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Reluctant Partners

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She had hold of Christina’s hand, and then Christina was gone.  A moment’s distraction as Nate’s daughter, Adelaide, asked permission to join her friends, Nate looking at her helplessly and shrugging, and Christina had slipped away.  Nate had run to the visitor’s center to alert the fairground’s security force, and she had started retracing their steps, the dairy hall, the merry-go-round, the barn.  That was Christina’s favorite place, especially the area where the lambs and baby goats, all the barnyard young, were available for petting and pictures.  Helena looked down at her phone, no text within the last few minutes; the most recent one from Nate had informed her that security was on the lookout for a five-year-old girl, long dark hair, dressed in pink shorts, sandals, and a pink-and-yellow flowered top.

Helena pushed her way through the people filling the fair’s midway, which was wider than many city streets.  She almost hadn’t come today, anticipating the crowds.  It was the last day of the fair and the hottest.  She felt guilty for blotting the sweat beading on her neck and forehead.  Her daughter was missing and she was thinking about how sweaty she was.  Helena crushed the damp napkin in her hand before throwing it into one of the trash receptacles that were placed every 20 feet, or so it seemed.  She was fighting against the flow of the crowds.  It was late in the afternoon, and tomorrow was a workday.  Everyone looked tired and sunburned, even babies in strollers were red-faced and crying.  A dark head, a flash of pink, and she would spin around, sometimes crying out “Christina!” before realizing that the little girl looked nothing like her daughter.  Ahead of her she could see the rounded rooftop of the barn, the size and color of one you would see on a farm, not some fair-sized replica.  Earlier this afternoon she had appreciated that touch of reality, a gesture toward the origin of state fairs among the cotton candy and carnival rides.  Now she could think only of how big it was, and how long it would take to search when her daughter might be on the other side of the fairgrounds.

The crowds parted, and to her left several feet away, a little girl in pink shorts and a pink-and-yellow top was swinging the hand of a woman walking beside her.  Her face was turned up to the woman, and she was smiling.  Helena could make out a dark ring around her mouth and she was holding a half-eaten cookie.  “Christina.”  Her daughter didn’t hear her, the people around her didn’t hear her either.  Her throat had been so tight that she had barely been able to croak her name.  “Christina!”  Helena shouted and began shouldering aside parents and teenagers, couples and senior citizens.  “Christina!”

The woman walking with Christina stopped and scanned the people who were shuffling and moving strollers from Helena’s path.  The woman raised her arm and waved it, shouting “Over here!” and Christina dropped her cookie, jumping up and down, yelling “Mommy!  Mommy!”  Stumbling as she left the concrete of the midway for the flattened grass and patches of bare earth on the margin, Helena scooped Christina up in her arms, burying her nose in the crook of her daughter’s neck, inhaling the smells of chocolate and sun-warmed skin and baby shampoo.  It was all the air she needed to breathe.  Christina giggled.  “You’re tickling me, Mommy,” she said and wriggled to be put down.

Helena released her but firmly held onto her hand.  The other woman was talking, her voice calm and unhurried.  “She was at our stand, asking if she had enough money to buy her mommy a cookie.  She was about 50 cents short.”  Amused, she added, “We were doing a pretty good business, so I thought we could weather the loss.”

Unsure if she could keep her voice steady, Helena said, “Thank you.  I turned around for just a moment and then she was . . . she was . . . .”  She faltered and drew a deep breath.  “She was gone, and I was frantic.”

The woman nodded.  “She’s safe, possibly on a chocolate overdrive, but safe.”  The gentle smile turned teasing.  “Just in case you decide you have to report me to the police, you better have my name.”  She offered her hand.  “Myka Bering.”

Helena recognized that Myka was striving to lighten the moment, and she joined in with relief, shaking Myka’s hand firmly.  “Helena Wells, in case you decide to report me to child protective services.”

Christina turned the sunniest of faces up at them, pleased that she was able to introduce her mother to her new best friend.  Helena knew she would have to have yet another talk with her about running off to investigate whatever caught her interest or, this time, running off to carry out whatever idea had crossed her mind, but not right now.  Right now she needed to – Nate.  She needed to call Nate.  She took her phone from the outer pocket of her handbag as Myka was suggesting that they follow her back to a . . . shack? 

“Go on,” Myka was saying, “make your call and have your friends or family join us at the Cookie Shack.  The shade’s almost as good as the cookies.  And it’s free.”  The voice was still easy, still warm, and the playful smile, which disarmingly crooked her lips, seemed to have increased its wattage.  “Heck, we’ll throw in the cookies for free, too.”

For the first time since she had seen Christina at Myka’s side, Helena truly looked at the woman who had rescued her daughter.  A baseball cap sat lightly on wavy brown hair gathered into a ponytail.  Her features matched the warm, unhurried quality of her voice, inviting Helena’s gaze to linger on curious hazel eyes and a firm chin softened by a mouth that had already demonstrated its willingness to curve into a smile.  Her jeans and polo shirt, which Helena noticed only now had “Cookie Shack” embroidered on the breast, looked smothering but Myka looked cool.  By contrast, Helena felt there wasn’t an inch of her sundress that wasn’t plastered to her skin.  She tried to console herself with the thought that she was a frazzled mother – panic and a heat index near 100 were the ingredients for a perfect sweat storm – but it didn’t feel very consoling next to Myka’s unblemished composure.

She called Nate on the way to the Cookie Shack, Christina having deserted her to dance around Myka’s leggy strides and list everything she had seen at the fair.  She mentioned ponies (miniature horses, Helena silently amended) several times, but at each “I saw ponies,” Myka would exclaim with the same note of wonder, “Wow, ponies, really?” or “That must’ve been exciting” and Christina would giggle and enthusiastically nod her head.  When they arrived at the stand, a brightly colored structure with plates of cookies and glasses of milk painted on its walls, people were standing three and four deep at the counter and the picnic tables nearby were already claimed.  Myka didn’t break stride, leading Helena and Christina toward a picnic table invitingly placed under a shade tree.  A man in cargo shorts and a faded tee was sitting on the table top, hunched over a paper plate full of cookies.  His cheeks bulging, he waved at Myka, motioning her over.  “Hey, did you find her?” His question came out in a spray of cookie crumbs.  Christina peeked around Myka’s legs and then ran back to her mother, theatrically shrieking in alarm.  “I guess you did.  Welcome back, little girl lost.”  His gaze traveled past Christina to Helena.  He straightened and leaped from the table, brushing crumbs from his shirt.  With a flourish of his napkin, he swept the bench with more gallantry than efficiency.  “Right this way, milady.  Pete Lattimer at your service.”

“It’s hard enough stomaching the heat without a display of the so-called Lattimer charm,” Myka growled, perching on the end of the bench and inviting Helena and Christina to join her.  “We want customers to enjoy their cookies, not throw them up.”

Clearly not her boyfriend, Helena thought, as she sat down and settled Christina next to her.  She wasn’t sure why it mattered, what Pete was to Myka, but he seemed too boyishly clumsy, too boyish for her period, the design on his tee a peeling screen print of Spiderman swinging between skyscrapers.  But their affection for each other was also clear, Myka’s gibe as fondly mocking as one that Helena would lob at her brother.

“Just because you’re, you know, imper - . . . um . . . impre- . . . immune, immune,” Pete landed on the word with relief, “to the magic doesn’t mean she is.”  He scowled at Myka and then at his tee, sadly fingering a mustard stain just above Spiderman’s head.  He extended the hand to Helena to shake.  “Women, they want to keep the magic to themselves, but it can’t be contained.”  He wagged his head dolefully.  “You know I’m Pete, but you are?”

The shirt might have been designed for a ten-year-old boy and Pete’s flirting bordered on the clownish, but the appraising look he gave her as they shook hands was sharp and surprisingly serious.  He might act the frat boy but an adult was at the controls.  Helena’s estimation of him rose, but she still wouldn’t put him with Myka.  Nor was she on the market for his particular brand of magic.  "Helena,” she said, and as Christina burrowed into her, she responded by holding her tighter, “and Christina.”

“We’re having a celebration now that the lost have been found,” Myka said, grinning up at Pete.  “Cookies and lemonade for everyone.  Or iced tea or water or whatever people want to drink instead.”  Her expression turned wry.  “Unfortunately the menu is pretty much limited to cookies.”

Helena tipped her daughter’s chin up, inspecting the smears of melted chocolate around her mouth.  “I think Christina may have already had more than her share.”  She opened her handbag, took out a Wet Wipe, and despite Christina’s efforts to bat it away, began to scrub at the chocolate.  “How many cookies did you have?”  While Helena critically evaluated her work, Christina unfolded three fingers and firmly said, “Two.”

“But you held three fingers up,” Helena pointed out.

“I like her math,” Pete said.  “It’s a lot like we see from guys with a whole lot of letters after their names.”

A cynical flicker of her eyelids was Myka’s only comment.  She turned her attention back to Helena’s hasty clean-up of Christina, which included a thorough wiping of her daughter’s hands.  “I gave her one cookie, but I can’t answer for how many my mother might have sneaked her.”

Clean fingers didn’t aid Christina in her counting.  “I had three cookies,” she amended, spreading wide all four fingers and her thumb.

“Maybe we should stay away from the cookies,” Helena suggested, “but lemonade would be lovely.”

“I’ll go put the order in.”  Myka smiled at Christina, her gaze lifting from her and resting on Helena.  “Child- or intrepid-explorer-size?”

“Do you have a mischief-maker size?”  Making light of Christina’s disappearance didn’t stop a shiver of fear from running through her as she remembered turning around and not seeing her daughter beside her.

“It’s our largest, called the Lattimer,” Myka laughed, “and I don’t think Christina’s grown into it yet.”  Helena felt the gentleness in Myka’s eyes like a steadying touch on her shoulder, as if Myka knew where her thoughts had gone and was reminding her that Christina was with her now, safe, if growing a little restless.

Leaving them in the dubious pleasure of Pete’s company, Myka disappeared through the back door of the Cookie Shack.  While Pete entertained Christina with his imitation of a squirrel, mainly limited to his tucking into both cheeks the masticated remains of the awe-inspiring number of cookies he had crammed into his mouth, Helena scanned the crowds for Nate.  He would be one more middle-aged man in a golf shirt among thousands strolling between vendors selling everything from giant bratwurst to framed paintings of past state fairs.  She hadn’t known him long – she and Christina were recent transplants to the city – but she knew he was hoping that their “just friends” date at the fair would turn into something more.  She could honestly say that the day had been more eventful than she had expected, but not in the way he wanted.

The back door opened and Myka emerged with a tray of paper cups, a stray wave of lemonade occasionally breaking over a rim.  Behind her was a man carrying a tray holding a pitcher of lemonade and a pile of cookies of various colors and sizes.  His age suggested to Helena that he could be Myka’s father, but it was the similarity in their strides, relaxed yet swiftly covering ground, and the long legs powering the strides that confirmed the relationship.  The resemblance was less marked when he glanced at her and Christina and she saw that his features, which were otherwise much like his daughter’s, were set in a chilly reserve.  His greeting was similarly cool, and Myka, as she passed out the cups of lemonade, sent him an unmistakable glare.

“And that’s why they keep Mr. Giggles there in the back.  He’d scare off the customers,” Pete muttered under his breath, hooking a leg over the bench and sitting down next to Helena.

“It had to have been scary, losing your daughter like that,” Myka’s father said, and Helena wasn’t sure if he had offered it as a comment or as an accusation.  His next words made clear which it was.  “When they’re little like that and looking for trouble, you have to keep them close.  Especially when there are so many strangers around.  Never know what one of them might take it into his head to do.”

“Dad,” Myka said sharply, her glare intensifying.

Helena reddened but lifted her chin and looked at him steadily.  She had been subject to worse criticism by old men even more disgruntled, old disgruntled men in bespoke suits who had had the power to ----.  She needed to concentrate on the here and now, and in this here and this now, she and Christina were the guests of the owners of the Cookie Shack, one of whom – whether it was because he was cranky from the heat, disliked children, or, based on Pete’s muttered assessment, was always out of sorts, was determined to underscore her failings as a parent.  Not that she needed to be reminded.  Summoning what she hoped he would find a sufficiently grateful smile, Helena said, “I was terrified, and I’m very thankful that it was your daughter Christina found.”

Myka’s father had placed the pitcher and cookies in the center of the table with a faintly begrudging air, as if to suggest that being reunited with her child should be reward enough.  Free cookies and lemonade only condoned her lapse.  She must have sounded conciliatory enough because he said with gruff pride, “Your little girl couldn’t have found anyone safer or better able to help her.  Myka’s FBI.”

“Dad!”  It came out as a bark.  “We’ve talked about ---“

But Helena wasn’t listening.  The awful turn her day was taking had just grown worse.  She had lost her daughter only to find her walking on the other side of the fairgrounds and holding the hand of an FBI agent.  The last time she had sat down with an FBI agent, it hadn’t been over cookies and lemonade, and the conversation hadn’t been friendly.  Pete nudged her in the ribs.  “We’re not the scary type with guns.”  Reaching across the table, he picked out what looked like a peanut butter cookie with a jelly center.  “I mean, we carry guns,” he qualified, breaking the cookie in half and eating the center first.  “Mmmm, strawberry jam, I keep telling them to get serious and go with grape, but this’ll have to do.”  He stuffed the two halves into his mouth, Christina watching him in fascination.  “We carry guns,” he repeated, “but the most danger we face is a paper cut.  Myka and me, we work financial crimes.” 

Helena tried to imagine Pete unwinding spurious trading accounts and couldn’t get beyond the picture of him laboriously counting on his fingers.  Myka, on the other hand, it didn’t seem unbelievable to imagine her meticulously taking apart the financial statements of a dummy corporation.  She was walking her father back to the cookie stand, her face still marked with annoyance.  Helena suddenly could see that face, grim and suspicious, across from her at a conference table, stacks of financial reports like walls between them, and it cut at her more sharply than she expected.  Shutting out the image – it wasn’t real, couldn’t ever be real, not anymore – Helena concentrated on the breeze stirring her hair, the cool feel of the cup in her hand.  She acknowledged that this had been a lovely reprieve from the terror of losing Christina and the barrage of emotions that had followed upon finding her:  relief, gratitude, joy, dismay, guilt, anger.  She had been overwhelmed, so she had gladly let Myka with her quiet assurance take charge, take her in hand as she had literally taken Christina in hand, but the reprieve was over.

When Myka returned, Helena decided, she would make some excuse to leave and, with any luck, intercept Nate before he arrived at the Cookie Shack.  Christina, however, seemed happy to sneak a cookie when she thought her mother wasn’t looking and to match Pete’s funny faces.  Of all the times when her daughter should be impatient to go somewhere new or cranky and needing a nap, she was both alert and content to stay where she was.  Adding to the poor timing of her escape was Nate’s sun-flushed face as a gap in the crowds appeared.  He gave her a vigorous wave and, Adelaide in tow, wound his way among the scattered picnic tables.  After tousling Christina’s hair and greeting her with a mildly scolding “You gave us a scare, kiddo,” he and Adelaide sat on the opposite bench.  She slumped with obvious boredom.  She no sooner took her phone from a pocket of her shorts than her father’s stern look had her stuffing it back in.

Pete had left to bring more glasses, and in a few minutes, he and Myka returned with extra glasses, lemonade, and cookies.  Myka’s father wasn’t with them.  Helena made the introductions, and she noticed how Myka glanced from her to Nate, trying, discreetly, to pinpoint their relationship to one another.  Conversation stumbled from one inoffensive topic to the next, the heat, the size of the crowds, the city’s traffic.  Nate ate several of the cookies, appreciating in particular the chocolate cherry black walnut ones.  Adelaide sipped at her lemonade, her eyes darting from the fairgoers trampling the grounds to the rides in the arcades area and back to the table; she was imprisoned between adults and a five-year-old girl, her boredom, like a bird in a cage, fluttering uselessly, futilely in glances seeking escape.  There was no mention of Pete’s and Myka’s jobs, and Nate vaguely acknowledged that he and Helena worked together without saying where they worked or what they did.  Nor did Myka or Pete ask.  There was no reason for asking – she and Myka would never see each other again.  Helena was surprised that she felt almost as disappointed as she did relieved.  Take away what she did for a living, and Myka could be . . . .  That didn’t matter either.  Christina had become a warm leaden weight against Helena’s side, her eyes closed.  Time to go.

Among her repeated expressions of gratitude, Pete’s jokes about weighting Christina down with cookies so she couldn’t go running off, and Christina’s whines of protest at being nudged awake, Helena never lost the sense that Myka continued to observe her with interest.  Every time she looked at Myka she encountered a gaze that was more searching than their coincidental meeting justified.  Yet although its grip was firm as they shook hands before she and Nate and the girls started their long trek back to the main gates, Myka’s hand gave hers no meaningful squeeze nor did it try to extend the contact.  Myka’s good-bye was equally as brief and natural, “I’m glad I was there to help.”

Without a backward look, Helena joined Nate, lacing Christina’s fingers between her own.  He held Christina’s other hand.  There would be no more disappearances.  They had gone only a short distance before Adelaide wandered over to a booth displaying jewelry on velvet-covered stands.  She tried on bracelets and rings while Christina pouted and hugged Helena’s hips.  As she tried to disentangle herself without provoking a temper tantrum, she heard a vaguely familiar voice saying, “Hey, hey, Helena, hey.”  She turned around to see Pete jogging toward her.  He pulled at her to draw her away from the jeweler’s booth where Nate was limiting how much he would contribute toward Adelaide’s purchase.  Helena, making sure she had hold of Christina, reluctantly followed him.

“I know this may sound weird but just hear me out.”  He linked his hands and rubbed them against the back of his head.  “When my gut tells me stuff, it’s never wrong, okay, and my gut’s telling me there was some sort of, I dunno, spark between you and Myka.”  He gave his head one more vigorous rub before he dropped his arms and leaned in closer to her.  “Maybe you’re going to tell me you’re with Nate or you don’t play that way, but that’s not what I sense, and Mykes,” he exhaled noisily, as if he were about to break a confidence, “she’s a lady-lover.  She doesn’t announce it or anything like that ‘cause it’s not her style, but she is and she likes you.  Likes you as a person and as, you know, someone she might want to ask out.”  He paused, giving her a significant look as he dug into a side pocket of his cargo shorts.  “If she got a little encouragement.”  He retrieved a crumpled piece of paper and tucked into the palm of her hand, which was uncurling to receive it.

Helena stared at her hand, mystified, as Pete said, with obvious satisfaction, “I thought so.”  Glancing behind her, which suggested that Nate and Adelaide were done buying jewelry, he lowered his voice.  “She’d kill me if she knew I was doing this, but she’s the best.  Don’t let the law enforcement thing scare you off.  Mykes always treats people straight up.  Even if you’re on the fence about the dating thing, you look like someone who might want another friend, and you can’t find a better one.  I ought to know.”  He lifted his arm in a half-wave at Nate and Adelaide before spinning in the opposite direction – almost taking out a family of four – and jogging back toward the Cookie Shack.

“What was that about?”  Nate stared after Pete’s retreating form.

Helena automatically slid the piece of paper into her handbag.  She would throw it away later.  “Nothing.  He thought we might have forgotten something.”  She waited for Christina, who had a small child’s impeccable sense of timing, to contradict her, but she was too busy yawning and knuckling her eyes to correct her mother.

Outside the gates, about to go their separate ways to find their cars, Nate suggested they have an early dinner at a pizza parlor close by the fairgrounds.  Helena begged off, saying that she wanted to get Christina home and take care of a few chores before she had to prepare for the work week.  Nate was disappointed but he nodded in understanding.  She fobbed him off with a “Maybe, if I have time” when he brought up seeing a movie together next weekend.  Deciding not to press any harder, he and Adelaide began drifting toward one of the far parking lots, Adelaide too busy thumbing texts to her friends to do more than mutter a tardy “Yeah, see you.”  Nate’s smile was broad and he winked at Christina before wishing them a good evening.  With a reminder of “Coffee run tomorrow, don’t forget,” he backstepped before clapping his daughter on the shoulder and guiding her across the pavement.

A spark.  Was that what it was, what she had felt looking into that attractively friendly face?  Not that Myka wasn’t also physically attractive, lovely really, but it was her helpfulness, her casual taking charge to which Helena had first responded.  As any terrified mother who thought she had lost her child would.  Had Myka truly felt a spark dealing with a perspiring, overwrought woman who had managed to misplace her daughter?  A brief exchange with a stranger at the counter of the Cookie Shack would have held more promise than their meeting.  Helena suspected that the only reliable communication Pete could expect from his gut was on the order of “When’s our next meal?”

Though to be fair to Pete, Helena wouldn’t trust herself to recognize a spark, let alone act on it.  The last time she had let an attraction overrule her common sense, it had turned out to be a disaster.  Not a complete disaster.  Christina had been born in the middle of that disaster, and while her daughter could cause crises without even trying, she was also what redeemed a time Helena would otherwise to choose to forget.  With her elbow, Helena nudged opened the door from the garage into the townhome’s hallway.  They had stopped at a grocery store on the way home; not only were they practically out of milk but she also had had nothing to take for lunch during the week.  She peered into the paper bag, which held a half-gallon of 2% milk, assorted TV dinners of 250 calories or less, and deli meat and bread for sandwiches.  Humble lunches, but then this was a humble townhome, even for a rental, and the car, whose engine was ticking like a clock behind her as it cooled, was an economy sedan bought used.  From the life she once led, this didn’t represent a step down, it was a free fall.  But just as she divorced Christina from all the mistakes and poor decisions that had, first, resulted in her conception and, second, in their retreat to this city where she knew hardly anyone, Helena tried to separate what was then from what was now.  ‘Then’ didn’t matter anymore, ‘now’ did, and ‘now’ was the modest home, the modest job, the modest life.

Christina had run ahead of her into the kitchen, clambering up one of the stools set at the center island to watch her unload their groceries.  More from exhaustion than a passionate attachment to the package of cheap Princess Elsa hair accessories (a flimsy brush, a comb that could easily snap in two, and a handful of barrettes) that she had hugged to her chest, Christina had thrown a tantrum when Helena wouldn’t allow her to put it in their grocery cart.  Finally Helena had picked her up, her legs fiercely kicking, and plopped her into the cart, too tired to think of a better way of coping with her daughter’s demands.  The tantrum had ended by the time they wheeled into line at the cash register, although Helena could have sworn that Christina’s shrieking had shattered the glass doors in the refrigerated section.  The only evidence that remained of the storm were the dirty tracks that Christina’s tears had left on her cheeks.  Dirt, dried chocolate, tiny wispy threads of the cotton candy that Nate had shared with her; their day at the fair was written on her face.  Helena wondered what story about the fair her own face might tell.  Oh, yes, she knew – “Mother Abandons Five-Year-Old Child at Fair.”  Not the kind of story that would generate a romantic spark in the breast of an FBI agent.

But the last thing Helena wanted, would ever want, was an FBI agent with love in her eyes.  She had seen many things in the eyes of the agents who had “interviewed” her countless times about her relationship with Stuart McKnight but love or any feeling remotely warm or human hadn’t been among them.  At the beginning, there had been no flame, no spark with Stuart.  She had just emerged from a long, painful ending to a relationship that had been neither long nor particularly drama-filled.  All these years later, Helena still wasn’t sure why it had ended so badly, not badly in the my-life-is-forever-changed way that her relationship with Stuart later ended, but as badly as she thought she would ever experience at the time.  She hadn’t been unfaithful to Giselle or treated her poorly, but she had been absent, a lot, and when she had been available, she hadn’t always been as attentive as she should have been.  When Giselle had literally thrown out of her apartment a small shopping bag with Helena’s few personal items (toothbrush, make-up, a sleep shirt she hardly ever wore) and followed it with a stream of invective that confirmed every insecurity Helena had about her looks, character, hygiene, mastery of etiquette, fashion sense, hobbies, and, last but not least, sexual performance, she decided it would be a cold day in hell before she ever went out on more than a date for coffee.

Then Stuart, with his unflappable charm, invited her to dinner.  It had been an extraordinarily cool day for early August, and she had turtled her head into the neckline of her suit coat.  The chill breeze that had accompanied his invitation should have been her first warning that hell might be freezing over.  He was the CEO of a rival investment firm, a boutique firm like the one she and Charles managed, and they had met when one of her clients wanted to see how the gilded customer service that Wells Financial Management Services provided him (courtesy of the assiduous attentions of Charles Wells, President and CEO, and Helena Wells, Executive Vice President and CFO) stacked up against what McKnight Investments had to offer.  Had he not been one of their most important clients, Helena wouldn’t have lowered herself to bidding for his accounts in front of a competitor (or she would have demanded that Charles give the presentation if he felt so strongly about keeping the old curmudgeon).  But Stuart had treated it as a game, even pulling off some hoary magic tricks like “finding” a quarter behind Walter’s ear, and though Helena had groaned at the cheesy showmanship (“Where does your money disappear?” Stuart had asked him with a wink and then answered his own question by passing his hand over Walter’s ear and displaying the coin.  “It doesn’t, not with McKnight.  It’s always your money, we never lose sight of that fact.”)  Walter had eaten it up, but, in the end, he didn’t change investment advisors, especially when Helena sweetened the deal by knocking off 75 basis points off their usual fee.  She and Stuart had ridden down to the lobby together in Walter’s private elevator and, giving her a tiny paper flower that, thankfully, he didn’t “find” behind her ear but plucked from the air to all appearances, he said casually, “Have dinner with me.  It’ll be fun.” 

Fun.  It had been.  Hot dogs and beer at a Yankees game.  She happened to like baseball and the box was good, if not spectacular.  What was spectacular was his introducing her to the Yankees, all of them, after the game and then his taking her to one of the most exclusive restaurants in the city for dessert.  He had reserved a private dining room and better than the dessert was not having to change out her jeans and t-shirt to meet the restaurant’s dress code.

Nothing fazed Stuart, not even when she bluntly told him a year later that her birth control had failed and she, they, were pregnant.  He cocked his head, surveying the Michelin 5 star-equipped kitchen in which they were standing and in which he only ever used the $50 microwave on the counter, and said, “I guess we’ll need to make room for the baby food and a high chair.”  She hadn’t moved in with him, they had never discussed marriage; in fact, Helena wasn’t sure she was in love with him.  But just as she had accepted his invitation to dinner, she didn’t object to his assumption now that she was carrying his child, she would move in.  His place was (much) bigger and (much) nicer, and, coincidentally, it was closer to the office of her ob-gyn.  Similarly, when she developed problems during her pregnancy that necessitated virtual bedrest, she didn’t object to his suggestion that she take more than a leave of absence from Wells Financial, she resign altogether.  If she wanted to do all the hand-holding and reassuring that had become her job, she could work at McKnight.  If she decided she wanted to return to her computer science roots and develop the perfect algorithm, the one that guaranteed above-market rates of return in the most bear-like of markets, he definitely wanted her at McKnight.

So she moved in, she resigned, and for the next 18 months, which saw Christina turn one, she was happy.  They still didn’t talk marriage, she still wasn’t sure she loved him, but Giselle hardly figured in her thoughts.  If she needed confirmation that she was capable of the deepest devotion, she had only to look at her daughter.  Then shortly after Christina’s birthday, which Stuart had celebrated in his usual over-the-top fashion, staging it as an all-day event complete with a petting zoo, magicians, and acrobats, his real life, the one that underpinned the fairy tale in which Helena had been living, erupted into it.  Except that she hadn’t known she was living in a fairy tale.  Though she had begun working, in fact, on the “perfect algorithm,” imperfect approximations of which she had given to Stuart to test with small, proprietary investments made by McKnight, she knew very little about the inner workings of his company.  She had met his senior officers at dinners and parties they hosted, and Stuart talked to her, always in general terms, about his clients and his frustrations and successes, but when she thought about McKnight Investments, which wasn’t often, she invariably thought of it as “Stuart’s business.”

It was a fundamental error, because when federal agents arrived at their home with a search warrant and subjected her to numerous “interviews” over the ensuing months, his business became her business.  She came to deeply regret the iterations of the “perfect algorithm” she had given to him.  Agents found copies on practically every computer in the office and its viral ability to manifest itself everywhere undercut her claims that she had no connection to the company.

It had been fraud on a grand scale, not Madoff-large but as pervasive.  There was virtually no investor who hadn’t been misled and whose funds hadn’t been funneled into a series of shell companies owned by Stuart McKnight, who then used them to support his lifestyle.  If you want to see where the money went, the agents told her, you don’t have to look very far.  The penthouse they lived in, the vacation homes in Spain and Greece and St. Thomas (she had only ever been to the one in the Caribbean, she hadn’t known of the other two), the luxury cars, the artwork.  Even Christina’s birthday party had been paid for by someone’s nest egg.  Everyone thought she had been in on it with him, including Charles.  Stuart may have been defrauding his clients long before she met him, but she must have figured out what he was doing at some point.  She wasn’t stupid, she knew this business.  For God’s sake, hadn’t she ever read a McKnight investment prospectus?  Hadn’t she wondered about his relationship with his stepfather, Vincent Crowley, who had been convicted of insider trading in the late 1980s?  Had she lost her mind when she had had her baby?

Charles had literally screamed these questions and more at her.  Wells Financial was under a cloud too, thanks to her.  Agents had shown up at his office with a warrant for any records the firm had of her employment.  They had unearthed her old computer from a storeroom and carted out every document with her name on it.  His reputation might never recover, he might never recover.  Helena let his denunciations and his near-hysteria wash over her without responding.  It was all water, all roar – the investigation, the agents, the lawyer she had to retain, Stuart’s lawyers – and she let it carry her where it would.  Nothing mattered except protecting Christina, who comprehended nothing of what was going on but sensed everything.  Whenever Stuart tried to hold her, she cried, and whenever he disappeared from view, she cried.  Helena felt much the same way but she didn’t need to add her wailing to Christina’s; she sobbed and howled enough for the both of them.  Helena couldn’t recall much from those two years, which had begun when Stuart offhandedly told her that McKnight was being investigated and ended when he was sentenced to 12 years in prison.  She remembered only that it rained, every day.  Impossible, of course, but how else to explain the ocean floor she walked on, the surface of the water so far above her that she couldn’t see a glimmer of light?

When the water retreated, when the sun finally shone, she was without a home, a job, a bank account with a positive balance, or friends on whose support she could depend.  She had Christina and Charles’s begrudging offers of assistance.  She would never work for Wells Financial again  She hadn’t been charged with any crime, her sins had been complaisance and willed ignorance, but no securities firm would hire her, not even the one she (partially) owned.  She made an unreliable living for the next year and a half by taking one short-term position after another and covering the inevitable shortfalls with the money she had received from selling part of her interest in Wells to Charles.  When the last of the temporary positions ended, she still owed money to the law firm that had represented her and to the creditors Stuart had left hanging that didn’t care that her name wasn’t on the agreements or that she and Stuart had never married.  Selling what remained of her investment in Wells didn’t solve her problems, although it took care of most of her debts.  She needed a job, something steady and on the books.  Helena hadn’t had a true stroke of luck in almost four years, but she got one then.  An old friend of the family called her.  He owned a mid-sized investment company in the Midwest.  He wasn’t looking for an investment specialist or a financial analyst, he had plenty of those; he needed someone who knew both computers and finance, who could build systems and the reports that could be run off them.  His company was growing, and he needed to upgrade his IT to facilitate and promote the growth.  He needed her . . . if she were interested.

Helena had nothing to keep her in the East.  Hers had always been a somewhat rootless life.  She and Charles had lived in seven different countries growing up, and though she had lived in New York for the past several years, she had never considered it any more a home than London or Hong Kong or San Francisco or Sydney.  Stuart was in a federal prison over a thousand miles away, but their relationship had ended long before he was sentenced.  As for Charles, he had decided he would fare better if he relocated to Wells’s new London office.  Christina was of a portable age, only four and a half.  She would adjust quickly to a new place.  Hers wasn’t just the plasticity of the very young, it had something of her father’s adaptability, which, Helena reminded herself on those days when Christina reminded her most strongly of Stuart, was not a bad thing –in small doses.  What kind of fraud could she get up to in pre-school, after all?

Not a very convincing one if her best effort to get out of a bath before bed involved thrusting her hands, palms out, and declaring “I’m clean, I’m clean” while her day at the fair could still be read on her face.  Helena ran the bath water and filled the tub with a cherry-scented foaming soap; Christina would emerge smelling like a throat lozenge.  As both the bubbles and the cherry scent multiplied, Helena was reminded, oddly, of Myka.  Maybe she was reminded of the cookies with the jelly center that Pete had avidly eaten.  The jelly had been strawberry, not cherry, but they were both berries.  The association was logical enough.  Or maybe, unconsciously, she had been wanting an excuse to think about her, and she would have recalled Myka looking relaxed and attractively athletic in her polo shirt and jeans even if the soap had smelled like citrus or pine trees instead.

She hadn’t been on anything remotely resembling a date in a long time.  She had disposed of her sex drive when she had disposed of everything else that would bring Stuart to mind.  For years she had been comfortable with a sexuality that had no fixed point, that didn’t rely on types or looks or gender.  More recently she thought she had gotten comfortable with a sexuality that, far from floating or roaming, hibernated in a cave.  If, after all this time, it was blinking awake, well, that was what the marvel – and privacy – of online shopping was for.  Helena turned the faucet off and tested the water one more time.  Not too hot, not too cold.  She went to the head of the stairs and called for Christina to come up and take her bath.  She had work to do yet, clothes to iron for tomorrow, and a child to put to bed.  This was her life, and for now, she was content with it.  She wasn’t looking to change a thing, not a single thing.

Chapter Text

Instinctively she flung an arm across the bed; Andi's side was still empty. Myka groaned and ground the heels of her palms into her eyes. Andi hadn't slept in this bed for more than six months, but the habit of reaching out and touching Andi's hip, lightly, affectionately, hadn't yet left her. Opening her eyes, she rolled over and picked up her phone from the nightstand. 5:30. She had 15 minutes before she had to get up and start her run. She hated it when she woke up early, especially when she woke up because she had reached for Andi and Andi wasn't there. Andi was in California, Los Angeles specifically, following her dream . . . yet again. After another groan, Myka sat up and pushed herself to the edge of the bed. Last night had been a long night, everyone trying, after the fairgrounds closed at 9:00, to put away and clean up as much as possible, but her parents and some of the "Shack staff" would be at the Cookie Shack today doing the big clean and shut down for next year. As she stumbled across her bedroom to pull a pair of shorts and a tank from her dresser, her thoughts touched briefly on Helena. She hoped that her day was getting off to a better start.

Her morning runs had two or three different loops through her neighborhood, more for the sake of variety than concern that she could be stalked or attacked. She might be white collar FBI, but she was still FBI. Her snicker didn't diminish her pride, but, really, the most dangerous weapon she generally handled was a heavy-duty stapler. As she dodged trash cans and recycling bins set out for pick-up, she recalled how her father had bragged about her being FBI to Helena. It wasn't the same as working for the CIA, but, still, she didn't like to advertise the fact, and yet her father never failed to find an opportunity to mention it to practically everyone they met. Most people were curious, full of questions, while others were more noncommittal, murmuring, "I'm sure that's interesting work," turning back to the books they were perusing, if she were helping out her dad at the bookstore, or placing their orders for cookies, if she were helping out at the Cookie Shack. But a few reacted as Helena had, a coolness entering their expressions, their smiles shrinking. Myka didn't take it personally; they were reacting to their image of the agency, what they had heard or read. They didn't know its true workings any more than they knew her.

But she had to admit that she had been disappointed when she saw Helena's face freeze at her father's reassurance that Christina had been in the best hands possible. Holding out her hands, Myka stared at them. They were nice hands, okay, ordinary hands. There was nothing "agenty" about them, as Pete might say. They didn't frequently hold guns or flash badges or handcuff people; usually they were typing on a keyboard or working through a financial statement. They could just have easily been an accountant's hands. From the moment that her father had said those three letters, however, Helena had been in retreat. Physically she had never left the table, but the dark eyes in which Myka had seen so many emotions, panic, gratitude, guilt, humor, friendliness, had seemed to grow darker and the only emotion Myka could see in them when she and Helena would exchange looks was wariness.

Why was she moony about a woman she had met only yesterday, who obviously didn't like the FBI, and who was probably dating the stolid-looking guy, Nate, who had brought her to the fair? Myka increased her pace, frustrated that she was spending time thinking about Helena. Now that her off-and-on again relationship with Andrea Martino was off, over for good – or at least until the next time that Andi swept back into town and swept her off her feet –it was perfectly normal to be attracted to another woman. Probably even healthy. But maybe this time, finally, it could be someone who was both available – not only emotionally but physically as well – and ready for a relationship? She had had hopes that she had found her future in Andi, although everything about Andi had signaled that she had her sights set on a future that wasn't in this city and wasn't with an agent who was a few pay grades away yet from being a Special Agent in Charge. Andi was an actress, and despite having crashed and burned in Los Angeles a few years earlier, and New York before that, she had been eager for the next opportunity that would take her back. Even when they had been at a fever pitch in their relationship, Andi had always kept one eye on her phone, looking for a good news text from her agent.

When she had gotten that text, an offer to star as a recurring character on a new series produced by a streaming service, Andi hadn't hesitated, but this time she had also asked Myka to join her. The more cynically-minded, Pete among them, suggested that Andi had extended the invitation because she knew that Myka wouldn't uproot herself for a limited run on a show that would garner, at most, a couple million viewers. Myka had a healthy skepticism when it came to doing her job, but she tried not to give her friends and lovers the same gimlet-eyed look – it wasn't a trust builder. She believed that Andi, a part of her, anyway, really did want them to be together, on her terms. In the end, they had agreed that Andi should take her third or fourth shot at stardom unencumbered, and if it didn't work out, then they could see where they were. Because you know I'll be here, Myka hadn't been able to squelch the uncharitable thought.

Letting herself back into the house, Myka turned on the Keurig for what would be the first of her many cups of coffee. She opened her refrigerator and pondered the cancerous sprawl of yogurt containers on the topmost shelf. For someone who acted high-minded about sugar, she managed to get her daily allowance and more of it by relying on slightly more subtle delivery systems, like yogurt. As she ate her yogurt and waited for the Keurig to stop its tiny trickling of coffee into a mug, she glanced around her remodeled kitchen and tried to convince herself that the quartz countertops and new cabinets made up for the fact that there was no one to chide her for her excessive reliance on caffeine or, better yet, sidle up to her sweaty body and convince her that they had time for a long, hot shower together before they had to leave for work.

Forty minutes later she was on her way into downtown, caught in the rush hour crush and inching off the exit ramp into one of the main thoroughfares. The Bureau's field office was in a nondescript high rise in a cluster of skyscrapers that gave the city its claim to a skyline. As her car idled at a stoplight, she drank from her second cup of coffee – in addition to her run, a stop at Starbucks was also part of her morning routine – and reviewed her schedule for the day. Most of it would be taken up with finalizing her report on a money laundering operation that she and Pete had helped break up, which had crossed several states and involved payday lenders and rent-to-own stores. Other law enforcement had been involved as well, but she and Pete had logged a lot of miles and spent more nights in hotel rooms than she cared to repeat anytime soon. Drug money had been used to finance loans and store credit to customers who, if they could no longer meet the astronomical monthly interest payments, were then coerced into transporting drugs to homes and businesses, sometimes hundreds of miles away, for further refining or distribution. It had been a departure of sorts from their usual work, but the novelty had been lost in the grind of endless phone calls, meetings, and coordination of personnel and information. They hadn't rushed into drug houses, guns at the ready, or faced down criminals sporting military hardware; they had been working out of conference rooms in local sheriff offices and police departments, their most dangerous weapons their smart phones.

It wasn't shaping up to be a bad day at all, a low-stress one, which was a rarity, and she was smiling in anticipation of Pete's greeting, which usually involved finding the most absurd news item on the Internet and asking her opinion about it. On Friday, he had found a story about a dispute between two men over the ownership of a twelve-foot wooden Santa that they had carved from a tree together. Pete had asked her to put her "brilliant legal mind to the question and 'render a decision.'" He had giggled at "render," before saying, "You're gonna say it should be chopped in two, right, to see which guy loves it more?"

"No," Myka said over her shoulder, as she started walking toward the breakroom, which housed a couple of microwaves, a refrigerator, and, most importantly, a catered coffee service. The coffee was freshly brewed and regularly replenished. She couldn't ask for more. "I'd bring their spouses in and see which one of them was closest to taking an axe to it – or him – at this point. The winner would be the one who wasn't on the verge of committing murder. It's all about bringing the crime rate down, Pete."

This morning Pete had no "From the Archives of the Absurd" greeting. He stopped by her cubicle only long enough to advise her to get her coffee and meet him in the office of their boss, Special Agent in Charge Irene Frederic. Pete claimed, always under his breath, that Irene had been Special Agent in Charge when Hoover had run the FBI. Granted, there was an agelessness about her that led a wacky kind of credence to the view, but putting cryogenesis or starting at the FBI at age 12 aside, the Bureau's history as an all white, all male (and wholly closeted) preserve continued to weigh against women of color becoming Special Agents in Charge over field offices or assistant directors. Name the last woman who was a director, Myka silently demanded of the heavens as she hurried to pour herself a cup of coffee. But knowing Irene, she thought that Special Agent in Charge Frederic might actually have a chance. Myka had been a junior-level employee, a couple of years out of law school, when Irene had been chosen to head the field office, and she had developed a ferocious case of hero worship. Although her admiration had matured as she had grown in the work, her respect for Irene had only deepened. Consequently, coffee was sloshing over the rim of her cup as she walk-raced to the conference room. The heat stung her fingers but she hated to be late, especially when it was Irene who had called the meeting.

She was surprised that she and Pete were the only agents in the room besides Irene and more surprised to see Assistant U.S. Attorney Sam Martino at the table. It wasn't all that unusual to have a representative from Justice attend one of their meetings, but typically it was in the context of a pending court case, and none of her cases were at that stage, not even the money-laundering one. A woman sat next to him, her dark hair drawn back in a ponytail, and she was wearing a stylishly cut dress suit. She sprang up from the conference table to shake the non-coffee-smelling hand that Myka offered her. "I'm Kelly Hernandez, from the district attorney's office." Flashing a cheeky grin at Pete, she added, "Glad to meet his professional better half."

Myka glanced from one to the other. "Softball?" Pete's other hobbies were gaming and poker, and she didn't see Kelly hunched over a controller or eating Doritos from a family-size bag with Pete and his poker buddies.

"Kelly's our shortstop. Great fielder except that she overthrows home plate." Pete wadded a stick of gum into mouth. Myka hoped it wasn't bubble gum, not with Irene in the room.

"Says the man who spends his time at home plate whiffing at strikes," Kelly jeered. Then she blushed and said sheepishly, "This is probably a conversation we should have outside work."

"I agree, Ms. Hernandez, as time is short, and I'm sure that we all have much to get done." Irene had been reviewing a file, which, while not auspiciously thick, had nonetheless brought a frown to a face that Myka thought was best characterized as unreadable. Irene's expression was always the same, regardless of how well or badly an investigation was going. Pete joked that she cracked a smile only at Christmas-time. "If you or Mr. Martino would care to start?"

Sam didn't clear his throat but his play with his suit sleeves and the resulting rattle of his cufflinks on the table was as good an indicator of his nervousness. Irene could do it to anyone. Myka had seen assistant directors falter for words under her impassive regard. He shot Myka a beleaguered glance before beginning, "Kelly and I are here because of a call she received . . . ."

Myka knew she should be paying attention, but there remained an underlying awkwardness between her and Sam. The look he had given her had had everything to do with feeling that he was arguing a case before the Supreme Court – with Irene capably standing in for all nine justices – and nothing to do with Andi. Yet it had been uncannily like the look he had given her when she told him that she wanted to date his sister instead of him, dread, disbelief, and frustration commingled. He and Andi had been born 18 months apart, and their mother had claimed more than once to Myka that they had been trying to outdo each other since they were toddlers. Anything that Sam could do, Andi wanted to do better, and vice versa. While Sam had gone to law school and taken a position in the district U.S. Attorney's office and Andi had left for Los Angeles to become an actress, the one's position was hardly less reliant on dramatic skills than the other's. It took acting chops to persuade a jury, and Sam wasn't so proud that he hadn't asked his sister for some basic pointers on working an audience.

Myka had met Sam when he had been the attorney assigned to help prosecute an embezzlement case. She was the investigator who had assembled the evidence sufficient to arrest the president and chief financial officer of a regional bank, and both before and during the trial, Sam had relied on her attention to detail and analysis of the facts. They had spent days and nights going over the case, marshaling the evidence into a narrative that explained the inception of the crime to its discovery. Neither had been reluctant to work long hours or to eat dinner from a vending machine. Myka would think later that they had mistaken their mutual admiration of each other's work ethic as attraction and had read too much into their occasional escapes from the Bureau's office to have a drink or a late evening snack. Even so, their nascent relationship hadn't developed much beyond an occasional heated goodnight kiss; sleeping together would have required a larger commitment of time and energy than they were willing to claw back from their jobs.

That had been the status when, on a Saturday afternoon that had found them working together on some details of the investigation that he intended to use in a cross-examination of a defense witness, Sam had invited her to his condo for dinner. Myka had agreed, uncertain whether it was a sign that he wanted to deepen their relationship and equally uncertain that it was something she wanted. Her last clear memory of that night was of seeing a woman in Sam's kitchen who turned away from a stovetop crowded with skillets and pots bristling with spaghetti on the boil. She had Sam's fair coloring, but the resemblance ended there, and the amusement in her greeting revealed a playfulness that Myka had yet to see from him. "I've gone from being your wingman to a third wheel? It's about time, big brother." It would be an exaggeration to say that she hadn't given Sam a second thought after meeting Andi, but he had been, at best, a shadow at Myka's side during dinner, indistinct and visible only from the corner of her eye. At the end of the night, it was Andi who walked her to her car and surprised her with a kiss that ignited hormones Myka didn't know she had. Two days later Andi was back in New York, but Myka had already ended things with Sam, and the next weekend, with a rare Monday off in her back pocket, she flew to New York to see the woman she was convinced was the love of her life.

. . . . She heard Pete stop chewing gum long enough to whistle between his teeth. He slid toward Myka an even slimmer file than the one Irene had been reviewing. She opened it, understanding Pete's whistle. On top of a small stack of documents was a photo of Helena Wells. It was a shot of her descending the steps of a government building, a courthouse, given the crowd of reporters at the bottom and the ring of men shielding her. Myka closed her eyes in frustration; for the first time in years, she had let her mind wander during a meeting, and this was the result. What had Sam been talking about? As rapidly as she could, she fit the various words that had filtered through into a rough chronology. An anonymous source had called the city's district attorney's office about potentially fraudulent activity at a securities firm. Helena hadn't been the source, of that she was sure. She remembered too well how Helena had reacted at "FBI."

Pete was looking at her expectantly. He hadn't yet said anything about meeting Helena and her daughter. He was always willing to let her take the lead when it came to dealing with Irene. He was man enough to admit, he would say (when he and Myka were safely out of Irene's hearing), that she scared the hell out of him. "We know her slightly. We met her yesterday at the fair," Myka said cautiously. "She had gotten separated from her daughter, who had taken off to buy a cookie for her from my parents' stand. We returned her daughter to her, gave them some free cookies, and that was it. An upset, frazzled mom, that's all I took her for." She knew that neither Sam nor Irene was accusing her of anything; they couldn't have known until just now that she and Helena had met. But Myka knew that a defensive note had crept into her voice, and she wasn't willing to volunteer, not yet, how Helena had seemed to fold in on herself once she learned of her and Pete's connection to the FBI.

"That may be what she is now, but a few years ago, she was better known as Stuart McKnight's girlfriend." Sam wasn't trying to read her expression, although he might have wondered why she was blushing. Irene hadn't missed it, however. Myka blushed the harder. Great, she had progressed from being attracted to unreliable actresses to felons. More precisely, girlfriends of felons. Stuart McKnight's trial had garnered a fair amount of interest even this deep in the Midwest, but she had been working a fraud case of her own and dealing with the first of her break-ups with Andi. Both the water cooler gossip (maybe bottled water gossip was more apt) and the news coverage had been no more than a buzz in her ears.

"You said your source contacted you twice, but they mentioned Helena only the second time?" Pete leaned over the elbow he had planted on the table to peer at Helena's picture.

"Could be they didn't know who was behind it at first," Kelly said. "The first voice mail we got suggested we should look into some alternative energy start-ups that Amundson's firm had encouraged their clients to invest in. The second voice mail we got said that Helena Wells was working for Amundson Securities and did we know what she had done. There was no name, no valid call-back number. He must have found one of the few working pay phones still around. Without anything more solid we weren't going to follow up, but then we found out that two of the start-ups he had identified on the first message had just filed for bankruptcy."

Amundson. Myka heard the thud of the other shoe dropping. No, the other boot dropping, a work boot with a steel-reinforced toe. Amundson was a very, very powerful name in the city, in the state, to be linking to a potential fraud. The family had been an economic, political, and social force for generations. Nolan Amundson was a former lieutenant governor and the CEO of Amundson Companies, Ltd., a corporate giant involved mainly in agribusiness activities, but the family had other business interests as well, including the investment firm. He was chairman of Amundson Securities, and two of his sons were executive officers. It was common knowledge that Kelly's boss had political ambitions of his own. It could end a career – or make it – to launch an investigation into the Amundson family. Yet why would someone as reputedly sharp as Nolan Amundson hire a woman who was linked to a highly publicized securities fraud? Myka shook her head. There was still too much that was unknown to start making assumptions.

"Even if the start-ups' bankruptcies are the result of fraud, it doesn't mean that the Amundsons had a hand in it. Unless you have something that shows a stronger connection to them than a couple of voice mails and –" Myka gestured toward Helena's picture without looking at it, "the fact that Stuart McKnight's ex-girlfriend works for their wealth management company, what would we be investigating, exactly?"

"We do have something stronger," Kelly said swiftly. "We received in the mail, again anonymously, internal documents from the company, memos and emails about misleading information on the start-ups being given to investors."

"It's not a smoking gun, but it's enough for you to start poking your noses in Amundson's business." Sam didn't quite phrase it as a question to Irene, but the "isn't it" was unmistakable.

Irene's mouth almost imperceptibly twitched up. "Let us review the information and consult with Washington. We'll get back to you." Her eyes were almost closed as she turned to Kelly. "Quite a coincidence, isn't it? Information potentially detrimental to the Amundson family lands on your desk just as, rumor has it, your boss is about to declare a run for Congress."

Kelly's smile was closer to a wince, but she didn't look away from Irene. "The sword cuts two ways. When an Amundson's involved, it's always a delicate situation. Besides, if investors have been defrauded, the investigation would go to you, anyway. Adwin knows that, and it's why we wanted to reach out to the U.S. Attorney's office as well." With a proud, slightly defiant tilting of her chin, she added, "He doesn't need an Amundson on his wall to burnish his record."

Pete mouthed "Burnished?" to Myka and waggled his eyebrows as Irene said smoothly to Kelly, "We've always had a good relationship with the district attorney's office, and I look forward to the opportunity of working with Adwin again."

There ensued the usual promises of follow-up and cooperation, which, Myka knew, Irene would choose to only strategically observe. A minimum level of sincerity achieved, Sam and Kelly shut their attaché cases with almost perfect synchronicity. As they left the conference room, Pete called out to Kelly, "Next time I'm at the plate, out of the park, I tell you." Not bothering to look back at him, she held her arm out to the side, moving her thumb and fingers in imitation of a mouth talking at full speed.

"She's got you down," Myka said as they turned toward their desks. They passed the darkened office of Steve Jinks, Assistant Special Agent in Charge, and she resisted the impulse to press her nose against the panel of glass bordering the door. Someday, maybe, she would get this office, or another one like it in the suite, and the same title, but there could be a reason, other than the vagaries of fate, that Steve had gotten the promotion ahead of her. He was happily married to Liam, a pastry chef; the most criminal thing Liam had ever done was to mix one chili too many in the frosting for his "diablo chocolate" cupcakes, which had been Steve's contribution to the office's Christmas potluck. Steve was attracted to good-looking, charming, pastry chefs whose only brushes with the FBI occurred at dance clubs – when he was out on the floor with them. She could learn something about the rules of attraction from him.

"Hey," Pete tugged at her arm, leading her away from their desks, "want to step outside for a breath of fresh air?"

Myka regarded him skeptically. Pete would step outside for a good many things, most of them food-related, but fresh air wasn't one of them. "Come on," he urged her quietly, "little pitchers are full of listening devices."

"That makes no sense," she complained.

"It does at an agency that wiretaps," he hissed.

"Not each other and not at work," she said, but Pete's jaw grew squarer in resolve. Rolling her eyes, Myka gave in. "Okay, let's step outside."

"Outside" was the sidewalk and a street still clogged with traffic and exhaust fumes. There was no fresh air to be found, anywhere. Pete completed a dramatic inhale. "Carbon dioxide. I can't get enough of it." As Myka's glower deepened, he said, "I gave her your number. I gave Helena Wells your number."

"You did what?" Myka felt her heart skip a beat and then beat much, much faster, but it wasn't because, or only because, Pete had given her personal phone number to a woman who couldn't seem to steer clear of securities scams.

"The only one who could've missed the looks you were throwing at each other was your dad – and maybe the kid." He said thoughtfully, "But she seemed a pretty sharp little kid, she sussed out the best place to get cookies at the fair. So I guess it's just your dad that was oblivious." He managed an expression that was both sheepish and defiant; his jaw was still in attack mode while his brown eyes shone with the unswerving devotion of a labrador retriever. "I've tried to fix you up how many times since you and Andi broke up for good, and you showed the most interest in the hot British mom you met at the fair. What's a 'gal's best friend' to do?"

"Ask me first before he gives my number out." Myka gave his shoulder a sisterly cuff. "And before he does something like that, he might want to ask himself if it's a good sign that the hot British mom started freezing up as soon as she learned we work for the FBI." Shrugging to emphasize that it didn't matter to her, Myka said, "Besides, she seemed to be with that guy Nate."

Pete was unconvinced by her display of indifference. "I don't think so. Definitely got the gut impression that Nate was 'friends only' material."

"The only thing that impresses your gut is an all-you-can-eat buffet . . . and, maybe, Kelly Hernandez." Myka couldn't resist the jab. Pete might send her blood pressure to unhealthy levels by his impulsive decisions (such as giving her phone number out to a woman who was likely to become the subject of their next investigation, although, in all fairness, he hadn't known it at the time), but he was also the one to bring it back down. She turned toward their office building, its entrance almost indistinguishable from the entrances to the office buildings on either side of it. Myka had had to learn to tell them apart, not by anything so helpful as an address stenciled on glass or stamped on a plate but by the color and texture of the stone. The building that housed the field office had walls that were a milkier, rougher gray than the others. It had taken her a few days and a few extra walks around the block to note the difference when she had first started with the Bureau, but ever since, she had always cast her eyes up briefly, confirming the color of the stone, before she went through the doors.

Pete tugged at her arm again, and Myka's eyes, which had automatically glanced up at walls that towered so high they seemed to end in a point, impatiently met his. What else hadn't he told her about Helena that he was 'remembering' to tell her now? "Two things you should know before we go back in. First of all, if Kelly dates like she throws a softball, which is totally off-target and hard enough to knock your head off, I'm not going to put myself in that kind of danger. Second of all, the funny business she and Martino are so sure Helena's involved in? The hot British mom isn't part of it. I know it, Mykes, I mean, I know it." He tapped his chest. The sudden seriousness had passed over his face like a cloud and then just as quickly, it was gone. Back was the dopily cocksure grin. "Just like I know she's the one, the one, for you. You can thank me in about," he made a show of checking his watch, "12 months or so, when you ask me to be your best man."

Myka might have been struck by his certainty because he often had an unerring instinct about people, except for the fact that Pete had tried to sell every one of those fix-ups as her chance to meet her soulmate, which would inevitably end in her thanking him by asking him to be her best man. She made a noise that was between a growl and a sigh, and, when she had the opportunity to close the elevator doors on him before he could stick an arm between them, she smirked at him.

Several hours, too many diet sodas, a vending machine sandwich, and a half-package of Twizzlers later, she was willing to concede that he might have a point about Helena Wells. Not about "the one" part, about the not being part of whatever was going on at Amundson Securities. She had read the documents in the file folder that Helena's photo had graced, the emails and memos discussing, albeit cryptically, the accuracy of information provided to investors about certain new energy firms, described as "promising start-ups" even in these internally-circulated documents. She was used to the hyperbole and, depending on the integrity of the firm, outright lies of the marketing materials provided to potential clients, but internal communications were usually more matter of fact about companies they had selected for investment. "Promising" was a little too gauzy. Helena was mentioned as the source of the reports, but there was no claim in any of the documents that she had doctored the information. No explicit claim, perhaps, but the implicit accusation was clear. The names of the authors and the recipients of the emails and memos had been removed from the copies delivered to the district attorney's office, the only name that hadn't been removed was Helena's. It smacked of staging, and Myka recalled Kelly saying that Helena had been named in the second anonymous call. Did their Deep Throat believe that the Amundsons were so tied to Helena or so afraid of an investigation that they would protect her at any cost? Or did he have his own reasons for focusing suspicion on Helena? She had then accessed, through a system-wide database, the case file on Stuart McKnight, and at 7:30 in the evening, she was still wading through its hundreds of pages.

Agents had interviewed Helena early and often. She had had a life before Stuart McKnight, before she shared his bed and gave birth to his child. She had been a sought-after financial analyst in her own right, with an almost intuitive feel for the unpredictability of markets. She had devised models for capturing the volatility of market movements that outperformed all but a few of her competitors'. Their relief when she decided to semi-retire to raise her daughter and to grace McKnight's arm at social galas and charity events had been almost palpable; several had remarked to the agents who interviewed them that "once she took herself out of the field, our investors finally quit coming to us asking 'Why can't you do what 'Wells Financial Management does?'" Myka was having a hard time believing the two Helenas were the same woman; the Helena in a one-of-a-kind designer dress sweeping into the Met bore no relationship to the Helena whom Myka had met at the fair, a distraught mother in a sundress that could have come from Kohl's. One was the wife in all but name of a Wall Street power, the other was a single mom.

She sensed rather than heard Irene's approach. Irene didn't so much sneak up on her staff as materialize in front of them, and Myka enviously wondered if it was an ability that you were granted when you became Special Agent in Charge. Perching on the far end of the workstation's desktop, a casual pose that belied the formality of her skirt suit, Irene looked over the top of her glasses at Myka. No "What are you still doing here?" or "It's time to go home," instead it was "What are your thoughts?" There were times Myka hadn't left the office until after 9:00, and the light in Irene's office was still on. In one of the city's distinguished older neighborhoods, there was a Dr. Frederic, an orthopedic surgeon, who was shooting hoops with his youngest son or tending the roses bordering the porch of their equally carefully tended Victorian as he waited for his wife to come home.

"About what's going on at Amundson Securities or Helena Wells?" Myka wanted to stretch but satisfied herself with rubbing her temple. Even after all these years, it was difficult, no, make that practically impossible, to betray in front of Irene how tired she was. Irene was never less than . . . crisp. And alert. She might be perching, but she was also leaning forward, her eyes questioning, intent.

"Either, both. Whatever you have to give me."

"I have a good chunk of the McKnight case file to get through yet, but there's nothing I've found in it so far to suggest they missed anything about her. Helena seems to have been telling the truth, she didn't know what her boyfriend was up to." Myka should have felt a sense of relief; her instincts weren't all wrong. Despite the fear that had overlaid them, the features of Helena's face had suggested strength, intelligence, and a spark of deviltry, not the narcissism and calculation of a con artist. The latter were what Myka had read in the face of Stuart McKnight. He was a good-looking man, or had been at the time, but his smile was too big, too winning in the photos of him and Helena together. Some might have found the smile dazzling, but Myka had been caught more by the look in McKnight's eyes. There was no friendliness in how those eyes stared at the cameras; there was a glint in them that seemed more than a reflection of the lights. He wanted to be seen in a tux with a beautiful woman at his side; he liked the flashes of dozens of cameras and phone cameras going off, he wanted the attention. How could Helena have not seen that in him? She could see it, and she was looking at a four- or five-year-old photo.

"Humor me. Walk me through how they came to that conclusion."

"Interviews of McKnight's staff, even those who were rolling over on him to get their charges dropped or reduced never claimed that Helena Wells was involved; forensic analyses of the bogus trades, audit logs of the company's computers, none of it shows any evidence that she had been tweaking any programs, whether proprietary or off the shelf, no anomalous access, no spurious IDs." Myka squinted at her notes in the borderline illegible handwriting she had developed to stymie other people's ability to read them. The unfortunate consequence was that sometimes she could barely read them. "There was that algorithm of hers, an equation or formula or whatever you want to call it, that they had found on a lot of the computers. But they couldn't find any proof that it had ever been used, and McKnight kept insisting that it was only a 'prototype.'".

"Makes you wonder what he meant by that, doesn't it?" Irene sardonically observed.

So had the agents interviewing Helena Wells. They were unconvinced by her explanation that McKnight had promised to test its accuracy only on proprietary investments, and they were unmoved by her horror that he might have had plans to blame her "faulty" formula for some of the losses suffered by his clients. Had his multiple offshore bank accounts not been discovered, such a plan might have possibly worked. Yet McKnight had had plenty of opportunities to implicate her, and he never had, so it was possible his calling her algorithm a "prototype" was a rare instance of him telling the truth. "We may never know," Myka said. "He's always maintained that Helena had no involvement, and if her past work for Wells Financial Management is any indication, she's clean. She was never the subject of an investigation by a regulatory agency, federal or state, and people were shocked, actually, when she became involved with McKnight. He was a guy who was rumored to have engaged in some questionable practices; she and her brother had good reputations."

Irene had crossed her arms over her chest and bent her head as Myka summarized her findings, her eyes almost closed as she sorted through the information. "But . . . I can hear you thinking it, Myka. You're wondering how someone so smart, so experienced could be so blind. Don't we see it all the time? Business partners duped by friends they've trusted for years, clients fleeced by financial advisors recommended by their pastors or their neighbors. She had built a life with this man, they were raising a family. We are very good at not listening to what we don't want to hear."

Myka couldn't deny the truth of what Irene said. She had spent the better part of four years with Andi telling herself every time she heard the words "This is it, the break I've been waiting for. It'll mean time apart, but I'll make it up to you, I promise" that it would be the last time, because surely Andi would realize that this bit part was just like all the others. It was a dead end, not another step up to that empyrean height in Andi's imagination from which she could choose her roles at will. Myka had also put her faith in Andi's assurances – when she admitted that the "real break" had turned to be, yes, another dead end – that the latest dead end was the last dead end. The awfulness of the shampoo commercial was surpassed only by the misery of the stitches she had to get when she was bit by a chimp on the set of a sitcom. Until they were both dwarfed by the moment when a director invited her back to his hotel room to discuss her future . . . .Myka understood all too well how you could keep believing in a lover or partner long past the time you should have stopped.

"But," she said impatiently, pushing herself away from her desk with enough force that her chair nearly rolled into the cabinet behind her, "how could she have turned her back on all of it, her company, her work, to consult with the nanny about her daughter's nap times and to lunch with a Z-list celebrity from a reality show?" At Irene's raised eyebrow, Myka said hastily, "Of course I'm not saying that raising a child isn't work or rewarding work, and I might have exaggerated the part about the celebrity, but still," her voice trailed off in frustration.

"But?" Irene pressed.

"She retreated." Myka said it more forcefully than she had intended, and she wiped at her cheek in an abysmal attempt to hide that she was blushing. "Helena moves in with him and she becomes someone else. Why?" She hurriedly followed it with "How did she get a job halfway across the country at Amundson Securities? What's here for her?" She wasn't sure she had really disguised "retreated." It was too personal a word, especially in front of Irene. The hot British mom, as Pete had called her, was no more; the woman with the hint of deviltry in her eyes and smile was the subject of a possible investigation, that was all.

"Do we know what her relationship to the Amundsons is?"

Myka shook her head. "I haven't found a connection yet. They stopped looking into Helena long before McKnight was sent to prison. Technically, the investigation may still be open since some of McKnight's employees have yet to go on trial, but no one's keeping tabs on her."

"Except us, perhaps." More awkwardly than Myka would have predicted, Irene stepped down and away from the desk. She automatically smoothed her skirt. "What information do we have on Amundson Securities and the troubled energy start-ups?"

"Pete's looking into them." When he left the office for the day and she was still buried in files in her cube, he never failed to say that an honest-to-God meal and eight hours of sleep were more useful to the FBI than her being chained to her desk. He had said that tonight as well, on his way to a night of pizza and video games with friends. Especially with the acid from the sodas burning a hole in her stomach lining, she might have left with him if he had been willing to stick around for a few minutes longer. Who was she kidding? He would still be waiting for her, hunched over – and attempting to soothe – his growling stomach in her desperately uncomfortable visitor's chair.

"Ah," Irene said, approval rather than its opposite coloring her voice, "he's wiser than we are, I'm afraid. I'll talk with him tomorrow." As Myka started to swing her chair back around to her monitor, Irene put a delaying hand on the back. "Go home. All of this can wait until tomorrow." The tone was almost maternal, but the eyes were no less intent. Irene might be saying "go home," but her thoughts weren't dwelling on dinner or the opportunity to sit on the porch swing with her husband. "Steve's back tomorrow, and I'd like to talk over with him what our friends from Justice and the DA's office have dropped into our laps. If we decide to recommend an investigation to Washington, I'd want you and Pete to lead it and Steve to oversee it." Irene hesitated in the cubicle's entry. "This is sensitive enough that I want to keep it between the three of us and Steve, at least for now. If it got out that we were investigating one of the Amundsons . . . "

Myka nodded. It wouldn't be a high profile case for the Bureau, necessarily, not like the McKnight investigation, but it would be very high profile for this city. Helena Wells had one hell of a bad angel looking over her shoulder. "Pete's gut is telling him that she's not involved – if there is something going on at Amundson Securities." Myka didn't volunteer opinions this early, her own or anyone else's, but tonight she had done it twice. And when it came to giving readings of Pete's gut, she usually let him do it. She needed to let the case shape her thoughts, not the other way around.

"Possibly or possibly she's cleverer than the rest of us put together." Irene cast a musing look at the institutionally tiled ceiling. If anyone could find an answer to a puzzle hidden in its blandness, it would be Irene. "I wonder if our colleagues left her with the impression that their investigation into her activities remained open. It would be nice to introduce some leverage into a conversation with her, such as a connection, unspecified of course, between Amundson and McKnight. A little something to keep her awake at night." The maternal warmth was gone, though Irene was talking about coercing a woman into cooperating with them with the same smoothness that she might ask after another's health or children. "I'll have to give some thought to the best way of approaching her, if we get authorization to move forward with this. We'll need to use her vulnerability to our advantage."

Inadvertently Myka glanced down at the smiling face in the photo, captured at a happier time in a happier place. If Helena Wells had thought this somewhat sleepy Midwestern city was a refuge, she was about to discover there would be no rest for her. The crazy thought of asking for a reprieve for her caused Myka to look up, almost pleadingly, but Irene was already gone.