to go interview the gallery owner.
Frannie Vecchio was headed to Lieutenant Welsh's office to complain about the stale sandwiches in the machine in the lunchroom...again. Not that she thought it would do any good, but it was the principle of the thing. The police officers she worked with weren't animals, and they deserved to be treated like human beings. Decent coffee and edible food shouldn't be too much for a person to ask, so Frannie kept trying. Most of the time, she lost, but she won enough to encourage her to keep up the fight.
Approaching her desk, she saw the Duck boys--Jack Huey and Thomas Dewey--standing there snickering. Huey had Frannie's pamphlet on the art exhibit her class was going to see in his hands, and the two of them were ogling the women inside.
"Now, that's what I call art," Huey said.
"Look at the figure on that one. She's definitely worthy," Dewey added.
"What do you think it would take to get women to pose like that for us?"
"Definitely more than you've got." Frannie snatched the paper out of his hand with a scowl.
"Hey, we were looking at that."
"And appreciating the skill of the artist," Dewey protested.
"Yeah, right. You two were perving it up. You're sick."
"He takes pictures like that, and we're the perverts?"
"He's an artist. They're like fruit to him."
"Yeah," Huey sighed. "Delicious fruit."
"Okay, you two are officially disgusting."
"What about you?" Dewey asked. "I didn't think you were into chicks."
Frannie rolled her eyes. "Oh, please. Grow up. My art class is studying nudes for the next couple of months and we're going to go see this exhibit so we can talk about it in class. This guy is really famous. It's supposed to be a real honour to be painted or photographed by him."
"He's also really dead."
Frannie blinked. "What?"
"Someone killed him last night," Huey told her. "Stabbed him with a butcher knife."
He held up a hand. "God's honest truth."
"I didn't read anything about that in the paper."
"He's famous enough that the gallery owner wants us to keep it quiet for as long as we can, but it's true. Wanna see some pictures?"
Frannie frowned and chewed her lip before saying, "Well, I guess the show's off."
The man was small and balding with a pointed, upturned nose that made his snobby personality seem even more snobby. He had lines around his mouth from perpetually frowning, and his ice-colored eyes were cold and calculating.
As he led Ray into the gallery, he watched him sharply, as if he were afraid Ray would touch and break things like a child. It tempted Ray to do just that.
“As you can understand, Detective,” he said in a whiny, nasally voice, “we are in an uproar over the news. André's show was supposed to open in three days—three days! What are we going to do now? We can't just show his art anyway. We need permission from his estate...and his wife.”
“Wife?” Ray's ears perked up. “He was married?”
“Yes. An estranged marriage, but still legally married. Legally binding. André could never get around to doing anything that wasn't connected to his work. And then he tended to do too much.”
Ray let that last comment go for now. “Tell me about this wife.”
“They came to Chicago together about three months ago. They've been on again off again for as long as I've known André...”
“You knew him before this?”
“I've been trying to get him to do a showing at The Sketch for over ten years. He's been with Laura since before that...occasionally. They got married about seven years ago. She probably thought that marriage would change him.” He tsked and shook his head.
“Laura...last name the same?”
“As far as I know. I don't know her as well.”
“Was she staying in the apartment with him?”
“At first, but she moved out a little over a month ago.”
“Hmmm,” Ray said, mentally kicking himself for picking up yet another of Fraser's bad habits.
The gallery owner stopped suddenly. “Do you think she could have done it?”
“Dunno yet. What were you doing last night from about nine until three this mornin'?”
“Me?” The man put a hand against his chest in shock. “You certainly don't think that I...”
“Answer the question, Mr. Carmichael.”
His face tightened, but he said, “I was out to a small party thrown by friends until midnight, and then I was at home with my partner asleep.”
Ray took a battered and bent notebook out of his pocket. First, he wrote down “Laura Laurent?” and then he wrote down the gallery owner's name.
“I'll need the names of these friends and the name of your partner and how I can get in touch with each of them, just in case.”
To his credit, Carmichael gave up the information willingly before leading him into the room that was to be used for Laurent's exhibition. It was a large room with space for lots of paintings and pictures, which probably showed how famous Laurent was.
Some of the pictures were on the wall already, but most of them were framed and leaning against it. The same was true for the paintings.
“Is this everything?”
“I think he still had a couple more pieces he wanted to include. There was one he was still working on, and one or two he still needed to get framed.”
“Was there anyone who didn't want his show to go forward?”
“No one that I can think of, though men like André make enemies in another way.”
Ray glanced up from the painting he was eyeing. “What do you mean?”
“Do I have to spell it out for you, Detective?”
Ray thought a minute before replying, “Yes.”
Carmichael sighed. “André liked to sleep with his models. He was in love with women, all women. He wanted to see them bare—not just their skin, you understand, but their souls. This kind of intimacy often led to a baser kind.”
Ray couldn't say that he was surprised.
“So, no one professionally, but a whack of people he mighta pissed off by sleeping with his models, huh?” He wrote this down.
“You could put it that way, I suppose.”
“Do you know if he was still in touch with any of the women in these pictures?” he asked, wondering if the missing pictures of Thatcher were among them. If so, that made a stronger case for her being a person of interest. He started towards the wall, intent on looking through them to find out.
“I have no idea...Please don't touch them, Detective.”
Ray stopped. “Do you know if Laurent had a list of the models used for this exhibition?”
“If he did, it was at his studio.”
“All right, then I'll need pictures of each frame so we can try to identify the women.”
“That is doable.”
“One more question.” He gestured at one of the hanging paintings. 'How much for one of these things, anyway?”
“Much more than you could ever afford, Detective.”
Ray snorted. “That's what I thought.”
“Mostly women?” Ray asked curiously.
“I don't know and I didn't ask. Where are you in the investigation?”
“Forensics is still going over the stuff from Laurent's place, including the murder weapon. Mort's in the middle of slicing him up; we should hear about that soon. Huey and Dewey are grabbing Laurent's files and stuff, and then they're gonna canvas his apartment building and his studio to see if anyone saw or heard anything.”
“And you, Ray?”
“I've got a couple of leads.”
When he didn't say anything more, Welsh prodded, “Yeah?”
“Laurent's married. His wife's somewhere in the city. I'm gonna track her down for an interview.”
“This is a good thing. You said a couple?”
“I'd rather not say, Lieutenant. Not yet. I found out something pretty damaging, and I want to keep it under wraps for now.”
“I give you twenty-four hours to find out if it pans out. If it's still relevant to this investigation, I want to hear it.”
“Go find Mrs. Laurent.”
“Yes, sir. And that's Laura.”
“Laura?” Welsh's eyes widened. “Here name is Laura Laurent?”
“Yeah. Ain't that a kick in the pants?”
“Sure. Now, go find her, Detective.”
Ray parodied a salute and left to look for Frannie. He found her in the lunch room eating a yogurt cup.
“What are you doin', Frannie?”
“I'm building a race car, Ray. What does it look like I'm doing?”
“Yeah. Right. Whatever. I need you to look someone up for me.”
“Can it wait until I'm done my break?”
She sighed heavily, giving him a dirty look. Still, she got to her feet, leaving her yogurt on the table.
“Who is this someone, anyway?”
“Dead guy's wife.”
“Dead guy?” She stopped and searched his face. “You're working on that nude artist's case, aren't you?”
“Yeah. Where'd you hear about that?”
“Duck Boys told me. Did he really get stabbed with a butcher knife?”
“Never mind, Frannie. Less talking. More lookin'.”
She rolled her eyes at him and flounced over to her chair. Flopping down into it, she effortlessly pressed buttons until she was in the screen she wanted. It was a far cry from the almost complete helplessness she'd shown just a few months before.
“Bring up any information you can on André Laurent. See if it mentions his wife. We'll need a current address.”
“They didn't live together?”
“Nah. They broke up. Her name's Laura.”
“Just do it, Frannie.”
“All right. You don't have to bite my head off.”
“No,” she said, typing with a little more force than necessary.
Ray watched her impatiently for a few minutes before he started pacing. It seemed to take forever before Frannie held up a piece of paper with an address written in her unmistakable loopy writing.
“Here, Ray. Laura Gagnon Laurent.”
“Thanks. Anything about her?”
“She's French. Went to the Sorbonne but dropped out in her first year. No record or anything. Her parents have money, so she never worked much. Here's her picture.”
Ray put a hand on Frannie's shoulder and leaned in to see the screen. He had forgotten to put on his glasses.
The woman he saw there was small and slim. Her face was round and dimpled like a child, and freckles marched across a cute little nose. Though he knew she must be in her thirties, she looked slightly younger. Her face seemed oddly familiar, and Ray was puzzled as to why until he remembered that he had seen a younger version of that face in the same book as he had seen the Inspector's. He wondered if they knew each other.
Ray glanced up at the clock. It was three in the afternoon, and he was tired. His shift was over in just an hour, but he was determined not to go home until he had spoken to Mrs. Laurent. Before he did that, though, he had another stop to make. The Lieutenant's deadline was fresh in his mind, and he wanted to find out once and for all if the Ice Queen had anything to do with Laurent's murder. He had promised himself to keep her secret until he found out if she was a suspect. After that, the control would be out of his hands.
Ray knew that Inspector Thatcher usually left the Consulate at five. That gave him just enough time to review her file before he went to see her.
When he was sure Frannie was busy and the Duck Boys were gone, he sat down at his desk and hauled the fat file out of his drawer.
When he opened the folder, the negatives fell out and landed among the clutter on his desk. Ray quickly snatched them up and stuck them under the top piece of paper.
It was a neatly typed list, though at first Ray had no idea what it was a list of. In one column, there were letters and numbers, all of which started with “MT”. Beside each of these, in another column, it said stuff like “Sunset” and “in the rain”. When Ray realized what he was seeing, he almost slapped himself for being so stupid. It was a list of the pictures the victim had taken of Thatcher. There were two more columns, these with names and dollar amounts. Ray thought the fact that there were only a few was interesting. Apparently, Laurent wanted to hold on to his work with Inspector Thatcher in it.
Under the list, he saw three snapshots. All of these were of paintings. Feeling almost embarrassed now that he knew who they were of, Ray barely glanced at them.
Most of the contents of the file were rather dry, and Ray flipped through them quickly. When he got to the love letter, he stopped and read it again. It was hard to believe that it had come from the Ice Queen. The letter was full of passion and joy. Still, there were hints of the Inspector in it. Big words and perfect grammar despite her being so young. Biting wit and keen observation.
He set the letter aside and found several more. He read them all, wondering if there would be a clue there to show she had reason to want the artist dead. There was nothing—but of course they had been written a long time ago.
The most interesting thing Ray found in the file was an article from the Chicago Tribune. It was a long piece on the Canadian Consulate and its cooperation with the Chicago Police Department. There was a picture that went with it, showing the Inspector and Fraser and Ray himself. He remembered the day the picture had been taken. Standing so close to the Ice Queen for the photographs had made him very uncomfortable, but he still didn't know if it was because he didn't like it or because he did.
Laurent had underlined Thatcher's name in red pen, and the Consulate's phone number was written across Fraser's face. Ray wondered if this meant that the artist had seen her before his death.
Slowly, he closed the file, knowing Inspector Thatcher was starting to look more like a suspect. Ray didn't know what he thought about that. And he didn't know how he was going to tell Fraser.
Ray pulled up outside the Consulate and turned off his car, but he didn't get out. He sat there looking at the building and wondering what would happen when he went in as cop instead of friend. It made him feel a little sick. Fraser would be there, and Turnbull, and they would know something was wrong. If he were lucky, the Inspector would have an iron clad alibi, and Fraser would never have to know that the boss he alternately admired, lusted after, hated, liked, was exasperated by, sometimes wanted to strangle, and adored was briefly a suspect in a murder.
After at least ten minutes, Ray gathered his courage and opened the door. It was funny, he'd always thought he wanted Thatcher to come up against something she couldn't handle just so she'd drop that damn condescending attitude that drove him nuts. Now that she was facing it, for some perverse reason, he was feeling slightly protective of her, and he hated what the was going to have to do.
When he entered the Consulate, Turnbull was at his desk talking on the phone. Instead of barging in and going right for Fraser's office, Ray waited semi-patiently for his other friend to get off the phone. He was hoping to avoid Fraser if at all possible.
After a few minutes that seemed like hours, Turnbull said, “Please excuse me for a moment.” Then, he looked at Ray. “Hello, Detective Vecchio. Welcome to Canada. May I help you?”
“The Ice Queen in?” This earned him a stern look. “Oops. Sorry. I mean the Inspector. Is she in because I gotta talk to her.”
“Yes, Inspector Thatcher is in her office. Are you sure you're not here for Constable Fraser?”
“Yeah, I'm sure. Tell her it's important.”
Turnbull nodded and pressed first one button then another. After a pause, he said, “Yes, sir...I know you are, sir...Yes, sir...No, sir. You have a visitor...It's Detective Vecchio...No, sir. Certainly not...He says it's important...”
“Very important,” Ray interrupted.
“Very important...Yes, sir.” He hung up and said, “You may go in, Detective. She asked me to request you keep the meeting short. She is very busy.”
Ray waved this away and went over to her firmly closed door. He thought about knocking but didn't want to ruin his rude image, so he went right in.
The Inspector was sitting behind her desk working. At his entrance, she looked up impatiently and Ray had a feeling she was not feeling quite herself.
There was nothing obvious in her looks to suggest this. Her face was smooth and calm, except for a faint hint of irritation. Still, there were circles under her eyes and she seemed kind of tired.
He realized he was staring when she cleared her throat.
“Hello, Detective. Come in and close the door...gently.”
Ray did as she asked, remaining silent as he did so. He knew he was procrastinating. There were words that had to be said that he was almost afraid to say. He didn't know what he was afraid of—her anger, her own fear, or seeing a cold blooded killer in her eyes. Or maybe it was her pain. It surprised him some to realize that he didn't want to cause her pain. Ray had always been a sucker for a woman in distress, and it appeared that something inside him now lumped the Inspector in that category.
“What can I do for you today, Detective? Is this about Fraser?”
He looked into her face. It was so serious and stoic. He wondered if it would still be after he told her.
“No,” he said quietly, looking down at his hands. “This isn't about Fraser.”
“Then what?” she asked sharply. “I don't have all day.” At her own words, she winced and reached for her desk drawer. “Excuse me.”
She stopped in mid motion, an expression of genuine surprise touching her features.
“Just a slight headache,” she said after a moment. This time her voice was a lot less icy as she opened the drawer and took out a bottle. “I'll be fine once the Advil kicks in.”
Ray watched her take two pills and gracefully sip from the glass of water on her desk. He waited until she put it down before he started. “I'm here about André Laurent.”
The Inspector was in the middle of swallowing, and she started to cough. He watched helplessly as she tried to catch her breath. Her face reddened and her eyes started to water. Ray was just starting to consider going over to pat her on the back when she gasped out, “What?”
“André Laurent. I believe you...know him, Inspector.” At the last second, his tact kicked in, and he remembered not to use the past tense yet.
Her eyes were normally shuttered, but at his words they became more so. It was almost as if Ray were looking into hazel colored pieces of ice.
“I might. Why are you here, Detective?”
“He was murdered last night.”
Her eyes widened, and the ice cracked. Ray thought Thatcher was going to pass out when her face paled so much it became almost translucent and her mouth dropped open. If it was an act, it was a good one.
“Murdered?” she whispered.
“Yes, and you were the last person to see him alive.” He took a chance with this because the witness's description had been so close.
Her mouth snapped shut, and two points of color came to her cheeks, even though the rest of her face remained an unhealthy paper white.
She stared at Ray, the cracks in the ice of her eyes freezing back over, before saying, “Surely, you don't think I...”
“I know about the pictures.”
The color flooded back to her face in a rush, staining it crimson. Without trying to deny it, she asked quietly, “Does Fraser know?”
“No, not yet.”
She slumped a little in her seat. “What exactly do you know, Detective?”
“I know you posed naked for the victim. I know you thought you loved him...and that he loved you. I know you went to see him last night, and now he's dead.”
She swallowed. “I was seventeen. I was on my own for the first time...I was so naïve.”
Ray was quiet and as still as he could be. She had lowered her wall a little, and he was afraid if he did anything, she'd slam it back up again before she finished telling him the truth.
She seemed to notice his discomfort. “Please sit down, Detective...Ray.”
He nodded and flopped into the chair nearest her desk. He still didn't speak.
Her voice was very quiet as she continued, and her eyes dropped from his face to the top of her desk. “I had run away from home. I took all of my college money and ran to Paris. That's where I met André.”
She bit her lip and her gaze got far away. Ray studied her face, intrigued in spite of himself at seeing her so raw and honest. He knew she'd hate him for having heard this later, but he was still glad that he had chosen to speak with her instead of sending Huey or Dewey.
“Love makes you do crazy things, especially when you're that age. I thought being an artist's model was exciting...”
Ray leaned forward. “What happened?”
“It ended.” Her voice and face hardened once more. “Badly.”
“Badly enough for you to want him dead?”
“Almost twenty years later?”
Ray shrugged. “Well, there are the pictures.”
“He asked my permission to use those, Detective, and I gave it.”
“But what about...”
“I highly doubt anyone would have found out. I don't look like the girl in those pictures anymore.”
Ray thought she was wrong. He could see her there in Thatcher's face, in the lights and shadows of her eyes. That girl was hiding under the wisdom and the pain and the years of duty and propriety the Inspector had wrapped herself in.
“When did you leave Laurent's studio?”
“Around seven-thirty, I think. I didn't stay long. And he was alive when I left.”
“Where did you go after that?”
“I went home.”
“Did anyone see you?”
She shook her head, dark hair falling over her forehead. “I don't think so.”
“Did you go out again?”
“No,” she said firmly.
“Are you sure?”
“That's not an alibi, Inspector.”
Her eyes looked right into his. “I know.”
“You were seen with the victim right before he died, you have no alibi, but you do have motive. You have to know that you're a suspect.”
“Of course.” Her voice was calm and cold.
“One more thing.”
“What is it?”
“Did you know the victim's wife?”
Her eyes narrowed. “His wife?”
“Yeah. I guess he's known her awhile. Her name's Laura somethin'.”
There. A flicker. It was gone so fast that if Ray hadn't been watching to gage her reaction, he would have missed it. It was pain, a raw, deep pain that made her blink and tighten her face for a fraction of a second.
“How well did you know her?”
“Well enough. I saw her naked.”
Ray had been about to get up and, at her words, his legs tangled with the chair's and he almost fell out of it onto the floor.
The Inspector rose gracefully and came around her desk. “Now, if there's nothing else, I'm really quite busy.”
“It might be important that you know her,” Ray said, this time successfully getting to his feet. “I might have to ask you about it later.”
“That's fine, but I haven't seen her in almost eighteen years.”
“Okay. Um...I have to bring what I've got to the Lieutenant tomorrow, Inspector.”
“I'm sorry.” And he was.
She stood in front of him and searched his face. He knew what could happen to her if this got out, and he hated it.
“I know that too.” She put a hand on his arm. It was warm and soft, and the gesture felt more intimate than it was because it was her. “I didn't kill him, Ray.”
“I believe you.”
The Inspector was many things, but he knew in his gut that she wasn't a killer, not in cold blood with a butcher knife to the chest. But it didn't really matter what he believed. The law was only interested in the evidence.
“I won't tell him about the pictures unless I have to.”
She squeezed his arm. “Thank you.”
Meg hurried up the steps, a million things going through her mind. They ranged from what books she would need to buy for her upcoming semester to retrieving her birthday pictures to wondering if André had already eaten and she was making a wasted trip.
It was a cold day, and she had her winter jacket done up tight. Wet flakes sprinkled her hair and coat, and her fingers were red and numb. She hoped André's apartment would be warm and that she would thaw out quickly.
The three flights to his studio—well, his apartment, really, since the large loft had a kitchenette and bed in one corner, while the rest of the space had been taken over by his art—seemed endless. There was a draft in the hallway, and she was still shivering despite being out of the biting wind. The bags that had seemed so light when she left La Vie et L'amour now seemed to be made of lead.
She sighed with relief when she reached André's floor and hoped her battle with snow and wind hadn't left her looking too ugly. The whole floor only housed two apartments. André lived on the right, and an elderly writer that Meg had come to like very much lived on the left.
Meg went over to André's door and put down the lunch she had brought him from the café. Before opening the door, she paused to rub her hands together. They had been cold for so long that the little bit of warmth hurt.
Smiling in anticipation, she finally opened the door.
The smile dropped from her face and her body went completely still as she took in the scene in front of her.
André was standing with his back to her with his paintbrush in his hand. She could imagine the expression on his face; she'd seen that complete obsessive concentration so many times.
In front of him, on the small couch he kept for guests, a young woman was reclining. She was posed sweetly, and it all would have looked quite innocent if she weren't completely naked.
At the sound of the door, she glanced up and an expression of horror went over her face.
“No,” Meg whispered, feeling something inside her shatter. “No, no, no, no.”
Meg tried to deny what she was seeing. There was no way that two people she loved and trusted could be in front of her, one naked and one in his boxer shorts, brandishing a paintbrush.
She couldn't turn away. The image was burning itself into her brain and she couldn't block it out. Laura came towards her, and André turned, his face an almost amusing image of shock.
“You're supposed to be working,” he said.
“It's not what it looks like,” Laura protested, grabbing a nearby robe.
Somehow, Meg managed to wrench her gaze from the two of them to turn back to the open door. She had to get out of there. The only way she was going to survive was to get as far away from André and Laura as she could.
She hurried into the hallway, ignoring the flurry of activity she could hear behind her. She had reached the stairwell before André caught up with her.
“Meg, wait,” he said, catching her arm.
She stopped and glared at him silently. His gaze was warm and open, and she could see the 'be reasonable' forming on his lips.
“Let go of me,” she said quietly.
“I think you misunderstood,” he said, releasing her. “Laura is my model.”
“I thought I was your model, André,” she replied, her throat tight.
He ran a hand through his hair. “An artist needs more than one model, Meg.”
The words cut. He had said there would never be anyone but her. She crossed her arms over her chest and raised her chin defiantly. André was in his underwear—his underwear, for God's sake—and he wanted her to believe that Laura was just posing for him.
“Are you sleeping with her?”
He glanced away, unable to keep meeting her eyes. Any hope she might have had died, and her stomach rolled.
“How long has this been going on?” she demanded, fighting to keep the desire to rage and scream from her voice. “Have you been screwing other girls this whole time? How many models have you had since we started going out, André?”
“Meg...” His gaze came back to her face.
“How many?” she asked harshly.
“Ten,” he told her quietly.
Once more his words stabbed her, but she held her ground. She let the anger hold her together, refusing to let him see her pain.
“Ten? And how many of them did you sleep with? You said I was the only one you'd ever asked. You told me I was special and even though you'd never painted a woman in the nude before you wanted to try with me. How many of them did you tell the same lies?”
“It's not that simple,” he protested.
“It was all of them, wasn't it? You've been sleeping with all those other girls, and I didn't even see it. How could I have been so stupid? I am a stupid child, and you took advantage of that, of me.”
“You're not stupid, Meg,” he said calmly, “and you're definitely not a child.”
He reached for her, but she stepped away. There was no way she was ever going to let him touch her again.
“I'm going to go now,” she said, holding on as tightly as she could to the shreds of her dignity. “Don't call me. Don't come to my apartment. I don't ever want to see you again. That goes for the girl I thought was my friend, too. Tell her for me, won't you?”
“You don't mean that.”
“Have a good life, André, and I hope no one ever hurts you the way that you've hurt me.” Her voice had moved from anger to calm, and she knew that when the calm ran out, the tears would come.
He watched her turn and start down the stairs, not speaking. She felt his eyes on her, but she didn't turn back. She promised herself that no matter what she never would.
After Ray left, Meg sat at her desk thinking for a long time. It was funny how memories she hadn't looked at for so long could be so clear.
She had been so happy back then, before it all fell apart. For the first time, she had had good friends, and she had felt loved, really loved. When her happy bubble burst, it had left her shattered.
Now, the happy memories and the sad ones mingled. She thought of the delightful afternoons spent in André's studio and how he had made her feel so beautiful. She still had the sketches he had made of her before he decided to paint her and then to take photographs. Every once in awhile, she took them out to stare at in disbelief that she had ever been that young.
She thought about André, and she thought about the rest of the friends she had made that summer. Annette. Laura. Stefan, poor Stefan who loved Annette madly but died before he ever got up the nerve to tell her. They had been a close knit group, and Meg would have bet her life she could have counted on them forever. In Laura's case, she would have lost the bet.
Frowning, Meg reached for the phone. Without even having to look in her planner, despite having not used the number in months, she dialed the number that would reach across the ocean for the second time that day.
“Annette, it's me.”
“Is everything all right?”
She didn't know how those words made her feel. Her emotions were just too complicated. Still, she needed someone to know who would understand.
Annette didn't even ask who.
“Hold tight. I'll be there as soon as I can. What's your address again?”
Ray put on his tough cop face and strode over casually. He nodded at the doorman, but the doorman didn't look impressed.
“Hey.” He pulled out his badge. “I need in.”
“I don't think so, Detective.”
“The privacy of our tenants is paramount. I'm not letting you in without permission.”
The man was the size of a mountain so Ray agreeably said, “Fine. Tell Laura Laurent I'm here. I want to talk about her husband.”
He nodded and went inside the building. Ray saw him press a button on the wall. His lips moved, but Ray couldn't hear what he was saying. After a moment, he came back out.
“All right,” he said. “You can go up.”
Ray brushed past him, tucking his badge back in his pocket. The posh lobby was quiet, and he didn't meet anyone as he went to the elevator. When he got in, he noticed that it was almost big enough to park his car in.
As he waited for the elevator to get to the eleventh floor, he wondered what Mrs. Laurent's connection to the Ice Queen was. It probably wasn't the image he had conjured when he was standing in Thatcher's office, not when her letters showed she was so in love with Laurent. He supposed he should have asked Thatcher herself , but he'd put her through enough for the day. The flash of pain he'd seen at the mention of Mrs. Laurent's name had proven that. He was hoping that things would work out so that he wouldn't have to probe that wound, whatever it was. Besides, if they really hadn't seen each other for years, their relationship probably had nothing to do with Laurent's murder. And if the Inspector said it, he believed her.
He walked down the hallway to Mrs. Laurent's door pondering whether he should have complete trust in a murder suspect or not. In the end, it didn't matter if he was right or not. He just did. Ray had never known the Inspector to be anything less than brutally honest, and he didn't think she was lying to him now.
His money was on the wife. If Laurent was as fast and loose with the ladies as Carmichael seemed to think, that was definitely as good a motive as seventeen year old pictures—especially if the Inspector had given the artist permission to use them. He'd have to find out if there was any record of that. It hadn't been in her file.
Mrs. Laurent must have been waiting for him because the door opened just as he raised his hand to ring the bell.
She was smaller than he expected. Tiny and slim. There were dark circles under her eyes as she stepped out of the way to let Ray inside.
“Come in, Detective.”
“I'm sorry about your husband,” he said as he went in.
He knew that once Lt. Welsh had confirmed Laurent's wife's identity, he had sent a uniform over to break the news. She seemed to be taking it well, if you didn't look closely and see the signs of wear on her face or the slightly haunted look in her eyes.
“It was bound to happen sooner or later,” she said softly, her lilting voice slightly accented. “André was a man who evoked strong emotion in everyone he met—love, hate, anger, lust. He was a passionate man, and that leaked out into all of his relationships.”
She led him into a huge kitchen/living area that could have housed three of Ray's apartments. Being the wife of a world renowned artist seemed to have paid her well.
“Would you like a glass of wine, Detective?”
“Do you mind if I have one?”
He shrugged. “Go ahead.”
She gestured him to a nearby couch of white leather that probably could have fit twelve. He sat and watched her go to a liquor cabinet and pour herself a glass.
“I heard you and Mr. Laurent were together a long time,” he started.
“Yes,” she said, her hand shaking slightly. “Off and on for seventeen or eighteen years. André was easy to love but hard to live with.”
“This is a murder investigation, so I'm gonna have to ask you some questions. You okay with that?”
“Would it matter if I wasn't?” she asked, taking a sip of her wine.
“Probably not,” he admitted.
She crossed the room to join him on the couch. They were far enough apart that he would have had to lean to touch her, even extending his arm all the way.
“When was the last time you saw your husband alive?”
“I went to see him yesterday...about two, I think.”
“And how long had it been before that?”
She took another sip before answering. “A week, maybe.”
“What did you go see him about yesterday?”
She looked down into her glass. “I finally got up enough nerve to ask him for a divorce.”
“Why's that, Mrs. Laurent?”
“I'm getting too old to be in love with someone who's not in love with me.”
“He wasn't in love with you?”
She shook her head. “No. He loved me, but he's never been in love with me. There's a difference. Even with all the women he's known, I don't think he even knew how to fall in love.”
Tears came to her eyes and she reached forward to place her glass on the coffee table.
“Do you know anyone who might want him dead?”
“Here's the part where I'm supposed to say he was a wonderful person, everybody loved him, and I can't think of anyone who'd ever want to hurt him, isn't it?” Her eyes rose to meet his. “If I did, I'd be lying.”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“Women adored him, and men hated him because of it. When it came to who he slept with age and marital ties meant nothing to him. I was just eighteen the first time I posed for him. There was some personal jealousy too. I know he had a fight with Carmichael last month that was almost bad enough to make him go back to Paris.”
This was news to Ray. “What about?”
She shrugged. “He didn't say.”
“I have one more question, Mrs. Laurent, then I'll get outta here. Did you get along?”
“Me and André?”
“Most of the time. I didn't kill him, if that's what you're asking.”
“I need to know where you were last night.”
“I was at a party here in the building. The van Pattens. Lester and Meredith.”
“From about eight until midnight, I guess. Then I was here.” She stood gracefully and went over to an antique oak desk. “Here, I'll write down their number.”
She turned around and held it out to him. Ray took the hint and got to his feet.
“Am I a suspect?”
“I'm just asking questions.”
“Understood.” He took the piece of paper from her gently and she added, “Please find out who killed my husband.”
“I intend to,” he told her before showing himself out.
Ray had mixed feelings as he drove up to the Consulate the next morning. Fraser was supposed to work with him all day, and he had no idea what he was going to tell him or how Fraser was going to react when he found out his boss was a murder suspect. It was bound to come up, but Ray intended to keep his promise to the Ice Queen and not mention the pictures unless he had to.
When Ray arrived, Turnbull was at his desk and the Inspector was talking to him quietly. She had papers in her hands, but she didn't sound displeased.
Ray closed the door behind him with a click, and both pairs of eyes glanced in his direction.
“Uh...hi,” he said, “I'm here for Fraser.”
He knew that was probably obvious, but he didn't want the Inspector to think he was there about Laurent.
“Proceed, Detective,” she said, motioning with her hand.
He saluted her cheekily, earning him a stern look, before hurrying to the back of the Consulate, towards Fraser's office.
As he went, he wondered what was going through Thatcher's mind. Was she upset? Was she afraid? Was she angry? Her face hid everything but professionalism.
By the time Ray got to Fraser's door, he had decided to be up front and tell him about the investigation right away. He could say Thatcher was a suspect without mentioning the pictures, and he could have his friend's special point of view right from the get go.
Fraser looked up when Ray came in. The Mountie's expression was welcoming.
“Ready, Frase?” Ray asked.
“Yes, Ray. Are we working on André Laurent's murder today?”
“Did you learn anything of interest while I was here yesterday?”
“Yeah,” he repeated, then closed the door firmly behind him and flopped down into the chair in front of Fraser's desk. “Listen, Fraser, I've go something to tell you.”
As if sensing Ray's words would be unpleasant, Fraser's face went completely blank. “What is it?”
“It's Thatcher,” he said bluntly, not knowing any other way to get the news out into the air. “She's a suspect.”
Fraser's face got even more remote and all expression even leaked out of his eyes. The Mountie could have been made of stone. “What do you mean, Ray?”
“She knew the victim and they had a relationship. She was the last person to see him alive, and she has no alibi. There's no way that I can cross her off...yet.”
“Surely, you can't think...”
“I'm a detective, Fraser. I have to go where the evidence leads.”
“Does she know?” Though Fraser was able to keep emotion out of his face and eyes, Ray could hear the worry in his voice.
“I talked to her yesterday. And for the record, I don't think she did it.”
“I am relieved to hear that. Inspector Thatcher is incapable of killing a man in cold blood.”
“There are a couple of other suspects. We need to check their alibis.”
He told Fraser about his interviews with Carmichael and Mrs. Laurent. He also told him about Laurent's habit of sleeping with his models and about the bad blood that had created between André and just about anyone he'd ever met.
“Do you think it was a jealous lover, Ray?”
Ray shrugged. “Or maybe a whatchamacallit...a woman scorned. There's been hundreds.” He winced inwardly, thinking of all the files they might have to go through.
“So, we'd better get started.”
“Yeah. It's gonna be a long day.”
This actually surprised her. Before yesterday, she hadn't had any idea about her confidence in the detective's abilities. She knew he was an annoying but attractive and slightly endearing smart ass that got under her skin and repeatedly tried to drive her insane, but when had she started believing in his skills as a police officer and his tenacity for never letting the guilty party escape justice? He wasn't Fraser, but he was a little more real, a little more believable. Maybe it was that fallibility and his determination to beat it into submission that had left such a competent impression. It was something she might never have thought about if this whole thing with André hadn't come up.
Thinking of André again, her body went cold. He was dead, and Meg wasn't sure how she felt about that. She had loved him once, but did she love him still? Was she in mourning, or did she feel slightly relieved that she would never have to see him again? Or did she want to see him again, just one more time? Did she want to go back to the night before last and change the ending to sleep with him one last time before she knew he was married to see if she could recapture that love, that pure joy, she had felt when she was barely more than a child and in his arms for the first time? It was all so complicated.
She stared at her laptop, not really seeing the program on the screen. All she could see was the way André had smiled at her when she went to see him. If she would have known he'd be dead just a few hours later, she would have been a little warmer. She might even have tried harder to mend fences with him.
Meg considered having the picture he gave her that night framed. Of course, she'd have to hang it in her bedroom, unless she wanted all of her visitors to see her in her birthday suit, but André's death had allowed her to forgive him. When she looked at the photograph, maybe she'd be able to remember all of the good times and what a great artist he was.
She didn't know how long she had been staring at the screen when the inside line on her phone went off. Tiredly, she rubbed her eyes and closed the laptop.
“There is a woman here to see you, sir. She says her name is Annette L'eau.”
“Send her in.”
“All right, sir.”
Despite everything that was happening, Meg felt herself smile. She was still smiling when her door opened a few seconds later and a tall, thin woman with curly blond hair that was only mildly tamed in a messy pony tail came in.
Annette put down her suitcase and openly studied Meg's office. Her eyes took in the Inuit art and the big painting of the Canadian flag. They widened as they saw the chandelier and brightened when they scanned Meg's antique desk and then finally landed on Meg herself.
She answered Meg's smile with one of her own.
Meg got up and came around her desk to give her oldest friend a tight hug.
“I've missed you.”
“Me too.” Annette said, returning her hug. “Looks like you are doing well here in Chicago.”
“Most of the time I like it here...but it's not Toronto. How long has it been? Five years?”
“Five years in January. Your thirtieth birthday party. I remember it well.”
Meg groaned. “I wish I didn't.”
“It was good to see you having fun.”
“I embarrassed myself.”
She felt her cheeks color slightly as she remembered the wild night Annette, Meg's sister Lisa, and a couple of Meg's friends from the force had taken her on. Annette had insisted that Meg needed to loosen up, and it wasn't every day a girl turned thirty. Meg thought then—and still did—that it was probably a good thing. One particularly cringe worthy moment that popped into Meg's brain was the duet she and Lisa had done in front of a bar full of people. They'd received lots of applause and catcalls but, during the hangover afterwards, Meg had to admit to herself that it probably wasn't because of the quality of their singing. Instead, it was probably due to the fact that the bar was full of men who were as drunk as they were.
“You needed it.”
Annette was probably right. She usually was.
“Here, Annette. Sit down.”
Annette sat on the couch and Meg sat beside her.
“So, how have you been?” she continued. “How are the kids?”
Annette had never been married, but she had two children.
“We are all well. Marcel and Julian both asked for presents from America.”
“How old are they now?”
“Seven and three. I brought pictures...but that can wait. Meg, tell me about André.”
“He was murdered.” It came out sounding cold, like ice.
“Murdered?” Annette raised her eyebrows and waited for Meg to continue.
“Yes, the night I went to see him. I was the last one—besides his killer—to see him alive.”
The sudden hand on hers was a comfort she didn't even realize she needed.
“Are you a suspect?”
“Yes.” The ice was still there. She couldn't dispel it.
Meg told her everything. She started from when they had spoken of her meeting with André and told her about her interview with Ray and what she had found out during it.
Then, she looked her right in the eyes and asked, “Did you know he married Laura?”
“Oui,” Annette answered honestly. “They were in the papers sometimes.”
“Why didn't you tell me?”
“I didn't think you'd want to know.”
Meg bit her lip before asking, “Do you think they were happy?”
“Honestly?” Meg nodded. “I think he was.”
“He hurt her. Constantly. How could she be happy?”
“His models.” Her tone turned slightly bitter, and she realized, even though she forgave him, a hint of resentment remained.
“You do know you were better without him?”
She frowned. “Of course I do.”
“But does it make me a bad person because I can't feel sorry for Laura?”
“I'm bored,” Laura said, throwing herself onto Meg's futon, her auburn hair fanning out over her face.
“Oh, please, you're always bored,” Meg told her, looking through her cupboards. “We're supposed to be studying.”
“The exam is in two weeks, and it's Friday night.”
“If you fail this exam, you won't be able to go back.”
Laura shrugged. “I don't want to go anyway. My parents are forcing me.”
Meg snorted as she poured chips into a bowl. “You're just saying that because you hate studying.”
“Well, I can't afford to go back to Montbeliard in disgrace,” Annette said, grabbing the pop and some glasses and bringing them out into the living area of the tiny apartment.
“Besides,” Meg added as she and Annette plunked their burdens onto the coffee table, “in about two hours, there is going to be a romantic comedy triple play on TV. I know how much you love those old sappy movies.”
“Now that's more my style!” Laura agreed, popping a chip in her mouth.
“I thought it might be.”
“Speaking of sappy, why weren't you in class yesterday? Did you run off with André again?”
Meg looked helplessly at Annette, but the blond just grinned. “Yes, do tell.”
Laura grinned. “Told you.”
“I didn't take the bet, did I?” Annette asked her.
“He wanted to go out for another ride in the countryside. He's thinking about painting some rural scenes...”
“Any excuse for the two of you to take of on his motorcycle.”
Meg just smiled sweetly and didn't reply. Her friends shared a look that made it hard for her not to laugh.
“See? See? We know you too well, Meg Thatcher.”
“Less talking and more studying.” She grabbed her book out of her bag and plopped down in between her friends.
“All right, all right,” Laura agreed. “Where do we start?”
It had been a long morning. First, they had checked out Charamichael's and Mrs. Laurent's alibis, both of which were good. Ray didn't even get to ask Carmichael what his fight with Laurent was about, which made him grumpy.
Since then, he and Fraser had been sitting at his desk going through Laurent's files, looking for anything that stood out, while waiting for the autopsy report and the forensics from the murder scene. They had even roped Francesca into helping them. Her job was to try to match the miniature pictures from André's Chicago showing to the women in the files. Laurent's notes were actually so detailed—and it helped that they found a sheet about the show among his papers—that she was having some success.
The bellow Ray had been dreading came for him at almost one o'clock. “Vecchio!”
Ray frowned and got to his feet. “Be right back. Keep on looking.”
“All right, Ray.”
Ray went into Welsh's office and closed the door behind him.
“Have a seat, Detective.”
Ray did as he was asked, taking his time so he could order the thoughts in his mind.
“So,” Welsh continued, “what can you tell me about the case?”
“He was murdered,” Ray answered seriously, “with a butcher knife.”
Welsh grimaced. “Very funny, Detective. What else?”
“Well, that's a little complicated. I found his wife. She loved him, and she hated him...but she alibied out for most of the evening. She was at a party with her 150 most closest friends. With all those people, it's easy to sneak out, though, so she could still be our killer. Plus, she was alone at the end of our kill zone.
'The gallery owner was at a dinner party, then home with his boyfriend. He did have a fight with the victim, according to Mrs. Laurent, but, unless his boyfriend's lying, it wasn't him.”
“And the suspect that had to be handled delicately?”
Ray sighed. “She's still a suspect.”
“And you're going to tell me who and why?”
“Well, the motive could be blackmail or passion, I guess. But the other two have pretty good motives too. Laurent slept around on his wife, and Carmichael was jealous of him or somethin'.”
“The third suspect?”
Welsh frowned. “Thatcher?”
“Yeah. You know, the Ice Queen.”
His eyes widened. “The Inspector?”
Ray nodded. “Laurent had some pictures of her in his collection.”
The lieutenant made a choking noise and Ray gave him a moment to regain his composure. It wasn't an easy thing to imagine Thatcher posing for pictures in the nude, but once you started imagining it, it was a little hard to stop.
After a moment, he continued, “He was going to have a couple in his show. Thatcher said she signed over permission, but I haven't been able to find it.”
“Is there anything else?” Welsh's voice sounded stunned.
“She has a history with both the victim and his wife.”
“She's our only suspect so far without any alibi at all.”
“This is amazing news. If we bring her in and she's innocent, it could cause an international incident.”
“If news of the pictures get out, she could lose her job.”
“Have the forensics and autopsy report come back yet?”
“Still waitin'. Things were backed up. Any time, though.”
“All right, Ray. Find out who did this.”
She had been matching paintings and photographs to files for hours. It seemed funny that, after being so disappointed about not being able to go to the show, she was spending the day pouring over every piece that would have been in it.
What she found interesting was the variety of women that Laurent used as his models, and that was something she wanted to discuss with her art class. Pornography, what little of it she'd discovered under her brothers' mattresses or in her ex-husband's underwear drawer, seemed to be a certain type of girl posed in a lewd or disgusting way. Laurent seemed to enjoy women of all ages, from teenagers to the elderly, and they were of all body types, posed naturally. It didn't make Frannie feel dirty to look at them. In some weird way, it made her feel beautiful.
Of course, she'd never tell the guys this. They would laugh at her and tease her. Sometimes they just didn't get the deep stuff. It was as if they were stuck in junior high or something. Even Fraser was like that sometimes, she had to admit, raising her eyes to look at him. He acted like a boy a lot cuter than most of the men she knew, but he still did it.
Frannie's eyes went back to her sheet and she read, “M.T., five poses, 1 painting”. Then, she went through the pictures Carmichael had provided to see if she could find five pictures of the same girl. She flipped through them and found a couple of women M.T. could possibly be before going to the files, knowing the negatives would be in the right one.
There were five women in the Ts whose name started with M, so Frannie started the painstaking process of peering at the negatives.
She flipped through the third file, only to have it slip through her fingers, the contents sliding all over the floor. She swallowed and dropped down on her knees, quickly gathering stuff up.
“Need some help?” Dewey offered as he was going by.
“No,” she snapped, shooing him away. She had seen something she didn't know if she were willing to share yet.
When she got the stuff all back into the file—in an unorganized mess that stuck out in all directions, but she could fix that later—she put it on her desk and tugged at the newspaper clipping that had caused her to drop the file in the first place.
She stared at it, taking in the picture of Inspector Thatcher standing between Ray and Fraser. Frannie had cut out that same picture, clipping both Thatcher and Ray off the side, and stuck it to her mirror at home. How had the article found its way into Laurent's files? The obvious answer seemed so ridiculous that Frannie could hardly comprehend it.
Once more glancing at Fraser, who was innocently going through Laurent's papers, Frannie flipped the article upside down and placed it on her desk. She picked up the gallery pictures of the possible M.T.s and carefully looked at the tiny faces. The article said Inspector Thatcher's first name was Margaret. The name on the file was “Meg Thatcher”.
Now that she was looking, she knew Thatcher when she saw her. The Inspector looked different but the same. Frannie knew cops weren't supposed to pose naked. It had something to do with moral something or other, and she knew the Inspector had to know it too. Even though the pictures looked as if they'd been taken before Thatcher joined the RCMP, Frannie didn't think it would matter to Ottawa.
For a fraction of a second, Frannie considered faxing the pictures to RCMP headquarters. For that fraction of a second, she was so tempted she was almost in motion. If Thatcher were fired, she'd be out of Chicago and away from Fraser.
The thought was barely formed in her head when Frannie's cheeks heated in shame. That she would even consider being vindictive enough to destroy a woman's career and shatter her respect was horrifying. It was true that Frannie would love to have Fraser to herself, but not that way. She wouldn't annihilate another woman for it, especially one she liked. And Frannie did like Inspector Thatcher.
Did Fraser know about the pictures, she wondered. Did Ray?
Welsh's door opened and Ray came out looking almost sad. Feeling Frannie's gaze on him, he raised his eyes to meet hers. Silently, she asked if he had seen the file and if Fraser knew. He gave a little shake of his head, giving her her answers. She nodded back and tucked the file back together.
Picking up her pen, she wrote, “Thatcher, Margaret” beside the “M.T.” and continued on.
I noticed there weren't a lot of hits on the last chapter, so if you're reading chapter by chapter make sure you haven't skipped it by mistake.
The moment Ray left Welsh's office, he knew Frannie had seen the pictures of Thatcher. The shocked knowledge was in her eyes, and Ray wondered what she intended to do with it.
As he walked to his desk, he considered telling Fraser the news now, despite his promise to the Inspector. Hearing it from Ray had to be better than from a gleeful and vindictive Frannie.
“Find anything?” he asked as Fraser looked up.
“There's got to be something in here somewhere. Someone wanted him dead. He was at his studio all day and only three people were seen goin' in. Doesn't mean there wasn't someone we missed.”
“Or that someone waited for him to return home.”
The phone rang and Ray settled down into the chair next to Fraser to answer it.
“Hello, Detective. The autopsy report is ready,” Mort's friendly accented voice told him.
“Thanks. I'll be down in a minute to get it.”
“As you wish.”
Fraser was looking at him curiously, so Ray said, “Autopsy report.”
He was about to get up again when he saw Frannie walking towards them
“No. I just got the forensics report,” she told him absently, smiling at Fraser.
“Great.” He held out his hand, but her eyes were still on the Mountie. “Frannie?”
“Oh, yeah. Here.”
He had it flipped open and was reading it before she even headed back to her desk.
“I'll go get the report for you, Ray,” Fraser offered.
“It's all right. I can go.”
“You're busy,” Fraser said, getting up.
Ray leaned against his desk, frowning. The butcher knife had been wiped clean. That wasn't too big of a surprise. Most people weren't quite stupid enough to leave their prints on the murder weapon. He kept reading and discovered there were no fingerprints inside the apartment besides the victim's and his wife's. All of his extracurricular activity must have taken place at his studio.
There was nothing in the report to place anyone else at the murder scene. Still, that didn't mean that the murderer wasn't wearing gloves, it was November after all, and it was possible that he or she hadn't touched anything but the murder weapon. It was too bad that real life wasn't filled with the obvious clues that were often found on TV or in mystery novels.
He tossed the report on his desk as utterly worthless and waited for Fraser to get back with the autopsy report.
After Annette's arrival, Meg packed up her laptop and the rest of the stuff she planned on working on that day and told Turnbull she was going home.
Because she hadn't expected Annette quite so soon and because she had needed some time to think that morning, Meg hadn't brought her car. The two of them started the trek to Meg's apartment on foot and, since Annette had never been to Chicago, they went a way that Meg didn't usually go. It was a longer walk that way, but the sights were better. There were large, impressive homes and expensive shops.
“It's such an interesting city,” Annette said, looking around.
“Some places are more interesting than others,” Meg told her, and a flash of memory brought her to a street on the other side of the city. She remembered a ramshackle apartment building with a lobby that smelled like sour milk and a broken elevator. Walking up three flights of stairs had almost drowned her with horrible sights and smells. The end of her journey that day had been Fraser ironing his underwear. She supposed that had been the most interesting thing of all.
“The same can be said for all cities. How long do you think you'll be here?”
“I don't know,” Meg said honestly. “When I first arrived, all I wanted was to get back to Canada. Now, I almost like it here.”
“I felt the same way about Paris.”
“I loved Paris...”
Annette smiled. “I remember. You must have bought every snow globe you found.”
“Don't tell anyone, but I still have those. Most of them are packed away in my father's attic.”
“Do you have one of Chicago?”
“I don't collect them any...” Meg stopped moving and trailed off as a sign she had never noticed before caught her eye.
“What is it.?”
Meg pointed at the chic white and black sign that solemnly said, “The Sketch.”
“I don't understand.”
“André's show was going to be there,” Meg managed to say, her voice calm despite the rapid beating of her heart. “They haven't even taken the poster out of the window.”
The poster was white and glossy and had two of André's more modest pictures in the corners. André's name was screamed in large, pretentious letters, and his mostly serious face underneath them held a small, quirky half smile.
“There hasn't been an official announcement yet. Maybe they don't want anyone to know.”
“That's probably it.” Meg pulled her coat closer against her, even though the chill that touched her wasn't coming from the outside. “I'm sad that he's gone. I didn't think I would be. I thought I said good bye to him a long time ago.”
“There's a difference between knowing someone is out there somewhere but you're not seeing them because you choose not to and not seeing someone because they're gone and you have no choice. It's a different kind of good bye.”
“This is so surreal. I haven't thought of him for more than a few brief minutes in years. Now, it seems as if he's always been there, waiting for me to notice him again.”
“I am making you supper.”
“What?” Meg's attention came crashing back to the here and now.
“Supper. When was the last time you had a home cooked meal?”
“But you are my guest,” she protested.
“Yes, and I'd rather not die from eating your cooking.”
Meg's mouth opened slightly.
“I remember the last time you cooked for me,” Annette continued. “I think I'll do the cooking while I'm here.”
Meg wasn't sure if this comment was to offer comfort or in self defense. “If you insist.”
“Oh, I do.”
The door to the art gallery opened and Meg's eyes were drawn from her friend's face to the person coming out—a slim, freckled woman with red-brown hair. Unconsciously, Meg reached out and grabbed Annette's arm.
“What is it?” Annette asked, turning.
Both of them stared as the woman finished doing up her jacket and looked up. She froze.
The three of them stood on the sidewalk staring at each other for what seemed like an eternity to Meg. She knew that face. She knew that freckled skin and those small ears that always stuck out just a little bit. She knew that slightly crooked tooth that only showed when the woman smiled and those girlish dimples that showed even when she didn't.
Meg saw the same recognition flicker through Laura Laurent's eyes as she looked away and serenely started putting on her gloves. Then, without any other sign of acknowledgment, she walked passed Meg and Annette and towards a very fancy, very expensive black car.
“Bitch,” Annette said under her breath.
For some reason, this made Meg laugh. It started soft and shaky, but it quickly got stronger until it had taken over her whole body. Once she started, she couldn't stop. She laughed so hard that she had to lean against the window beside André's face to catch her breath. She laughed while Annette came over and squeezed her shoulder, and she laughed more as she noticed the people on the sidewalk glaring at her.
When she finally stopped laughing, her stomach hurt and her throat was raw. There were tears in her eyes from the mirth. They couldn't possibly be from anything else.
As she pushed away from the window feeling drained, Annette asked her, “Is there anything in particular that you're hungry for? I tried this new pasta dish last week, and my kids just loved it.”
Ray still hadn't ruled out either Carmichael or Mrs. Laurent as suspects. Friends lied for each other, and it wasn't hard to slip out of and back into a room full of people. He was going over the report a second time, skipping most of the medical gobbledygook, when his phone rang. It was on his desk, and Ray glanced over to see Fraser pick it up.
“Detective Ray Vecchio's phone. Constable Benton Fraser speaking...Certainly, Detective. He's right here.”
Fraser handed him the phone, so he handed Fraser the file.
“Ray?” It sounded like Huey.
“Yeah, it's me. What do you want?”
“If you're going to be like that, maybe I won't tell you.”
Ray took a deep breath, trying to hold on to the temper that had been threatening to break loose all day. He ran a hand slowly across his forehead, giving himself a minute before saying, “Sorry. What's up?”
“Another witness came forward on the Laurent case.”
Ray sat up straighter. “What?”
“I said another...”
“I heard you. Details?”
“It's a man from the vic's apartment building. He saw the murderer.”
“And? Did he know who it was?”
“No. He didn't even know what she looked like.”
“She? The murderer was a she?”
“Yeah. Her hair was covered, and he saw her from behind as she left Laurent's apartment, but he's sure she was a woman. Walked like one. Built like one.”
“Anything about her we can use?”
“She was wearing a dark jacket, he thinks it might have been black.”
“There are lots of women with dark jackets.”
“That's all he had, Ray.”
“All right. Bring him in for a statement.”
Ray growled as he snapped his phone closed.
“Problem, Ray?” Fraser asked.
“Someone came forward to say they saw a woman leaving Laurent's apartment. Probably the murderer, but he can't identify her.”
“I'm sure it wasn't the Inspector.”
“I didn't say it was, but it doesn't look good, Fraser.”
“Even if their relationship ended badly, and she did see Laurent again, I'm not sure how that equals motive. There must be something we're missing.”
Ray opened his mouth, the words on his tongue.
“Is something wrong?”
“Nah. I just don't know, Fraser.”
Sorry it's been three weeks for this chapter. Where does all the time go? I hope I haven't lost the few who were actually reading this monster. I adore this chapter. Just so you know.
Meg felt very strange walking into the 27th as a suspect. She had been there so many times since arriving in Chicago that the police station was almost as familiar to her as her own Consulate, but today it felt alien.
She made her way to the bullpen wondering how many of the officers she passed were working on André's case—and how many had seen her naked. It was one thing for anonymous strangers to be looking at the pictures, but it was quite another for someone like Lt. Welsh or Detective Dewey to see them and know it was her. It was bad enough that Ray had.
She sighed, wishing she was at home with Annette. When Ray had called saying he needed to ask more questions, Meg left her friend to the pasta and drove over to meet him.
Approaching her destination, Meg heard two familiar voices coming towards her through a set of doors and stopped to listen.
“Francesca said there are four women from the files living in or near Chicago at this time.” The first voice was Fraser's.
She thought he was supposed to be back at the Consulate. Lifting her wrist, she looked at her watch and discovered it was a half an hour earlier than she had thought.
“Did she give you the list, Frase?”
“Not yet. She's talking to the Lieutenant right now.”
“Doesn't she know we need those names?”
“I don't think she had a choice, Ray.”
“While she's in there talking, our murderer...Where are you goin'?”
“I feel the need to urinate.”
“Oh, geez. Too much information.”
“But you asked, Ray.”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever. I'm goin' to the fountain.”
He came through the doors, and Meg grabbed his arm. Without a word, she led him to the nearby storage closet and pulled him inside. When she shut the door behind them, it was very dark.
“What the hell?”
“I'm sorry, Detective. I didn't realize Fraser was still here, and I wanted to avoid him if possible.”
“What do you want me to do? Ask you my questions in this closet?”
“If you don't mind.”
“What if I do mind?”
Even though she couldn't see him, she could feel him. Their bodies weren't touching, but they were so close that they may as well have been. He was warm. She could feel heat coming off of him, and his aftershave was one she wasn't familiar with. She felt a spark of...interest and cleared her throat.
“Is there a light in here?”
“Uh, yeah. Just a minute.”
His hand brushed up against her arm, and she felt her face heat at the sensation.
“Sorry,” he mumbled as he tugged on the string attached to the light. Or, that's what she assumed he was doing because the light came on as he spoke.
She blinked as the sudden light bit into her eyes, and she could see Ray doing the same thing.
“Well, now at least I'm sure it's you,” he said. “You know, when I imagined a beautiful woman dragging me in here to have her way with me, this isn't exactly what I had in mind.”
“You're so funny, Detective,” she said dryly, wondering if she should try to shift away from him. There wasn't really anywhere for her to go.
“Are you sure you don't want to go out there where we can sit and I can write and where if I cough I won't accidentally do something that will make you punch me in the head?”
“I'm quite comfortable in here,” she told him, narrowing her eyes. She would have crossed her arms, but that would entail rubbing her hands across his stomach. She was fairly certain she didn't want to do that. “There were some questions you had for me?”
“Yeah. I'm wonderin' if you can tell me anything else about the night you went to see Laurent.”
“Anything. Maybe something you remember that you didn't really remember the last time we talked.”
She frowned, biting her lip. After a moment, she said, “I don't think so.”
“Can you tell me again, in case I missed something?”
She searched his face, finding the question was genuine.
“I was working at my desk when André called me,” she said quietly. “He wanted me to come over and give him written permission to use five of my pictures...and one painting. He had it from before, but he probably wanted to make sure he covered all his bases. André had a strong sense of self-preservation.”
“What time did he call you?”
“Somewhere between twelve and one, I think, because I sent Turnbull to lunch to talk to him.”
“So, Turnbull would remember?”
“Well, he should, but with Turnbull one can never be sure.”
“What time did you go over?”
“It was around seven, and I only stayed a few minutes.”
“What did you talk about?”
That was something she didn't really want to share with Ray, but she knew he needed to know. “He wanted to talk about the past. I wouldn't.”
“He hurt you, huh?”
Could he read that in her face? She thought she was keeping her features as bland as possible.
“Yes,” she admitted, not looking in his eyes. “He hurt me.”
Her voice was steady; she made sure of it. No one but Annette really needed to know how much.
“Keep going. I'm all ears.”
Her eyes flicked up to his and the sadness and confusion that had been plaguing her for the past couple of days gave way to a brief flash of amusement as she thought about telling him that he was wrong, his ears were just the right size.
“What?” he asked, as if sensing her mood change. “What is it?”
The flash was gone, but she kept her gaze on his face as she continued, “He tried to talk. I wouldn't listen. He showed me the pictures he was using. I signed the form...”
“Do you know what he did with it?” Ray interrupted.
“What was that, Detective?”
“Do you know what he did with the form?”
She shrugged. “I assume he put it in my file.”
“We haven't been able to find it.”
This was surprising. André was...had been, she corrected herself...so organized that it even put her to shame.
“You looked in the file?”
“Of course I did.”
“Hmmn. Then, you must have found the one I signed at seventeen. I was an adult in France and able to enter into a binding contract.”
“No, I didn't find that one either.”
“He can't have lost it.” If she weren't in a closet, she would have began pacing. “He kept everything. Think of Fraser's obsessive record keeping doubled, Detective. That was André.”
“It wasn't there.”
“Could someone have taken it?”
“I don't know, but I signed them.”
“I believe you.”
“Do you?” she demanded. “Or are you just in this closet placating a killer trying to trap her into a lie?”
Her words sounded upset to her own ears, and she snapped her mouth shut so her emotions wouldn't gain any more ground. She breathed in and focused on the smell of Ray's aftershave.
Ray lifted his hand, and she thought he was going to touch her. He held it up for a couple of seconds before dropping it back to his side.
“I don't think you killed Laurent, Inspector. Meg.” She had never heard him use her first name before. “It's not your style. On the job, with a gun, sure. To protect someone you care about when there was no other choice, probably. In cold blood or a fit of passion with a knife to the chest, nah. You've got too much conscience for one and you're too rational for the other.”
“Do you really believe that?”
“I said I did, didn't I?”
“Yes, you did.”
“Don't you worry, Inspector. I'll find out the truth somehow.”
“I believe you,” she said, almost smiling as she repeated his earlier words.
“Good. Because it's true. What happened after you signed the form?”
The urge to smile disappeared. “He apologized for sleeping with my best friend.”
She was close enough to feel the jolt that went through him and wondered if she should have been quite so blunt. “He asked if I'd go to the show. I told him I'd consider it, and then I left.”
“And you're sure you didn't see him again?”
“Quite sure.” She hadn't been in any condition to go anywhere. Deciding that if he knew everything else, he may as well know this too, she added, “I went home and drank until I passed out.”
“I had one hell of a hangover.”
“You didn't look hungover.”
“You're too kind.” She rolled her eyes. “Oh, and before you ask, no, I don't remember seeing anything suspicious while I was at André's loft. No, I was nowhere near his apartment. I don't even know where it is. We didn't fight. We barely spoke.”
“I did see something odd today, though.”
The closet was getting warm and her muscles were starting to protest being in one position too long. She didn't dare to move. Backwards would probably poke something into her back. Sideways there were shelves. Frontwards...well, that wasn't an option, unless she really wanted to get to know Ray better. Still, she wanted to tell him this before they left the closet.
His eyebrows rose. “Yeah?”
“I saw André's wife leaving The Sketch.”
“I haven't seen her for seventeen or eighteen years, but I'd know her anywhere, even though she pretended not to see or recognize me.”
“You couldna made a mistake?”
“I wouldn't forget her, Detective. She was the best friend André was sleeping with.”
His eyes slid from her face to rest on her collarbone. “Is there anything you can tell me about Mrs. Laurent? Maybe somethin' that will help.”
“She was rich and a bit of a party girl. I always rather envied her bold and brash behaviour. She was always dragging Annette and me into situations we'd never been in before. I liked and admired her a lot until...”
“You found out she was shackin' up with your boyfriend.”
Meg winced. “Yes, you could put it that way.”
“Hey,” Ray said, his voice a touch softer. “You okay?”
“Perfectly fine, Detective. It's just these memories are slightly disturbing.”
He nodded in acceptance. “Do you think she coulda done it?”
“I have no idea. I knew her much better then, and her affair with André took me completely by surprise.”
“You mentioned another friend. Do you know if they still talk?”
“No. I'm pretty sure they don't. Annette was angry with her even longer than I was. She's a mother hen. Very protective. Is there anything else, Detective?”
“Yeah. We've been working on identifyin' the rest of the women in the show to see if any of the others were near enough to kill him. We've got about four or five besides you. I'm gonna send the Duck Boys to interview. Maybe one will pan out.”
“And if none of them do?”
“Stella's due any time. When she shows, I'm gonna have to tell her everything. It might mean...”
“All your evidence is circumstantial. You can't place me at the crime scene because I wasn't there. Surely, she'll need something solid.”
He shrugged. “I don't know what she'll do, but it might mean diggin' into your past.”
“Further than you've already done? There's nothing else to find.”
“All right. I just wanted to warn you.” He started to turn and stopped. “Oh, and somethin' else.”
What else could there be, she wondered. “Yes?”
“Frannie was the one matchin' the names with the pictures. Yours were in there. I know she saw them. I don't know how many more will see them...I don't know how much longer I can...” Ray paused, looking slightly helpless.
He was talking about Fraser. He had to be. For some reason, he was worried about being able to keep his promise to Meg. The knowledge touched her, and she once more found herself reaching for his arm.
“It's okay, Ray.”
“He already knows you're a suspect and that you knew the dead guy. It won't be long until he puts things together.”
“Don't worry. I should have told him about this myself. I will tell him. I'm not ashamed of it, not really. It's just, everyone in Fraser's world has to be perfect, and I don't want to disappoint him.”
She was surprised when his hand covered hers and squeezed. “Trying to be perfect all the time can make you real tired, Inspector.”
“Yes,” she said quietly. “It can. I'll tell him tomorrow—unless he finds out on his own first.” She amended this to, “No, even if he does discover it on his own.”
It would be all right, she told herself, as long as Fraser didn't actually see the pictures.
She wondered why she wasn't more upset that Ray had seen them. Maybe it was because he had not once teased her or alluded to them in any way that didn't pertain to the case. She hadn't felt the need to defend herself or to hide herself from his gaze. He did seem to be acting kinder to her than usual, but maybe he had always been kind and she had been too distant to notice.
“I think that's everything for now,” Ray said, interrupting her thoughts. “I'll let you know if I need to see you again. Do you have a lawyer?”
Meg felt the color drain from her face. She hadn't even thought about a lawyer. If she contacted one, it would have to be an official one from Legal Affairs in Ottawa. That's when her life would get complicated. For one thing, she had worked in Legal Affairs for eight months before coming to Chicago so she knew almost everyone in the Department. There was no way she wanted to share this with any of them. Also, chances were that when Henri found out that she was the one in need, he would make sure he was assigned to her case. Just the thought of his lecherous gaze on the pictures made her feel filthy and like she wanted to throw up. He would gaze hungrily at her naked form, and then he would try to blackmail her into having sex with him. She'd slit her own throat first, career or no career.
Meg swallowed the bile that came to her mouth at the thought, and her mind moved on to what could be the worst thing about contacting a lawyer. The moment it happened, Ottawa would know she was a suspect in a murder case and that she had allowed nude photographs to be taken of herself. It was a more than a year before she joined the RCMP, but that wouldn't matter. The moment the news got out, control over her own life would be ripped out of her hands. She could lose everything.
“I think it's a little early for that.”
“It's up to you, but think about it.”
“I will,” she assured him, though she thought she'd prefer to be arrested, plead guilty, and face the death penalty.
“Okay, stand back a little, Inspector.”
She did as he asked, feeling something poke her in the back as she knew it would. Ray turned, grazing her slightly as he did so, and opened the door. He went out into the hallway stretching, almost like a little boy after a long nap.
Meg reached up and pulled the string, switching off the light, before following him. He nodded at her and went through the doors while she went towards the elevator.
She had almost made it when an arm looped through hers. Startled, Meg stopped to see who had snagged her.
“Hi, there, Inspector,” Francesca Vecchio announced cheerfully.
“Hello,” Meg said, trying to disengage her arm.
Frannie held on, saying, “I was hoping I'd get to talk to you.”
Meg just stared at her.
“Come on. Sit down. I won't bite.”
She gave Meg's arm a tug, so Meg reluctantly followed her. It had been a very long day, and talking to Francesca was the last thing Meg wanted to do. It wasn't that she didn't like her. In fact, it was quite the opposite. The thing was she didn't really get her. Francesca was her complete opposite, and Meg didn't always understand the way she thought or acted. And, truthfully, sometimes listening to her gave Meg a headache.
Francesca led her to a bench near the elevators. Unwilling to be rude, Meg sat beside Frannie and warily waited for her to speak.
“What was André Laurent like?” Francesca asked, folding her hands in her lap and looking at Meg expectantly.
Meg's jaw tightened and she regarded Francesca solemnly. After a few seconds, she replied, “I beg your pardon?”
“The artist. What was he like? I know you knew him.”
She frowned. “And you're basing this on?”
Frannie shrugged and waved her hand. “The pictures. How could you do it? I never would have dared...”
“Miss Vecchio, I hope that you're asking me about the pictures is not an indication of your speaking about them with anyone else.” Meg couldn't help the slightly sharp tone that made it into her voice.
“What? No, of course not!”
Meg peered at her. Francesca seemed perfectly sincere. Meg was so on edge that she had immediately taken the other woman's words as a threat to reveal the pictures to Fraser.
“Then why are you asking me about them?”
“I've never met an artist before.”
“They are just people, Francesca, the same as anyone else. They want you to believe differently, that they are above human failings, but it's a lie. They are as fallible as the rest of us, and the famous 'artist's temperament' only excuses so much.”
“You did know him! I knew it. I knew you wouldn't pose like that for just any guy. I couldn't do it.” She reached over and gently patted Meg's arm. “Not that there's anything shameful in it, and I'm not really shy, but...”
“It would probably depend on who asked you,” Meg told her.
“Yeah. You're probably right. So, why did you do it?”
It had been a long couple of days, and Meg felt her walls weakening. Something in Francesca's expression broke through them and Meg found herself saying honestly, “Because he asked.”
At her words, Frannie's eyes narrowed and she studied Meg's face. Her gaze was shrewd and sharp, and Meg thought the men in Francesca's life didn't give her enough credit.
“Who was this guy?”
Meg shrugged, forcing her face to remain passive. “Just someone I used to know a long time ago.”
“You loved him, didn't you?”
She sighed, dropping her eyes. “Is it that obvious?”
“It's okay, Inspector. Sometimes love sucks.”
“It does occasionally, yes.”
“Take me, for instance. I was married to the biggest jerk on the planet, and I didn't even realize it until it was too late.”
It was Meg's turn to search Frannie's face. “Too late how?”
“He used to hit me.” She was so open that Meg felt herself envying Francesca's honesty. “He hit me a lot. I wasn't married long.”
Meg suddenly realized there were hidden depths of strength in the tiny woman in front of her.
Settling more comfortably on the wooden bench, she changed the subject, “Are you interested in art, Francesca?”
“I'm taking an art class. We're studying nudes, and we were supposed to go to Laurent's show, but...well, as you know, he's dead. I was really excited to meet an artist, you know. I mean a real artist, not someone who plays at it like me.”
“There is something romantic in it, isn't there?” Meg agreed, giving her a small smile.
“Exactly.” Francesca smiled back.
“You know,” Meg offered, surprising herself, “I have some of André's work at home if you're interested in seeing it. He didn't just do nudes, you know, and I have a painting and some sketches from before he was famous.”
Her eyes lit up. “Really? And this is stuff no one's seen but you?”
“Yes and really.”
“That would be amazing. I have to babysit the kids tonight. Is tomorrow night okay? Are you busy?”
“Friday nights are just another night for me. I don't have a lot of time to go out. Besides, my friend is visiting.”
“Oh, well, if you'd rather I...”
“Nonsense. I invited you, didn't I? But what about you? No evening plans with a male companion?”
Frannie snorted. “Fat chance lately. If you really don't mind, I'd like to come over.”
“Feel free,” Meg frowned, “unless I'm in jail for a murder I didn't commit.”
Francesca's eyes widened. “Are you a suspect?”
“Apparently. I thought you knew.”
“I haven't heard anything about the case. I've just been identifying the pictures. Ray can't really think it was you?”
“No,” Meg admitted, “but that doesn't always make a difference.”
“Trust Ray, Inspector. He's a bit of a dork, but he's a good cop.”
“I believe you're right.” She stood up. “If you'll excuse me, dinner was going in the oven when I left. I'll see you tomorrow?”
“Sure thing. What's your address?”
The next morning, Meg was sitting at her desk wondering how she was going to say what she needed to say to Fraser.
It was like she had told Ray; Fraser was so perfect that it made you want to be perfect when you were around him. He expected a lot from himself, but he also expected it from everyone else. Meg cared for him very much. In the beginning, she had even had some romantic interest in him—and it occasionally sparked again when she was at a low point—but she had since realized that she would not be able to live up to his expectations, and it would end up with both of them being hurt. And that wasn't even getting into the moral ambiguity of being involved with someone under her command. They were better as friends, and she deeply cared for him as such. She cared enough that she didn't want to disappoint him. It was hard to gain respect from a man like Fraser and, unfortunately, easy to lose.
She was still planning her words when there was a knock on her door. She drew her breath in sharply, sure she wasn't ready.
“Come in,” she said, after taking deliberate care to put on her Inspector mask.
As she expected, Fraser entered.
“Good morning, sir.”
“Good morning, Fraser.”
“I'm just creating the guest list for the luncheon as you requested. Was there anyone in particular you'd like to invite?”
“We can talk about that in a minute, Fraser. First, I would like to speak with you about a...personal matter.”
An unreadable expression went over his face before he smoothed it away. “A personal matter?”
“Yes. Please shut the door and have a seat. This is going to be unpleasant enough without you standing at attention.”
Fraser nodded and closed the door behind him. He didn't sit until she waved vaguely at one of the chairs. Even then, he perched on the edge, looking uncomfortable.
“I'm going to be frank with you, Fraser.”
“Have I done something wrong, sir?”
“You? No, your work is exemplary, as usual.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Please don't speak. Let me get this over with.”
He opened his mouth then closed it. Again, he nodded.
“I know you're working on the André Laurent murder with Detective Vecchio.” She wondered if her voice changed when she mentioned André's name. “You know that I'm a suspect.” It was a statement, not a question. “I knew André a long time ago. He and I were involved.”
She paused to see Fraser's reaction to the news, but there wasn't one. This was not surprising for a man who rarely showed his emotions.
“I saw him the night of his murder. I was the last one to see him alive. You probably know this too. I went over there for a reason, and it wasn't to renew old ties.”
Fraser remained silent, his face blank. Meg cleared her throat, preparing herself to say words she could never take back.
“I'm telling you this because I trust you and respect you, Fraser. I don't want you to hear this from someone else.”
He nodded in understanding.
She swallowed and then took the plunge. “André asked me to his studio to sign permission forms, Fraser. Do you understand what I'm trying to say?”
“For the pictures, sir?” He finally spoke. “The ones he drew when you spent the summer in Paris?”
Meg's mouth dropped open and she stared at Fraser in shock. When she could finally speak, she blurted, “What did you say?”
He colored but didn't break their gaze. “The pictures, sir. I once heard you tell someone that you had modeled for sketches in your youth. When I was informed about your relationship with the victim, I assumed he was the artist.”
“Yes, sir.” He frowned. “Is that a problem?”
She didn't know what to say. For days, she had been worried about his reaction to the news, and he had known the whole time.
“There were more than sketches,” she admitted. “There were photographs and paintings. He wanted to show some of them...and I was going to let him. Does that bother you?”
“Not in the least. Should it?”
Everyone in her life seemed to be surprising her lately. First Ray, then Francesca, now Fraser.
“You do realize these pictures were in the nude?”
The color in his face deepened. “I assumed so, sir.”
“Well...all right, then. You wanted to ask about the guest list for the luncheon?”
“Yes, sir,” he replied, getting to his feet and coming over to her desk. He placed a sheet of paper in front of her, and she pushed everything but her duty out of her mind to be examined later.
Huey and Dewey were out interviewing the other women in Laurent's show who lived near enough to have offed him, and Ray was pondering his next move, Stella's words echoing in his head, when Frannie cut through his brain fog.
“Hey, Ray, phone's for you. Laura somebody.”
Laura somebody, huh? That sounded like the vic's wife to him, so he quickly picked up his phone.
“Hello, Detective. This is Mrs. Laurent. We're having a reading of the Will this afternoon, and my lawyer said you had requested to be here.”
“Yeah, I did.” He figured that if the jealousy and lechery angle didn't work out, he could always just follow the money.
“It will be at three at my apartment. There were only a few people André asked to be here, so there should be plenty of room.”
Ray thought there'd be plenty of room if there were a hundred.
“Thanks for lettin' me know.”
“Do you want me to get that, sir? Turnbull's out this morning.”
“I suppose you should.”
He reached out and picked up the receiver. “Good morning, Canadian Consulate. Constable Benton Fraser speaking...Yes, sir. One moment.” He pressed a button, putting the caller on hold. “It's for you, sir. He says he is a lawyer from Hofsteader, Cooper, and Wallowitz. Would you like to take the call?”
“Like has nothing to do with it, but if I must. You are excused, Fraser.”
She waited until Fraser was out of the room before she answered the call. Her tone was cold and clipped as she said, “Inspector Meg Thatcher speaking.”
“I am speaking with Margaret Thatcher?”
“I'm Henry Cooper from Hofsteader, Cooper, and Wallowitz. I was André Laurent's lawyer here in Chicago. You were named in Mr. Laurent's will.”
“Of course, his assets and more expensive possessions have all been frozen, but his wife has decided to go on with the reading of the Will anyway.”
“It will be this afternoon at three. Will you be able to attend?”
She paused to gather her thoughts before saying coolly. “I believe so. Let me see if I'm available.” She put him on hold again and used the other line to call Fraser.
“I might have to go out this afternoon. Will you be able to finish the guest list on your own?”
Like it or not, it looked as if she'd be going to hear the reading of André's Will.
Hello! Hello! Hello! Salut from Paris. How are you making out? How are things at home? How is Dad? Does he ever talk about me? Is he still angry?
Things here are great. I really love Paris, and the Sorbonne is still amazing. I think I might apply to come back in January. The school has a wonderful Music and Musicology Department.
What have you been up to? How is school? Things here have been crazy. I've been working long hours at La Vie et l'Amour, and my final exam is coming so fast. I'm afraid I won't have time to study. Add to that the fact that all of my assignments and projects seem to be due at the same time, and that should tell you something about my state of mind.
Thank God for André. Things with him couldn't be better. He's so sweet to me. No one's ever really loved me before, and knowing that he does makes me happier than I've ever been in my life. Last week, I even played hooky so the two of us could go for a ride on his motorcycle. Can you believe that? Me, miss perfect attendance. Miss responsibility. André's been telling me for months that I need to loosen up and just be seventeen. I think I'm finally starting to see the value in that.
Laura, Stefan, and I are giving a presentation in front of the class in a couple of days. This is a semester long project, and it's worth a huge chunk of our mark. Wish me luck! We've worked really hard on it, and we should do okay, but I'm rather terrified to be talking in front of all those people.
Nothing much else has been happening. Laura keeps trying to drag me out, but there's never any time. I I keep telling her there will be plenty of time for that after we get our diploma.
I'm including something I painted for you. I hope that you like it. I know it's not very good, but André keeps encouraging me to try. He says I won't get any better if I don't. In case you don't know, I was trying to paint the Sorbonne. It probably just looks like a blob to you. Oh, well, it was a blob painted with love.
Well, I've got to go. We're going to the library to put the final touches on our presentation. Give my love to Grampa, and tell Dad I said, “hello”. I'll send you a J'aime Paris t-shirt the next time I write.
Love you lots,
Ray didn't feel quite so intimidated the second time he drove up to Mrs. Laurent's fancy apartment building. He stopped and parked his car, boldly walking up to the building and waving to the giant guarding the door. Mrs. Laurent must have said he was coming because the doorman just nodded a curt acknowledgment.
In the hallway outside Mrs. Laurent's apartment, Ray ran into a small man with wire rimmed glasses and a little bit of a gut. The man was balding and had a small, pointed, pinched looking nose.
“Hey,” Ray said in greeting.
“Yeah. How'd you know?”
The man's eyes traveled over Ray and it was obvious that he wasn't entirely impressed with what he saw.
“A lucky guess.” Even though the man seemed like a jerk, he still held out his hand. “I'm Henry Cooper.”
“The lawyer.” Ray gave his hand a brief shake.
“Yes. It's almost time to begin.”
The lawyer opened the door without knocking. The great room Ray found himself walking into had an entirely different atmosphere than the one he had been in just a couple of days before. The light was dim, and the air was solemn. In one corner, there was a small table with a picture of André. Also on the table were some flowers—red roses—and a couple of lit candles.
A dozen people—mostly women—were scattered around the room, talking to each other, sitting quietly, and studying Laurent's artwork. Mrs. Laurent had filled the room with it, making the occasion seem more like a tribute to the artist than a reading of his will.
“I thought this was a will reading, not a funeral,” he said quietly to Cooper.
“Since the police haven't released Mr. Laurent's body yet, Laura hasn't been able to have a proper service. She thought this might be a nice way to remember André while she was waiting.”
“Do you know if the artist was sleeping with all of these women?”
“Is that an appropriate question to ask at this time?”
“I'm not going to ask the widow. Just wonderin'. They could be suspects.”
“At least wait until after the will is read, Detective.”
Ray shrugged, sticking his hands in his pockets. “Sure.”
He wandered away from the lawyer who was making a beeline for Mrs. Laurent. The widow was dressed in a short, stylish black dress that had designer fashion written all over it.
Ray wondered if he would seem like a pervert if he looked at some of the artist's work while he was waiting. He didn't really want to talk to any of the people in the room, and he was sure they didn't want to talk to him either.
Ray studied the paintings with interest, impressed with Laurent's attention to detail. The women looked real enough to start talking, and even the objects they held or looked at or sat on were meticulously rendered. A portrait of a laughing woman around his own age made Ray smile. He wondered what she was laughing at and how Laurent had managed to even catch the twinkle in her eye.
As he moved across the room, his eyes met the first he'd seen of Laurent's work that was overtly sexual. He took in the woman's flushed features and slightly parted lips and felt himself start to blush. He quickly averted his gaze, hoping that none of the women in the room had seen him looking.
Face still flaming, he turned around and almost bumped into a woman standing quietly behind him. She was studying a painting with a distant expression and a soft half-smile on her lips.
Ray's eyes widened, but he just said, “Sorry, Inspector.”
Inspector Thatcher blinked and glanced at him, the smile dropping from her face and the serious, professional look he was used to settling over it instead.
“Hello, Detective. I wasn't aware you'd be here.”
Curiously, Ray glanced at the painting that had captured her attention. He instantly recognized the young woman and knew he should look away, but he couldn't. Instead, his gaze was drawn in and captured. The girl in the painting was sitting in a large armchair, one much too big for her, and her elbow was propped on one of its huge fabric arms. Her cheek was leaning on her hand, and her other hand was holding a book. The girl wasn't reading it, though. Instead, she was looking out of the canvas with a dreamy expression in her eyes and a whimsical smile on her face. Ray immediately wanted to know what she was thinking. He had no idea why she was reading in the nude, but she looked perfectly comfortable doing so, and she seemed to be inviting whoever studied the painting to come sit in the chair and dream with her. It was definitely Ray's favorite of all of Laurent's work he'd seen up to this point, which he knew was very, very wrong. Most of this was because he was now standing beside an older version of that same girl, and her eyes were burning into the side of his face.
“So, that's you, huh?” he asked, forcing his eyes from the painting to the Inspector.
She blushed even more deeply than he had just a few minutes before. Crossly, she said, “Put your eyes back in your head, Detective. I don't look like that anymore.”
“You were beautiful.” It seemed the natural thing to say, but he wanted to take it back as soon as he did. As he studied her face, her nineteen-ninety-eight, mid-thirties face with shadows of life and pain and maybe even laughter, his mind added something that he wasn't brave enough to say. You still are.
“I wasn't fishing for a compliment. I can't believe she put this here for everyone to stare at.”
She turned her back on it, so Ray did the same. “It's a good painting.”
“Next time someone paints a picture of you in the nude, let me know so I can gawk at it.”
He wiggled his eyebrows at her, trying to ease her embarrassment. “You might like it too much.”
She rolled her eyes. “Oh, please.”
He grinned. “I knew it.”
Shaking her head, she suggested, “Shall we sit?”
“Sure...and for what it's worth, the painting of you is the best in the room.”
“Can we not talk about it anymore, please? I'm trying to forget you saw it.”
Ray didn't want to forget. Instead, he wanted to tuck the image into the back of his mind to enjoy later. Now, he had to find out who would benefit form the artist's death. Since the Inspector was there, it was obvious she'd been named. Just once, he wished he'd find a lead that didn't have her standing at the end of it.
“You're in the will?” he asked as he followed her towards the big white couch.
“Apparently, according to the lawyer.”
“Did you know?”
“No,” she said, sitting. He sat beside her, leaving a respectful distance between them. “I haven't talked to him for years. How was I supposed to know? I have no idea why he'd leave something to me.”
“Maybe he cared about you,” Ray suggested.
Thatcher snorted. “André loved only two things, Detective. One of them was himself and the other was his painting. Women were fluid things to him—caught, captured on film or canvas, then released.”
“He sounds like quite a guy.”
“Actually, he was,” she said softly. “He had the ability to make you feel as if you were the most important woman in the world.”
He didn't know how to answer this. Her direct honesty was unsettling for him, and he didn't know how he felt about the fact that he was starting to see her as a person and not just as Fraser's annoying boss. Thatcher as the Ice Queen was much easier to dismiss than the very human woman beside him.
“How do you think his wife feels about all these women being named in his will?”
She shrugged, her voice cooling to the point of frost. “I don't know...and I don't care.”
Her eyes sought out Laurent's widow, and they iced over when she found her. A muscle in her cheek jumped, and Ray could tell the Inspector's jaw was clenched.
“Did she acknowledge you this time?” he asked out of plain curiosity.
She dropped her eyes to her lap, studying her folded hands. “In a way, I suppose.”
Meg reluctantly approached the apartment where the will was being read. The closer to the door she got, the more she wished she had told the lawyer no and stayed at the Consulate. She could go back, she supposed, but she refused to be a coward.
She straightened her back and forced any hint of emotion or discomfort from her face. She felt the ice settle there around her, inside and out. Taking two deep breaths, she made sure she was prepared for anything and rang the doorbell.
It opened almost immediately, and Meg had to fight to keep the mask she had so carefully constructed.
The woman in front of her was the same auburn haired, dimpled woman that Meg had seen on the sidewalk just the day before. Her brown eyes were sad, but her designer dress ended well above the knee. Contrasts and contradictions. That was the Laura Meg had known then and it seemed she hadn't changed.
“Hello, Laura.” Her voice was steady. Calm. Cold.
The woman's eyes widened and then narrowed. Meg wondered if she would deny that she knew her again.
Bonjour, not salut. Of course. Salut was for friends.
“Are you going to let me in? André's lawyer called me.”
“Oui. Je sais.” She didn't move out of the way.
Laura sighed and reluctantly let Meg slide by her into the apartment. Even though Meg was dressed in a smart chocolate colored business suit, she still felt under dressed.
“It's been a long time,” Laura commented, closing the door behind them. “How have you been?”
Her voice was polite, so Meg answered in kind. “Not bad. I am a member of the RCMP now. I am the head of the Consulate here in Chicago.”
“Oh, yes. I saw an article about that in the paper. How...quaint.”
“And you? How have you been?”
“My husband is dead.”
“Yes, I've heard.”
She frowned. “You think he deserved to die, don't you?”
That was an odd question.
“I didn't wish him any ill. It's been almost twenty years. Any resentment I had vanished years ago.”
“I don't believe you.”
Meg stared at her for a few seconds before arching an eyebrow. “Believe what you will.”
“If it were up to me, you wouldn't be here.”
“Maybe that's why I'm here.”
Heat came into Laura's eyes, and Meg braced herself for angry words. They never came, mostly because the doorbell rang.
“Have a seat,” Laura told her tightly.
Meg's voice was as sweet as acid as she gave her best fake smile and said, “Thank you.”
Meg wondered why the detective was at the reading of André's will. He had not known him, as far as she knew they hadn't even met—not when André was alive, anyway.
Ray's gaze was turned away from her, studying the women gathered in the room. As he studied them, she studied him. His whole attitude during his investigation had been a pleasant surprise. Not one crude joke, not one leer. Even when he had the opportunity to torture her when she was feeling naked and vulnerable, he had complimented her instead.
It was awkward sitting here with him, but she also drew a small amount of strength from his presence. Coming into Laura's home, she had felt the years slip away. Suddenly, she had been that girl again, and it was hard to face the ex-friend who had taken everything from her.
The painting helped some. She had forgotten how much she truly loved it. The first time she saw it, she had flung herself at André, filled with joy at how special he had made her feel.
Though Ray's arrival had surprised her, she had found in him an anchor to the present. Their short conversation had allowed her to put young Meg back in the past where she belonged. Ray meant being a police officer and Chicago and running a Consulate. She was glad that he was there; she just wished he hadn't seen the painting.
She cursed silently as she felt herself blushing again. Meg had seen the appreciation in the detective's gaze and, when he looked at the painting, she was keenly aware that he was looking at her.
Ray turned to her and she glanced away, pretending she hadn't been watching him.
“When are they going to get this show on the road?” he grumped.
She looked at her watch. “It's about five to three. Be patient, Detective.”
“I suck at waitin',” he grumbled under his breath.
Meg understood the sentiment. She wanted this whole thing over with.
People started filling up couches and chairs. They gathered around, leaving the big chair by the coffee table for the lawyer because he had placed his briefcase there. Ten women, counting Laura and Meg herself, and two men. Meg studied the faces and wondered if their pasts with André were as troubled as her own.
The lawyer sat down last, and Laura settled into the chair on his right. Her eyes looked dry to Meg, but still she dabbed at them with a glaringly white handkerchief. An act, probably. Laura was good at those.
“You've all been asked here to hear the reading of André Laurent's Last Will and Testament. There were others named, but they could not make it here today,” Cooper started. “Also, it must be stated that at the moment there is a freeze on all of Mr. Laurent's possessions and assets. They will only be released when permission has been given by the police. Until then, they will remain under my guardianship.”
There was some murmuring, but no one should have found this a surprise.
“Mr. Laurent would have been pleased that so many of you were able to attend, and I would like to thank you on his behalf.”
Meg clenched her hands into fists where they sat in her lap. She felt Ray's hand briefly brush the skin on her arm and glanced at him in startled curiosity. He wasn't looking at her; his eyes were on Cooper, almost as if he were pretending he hadn't touched her. She bit her lip, deciding the touch hadn't been unpleasant. In it, she had found the support she suspected he intended.
The lawyer began speaking again, and Meg moved her full attention to him. He started big, and Laura and three named children got most of his money. Meg couldn't really see André as a father. He had no time for anything but painting and enjoying himself. The André she knew hated responsibility. Idly, she wondered if any of those children were Laura's.
As the lawyer went on, Meg learned that both men and three of the women in the room were actually relatives of André's. She peered at them as their names were mentioned, trying to remember if she'd met them before.
When the list moved from big things like property and money, Laura started to look uncomfortable. Her eyes grew troubled, and a slight frown touched the edge of her face.
It started with the artwork. Most of it was left to Laura to do with what she wished, but some individual pieces went to the women in the room—and women who were not in the room.
“To Meg Thatcher,” Her attention had been wandering, but it snapped back to Cooper at the sound of her name, “I leave “Meg Reading”. It's always been one of my favorite paintings, and I know she once loved it as much as I do. Even if the memories no longer bring her joy, I hope the painting will.”
Laura raised her eyes as Cooper spoke and looked right at Meg. Her gaze was hot and flashed angrily. Meg felt it almost as a physical attack. It only lasted a second, and it left Meg feeling puzzled. Why did Laura hate her so much? Laura had betrayed her, not the other way around.
She thought about this through the rest of the reading, keeping her face passive as her mind worked. Meg couldn't think of any reason for Laura's animosity, especially when it had been so long since they'd spoken.
“Well, I guess you can control who gawks at it now,” Ray said conversationally as the reading wrapped up and people stood to go. “I can't believe his wife just sat there and listened to how much he liked all those girls.”
“She wasn't enjoying herself.”
“What do you mean?”
“Laura was angry, Ray. Couldn't you tell?”
He shrugged. “Not really.”
“I halfway expect her to sell my pictures to someone in Ottawa out of spite.”
“You're just worryin' about stuff before it happens. Need a ride?”
Her eyes widened and she stopped, causing him to bump into her.
“Umph,” he said, quickly stepping back. “Don't stop like that.”
She had been thrown a little off balance, and her hand was splayed against the wall where she'd caught herself. “I apologize, Detective...Did you just offer me a ride home?”
“Sure. It's cold, and you don't have a coat.”
She hadn't even realized. Looking down, she confirmed the truth of his statement, wondering how she managed to leave the office without a jacket in November.
“Thank you for the offer,” she said and really meant it. “I brought my car.”
He nodded at her and passed her to leave the apartment. Meg frowned, wondering when Ray had begun to care whether she was warm enough or not.
Frannie Vecchio felt a pang of doubt as she walked up to the small yellow house. It was an odd feeling for her. She usually bullied herself into a situation, talking until it became comfortable. This was a little different. Sometimes Inspector Thatcher could be a little intimidating. Frannie wasn't scared of her exactly, but the Inspector's steely authority and cold logic sometimes made her nervous.
By the time Frannie had climbed the steps to ring the doorbell, she was feeling almost timid. She forced it away angrily, and she knew the look on her face must have been fierce when a woman with blond curls and a sharp, strong nose opened the door.
“Hi,” Frannie said, giving her best smile. “I'm Frannie. The Inspector invited me.”
“Oh, yes, of course,” the woman said, her voice faintly accented, and returned the smile. “Need some help?”
Frannie's hands were full of bags. Since Inspector Thatcher had been kind enough to invite her, she thought it was only fair she brought dinner. She just hoped they hadn't eaten.
“Nah. I'm okay. I brought some Italian pasta. I thought you guys might be hungry.”
“That was very kind,” the woman said, holding the door open for her. “I'm Annette. Please, come in.”
Frannie passed her and found herself in a small but tasteful living room. She had expected it to be cool and modern and was pleasantly surprised to find it homey.
The Inspector came out of a door at the back of the room looking tired and rather drawn. She was dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, giving Frannie another surprise.
“Did I hear the door?”
“Yes,” Annette said, “your friend is here.”
The Inspector stopped and regarded Frannie thoughtfully. Frannie wondered what she was thinking.
“Come in, Francesca. Make yourself comfortable.”
Frannie held up her burdened hands. “I brought dinner.”
“Yeah, I hope you didn't eat. We had some leftover pasta from last night that I thought you might like.”
“No, we haven't eaten. Come into the kitchen.”
“Okay.” She crossed the room and followed Thatcher back through the door. “Thanks again for inviting me, Inspector.”
Inspector Thatcher took the bags from her hand and put them on the counter.
“You may call me Meg. If you like.”
“You don't mind?”
“Of course not. It is my name, Francesca, and we don't work together.” The words could have been harsh and sarcastic, and Frannie would have half expected them to be, but instead the Inspector's tone was friendly.
“In that case, call me Frannie. Only Welsh and Frase and Turnbull call me Francesca. Welsh is my boss, so I let it slide, and Fraser and Turnbull...well...”
Meg smiled slightly, it was more in her eyes than on her face. “I understand.”
Frannie looked around the cheerful kitchen. “You have a nice house.”
“I bought it right after I was assigned to Chicago. I knew I'd probably be here a couple of years, and I wanted a place where I felt at home, especially when I was so far away from my own. This house reminded me of my grandfather's, and I couldn't resist.”
“Yes. Why don't you sit? I'll reheat the pasta, and we can eat.”
“I'd rather set the table. Show me the dishes.”
Annette came in and asked, “Is there anything I can do?”
“Nope,” Frannie said, giving the woman another smile. “I've got it covered.”
As Meg and Frannie worked in silence for a few minutes, Annette sat at the table watching. Then, suddenly, she got up.
“Here, Meg, let me do that. You can't heat something like this in a microwave. Get me some pots.”
Frannie raised her eyebrows when the Inspector hurried to do as her friend suggested.
Conversationally, Annette said to Frannie, “Whatever you do, do not let this woman cook for you.”
“I'm not that bad,” Meg protested, a hint of amusement in her voice.
“Don't listen to her. She once made a turkey and didn't take out the bag with the neck in it.”
“Everyone does that at least once.”
“She tried to make mashed potatoes without cooking the potatoes first!”
“I thought it would save time. I was eighteen at the time, what did I know?”
Frannie put her hand on Meg's arm, forgetting for a moment that the Inspector usually put off a 'don't touch me' vibe. “Don't worry, Meg. When I first learned to cook, my mother kept threatening I'd be the death of her. It wasn't until after I was married that all of her lessons finally kicked in.”
“Well, I have improved a bit,” Meg said, standing back as Annette happily began heating the pasta on the stove. Then, her eyes twinkled briefly, “and I haven't poisoned anyone yet.”
Frannie shook her head and laughed as she reached in the silverware drawer. “There you go. Hey, you guys have been friends a long time, huh?”
“We were summer students at La Sorbonne together,” Meg told her, and the Inspector's expression got slightly distant and sad.
“La Sorbonne? Is that in Paris?”
“Yes, it is,” Annette answered. “Meg had come over from Canada, and I had come from Montbeliard, which is in France but seems like a different country altogether when you're in Paris. Neither of us knew anyone in the city, and we kind of just gravitated towards each other.”
“It's nice that you had each other.”
Meg paused, studying Frannie for a moment, before adding, “She saved my life.”
Annette came over and put her arm around Inspector Thatcher's shoulders. Giving her friend a squeeze, she said, “We've helped each other through some hard times.”
“I've never really had a friend like that,” Frannie admitted. “I think my big mouth scares them away.”
Annette went back to heating the dinner, and Meg frowned and came over to Frannie. “You know, if you need someone to talk to, you can always call me. I promise to listen.”
Frannie's mouth dropped open. “You don't have to...”
“The offer is sincere. It might surprise you to know that I like you, Frannie.”
“It would be great if we could be friends,” Frannie told her. “Fraser or no Fraser.”
Annette turned. “Who's Fraser?”
Meg looked at Frannie, and Frannie looked at Meg. Their eyes met in complete understanding.
“You'll know him when you see him,” Frannie said.
“Is he that Mountie you had a crush on last year, Meg?”
Meg's face turned slightly pink. “I'm over it...mostly. I defy any healthy heterosexual woman to spend any amount of time with him and not feel an attraction.”
“Me too!” Frannie added.
“Now, I have to meet him.”
“You won't be disappointed,” Frannie told her, settling down in one of the chairs.
The women made small talk as they divided the pasta onto plates. Frannie couldn't believe how comfortable she felt. She was seeing a whole new side to the Inspector, and she felt as if she'd known Annette for years.
“This is really good,” Meg told her after they started eating. “Who made it?”
“Me and Ma. It's Ray's favorite.”
“Which Ray?” An apologetic look came over the Inspector's face even before the words were out of her mouth. “Forgive me. That was thoughtless.”
Frannie felt a little sad as she said, “The new Ray.”
Annette stopped eating to look at the both of them curiously.
“The new Ray?”
“It's complicated,” Meg told her, “and potentially dangerous to mention out loud. I misspoke.”
Frannie was impressed that Meg was willing to protect her brother by keeping his secret, even from her best friend. To Annette's credit, she just nodded and continued eating.
“Ray came over for dinner last night, and Ma thinks he's scrawny, so we made enough for two families.”
Meg frowned. “I wouldn't say scrawny. More like slim or slight.”
“He's tiny,” Frannie said to Annette. “Turnbull makes him look like a little doll.”
“That's an unfair comparison, Frannie. Turnbull is of above average size.”
“And Ray is?” Annette asked.
“My brother,” Frannie said at the same time Meg said, “The Detective working André's case.”
“You didn't tell me you knew him, Meg.”
Meg shrugged. “I didn't think it was all that important.”
Frannie saw a look pass between them and asked, “Did you know the artist too, Annette?”
“Yes, I did,” she said quietly, “and I didn't particularly like him.”
“I heard he was a jerk but his art was good.”
“That sums him up nicely.”
“Annette didn't really like him before we broke up, and she liked him less afterwards,” Meg said.
“Now, I'm kinda glad I didn't get to meet him.”
“But you still want to see the sketches and painting, right?”
“Yeah, if it's still okay.”
“I wouldn't have offered if I didn't mean it.”
They finished their meal and moved into the living room. Frannie was feeling slightly sleepy as she settled on the couch beside Annette. Meg disappeared into another room to retrieve the sketches and painting, leaving the two of them alone.
“Is she okay?” Frannie asked quietly.
“What do you mean?”
“Being a murder suspect and everything.”
Annette thought about this. “I believe so, but with Meg, it's sometimes hard to tell.”
“Yeah. I get that.” She thought a minute before adding, “She's being really nice to me. I didn't know she was that nice.”
“Most people don't. Sometimes she's hard to get to know. Prickly.”
“I understand that. Sometimes I'm too pushy.”
Annette smiled in response.
“Okay, here's what I have. There might be a couple of bigger things in my father's attic, but these I keep lugging with me for some reason,” Meg said coming back into the room with a box in her hand. “I haven't looked at these in years, and I haven't separated them, so...”
“Close my eyes when I get to the naked ones. Gotcha,” Frannie told her, accepting the box.
Meg blushed and sat beside her. “Something like that.”
Frannie opened the box and took out the first picture. The paper was slightly yellowed and faded, but the pencil marks on it were still vibrant and fresh. In the picture, two elderly people gazed at each other, and there was a gentle and lasting love in their faces.
“That's amazing,” she said.
“It's always been one of my favorites.”
“I'd never be this good if I practiced a million years. You should have this framed or something.”
Meg took the picture from her and gazed at it, her features uncharacteristically soft and unguarded. “Perhaps I should.”
As Frannie went through the pictures, she found herself admiring Laurent's work more and more, and she wondered why he had decided to focus mostly on nudes. She also got the sense that Annette was watching Meg carefully. She hoped that looking at the sketches wasn't causing the Inspector pain in some way.
After awhile, Meg said, “I think this calls for a glass of wine. Would you care for one?”
Annette stood. “I'll get it. Frannie?”
Frannie looked up from a sketch of three women and a man. They were all very young, but she recognized some of the faces. There was Meg, smiling widely and wearing a pretty flowered summer dress, and there was Annette, beside her in jeans and a t-shirt. Her arm was around a pudgy guy, who looked sheepish. The third woman looked familiar, but Frannie couldn't place her.
“Yeah, if you guys are having some.”
“You know,” Meg said, accepting the glass her friend held out to her. “I'm glad that you came over tonight.”
“Yes. I'm starting to think I should have invited you over sooner. Even though I've been in Chicago over a year, I don't know that many women and, to tell you the truth, most of those are quite arrogant and, well...”
“Snobby?” Frannie suggested.
“Exactly. Sometimes it is refreshing to speak to people who say what they mean regardless of the consequences.”
“Any time you need a refresher, call me up,” Frannie offered. “I've got lots of honest opinions.”
Meg laughed at this, just a little, and Frannie felt herself laughing too.
Hey! I just wanted to let you know that this is the second chapter I've added in three days. If you're reading chapter by chapter, I didn't want you to miss chapter 14. You might be puzzled later on. I notice I have a few more people reading now (hitwise), so I hope you are enjoying the story.
“So, why are we here again, Fraser?” Ray asked as the two of them ducked the police tape and went into Laurent's apartment.
“I was thinking, Ray. Where did the blood come from?”
“What do you mean?”
“We found the victim with the murder weapon still in his chest.”
“We found a trail of blood, but the body wasn't moved.”
Ray thought about this. “So, what made the trail?”
“It must have come from the killer.”
“Yes, and maybe by examining the blood, we'll be able to tell something about her.”
“Huey and Dewey interviewed the rest of the women on our list. All but two had alibis.” He thought a minute. “Julie somethin' and somebody Morris...Sally, I think. Both were models, both were having sex with him.”
“Do you think one of them is our killer?”
Ray shrugged. “I dunno. We should go talk to them ourselves, see what our guts say.”
“Good idea, Ray.” He knelt down to study the blood droplet at his feet. It had dried to a dull rust red. Ray frowned, wondering if it had come from the killer's hands or her clothes.
“I'm going to look over where we found the body,” Ray said as he carefully moved towards the back of the room, avoiding the trail his partner was studying.
Fraser nodded, eyeing the spatters intently from all directions. Ray had to admit that they just looked like drops of blood to him. None of them were even squished or anything.
Ray glanced up at the girl bathing and briefly wondered who she was and how André had convinced her to pose for him. Quickly, he shook the thought out of his head and turned away from the painting to the large stain on the rug. In his mind, he still saw Laurent lying there. He studied the image, wondering if he had missed anything.
He noted that the blood trail didn't start until about a couple of feet from the body. Had the killer moved a certain way that shook the blood loose? One thing was fairly certain, with that much blood, and taking into account the trail she left, somebody out there had at least one piece of clothing coated with Laurent's blood.
Something caught Ray's eye as he was studying the outline of the body. The couch was slightly disturbed. The ruffle at the bottom was puffed out slightly. He wondered if it had been that way when he was here the last time or whether it had been disturbed by the crime scene unit.
Curiously he went over, sidestepping the chalk, and knelt to hook a cautious finger under the white ruffle. He lifted it and found a small black glove. It was too small to be Laurent's.
“What is it, Ray?”
“Do you have any evidence bags?”
Fraser got to his feet, digging in the pocket on his Sam Browne. “Did you find something?”
“I think so.”
Fraser came over quickly and held out a bag and some tweezers.
“Thanks.” Ray accepted them and used the tweezers to lift the glove. It took him a couple of tries, but he managed to get the glove into the bag without touching it.
He glanced up in triumph at Fraser and noticed the Mountie looked contemplative.
“The Inspector has a pair of gloves like that.”
Ray felt his stomach twist slightly. “So do lots of people.”
“You're right, Ray, and she said she'd never been here.”
“Do you think she lied?”
Fraser thought about this. “No.”
“Neither do I. Let's bring this in and see if they can get anything off of it.”
“What is it?”
Meg was already dressed because she planned on going into the Consulate to do a little work. They had stayed up so late visiting Frannie that Meg had expected Annette to sleep in.
Thinking of Frannie, she almost smiled. Meg never would have guessed that Frannie had a wicked sense of humour or that she was so insightful.
“André finally made the paper.”
Meg's desire to smile vanished. “What does it say?”
“Just a simple blurb. He was found in his apartment...stabbed in the chest...blah, blah, blah...Police are still looking at suspects. Then, it talks about the showing that was supposed to be tonight. It's been postponed.”
“Not canceled?” Meg took the paper from her hand so she could read it herself.
It was as Annette said. It appeared that the gallery owner was planning to go ahead as soon as the police released André's artwork. Laura must have given him permission. Of course, that made sense. Every sale would mean more money in her pocket.
“They wouldn't want to lose any money,” Annette unconsciously echoed Meg's thoughts. Then, she added, “You're dressed?”
“I thought I might go into work for a couple of hours this morning. I expected you to sleep in.”
“I have two small children, and my body's from a time zone six hours ahead. It thinks it's afternoon already.”
“I can stay home, if you like,” Meg offered. “There's just a little paperwork from yesterday afternoon that I wanted to finish.”
“A day off will do you good,” Annette told her, studying her face. “You look tired.”
“Did you have anything in particular you wanted to do today?”
“Not really. How about a karaoke bar?”
Meg stopped with her toast halfway to her mouth. “What?”
Annette laughed. “I'm joking. What would you suggest for a tourist in Chicago?”
“You want to go sightseeing?”
Meg frowned. “Why not, indeed? Are you still leaving Monday?”
“Unless you need me to stay.”
Meg waved this away. “I'm fine.”
“Are you sure?”
“I'm feeling slightly....conflicted.” She bit her lip.
“Conflicted?” Annette prodded.
“I'm sad and worried and angry and calm all at the same time. Does that make sense?”
“Of course it does.”
“And sometimes I just feel numb. I mean, until a couple of days ago, this was all in the distant past. Why does it feel so fresh again?”
“Maybe you didn't fully deal with it the first time.”
Meg shrugged. “I don't know. I do know that I'm going to be okay. Ray will arrest André's murderer, and everything will settle back into the way it used to be. Ottawa will never know I was a murder suspect. Fraser will pretend he doesn't know about the pictures and, if I'm really lucky, Ray will forget he saw me naked.”
“Do you have much hope on that last one?”
“Not really. He's a man, isn't he?”
Annette laughed lightly and Meg smiled before adding, “Sit down and have some breakfast, then I'll take you out to see the sights. I think I even have a guidebook around here somewhere.”
“Okay. What do you suggest? Toast or cereal?”
“The cereal's stale. By the way, have you seen my glove? I was sure it was in my pants pocket yesterday. Did I lose it on the floor?”
“Haven't seen it...Toast it is. Do you have orange marmalade?”
“On the door in the fridge.” Meg took a bite of her own quickly cooling toast. She chewed it slowly, thinking. “Would you mind terribly if I asked Frannie to come with us today? She's a native and knows Chicago so much better than I do.”
“Sure. I really like her.”
Without hesitation, Meg admitted, “I do too.”
Tears were streaming down her face.
She didn't know how long she'd been there, weeping. Her head ached and so did her heart. Thoughts swirled in her mind, thoughts filled with rage and jealousy and pain. They made her stomach churn.
When had it all become too much to bear? When had her love for life and for André and for what could be turned into hate and crumbled to ashes? Why did she have to hurt so much? Why wouldn't it stop? What could she do to make it stop? Nothing she did seemed to make it any better. It just got worse and worse.
On the couch beside her sat two pieces of paper. She picked them up, looking at them through her haze. She had taken them from André's files, knowing their absence would give the police the motive they needed—but it hadn't been enough. Not nearly enough. She'd taken care of that now, though. With physical evidence, that detective could not refuse to believe anymore. Maybe then, Laura would be able to find some measure of peace.
Angrily, she shredded the papers, tearing them apart like she wanted to rip up every picture and every painting André had done over the years, even the ones of herself.
André was pain. His work was pain. Meg Thatcher, the woman she had betrayed and who haunted her in her dreams, was pain. Life was pain. But she was going to end it.
She was going to end it all.
My life is a lie. I have to tell someone; I have to let it out. If I don't, I will never find peace.
You see, I am wracked with remorse. What I did was terrible. It was wrong, and the guilt is eating me from the inside. I can't bear it. It hurts too much. You're looking for me, Detective. I killed André Laurent in a fit of rage. It was an act of horror, an act of irate revulsion. I couldn't believe that he would ask my permission to show pictures of me—sell pictures of me!--that were always supposed to remain private.
I had an affair with André when I was very young, and it ended in a terrible fight, worse than anything I might have told you in questioning. I loved him very much and he hurt me very much. Seeing him again brought it all back, and I couldn't stand the way he was looking at me. It made me so angry, I was out of my mind. I didn't even know what I was doing when I picked up that knife and stabbed him.
I don't deserve to live. I have taken another life, and it haunts me. In my mind, I keep seeing his face as he died. As the light went out of his eyes, I realized how much I still truly loved him, and I wept.
Now, it is my turn. It must end. It all must end.
I will end this torment.
Don't try to find me to stop me. By the time you figure out where I've gone, I will be dead.
May God forgive me,
I just wanted to say that this is one of my favorite chapters!
They had only been together five minutes when Meg discovered the problem with letting Frannie lead the sightseeing tour. She seemed to think that a good sightseeing day included lots and lots of shopping and maybe trying to catch a taping of Oprah.
“But, Frannie,” Meg protested, looking through her guidebook, “look at all the museums and culture...”
“Museums?” Frannie waved her hand. “Who wants to look at some dusty old book Mark Twain brought over on the Mayflower? Museums are not the way to have a good time. Besides, didn't you say you wanted something to take back for your kids?” This, she asked Annette.
“Well, I don't know. I haven't been to the Art Institute yet,” Meg tried again.
“Seriously? Haven't you had enough of art this week?”
“How about the theatre?”
“Wouldn't you just rather see a movie?”
“We can see a movie any time.”
“Not the three of us together,” Frannie argued.
“Come on, Meg,” Annette said. “You might have fun. As you said, Frannie knows Chicago. Let her show us around her Chicago.”
Both women looked at Meg expectantly, so Meg sighed and tossed her guidebook in a nearby trashcan.
“All right, Frannie. Girls' day is up to you.”
Frannie's eyes twinkled. “Have you guys ever been to a strip club?”
Meg groaned and Annette laughed as Frannie linked one arm with each of them.
“I'm really sorry we couldn't get tickets for Oprah, but I know there's at least one chick flick playing at the show—if it was a no on the strip club, that is.”
“I would love to see a movie,” Annette told her. “I love American movies.”
“Great, but first we shop 'til we drop. Were you thinking of toys or touristy stuff for your kids?”
“I hadn't thought about it, but we must go into a souvenir shop either way.”
“Meg needs a snow globe of Chicago.”
Meg let herself be led down the sidewalk by the other women. Her nose and her fingers were both cold, but she actually felt somewhat cheerful.
“Really? I know a place that sells pretty snow globes.” She looked at Meg curiously.
“I'm a bit of a collector,” Meg admitted.
“I think our first stop should be the mall. You should see this pile of rocks the Canadian Government donated for in it. It's huge!”
Annette looked at Meg, so Meg said, “It's an Inuksuk. The Inuit use it to leave signs for the people coming after them.”
“Oh,” Annette said.
“It's symbolic of...”
“Fraser chasing a shoplifter...Meg, Ray, and Lt. Welsh having a fight...” Frannie interrupted.
“I take it there's a story there.” Annette raised her eyebrows at Meg.
“A long story. You don't want to know,” Meg replied.
Frannie grinned. “I'll tell you later. I thought Meg and Ray were going to kill each other.”
A quirky little smile came to Annette's face. “Please do.”
Meg rolled her eyes, feeling slightly embarrassed. “We weren't that bad.” Frannie's smile widened, so she quickly changed the subject. “How far to the mall?”
“Just a couple of blocks. We can have lunch in the food court. That way, Annette can look at the A Nook Shuck and soak up some of that culture you were talking about.”
“Culture at the mall, how wonderful.” Meg winced at how much sarcasm laced her voice, hoping she hadn't offended Frannie just when they were becoming friends.
“Yes, it is,” Frannie agreed.
They entered the mall and Meg went over to the small information board that outlined all the stores. She had only been to this mall the once, and she didn't want to wander aimlessly.
Annette followed her over, and Frannie asked, “What are you doing?”
“Developing a plan of action.”
“A plan of action?”
“Yes,” Meg said absently, studying the layout. “Hmmn. I'd like to visit one of the bookstores, if that's all right.”
Frannie looked over her shoulder and pointed. “This is the store that sells the snow globes and t-shirts and stuff, and here is one of the biggest toy stores in Chicago.”
“Barely There? Qu'est-ce que c'est?” Annette asked, pointing to another place on the board.
“Lingerie store. I went there to get my outfit when I...” She stopped and glanced at Meg. “Never mind.”
Meg regarded her curiously, but when Frannie didn't say anymore, she commented, “I don't think I'll be needing anything from there any time soon.”
“Sometimes it's fun just to look.” This was Annette.
“I don't think so.”
“Oh, come on, Meg,” Frannie wheedled. “Don't be such a prune.”
“Huh?” was Meg's intelligent answer to this comment.
“We'll definitely stop there,” Annette told Frannie. “Anywhere else you'd recommend?”
“One of the liquor stores?” Meg asked dryly.
Annette elbowed her gently. “Behave.”
“Sorry,” Meg said, feeling a smile come to her face.
“There are tons of clothing stores, but...uh...” Frannie started.
“Our tastes are sorta different.”
“That's all right,” Meg assured her. “You lead and we'll follow.” She tired to ignore the way her mind whispered, ...famous last words...
She turned when she heard someone whistle and saw Frannie holding up a very red, very skimpy teddy with black garters.
“Would you look at this,” she said.
“Are you planning on entertaining?” Meg asked, putting the robe back on the rack and going over to get a better look.
“Actually, red's not really my color. I look way better in black. It is pretty, though. Don't you think, Annette?”
Annette looked over from where she was studying a tasteful white gown.
“Sexy,” she agreed.
Frannie came closer and laid the teddy against the pale portion of Meg's arm that was exposed.
“What are you doing?”
“Just what I thought. Red is your color.”
“Surely, you're not suggesting I...”
“Why not? I bet it would look gorgeous on you.”
“Really?” Meg took the teddy from her in disbelief and held it next to her body. “Do you think so?”
“It wouldn't look...well...tacky?”
Annette gave them her full attention. “It's low cut, but the only unnecessary hole is in the midsection. It's a beautiful color. No, not tacky.”
“What about the garters at the bottom?”
“More enticing than tacky, I think.”
“She's right, Meg,” Frannie added.
Meg chewed on her lip for a moment, seriously considering their words. Then, she sighed. “It would just sit in my closet. I haven't had a date in ages, and the last was a drunken disaster.”
“At least think about it.”
“No, no thinking about it,” Annette said, snatching the garment and putting it over her arm. “I'm buying it for you.”
Meg swallowed a protest, recognizing Annette's stubborn expression.
“Now, let's find something for me. See anything sexy and black around here?” Frannie asked.
“What are you looking for? I saw some lacy things over there.” Annette pointed to the other side of the store.
“Good. Let's go look.”
“It's got to be at least as trashy as the one she picked out for me,” Meg said.
“It's not trashy,” Frannie replied as the three of them moved towards the rack Annette had pointed at.
“We'll see when I get...” Meg started but stopped as her purse began to ring. “Excuse me.”
Frannie and Annette chattered happily, comparing lingerie while Meg fished around for her phone.
“I don't mind skimpy,” Frannie was saying as Meg pulled it out triumphantly and flipped it open.
“Hello? Meg speaking.”
“Inspector...Inspector, is that you?”
The voice was Turnbull's and he sounded rather upset.
Meg covered her free ear to block out her friends' voices. “Turnbull?”
“I don't know what to do, sir.”
“Turnbull, what's going on?” There was silence. “Turnbull?”
“I can't catch him, and he's everywhere.” There was a slight hint of hysteria to his voice.
“Turnbull...” He kept talking but he was talking so fast, she couldn't understand a word. “Turnbull...Turnbull...” Finally, she said in her most authoritative voice, “Calm down, Constable. That is an order.”
The babbling stopped, and she could hear him forcing air in and out of his lungs.
“Now, tell me what is the matter. Slowly. Calmly.”
“I don't know what to do, sir,” he repeated. “I'm so embarrassed, but I...”
“You what? I'm losing my patience, Constable.”
“There's a mouse, sir,” he said quietly.
“In your apartment?” Why was he calling her, anyway?
“No, sir. In the Consulate. I needed my deep dish for a birthday cake I'm making, and I found a mouse in my kitchen. A mouse.” His voice rose again.
“Well, get rid of it. We can't have a mouse running loose in my Consulate.”
“I've been trying, sir, but he's so fast, and he keeps running at me. I once had an incident with a mouse...”
“Just kill it, Turnbull,” she said, exasperated.
There was silence on the line.
“Turnbull? Turnbull, are you still there?” She hoped he hadn't died of fright; the paperwork would be messy.
“Kill it, sir?”
“Poison. Your shoe. A trap. You must be able to...”
He uncharacteristically interrupted her. “But it's just an innocent creature, sir. I could never...”
When he trailed off, she said sharply, “Catch it with your bare hands and set it free, for all I care, just get it out of my Consulate.”
“I might need some help, sir.”
“Fine,” she growled. “I'll be right there.”
“Where is it?”
“I'm sorry for disturbing you, sir.”
“It's all right, Turnbull. Just tell me where the mouse is.”
“He went down there.” He pointed towards the back of the Consulate, where both the kitchen and Fraser's office were.
“Are you sure it was a mouse?”
“Quite sure, sir. I saw him clearly.”
“Okay.” She unwound the scarf from around her neck with numb fingers and then started on the buttons of her jacket.
“Would you like me to help?” he asked as she put her things beside him on the desk.
She eyed the very large man who was afraid to put his feet on the floor. “I can handle this. Why don't you head home?”
She could deal with an hysterical Turnbull, and she could deal with a marauding mouse, but she didn't know if she could deal with both at the same time, at least not without losing either her sanity or her temper.
His sheepish look vanished and he looked completely serious. “Will you be okay?”
“It's only a mouse, Turnbull. I'm sure I can wrestle it into submission.”
“You won't kill him, will you?”
“I will attempt to catch the monster without either of us dying. If possible.”
He nodded, accepting her word at face value. She liked that about him—he trusted her not to lie.
“It doesn't feel right to leave you alone, if you don't mind me saying so, sir.”
“What's the worst that can happen? I'm not some frail civilian girl, Turnbull, and I certainly don't need protection from a grown man who is afraid of a mouse.”
He sat up straighter. “No, sir. Of course not, sir.”
She sighed. “At ease, Constable. Go home. Enjoy your Saturday. Did you at least get your cake pan?”
“I'm thinking of buying a new one.”
“Good idea.” She made shooing motions with her hand, and Turnbull got down off of the desk, carefully watching the floor under his feet.
“You're sure?” he asked one more time, glancing up at her.
When she was positive he was gone and wouldn't be breathing down her neck, Meg cautiously walked towards the back of the Consulate. With only her—and a wayward mouse—the building seemed almost too quiet, as if it were waiting for something.
Meg tensed, then angrily forced herself to relax. André's murder had her jumping at shadows.
She was almost to the kitchen when she heard a small creak. Meg couldn't tell if it was a door or a floor board. She stopped and held her breath, listening.
When the sound didn't come again, she said, “Turnbull, is that you? I thought I told you to go home...Turnbull?”
There was no answer, no sound at all, and Meg figured it must have been the house settling. Feeling foolish, she continued on her way.
“Come here, mouse,” she said softly. “I know you're there somewhere. I've got some cheese for you...”
She went into the kitchen, wondering what she would use to capture the mouse if she saw it. A pot would be ideal, especially since she had promised Turnbull to try not to kill it.
Meg turned towards the cupboards, intent on finding something Turnbull wouldn't mind losing. As she did, she saw something out of the corner of her eye. It looked like someone standing in the kitchen doorway. Puzzled, she turned, and her whole world exploded into pain.
Then, there was only darkness.
“Frannie!” Ray yelled, looking up and suddenly remembering it was her day off. “Damn.”
“Something wrong, Ray?” Fraser glanced up from Huey and Dewey's interview notes.
“No, I was just going to get her to call and see if they'd gotten to the glove yet.”
“I'm sure they'll call.”
He slumped. “You're probably right. Maybe we should get some lunch while we're waitin'.”
“That's a good idea. I would like to stop at the Consulate to get my jacket on the way. I believe it is going to rain.”
“Snow, with our luck,” Ray replied, getting up and putting on his own jacket. “Comin', Dief?”
The wolf had been lying on the floor with his head on his paws, but when he saw Ray's lips move, he perked up.
“Of course, he's coming. We're going to eat. God forbid he should miss a meal,” Fraser said in that slightly sarcastic tone Ray had only heard him use with Dief and Ray himself.
As they went out the doors, Ray stopped and looked at his friend. “Fraser?”
“Did you talk with Inspector Thatcher yesterday?”
“I talk with Inspector Thatcher every day.”
“Uh...yeah, I know, but I mean did you talk to her about the case?”
Fraser looked puzzled for a moment before understanding lit his face. His gaze dropped quickly.
“Oh,” was all he said.
Ray breathed a sigh of relief. He hadn't known if Thacher would be able to go through with it, and he hated keeping things from Fraser.
“They're really not that bad.”
“You've seen them?” Fraser's face was unreadable, and his voice was carefully even.
“Yeah. Sure. It was bound to happen. They were in the vic's stuff. She was naked, and in most of them you could see everything, but they weren't, you know...” He waved his hand.
A pained expression went over Fraser's features. “Can we please not discuss this, Ray?”
Out of respect for Fraser and Thatcher's odd relationship, Ray said, “Sure. No problem. I just wanted to make sure I could tell you everything. It's hard to pick your brain if I don't.”
“It appears as if Laurent's wife had the most to gain.”
“Yeah. I think so too.”
“The stabbing was done in a fit of rage. I don't think it was premeditated, Ray.”
“Do you think the victim's cheating could have finally driven her over the edge?”
“Somethin' must have caused her to fall over...if it was her, I mean. There must have been some event.”
“There are still the other women as well.”
“One of them was in the will, but she didn't make it to the reading. Huey said she was pretty upset by the whole thing. That was Sally Morris.”
“Murdering Laurent could have upset her.”
“And the other suspect?”
“He was sleeping with both her and her girlfriend.” Fraser stumbled a little at that. Ray smiled, but only on the inside, at being able to rattle him. “The girlfriend alibied out; she was at work.”
“This was Julie Osburne?”
“It didn't say anything about that in the interview notes.”
“I called her earlier, when you were in the can.”
“And you didn't tell me, Ray?”
“Not on purpose. I got called into Welsh's office, remember? Then, I forgot you didn't know.”
“How did she sound?”
“Angry. She said she wanted to kill him but she didn't do it. I thought we could go see her after we find out about the glove thing.”
“I have them once in awhile.”
The Inspector had asked them to give her about an hour to finish some paperwork before meeting her at the Consulate. Annette hadn't looked pleased that Meg was going to work, but she agreed.
The weather was chilly but Frannie felt cheery as she and Annette trudged down the sidewalk. Annette chatted easily, and Frannie wished she had a French accent herself. She bet Fraser would listen to her then.
When they got close to the Consulate, Annette trailed off mid-sentence.
“What is it?” Frannie asked.
Annette waved awkwardly towards the building, her hands full of bags. Frannie looked and saw that the door was slightly open. Her heart beat a little faster, and her stomach dropped.
“Meg wouldn't leave the door open, would she?”
“No, she wouldn't.”
The two of them hurried up the walk and up the steps. Annette pushed to door the rest of the way open, and Frannie followed her inside.
The Consulate was cold and quiet. Its lifeless rooms gave off a dark, foreboding vibe, and Frannie found her hands clasping her bags just a little bit tighter.
“Meg?” Annette called. “Meg, are you here?”
Silence was her only answer.
“Maybe she just fell asleep in her office,” Frannie offered hopefully.
Annette dropped her bags by Turnbull's desk, and Frannie followed suit. She noticed that Meg's coat and scarf were there, waiting for the Inspector to put them back on.
“She's got to be here. Maybe she fell.”
Annette nodded. “You check out here. I'll go to the back. Call if you find her.”
She said this with some reluctance. The skin at the back of her neck was beginning to prickle, and a tingle of nervousness had started in her belly. She really didn't want to start opening and closing the silent Consulate doors. They gave the same impression the Inspector did. Stern. Aloof. Untouchable. With Meg, the impression was partly false. Frannie hoped the same would be true for the doors.
As Annette went towards the back of the Consulate, Frannie went up to the first door and opened it. It led to a small room that held a desk and a movable stand with a TV and VCR on it.
“Meg?” Frannie asked timidly.
There was no answer. Frannie was going to leave when she noticed an open door at the other end of the room. She went over to investigate but found only a small--but sparkling clean--bathroom.
As she moved from room to room, she wondered if Meg had managed to catch Turnbull's mouse. With the fear that was starting to nip at her, seeing a mouse would probably wrench a very embarrassing scream from her tight throat.
The boardroom was as empty as the small office had been. The next room she had to check was Meg's own office, and she was reluctant to open the door.
She had been in there once before, she remembered, bringing Meg papers from Welsh to sign. It looked almost the same as it had in her memory. Classy with Northern sculptures and fancy paintings. There was also a homey touch, one Frannie hadn't appreciated the last time she was there. Maybe because she hadn't really known Meg then.
Frannie didn't like violating Meg's privacy. She felt uncomfortable as she went further into the room. It was pretty obvious that the Inspector wasn't there, unless she had fallen behind her large desk. Frannie kept going just in case that was what happened.
As she neared the desk, Frannie saw a piece of paper sitting there among personal pictures and an expensive stationary set. She glanced down at it involuntarily when she leaned forward to look behind the desk.
The air rushed out of her lungs and her chest hurt as she choked. Coughing violently, she almost collapsed against the desk. Her thoughts scattered like shattered glass as the words, “...I will be dead,” pounded themselves into her mind.
Getting control of her coughing, she gasped a lungful of air.
“No,” she whispered as the breath came back out.
With trembling fingers, she picked up the piece of paper. The words were typed so neatly. The characters were cold and emotionless, so matter-of-fact compared to the personal, handwritten “Margaret Thatcher” underneath.
When Frannie finally trusted her voice to speak above a whisper, she yelled, “Annette!”
She wondered if her fear was in her voice. Frannie didn't have to wonder long because Annette appeared seconds later. She was flushed and out of breath, and Frannie's fear was reflected in her eyes.
“Did you find her?”
Frannie just shook her head and held out the note. Annette frowned and came forward to carefully take the paper from Frannie's shaking hand.
“What is it?”
Annette's eyes quickly scanned the letter. Frannie saw emotions flicker over the other woman's face as she read it not once but at least three times. When she was done, she looked up, and her eyes met Frannie's.
“Meg didn't write this note.”
“What do you mean?”
“Look at the signature.”
Frannie looked but didn't see anything wrong with it. “You'll have to spell it out for me.”
“It's signed 'Margaret Thatcher'.”
“Isn't that her name?”
Annette shook her head impatiently. “You don't understand. Meg only signs her name that way on official documents. She doesn't like being called 'Margaret', and she never refers to herself that way. It's always 'Meg'. Always.”
“Are you sure?”
“Her mother's name was Margaret. She died when Meg was small.”
“Do you think someone's going to hurt her?”
“What else could this mean? We've got to call the police.”
“Will they believe us? That Meg didn't write the note?”
“You would know better than I. About this Detective Vecchio addressed here...”
“Your brother? The one leading the investigation?”
“Do you think he will listen to me?”
“I don't know.”
Annette leaned against Meg's desk and gently pinched her bottom lip. “We have to do something. If your brother goes on the assumption that Meg wants to kill herself, he might not find her on time.”
“Who did this, do you think?”
The sound of the Consulate door opening reached them, and Frannie shared a look with Annette. She had a split second of fear before she heard a familiar voice say, “Do you feel like Wendy's or McDonald's?”
Frannie put a hand on Annette's arm. “Ray.”
“Is somethin' wrong, Fraser?” The voice came again.
It was answered with, “The door was unlocked.”
“We're in here, Frase,” Frannie called to them.
Fraser came into the room, followed closely by Ray.
“Francesca? What are you doing here?” He looked curiously at Annette. “Is Inspector Thatcher here?”
Frannie felt the panic clawing at her throat. “No. She's gone.”
“Gone?” Ray asked, coming forward. “Gone as in not here or gone as in gone?”
Annette held out the note. “We found this on her desk.”
Ray took the note, and Frannie saw his face change as he read it. He paled and frowned, his eyes widening.
“When did you find this?” His voice sounded harsh and angry.
“What is it, Ray?” Fraser asked.
Ray thrust the note at him, but his eyes didn't leave Annette's.
Frannie told him, “Just a few minutes ago.”
Annette added, “She didn't write that note.”
“This is her signature,” Fraser said quietly. His face had gone as white as Ray's.
“It was forged. It had to be. She would never sign a note as 'Margaret', and read the words. Do they sound like Meg to you? Her writing style is nothing like this.”
Ray's eyes narrowed. “Who are you, anyway?”
“She's Meg's friend, Annette,” Frannie told him impatiently.
Some of his intensity gave way to surprise. “Meg? Since when are you on a first name basis with the Inspector?”
“Since none of your business. Are we just going to stand here talking until whoever has her kills her? We've got to find her.”
“Francesca's right, Ray,” Fraser put in, his normally controlled voice just slightly shaky. “Whether she wrote the letter or not, we've got to stop this.”
“She didn't,” Annette insisted, crossing her arms.
“I don't think she did either,” Ray admitted. “Offing herself isn't Thatcher's style. I know she didn't kill Laurent. I'd feel it in my gut if she did.”
“I concur, and Annette...May I call you Annette?” She nodded sharply. “...Annette was correct when expostulating that the note sounds nothing like Inspector Thatcher.”
“So, what are we going to do?” Frannie demanded.
“You and Annette are going home,” Ray told her. “This is too dangerous for you to be poking around in. Me and Fraser are gonna find the Inspector. Alive.”
“How? How are you going to do that, Ray? We don't even know who has her.”
“It was probably whoever killed André,” Annette suggested.
“We're gonna find her,” Ray repeated, carefully not looking at Fraser.
Frannie frowned, terrified she was going to lose someone who seemed, against all odds, to be turning into a good friend. “I know you will, but will you find her in time?”
Chapter 17 and Chapter 18 were posted quite close together. I just wanted to warn you again so you won't accidentally skip a chapter.
Her head hurt.
It pounded and thumped and felt like it was being impaled with spikes. It hurt even worse than the hangover had just a couple of days before.
This was Meg's first realization as she slowly came to. The second was that she was sitting in an uncomfortable chair, and its rungs were digging into her back. When she tried to adjust herself, she found she couldn't move. Both her hands and her ankles were tied to the chair.
The shock of this cleared the rest of her fog, though her head continued to ache, and she blinked open gummy eyes.
Quietly, Meg took in the familiar room around her. It looked a little different than it had the last time she was there. The filing cabinets were gone, and both tables were empty. Still, the half finished paintings and the line full of photographs were enough to tell her where she was. Paint spattered a tarp on the floor and there was a bottle of soaking brushes sitting carelessly in the corner as if waiting for André to return.
What was she doing in André's studio? How had she gotten there?
The last thing she remembered with any clarity was going into the Consulate's kitchen to trap a mouse that had been terrorizing Turnbull. The mouse certainly hadn't knocked her out and dragged her here, but she had no idea who had.
She was alone in the room. Well, she was alone if she didn't count André's memory. Meg could see him here, his face flushed as he worked on one of his paintings. He would get this expression—Meg had no idea how to describe it. Passion was the closest she could come, but that wasn't it, exactly. It was so intense and focused, as if his painting and the model posing for him were the only things in his universe. She had loved that about him, but it was ultimately what had brought her the most pain.
“Are you almost done yet? Can I look?” Meg asked eagerly from where she was perched in André's large, comfortable chair.
She sat with her cheek cradled in her palm, leaning on the chair's arm. Anne McCaffrey's Restoree dangled from her other hand, but she hadn't really been reading it. Instead, she had been watching André paint.
This was a new thing for her, sitting around for hours at a time without a stitch of clothes on. Her father would be scandalized, but Meg found it rather freeing. Besides, she liked the way that André looked at her when he was painting her. It was then that she really knew how much he loved her.
“Patience, Meg,” he said after a long enough pause that she wasn't even sure he had heard her. “I'm far from done, and I don't want you to look until I have a finished product. It takes time to make something special.”
She flushed in pleasure. “Do you think this painting will be special?”
“How can it not be?” He smiled one of his rare smiles. “It's of you.”
Meg melted inside at his words. No one had ever loved her before or thought she was special.
“Are you sure you don't want me reading the book? Why am I holding it at all?”
“Because you were reading the moment I knew I had to paint you. You and books go together. Innocent sweetness and knowledge...”
She laughed. “I've never heard myself referred to as sweet.”
“But you are sweet. Sweet and kind, underneath, where no one can see.”
Meg shivered, feeling as if he were studying her soul instead of her body. She pressed, “But if I'm holding the book, why am I not reading it?”
“Do you trust me?”
“Of course I do.”
How could he even ask her that after what she was doing for him? Did he think she'd take her clothes off like this for just anyone?
“Then believe that I know what I'm doing. I want to capture the expression on your face when you watch me paint. It's so unguarded and beautiful. I want people to see you the way I see you.”
“I wish I could paint you,” she sighed, shifting slightly.
“Why don't you try?”
“Me?” Her eyes widened. “You think I should try to paint?”
“Why not? You won't know if you can if you don't try.”
Meg liked the idea, though she thought she might be too distracted to attempt it. She didn't know which made her smile more, the thought of trying to paint André or the thought of studying him naked while he was sitting still. André was always on the move, and it was hard for her to get him to just stop and take a breath unless he was painting or they were making love.
“I think I'd like that.”
“Then we'll try tomorrow. Think about how you want your painting to look...and while you're doing that, sit still. I want to work another half an hour, then we'll get something to eat.”
“Okay. Okay,” she agreed, settling back into her former position
It took awhile for the pain to recede enough for Meg to think clearly. Instead, her mind just kept jumping from picture to picture. She thought about the Consulate and Fraser and Turnbull. She thought about Annette and Frannie and how strong her friendship with one was and how fast her friendship with the other was growing. She even thought about Ray, and for some reason she relived the few minutes they had spent in the closet at the police station, and she could almost still smell his aftershave. Most of all, though, she thought about André.
When her head finally began to clear, she was able to start analyzing her predicament. Pushing everything else out of her mind, she started going through everything. That her abduction had something to do with André's murder was plain. Why else would she be tied up in his studio?
The more she thought about it, the more it became obvious that her kidnapper must have been Laura. She was the only person in Chicago, besides Annette, who knew both Meg and André. If that were the case, did that mean that Laura had killed André? And where did Meg fit into everything?
When the answers didn't come to her, she set the question of Laura's motives aside and focused on her escape. She'd have to at least attempt one at some point. She refused to be part of Laura's sick little game, whatever it was.
Meg's eyes scanned the room, but she didn't see anything that could be used to cut the ropes. The police had taken almost everything, and there were no drawers that could have been hiding a knife or a pair of scissors.
She was just starting to contemplate whether she could break a window with the side of her chair when she heard a key in the lock. Her stomach twisted and her blood ran cold as she remembered the hate she had seen in Laura's eyes at the reading of André's will.
Laura was wearing jeans and a t-shirt. It was odd how Meg's thoughts zoomed in on this unimportant detail. She supposed it was her mind's way of absorbing things and diluting her fear.
Meg didn't like being afraid. She felt anger mingle with the fear, anger at Laura and anger at herself. She hated being helpless almost as much as she hated being afraid. How dare Laura tie her to a chair so she couldn't defend herself?
As these frustrated thoughts raced through her mind, she noticed other things about the woman who had been her friend. For one, she wasn't wearing makeup. Meg could never remember seeing Laura without makeup before. Her hair was done up in a simple ponytail, making her face look at least ten years younger. Her eyes and face were swollen and puffy, and her expression showed hints of her distress. Her whole body gave off the impression of harmless innocence; the gun in her hand did not.
“Oh, you're awake,” she said in French.
Meg just stared at Laura as she came in and closed the door. She continued to stare as Laura seemed to look her over, an expression of satisfaction aging the features that had looked much too young.
“What? Have I rendered you speechless?” Laura continued, still in French, “Or have you forgotten how to speak my language?”
Meg glanced up at her, her eyes flashing. Also in French, she said, “Maybe I have nothing to say to you.”
“That's all right,” Laura told her, coming closer and putting the muzzle of her gun under Meg's chin. She moved it slowly along Meg's jawline, stopping when she reached the end of the jawbone. She pressed the gun harder there, pushing until it hurt. Meg refused to give any reaction at all. She put on her Inspector mask and set her teeth firmly, pretending not to hear as Laura continued, “I plan on doing most of the talking. For once, what I have to say will be heard.”
“A visit to my office wasn't good enough for you?” Meg asked sarcastically, unable to stop herself.
“You always thought you were so smart,” Laura snarled, “but you weren't were you? You couldn't even see what was going on under your own nose.”
Meg swallowed but continued to keep any trace of emotion from her face. She stared at a point somewhere over Laura's shoulder.
“You didn't know what we were doing when you were at work. We were laughing behind your back at what a silly little girl you were.”
“That was a long time ago,” Meg answered calmly.
“Not long enough,” Laura snapped, taking away the gun. “It will never be long enough.”
“Is that what this is about, why I'm here?”
“You're here to kill yourself.” Laura's voice was so even and matter-of-fact that it made Meg's skin prickle.
“Did you kill André, Laura?”
A blaze kindled in Laura's eyes at Meg's words. Her hand shot out and slapped Meg's face hard enough to make her ears ring. The headache that had dulled to a soft throb came back with a vengeance, slicing through her temples and making her see spots of white.
“You still love him, don't you?” Laura hissed. “After all this time, you love him. You slept with him, didn't you? That night you came over here. You slept with him just to get back at me, because you could. He still wanted you, and you let him have you.”
Laura's words came to Meg through throbbing pain. She blinked rapidly, trying to get it under control.
“Answer me. Tell me he made love to you in this room.”
“Then I'd be lying,” Meg said quietly, finding her voice.
“You were here. He called you. I know he did. And you couldn't resist him. You never could.”
“Believe what you will. You always did.”
“You were always so high and mighty, despite being just a runaway from Canada--a big country full of nothing. No history. No museums. No Art. An upstart girl from a nothing country who came to Paris and acted like she owned it. You were nothing, and you didn't even know it.”
“I knew it,” Meg said, remembering the girl who hid her insecurity with biting sarcasm. That girl wasn't a whole lot different than the woman Meg was now. She had just been younger and more willing to believe in happiness. “Even if I hadn't known it, you made sure to show me, didn't you? If your goal was to take everything from me, you nearly succeeded. I almost broke. But I didn't.”
“Shut up. Just shut up.”
Meg saw the slightly mad look in Laura's eyes and did as she ordered. She didn't want to force Laura over the edge. That could only end in Meg's own death.
Laura began pacing, the gun in her hand swaying with her movement. Meg watched her warily, wondering how the sweet, slightly wild girl she had once known had turned into this bitter, crazy woman.
“Carmichael had been trying to get him to come to Chicago for years, you know. André never really liked America. He thought it was ugly. You know what a romantic he was.”
She stopped pacing and leaned against a table, tapping the gun against her knee. Meg flinched inwardly at each tap, sure it would go off.
“I encouraged him to come. I should have known that American girls would be exciting to him.” Her face twisted into a sneer. “He's always liked them. It was bad enough that he began...painting...women when he got here. I was used to that. I had come to expect it. I mean André could no more stop taking pleasure from his models than he could stop painting. Yes, that was bad enough, but then he saw that article. I was there when he read it, you know. I saw the look on his face. After all these years, after all those nights with me, he still wanted you.”
She angrily thrust herself upright, stalking back over to Meg.
“Why?” she demanded. “What did he see in you? A shy, sarcastic bookworm who wouldn't know how to have fun if it came in a box with instructions.”
“Perhaps he wanted to undo the mistake he made,” Meg said, keeping her voice quietly calm.
For a moment, she thought Laura was going to slap her again. The hand came up, the fire flashed. Meg tensed in anticipation, but there was no blow.
“How could he be sorry for what he did to you when he did it to me over and over without remorse?”
“How do you know there was no remorse? Maybe that was the point.”
“You don't know anything,” Laura said sharply. “Nothing, do you hear me?”
Meg just stared silently into her eyes. Laura was the first to lower her gaze and turn away.
“He put you in his will the next day. A woman he hadn't seen in seventeen years. Do you know how many times I tried to get him to sell that painting? He wouldn't do it. He wouldn't. He didn't want to let go of that last piece of you.”
“Is that why you hate me, Laura? Because of the painting?”
Laura didn't answer this. Instead, she said, “I knew he was going to call you. He had to. It was his nature. When he wanted something, he had to have it. I figured you'd tell him to go to hell.” She leaned over Meg, putting her hand on the back of the chair, coming so close that their faces almost touched in a parody of intimacy. “Why didn't you tell him to go to hell?”
“He asked me to sign an updated permission slip, nothing more.” She thought a moment, then frowned. “Did you take the permission slips?”
“A killer needs a motive.” Laura straightened. “Besides, it was the easiest way to get your signature for your confession.”
“I didn't kill him. You did.”
Laura laughed harshly. “Why would I do that? Just because when I went to see him to talk about reconciliation, he told me he'd seen you? Just because I couldn't get the picture of the two of you together out of my mind? No, I don't think so. I think it was you, Meg. You killed André.”
“They'll never believe it. The police will know I didn't kill him. Detective Vecchio will...”
“Find the note you left for him on your desk and the glove you dropped in André's apartment the night you stabbed him.”
“Note? What note?”
“The note that you confessed your crime in and announced your intention to commit suicide because you couldn't live with the guilt.”
“What?” Meg asked, stunned.
“As I said, you've come to André's studio to kill yourself. André and his murderer will both be dead, and I'll finally be free.
Ray wouldn't really believe that Meg had written a note like that, would he? Surely, he had to know that she had been telling him the truth.
“Ray won't believe it,” she said firmly.
“Ray?” Laura asked, mocking Meg.
Meg lifted her chin proudly. “Yes, Ray. He knows me well enough to see through your lies.”
“If you believe that, you're a fool.”
She might just be, Meg agreed to herself, but she couldn't see either Ray or Fraser accepting the letter at face value. She wasn't the type to really believe in things other than herself, but for some reason, she believed in them.
Just three more chapters after this one. If there's anyone who has stuck with me throughout this, I wanted to say "thanks".
As Ray watched Frannie and Annette walk out of the Inspector's office, he felt something he had never expected to feel in his life—fear for the Ice Queen. He had meant it when he told the others he didn't believe Thatcher would kill herself.
“We should talk to Turnbull,” he heard himself saying as if from far away.
“He was the last to see her,” Fraser agreed. He and Ray had questioned Frannie and Annette for more information and discovered that the Inspector had been at the Consulate to chase a mouse for Turnbull.
“Maybe he heard somethin' or saw somethin'.”
“Maybe he did.”
Ray met Fraser's eyes and saw that, in spite of his serene expression, Fraser was as scared as he was. The Ice Queen was a pain in the ass, but she was their pain in the ass and the thought that she might already be dead was gnawing at both of them.
“We will find her, Ray,” Fraser assured him.
“Yeah.” Ray didn't like the uncertainty in his own voice. “Nobody's gonna believe she was taken, Fraser. With the evidence...”
“Yeah, but motive too. It's all too neat. They're gonna think we're looking for a killer not a victim.”
“Maybe there are fingerprints from the abductor on this note.”
“Maybe. Why don't you call Turnbull? I'm gonna look around for signs of a struggle.”
Fraser nodded and fished the Inspector's phone off of her desk. Ray watched him for a minute, remembering the last time he had been in her office. He let himself wonder if he'd ever see her again. The thought made him want to run out and do something, anything, to bring her home safe. The problem was, he didn't know where to go or what to do. He had to have a place to start.
Forcing himself into motion, he studied the space around the Inspector's desk. Nothing seemed out of place. It was as perfect as always. The only time he had ever seen any kind of mess in the room was when he had lived in the office—sleeping on the Inspector's couch—for a couple of days.
As Ray left the office to search the rest of the Consulate, he could hear Fraser talking sternly to Turnbull. Wondering what the other Mountie was saying to make Fraser's voice rise like that, Ray wandered over to Turnbull's desk.
It was as neat as the Inspector's office. There was nothing on the floor around it, not even a garbage can, and the top of the desk was almost as empty; all that sat there were Thatcher's long, black jacket and a gray scarf. They were proof to him, even though he didn't need it, that the Inspector hadn't gone crazy and ran off to kill herself. It was really cold out, and she wouldn't have gone anywhere without her jacket. Gently, he picked up her jacket and scarf. It had been a couple of hours since she'd taken them off, but they still smelled like her. Ray frowned. When had he come to know her scent?
Pushing this out of his mind, he went back into her office and hung her things on the coat rack. Fraser raised his eyebrows at him, so Ray just said, “They were out of place.”
Fraser accepted this, saying only, “Turnbull will be here momentarily.”
“Good. Good. I haven't checked the back yet.”
The two of them went to the back of the building together, checking every room. The last one they looked in was the kitchen. It looked normal to Ray, but Fraser stilled when he saw it.
“It's just...not right. The table is an inch to the left of where it should be. Turnbull always keeps it in the same place.”
“Maybe he moved it when the mouse was chasing him.”
“You don't understand, Ray. Turnbull gets very upset when it is moved. If he moved it, he would have moved it back.”
“An inch, Fraser?”
“Turnbull would know.”
All three of his Canadian friends were so weird that this didn't even surprise Ray. “Do you think the Ice Queen coulda moved it?”
“It's possible, but she knows how it upsets Turnbull. Maybe if she were purposefully trying to vex him...”
“But she was saving him from the mouse.”
“Exactly. He would have been upset already. She wouldn't have wanted to exacerbate the situation.”
“That's a little thin.”
“It's true nonetheless.”
Ray's phone rang then, and he fished it out of his pocket. He left Fraser examining the kitchen and flipped it open, barking, “Vecchio.”
“Something's come up on your case, Detective.” It was Welsh, who also had to work the weekend.
“Yeah, what's that?”
“Mrs. Laurent's maid just called us from her apartment. Apparently, she was cleaning Mrs. Laurent's bedroom and found something interesting under the bed.”
“Well, I think a pile of blood stained clothes is interesting. Don't you?”
“We're on our way.”
“This is a good idea. Get the clothes back here for testing so we know the woman didn't just have a bloody nose.”
“There's another problem.”
“What's that?” Welsh sounded even more unimpressed than usual.
“Inspector Thatcher is missing. We think she was kidnapped.”
“Yeah. We think it might have something to do with the case. I think someone was trying to frame her for Laurent's murder. They didn't know what they were doing, and it might have been an afterthought. If Mrs. Laurent killed her husband, maybe she snatched the Inspector.”
“Find Inspector Thatcher, Ray.”
“It might already be too late.” He hated to admit it, but it was the truth.
Fraser looked up, and his face tightened at Ray's words. Ray met his eyes squarely, letting Fraser see his fear.
“Do you have anything more than guesses?”
“Go to the maid. Get the clothes. If the two are related, maybe something will come out to help you find her.”
“Yeah, we're going now.”
They were halfway to Mrs. Laurent's apartment when they remembered Turnbull. Fraser quickly called him and asked him to go to the police station and talk to Detectives Huey and Dewey.
Ray listened absently, his sense of urgency pressing him onward.
Frannie turned in her seat to face Annette. Annette glanced at Frannie, her face full of worry. The two of them had left the Consulate, taking a cab to Frannie's house. By unspoken agreement, they knew they weren't going there to stay.
“I don't know,” Annette's accent was thicker with her anxiety, and she twisted her hands in her lap. “But we can't do nothing.”
“Yeah. Ray was nuts if he thought we'd go home like good little goats. There is someone out there we care about, and I'm not going to let her die.”
“So, what do you think? We can't just drive around the city and hope we find her.”
The two of them were in Frannie's car in the driveway of the Vecchio house. Their purchases were in the back, and the car was on, but they hadn't moved.
“Well,” Frannie said slowly, “Maybe we can think this out...The police have already been all over the dead guy's apartment....”
“His name was André,” Annette pointed out.
“Yeah, André. Anyway, they've been all over his apartment.”
“Yes, because he was murdered there.”
“So, where's the next best place to look for clues?”
“What are you thinking?”
“The kidnapper or murderer or whatever.”
Annette nodded to show she was listening.
“She's been trying to make it look like Meg did it. The murder.”
“If we don't know who she is, then, other than her place, where's the next best place to look for clues about who she is and what she's doing?”
“Oh.” Annette nodded. “A place both she and Meg would have been.”
“It's a long shot, Frannie.”
“But it's a place to start.”
“All right. Let's go find out where André's studio is.”
Meg took the opportunity to test her bonds. They were as tight as they were before and, even with her small hands, she couldn't slip them free.
Her eyes roamed the room again, hoping she had missed something that would help her get loose. The paintings mocked her. One woman smiled at her sweetly, as if she found Meg's predicament amusing. If she could have gotten free, her first act would have been to smash the smiling face right off of the painting.
Laura shifted on the table. It creaked, and that sound was the only one in the room. The silence frightened Meg more than Laura's words had. She could fight words. Meg had never had a problem finding words of her own. She knew them, and she knew how to use them well. She knew how to make them as sharp as a knife, cutting until the person she spoke to had no choice but to bleed. She knew how to make them soft and tender, so that the person she was with felt loved.
Silence couldn't be raged against. It couldn't be fought; it couldn't be conquered. When words were met with silence, they just faded and died.
“You're awfully quiet over there,” she said, using her words to try to dispel the silence. She deliberately spoke English, hoping it would force her captor to react. “Have you run out of things to say?”
Laura glanced at Meg, her eyes coming into focus. Also in English, she said, “Don't worry. I haven't changed my mind...This will end the way it was meant to.”
“By shooting me,” Meg's voice was flat.
“No, by you shooting yourself.”
“You know I'm not going to do that.”
“Well, there's no one else here. I'm just a figment of your imagination. You came to André's studio alone, with your own gun...”
“My gun?” Meg interrupted sharply.
Laura smiled, and it wasn't a nice smile. She picked up the gun and held it out so Meg could see it. For the first time, Meg took a really good look, and her stomach sank as she studied the stainless steel, sleek little gun.
“Where did you get that?” she demanded.
Her Smith & Wesson was kept in the Consulate. It stayed in her desk, unloaded—though the bullets were in the same drawer—because it was illegal for her to have it with her anywhere else in Chicago.
“I found it when I was leaving the note on your desk. It's a pretty little thing.”
The thought of a service weapon, one that was supposed to protect and defend, being used in a murder was almost worse to Meg than the fact that it was going to be used on her. People had been shot with her weapon before, when she was a field officer, and one of them had even died, but all of them were necessary. The shootings had been to protect the innocent. To use it in a murder perverted its purpose and made it just another machine made to kill.
“I would never use my weapon to kill myself,” Meg said calmly, after the wave of revulsion receded.
“The remorse has driven you to it. You're gunning yourself down as you would any other criminal,” Laura said these words almost cheerfully.
Meg could see the reasoning there, so she just swallowed and asked, “And how do you propose to remain a figment of my imagination?”
Laura shrugged. “It will be an easy thing to wipe off my prints and put the gun in your hand after you're dead. If I get the angle right, I'll just be a puff of smoke.”
Meg couldn't believe that. She trusted what she stood for too much. She always had. They had taken her out of the field and put her behind a desk as a reward, and they'd kept her there because she was damn good at it, but years of crushing numbness under the weight of paperwork and administration duties hadn't taken her belief in the system away. Meg was somewhat jaded, and was by no means an innocent, but somewhere deep inside her nothing had ever been able to extinguish the last tiny light of her faith.
“They will know.”
“That's just desperation talking. Besides, it won't matter to you either way. You'll be dead.”
Meg could argue with the rest of Laura's words, but she couldn't argue with that simple fact.
Frannie walked into the station like she belonged there. Nobody questioned her, they just smiled and nodded. Some of them even said, “Hi.” Frannie answered each in kind, though nerves fluttered in her belly.
Annette came in with her. The French woman looked around curiously, and Frannie hoped she wasn't being too obvious. If Welsh found out what the two of them were doing, Frannie would be in very big trouble.
It seemed to take forever to get upstairs. As Frannie fidgeted in the elevator, she wondered how Annette could remain so calm. Her best friend could be dead. She was going unauthorized into a police station to illegally look at records. She was in a strange country and only knew three people—one was kidnapped, one hated her, and the other was Frannie. Well, she knew four people, if you counted the corpse in the morgue.
As they got off the elevator, Frannie met Annette's eyes and saw all the emotion there that was absent from her face. Frannie kept her own face calm and serious, sure that if one of them cracked, they'd both be lost.
The station wasn't as crowded on the weekends as it was on a weekday. Most of the officers had it off, though more were on call than were on duty, and things were quiet.
Frannie went towards her desk, walking as naturally as possible. She knew Ray would have left the folders on André Laurent's murder there. He never filed anything.
She was about to sit down when Welsh came out of his office. He looked more haggard than usual, and he was carrying his red and white antacid bottle in his hand.
“Miss Vecchio?” he asked in surprise.
“Uh...hi, Lieutenant,” she said brightly.
“What are you doing here? It's your day off.”
Frannie searched her mind frantically. Annette shot her a look before going forward and holding out a hand.
“Hello, Lieutenant,” she said smoothly, “I was hoping to meet you. I'm Annette L'eau, and Frannie's told me a lot about you.”
His eyes widened before he reached out and engulfed her small hand in his. “Nice to meet you. What are you doing here?”
“I forgot something,” Frannie piped up. “Well, I think it's here. I couldn't find it home. I wanted to show Annette...she's visiting from France.”
“France?” Lt. Welsh sounded impressed, but he could have been faking it.
“Yes,” Annette smiled as he released her hand. “I'm enjoying your city. It's very different from Paris.”
Welsh returned the smile. It looked rather goofy on his face, and Frannie would have enjoyed it more if Meg weren't in danger. He stood there for a moment before seeming to remember he was going somewhere.
“It was nice to meet you,” he repeated before hurrying off.
Frannie breathed a sigh of relief. As soon as he was out of sight, she grabbed the top folder and flipped it open. Annette watched her, placing her body to block Frannie from anyone else in the room.
“Is it there?” she asked softly.
“Yeah, it's here.”
Frannie reached down and fished a pen out of her zebra print pencil holder. She wrote the address on her hand and gently put the folder back on her desk.
Frannie nodded, feeling like a secret agent. “Ready.”
The maid was hysterical.
She opened the door for Ray and Fraser and started babbling in Spanish. Her eyes were wide and wild, and all the color had leaked from her face.
It took them several minutes to calm her down. As the time ticked by, Ray found himself coming closer and closer to losing his patience. He grit his teeth so he wouldn't say anything he regretted and let Fraser do the talking.
When the woman finally stopped babbling, Fraser put a gentle hand on her shoulder and led her towards the living room.
“Can you tell us what happened?” Ray asked as the three of them sat on the huge, comfy couch that was starting to feel like a second home to him. As he waited for her answer, he remembered suddenly that the last time he had sat there it had been with Inspector Thatcher.
“I clean here every Saturday,” she said, a hint of hysteria and tears in her voice. “I hardly see Mrs. Laurent. She's usually gone when I get here, and I leave before she gets back. I have my own key.”
She fished in a pocket on her apron and produced it, showing it to them. Ray nodded. If Mrs. Laurent had forgotten about the maid, that would explain why she'd left bloody clothes where they could be found.
“Please go on,” Fraser said.
“I was cleaning in her room. It's always such a mess, I usually start there.”
“Today the living room was very untidy. There was an empty liquor bottle on the table and shredded paper on the floor.”
“Paper?” Ray asked. “Do you still have it?”
“Yes. I haven't taken the trash out yet. Why?”
“I need to see it.” His gut was telling him that the paper was important.
“But first, tell us about the clothes.”
She trembled a little as she continued, “When I finally got to the bedroom, I found them under the bed. They were all rolled into a ball and shoved there...I took them out to wash...”
She couldn't continue, so Fraser asked, “Where are they?”
The maid waved vaguely at a garbage bag near the fireplace. Fraser went over and opened it. He withdrew a pale blue dress. It was wrinkled and rumpled and there was a brownish-red hand print at the waist.
“Definitely blood.” Fraser put it back in the bag, and Ray turned back to the maid. “Can you show me the paper?”
The maid still didn't speak, but she nodded and scurried off into the kitchen area.
“It had to be her, Fraser. That has to be Laurent's blood.”
“I think it is, yes.”
“If she killed him, that means she has Thatcher, right?”
“It would give her motive.”
“So, where would she go? Where would she take her that would fit in with all this mess?”
The maid came hurrying back with a handful of tiny pieces of paper. She held them out to Ray. He selected one from her hand. There was a piece of typewritten word on it, “ermis”. Ray put it back and picked up another. It read, “display the”.
“Hey, Frase, I think I know what this is.”
He was sure when he saw another fragment that had blue pen instead of type. It said, “gare”, and the handwriting was familiar.
“I need a bag.” He held out a hand and Fraser put an evidence bag into it. While Ray was helping the maid put the paper in the bag, he continued, “These are the missing permission slips. Inspector Thatcher kept saying that she signed them, but I couldn't find them. Mrs. Laurent took them. I think that's how she managed to sign Thatcher's name to the suicide note.”
“Good thinking, Ray. We'd better get our evidence in for testing.”
“Yeah, and bring the maid in to make a statement.”
“Then, we have to find the Inspector.”
“Where would Mrs. Laurent take her?”
“I think I know. It's the only place that makes sense, given her unstable state of mind.”
“Where's that?” Then, suddenly, it was as if a light went on in Ray's brain. “Oh, I get it.”
Fraser was right. It was the only place that made sense.
“Maybe we should call Detectives Huey and Dewey to come pick up the evidence and the witness.”
“Good idea, Frase. Let's go find our Inspector.”
She screeched to a stop in front of the old, solemn building, wincing as she was thrown slightly forward. Quickly, she threw the car in park and snapped off her belt.
“How are we going to get in?” Annette asked reasonably.
Frannie reached into the pocket of her jeans and came out with a key. She flashed it at Annette, and the French woman's mouth fell open.
“Where'd you get that?”
Frannie slipped it back in and told her, “Don't ask.”
Annette searched her face before nodding. Frannie had a feeling that Annette would do anything, legal or otherwise, to save Meg.
“So, which floor is it on?” Annette asked as they entered the building.
Frannie looked at her right hand. Sweat had partially smeared the address she had written there, but she could still make out her round, loopy letters and numbers.
The building's elevator was more like a freight elevator, and they chose not to chance it. By the time they got to the fourth floor, Frannie was beginning to regret the decision. She was breathless and her legs were starting to ache.
They approached the door, trying to look as casual as possible, though the hallway was very quiet. It was so quiet, in fact, that when Frannie leaned forward to put her key in the lock, she heard voices. Startled, she glanced at Annette and saw the same surprise.
“That's just desperation talking,” a woman's voice said. She had an accent like Annette's as far as Frannie could tell. “Besides, it won't matter to you either way. You'll be dead.”
“That will make you happy, won't it?” Frannie stiffened as she recognized Meg's voice. “You won't have to think about either me or André again...at least that's what you believe. It won't be that simple, Laura. Murder never is.”
“It seems simple to me. You die, and I go on living. I win. You lose. You lose everything, both your life and your reputation. Everyone will know who you really are. They won't respect you anymore. They'll look at you the way that Annette and Stefan looked at me.”
“You don't have to do this. You don't have to kill again.”
“I didn't kill anyone, remember? It was you. It was always you.” The stranger's voice turned dark, and Frannie shivered. Helplessly, she looked at Annette. What do we do? What do we do? She thought the words several times, hoping that an answer would appear in her mind.
Very, very softly, Annette said, “She is my dearest friend.”
Frannie swallowed and nodded as she watched Annette reach for the doorknob. She knew she should call Ray. She knew it was dangerous and that the woman in there—the woman Meg had called Laura—probably had a weapon of some kind. Even so, Frannie couldn't let Annette or Meg face this alone. She just hoped she wouldn't be sitting in hell talking to her father when it was all over.
The door was unlocked. Annette turned the knob slowly and opened it. The hinges were silent, and the door slid open with almost no noise at all.
The first thing Frannie saw was Meg's face. It was very pale. Normally, the Inspector had remarkably fair skin, fairer than anyone Frannie had ever met—including Fraser—but this time it was even paler than normal.
Her eyes met Frannie's and sparked with surprise, but the rest of her features were entirely impassive.
A woman was standing in front of Meg. Her stance was threatening, and she had a gun in her hand. Frannie froze, unsure what to do. The woman was talking, seemingly immersed in her own speech. Any noise from either Frannie or Annette, and she might shoot one of them.
Annette's hand squeezed Frannie's arm to signal that she had seen the gun as well.
The smart thing for them to do would be to get out of there and go get Ray, but it didn't look like they had that kind of time. Meg's captor was waving around her gun and repeating over and over that Meg was going to die.
Frannie thought Meg looked a lot calmer than she would if she were the one tied to the chair. Then again, the Inspector knew how to hide her feelings a lot better than Frannie did.
Annette walked into the room first. The floor creaked and the woman with the gun spun. Frannie's first thought was that she knew the woman from somewhere. Her second was that it was from the sketch she had seen at Meg's house the night they had become friends—the sketch of the four teenagers.
Her third thought came to her as she heard Meg cry out, “Look out!”
The gun in the woman's hand came up, and Frannie dropped to the floor. Annette had frozen in place, and Frannie's fourth thought was that her new friend was going to be shot.
The gun never fired.
“What are you doing here?” the woman demanded sharply.
“Laura?” Annette said. Her voice sounded strange, almost garbled.
“Why are you here?” she repeated, her freckled face reddening. The gun shook as her hand trembled, and Frannie was afraid it would go off accidentally.
Annette said something in French that made Laura's flushed cheeks go so white that her freckles stood out like someone had painted them on. All of Laura's attention was on Annette, so Frannie slid forward a little, towards Meg.
“You have the nerve to ask me what I'm doing?” Laura choked out. “You were my best friend, and you turned your back on me like I was nothing. You lost the right to question me a long time ago.”
“So, you do know who I am. I wondered when you refused to acknowledge me the last time we met,” Annette replied.
Frannie slid forward a little more.
“Of course I know who you are. How could I forget the friend who betrayed me,” she waved the gun vaguely in Meg's direction. Frannie saw Meg flinch, “for her.”
“I think you've got that backwards.” The gun swung back around to point at Annette. As if she didn't even notice, Annette continued, “Any betrayal here was committed by you, Laura.”
“You don't know anything. You don't!”
Frannie swallowed. Annette should have been trying to calm Laura down, not upset her. She was grateful for the distraction, but it wouldn't do any good if Laura ended up shooting them all.
She inched forward again. Meg still seemed a long way away.
“Put the gun down,” Annette said, her voice reasonable. “You don't really want to shoot me, and you don't want to shoot Meg.”
Laura thought for a moment. She studied Annette, and then looked at Frannie. Frannie relaxed against the paint spackled tarp on the floor and pretended that she hadn't moved. The way Laura was staring at her almost had her convinced that Laura knew what she was up to. Frannie held her breath and waited for the shot.
It didn't come.
Laura's gaze moved back to Annette and she said, “I'm not going to shoot anyone. The two of you found Meg here in André's studio. You tried to stop her from killing herself, but you hadn't counted on her being so upset. You tried to reason with her, but she just became too angry. In a fit of rage, she killed the two of you and then turned the gun on herself.”
“Murdering the man she loved drove her crazy. She couldn't stand knowing that...”
“Do you hear yourself?” Annette interrupted.
“You know that's the way it's got to be, Annette. I don't even think I will mourn for you, not after the way you treated me. It's a shame Meg had to shoot...” She frowned. “Who are you, anyway?”
Her gun was on Frannie, so Frannie said, “Frannie. My name's Frannie Vecchio.”
“Vecchio?” Laura's eyes widened.
“Are you Detective Vecchio's wife?”
“What? No. Gross! He's my brother.” The words tumbled out.
“Your brother?” A nasty little smile came over Laura's face, and she glanced at Meg. The Inspector had been uncharacteristically quiet, but her eyes and face had turned stormy. “Do you think your precious Ray,” the name came out in a mocking tone that made Meg's eyes narrow, “will be so quick to believe in your innocence when you've killed his sister? Do you think he'll be able to see clearly enough through his grief to look for someone else?”
“I'm not going to kill anyone,” Meg said flatly, “and neither are you.”
“Shut up. You don't get to talk. This is my story.”
“Yes, it's your story. Just a story. Life doesn't always go the way you want it to. It's not a novel. No one has control over the words.”
“I thought I told you to stop talking. I hate the sound of your voice with its rough American accent and carefully chosen words.”
“You can silence me, if you like, but you know I'm right. In the end, the truth will come out, whether we are dead or alive.”
“Alive is good,” Frannie said without thinking. “Very, very good.”
“The only one leaving here alive is me,” Laura said coldly, “and that's because I'm not even here. Annette, close the door.” When Annette didn't move, Laura added, her voice getting even colder, “Shut the door right now or I will shoot Frannie in the head.”
She leveled the gun at Frannie, and Frannie's racing heart almost stopped as Laura's finger went for the trigger.
“D'accord,” Annette said suddenly. “I'm shutting the door.”
When the door was firmly shut, Laura continued, “Annette, as Meg's closest friend, will try to stop her first. The shot to her chest will be accidental, but it will cause...
“Why are you doing this?” Annette asked softly. “Is this whole crazy game about what happened seventeen years ago? We were different people then—you, me, Meg, André.”
“I can answer that.” Meg's voice was calm. “She killed André...”
“You! You killed André!”
Laura rounded on her. She crossed the few feet to Meg and lashed out with the hand holding the gun. It hit Meg's cheekbone with a dull thud. The blow was hard enough for Laura's diamond ring to slash a gash in the Inspector's face and for the gun to leave a harsh red imprint behind.
Annette lunged forward. Frannie had no idea what she expected to do against a woman with a gun. A crazy woman with a gun.
Annette had almost reached Laura when Laura turned. The surprise on her face was almost comical. Instinctively, she raised the gun. Frannie knew that this time her finger wouldn't stop when it went for the trigger.
“Annette!” The Inspector cried out, both pain and fear in her voice.
Frannie had only a split second to act. There was no way she could reach either Laura or Annette in time. Desperately, her mind grasped for anything that she could possibly do to stop what she knew was going to happen.
At the same instant, her hand grasped the tarp beneath her. Meg's chair wasn't on it, but both of the other women were. Praying to God that it would work and thanking André, the careless philanderer who might just, in this small, strange way, be the one responsible for catching his own killer and saving three women's lives, Frannie pulled. She pulled as hard as she could. She pulled as if her life depended on it because, of course, it did.
It seemed to take forever for the Duck Boys to arrive at Laura's apartment so they could take over the evidence and the witness. Ray was so impatient to get going that he kept shifting from foot to foot. In his mind, he kept seeing the Inspector dead. Mrs. Laurent had had her for hours, and that was plenty of time to off her, stage the suicide, and get away.
She wouldn't get very far. Ray swore to himself that if she had hurt the Inspector, he would personally hunt her down and make her pay.
When the Duck Boys finally arrived, Ray practically threw the evidence at them. He had to wait while Fraser introduced the maid and told the other two officers all that they had discovered. Ray didn't wait in front of the building. He waited in his car, with it running, tapping his fingers on the steering wheel.
He wondered why Fraser wasn't as scared and impatient as he was. After all, the Ice Queen was his boss. They acted weird around each other sometimes, which made Ray think that at one point they might have considered going beyond friendship. He had the feeling Fraser really cared about her, yet there he stood calmly talking while she was out there, fate unknown. Ray let the thoughts run rampant in his mind before telling himself he was being unfair. This was who Fraser was. Duty came first. Make sure you do everything right so you don't have to go back and fix it later. To Fraser, this probably played a big part in saving the Inspector because he'd be proving her innocent. Ray, on the other hand, would rather save her body first and worry about the rest later. What would anything matter to her if she were dead?
“She's not dead,” he mumbled. Then, he repeated it, trying to convince himself. “She's not dead.”
She couldn't be dead. He was just starting to realize she was a person—a person that he really wanted to get to know.
Ray didn't even wait for Fraser to close the door before he squealed away from the curb. The Mountie gripped the dash but for once didn't complain.
As Ray pulled up outside of Laurent's studio, he remembered the first time he had been there. The shock of discovering Thatcher's photos still lingered in the back of his mind. Even after discussing them with her, he found it hard to believe that anyone had gotten through her defenses enough to get her to pose that way. Of course, she had been so young then, and maybe she hadn't been quite so guarded. It still seemed strange to him, and the fact that she had been comfortable enough about them to allow Laurent to show them was a surprise.
He jumped out of the car as soon as he stopped, not even bothering to turn it off.
Fraser was already out of the car, and the two of them raced towards the building.
The sound of a gun firing seemed to tear through Ray. He stopped suddenly, his heart in his throat.
“That came from inside, Ray,” Fraser said unnecessarily.
Ray nodded and tensed to rush into the building. He was stopped by Fraser's hand on his arm.
“The car in front of yours, Ray.”
“What about it?” Ray glanced at it and felt all the color drain out of his face. “Is that...?”
“Yes, it is Francesca's car.”
“What's Frannie doin' here? I told her to go home!”
Whatever semblance of calm he'd managed to hold onto up to this point vanished. There were two women he cared about up there. Both of them could already be dead.
He broke away from Fraser and dashed into the building. The creaky old elevator was slow, so he took the stairs. He ran up them as if he were going for the Gold.
If they were dead, he would never forgive himself for being too late.
He could hear Fraser behind him but, for once, the Mountie couldn't pass him. Panic made Ray's feet fly.
At the fourth floor, he flung open the stairwell door and let it swing shut behind him. He didn't even worry about hitting Fraser.
The gun went off again just as he reached Laurent's studio door. He hauled out his own gun and turned the knob, pushing the door open with his shoulder.
As he stumbled into the room, his eyes tried to take in everything at once.
There was the Inspector's friend—Annette?--lying on the floor. Her eyes were closed and she was perfectly still. She had no wounds that Ray could see, and her chest was rising and falling.
Near her, tied to a chair, was the Inspector. She was very much alive, though one side of her face was swollen and starting to bruise darkly. There was a jagged cut across her cheek, and blood dripped from it. It didn't look deep or dangerous, but it must have hurt like hell. She didn't even seemed to see Ray come in. Her eyes were on the women fighting on the floor.
Ray's mouth fell open as he saw Frannie struggling with Mrs. Laurent. The gun lay harmlessly on the floor beside them.
His first coherent thought was that everyone was still alive. Even if Thatcher's friend was injured, she was still breathing and Thatcher herself, though bloodied and bruised, looked as if she wanted to get out of her chair and rip Mrs. Laurent off of Frannie...and maybe kick her in the head.
He shoved away his relief when he saw Mrs. Laurent reaching for the gun. Frannie was trying to stop her, and their struggles increased. Ray rushed over and kicked the gun out of the way before grabbing the small woman under the arms to try to haul her to her feet.
She fought like a hellcat. It was everything he could do to lock his arms around her ribs and hold on. She twisted and turned violently, scratching at him and trying to kick his legs with her heels.
“Fraser!” Ray said urgently as his friend came through the door.
It took both of them to finally subdue the writhing woman. Ray gritted out her Miranda rights as he held on her with one hand and reached for his cuffs with the other. Fraser was still holding her from the other side.
“It doesn't end like this,” she said angrily. “It can't end like this.”
Frannie was getting to her feet, wiping a hand across her bottom lip where it had been split in her struggle with Mrs. Laurent. She reached out and grabbed the gun. Her fingers held it gingerly, as if she were afraid that it would go off against her will.
Ray pushed Mrs. Laurent at Fraser. She made a strangled sound and suddenly ceased her movements. The strangled sound was followed by a ragged sob, and that one was followed by another. Fraser lowered her gently to the floor, where she sat and continued to sob.
“What happened?” Ray asked of Frannie as Fraser went over to kneel beside Annette. “And what the hell are you doin' here?”
“That's what I want to know,” the Inspector added. “How did you find me? “
Frannie opened her mouth to speak, but Ray's attention wasn't on her anymore. He went over to Inspector Thatcher and knelt beside her chair. The bruise on her cheek had already started to deepen and darken, but the cut that went with it had stopped bleeding. Ray studied her face carefully, not even sure what he was looking for.
“Certainly, Detective. Being kidnapped by crazed murderesses and threatened at gun point is all in a day's work for me. Now, could you untie me, please?”
He found himself smiling at her answer, and he didn't even know why. One thing was sure, the Inspector was one tough woman.
He started on the binding at her feet while Frannie told how she and Annette had thought there might be some clues to Meg's whereabouts at the studio. The ropes were tightly tied, and Ray had some trouble getting them undone.
“I'll just be a minute, Inspector,” he mumbled.
“When we got here, we found Laura holding a gun on Meg. She was ranting and raving about something, and then she was going to kill Annette.”
“Frannie pulled the tarp out from underneath them,” Meg supplied. “Annette blacked out when she hit the floor...Is she all right, Fraser?” Though she had sounded calm up until then, the worry was now plain in her voice.
“I can't really tell for sure, Inspector, but her breathing is even, and her body doesn't appear to be in any distress.”
The Inspector accepted this with a nod and continued, “The gun went off when Laura fell. Frannie tackled her and she dropped the gun. It went off again when it hit the floor.”
Since Ray was still working on her ropes, she gestured with her chin. He looked and saw a bullet hole in the chest of the naked torso painting.
“You all could have been killed.” Ray went around the back of the chair to work on Thatcher's hands. “What were you thinking, Frannie?”
“We were thinking Meg was running out of time. We thought maybe we'd find something to help you get to her. We weren't expecting Rambo Jane over there.”
Mrs. Laurent didn't much look like a Rambo anyone anymore. She was huddled in on herself and still crying. Her sobs had quieted, and they were mostly silent despite the tears streaming down her face.
“If she hadn't arrived, I'd probably be dead, Detective.”
The Inspector's matter-of-fact tone hit Ray like a blow. He didn't want to be reminded that he would have been too late; he didn't want to think about finding her lying in a pool of her own blood.
“She should have called me,” he said harshly, giving her ropes a rough yank.
He was immediately sorry when he heard her small gasp. Looking closer, he saw that her wrists were rubbed raw from the rough fiber.
“Sorry. Fraser, do you have a knife?”
It was a stupid question. Fraser always had a knife.
As the Mountie handed it to Ray, he asked, “Are you sure you're all right, ma'am?”
“I'm fine, Fraser, but we've got to get Annette to a doctor—not that I'm disregarding your informed but amateur diagnosis, of course.”
Inspector Thatcher's ropes were quickly cut through. Ray knew he hurt her while he was doing it, even though he tried to be careful, but she didn't complain.
When he was done, she sprang out of her chair, only to stumble when her body didn't cooperate fully. Ray reached out to steady her, just a light hand on her arm.
“Careful. You were in the same position for awhile. Take it slow for a minute.”
“Yes...thank you, Ray,” she said softly.
A brief flash of reaction went over her face, showing she wasn't quite as unaffected by the day's events as she seemed, before it smoothed into her professional mask again.
Wanting to to show support somehow but not wanting to smash himself against her boundaries, he squeezed her arm gently before releasing her.
“Any time, Inspector,” he replied just as quietly.
She studied his face thoughtfully for maybe a second before a soft smile barely touched the left corner of her mouth. Then, she turned away and asked, “Are we ready?”
Fraser reached down and scooped Annette up in his arms.
“You didn't tell me how you knew where I was,” the Inspector commented.
“It was the only place that made sense,” Ray said, going over to Mrs. Laurent and lifting her to her feet. “We knew the note was a fake, so as soon as we figured out who took you, we knew you couldn't be anywhere else.”
An expression that could only be satisfaction came to Thatcher's face. “I knew you wouldn't believe it. I told her so.”
“Well, your friend said you would never sign a personal note, “Margaret”, and it didn't sound like you at all.”
“It was a good note,” Laura said brokenly.
“You underestimated Ray's and Fraser's intelligence and overestimated your own,” Inspector Thatcher told her coldly. She turned her back to them and went to join Frannie.
Ray watched her for a minute, making sure she was really as okay as she looked. She seemed completely unaware of the lump on her forehead and the state of her face. Ray found himself admiring her ability to appear calmly in control at all times. He let himself wonder what she would be like if she lost that control. What would Meg Thatcher be like consumed by fear or pain or rage or lust? The thought intrigued him, but he was a little afraid to find out.
The others moved towards the door, so Ray put a hand on Mrs. Laurent's elbow. Thinking of all she had done, he had to force himself not to be a little rough.
His voice was gruff as he said, “C'mon. It's time to go.”
I posted chapters 21 and 22 at the same time, so be careful not to skip chapter 21. It's an important one.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Ray and Fraser took Laura to the station, and Frannie bundled Meg and Annette into her car and headed for the hospital. Annette woke up on the way and was almost her old self by the time they reached the building. She was a little miffed, however, that she had missed Frannie's epic battle. To make her feel better, Frannie recounted it in great detail.
Meg listened to the other women talk and tried to ignore the thumping in her head. She suddenly felt weak. Weak in body. Weak in spirit. Weak in soul. The day came back to her all at once, and she began to experience the emotion she had been holding back as inconvenient.
She put her head against the window and closed her eyes. The cool glass felt good against her skin.
Frannie pulled into a parking space just as she was describing Ray and Fraser's arrival. When the car stopped, she paused in her story to put a hand on Meg's shoulder. “Meg, we're here.”
“Okay,” she said wearily and forced her eyes open.
“You're going to see a doctor too, right?”
“Why? I'm perfectly fine.”
Frannie gave her a strange look.
“Fine, if you insist.”
“I think it would be a good idea.”
It was easier to agree at the moment, even though Meg doubted there was anything a doctor could do for her that she couldn't do herself. The day had been such a long one and, after the hospital cleared them, they were still expected to go to the station to give their statements. Meg just wanted to go home.
As Frannie herded them to the emergency room, Meg wondered what had happened to her gun. The last time she remembered seeing it, it was in Frannie's hands. It was her weapon and she was responsible for it. That it had almost been used to perform violent acts of rage bothered her more than a little. She wondered if she would get it back or if it would remain in some dusty Chicago PD evidence bin forever. It was her gun and, if she lost it, she would have to tell Ottawa everything.
She groaned as she dropped into one of the seats beside Annette.
“Are you okay?” Frannie asked anxiously. “Are you in pain?”
“I'm fine,” Meg told her. “Just tired.”
“It will probably be awhile before they can see us. Why don't you take a nap?”
She usually avoided showing weakness, but Meg just couldn't drudge up a reason to at the moment.
“You know,” she said, leaning back and closing her eyes. “I just might.”
Statements were usually taken at the detectives' desks, but she had requested privacy. She didn't know how many of the officers had seen her pictures, and she didn't want to feel naked any more than she had to. It was bad enough that she had to go through it with Ray.
Meg was relieved when he made the whole thing easy. She found him to be completely professional with her as a victim, which was something she hadn't quite expected. Her whole ordeal had shown her a different side of him, and it was one that she found very impressive.
“Is that all you wanted to say, Inspector?” he asked. “You didn't leave anything out?”
“No. Of course not.”
“Right. Okay, then. Read this over and sign it.”
He passed her the piece of paper he'd been scribbling on and a pen. Their fingers brushed, and the warmth that flooded through her at the touch came as a complete surprise. Somehow, she managed to keep her face bland so he wouldn't see her strange reaction.
She read the document carefully, aware that Ray was watching her. She wondered if he were waiting for her reaction to what he'd written or whether he was staring at the awful mess Laura had made of the left side of her face.
Meg read the statement over twice, making sure he hadn't missed anything. He hadn't.
As she signed it, she said quietly, “I wanted to thank you, Detective.”
She raised her eyes to meet his. “Everything. Thank you for believing me. Thank you for finding André's killer. Thank you for keeping my secret from Fraser until I was brave enough to tell him myself. You never let me down once during this whole affair. You were kind when you had no reason to be. Expressing gratitude doesn't come naturally to me, but it is needed in this case, so I want you to know I appreciate how you handled things. I won't forget.”
His face flushed a little. “You don't have to thank me. This is my job.”
“But you don't even like me,” she protested.
He frowned slightly. “Of course I like you.”
This was her second surprise in five minutes. “You do?”
Ray dropped his eyes. “Well, yeah.”
“I thought...you call me the Ice Queen.”
“You can be annoyed with people you like, can't you?” he asked reasonably.
He annoyed her constantly, but she had recently discovered that she liked him as well. “I suppose you can.”
He winked at her before standing up. “I appreciate you coming in. If it was me, I'd sleep the whole day away.”
“Yes, well, duty.”
“Duty isn't everything, Inspector.”
His words were so different from the ones Fraser would have said.
“Sometimes it is.” She got up and took her jacket off the back of her chair. “Thank you again, Detective.”
He nodded, asking, “Have you decided what you're going to do with the painting?”
Meg froze in the act of putting on her jacket. “I beg your pardon?”
“It's good. You should keep it.”
“Ray, I don't think we should be...
“I know,” he interrupted her, raising a hand, “but I just needed to say it. She was you, and you should keep her.”
Frannie hummed quietly to herself as she climbed the front steps of the little yellow house. Her hands were full of bags, and she was dressed in her most comfortable jeans and t-shirt. She still felt slightly crappy from overindulging at the New Year's Eve party the night before, but other than that she was in a good mood.
At the top of the steps, she rang the doorbell and waited. The bags were getting heavy, and she hoped that Meg wouldn't take too long opening the door.
When the door did open, she was surprised to see Meg standing there in a pair of blue silk pajamas. Meg's feet were bare, and her short hair was slightly untidy.
“Hey!” Frannie said, waving her bags. “Someone said you had a birthday. I brought cake.”
“You brought me cake?”
The look of surprise on her face was so unThatcher-like that Frannie had to grin. “It's not a birthday without cake.”
“And yet somehow I seem to get older every year anyway,” Meg commented sarcastically, moving out of the doorway so Frannie could come in.
“Funny. You do know that it's after two in the afternoon...and that you're in your Pjs.”
“Yes,” Meg admitted, taking one of the bags from Frannie. “I went out for New Year's Eve, and I didn't get back until late.”
Meg's face turned an interesting shade of pink. “You could say that.”
“Good for you! And Annette said you'd be moping.”
Her eyebrows rose. “You talked to Annette?”
Frannie waved her free hand. “All the time. She told me that you never celebrate your birthday unless you're forced to.”
“That's not exactly true.”
She headed towards the kitchen, so Frannie followed her. “So, tell me about this hot date.”
“There's not much to tell.”
Just before they reached the kitchen, Frannie heard a familiar voice. “Did I hear...Oh.”
She turned quickly, and her mouth dropped open when she saw Ray standing there in a pair of boxer shorts.
“Ray!” she squeaked.
He gave her a sheepish smile. “Hey, Frannie.”
“Meg?” she demanded.
Meg's expression turned bland as she answered, “The detective was just leaving.”
Ray's face fell. “Yeah.”
The bland expression softened and her voice was almost hesitant as she asked, “But he'll be back?”
Ray brightened and came over to kiss her cheek. A little smile played over her lips and she squeezed his hand briefly.
“Definitely,” he said. “I'll just go get dressed.”
“You can have some cake, if you want,” Frannie offered through her shock. “There's plenty. I made it myself.”
He looked hopefully at Meg, who shrugged. “It's up to you. It's not as if we have anything left to hide.”
“I wish Ray would hide more,” Frannie added. “Put on your pants.”
“Uh, yeah. Good plan.”
As he wandered off towards the bedroom, Frannie gently shoved Meg into the kitchen. “So, how long has this been going on?”
“It hasn't. Not really. I'm just as surprised as you are.”
Frannie put her bag on the counter and so did Meg. “I doubt it. Tell me everything.”
“Well,” Meg said almost shyly, “he asked me out for New Year's Eve. I was stunned, but I owed him for all he did for me a couple of months ago. We went and had a really good time, and it just sort of happened.”
“Happy birthday to you!”
Meg's eyes lit up, and she said an enthusiastic, “Indeed.”
“Did you know he's very sweet?” She turned and started unloading the bags.
“That's not what we were talking about. Unless you mean the taste of his skin.”
“Frannie!” Meg whirled around, but she didn't look angry. Her face was flaming, and she was smiling.
“You should have known I'd ask for details.”
Meg felt drained and rather sad as she entered her front door. It had been a long week, and the day's chore of seeing her best friend off hadn't made it any easier. It had been a mere hour since she'd said good-bye to Annette and she was already missing her friend's sunshiny smile and the way Annette made her do things for her own good. Sometimes at her lowest, it seemed as if Annette was the only one who cared whether she lived or died.
Meg frowned at the thought as she slowly took off her scarf, jacket, and new gloves. In spite of what happened, the ordeal had shown her that at least one other person cared about her. For some reason she couldn't fathom, Frannie had enthusiastically thrown herself into their new friendship. She seemed determined to make up for the two years they had spent letting a little bit of jealousy get between them. Meg had to admit that it was good to know that Frannie was a friend she could count on. There was no room for doubt on this point; after all, Frannie Vecchio had saved her life.
Fraser had been acting extra dutiful and conscientious in the few days since her kidnapping. He had cut back on his hours with Ray, and everything seemed to be done before she asked for it. She often caught him peering at her, as if searching for weakness or expecting her to keel over. She supposed this was indicative of a kind of caring as well.
Ray's behaviour was the one that surprised her the most. She almost missed their bickering; over the past four days, he hadn't said one unkind word to her. She was still working through the astonishing fact that he actually liked her.
A package that had arrived by courier right before she left caught Meg's eye, interrupting her thoughts. It was almost chest high and wrapped carefully in brown paper.
“Oh, hello,” she said softly. “What am I going to do with you?”
Carefully, she began taking the paper off. It ripped some, but she tried to undo the tape and keep the paper intact. For some reason, it was important to her to treat the package gently. It felt almost as if treating it roughly would hurt the girl frozen in time inside it.
The blank brown paper was slowly replaced by the smiling face of a girl with a green Anne McCaffrey book in her hands. The cover wasn't visible because of the way the girl was holding it, but every detail of the painting was clear in Meg's mind. She'd never forget the book or the feeling of that chair—soft but just a little rough against her tender skin—or the way André smiled at her.
Meg was surprised that the memory didn't bring her any pain. Usually, it was bittersweet, and the memory of what followed overshadowed the memory of joy.
But there had been joy.
It was there in the girl's face, as fresh as it had been almost twenty years ago. Meg ached for her innocence and longed to feel joy like that again. It had been such a rare thing in her life that it was almost a sin to lock the memory of it away.
Meg reached forward and brushed the face of the girl she used to be. She felt herself smiling as she remembered the feeling of freedom being on her own had given her and the sense of pride she had felt when André told her she was beautiful and he just had to paint her. No one had ever told her she was beautiful before, and she had only heard it less than a handful of times since. No one could say it like André could, and he was the only one she was able to believe.
In that moment, she knew that she would be taking Ray's advice. “Meg Reading” wasn't going anywhere but in her bedroom on the wall. The painting was her at her most vulnerable but it was also her at her most confident. Sometimes when the world and her job locked her behind a wall too thick to break through she needed to believe in the things in that young woman's face.
As she brought the painting into her room and went looking for wall hanging supplies, she realized that she was grateful to André. After all that had happened and after all the pain that he had caused, there was still a part of her that was better because she had known him, and his last gift to her had been the best gift anyone had ever given her. He had forced her to remember who she really was; he had given her herself.
Meg was so deep in thought that she almost dropped the hammer when the phone rang. She set it down softly and quickly answered.
“Yes.” The voice sounded slightly familiar. “Who's this?”
“It's Ray.” There was an expectant pause.
“Detective? Is there a problem?” She sat on her couch, bracing herself for bad news.
“No, no, nothin' like that,” he assured her. “I'm just callin' to see if you're okay.”
“Why wouldn't I be?”
“I know Annette went home today, and...”
Oh. He wanted to know if she was afraid to be alone. It was another kind gesture on his part, and she wondered why she had never noticed this side of him before. Too caught up in being the perfect, unflappable Inspector, she supposed.
“I'm fine,” she stated calmly. It sounded cold, so she added, “Thank you.”
“No problem. Call me if you need somethin'...or Frannie...or Fraser.”
“I will. Thank you again.”
“Welcome.” He sounded embarrassed.
“They released André's things today,” she commented, changing the subject.
“Yeah. Frannie's all excited 'cause they're doin' the show and her class is goin'.” His tone turned teasing as he added, “I might go see it myself. There's this one group of pictures...”
“Very funny, Detective,” she said dryly.
“But I did want to tell you something.”
“What's that?” He reacted to her serious tone by becoming completely serious himself.
“I think you're right. She's a big part of me. I'm going to keep her.”
Meg smiled at the way he said this. “I'm hanging her in my bedroom. I think she'll be happy there.”
“If she's not, you can always give her to me. I'm sure I could find a place for her here.”
She rolled her eyes, even though he couldn't see it. “If there's nothing else...”
“You're sure you're okay?”
“Yes, I'm sure.”
“Okay. I'll see you tomorrow.”
“Until tomorrow, Detective.”
Feeling strangely cheered and cared for, Meg picked up her hammer and headed back towards the bedroom. As she entered, she imagined André sitting there on the bed watching her.
“Thank you for the gift,” she told him. “I have forgiven you. I've found my peace. I hope that you'll be able to find yours.”
Well, here we are, at the end of the story. I hope that you've enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.