"How can this be?" Jim Burns stares into the thicket, thorns and bristle well obscuring the pallid face. He furls his brow, then leans to peer around the side of the overgrown bush. The hand peeking from beneath had given it away. Jim's mind reels in terror. He can see the morning's happenings: the pristine, toddling little girl running for her ball. Only, her curiosity had brought her to latch onto the cold hand instead. The child had looked at the hand in confusion, tugging on her new toy, unsure why it wouldn't go with her.
Matthew Eastwood turns from Jim to glance at the rest of the backyard, now swimming with CSI's. It's a family garden, for Christ's sake. Matthew can just barely see the white night gown half-swaddling the young woman in the bush, but he's already picked out the similarity. The dark hair lies tangled in the dirt, her snow-white skin contrasting grimly with the blood-red lipstick painted onto her mouth. Matthew finally offers a shrug to his boss, still mystified. "I don't know, but I think we both know what needs to happen."
Jim takes stock of the officers around him again. It's early, and the fog still hugs the trees surrounding the yard. It's a typical, somewhat spartan and medium-sized backyard. The garden looks as though it hasn't gotten much care of recent. An obvious opportunity for a neighbor, perhaps? Jim can't help but think that the house isn't far from where Paul Spector lived - just four blocks over, in fact. He spies Glen Martin across the way, questioning the stunned mother while she hugs her little girl tightly. A tech waits beside them, anxious to take the little girl's clothing and watching closely while the mother rubs her baby's back. Martin turns to meet his gaze, and Jim can feel his own concerns reflected back at him. They are all in agreement, then.
Stella finds the panicked e-mail a rather odd development. Coward. She can't help but think it. She can see Jim's dark, frightened glance already. His overarching concern for propriety and righteousness. The last thing she really wants is a trip back to Belfast and its haunting shadows. The last year has seen development upon development, all racked upon the forceful reprimand that met her on her return to London. A heated, angry letter from DS Tom Anderson had preceded her arrival at Met Headquarters. It was the sort of letter that ruined careers. It told the story of a high ranking officer who took advantage of her staff. An officer who, based on the observances of a short-lived colleague, may drink too much, order too much, and (most of all) have a little too much sex. Corroborating, sleazy newspaper articles submitted by Ned Callan, one step up from the fungus clinging to the bottom of a pond, seemed to have been the final nail in her coffin. The ghost of James Olson will follow Stella for quite some time.
"You need to be careful, Stella." Her rather dashing, sleek, business man of a boss had raised his eyebrows at her from the opposite side of the desk. His soft, gray coloring wasn't entirely unlike Jim Burns'. Clarkson was his name, but he seemed far more interested in who she was than who she appeared to be to the press. He passed the newspaper clippings across the desk to her while he pulled out the livid letter to read aloud. "It is my professional opinion that Detective Superintendent Gibson failed to maintain appropriate work acquaintances, and further used her position to force a seemingly personal agenda."
Stella had raised her own eyebrow. "You know that smacks of revenge, Jeremy."
"I know, Stella." His smile dimpled, and he suddenly looked younger than his fifty-something. "Look, I've never gotten anything less than exemplary work from you, and neither has anyone else; But I'd be lying if I didn't admit to hearing stories. I don't have to tell you about the risk you take being a female in your position."
"It works both ways, Jeremy." She'd leaned back in her chair, crossing her legs, fixing him with a smirk of her own. "If I were a male supervisor, you'd be taking by badge today. Throwing me out on the street, only to await crucifixion for my sexual misconduct, taking advantage. The suspect had been apprehended, and DS Anderson was made more than aware of the.... brevity of the relationship."
Clarkson shrugged. "So, why all the noise, then?"
Jeremy's office has the most beautiful London view. Stella had stared out the window, gathering her thoughts. "I don't know. He was upset after he and Spector were shot. Upset that I didn't go to him first; fawn over him. When I went to see him in the hospital, he was distant and didn't say much. I believe he uttered little more than 'cold fish'; But I would like to think that wasn't it. I've had ongoing differences of opinion with Assistant Chief Constable Burns. It may have more to do with that situation."
"Differences of opinion?" Jeremy tipped his chair back, resting his face half into his hand. It was his 'thinking' pose. "How so?"
Stella sighed. "This stays in this room?"
Jeremy nodded, urging her to continue.
"ACC Burns and I have... a sexual history. Based on your earlier comments, I assume that can't surprise you all that much?"
"Go ahead." Jeremy waved at her, suddenly uncomfortable.
"He accosted me in my hotel room. He was drunk, beside himself... upset with himself over something he'd done. He got carried away - I hit him. Almost broke his nose."
"This was in Belfast?" Jeremy's alarm was evident, and Stella nodded her 'yes'. "Jesus, Stella.... Are you ok? He didn't hurt you.."
She cut him off. "No. I'm fine... was fine. But, after the 'disagreement'? I don't know if he may have heard that Anderson and I had spent a night together, or if Anderson might have gone to him for some sort of advice. I assume you see where I'm going with this."
"A clear-cut case of one jealous man fueling another man who's already feeling hurt and upset because of your perceived lack of caring.... It makes a hell of a lot more sense than a man sleeping with you, then complaining."
Stella had laughed, the levity very much unexpected, and appreciated. Jeremy returned her laugh. "I can't stop the inquiry, but I'm going to see to it that you come out of this ok. Just give it some time and patience, Stella."
Is a year enough? Stella ruminates while she packs her bags, nothing looking much differently than it had before she dropped in on the PSNI over a year ago. She isn't entirely sure a year is enough at all. Paul Spector is still alive, but entirely lame. The trial is coming up, and she would have been called back before long anyhow. Truth be told, the enticement of the approaching trial has flagged as well. Desperately clutching to Spector's bleeding torso on a gravel drive a year ago, all she'd been able to think was that the families deserved a trial. Now, the wheels having spun themselves behind her eyes for exactly 392 days, she can recognize that juries see a man in a wheelchair differently. A handsome man. A family man. It wasn't supposed to happen this way, she thinks.
Stella flips through the sparse file once more before throwing it into her bag. There isn't much to go on yet, but she's certain of one thing. Someone's gone copycatting...
Tanya Reed Smith watches in amusement while Detective Superintendent Gibson makes her way assertively through the airport crowd. Stella looks just as she did the last time Tanya saw her, all grace packed into a flowing ensemble of delicate colors. There had been so much intrigue surrounding the woman and her odd way - those pristine, utterly feminine clothes shelling a composed, coiled viper. Her quiet voice and big ideals, and her unquestioned command of her domain. Tanya can admit to herself that she'd been far from immune from that intrigue. She can also admit to herself that her curiosity has only been kept at bay over the last year - not abated, or silenced. There's no denying, she thinks about Stella Gibson often. She sees Stella's eyebrow quirk when she notices Tanya among the maddening crowd.
Stella chuckles, reaching out to empty Tanya's hands: She holds the obligatory sign - "GIBSON". For a moment, Stella feels that she could plant a kiss on the other woman, but checks herself; reminds herself of the rather poor year that's passed. Reminds herself that things didn't exactly end cleanly with Reed Smith, and that they haven't spoken since. Has it really been a year? It doesn't feel it. Will they share a laugh about that awkward night sometime in the near future? Or will Tanya continue to look at Stella like she's simply scared to death of her? Stella hopes yes, and no; in that order. She smiles warmly at the other woman.
"I've missed you." Stella surprises herself, speaking first. Tanya won't look her in the eye for more than a few seconds at a time. Why's she come? "What are you doing here, Professor?"
Reed takes a deep breath, then meets Stella's questioning gaze with a bashful smile. "I heard your presence was requested... I didn't have anything better to do. So, I volunteered. I've missed you, too."
Stella nods. That wasn't so difficult, after all.
"Shall we?" Tanya reaches to help Stella with her bags, and Stella hands over a small satchel while she drags her larger suitcase behind her. It isn't the greeting she'd hoped for, but it's certainly better than the greeting she expected.
In the car, Stella dares to ask, "How have you been? Your girls?"
The passing landscape is gloomy. Gloomier than normal, even. Stella thinks it's somewhat fitting. The overcast mixed with the green of the windswept trees casts a sickly pea soup glow into the car. They're stopped at a light and Tanya averts her eyes to the side of the road, where there's nothing in particular. It's just not Stella's face. "My husband left me about six months ago. But, the girls are OK, really. Thank God for that."
Stella's chest feels heavy when she draws in a breath. She can't seem to find words. "I'm sorry."
Tanya nods and steps on the gas a little abruptly when the light changes. Stella suddenly has the presence of mind to wonder what happened to Tanya's motorbike, but she doesn't ask. She waits while Tanya clears her throat and sends a sad smile her way. "I'm sorry, too."
The air in the car remains thick and stagnant. Stella wonders about a great many things, and she holds herself back from assaulting the Professor with her potentially insensitive questions. She wants to know how Rose and Tom are. She wants to know who still works at the PSNI before she makes her way back to the station. She wants to know if her relationship with Reed is permanently damaged.
"I know this is awkward." Tanya suddenly speaks, the words flying from her mouth as though she's been working up the courage to say them for some time. "I'm sorry that I let things end the way they did... I've regretted it every day for the last year. I'm just not ready to talk about it quite yet."
"I understand." Stella's smile is wan, but her gaze is warm and accepting. She understands more than Tanya might realize.
"I just wanted you to know - you know, that there are no hard feelings. I wondered if you would like to stay with me while you're here. We could...start over."
Stella doesn't hide her surprise, and she turns a bit in her seat to study Reed. Tanya doesn't return her scrutiny - she's maneuvering into a busy intersection. "What about your daughters?"
Tanya shakes her head. "Don't worry. They're off with their Dad for the next two weeks. We're, um... adjusting."
"I would love to." Feeling a bit daring, Stella gently pats the other woman's shoulder. She's pleased to see an honest smile on Tanya's face.
Jim feels himself spiraling out of control. He'd tried everything to avoid it - to avoid messaging her. He hadn't had the emotional courage for a phone call. An e-mail would suffice. In his mind's eye, he can see her eyes searching him, while he remembers his last interactions with her. He can freshly see her pity, her anger, and her grudging patience. She's much kinder to him that he deserves, and he's well aware of it. She's scheduled to arrive today, and he thanks the powers that be that he's not charged with picking her up from the airport. It would be too much like before.
He's taken to keeping a bottle of whiskey in his bottom desk drawer. He isn't proud of it, but he's managed to moderate himself somewhat. He hasn't been a sloppy drunk in over a year; not since the night that changed his relationship with Stella Gibson. Problem is, his wife doesn't know he's a drunk at all. He wishes she would leave him. He could stop pretending. He could go back to being a cliche of his own profession. He might know what to do with himself, then.
Eastwood knows. At least, Jim's pretty sure he does. He sees the sideways glances, raised eyebrows. The feeling that he's being watched a little more closely than he should be. Eastwood has him backed into a corner, and he's waiting for an opportunity to finish him off. Jim's sure of it. It'd been Eastwood's suggestion to call Stella. She'll come running, always honorable and calm; always smarter and more composed. Stella always knows what to say. Goddamn if he doesn't hate that about her.
It's taken herculean effort for Stella to remove herself from Professor Reed-Smith's lush, warm, quiet home. The home possesses a certain plush, comforting nature that Stella's quite unfamiliar with. Her own home is cramped, not so much cluttered as it is tight. It's a clean apartment, its white and untouched walls and boxes in the corner indicative of her unsure, unsettled, flighty nature. As a single woman, it's easy to move house often, and she does. She's packed up her things and relocated, sometimes, more quickly than she's discarded an unsuspecting lover. Looking at Reed's well-decorated and personal space, Stella wonders what it might be like to have a home that feels like her. She's scared to ponder that the cold, anonymous apartments of her present streak may say plenty about her, as is. How, exactly, did she get here?
While Reed watched her quietly from the kitchen, Stella had grabbed her coat and made a reluctant exit. She'd turned to see the other woman smiling at her in her effortlessly mysterious way. It was indescribably alluring; a quality that Stella had noticed from the start. It hadn't been the time for conversation, both women still mulling over their conversation in the car. It was time for Stella to make herself scarce and allow Reed the time to process. Stella's found herself in unfamiliar territory. She's never cared to allow a lover time to process, and she suddenly feels like a terribly unkind sort of individual.
The distractions of the day fall from her mind when Stella makes her way into the sadly comfortable halls of the PSNI Headquarters. Immediately, she remembers the greenish tinge of the fluorescent lights above, lending the place a sort of eerie, sickly glow. The halls are busy, and Stella's surprised to see some vaguely familiar faces waving her hello. They are all survivors of the Spector fiasco, bonded together by one man's obscenities. Stella can recognize this, even knowing that many of these officers never saw the inside of her task force. On her way to the administrative wing, Stella's attention is caught by the infamous picture box, proclaiming "Our Murdered Colleagues...". She sees three faces added, but she doesn't recognize them. Jimmy Olsen's plucky, smiling photo lovingly taped to the frame has been replaced by a service photo. It's much too serious, and she doesn't see much of him in it.
Stella tears her eyes from the unfortunate young officer, striding purposefully to the upper-level office door. She rings the bell to be allowed in, and is immediately met by Mary McCurdy's always-patient face. Stella finds herself glad to see the other woman, smiling in earnest. "Mary..."
"Detective Superintendent." Mary waves her in, then pulls her closer for a whisper. "You're a sight for sore eyes, if I do say so myself. There's quite a stir about this place - surely you'll put them all back in order."
Stella straightens her skirt while she sends Mary an erstwhile smirk. "Where's Assistant Chief Constable Burns?"
"In conference A. Along with Eastwood and Martin -- They've been arguing about something for the last hour or so. Couldn't say what - far be it from me to get involved." Mary points down the hallway towards the conference suits. "Can I get you a cup of coffee, Ma'am?"
"That would be fabulous." Stella suddenly remembers that she never said goodbye to Mary. She's missed her cool, friendly, competent manner. "Sounds like I'm going to need it."
There's, indeed, a grumble coming from the conference room. It's not reached epic proportions, but the raised voices and angered tones are difficult to miss. Stella can't help but find it amusing, and works at impassivity while she knocks on the door. "Yes?" She can hear it, muffled but angry, falling from Jim Burns' mouth.
When Stella enters the room, the first thing she sees is Glen Martin dropping his sandwich, eagerly popping to his feet. His smile is sheepish, and he hangs his head. He self-consciously rearranges his shirt collar and hair. She supposes that he wasn't much a part of the heavy argument that'd preceded her. The other men's sandwiches remain wrapped and untouched. Glen clears his throat.
"Welcome back, Ma'am." He always was an eater, and she swears she can see him eyeing his half-eaten sandwich, even now.
Stella can see the fire in Jim's eyes, still directed at Eastwood. Meanwhile, Eastwood looks at her with his usual bored countenance. He raises his eyebrows at her and acknowledges Martin's welcome. "Good to see you, Detective Superintendent. Please, let me take your coat."
Burns is weirdly incensed by Eastwood's offer to get her coat, and Stella can see the irritation plain on his face. He's wound up very tightly, even by his own standards. Shoulders reach up to touch his earlobes while the ACC leans forward onto the conference room table. Stella recognizes the posturing, but she smiles in his direction anyhow.
"Good to see you, Assistant Chief Constable Burns."
He almost spits it out, "Likewise."
Stella watches while Eastwood extricates himself from the heated argument and goes to hang her coat up. Mary makes her way through the door and to the conference table almost silently, leaving Stella's coffee before beating her own hasty exit. Stella stands on the opposite side of Martin and looks at the coffee Mary's just left - black, with one cream on the side. A year's passed, and Mary brings her coffee as though she left yesterday or last week. The thought makes her inexplicably sad.
Burns clears his throat and sits. The rest follow suit. "Let's cut through the bullshit. What do you think, Stella?"
Deliberately, Stella opens the cream and slowly trickles it into the coffee, languidly swishing its included swizzle stick. She sighs and swivels her chair towards the others. "In my opinion, there's a clear connection, Sir."
Jim looks down at his papers briefly, shuffling through them for no apparent reason. He seems to be doing whatever necessary to avoid looking at her. "On what do you base your opinion?"
Stella takes a short moment to collect her thoughts. "The girl is younger, but she fits the physical description. She's posed very carefully. The red lipstick caught my eye. I think this was a... copycat with a twist."
The three men raise their respective eyebrows, ushering her to continue. "It's almost as though the killer is fundamentally fascinated by Paul Spector and his methodology... but is looking for a way to break away. To be an individual. The quirks are such obvious opposites to Spector's MO. I think we're looking for an emotionally immature individual; someone quite obstinate. Angry. Paul Spector took time with his victims after their deaths - not because he cared about them, but because he relished the control. This individual kept the victim alive longer, probably a day. There's bruising over a large portion of her body, indicating that the torture and strangulation were the highlight of the killer's experience. The killer wanted nothing more than a punching bag, easily discarded."
Jim shakes his head. "With so many differences, how can you legitimately label this a copycat?"
Stella smiles sadly, hesitating briefly. "Because I think Katie Benedetto did it."
"Gentlemen," Burns alternately fixes Martin and Eastwood with steely glances. "Excuse us momentarily, please."
Stella's mouth quirks a bit while she watches Martin's alarmed face looking from Burns to herself, silently asking her permission. He's like a child, unsure of which parent to ask. She nods to him, almost imperceptibly, and her amusement continues while he collects his half-eaten food and follows Eastwood out of the conference room. Jim doesn't immediately speak when the door closes. Stella doesn't look at him, either, instead sipping at her coffee. She can hear him thinking, feel him tensing. The air in the room is stiff and overly warm. Both of them pretend not to notice.
"You want to explain your theory to me, Detective Superintendent?" When she finally looks up, Stella sees a man overwrought. His eyes are bloodshot, his shoulders rigid. He looks an absolute mess. Surely her presence here hasn't caused such extreme distress?
"I explained it to you already, Sir. I believe this killer to be quite the admirer of Paul Spector, but all the misogyny simply isn't there."
Jim turns his head, his eyes going to the ceiling while he draws in a breath. Stella remembers their conversation the day after Jimmy Olsen died, Burns staring at the ceiling while he puffed out overwhelmed breaths. She vaguely thinks that they're headed toward trouble if he's already so frustrated. What the hell is going on with him?
"And what makes you think that Katie Benedetto is responsible for this?"
"I'll need to do some research; pull her statements from her hearings, get a full briefing on the victim now that she's been identified... but, so far, I just get a feeling. Also, the victim is right around her same age and was left in the vicinity of the Benedetto home. Katie's mother works long hours, leaving her to come and go as she pleases."
Jim sighs. "You know that I can't move forward on 'a feeling'."
"You've never had trouble acting upon your feelings in the past." It's a sharp, low blow, and Stella knows it. She sips from her coffee mug again, leaning forward demurely.
Jim's head snaps towards her violently, his hurt-widened eyes latching onto her face in earnest for the first time since she's arrived. He doesn't bother sputtering, but his head hangs in semi-defeat while he puts himself back together. This isn't how he'd imagined things would be, but who's he fooling? His experience very rarely satisfies his imagination. Jim suddenly wishes for the liquid courage three hallways down, tucked in a locked desk drawer. His mouth feels a little dry.
Stella clears her throat and nods toward him, a silent apology. "Has Katie Benedetto even been on the radar since her court proceedings?"
"No," Jim shakes his head. "Not that I'm aware of. Spector may have turned her into a fine sociopath, but she came out the other end, legally, relatively unscathed. She was allowed to return to school, with conditions, if I remember correctly. I think there was some question as to whether she would graduate on time, though."
Stella considers the new information. "He always got just what he wanted out of her. It seemed, by the time it all ended, that she was almost eager to prove herself an absolute slave to his every desire. A year of feeding her resentment for authority, the police, our keeping her from him... added with the additional pressures at school? It's not too difficult for me to believe that she could be capable."
Jim's hands spread on the table, his hot, sweaty palms relieved for its coolness. "We haven't a shred of evidence to back you up on this, Stella."
"We don't need evidence to start digging, Jim, and you know it. I have a feeling forensics will come up with something before long. She could definitely be a killer, but she's not a thorough thinker. She won't have planned it to the nines. I imagine we'll find prints." She raises her eyebrows at him, warming her own hands on her coffee mug. Stella can't help but feel that she's exhausted of this game. Belfast having never quite left her, she feels she's been arguing with Jim Burns for almost 14 months. It would be more stimulating if he didn't constantly look on the brink of tears.
Suddenly, startling Stella, Jim lets out a bark of laughter. He bangs his hand on the table and stares at her while he guffaws. Stella's mortified for him, and watches with knit brows.
"I'll never understand you, will I?" He shakes his head with a certain melodrama, standing and leaning across the table again. "You have no idea what you've left behind, Stella."
"Excuse me?" She almost whispers it, and remains seated. Jim blusters at her unknowing reply.
"We're on the fucking edge, Stella," He spits, "Eastwood's at my throat, just looking for signs of weakness. I have a goddamned hearing scheduled about the Monroe fiasco. It's shit, that's what it is!" That fist comes down on the table again, harder than before. Stella's coffee comes close to spilling over.
"How is this my fault, Jim? I went home, as instructed. I am an officer of the Met, in case you've forgotten?" She remembers another conversation last year, Jim marveling at her crisp uniform outside of their doomed meeting with the Policing Executive. It'd been before things shot straight to hell.
Jim sighs, checking his anger, straightening from his aggressive posture. "Sometimes you infuriate me, is all."
"Because I'm right? Or because you can't live with what you've done to yourself? The way things ended before... You had the opportunity to fix them. Instead, I almost lost my job, Jim." Stella seeks out his eyes, hoping for an explanation.
"I didn't know he was going to do that." His voice is quiet, honest. It's the first she's seen of the Jim Burns she knows.
"You spoke to him, then?" Stella fights to keep eye contact.
Jim nods. "I did. He was upset after the shooting. I suggested he drop it."
Stella waits for him to continue. She can see that he's working out his thoughts. Perhaps he's unsure whether he should tell her the rest.
"He replied that I was only interested in protecting you. That I was in love with you; That he should have known better than to bring the matter up with me. Fact of the matter is, he was right. I'll always be blinded by my feelings for you... And no amount of whiskey can fix that, Stella."
Stella nods. "My answer hasn't changed, Jim."
Jim smiles sadly. "I know it won't change... But just as I have to accept the fact that you drive me crazy, you're going to have to accept the fact that I seem completely incapable of moving on."
Stella returns his sad smile. "Ok. Suppose we should invite Eastwood and Martin back in?"
Jim sighs, squaring his shoulders and walking toward the door. He's unable to squelch the feeling of absolute terror in his gut.
Stella's relieved to find that her rent-a-wreck corner office is still available. It seems it's become a wasteland of paperwork and other sundry items no one knows what to do with, boxes and gadgets littered about. Still, Stella absorbs the office with sentimental eyes. She spies the untouched cot shoved beneath the inner-office window and wonders if this was all the office was good for before she arrived - a glorified broom closet. She deposits her satchel just inside the door and moves to begin clearing the desk. While placing a few items into a box, a pair of gentle arms come into view beside her, latching onto a heavy box of paperwork. It's Mary, smiling in her neutral, unaffected way. She follows Stella out into the hallway and both women place their boxes up against the outside wall of the office.
Mary stops Stella before she can continue. "No sense in wasting your time with this, Ma'am. I should have thought to have the office cleared before your arrival. I'm sure you have some unpacking and catching up to do - I can have this finished by morning."
As if to emphasize her point, Mary reaches just inside the office to retrieve Stella's slightly-beaten satchel. Stella accepts it with an easy smile, shouldering the familiar bag. For a moment, she wonders how it is that Mary seems to see all and know all.
"Please don't go to too much trouble, Mary."
Mary snickers. "Oh, I won't. After you leave, I'll have a maintenance man in here to do my bidding. They're terrified of me."
"I can identify with that," Stilla scoffs and shakes her head. "I'll see you in the morning, Mary. Thank you."
Mary nods, knowing full well that 'morning' means Stella will likely be back in the wee hours. She has quite some work to do, and leaves the Detective Superintendent to show herself out.
It feels good to have her own car. Never one to rely on the kindness of others, Stella feels much better when she's carting herself about, even in unfamiliar territory. Fortunately, she knows the way to her destination by rote. She admires the glow cast over Belfast with the setting sun, an electric pink peeking through the brooding clouds. It's a beautiful place, with history practically leaking from its pores. One can feel it as they walk down the street - it was the first thing she noticed last year. The moment she stepped out of the bland and sterile airport, it was as though the very air took on a different feel.
She's not sure what compels her, but she drives to her destination like an automaton. She can't stop herself long enough to ponder it - she needs to see it. It's a long drive, and she settles herself into her seat for the trek. The city is darkening, and Stella watches while the neighborhoods turn from upscale and clean to beaten-down and roughshod. She wonders if Tanya is waiting for her. Perhaps she made dinner. Stella still has no idea what to expect of the relationship, but she's almost certain domesticity isn't exactly what the professor wants or needs. No one looks at Stella Gibson and thinks candlelit romance. Right?
She thinks of her earlier conversation with Jim Burns. His eyes had shown such defeat and sadness. When he isn't fighting with her, he's so desperately lonely it bothers her to be in the same room with him. On some level, Stella feels responsible. She can recognize that her decision to go to bed with Jim was a bad one - another example of her occasional misreading. Will her relationship with Tanya Reed-Smith meet the same fate should she be careless? Stella can't lie to herself - she knows her own foolishness as well as one can.
After their tense, much-needed conversation, Jim had acted with far more professionalism than she'd seen from him in some time. Eastwood had sent her an errant glance, with a crooked grin tacked on. Surely he wondered what happened in his absence. Martin had continued to drum his fingers, seemingly not interested in the inner-departmental drama. With a level of diplomacy not present since she'd stepped into the conference room, Jim declared that they would be adding Katie Benedetto to the suspect list, and begin watching her as such. Her previous involvement with Spector lined up with the new, seemingly copycat-style murders would allow him the freedom necessary to put her under surveillance. He will have the permissions lined up by morning.
The sudden burst of productivity leaves Stella with little to do until her office is cleaned out and mildly terrified to return to Reed-Smith's home. Instead, she sits in her car, engine and lights extinguished, watching Annie Brawley's former building. The street looks quite the same, but the remodel on the building seems to have been abandoned. The upstairs windows are broken into, and the scaffolding has all been removed. The paint remains strained and weather-worn. The occasional person or couple walks by, either completely at home or glancing over their shoulders. After all, it is the Shankill. She wonders if Annie's well. She still remembers the shell-shocked woman she left behind. Annie Brawley reminds her far too much of herself.
Heavy raindrops dot the windows of Stella's borrowed sedan, and she jumps at a violent crack at her passenger side window. There's a large split where the rock hit and a hooded face comes to peer into the window. A nearly twin hooded individual comes to flank the driver's side window while a third blocks her from leaving. Stella sighs heavily. Apparently the neighborhood thugs found new leadership. She rolls the window down a couple inches and fights not to roll her eyes as well, fully aware that a single meaty fist could elevate the situation to an ugly point. She doesn't speak.
Stella can vaguely see the face of the man beside her window. He's nothing outstanding - caucasian, with an angry sneer and a piercing in his lip glinting in the meager light. He's a little on the skinny side - for certain, a poor substitute for the Jimmy Taylors of the world.
"What do you think you're doing here?" His voice is even a little high-pitched.
Stella smiles, indulging herself in a little condescension. "What do you think I'm doing here?"
Mr. Skinny scoffs. "What are you, some kinda pig copper? That's a nice outfit... I bet 'ya got nice bits underneath that."
Stella remains impassive - his attempt to intimidate her is an amateurish move. He can't even bring himself to pull out a proper cuss. "You're going to step away from my vehicle, and I'm going to leave."
"'That so?" She can finally see his whole face in the dim street light. There are deep pock marks dotting his cheeks. "I thought we might party."
"No thanks." Stella shifts the car into neutral and watches while the unsure thug parked in front of the bumper shuffles nervously. "Why don't you get in touch with someone who knew Jimmy Tyler? They'll tell you all about me."
As suspected, the anonymous figure in front of her car jumps out of the way when she tears out of the parking space. Stella's heart flutters in her chest and she smiles, setting course back to Tanya's place. She suddenly feels a bit peckish.
"What's got you so chuffed?" Tanya raises an eyebrow at Stella while she uncorks a new bottle of wine. It's one of her more expensive bottles; in an alternate universe, her husband may have raised a disapproving brow at her waste. Tanya never understood - what's the purpose of buying wine one will never drink? The assets haven't yet been divided, and Tanya's taken it upon herself to deplete the wine collection before he can demand it from her. So far, he's too thrilled with his new life to care what he's left sitting in his old.
Stella shuffles her feet and smiles sheepishly, still not entirely sure where she belongs in Tanya's space. "I took a drive out to Annie Brawley's old townhome. I ran into a group of good old-fashioned Shankill thugs. They were amusing."
"Only you could get excited about a brush with potential death." Tanya shakes her head and smiles. "Did everyone escape with testicles attached, Detective Superintendent?"
"You overestimate my willingness to engage in hand-to-hand combat, Professor." Stella takes an elegant wine glass from Tanya, immediately going in for a sip. It's a sumptuous sort of wine, hugging her tongue with a thick, woodsy bouquet. It's exquisite.
Tanya takes her own first sip, and silently damns her husband for keeping her from imbibing. Perhaps she'd have had a happier marriage. "Well, I certainly don't overestimate the size of your heels."
Stella chuckles openly. "Fortunately, no physical damage done. My car's another story - one of the little bastards threw a rock at my passenger side window."
"What made you go all the way out there?" Tanya moves towards her oversized sofa, inviting Stella to join her. It causes the professor a strange twinge of pleasure when she sees her bird-like companion drop into the cushions sans her shoes and tuck her legs beneath her.
Stella takes a moment to think while she samples the wine again. "I don't know, really. I had nothing better to do and needed to waste time. I got in the car... and just drove. I suddenly needed to see it."
"You were wasting time because you're afraid to face me." Tanya raises an eyebrow.
Stella nods, never one to hide her feelings, and not at all surprised that Tanya's picked up on them. "It can't surprise you that I'm a little... unsure. I thought you didn't want to see me anymore."
"I certainly didn't give you cause to think otherwise." Tanya leans forward and carefully places her glass on the coffee table. "I thought I didn't want to see you anymore, either."
"I wouldn't blame you. I tried to take advantage of you." Stella looks down at her wine glass, running her fingertip along the rim. She watches the thick, red liquid swirl in her hand and can't quite bring herself to look Tanya in the eye. It's not often that Stella Gibson finds herself on uneven footing, but she has to admit to herself that she's positively terrified.
"I wanted you." Tanya clears her throat and looks to the ceiling, equally uncomfortable with eye contact. "I made the wrong decision. My marriage was headed down the drain and I knew it. The only thing holding me back was my fear of the unknown. It took me a good couple months to stop thinking, almost every night, about what I'd missed out on."
Stella hums and smiles before downing the remainder of her wine. The glass goes to rest beside the professor's. "I wondered for a long while, too. I know what it looked like that night... that I just wanted a fast fuck. I did, but I chose you because you represented something safe to me. When I met you, I had the strangest feeling that you were so familiar to me."
"When I met you..." Tanya stops to gather her thoughts, a secretive little smile on face. Stella waits expectantly, eyebrows raised. "All I could think was that I'd never met anyone like you before. You looked like a completely different breed of woman, so sleek and silky; and absolutely beautiful. I was drawn to you, but I don't think I realized my own sexual feelings until after you kissed me, and it confused me. It's never occurred to me that another woman might be just what I need."
"What will you tell your daughters? Your husband..." Stella knits her brows. She's a bit shy with children - the one banality of the human existence that she's completely inept at. She's almost thankful that children were never an option.
"My husband? He left me for one of his research assistants. She's 25 and adores him... I don't think he'll give a fuck. He would probably think it's 'hot'. The girls are still a little young to think much of it. I do hope you'll stay around long enough to meet them, though. They'll love you."
Stella has her doubts, but she doesn't share them. "I'm at your beck and call, Professor."
Tanya smiles at her. "I feel like Watson to your Sherlock when you call me that. It makes me laugh. Will you watch a movie with me?"
Stella looks to her satchel propped up in the corner, fully loaded with laptop and files. "So long as you don't mind me getting a little work done while we watch."
Tanya pulls herself up from the couch, fetching the remote control from the TV console across the room. "My mother always warned me not to date cops."
"Well, good thing this cop's been promoted to very-nearly glorified desk jockey." Stella retrieves her satchel and returns to the sofa, throwing a pillow onto her lap and stretching her legs.
Tanya plops down beside her, closer than before, but still with enough distance to allow Stella to work freely. "You mean, aside from your propensity for fighting with random street gangs?"
Stella opens her laptop and presses the power button, smiling with some irony. "Didn't I tell you? I'm actually a superhero by night..."
The women laugh loudly together while Tanya channel-surfs, dutifully avoiding the blood-splashed photos spread on her would-be lover's lap.
"What time is it?" Tanya doesn't pick her head up. She breathes in Stella's scent from her resting spot on the other woman's lap. Her head shares prime real estate with Stella's laptop while the detective sips another glass of wine. The TV's long been turned off, and Tanya's pleased to feel the occasional stroke of Stella's fingers through her hair. She has a sneaking suspicion, however, that the other woman only does so when she thinks Tanya's asleep. The occasional tap-tap of the laptop keyboard is hypnotic in the warm, sound-empty room.
"3 am." Stella clears her throat, and Tanya sighs in disappointment when her hand untangles itself from her hair. "Time for me to get going. Do you mind if I shower here?"
Tanya sits up, mussing her hair and stretching about. There's a stagnant malaise to the room; the sort that only settles into a space well after midnight. Neither women dare speak above a whisper, lest they break some unwritten rule. Tanya doesn't dare ask her about sleep, or work, or the wine she's had. "Not at all."
Tanya stands and pulls the laptop and pillow from Stella's lap, looking at the spot she was occupying somewhat longingly. Stella's clothing is wrinkled, something Tanya's not seen before. Her hair, having been cramped into the sofa behind her shoulders, sits crushed and messy; also something Tanya's unaccustomed to. She can't say she doesn't like it, and she reaches a hand to help the Detective Superintendent from the overstuffed furniture. Without her heels, Tanya sees the other woman for the tiny being she is. How a woman of such minuscule size manages to strike fear and contempt into the heart of many a man, Tanya will never understand, but it all adds to the mysterious allure that is Stella Gibson.
"Let me show you." Tanya smiles shyly, continuing to grip Stella's warm hand. She leads the other woman up the stairs and around the corner to the master bedroom. "The shower's better in here."
Stella stops Tanya in the bedroom, startling her. "Is there room for two?"
Stella can see the other woman tense, her mouth working silently, attempting to find an answer. She runs her hand over Tanya's shoulder, meant to be purely of comfort, waiting for her decision. "Don't you need to get to work, Stella?"
Stella nods. "I thought we could preserve water, Professor. Surely the morgue beckons soon."
Tanya grins bashfully, her shoulders deflating, and Stella loves the way she bites at her lip. "I suppose my water bill could use a little help, then."
Stella peers at Tanya, her eyes questioning and concerned, and wonderfully intense. "Just a shower."
Stella doesn't wait, but turns and makes her way to the bathroom, looking like she belongs there. Conversely, she looks as though everything and everyone there belongs to her. Tanya watches her go, possessed by the sway of the other woman's hips. It's a strange sort of game they're playing, and Tanya wishes she could get up her courage to just fuck and get it over with. The wait, instead, is pure torture. She recalls a conversation with Rose; a conversation she's not yet shared with Superintendent Gibson.
"You should follow your heart, Tanya. It's drawn to beautiful things - that's what I love about you." Rose had smiled sidelong, sitting on the floor, back propped against her sofa. Tom was gone for the evening, the two women sprawling and eating to their hearts' content. Rose is a fan of platitudes and flowery ideas; her advice is, at times, a little unrealistic. Tanya will have it no other way - it's charming, and Lord knows she needs a little more charm in her life.
"What if it's a bad decision?" Tanya shook her head. "She's gone, Rose."
Rose smiled. "If it's meant to be, she'll be back. No one's gone forever - I truly believe that."
It was Rose's words which compelled her to pick up Stella from the airport. Is it meant to be? Could anything possibly be so simple? Dropping her shirt on her way to the bathroom, Tanya muses that it's not for her to decide. She sees Stella starting the water. The shower is a flat-bottomed, natural stone wonder. She'd insisted on it when her husband started talking about remodeling. The shower was worth every penny - she can't entirely say that her husband ever was.
Stella divests herself of her silk shirt, spreading it wide like a butterfly. It drops as though in slow motion, its 'wings' grabbing at the air on its way to the floor. The expanse of Stella's back is unmarred and gloriously chiseled. There are two moles dotting the triangle of her right shoulder blade, and Tanya finds herself transfixed by them. Stella turns to watch her over her shoulder while she contorts to unsnap her bra. Her smile is enigmatic as ever, but also inviting, silently making it known that she won't do a thing the other woman doesn't want her to. The bra flutters to the ground to rejoin the silk shirt. Tanya's eyes never leave the pale expanse uncovered, her fingers dawdling along her own buttons, distracted and longing for contact with skin other than her own.
Devilishly, Stella refuses to turn around while she finishes undressing. Instead, Tanya's left with the picture of a perfect ass and hips, a concave waist, and a coy grin over the shoulder.
"I thought you were concerned about the time, Professor." The smile widens while Stella maneuvers into the shower stall, still turned away from the other woman.
Tanya snaps herself to attention, her face full of both wonder and terror. The remainder of her clothes don't come off without hesitation, but what matters is that they come off at all. She sidles up to the shower, its glass door still half open. Something decidedly delicious and forbidden lies within, and Tanya feels like a child sneaking a treat. What will happen when they find out? Who's they? Why do they matter? So many questions begin and end with this bit of uncharted territory. Fascinatingly, the questions seem wither away at the view of Stella leaned against the far wall of the shower, her head bowed, and pulsing hot water flowing over her neck and back. How odd is it, Tanya thinks, that her anxieties soar at the thought of the other woman, but calm at the sight of her? Surely, further evidence that she thinks too much.
Feeling a little brave, Tanya swipes a wash cloth from the accessory shelf beside her and shyly rubs at Stella's shoulder blade, just over those bewitching moles.
"That's not so bad, is it?" Stella teases, then turns to face Tanya.
Tanya's almost embarrassed at how quickly her eyes fall to Stella's breasts. So quickly, in fact, that she forgets she's been asked a question. The wait was well worth it; She certainly won't count herself an expert, but many a locker-room visit and years of medical practice inform Tanya that Stella's breasts are quite extraordinary. She almost says so, but stops herself. Her embarrassment diminishes somewhat, however, at the sight of Stella's ocean-blue eyes devouring her in much the same fashion.
"Just a shower, Tanya?" Stella's voice is low and rough. Tanya forces her eyes up, surprised at the question, and watches while Stella makes performance art out of licking her lips.
The halls of the PSNI are deathly silent and half-darkened, the occasional flickering of the fluorescent lights above adding a sort of seedy charm to the journey. Stella makes her way to her office among maintenance crew members and the soothing sound of the rain beating against the building. It's been threatening to rain heavily since she arrived, and she's thankful for the heavy downpour to replace the high pressure. She's anxious to set up camp and get to work on new information, free of the distractions of a few hours ago. Never one for the intricacies of relationships, it feels quite good to relinquish herself to a good, old-fashioned mystery and the thrill that comes with solving it.
'Like Tanya's not a good, old-fashioned mystery of her own,'Stella muses. She can't help the smarting in her chest and the bitter sting of rejection. Murderers, rapists, misogynistic bastards; she knows what makes them tick. Stella fears she'll never understand the finer points of love.
"Just a shower, Detective Superintendent Gibson." Tanya had looked at her with a sort of glumness Stella was unaccustomed to, a storm of unidentifiable emotion swirling in her eyes. Her voice was soft, but firm. It had been decided, seemingly, in the blink of an eye.
Stella had sighed in frustration, unable to entirely school her reaction, catching her voice rising from its normally controlled timbre. They'd been having fun, playing; had she done something wrong? "Is that what you want, or are you really reacting in fear? Tell me, are you afraid of me, or yourself, Tanya?"
"This was a bad idea." Tanya hung her head, moving toward the shower door, and Stella could see the other woman was suddenly aware of her nudity. She turned to Stella, still wearing her confusion plainly. "Actually, that's wrong. It was a really good idea... Just really bad timing."
Stella knows it isn't quite rejection, but she feels it a blow regardless. She's beginning to wonder if there will ever come a good time. She opens her office door and finds the desk empty and ready for work. She sighs in relief, dropping her briefcase onto the desktop. It's an echoing sort of thud in the empty, emotionless room, and Stella stares at the bulletin board across the way. She's contemplating how she'll lay out the killer's timeline; how she'll go about feathering her nest. Pulling a crime scene photo from her bag and a pushpin from the bulletin board, Stella places her first feather. It's a close-up of the young woman's face.
Stella takes in the tranquility of the face. She's lovely. The girl was so young -- only 17. How many steps would it have taken for Stella to have met the same fate, all those years ago? Not so many, she's afraid. Is any woman all that many steps away from it? Then there's Katie Benedetto. Is an encounter with Paul Spector's special brand of manipulation really enough to turn an otherwise normal teenager into an impassioned murderer, or is she simply a time bomb he fed until she exploded?
The knock on her door frame is gentle, but Stella jumps a bit nonetheless. "Sorry to startle you, ma'am."
Matthew Eastwood looks entirely exhausted. His already-heavy eyelids appear to be ready to close of their own volition. His suit is rumpled, indicating that he's not gone home yet, and he leans heavily on the chintzy door frame. Stella's surprised she didn't hear him coming.
"Not to worry." She whispers, then clears her throat. It's been some time since she's spoken, and her voice feels loud in the barren office space. There are no belongings to absorb the sound. "What are you still doing here, Matthew?"
"I give myself away so easily, eh?" He grins crookedly and looks down at his bedraggled attire. "I wanted to brief you privately before the rest of the team gets here."
"But you've not slept." Stella fixes him with a pointed gaze.
Eastwood shrugs, moving into the room and taking a seat in one of Stella's guest chairs. He runs a hand through his hair, ruffling it, and slouches in the seat. "When a man is contemplating the integrity of his superior, it only makes sense that he work when no one else is in the office."
Stella freezes by her desk, unsure how to reply. Deciding that saying nothing is her safest course of action, She instead lowers herself into her own chair, waiting for him to continue.
"I'm fairly certain you know what I'm talking about." Eastwood doesn't look up, his gaze fixed on some indiscriminate point on the floor. "I want you to know you have nothing to worry about. You've been nothing but good to me and my team, and we're happy to have you back. Just remember... we've had to continue working with ACC Burns over the course of the last year. There's been some fall-out."
Stella doesn't nod or speak, watching while Matthew rubs at his face. His tie is long gone, and his hands vacate his cheeks to undo the top button of his shirt. He looks as though a stiff breeze could bowl him over. No amount of effort or coffee will get him through the day.
"You can't possibly continue without sleep, Matthew. My cot's in the corner, with a fresh blanket. You're welcome to it -- and none of the team need find you here."
Eastwood turns his face up, curiosity in his eyes. Stella smiles warmly. If I can help it, there'll be no traps in my office, she thinks. With minimal reluctance, Matthew rises from the chair and drags himself to the cot. It's far too small for him, and he finds his feet hanging off the end by some bit. He simply doesn't care, and he finds sleep nearly as soon as his head hits the lumpy pillow.
My apologies for the long wait... I knew these next two chapters were going to be tricky and haven't had the time to really sit down and do them justice. Thank you to anyone who's still sticking with this!
"Matthew." It's a tiny, clipped greeting accompanied by the gentlest of caresses across his arm. Before he opens his eyes, Matthew knows full well whom the whisper of voice and fingernails belongs to. His eyes are bleary when he opens them, and it takes him a moment to focus on Stella's far clearer eyes. She's leaned over the cot, watching him expectantly. He briefly thinks he could get used to seeing Stella every morning, and marvels at how his opinion of the woman has changed. He recalls a bitter argument with his wife while their divorce was awaiting finalization -- one more thing that shot to hell in the midst of the Spector case. "Go back to that bitch of a boss, Matthew -- the newspaper says she likes to fuck the first thing that moves. You should be very happy together." He can still see her snarling mouth saying the hateful words. If only his wife had known how little presumption Stella Gibson faces each day with.
"I'm sorry to wake you -- It's only been an hour and a half." Stella is still whispering. "I thought you'd like enough time to shower before the briefing."
Matthew pulls himself up from the cot and stretches while Stella returns to stand behind her desk. He sees the evidence of her early morning work, papers already strewn about and her laptop busily humming on the desk. Several crime scene photos are now methodically tacked to the bulletin board. He feels himself towering over Stella and notices her stocking-feet padding across the cold floor. She perches on the chair like an exotic bird, and Matthew finds himself intrigued all over again. How does a woman like Stella Gibson find her way to the police force? It's not as though he can easily see her doing something else, but he wonders nonetheless. Her camaraderie with the victims and bereaved is one of compassion and understanding, and his mind drifts to the terrible things which make women fear men.
Stella catches his gaze lingering, and she doesn't indulge him. "What was it you wanted to brief me on earlier?"
Dropping himself into the chair beside him, Eastwood sighs, fidgeting with the buttons on his rumpled shirt. "I think you're spot-on. Turns out, Katie Benedetto's been behaving very strangely since she parted ways with Paul Spector. I sent Martin down to talk to her best friend -- the one she was with during most of the surveillance last year? Her name is Daisy."
Stella nods. "I remember her. What did she have to say?"
"She said Katie's changed." Eastwood raises his eyebrows. "Even before she went to court. According to Daisy, Katie was very well aware of Spector's guilt and seemed even complicit. She said Katie didn't really have any other close friends, and she stopped speaking to Daisy when Paul was charged. She says she was happy to be rid of Katie's company; that she suddenly felt less than safe around her, and Katie didn't seem much interested in spending time with anyone."
Stella knits her brow -- how long has it been since anyone's been keeping an eye on Katie Benedetto? "What about the school? Has anyone else there noticed?"
Eastwood fishes in his pocket, pulling out a tiny, tattered notebook. He flips through for the quick note he'd written the evening before. "Martin spoke with the headmaster. Katie cuts classes often, sometimes not coming in at all for days at a time. Knowing what they do of what happened to her last year, coupled with the death of her father... the Headmaster says they've basically given up on her. At this point, she'll be unable to sit for exams, and expelled at the end of term. He said they made a house call to her mother, who wasn't exactly surprised."
"We need to decipher where she's spending her days. As soon as possible. She's been planning." Stella stands, and Eastwood follows suit, stuffing his notepad back into his pocket. Stella goes to the wall, once again peering at the victim's face. "Chloe Walsh. She may as well be the newest victim of Paul Spector. Her death was meant to catch our attention, but there's a bigger plan. Can you arrange for me to interview Daisy? She'll need her parents present, so it would be best if I stop by their home. Also, I'd like to speak with Chloe's parents."
"Yes, Ma'am." Eastwood shuffles. "I'm certain ACC Burns will have approval for the home surveillance by the time of the briefing. Last night I left a message with Martin to begin researching CCTV footage in and around the University Quarter. Katie has no car, so it shouldn't be too difficult to find footage of her walking or taking a bus. Perhaps we can get an idea of where she's been going to in the interim."
Stella turns and nods to Matthew. "Good. Let's hold off on interviewing Katie's mother. I don't want either of them spooked too soon. We need a chance to tail Katie to her hiding place. Perhaps we can put a quiet end to this."
"I certainly hope so, Ma'am." Eastwood smiles tiredly. He almost turns to leave, but stops himself, his hands folding into his pockets, along with the miniature notepad. "Would you mind if I discuss something else with you?"
Stella hears the flat, serious tone of voice and sees the grave set of his eyebrows. She glances through her blinds to the still-empty work space beyond her closed office door. There's another hour yet before the briefing, and the office remains deserted. The tilt of her chin tells Eastwood to continue.
"I've long suspected a... history between yourself and ACC Burns." He watches Stella's eerily placid face for any sign of a reaction. He's rewarded with a raised eyebrow. "It doesn't matter. I don't know what your history is with him, and I don't care. But I think he considers you a friend and maybe he'll listen to you. I've noticed a number of changes in Burns since you left. He seems more flighty, on edge; sometimes easily confused, even. One morning, I swore I smelled whiskey on his breath -- not the smell of a lingering drink from the night before. It smelled fresh. He knows I'm not fond of him, and he also knows I've opened an inquiry in the matter of Aaron Monroe. Perhaps you can remind him that he has a responsibility to his team, and to the public, before another officer happens to notice."
Matthew takes in a lengthy breath, watching Stella absorb his plea. He can see that she hadn't expected it. "Have you escalated the Monroe issue to a formal complaint?"
He answers with an eager nod. "The bastard knows i have it out for him. He's a coward; a slave to his own bad decisions. But even I can't bring myself to officially report what I just told you. Not yet. This is a hard profession, and I could see the same happening to me. After all these years, the man deserves a warning."
Stella lets out a heavy sigh, eyes gazing at the boring checkerboard floor. "Thank you for telling me."
She needn't say more. Matthew knows he's been dismissed, and he makes his way to her door. He prays the extra suit tucked away in his office closet is in fine enough shape for the briefing. Before exiting, he turns to find Stella still leaning into her desk, contemplative. She doesn't look up when he speaks. "This place is falling apart, Stella."
Stella is relieved to find that the team remains much the same. The conference area is teeming with officers she's well familiar with. She spies Gail McNally in a startlingly short haircut, shiny tufts of dark hair now hugging her exceedingly interesting features. It suits her nicely, Stella thinks. She was always far too scrappy for her neatly-wound bun. McNally sits with Glen Martin, as they had before, in the middle of the table. The fresh partnership of the year before seems to have melded its way into one of ease and comfort. They converse without tension, and Stella sees Glen listening intently to his partner, smiling at her latest story - something which leads Gail to gesticulate wildly and animatedly.
Mary McCurdy huddles in the space behind Stella's "usual" seat, always present and available, but never intrusive. Jim Burns sits to the right of her seat, hugging the corner of the table. He seems to have yielded the briefing to her command, in spite of the fact that they've had no conversation about the exact nature of her visit. She can't guess what exactly goes through Jim's head these days. He literally twiddles his thumbs nervously, peering at his notes as though they might offer some yet-unseen answer to his troubles. Stella looks for the signs of drunkenness Eastwood spoke of, and while she can't quite see it, she can see that something's made him edgy. She recalls his nervous and angry behavior during their first briefing. His expensive suit and immaculate haircut are also incapable of hiding the woeful, tired set of Jim's eyes.
Eastwood sits silently, hugging his coffee cup like a lover, very obviously hoping his colleagues will simply leave him alone. Stella notes that he's changed clothes, and while his emergency suit isn't his best, he looks fresh and professional. His overwrought and wrinkled notebook sits beside the coffee cup Eastwood can't quite bring himself to relinquish to the table. In his left hand, he toggles a pen in impatient fashion. Stella wonders how many sleepless nights Matthew Eastwood has had since she left. In the back of her mind, she wonders if his campaign against Burns will be worth it in the end. She supposes only time will tell.
A quick shuffle at the entrance to the room catches Stella's attention, along with a flash of red hair. Stella's relieved to see Danielle Ferrington make her way over to the table, dressed all in black and topped-off with a newly-tailored coat. The coat reminds Stella of her own. Stella had been wondering if Dani had parted ways with the PSNI, as she'd heard not a peep of her since her arrival. She's surprised and somewhat disappointed to see Dani completely ignore her gaze and take her seat, seemingly looking anywhere but at Stella. Her countenance is extraordinarily timid. While Dani had always been a quiet woman, she certainly hadn't been so openly timid. Making her way over to her own chair, Stella quietly calls out for Mary.
"Yes, Ma'am?" Mary's voice is low while she cranes her neck over towards Stella.
"Have you noticed anything strange going on with Danielle Ferrington?"
Mary sighs and nods. "Can't quite seem to find her place, Ma'am. She's now a DC, but all anyone wants to talk about is how she only got there by being your lapdog, what with all the bad press with Spector."
"I imagine that's why she's ignoring me." Stella sends Mary a private, crooked smile.
"I imagine so, Ma'am." Mary studies Stella for a moment. "If you don't mind me saying, seems she very much looks up to you. Perhaps DC Ferrington needs some help remembering that Stella Gibson would never put up with all the nonsense."
"Thank you, Mary." Stella dismisses the other woman softly, taking her seat at the head of the table. The remainder of the room quickly assembles around her, the din of conversation immediately cutting low while the attention shifts to the Detective Superintendent.
"Good Morning to you all." Stella peers around the room, taking in the many work-ready faces, all looking somewhat reticent but mostly looking back at her with smiles. "I'm happy to be back in Belfast, and count myself lucky to see so many familiar faces. I can't even begin to thank you all for your hard work and dedication in the successful apprehension and, soon, trial of Paul Spector. Now, as you all know, we face a new challenge, not entirely removed from the Spector case. Rick, can you bring up the victim profile, please?"
Rick is prepared as always, populating the tandem screens placed around the conference area with the victim's photo and birth certificate.
Stella rifles through her own papers while speaking. "Chloe Walsh. 17 years of age. Chloe was found in the back yard of a neighboring home, tucked away in the bushes. According to the pathologist's report, the victim was kept alive for approximately a day, very much corresponding with the time she was last seen at school. During this time, she sustained many non-life threatening injuries, indicating a certain level of torture by her captor. It would seem that this individual took great pleasure in physically beating the victim. Rick?"
At her prompting, Rick flicks through a set of photos detailing the injuries to the victim. The team silently takes in lurid bruises and cuts before coming to rest on Chloe's mangled throat. "The cause of death," Stella pauses very momentarily, "is strangulation. The attacker used a ligature; very likely, a length of coarse rope, which is consistent with the abrasions and cutting around the victim's neck. There is no evidence of sexual assault. Lastly, the victim was left in the bushes of a family home early in the morning, undetected. The discovery came when the family's Toddler attempted to play with an arm left peeking from the bushes. The body was posed in a peaceful manner, very carefully, and in a dressing gown." The slideshow stops once again on a photo of Chloe Walsh resting amongst the bushes. "Notably, the victim's lips were also painted a striking red at the time of posing."
Stella looks up to see the eyes of most individuals glued to Chloe Walsh's photo, held captive by the cruelty and strange beauty the stark crime scene photo offered. "Any questions so far?"
"How does this relate to Paul Spector, Ma'am?" Dani Ferrington's voice is quiet and hesitant while she forces herself into the center of the action. Stella can't completely hide her surprise.
"DC Ferrington," Stella nods Dani's way in greeting, acknowledging the change in titles. "What similarities do you see?"
Dani's green eyes are clear while she stares at Stella and swallows hard. "Aside from the strangulation and posing, I don't see much of concrete similarity... Ma'am."
"Concrete similarity, perhaps not." Stella's eyes leave Dani and sweep across the room, taking in the rapt gazes around her. "However, if we look at this murder through the lens of someone who might be inspired by Paul Spector, the picture becomes much clearer. The killer used a ligature, rather than hands, suggesting an individual of considerably lesser tensile strength than Spector. The posing is careful and aesthetic, suggesting a certain homage to Spector's MO. The victim was painted with a bright red lipstick, much like Spector enjoyed painting Sarah Kay's nails red. Beyond that, the victim herself fits the physical description of Spector's preferred victims. One striking and very telling difference here, though; The victim was 17 years old -- much younger than Spector's. Chloe Walsh went to school the morning of her disappearance, and was present at her first class, but didn't make it to her second. The killer knew her schedule, and where she would be transitioning across a closed campus."
"So, we suspect another student." Dani's voice is a little more sure this time around.
"That brings me to the whereabouts of Katie Benedetto." Rick taps away at his keyboard momentarily, before the television screens project a copy of Benedetto's arrest photo from the year before. "I'll defer to Matthew Eastwood for an update."
Matthew briefs the team similarly to their conversation earlier in the morning. There's a certain nervous energy buzzing around the room -- the majority of the individuals in the room had been unaware of their interest in Katie Benedetto. Stella watches while the reality of the situation sinks in. There's a sadness that can't be avoided. Stella's eyes wander back to the newly-minted DC Ferrington. Dani listens to Matthew intently, the intelligence swirling in her eyes and reminding Stella of what drew her to the other woman in the first place. The untapped potential is still there, un-nurtured by the gossipy, sometimes immature, and competitive nature of the police force. Stella isn't so far up the ladder to forget her own struggles to find her place and instill confidence and compliance from other officers. Her own promotions had been met with derision and mocking in numerous occasions.
Dani senses Stella's intense stare and meets her eerily cool eyes. Stella nods slightly, attempting to convey that she is still on Dani's side. After a moment of intense eye-lock, Dani hurriedly shifts her gaze back to Eastwood. Stella sees Matthew finishing up, waiting to see if Burns picks up the thread with discussion of surveillance. When he doesn't, Stella continues instead, sensing the ensuing argument.
"In the interest of finding Katie Benedetto as urgently as possible, and potentially tailing her back to wherever she's been hiding, we will not be alerting her mother. It's imperative that Katie be unaware of our interest in her."
Stella sees Jim bristle in her periphery, his breathing quickening and face reddening. He begins shuffling in his chair, awaiting an opportunity to interject and silence her.
"A concerted effort is being made to pick up any CCTV evidence of Katie's trail, and quiet external surveillance of her home has begun this morning. We know that Paul Spector was made suspicious of his surveillance detail through several errors. We cannot afford a similar situation -- this must be a clean pick-up, for reasons I don't think I need to spell out." Stella fixes the team with a hardened stare, accentuating her point.
"Let's adjourn this briefing for now -- we'll discuss assignments shortly." Jim interrupts and scrambles from his chair, looming over Stella. "I want to see you in my office; now."
The slam of the office door is a cavernous, empty sound, punctuated by the blinds on the cut-out window slapping into glass. Jim turns to huff at Stella, his eyes, unsurprisingly, alight with fire and anger. Stella's never known Jim to be a flighty man, but his behavior the last two days is proving her experience wrong. In fact, at this very moment, he appears as though he could actually take flight. Instead, he takes a moment to still himself, placing a hand to his forehead in apparent mental anguish before speaking.
"I don't have to explain to you that this girl is a minor..." He almost whispers, but spittle makes its way towards Stella's face and she struggles to keep from recoiling. "What in fuck's sake are you thinking, Stella?"
"The girl is seventeen, Jim." Stella's voice is calm and rigid. She sees Burns coil at her use of his first name. "You and I both know full well that she will likely be tried as an adult for this murder. We cannot afford to waste time chasing her down after she's sniffed us out. The mother can't know. I waited for you to brief the team on the impending surveillance, and you did not. I made the decision."
There's a stiff obstinacy in Jim's face. "I don't recall appointing you SIO, Superintendent Gibson."
Stella stares back at him, unsure of whether to honor his baiting remark. "Then, Assistant Chief Constable Burns, might I suggest you behave as though you have the slightest bit of control over this investigation?"
"You're out of bounds, Stella!" Burns' finger comes up to point at her, accusatory and very nearly threatening. His breathing is a hefty whooshing sound in the room, accompanied by his nearly-raving Baritone. "I may have a fondness for you, but it won't stop me from throwing your ass on the next flight to London!"
Stella lays her next verbal blow bluntly and without remorse. Jim's irate ranting can barely even hold her interest at this point, let alone get her excited. "That's an interesting statement coming from a man up for a serious review before an ethics panel."
He does little more than stare back at her from slit eyes. She can see that she's hit him hard, but she can't help but be thankful for the honest silence. "What have you heard?"
"You can drop the act, Jim." Stella raises her eyebrows, peering into Jim's eyes mercilessly. "I know that you're on the brink of losing your job. I know that you've been drinking nonstop since I left. Eastwood knows you've been drinking, and you're lucky you haven't fucked up enough for anyone else to discern it."
She watches while the realization floods Jim's features, an expression of shock and horror finally replacing the sulky anger he's been sporting. He sighs, looking like he's going to be sick, or like all the air has been let out of his face. She can't decide which. "Fuck, Stella... I'm ruined."
Stella comes forward to lay her hands on Jim's shoulders, forcing him to continue their eye contact. "You're not ruined... at least, not yet. But you've got to get yourself together, Jim. You're doing a damn fine job of ruining yourself."
Jim nods, leaning into her hands like an exhausted puppy. "I don't know how to see my way out of this one, Stella. I keep fucking up because I'm scared to death. What on God's green Earth am I going to do if I can't do this?"
"Stop being frightened and fix it. Your team needs you -- and they need you sober. What you did with Aaron Monroe is none of my business, but I don't want to see you wrecked by something you can fix. You're a man who's watched Belfast at its worst and seen it through to the end. Surely you can manage."
Jim brings his hands up to meet Stella's, still resting on his shoulders. His hands engulf hers for a mere second before she casually drops them.
"Why have you always got to be so Goddamned right?" Jim now looks spent, like the last of a fire has finally dulled in his eyes. He watches Stella in that eerily intimate way, his hooded eyes looking at her so intensely as to make her uncomfortable. She remembers their conversation in her hotel washroom a year earlier, after she took a swing at his deserving nose. He embodies that exact same image of misery and woe. She doesn't wait for him to whisper her name like an entitled lover, this time.
"Because I have a bird's eye view." Stella doesn't say goodbye, either, before quietly excusing herself from his office, the door snicking docilely behind her, and leaving Jim Burns to make a very important phone call.
Daisy, now returned to her dark, lustrous hair and free of make-up, doesn't look much like the girl Stella saw briefly in surveillance footage a year ago. The young woman looks somehow quieter, and more innocent; perhaps even a little broken. Her parents flank her sides, nervous elbows rubbing against the tabletop in their firmly middle-class dining area. They're thoroughly unremarkable looking people, with upper-middle-class business attire and lined faces. Stella sees them take her in, surely comparing the real woman to the apparition photographed and taunted by the newspapers. Even a year down the road, people don't quite forget what they read in the paper, and she knows it. 'How awkward,' Stella thinks ironically.
"I'm sorry to take you all away from your day." Stella smiles wanly. "I promise to take up as little of your time as possible."
"Do you really think she's done this?" Daisy squints and peers at Stella, her eyes demanding but frightful. It's obvious that the teenager has been working the situation out in her head for some time, and Stella wonders how long Daisy's lived in fear of Katie Benedetto.
"I'm afraid all I can say is that no one has yet been charged with Chloe Walsh's murder. I do, however, have some curiosities about Katie Benedetto."
Daisy scoffs. "She looked me in the eye, but she was looking all far away at the same time... Like she was possessed or something. I asked her if Paul did it. She said "Oh, yes", and went about her business. I'd never been so confused in my life. It was like I was talking to someone else, but... It's also like the Katie I knew never came back."
Stella briefly gathers her thoughts, studying the blood-red floral pattern on the tablecloth at her hands. "I'm sorry for that, Daisy. I really am. Can you tell me a bit about what school's been like the last year? Have the two of you been fighting at all?"
"No," Daisy runs her hands over her pale face, rubbing at her nose. "I kind of started distancing myself right after... that conversation. She was scaring me. One day at school, I asked her what happened - why she didn't talk to me anymore. We were best friends, y'know?"
Stella nods, encouraging Daisy to continue. Her parents look on in mild panic, their brains having finally caught up to the realization that their daughter was, at least at one time, possibly the best friend of a murderer. "What did she say?"
Daisy looks hesitant, her eyes shifty. "She looked at me like she was out of it again and said she didn't know what I was talking about. I swear it's like she's pissed drunk or something... She doesn't look very clear-minded half the time."
"When you were close, did you and Katie use any sorts of drugs?"
Daisy's father suddenly comes alive before Stella, his eyes instantly alight with anger. He hulks toward Stella, the oak dining table groaning with the weight. "I let you over to help you. I didn't ask you over to make accusations, Detective."
Stella smiles indulgently. "It's Detective Superintendent, Sir. I didn't come here to make accusations, but the truth is a necessary component of a good interview. I promise that what you divulge here will not result in any sort of punitive measures."
"It's ok, Dad." Daisy looks at her father shyly. "I don't mind telling. Once last year, we smoked some marijuana at a party. It wasn't much to talk about, though. Never did it again. We'd have wine or cocktails every now and again, if we could get into a bar."
Daisy's parents quickly absorb the information, and Stella sees the disappointment clear on their faces. She can't help but wonder what sort of punishment the teenager may be facing after she leaves. Stella also wonders if the thoroughly boring parents she's looking at realize the good kid they have before them. Daisy clearly has her head set about her shoulders right. From the incensed looks upon the two older faces, Stella predicts that Daisy's admission has severed a tie.
"Thank you for telling me that." With a reassuring twist of the mouth, Stella reaches across the table and lays a hand on Daisy's gathered fists. "I know this is hard for you. When was the last time you saw Katie?"
Daisy searches her mind for the correct answer. "I'm not sure... It's been a week or more. I saw her very briefly on campus while I was transitioning from one class to another. We have two classes together, but I can't remember the last time I saw her at either. I don't think she's really attending her classes at all these days. I don't know why she even bothers to show up on campus to begin with, really."
"When you were still seeing each other regularly, did you have any hang-outs you went to for privacy? Places not many people would know about?"
"Not really." Daisy shakes her head. "We usually had our more private conversations at either of our houses or on the way to or from school. If we were going out anywhere, it was usually to a party with lots of other schoolmates."
Stella nods. "One last thing. How would you characterize Katie's relationship with Paul Spector?"
"I don't understand Katie's relationship with Paul." Daisy's sigh is a rather defeated sound. "I know she was suddenly saying that they've been sleeping together for years, but... If you'd seen the way she talked about him, you'd definitely think differently. She was excited by the littlest things he said and did. She showed me a video of him...touching himself. That was on a night that they went out to dinner, and she specifically said nothing happened. Before I knew it, she'd started telling me he was her everything; that she'd do anything for him."
"I think that'll be all, Daisy." Stella smiles and tucks her hair behind her ear while she slides a card toward the teenager. "Here's my number. I don't want you to hesitate to call me if you think of anything else, ok?"
Daisy tucks the card into her pocket and glances at her parents nervously before excusing herself from the table.
"Our daughter isn't some junkie trouble-maker." Daisy's father fairly snivels, and Stella can't help but notice his upturned pig's-nose. Her mother looks like she'd rather be anywhere but this room.
Stella nods. "Actually, I think your daughter is very bright has quite good control of her life. Thank you for your time."
"Matthew?" Stella calls out for him in the busy taskforce work room. There are law enforcement officials everywhere, moving in every direction. She's relieved to see Matthew Eastwood peak out from a corner office. He looks far better, and his suit has dropped it's wrinkles. "I've just been to see Daisy."
Matthew nods for her to continue, directing her to a relatively quiet corner. He awaits her word intently, and Stella can't help but think something's shifted about his behavior. "Go on."
Stella sighs. "We need to get a surveillance detail on Daisy as soon as possible. I'm concerned for her well-being."
"What -" Eastwood is cut off by the chirp of Stella's cell phone. She holds a finger up while she retrieves the phone and glances at the unknown number on the screen. "One moment."
"Gibson." Stella speaks into the phone calmly, but doesn't move away from Eastwood or their relatively safe corner.
"Um. Ma'am, this is Daisy. I'm sorry to bother you...." The voice is barely more than a whisper on the other end of the line, and Stella pushes the phone farther into her ear.
"It's no bother at all, Daisy." Stella fixes Matthew with a stare, and he nods that he's heard her. "What is it?"
"There's something you need to know. I've been working up the courage to call since you left." Daisy clears her throat, and Stella can hear the tears in her voice. "It's about Katie and I."
Stella's practically holding her breath, but doesn't rush the girl. She can see Matthew watching her with equal curiosity. "Go on."
Stella's met with mostly silence, but she can hear the shaky breathing on the other end of the line. Finally, Daisy sighs. "Katie and I used to... mess around. With each other. Then this thing with Paul..."
"I see... " Stella winces, and Eastwood looks like he's about to explode while he watches on, craning for any trace of a sentence he might incidentally catch. "Are you afraid for your life, Daisy?"
"It's been a hard year. I felt like we might have had something, but when Paul suddenly started poking around, it was like it never happened. After everything ended, I stopped caring... dyed my hair back, stopped wearing makeup. It was because I was depressed or whatever. Now I'm afraid I'm going to bring something on myself because I fit the goddamned type, and I'm scared shitless and I can't tell my parents because they don't believe it's... right." Daisy's voice whisper-shouts over the phone line.
"Your secret is safe with us; I do, however, need your permission to please share this information with one colleague and my supervisor so I can get you some protection."
"My parents don't have to know?" The teenager's voice is unbearably small and vulnerable.
Stella pauses for a fraction of a second, realizing that she has precious little to promise the girl. "I can't guarantee that it won't come up at some point in the future, though I will do everything in power to be sure it doesn't. For right now... no."
There's a long pause before Daisy speaks again. "I suppose it'll have to do. I'm so scared of what she could do to me... If you'd seen the way she looked at me, before."
"You've made the right decision. Please call me if anything feels wrong or dangerous."
"Thank you." It's a simple two words, spoken by a girl emotionally drained. There's nothing but silence on the line, and Stella misses the days of phones clicking when placed back in their cradle. Finally, Stella lowers her phone and ends the call. She looks to Matthew, who still watches her with wide, curious eyes. "We need to step into my office."
The office is dark as it was when she left earlier in the day. Stella doesn't bother turning the overhead lights on, instead closing the door behind Matthew once he's cleared the threshold.
"If you'll pardon me saying so, Ma'am, the suspense is killing me." Matthew smiles crookedly. He waits until Stella's seated herself and turned on her small desk lamp before seating himself in one of the office's guest chairs.
Stella sighs and drops her chin into her palms. "This needs to not leave this room, if at all possible. Daisy and Katie were sexually involved before Spector took over Katie's entire life."
Eastwood's eyebrows nearly make it to his hairline, and he expels a heavy breath. "Well, I definitely didn't expect that."
"They're sixteen years old. This doesn't need to be exploited. Can I trust you to be objective?" Stella peers at the Detective across from her, attempting to gage his reaction.
"Of course." Matthew clears his throat. "If you don't mind me saying so, we're walking a fine line by not encouraging disclosure to her parents."
"Her father is... imposing. To say the least." Stella shakes her head. "I can't imagine what she must feel when she thinks of telling him. We need to protect her, not ruin her. She's fearful for her life."
"Even if it means possible review by an ethics panel?" Matthew's voice is gentle and non-accusatory, but Stella bristles.
"You needn't worry. I'll take full responsibility."
Eastwood almost chuckles, but stops short at a mangled chortle. "That's not what I meant, and you know it."
Stella sighs, rubbing her face vigorously while she thinks. "I'm sorry. Truth to tell, I'm more concerned about whether Jim can keep his mouth shut."
"Well, then, I have extraordinarily good news for you." Matthew's arms come up in a "who's the man?" gesture. "ACC Burns called me an hour ago to inform me that he's cashing in some holiday pay, if you catch my drift. He's transferred administration of the surveillance to us jointly and left command that you should consider yourself in charge of anything Benedetto or Spector-related."
"Thank God." Stella lets out a whoosh of breath, her shoulders slumping. "Can you please have dispatch arrange for a detail at Daisy's home, 24/7, with escort to and from and surveillance while at school?"
"Yes, Ma'am. Just a reminder; Mr. and Mrs. Walsh will be here in about twenty-five minutes." Matthew stands with enthusiastic flair. "I knew he would listen to you."
Before Stella can process the words, Matthew is out the door and around the corner.
"I thought you'd gotten a hotel room."
Stella feels frozen where she stands. "I can, if you would like me to."
Tanya's porch feels oversized and somehow judgmental. The florescent light pooling from the wayward flood light to the side of her is distracting to Stella, but she doesn't tear her eyes from her friend's lonely face. At least, Stella thinks she looks lonely. She's not really sure about what Tanya actually is at this very moment.
"Don't be silly." Reed waives her in and immediately turns towards the kitchen.
Still unsure of how welcome she is, Stella's coat remains firmly enfolded over her and her large bag slung over her shoulder. When she reaches the kitchen, she's welcomed by Tanya's backside while she digs through the refrigerator. Stella loiters near the nearest corner of the counter, looking somewhere between the refrigerator and sink.
"What's the matter?" Tanya turns around and looks at Stella with the casual acceptance of someone who's familiar.
Stella decides on direct honesty. "I'm trying to decide whether I need to apologize. If I should stay, or if you're simply too kind to go back on your offer."
"No." Tanya looks to her feet and smiles tightly. When she looks back up, she doesn't look at Stella's face, but into the light pouring from the ceiling. "No apology is necessary. I want you here, but I need a bit to work up the courage to talk about it."
"That's fair enough." Stella looks at the packaged chicken in Tanya's hand and quirks an eyebrow her way. "You're going to cook for me?"
The professor's blushed cheeks are the most adorable thing Stella can think of seeing. "I... haven't eaten yet. Are you hungry?"
"Yes." Stella nods. "I could use a shower; it was a long day. Do you mind - while you work on the chicken?"
"Lovely," Tanya clucks cheekily. "I know you know your way."
Stella's pleased that Reed's at least able to speak as though their early morning something-or-other happened. "I think I'll manage."
Stella finds the bedroom as it was when she departed. It strikes her as odd, somehow, that Tanya hasn't made the bed - for some reason, Stella feels that Tanya should be a nearly unbearably neat sort of individual. It's a nice counterbalance to Stella's bachelorhood, as she calls it. Her London apartment is strewn with used underwear, and her hotel room would be, as well, were it not for an impeccable maid service. She hadn't considered the possibility that Tanya had simply cleaned for her, and Stella's stricken with the realization that she knows so very little about the daily life of Professor Reed-Smith. She finds she wants to know more, and gazes, engrossed, at the little bottles lining the sides of the other woman's shower. Stella silently agrees with Reed's assessment - the shower was worth every penny.
The spray from the shower head is simply divine on Stella's stressed shoulders. The day's been much too long, as all her days in Belfast have most certainly been. Her mind wanders to the hushed conversation she'd shared with Chloe Walsh's mother earlier in the day. The woman had showed herself to be eaten with guilt and nearly falling down with grief. Stella can understand that death is part of the process of life. She's suffered great, hurtful loss and often finds herself compelled on behalf of the left-behind loved ones of victims - she so completely knows the sensation of loss. But the certain brand of loss contorting Mrs. Walsh's face was one she is unfamiliar with on a personal level. One she will never come to know. It almost seems that the loss of a child shapeshifts a parent into some mythical creature; a creature of constant sorrow. Torture, really.
"All I ever wanted was to spend time with my daughter." Mrs. Walsh's voice had been a whisper, but it may well have been a scream the way it sliced through the air. "Do you have any idea how hard I'm working not to just fucking join her? And why... when it's all I wanted to do with my life?"
Stella didn't speak, for once unable to offer platitudes or gently supportive smiles. She couldn't have argued with Mrs. Walsh's logic, and all at once she had felt inept and cold, or simply like a terrible person. She didn't answer the other woman's question.
"Is there room for two?"
Stella jumps at the voice directly behind her. Tanya is already undressed and peeking through the shower door. Stella sighs in relief.
"I suppose I can manage to make room for you." Stella ducks her head under the shower head. She hasn't yet finished wetting her hair.
Reed taps the other woman's shoulder gently, and Stella peeks out from under her moving veil of water. "What is it?"
Tanya's brows are knit and she looks hesitant. "Is this ok? I don't kid myself - what happened this morning was completely my fault, and now I've gone and interrupted you while you're just trying to decompress from your day. It occurs to me that I may have been a bit... rude."
Stella's smile is indulgent, and she finds Reed's nervous energy adorable. "Not at all. I understand."
"Well, then..." Tanya smiles broadly and surprises Stella when she pushes her hard into the wall and thrusts herself into the shower spray. "You'll pardon me, but I was dying to check the temperature."
The ample water runs freely between the two women's breasts, firmly stationed against each other while Tanya works her thigh, rather awkwardly, between Stella's. Tanya finds the other woman's laser-like stare to be almost too much for a woman like herself - a woman who doesn't know what the devil she's doing. The professor makes a decision and, with no preamble, brings her palm to cup the entirety of Stella's labia. Their gazes haven't left each other, and Tanya's pleased to see her companion's eyes water in anticipation and pleasure. She runs her fingers down to pinch at Stella's already-swollen clit, and Tanya finds it immeasurably attractive that the other woman doesn't moan or groan, but sweetly sigh in contentment. There's so much meaning packed into that tiny sound.
When she works up the ability to speak, Stella's voice is breathy and deep, "I thought you wanted to talk first."
"I'm a coward. If I talk about it, I'll only just talk myself out of it. That's not what I want." Tanya's unoccupied hand comes up to stroke Stella's left nipple, and she's rewarded with another little sigh. "I bloody well should talk about it. I haven't looked at another woman's vagina any way but through a speculum, and not for quite some time. I'm hardly fit for this."
Stella reaches around Tanya's back, nails sweeping in circles on the other woman's wet, glowing skin. She continues to find it difficult to speak, as Tanya's hand continues to tease and pull at her clit. "You've never thought about this with another woman."
"I suppose fleetingly." Tanya smiles, and Stella can see an idea forming in the set of her face. "Never like this, though."
Tanya doesn't ask or warn. She quickly works two fingers into Stella's opening, and can feel the fluttering of the other woman's impending orgasm.
"Feels like you're doing a fucking fine job to me, Professor." Stella pants.
Tanya remembers the chicken in the oven, set for a very precise 40 minutes. Deciding that risk is more her style this very night, she kneels before Stella's open legs and thinks that dry chicken won't be much of a concern.
The sun is just peaking it's way into Tanya's bedroom windows, and Stella turns her head towards a fiery beam, wishing the angle was so that she could be bathed in its warmth. So often barricaded in a windowless office, the sunrise is a non-entity to Stella. It's an event that simply happens, never to be seen or felt. Stella's world is an endless shift from light to dark and back again, and so obviously devoid of the color and shine in between. Tanya's bed is warm, welcoming, colorful, and everything that Stella's intensely serious life isn't. Somehow she feels more at home and yet less herself when she spends time with Tanya. The women had found themselves joyfully exploring each other through the night, and Stella finds her mind reeling at the knowledge that she will happily return after her hard day's work, and she'll be ever as eager to soak in any attention Tanya is willing to give her.
An unsurprisingly warm hand sneaks a playful tickle along Stella's abdomen and Tanya pulls herself to an elbow to watch Stella in the new light. "Everything ok?"
Stella nods, willing herself to disengage from her melancholy thoughts. Thank God for work, she thinks, Otherwise, I'd be insufferably depressing. She doesn't speak, but she does turn her head to meet Tanya's gaze. The other woman is so natural and lovely, and Stella feels a tightness in her chest that she's not felt in some time. It's another foreign feeling amongst many.
Tanya, though aware of Stella's need for silence, can't help but feel concern for the quiet. "Are you regretting this?"
Stella pulls herself over to her side so she can speak with Tanya without craning her neck. The sheet falls to her waist, and she doesn't mind it. "Never," Her smile is somewhat morose. "I would be lying, though, if I said I'm not just a little confused."
"I'm sorry," Tanya hangs her head and knits her brow. "I shouldn't have rushed things... I should have held off until we could talk."
Stella smiles in amusement this time, her fingers coming up to twirl the ends of Tanya's long, onyx hair, beckoning her to lift her eyes. "It's not that," Stella sighs, enjoying Tanya's sweet return caress across her ribcage. "In case you haven't noticed, I have some difficulty with relationships."
Tanya watches her for a long moment, a hint of water in her eye. Stella's face remains placid and her eye's don't leave Tanya's. She offers no further explanation, and Tanya finds herself hesitant to draw Stella further out in conversation.
"Is that what this is?" Tanya looks away to the corner of the bedroom, shy and overwhelmed with Stella's intensity. "Are we in a relationship?"
"Maybe." Stella's nearly panics, and she can't quite believe she's said such a thing, but she doesn't turn away from Tanya. She feels the need to qualify. "I don't know."
"I don't, either." Tanya shyly works her hands up to Stella's taut breasts, softly petting them, and she marvels in the other woman's sweet smile. One smile or sigh from Stella Gibson somehow means so much more than any screaming orgasm from a male partner, and Tanya finds herself drunk on the experience. "But I know that I definitely want to do this again."
Rather than reply, Stella pulls Tanya into an enthusiastic kiss and rolls to straddle the other woman's hips. When Stella comes up for air, Tanya takes the opportunity to admire her view of her lover, marveling without touching. Stella accepts her scrutiny with a knowing grin.
"Well, if we want to do it again, we'd better get moving." Stella pulls Tanya's hands up to her own breasts and bucks her hips against Tanya's pelvis. Both women moan, and Stella glances at the bedside clock. "Work in an hour, Professor?"
Tanya returns Stella's playful bump and rolls her hips up to meet the other woman. "Oh, God. Whatever you say."
"I can't believe this isn't awkward." Tanya sips at her coffee, leaned casually against the kitchen counter and ready for a day's work. It's the latest she's left the house in ages, and it feels glorious.
"What makes you think it isn't?" Stella fixes her lover with an intense stare over the rim of her own mug. The air stiffens and she sees Tanya caught completely off guard. "I'm kidding."
"Jesus..." Tanya half-sighs and half-laughs, then glares at Stella. "Don't play games like that. The likes of us, I can't be certain, you know?"
Stella nods, placing her empty mug into the stainless steel sink behind her, running the faucet. "I'm sorry. That's my fault. I don't want you to think that I'm some unfeeling robot who discards those who sexually please me. It's not that, and soon we will talk about it. Please just know that this is territory I haven't explored in quite some time."
"The whole caring thing, you mean?" Tanya means it to be flippant, but she can see that Stella's been stung.
"I care just as deeply as the next person. I'm not any different from anyone else. It's just that my boundaries are." Stella's voice is a whisper, and her gaze deadly serious.
Tanya leaves her mug to go to the other woman. "I'm so sorry..."
The trill of Stella's cell phone interrupts the apology, and Stella feels a little cruel at how she grabs for the phone before she has an opportunity to hear Tanya out. "Gibson".
The pathologist watches while the professional Detective Superintendent re-emerges in light of the phone call. She utters for the caller to continue on, and her brows undergo a series of metamorphoses as she synthesizes and processes the information relayed to her. Stella doesn't turn her back on Reed, but she does divert her eyes, obviously in another world entirely.
"I'll be right there." Stella doesn't sound upset or excited. She sounds even and fair and unchanged. Like always. Reed doesn't want to admit it, but it bothers her that Stella so rarely raises her voice. She's angry, right? She has every right to be - Tanya can admit to herself that what she's said is insensitive. So, why can't Stella be properly angry like anyone else? Somehow, it's so much worse looking at that calm, overtly non-hysterical demeanor; she can't be defensive against a whisper.
"Stella, I'm sorry." It comes out of Reed's mouth a little more loudly than anticipated, but she has to be sure to get it out before Stella runs for the door.
"It's fine, I promise." Stella offers a stiff smile. "You just caught me off guard, is all. I have to get going - there's apparently some important CCTV footage for me to review. I'll let you know when I'm on my way tonight".
Then, she's gone, and Tanya is feeling strange and oddly unsatisfied. The front door closes quietly across the house, and Tanya can hear the door of Stella's rental car. For the life of her, she can't figure out if she's fucked up or not. At least Stella will call on her way, she supposes, and tries to ignore her thoughts about dutiful, wifely behavior.
"What have you got?" Stella calls it out on her way into the bullpen, where she can see Eastwood and Martin both crowded in front of an oversized computer monitor. She can see the gray of multiple CCTV screens running.
"We got very lucky, ma'am." Eastwood vacates his seat and offers it to her. Stella accepts and nearly throws her satchel to the floor in her haste. "In reviewing the CCTV footage around the University Quarter, we happened across footage of Katie boarding the neighborhood bus at the stop nearest her home. Following the route of the bus and CCTV's thereabouts, we found footage of her departing the bus at Central Station. There, she purchased railway fare to and from Lisburn."
The footage to back-up Eastwood's narrative flashes across the large monitor. The low quality graininess offers little detail, but Stella can see that the year has not been kind to Katie Benedetto. The teenager looks less like a child and more like an angry warrior. The young woman looks hard and dangerous. Stella has little doubt left as to Katie's involvement.
"What was she doing in Lisburn?"
"Well, we captured footage of her departing the train on arrival, but have yet to find any luck capturing her anywhere else about town. But, on a hunch, I called Maghaberry Prison - where Paul Spector is being held, of course. It sits just at the Lisburn city line. As can be expected, Paul Spector receives very little in the way of visitors. The day of Katie's little train trip, however, he received a visit from one Olivia Baldwin."
Stella nearly chokes on her own breath. "Oh my God. We have to get out there right now." She's already up and packing her things.
"I've arranged for an interview with Spector for yourself, along with DC Martin and I, in two hours' time. That'll give us some time to review the campus surveillance and interview anyone on shift that day before speaking with him."
Stella let's out a puff of panicked breath, forcing herself to calm. "Thank you. Let's get on our way now."
Eastwood only nods agreeably, looking to Martin for any resistance. The other man's coat is upon his shoulders, and he's somehow procured a jelly donut for the ride. Glenn catches Matthew's incredulous look.
"What?" He speaks around his generous first bite.
Matthew only shakes his head and turns to follow Stella out of the building, leaving Glenn to catch up.
"I thought she seemed a little young to be visiting a multi-murderer, but she had good ID, and it's none of my business." The guard presents his most innocent brow lift to Stella. She can't decide if he thinks it cute, or if he thinks her stupid. Either way, it isn't helping, and neither are his nap-matted hair or rumpled clothing.
"Was Ms. Benedetto never placed on a no-visit list for Paul Spector?" Stella chooses to ignore the "cute" and stick with the facts. She can practically feel Matthew Eastwood smirking from behind her shoulder. He would probably get off on watching her decimate the man. Unfortunately for Matthew, the guard offers no challenge to Stella. Like a cat, a toy without challenge does little to excite the Detective Superintendent. Laziness aside, the man is safe.
"Well, let me take a look at that." The guard makes a show of adjusting his over-tight belt and moving to check the computer system. His typing is erratic and slow, and Stella finds herself rethinking her stance on how much she would like to kill him. She turns to look at Matthew, incredulous; smirk confirmed.
"Well, Ma'am." How many times can one man adjust his belt, Stella wonders? The guard clears his throat before continuing. "It would appear that Miss Benedetto was placed on the no-visit list last year. But I'd like to point out, that's difficult to catch with a different ID and name."
"So, you're saying that you're a guard at a maximum security prison and you don't check the pictures on the no-visitor list before admitting a visitor to see an inmate?" Stella feels like she could bore a hole in the man's forehead with the intensity of her own stare. She hopes she does.
The answer is not immediately forthcoming. Stella can see the guard mulling it over, wondering which way he could possibly answer this question in which he would be allowed to keep his job. Finally, his shoulders slump. "I suppose not, Ma'am."
"That's what I thought." Stella's lips go tight. "I assume you have CCTV footage of the visit?"
"You'll need to speak with the Justice Minister for authorization, Ma'am." The guard looks properly chuffed, smiling sweetly while Stella chews at the inside of her cheek.
"Very well then." Stella turns to the men gathered behind her. "DC Martin, could you please get in touch with the Justice Minister's office and petition? Let him know that ACC Burns is currently unavailable, and that he should speak to me if he needs further clarification or authorization."
Martin nods, already pulling out his cell phone. "Consider it done, Ma'am."
Stella turns back to the self-satisfied guard. "We'll need an interview suite, and you'll need to have the Jailor fetch Paul Spector. I believe DCI Eastwood arranged accommodations?"
The guard nods, perhaps more professionally than he's been since her arrival. "Yes, Ma'am." His eyes dart to Eastwood, seemingly unsure of whom he should address. "You're Eastwood? I'm told the suite should be ready anytime."
"Does that meet with your approval, Ma'am?" Matthew smirks at Stella again, watching while the subtle exchange becomes clear to their friendly neighborhood prison guard.
Stella can't help but smile tightly. "Yes. It should do, DCI Eastwood." She can't help but ham it a bit. "Thank you for arranging that for me on such short notice."
"My pleasure, Ma'am. Would you like me to accompany you?"
Stella nods, and turns back to the guard. "May we please get an escort to the suite?"
This time, the guard speaks not. Instead, he nods and hangs his head while he calls for the escort.
"How do you feel about seeing him again?" Matthew asks it while shuffling papers back and forth with Stella. Her look is solidly impenetrable. He wonders what she must have looked like prior to her previous, and last, interview with Paul Spector. She had nailed him so completely, so profusely, and so calmly. His being shot, the excitement, the worry, had panicked her; but not the intellectual death match locked in a tight space with a hateful, killing man. Is it even possible to know Stella Gibson? To understand her psyche well enough to predict her response? Matthew isn't sure.
"It feels strange." Stella is surprisingly candid. "It's been so long. I don't care about him anymore; his feelings, his motivations. All I care about is that he rot in prison. Speaking to him again interrupts my forgetfulness."
"I see." Matthew nods. "Makes perfect sense. You were coming back for the trial soon anyhow... what were you going to do then?"
Stella smiles. "Nothing gets past you, eh? I was going to pretend like he was a non-entity. I was going to let him know that he is precisely nothing."
"Sounds perfect to me." Matthew looks down at his paperwork. "I never got the opportunity to tell you I was wrong. About how I treated you before."
It's Stella's turn to smirk. "Are you apologizing, DCI Eastwood? I believe you already did, once."
"Before, I was ashamed of my behavior after Rob Breedlove shot himself. I fancied that we were even. I hadn't had the opportunity to see how fair and effective you are, and I should never have let your personal situation inform my professional opinion of you." Matthew nearly shakes his head to himself. I shouldn't have said anything.
Stella looks pensive. "Thank you."
There's a stiff trill of knocks on the door. Martin peeks his head in before entering and closing the door behind him. "The Justice Minister is awaiting legal authorization, and then the CCTV is ours. Should be later today. Is Spector on his way?"
Martin plops into a chair in the corner, ready to wait.
Stella nods. "Should be momentarily."
The man before Stella is a simple shell of himself. Paul Spector doesn't stare at her the way she remembers, and she finds it more unsettling than if he did. She hadn't quite been prepared for the sight of him wheeled in by a guard, his wheelchair old and rickety. The man once so proud of his physique is wiry and slumped, and far too thin. His eyes are large atop his too-prominent cheekbones, but tired and devoid of spark. Paul Spector appears altogether broken. Stella doesn't know what she had expected, but this isn't it.
"How are you, Paul?" Matthew Eastwood asks, in his most disinterested tone, peering up from the paperwork open in front of him.
Paul doesn't answer; doesn't look at Matthew. His gaze remains fixed on Stella, hungry and tired.
"When was the last you saw Katie Benedetto, Paul?" Matthew continues. Glenn Martin watches, rapt, from the corner of the room, his head just narrowly missing the monitor light where it's half-disconnected from its cradle on the wall.
Paul's head snaps to Matthew, the surprise clear on his face. His eyes dart to Stella for confirmation of Matthew's question.
Paul's voice is rough when he speaks. It's obvious he hasn't engaged in much conversation of late. "I don't owe you anything, Stella."
Stella smiles wanly, but Paul is looking at the woodgrain on the table. "No, you don't owe me anything more, Paul. But you do owe Katie Benedetto a great deal, don't you?"
"What makes you think she would bother with me?" Paul's mouth twitches upwards, and Stella sees a shadow of his former self flash to the surface. The man may be depressed, but sociopathic nonetheless.
Matthew steps in. "We're still awaiting video confirmation, but a female matching Katie Benedetto's description was spotted as having visited you under the name of Olivia Baldwin. Coincidental?"
"Not coincidental." Paul tilts his head. "Just what is it that you think I owe Katie Benedetto?"
Stella's chin juts out towards Paul as she finally catches his gaze. "You owe her permission to let you go. She believes in you very deeply, Paul. She believes in you so deeply she's become a detriment to herself and others."
"What has she done?" Paul sounds almost panicked, his hands coming to rest upon the table, still cuffed.
"You know I can't tell you that." Stella leans into the table. The space in the room feels narrower. "But I can tell you that, for the last year, she has lived solely to fulfill the purposes she felt you meant for her. She has been living for you, Paul. What is it that you wanted from her?"
Paul leans back, eyes to the ceiling, and chuckles. His overly tight, pallid skin crinkles around his eyes. "It's funny, Stella. I didn't want anything to do with her."
Stella waits for him to gather his thoughts and continue.
"I'll tell you how it started..."
Matthew raises his hand to stop Paul. "Should we be calling your Solicitor, Mr. Spector?"
Stella is glad Matthew stepped in, having not thought of it. In her mind, Spector is already written off, but the trial still looms.
Paul shakes his head. "I keep telling my solicitor to leave me alone, but the son of a bitch doesn't listen. No need to call him."
"What has Katie been visiting you about?"
"Nothing in particular. She tells me about how she misses me. Shows me her drawings, and tells me about how she wishes we could run away together. It's all a little juvenile."
Stella nods her understanding. "Why do you encourage her to keep coming?"
Paul's eyes wander while he straightens the narrative in his head. "I can't say I encourage her, exactly. I've only just become used to her. She's my only company, and the drama is something to take my mind away for a moment." His dull gaze finds its way back to the tabletop. "I really didn't want to have much to do with her. I knew she liked me, and I thought she was sweet. She started coming around for nonsense reasons. One night, I gave her a Guinness and invited her to listen to some music. I don't know why I did it."
"Sally Ann mentioned that she thought you had assaulted Katie one night after listening to music. Same night?" Matthew asks casually.
"Same night. It wasn't really my intention. We'd been listening and drinking a bit, and I saw Katie take a lock of hair I kept in my office. It was...." Paul breathes deeply. "It was a lock of Sarah Kay's hair. I pinned her to the floor and took it back from her. She was angry, but kept coming 'round for more. She wrote a song about it. It was... strange."
"Were you truly having an affair with Katie?" Stella asks quietly, calmly.
Paul shakes his head voraciously. "No. She was babysitting for Sally Ann the night of Joe Brawley's murder. I needed Sally Ann's word to avoid further questioning, and she knew I wasn't in the house that night. Between the lock of hair and having been there babysitting, Katie was a danger to me. I told Sally Ann I was having an affair with her to secure her word; told her she would be in danger legally if she didn't. Then I told Katie I was in love with her, but needed to deny my feelings for the sake of my family. Told her to stay away from Sally. Obviously, that didn't work out well."
"Did you ever discuss with Katie any places she might be inclined to hide?" Matthew asks.
"Why do you ask? What's happened?"
"I can only say that Katie has placed herself in considerable danger, and we can't find her." Stella answers. "She's lost, Paul. You don't need a disciple, and that's what she feels she is. Help us."
Paul is thinking rather deeply, silent, contemplative. "I'm not sure. We really don't discuss much when she visits."
"Anything at all will help." Matthew urges him on.
Paul sighs, leaning forward again. "I did once tell her about a hideaway on the Malone road. It was an attic space above a cookie shop that had a broken lock on an outdoor ledge. Number 139 I think. I used it for some time before the night I killed Sarah Kay, but moved to the house on the Goodall property shortly after. It was just a changing space for me, but it was certainly large enough for a single person to live in. The owners never checked it, as far as I know."
Stella turns to Matthew. "Suspend the interview. I need to make a phone call."
Stella waits while DC Ferrington pauses in hesitation. It's slight, but it's there. Stella has to remind herself that the familiarity of a year ago no longer exists; she finds it depressing. "Yes, Ma'am?"
Stella does take a secret sort of satisfaction from the fact that Dani recognized her voice or her number flashing on her cellular screen. Either one would do. "I need you to grab McNally and perhaps a couple PC's to canvass Malone road. In particular, number 139 or the buildings around it. We're looking for a cookie shop with an unlocked attic door attainable from an outdoor ledge."
"Katie Benedetto is expected to be there?" Dani sounds incredulous, and it somewhat irks Stella. She feels her eyebrow twitching in annoyance.
"Yes, or to have been at some point. Paul Spector doesn't quite recollect the number, so it will be important to be discrete."
"What shall we do if we run across her, Ma'am?" Dani seems to have checked her attitude.
"Detain her and inform me. I will meet you there as soon as possible; I'm concluding an interview with Paul Spector."
"I'll inform you of any upcoming details, Ma'am."
Stella nods, though she knows Dani can't see her. "Thank you, Dani."
The line is already disconnected.
The room is uncomfortable when Stella re-enters. Spector, Eastwood and Martin are all locked in stubborn silence, each looking at a respective corner of the room. All three gazes follow her as she walks across the room, but with three differing intents and perceptions. Spector stares at her like a wounded, feral animal while Eastwood's utter nonchalance leads his mouth to quirk up at her. Martin looks something akin to terrified.
Stella sits and gestures for Matthew to continue the interview. The recorder is restarted, and Matthew reintroduces the room to the recorder.
"Paul, what exactly did you say to Katie Benedetto?" Stella nearly whispers it.
Spector tilts his head. "How do you mean?"
"She was attracted to you from the start, but her behavior didn't appear to be deviant in any way prior to her perceived involvement with you. How exactly did you speak with Katie?"
"We would often video chat. You saw... some of that." Paul clears his throat. "But oftentimes, I was ponderous. I found that sometimes I hated her; hated the fact that she wouldn't leave me alone. I found myself toying with her. Encouraging her anger. I told her she should find a way to take pleasure from others' pain. I was... returning the feelings she made me to feel."
"Again, why did you allow her to keep coming back? Particularly if you hated her so?" Stella raises her eyebrows.
Paul thinks for a long moment, staring into his lap. He'd never quite considered it. "I think... I enjoyed the power I held over her. It was more than tying her up or holding her down - I had power over her choices; control over her feelings. She told me she hated her days when she didn't see me. I liked it."
"Sally Ann said you never displayed these types of behaviors with her. Why is that?"
Paul looks exceedingly uncomfortable, and crestfallen. "I never wanted that for her. With Sally Ann, I was always going to be..." Paul trails off. "I suppose, someone I'm not."
"This is why you became Paul Spector." Stella's voice is blunt, flat.
Paul nods. "I always knew my habits weren't normal, but I felt I was an OK person. I felt I could be a good husband, a good father; but I had to become someone else first."
"You told me before that you always had a project to keep you preoccupied. Was Katie one of those projects? You never seemed to have any intent to kill her, though you did harm her physically."
Paul shakes his head vigorously. "It was different. I had a sexual attraction to the women I chose. I was never sexually attracted to Katie Benedetto. I was attracted to the way she did as I said; the way she was willing to give everything to me." Paul's eye twitches a bit as he speaks. "The way she worshipped me."
Stella leans in on her elbows. The room seems to narrow to just the two of them, and she can no longer hear Matthew breathing beside her, or the subtle tapping of Glenn's foot. "That's what it's all about, isn't it? You want the world to worship you for your tortured intellect. You enjoy spouting off dark, angry poetry and flaunting your ability to memorize and recite it with flair. You want to feel eyes on you, for people to find you mysterious. It's all about the attention."
"I told you before." Paul's voice is an angry whisper. "I hate the world and everyone in it. I hate myself. I wish I'd ended myself before this could happen. Before I was doomed to wheel myself around a solitary confinement cell for the foreseeable future."
"These things have nothing to do with your choice to violate and murder women. To brutally murder another man. To confine and leave for dead a woman who once meant something to you. Those people didn't put you in prison, Paul." Stella catches his eyes. "You did."
Paul hangs his head and shakes it at the realization. "That's the worst of it."
The ringing of Stella's phone interrupts. She holds a finger up to signal that she must take the call, and searches out the phone in her pocket.
Matthew speaks clearly into the recording. "The interview is not suspended at this time, but Detective Superintendent Gibson will be momentarily answering a brief phone call."
"Gibson." Stella listens intently to the other line, and the men in the room watch while her eyebrows and mouth dance about her face while she absorbs the information spoken to her. "I see. I'll be there soon."
After disconnecting the call, Stella clears her throat. "Thank you, Gentlemen."
"Is it Katie?" Paul, again, sounds genuinely concerned.
Stella nods, but does not speak into the recorder. "It would appear that someone has been squatting on the premises, but there was no sign of her in the vicinity. Thank you for your cooperation, Paul."
Paul chuckles, but his smile doesn't even come close to reaching his eyes. "I don't know why, but I can't seem to lie to you... Stella, shining star."
Stella nods. "Again, thank you for your cooperation. This interview is hereby concluded and will join the entry record for defendant Peter Paul Spector. I will see you in trial, Mr. Spector."
Stella doesn't acknowledge Paul's seemingly affectionate pet name, and most definitely does not turn to glance at him as she gathers her officers, her belongings, and vacates the room.
"Ma'am!" Dani shouts to Stella swiftly upon her arrival at the scene. The majority of the Malone road is cordoned, and Dani appears concerned, face scrunched and black turtleneck far too stark. Stella rushes to meet her, Matthew and Glenn hot on her heels. "You need to know that an explosives expert is on the premises and examining the property for risk."
Stella's steps slow while she processes the new information. "On what suspicion?"
Dani breathes deeply, obviously readying herself for the impending conversation. Not for the first time, Stella wishes she didn't make the younger Detective quite so nervous. "I called them, Ma'am. When McNally and I entered the room above the shop, there was a very strong scent of ammonia. While there were no chemical containers visible, there were several supplies sitting out which were, in my opinion, suspicious." Dani swallows deeply and begins to breathe again.
"What sort of supplies?" Stella attempts professional nonchalance, trying to calm Dani.
"Tubing, wire, masking tape, and package wrappers from the purchase of several digital time devices." The detective isn't quite stammering, but still unreasonably nervous. Stella wonders if she had inflicted on Dani some unaware cruelty. Has she contributed in some way to the newly-minted detective's skittish behavior?
"It was a good call, Dani." Stella reaches out to tap Dani's shoulder in reassurance, smiling slightly. "Although, I don't think you needed me to tell you that. The scene sounds straightforward." Dani's shoulders sink in relief. "Please keep up the good work."
"Yes, Ma'am." For the first time since Stella's arrival back in Belfast, Dani smiles. "Thank you."
Stella points to the cookie shop across the street. The street is fairly swarming with police, and Stella silently hopes Katie doesn't plan on returning here anytime soon. "Any indication when we'll be cleared to enter?"
"I'll go check, Ma'am." Dani strides away with newly found purpose.
For a moment, Stella ruminates on what she already knows about the scene. She can't quite put her finger on it, but the limited discovery of items inside seem to confirm to her that Katie Benedetto has been there. What would an average squatter need with such materials? Granted, Belfast sees its fair share of random hate-motivated bombings, but Stella can't help the sick feeling in her stomach. If there is strong suspicion that Katie's been constructing a bomb, her proclivities haven't just advanced - they've skyrocketed.
"It's going to be a while." Dani returns into Stella's field of vision.
Stella nods her understanding. The day just got considerably longer. "Dani." Stella stops the detective before she can leave. "Would you please let Matthew Eastwood know to contact me as soon as the building is cleared for forensics? I have some business to attend to."
Dani nods enthusiastically. "Yes, Ma'am."
Stella's mind has already moved elsewhere as she heads to her vehicle. She's reminded of her awkward morning encounter with Reed, and her promise that she would call on her way "home". She can't help but remember the dumbfounded and hurt expression on Tanya's face. Stella can barely call what had upset her enough to start an argument, but she had certainly been prowling for a fight. Tanya will worry if she doesn't call or come by tonight. Even worse, she may take it as a sign that their silly fight had been in any way consequential; that Stella was truly upset. This is why she's always done so poorly with relationships - she can't handle feelings of inadequacy.
The examiner's office appears blessedly quiet. Stella hopes Tanya can take some time to see her briefly. As was typical a seemingly mystical year ago, Stella lets herself in quietly and helps herself to the sterile observation room just outside the autopsy bay. She's dismayed to find the room empty, and makes the awkward walk back to Tanya's private office. Not wanting to seem stalkerly, Stella knocks firmly on arrival.
"Yes?" Tanya's voice is clipped and irritated sounding at the interruption, and Stella steps fully into the doorway of the dim office. Stella did always think Tanya's office strangely dim, but knows the pathologist has no appreciation for the fluorescent light under which she performs the majority of her clinical work. Tanya startles somewhat before smiling shyly.
"Oh." Tanya clears her throat. "Hi. I wasn't expecting to see you until tonight. I hadn't quite worked out what to say."
Stella smiles wanly. "I know. I'm sorry to have bothered you at work."
Tanya shakes her head. "Please. Don't be silly. You're always welcome here, Detective Superintendent."
"What if I'm not here as Detective Superintendent Gibson? What if I'm just Stella come to say sorry?" Stella's face is more gentle and vulnerable than Tanya's yet to have seen.
"That would be ok, too." Tanya stares at Stella intensely from behind her desk, unsure whether to get up. "Although, I have to admit to having some confusion."
Stella nods and crosses her arms casually, not defensively. "Me, too. But not about how much I like you. I said I would talk to you about my past; about why I'm so phenomenally bad at relationships. I wasn't lying about that, Tanya."
"I didn't think you were. But, I suppose you're here to tell me that this conversation isn't going to happen tonight." Tanya's voice isn't scolding, but lacks warmth.
"I'm sorry." Stella finally moves across the room and plops down onto the guest sofa across from Tanya's desk. "Things are heating up. I don't have all the information yet, but we're close to finding Katie, and there's some indication that she's suddenly taken on bomb building as a hobby."
"What?" Tanya stands from her chair abruptly, sending it wheeling to the wall behind her. "When did this happen?"
"Still happening. The explosives expert is in the process of confirming as we speak."
"Jesus, Stella." Tanya comes to perch beside her. "Are there any indications what she plans to do with a bomb?"
Stella shakes her head, her hand coming up to rub her cheek. It comes away with day old makeup. "Not yet. It's liable to be a long night."
Tanya nods simply and looks at Stella's worry-lined face, waiting for her word. When she speaks, her voice is low and raspy. "I interviewed Paul Spector today, Tanya."
"You're all full of surprises today. What brought that about?" Stella thinks she hears some fleeting irritation in Tanya's voice.
"We found Katie's still been seeing him. That's how we came about her hiding place."
Tanya's much gentler. "Are you ok?"
Stella sighs and sags at the shoulders. "I could go the rest of my life without seeing that... man, and never wonder about him. I want him to go away to prison so I can deny him a single thought in his direction. I want him to spend the rest of his life suspended just a moment from death with a psychotic hand gripping his throat. His throat would constrict, over and over, and never collapse, sending him into agony over and over again. His hands would be bound so tightly that he couldn't choose; couldn't fight one bit. Just lie there helplessly and suffer. Sadly, I'll have to settle for a life spent in peace and quiet and three square a day. I can only hope he misses his autonomy and control, because they mean considerably to him."
Tanya's hand skims lovingly along Stella's shoulder blade, comforting, though Stella seems as though she may have left the room. She's distant, and both women startle at the overly-loud trill of Stella's phone. Stella fishes it out of her pocket with some difficulty, her face still startlingly somber.
"Gibson." Tanya watches while Stella listens, and the spirit she knows re-awakens in her face while the caller rattles off details to her. Stella's eyes dart back and forth, wide and wet. "Oh, God," She mumbles. "Keep everyone calm. I'll be there in twenty minutes."
The call is disconnected, and Stella stands, rushed.
"Did they confirm?" Tanya asks, although she already knows the answer.
"Yes," Stella confirms, "and the sweep just turned up a well-hidden active device in the cookie shop downstairs. The explosives expert is confident he can disable it, but it's all become a bit... real."
"Oh my God." Tanya pulls Stella over for an unexpected and passionate kiss, her arms enveloping Stella's neck and shoulders, before pulling away panting. "Please be careful."
"Of course." Stella's smile is unsettlingly cavalier considering the circumstances. "I'll update you at the soonest opportunity."
Tanya nods nervously, although Stella's already run out of the office.
'Belfast continues to reel after the death of local teen Chloe Walsh. A confidential source tells BBC news that police are no closer to the arrest of a suspect in the death, which is being characterized as a tragic murder. The teen is believed to have been killed by strangulation, and the PSNI has confirmed that Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson is leading the newly-formed task force...' The radio drones about in Stella's speeding vehicle. She finds it galling how slowly and calmly the reporter speaks considering the racing of her own heart, mind, and car. It feels wrong. 'Drive carefully,' a much calmer voice pops into her head.
Stella has never had personal dealings with rigged explosives; not in a meaningful way, outside of anti-terrorism trainings what seems a million years away. How can she tell her team to remain calm when she is, herself, overwhelmed? She feels, emotionally, on fire. How could a child do this? She thinks back to herself at Katie's age, a teenage girl longing to be recognized as an individual. Longing to be told she is smart and worthy, good enough. She can't understand Katie Benedetto's actions, but she feels she can certainly understand the young girl's heart. Stella wishes she could return to Paul Spector and show him just what he's done to ruin a young person's life. Tanya had said it before: Examining the dead is one thing. Examining the remains of a living victim is another entirely.
'Tomorrow, a memorial is to be held for Chloe Walsh at Sir Thomas and Lady Dixon Park outside of Belfast at 10:00 am. The public is welcome...' The radio continues on.
"Fuck!" Stella screams tightly into the still, mostly-empty car, her fist coming down on the steering while she weaves in and out of mid-day traffic. Working not to swerve out of traffic, she fishes her cell phone out of her purse on the passenger side seat, and dials carefully.
"Matthew!" She yells when Eastwood answers. "I'll be there in ten minutes. Please gather all of the taskforce you can find on the premises. I have an idea what Katie's doing with those bombs."
By the time Stella arrives back at the Malone Road, her head is clear, and she is ready to move with certainty. The panic of twenty minutes earlier has receded back down her throat, and she does not run to meet Matthew Eastwood. Calm and collected, she remains. She briefly notes Ned Callan screaming at her from behind the police cordon, unable to grab the attention of any passing officer. Stella mentally reminds herself to investigate Ned Callan's seemingly consistent PSNI source. The man is supernaturally present. Stella sends a self-satisfied smirk in his direction before turning to address Matthew.
"Is it disabled?" Stella wrings her hands, not in anxiety, but in anticipation of the busy 24 hours to come.
"Very nearly; Explosives Expert says it's quite rudimentary, but certainly could hurt more than a few people if placed and detonated correctly."
Stella nods, and notes that forensics is already standing about in over-suits. "Were you able to assemble the team?"
Matthew points around the corner into a shallow alley way. "Yes, Ma'am; Ferrington, McNally, and Martin are assembled. They're there around the corner -- thought you'd like to stay as far from the press as possible."
"Very good." Stella walks briskly towards the alley.
As promised, all three detectives wait in silence, arms crossed, with worry lines upon their faces and an overall posture of discomfort. The special circumstances of the situation and level of sensitivity are certainly not lost on Stella. Katie is still a minor. As yet, her mother is uninformed. Stella can feel the proverbial hot water swilling about her ankles.
"What is it, Ma'am?" Matthew urges her along, and, not for the first time, she's thankful for his presence.
"I'm afraid this all just got much more complicated." Stella bows her head for a moment, not entirely sure how to proceed. Her team is patient, familiar with her cautious, clear approach. "On my way here, BBC Radio announced a memorial service for Chloe Walsh, to be held tomorrow at Sir Thomas and Lady Dixon Park."
"My God." Gail McNally's voice is a raspy, fearful whisper. "You think she intends to detonate bombs there?"
"If not, it's a bit much of a coincidence for my tastes. I think we can't afford to take it lightly." Stella winces.
Dani steps forward with confidence, arms still hugging her midsection. "Who is organizing the event?"
"I'm not certain. Dani and Gail... perhaps you could get in touch with Mrs. Walsh? Be as vague as possible. We don't want to cause a panic, and we don't want her to cancel. If she cancels, we could spend a year looking for Katie. Let her know the PSNI will be securing the memorial."
Both women nod, and wait in silence.
"Glenn, could you please stay here, and report to me any findings? I will review the scene with forensics as soon as possible."
"Yes, Ma'am." Glenn is stony-faced and ready for duty.
"Matthew. I'm going to need you to come with me. We need to have a talk with Mrs. Benedetto."
"If you don't mind, what exactly do you plan on telling her?" Matthew cocks an eyebrow while he drives her car. Stella doesn't bother reminding him she's a perfectly capable driver. He means nothing by it.
"Truthfully?" Stella raises her own eyebrow, one-upping him. "I haven't a clue. How do you say "Dear Mrs. Benedetto, your daughter is a cold blooded murderer and soon to be terrorist, and she may either die or go to prison for a very long time tomorrow?"" Stella scoffs good-naturedly, her voice characteristically low. "Oh, and "We've known this for a few days, now, and we've been surveilling your home... but we didn't tell you."?"
"You did the right thing not involving her. Jim Burns may not have thought so, but the rest of us knew it. Plus, there was not a thing Mrs. Benedetto could have done at that point to stop Katie. She's been lost for some time." Matthew's voice is soft. Stella notices just how tired he appears around the eyes.
"Do you have children, Matthew?" She's merely curious.
Matthew is surprised by the personal question. "No. My wife never could, and now she's gone and left me. Seems children aren't in the cards."
"I'm sorry to hear that." Stella truly is.
"Why do you ask?"
Stella's head comes back to rest on the passenger side seat. She stares straight into the ceiling of the vehicle. "I wonder what it must feel like to be presented with absolute proof that your child has done something irreversibly horrific. It's not a wrecked car, or an arrest for drinking. She extinguished another life. It would seem she intends to extinguish many more. What must that feel like? I can't imagine."
"I doubt any person truly can." Matthew shakes his head. "I suppose I try to remember that every despicable person was once someone's beloved, tiny little baby."
"Get out of my house!" Mrs. Benedetto's voice is a low, but violently angry hiss. Her face is drawn up like an angry panther's, lips sneering. "I can't believe you would come to my house with such accusations. Katie is a 17 year-old girl. She is my daughter. I know her! She couldn't possibly have done these things!"
"Mrs. Benedetto; You love your daughter, and she needs help." Stella's voice is scarcely more than a whisper. "She has changed. She's BEEN changed; been hurt very deeply by a man she would do anything for. There's a good chance she will be apprehended tomorrow. She will be able to see a court-appointed therapist, but it is very important that you be sure to start, the moment we leave, securing strong legal representation for Katie. It's the best you can do for her, Mrs. Benedetto."
"How did this happen? How did I ever even arrive at this point?" Mrs. Benedetto's rail-thin shoulders slump while she rests her head in her hands.
Stella works for it, and finally catches the other woman's gaze. "Katie was severely taken advantage of, by a quite manipulative and hateful man. He taught her to hate her friends and family. He taught her to be selfish."
"If it's her own selfishness, why is everyone so quick to remind me it's my fault? My parents, my friends... they've all asked me how it is that I've managed to raise a monster and not even realize it. I don't know what to say to them."
"It isn't your fault." Stella speaks more strongly. "But Katie will be held responsible for her actions, probably at an adult level. You need to be prepared to help her, and support her. Your friends, your family, even you, yourself -- you don't know what kind of pain she is covering. She is the person you raised, somewhere, perhaps deep down somewhere she can't quite access right now. If we can prevent her from hurting anyone else, perhaps there is a way back for her."
Mrs. Benedetto nods, tears pulling her mascara down her face in tracks. "How can I help?"
Katie's mother will be at the memorial. Stella isn't quite certain she knows how the woman might be of use, but she can't stand the thought of not having every possible resource at her fingertips. Her gut tells her that the woman will likely be of no consequence, and she hopes earnestly that Katie's mother is no further traumatized by the events to come. It's in that vein that Stella arranged for an overnight surveillance of Sir Thomas and Lady Dixon Park. The effort has begun to feel ill advised, as there is not a soul to be seen outside of her PSNI team, "casually" leaning and strolling about in the wee hours of the morning. It doesn't look natural in the least, and Stella's begun wondering if she isn't grandly wasting everyone's time.
Perched inside a modest monitoring vehicle, Stella and Matthew sit watching the green, flickering screens with utter disinterest. The surveillance ceased being interesting some hours ago, but Stella's heart is secretly aching in anticipation. If she calls off the surveillance, she takes an utterly terrifying risk of Katie calling her bluff and setting up her tricks in secrecy. Even if she limits the team, she fears she is only limiting her own chances at actually apprehending the teenager. Mary McCurdy sighs her discontent, reminding Stella of her position by the surveillance screens. She is meant to record the goings-on of the surveillance, overall. Her transcript, thus far, is embarrassingly underwhelming.
"How are you going to contend with the possibility that she may be carrying a personal explosive device tomorrow?" Matthew raises his eyebrows at Stella, although they lack their usual silent flippancy. Clearly, he's as exhausted as she, but he's been thinking plenty, too. And the silence in the van is disturbing.
Stella sighs. "It really is looking like a possibility, isn't it? I was hoping for a smooth apprehension before a crowd was around.. minimize the impact to her sentence, minimize public fear. Instead, she's gone and made this as ugly as possible for herself. We don't want to miss a single thing tomorrow. I think it would be best we have every officer available on the ground, plainly clothed with vests beneath their clothes. We need to call for morning prayers and a brief around 6 am, and I'll disseminate photos of Katie to the full team."
"And if she manages to detonate something in the crowd?" As always, Matthew enjoys playing Devil's Advocate. "Is that a risk we should be willing to take? Should we consider cancellation? She can only hide for so long, right?"
Her head comes to rest on the cracked padding of her elderly seat, and Stella's eyes slide up to the ceiling. "I don't know. It seems a bit much, doesn't it? As it is, we got ourselves into trouble with the risk assessment on Spector's trip to the woods for Rose. It seems to be pushing our luck to proceed without a risk assessment. Whatever direction, we'll need to call Ged first thing."
Both crumpled investigators think in tandem, though their minds have long surpassed freshness. Matthew chews on his lip while Stella sits utterly still, straining to keep her skirted legs crossed. Her pelvis feels like it's ready to unhinge, and suddenly, her skirt feels like a vice. Mary McCurdy has laid her head down, though her eyes remain dutifully opened, one ear bud in her right ear while the other swings in the blackness beneath the small counter.
Stella clears her throat. "How about this? We could establish a true cordon and make it a legitimate police presence. Meanwhile, however, we would need to conduct surveillance around the perimeter of the park and apprehend her on her way in. It would keep it out of the public crowd, and make it absolutely clear that we intend to protect the public, here. If she has any personal devices she chooses to detonate, we would be, hopefully, far enough from the memorial to risk civilians."
More silence, but Stella can see Matthew nodding while he continues to gnaw at his lip. "I believe it sounds like a start, but..." He sighs, "we must account yet for the possibility of her making an appearance here tonight."
"Agreed," Stella leans forward in her chair, enjoying the circulation returning to her legs as she uncrosses them. "Matthew, please inform the team that they can go home for the night. They'll need to be ready by 6am to continue preparing the park for the memorial."
"What of the surveillance devices, Ma'am?" Mary's voice is soft and scratchy as she turns from her post at the bank of monitors.
"The team need conceal them as best they can before leaving. We'll need them for the rest of the night and through the memorial. Trial... will be much simpler with video surveillance."
Mary can't conceal her weary sigh. "Yes, Ma'am".
Stella smiles somewhat. "Go home, Mary. DCI Eastwood and I will handle it from here."
Mary is suddenly wide-eyed and aware of how she sounded. "I meant no disrespect, Ma'am." She looks mildly terrified by her own behavior. She does not, however, register the mildly amused smile on the Detective Superintendent's face.
"None taken, Mary." Stella's voice is cheeky; unusual, particularly in the experience of the other woman. Mary's shoulders drop in relief.
"Thank you." Mary wastes no time gathering her things. As she does, Matthew steps forward to radio the team. The response is oddly quiet and sullen. Stella watches the exhausted officers trickle from their posts on the monitor screens and drag their bodies away as black-green shadows.
Once alone together, Matthew and Stella sit in a surprisingly companionable silence. Neither would have predicted the other to be so suitable a work companion, their awkward beginning paving the way for honesty and trust.
"Have you as sick a feeling as I do about this?" Matthew almost whispers, but his face is blank.
After a dense, deathly-silent moment, Stella breathes deeply and rubs her face. "I have."
The monitors are nearly sun-brightened when Matthew nudges her awake in her seat. They had dutifully agreed to split out the remainder of the night's watch. Stella felt a mess, slouched in her chair and shoes strewn about her stocking feet. Opening her eyes, she briefly thinks that if she looks as badly as Matthew, they're in for a rough day ahead.
"Nothing interesting?" Stella runs her hands about her face and hair as she asks.
Matthew shakes his head vigorously. "Not so much as a fly landing."
Stella sighs heavily and pulls herself up from her chair with a creak - one from her, one from the chair. "Ok. It's early yet, but please call Ged Greene. We have five hours before we're looking at civilians walking about the park, and we need our risk assessment."
Matthew nods, though he knows Stella can't see it. He's anxious to get his phone. Anxious to move on to a day in which he won't have to consider the possibility of a teenage girl bombing her friends. Stella's made her way to her overnight bag, slung in the corner of the vehicle. Matthew turns away hastily when her intent becomes clear; She sheds her blouse matter-of-factly, fingers plucking away at the buttons surgeon-precise. Critical though Matthew may have been of her, he is certainly not unaware of the Detective Superintendent's charms; and charm, she does. He catches the eyes of many, lingering just a second too long, and he understands. There is something to the way her face is constructed; the way her eyes flit around when she thinks. It's fascinating. Most of all, in spite of her mystery and unusual countenance, she's easy company.
When Matthew disconnects his call and turns back to face her, Stella's dressed in fresher clothes. She tugs at the storage-wrinkled blouse ruefully, no doubt wishing for her typically-immaculate appearance. Rather, she has slept-in hair and a face full of freckles. "Ged's on it. I think I'll phone Glenn to relieve us here."
"Perfect." Stella nods. "Have him call Ferrington as well."
"You have the details, Ged?" He's waiting when Stella and Matthew arrive back at the PSNI taskforce room.
"I think I have the gist, Ma'am, and I've called out a team, pending your final approval." Gen unrolls a massive satellite map of the area, laying it flat on the cluttered communal workspace. He points to an oblong patch of greenery just south of the map's center. "This is the park. I propose we move the function to the center of the park, rather than the edge. It'll be easier to insolate the area. We should account for the presence of press. We'll cordon off an area away from the event site. I've asked for operations to supply us with movile fencing adequate to block guests entering or leaving unbeknowest."
Stella looks to both men. "How can we make it so that Katie's not spooked early enough that we fail to detect her? It's important that we use the opportunity to lure her out."
"I'm hoping the fencing will be relatively invisible from the street view. My hope would be that she's unable to detect the level of police presence until after she's been sighted. Then, I assume sight of the fence will discourage her and we can apprehend her on the way out."
Stella nods slowly, chewing a fingernail absently while she thinks. "Can we get a team of officers on the perimeter, plain-clothed with under armour, and perhaps three plain-clothes cruisers about in case she runs?"
"Of course, Ma'am." Ged nods, level headed as always. "I'll arrange it now. Will you be in the command vehicle?"
Stella mulls it over momentarily, eyes fixed to the satellite map still laid out before her. She has a nervous feeling in her gut; the same on-edge sensation of the last day. "I think I'll not."
Matthew shakes his head. "You ay be subject to some of the public's... consternation. Are you sure it's best that you're so easily accessible?"
"Thanks to Ned Callan, the Belfast public haven't much affection for me, it's true. But if I know Paul Spector well, he's made certain that Katie Benedetto hates me with all she can."
"So, What?" Matthew sounds somewhat outraged, in spite of his controlled voice. "You're hoping to push her to attack you?"
"Not an attack, no. But, perhaps a distraction or a surprise could work to our advantage. Throw her off just enough to get an edge." As usual, Stella is eerily calm.
"Perhaps so, Ma'am." Ged intercedes firmly. "I think we very much need to discuss the possibility of a personal explosive device. The suspect's age... do we have a duty to protect her from herself?"
Stella nods. "The public may very well think so. However, we wouldn't even be having this conversation if the perpetrator were an adult male. We have no responsibility to terrorists or murderers - we do, however, have an obligation to protect the public from them, at all reasonable costs."
Both men look distinctly nervous, and Stella presses on. "I hate that this is a teenage girl. But we have no control over her actions, gentlemen. Whether or not she decides to detonate a device, the result will be unfavorable in either event. We will be blamed, either way." She is stoic but her stomach aches. She immediately imagines Mrs. Benedetto's face, crumbled in fear and agony, and urgently wishes she hadn't asked the woman to come. Stella bids her mind to clear.
"You're right." Matthew is quiet and resigned. "We can defend the decision to protect the greater public over saving the life of a single, troubled girl."
Stella sighs and turns to leave, but stops. "She may or may not expect to see me there; She may or may not have a device... this may not even be her plan. But the family of Chloe Walsh deserves to mourn in peace. For their sake, let's keep this as smooth as possible."
the weather is blessedly good for the memorial. Half an hour out and the park is already nearly a madhouse. It's quite clear that the community grieves in earnest for the young girl lost, but Stella worries that Katie could easily be lost in the crowd.
She is thankful, however, for a breeze swishing about her. It feels heavenly after days of inside-only suspense. Though she's had time to straighten her rumpled self, she feels woefully out of place along the fencing barrier where mourners are welcomed. She can see that she is easily recognized, and not with particular fondness.
Stella wonders how many of them blame her. How many of them wonder if she was too busy sleeping around to surmise that Paul Spector had a murderous admirer. The details of Katie's involvment have been miraculously kept from the Belfast Chronicle. None of the people staring at her coldly have any clue of the situation. She doubts that'll be the case after today.
"Ms. Gibson?" Stella whips around to find the owner of the soft voice.
"Daisy." Stella smiles earnestly. The young woman, though obviously still feeling timid, appears much better than she last saw her. There's more life about her skin. "You look well."
Daisy smiles shyly, but her pale lips don't quite bare her teeth. "I've been feeling much better, thank you. Life is much simpler without all the secrets."
Stella tilts her head in curiosity. "How do you mean?"
"I told them," Daisy gestures non-specifically, nervously laughing. "My parents, I mean. I told them about Katie and I... all of it. My father wanted to beat me senseless for about an hour, but he's since gotten over it. Doesn't speak to me much, but I trust he'll come around some day."
Stella brushes the young woman's shoulder lightly. She can't help but feel a little melancholy for the girl, remembering moments in her own younger days; painful conversations about who she is. "That's wonderful, Daisy."
"I just wanted to say thank you for keeping my secret - and for standing up for me. You didn't have to do that."
"Of course." Stella's eyes are warm and inviting. She notices Daisy's eyes leave her abruptly, glued to something beyond Stella's shoulder. They young woman's cheer utterly disappears, replaced by a look of sheer terror.
"Oh, God..." Daisy mutters.
Stella turns to scan the busy crowd behind her. It doesn't take long for her to zero in on the face she was already looking for. Katie peers back at them like she had just been fatally beaten, her eyes flitting back and forth between her one-time best friend and the woman she's been groomed to hate with all her heart.
Stella can see the pure hatred in Katie's eyes. She's carrying a large backpack and wearing a denim jacket, but Stella is unable to tell if she's armed. Katie shifts around nervously, but the throng of people surrounding her seem utterly clueless. Finally, she angrily screams, "Stella Gibson; You're a fucking cunt!"
It's a high-pitched, hysterical scream, and it immediately catches the attention of all around. Katie turns in the direction she came, and she's nearly stopped by two plain clothes officers. However, one large man just barely grasps at the edge of her jacket, and the wiry teenager slips away easily.
Stella doesn't think; just runs with all her power. She thanks whoever's responsible for the sunny, warm day - she can only imagine the arduous journey in the rain. As it is, her heels beat against the unkempt pavement and jostle her ankle bones with every impact. It's been a long while since she's had to do more than run across the office, or submit to a simple departmental physical. She crosses a traffic-laden street and runs directly into a narrow alley way, and needn't look far to see the two plainclothes officers well ahead of her, with Katie in the distance. Stella takes a split second to step out of her shoes, leaving them looking expensive and lonely thrown haphazardly about the alley floor. Looking ahead as she runs far more comfortably, she can see the two officers have drawn their weapons, following Katie into a derelict building tucked away amidst bushes. The street is busy about it, and Stella absently marvels at the desensitized Belfast crowd, not a one bothered by the large men brandishing weapons.
"Just another day in paradise", Stella thinks and lightly chuckles to herself as she comes to a stop in front of the limp building. It appears to have been some sort of treats parlor in an earlier incarnation. Now, boarded doors and holes in rotted wood mark the dying of someone's little dream. Stella turns back to look the way she came, and sees no backup. Reaching around for her radio, she curses when she finds it gone from her waistband. It must have fallen while she was running. Her gun is still nestled into her shoulder holster, and she removes it in time to hear shouting inside.
Not hesitating, Stella tips through the front door as quietly as possible, mindful of her now-bare feet. As she suspected, the floor of the inner room is littered with newspapers, blankets, and an assortment of trash. She can see a few used syringes popping up through the garbage, along with miserably broken china. The ceiling and second floor are rotted into a three foot or so hole. Light from the floor above spills through the gaping wound, and so does Katie's screaming upstairs.
"You don't understand! Not any one of you!" Katie's voice is filled with the same desperate hysteria heard at the park. Stella can't help but think the teenager has given up, fully recognizing that she is out of options, backed into a corner. And undeniably dangerous.
"What is it we don't understand, Katie?" One of the officers asks, very quietly, and Stella makes a note to herself to praise the man she hasn't really met. Making her way up the stairs, she silently prays the steps are sturdy enough the avoid a creak. She's done well enough to avoid the noisy trash strewn about. Approaching the landing, her weapon is at her side; she would like it if Katie didn't see it until necessary.
"If you have to ask, I haven't any hope for you." Katie's voice is suddenly hushed, but dramatically despairing.
Stella steps onto the landing. Katie's eyes latch onto her immediately, and Stella finds herself haunted by the young lady's appearance. She is simply a shell of herself, not unlike the Paul Spector Stella witnessed in prison. Katie is shrunken in on herself, her face devoid of color and her lashes spilling oily mascara into the hollows of her eye sockets. Her clothes are well-worn and dirty, and ill fitting across her too-small rib cage and shoulders. She makes perfect eye contact with Stella, and Stella can feel the utter misery.
"Why have you done all this, Katie?" Stella conscientiously keeps her weapon hidden behind the short wall at the top of the staircase, speaking in her typically soft and non-judgmental interviewer's voice.
"You know why." Katie drops her eyes for the first time since Stella entered the room. "He's gone, and I don't know what to do. It's fucked up... he ruined my life, and I love him for it. But at the same time, I hate myself more than I've ever hated anyone or anything."
Katie's words are melodramatic - the same flowery phrasing Paul Spector fed to Stella a year ago in an interview room. This difference is, Paul Spector speaks like this to feel superior. Katie speaks like this because she feels it's the only way to gain the attention she so desperately needs. Silly as the words may be, Katie is frightfully honest. She's been thinking for some time about what she would say to Stella were they to meet - Stella can tell. It's the sort of orchestrated language that comes with practicing in a mirror.
"I know." Stella nods simply. "I do understand, Katie. Paul is your whole world."
Katie's face contorts like a toddler's, the color returning to her face a violent red. Stella's own chest turns heavy. She can't help but identify with Katie, but she's more than able to see that Katie is beyond her help.
"Paul may be your whole world now, Katie..." Stella continues, Katie's face still fallen. "But he doesn't have to be your whole world from this moment on. There is so much more for you to learn; to experience."
When the girl brings her head up, Stella can see her shoulders shivering. It's likely an adrenaline let-down; Katie is suffering severe exhaustion. "I know there's nothing more for me, Stella. It's too late. I've killed someone."
Stella doesn't nod, only speaks. "Why did you kill her, Katie?"
Katie's eyes have gone dry, her face now somewhat emotionless. Again, Stella gets the sense that Katie's given up. "I thought... maybe if I were like him, it wouldn't hurt so much. He always told me about how expressing his anger against others made him feel better, and I hoped to God it would work, because I'm fucking miserable."
"Come with us, Katie. We can get you the help you need. You don't have to be miserable."
Katie shakes her head vigorously. "I already told you; it's too late."
Stella cocks her head. "How do you mean?"
"It's too fucking late for all of us, Stella." Katie's crying again, and dread fills the pit of Stella's stomach. She looks to the two officers beside her, and one man runs behind her down the steps, already alerting command. Stella backs toward the stairs slowly, and the remaining officer does so as well, his weapon still fully trained on Katie.
"Where is it, Katie?" Stella asks calmly, but the pressure in her chest in unbearable, and she feels she might vomit.
Katie doesn't answer, still shaking like a leaf, and tears now streaming full-force. Stella spies a large closet behind the teenager and moves to take another step backwards down the stairs. The remaining plain clothes officer is only a foot or two in front of Stella.
Stella opens her mouth to make an impassioned plea to Katie, but her words are drowned out by the blast. It's not particularly strong, but enough to obliterate the tiny, frail building. Stella sees no fire, but feels the impact as she's thrown down the stairs. She vaguely feels the large officer, whom was also blown by the blast, land heavily on her arm and hears a sickening crack before losing consciousness.
When Stella awakens, her surroundings are impossibly murky. Remnants of drywall are still raining down around her, and she concludes that she was unconscious little more than a few moments. Taking stock of her potential injuries, she's overwhelmed by the pulsing pain crooking up from her wrist to her elbow. Otherwise, she can feel vague stickiness around the side of her cheek and neck and some sharp pains from where she rolled violently down the stairs. She concludes that, while somewhat beaten, she's quite well considering.
Looking to her left, she can see that the heavy officer beside her has rolled from her arm, and he appears to be breathing. Looking to the arm, she can see how it naturally shattered, pinned between the bottom step of the stairs and the hefty man's weight thrown upon it. It is quite crooked, but there's no sign of bone poking through skin, and appears to be one clean break. Stella chooses to consider herself lucky. She pulls herself up well as she can atop the debris, feeling the pressure lifting from her back. Running a hand along her face, she can feel a somewhat deep gash running from just east of her right ear and down towards her chin. A similar gash reaches across her neck and dips into the hollow between her throat and collarbone. Nether are serious, but they continue to bleed quite profusely.
Stella takes a gander at the rest of the building. The gaping hole she'd peered at earlier has encompassed much of the second floor, and the entire front room is a mountain of debris. The wires between floors hang down ominously, but Stella thinks it unlikely the building had any power at all. She can see the front door from her position, and feels her chances of getting out of the building are relatively good. She smells no smoke, and looks up into the hole for signs of fire, seeing none. She can see scorching along the wall of the upper floor, but no sign of flame. Overall, she's thankful Katie appears to have not been a particularly fine bomb maker.
Turning to the officer next to her, Stella jostles his shoulder with her good arm. The man is unresponsive, and Stella grunts while she pulls by his shirt collar to roll him on his back. He is littered with cuts and bruises, and the side of his face appears to have been burned slightly from the blast, but otherwise the officer appears relatively well. She lets out a sigh of relief when she hears his radio sqwaking near by. It isn't on his person, though, and Stella hopes the noise proceeds long enough for her to find it. She stands carefully, her arm hanging uselessly from her shoulder, and her feet pressing into sharp, crunchy bits of wood, drywall, and glass. The radio is low, and she can't quite make out the conversation, but she can see its faint red power light peeking up from a pile of newspaper and trash. Making her way to it carefully, she shields her eyes from a new spray of dust falling from above her. The fire risk may appear minimal, but the building feels as though it could fall at any moment.
Pulling the radio up from the mire of trash, she turns the volume knob up completely. "Command, this is Gibson." Her voice feels croaky and sounds far away to her ears, as the radio had moments before. For the first time, it occurs to her that her hearing may be suffering from the blast.
"Stella, thank God." She can hear the relief in Matthew's voice, but his words are somewhat muffled - like he's speaking through a tin can and then through a radio channel. "Where are you?"
"I'm in the building, along with one other officer. He appears to be fine, but unconscious. We're less than ten feet from the front door, but the majority of the second floor has caved in around us. There are obvious signs of scorching upstairs, but no signs of fire so far."
"Good." Matthew is silent momentarily. "Are you injured?"
"Yes." Stella nods, though she knows she can't be seen. "But I'll be fine. A couple gashes and a broken arm."
Again, the radio is silent for a long spell. "Have you found Katie?"
Stella feels a jab of emotion in her chest. She hadn't even thought to check on Katie's well-being. The explosion was weak enough, she could have survived. She looks to where the floor opened up across the front room and the mountain of debris, with more still falling. "I haven't, Matthew. She was standing, I think, directly in front of the blast."
Still staring at the pyramid-shaped pile of rubble, Stella think she might see a hand sticking from it, but the air is thick with dust, and she doubts her vision. She starts out on her way towards the hulking pile, wincing as she feels sharp bits cutting into her feet. Looking down, Stella tries to find smooth surfaces upon which to make her way. It's the longest ten-foot journey she can recall, but she arrives to confirm that it is, indeed, a small, female hand poking from the wreckage, with a slender, pale wrist also exposed. Stella can't help the sorrow-heavy feeling invading her chest as she sets the radio down on a nearby plank of wood and reaches to check for a pulse.
Her heart leaps somewhat at the feel of vague movement within the wrist. Stella wills herself to calm and try again, almost certain she must be feeling her own pulse. Taking a deep breath, she shakes out her one good hand before laying it once again on, presumably, Katie's wrist. And the pulse is still there, faint and fast. Stella can't pick the radio back up quickly enough.
"Matthew!" She practically shouts into the radio. "Get a paramedic and a rescue team here now. I've found Katie, and she's still alive."
Throwing the radio to the ground, Stella begins picking at the debris covering the teenager's body. She isn't in any condition to lift anything heavy, but what she can't lift, she pushes to the side, hoping nothing further injures the young woman. Under what seems a sea of wood and drywall, Stella finally find's Katie's head. She's lying face down, said face nestled into an armpit for safety. Her body appears to be sternum-down, which gives Stella confidence to push more of the light debris from around her. Uncovering the young woman's back, she can see that her jacket and shirt have been melted away, exposing significant burns to the back of her body. Once uncovered, Stella plops to a plank beside Katie, gently turning the teen's face so she may investigate her injuries. Katie's face looks much like her own - cut and bruised, but relatively fine. Sighing in immense relief, Stella gently cradles Katie's hand and awaits the rescue team.
"I'm fine... Just get the other two out." Stella shies from Matthew's supportive hand guiding her from the wrecked building. The sun Stella had found so fortunate hours earlier is now unbearably bright and cheerful. She finds it insufferably annoying that Belfast be so bright on what's decidedly one of the more disappointing days of her career. Katie's pulse had continued to flutter and weaken under Stella's hand, and she finds herself nervous that the young girl won't make it. Stella doesn't bother questioning why she cares so much. Perhaps Belfast and Paul Spector, for all the insidiousness, and Tanya Reed-Smith for all her softness and warmth have taught her how to be more of a human being. She hasn't the time to consider the implications.
"Yes, Ma'am." Matthew smirks at her, looking pleased with himself.
Stella stops and looks sharply up into his face. "Ma'am? You called me Stella on the radio, I do believe."
Matthew chuckles and raises his eyebrows. Without her shoes, Stella doesn't clear his shoulders, and she looks an utter disaster, but he doesn't bother to say so. "We were a bit worried about you, y'know?"
Stella looks away and nods. "Well, you're not getting rid of me quite so easily, Matthew. What's going on with the building?"
Back to business. Matthew looks where firefighters are dragging a hose over. "It was a small-scale personal explosive device. It only did so much damage because the building was so weak. it would appear Katie had it in her backpack and was intending to take it with her to the park. When she encountered you, she ran. Once in the building, she secreted the backpack and device in the closet behind her, as you suspected. There is a very minor fire alight upstairs; the building is relatively shut-up, probably suffocating the fire a fair bit. The firefighters will douse the building, then the city will gut it once evidence has been fully collected."
As Matthew speaks, Katie is brought from the building, laid out on a stretcher and with numerous devices surrounding her. She's still alive.
"What did she say to you?" Matthew asks tenderly.
Stella shakes her head. "It's a true tragedy, Matthew. She speaks just like him. All she can think about is him, and how being like him will free her; somehow make her feel better. There's no doubt in my mind Paul Spector is as guilty of Chloe Walsh's death and the events of today as Katie is. It's like she's his vehicle of hate."
Matthew nods. "And she's gone and murdered someone, ruining any chance of leniency."
"Is it wrong that I want her to live? She'll suffer terribly." Stella is remarkably vulnerable, Matthew notes. He almost feels he's taking advantage of her by seeing it.
"Not at all." Matthew shakes his head. "I only wish the legal system were capable of truly assigning blame. Katie will live the rest of her life knowing exactly the pain she's inflicted on others. I'm not so sure I can say the same for Paul Spector."
Stella nods wistfully. "Neither am I."
The hospital is a disaster when Stella and Matthew arrive. Apparently there was a multi-car accident at the edge of town earlier in the day. Though she looks like ambulance-bait, Stella declined the ride. At this point, her arm has been hanging limply beside her so long, it nearly feels like "the new normal". At the sight of heavy bloodstains down the side of her face and chest, though, she's flooded with concerned nursing staff and whisked away to a bed in no time at all. Stella leaves Matthew behind to brief the team upon arrival. It feels like it's been an age since she's seen Glenn, McCurdy, McNally, and Ferrington, and she find herself curiously missing them. Truth to tell, the team will be forever bound by the Paul Spector experience. It mirrors the camaraderie Stella felt with the team investigating the Moon case, and she's glad of it.
"Stella." It's a whisper from across the room. Stella hasn't much time to turn and respond before Tanya Reed is directly in front of her, looking terribly distraught. She would go in for a hug if not for the rather stern nurse at Stella's side, swabbing her damaged arm. Instead, Reed settles for a small kiss on the cheek, settling herself into the doctor's stool beside the bed.
"They actually let you back here?" Stella's voice is full of good humor; Tanya doesn't expect it, having been so nervous when she'd seen the scene on the telly. She'd expected the worst of Stella's condition.
Tanya nods sadly. "You forget, I have privileges here. I thought you were supposedly little more than a desk jockey, Detective Superintendent? I feel misled."
Stella smiles plainly - more so than Tanya's seen in some time. "I'm glad you decided to exercise your privileges, Doctor."
Tanya lets out a surprised chuckle, but withers at the sight of the nurse glaring at them.
"I'm sorry to interrupt, Doctor." The nurse's badge says her name is Nurse Kerry, and by the sound of her voice, she's been quite hassled today. "I'll be needing to set her arm once the doctor's had a look, if you could please wait outside. There's a family waiting room down the hall and to the left."
"Nonsense." Stella fixes the nurse with a stare of her own. "She can stay as long as she likes."
Nurse Kerry nods, appearing completely unsatisfied. "I'll be going to get my kit. The doctor will be in momentarily."
With the angry nurse having vacated, Reed leans forward to kiss Stella properly, careful to avoid the bloody mess still clinging to the side of her face.
"That was nice." Stella smirks.
"You've said that before." Reed looks up through her lashes coyly, and feels somewhat ridiculous. Flirting with a woman is surreal and different, and still so frighteningly new.
"I hope I get to say it at least a few times more." It's not spoken like a come-on, or with a sex-laden voice. Instead, Stella's words are characteristically sincere and direct. She looks around the hospital room. "Are you certain you're ok with this possibly getting around the hospital?"
Reed smiles somewhat sadly, but nods. "I've done a lot of thinking. What would I be trying to hide? I haven't anything to prove to anyone, Stella. And I haven't really wanted to prove anything to anyone other than you."
Stella nods, more than accepting of Tanya's declaration.
"Ok, Ms. Gibson... Let's look at that arm." The doctor flies through the curtain, obviously short on time and temper, nose glued to her chart. He barely spares a glance at Tanya or Stella while taking a cursory look at the offending arm. He asks simple and standard questions while the two women watch each other silently.
"It would seem she's going to make it..." Tanya speaks quietly as she re-enters Stella's private room. Relegated to the misery of a night in the hospital, Stella's relied on Tanya to ferret out what information she can regarding Katie's condition. "The burns along her upper back are partial thickness and will require some extra care, perhaps some skin grafts. Otherwise, her traumas aren't any worse than yours. They're pumping her full of fluids and will attempt to wake her in the morning."
Stella nods while Tanya drops tiredly into the chair beside her bed. It's late, but Stella's lost track of time in her windowless suite. It's perhaps 2am? "You should go home," she looks to Tanya and wonders if the professor can tell she'd really rather her stay.
"I'll just sit at home and toss and turn. I may as well keep bothering you here." She and Stella both chuckle. Tanya watches while Stella rotates her feet under her thin bed sheets. There are a number cuts and scrapes on the bottoms of her feet, Stella having climbed through the rubble barefooted - nothing serious, but Tanya can imagine they must itch like the devil beneath their bandages.
"Are you in pain?" Tanya asks tenderly.
Stella wills herself to avoid her tendency to brush off her own feelings, knowing it'll irritate the other woman. Instead, she thinks critically, internally measuring her various aches and pains. "It's not bad. I'll be sore for a bit, but it could have been much worse."
"Will you take some time from work?" It's a casual question, but Tanya hopes to see Stella take personal time. Even better, perhaps she'll spend that personal time in Tanya's home.
"Perhaps." Stella smirks enigmatically. "I'll need to talk to Katie as soon as she's able, though."
Tanya's brow knits. She can't quite pretend she understands Stella's sudden attraction to the young girl - particularly, a young girl who's caused so much anguish. "What is it you're hoping to say to her?"
Stella thinks for a moment, gathering her thoughts. She knows she hasn't previously given much consideration to Katie, as a person. But, seeing the girl in pieces, the broken pieces left behind by the most mercilessly evil man any woman could possibly know, has caused Stella's chest to twinge in familiarity. The feeling of being broken by a man... she can understand. "That I understand."
Tanya doesn't press Stella further, but she feels a sense of nervousness building in the pit of her stomach. She sees Stella distancing herself, her eyes going icy cold, and can't help but think that the Detective Superintendent is on the verge of revealing something terrible about herself.
Stella continues. "I became a police officer because I understand. What it's like, I mean."
"It?" Tanya's voice sounds like a croak in her own ears.
"The feeling of being broken; being dysfunctional. And the feeling of knowing that it's entirely the fault of a man. The struggle to determine whether it was my fault or his, because it was easy to tell myself I should have known better. The feeling of picking myself up and trying to somehow mold myself back into the shape of a normal person." Stella gazes off into a corner of the fluorescent-lit space, as though she's staring out a window, at a far-away vista. She looks neither peaceful nor angry, nor disturbed. She just is.
"You said you'd talk to me about why relationships are tough..." Tanya trails off, not sure what to say, or if she should say anything at all. Not sure what Stella's getting at, and terrified to ask.
"Katie Benedetto lost her father as a teenager, and so did I. It changed my life, utterly. Changed my world-view. Nothing was really innocent anymore without my father to shield my view. I wanted to know more about the world, and to understand what I'd been missing. I found myself out much later than I should have been, with men much older than I should have been seeing. That's why I was so certain it was my fault. How can a perfectly grown man understand the desires of a teenager?" Stella's head finally falls, but she doesn't turn to look at Tanya. Instead, she's absorbed by the patterned sheets covering her legs.
"Stella..." Tanya doesn't know what to say, the sick feeling in her stomach far more than a blossom at this point. She feels Stella's experience acutely.
"It's ok. Now, it's ok." Stella nods, still someplace inside herself, but Tanya can see her eyes brightening with thought. "I've learned to forgive myself. I don't think I'll ever quite forgive him, but I've learned from him. I want people like Katie Benedetto to know that what she's felt isn't weird or wrong. Perceived abandonment torments young girls. Yes, she will now likely go to prison, or an institution, or whatever... for quite some time... but she should know that the disastrous feelings leading up to these actions of hers... they're normal. She just chose the worst possible way in which to express her anger, having been turned hateful."
"And what of Chloe Walsh's parents?" Tanya asks gently, knowing that Stella is so very attentive to the chain of victims.
"Like me, they'll probably never find a way to forgive Katie Benedetto. They'll think of her most every day of their lives, and they'll hate her, and they, too, will feel completely broken. And they also deserve to hear that they aren't wrong, either. Feeling broken should never be denied a victim." Stella looks down to her wrist, wishing her other arm wasn't encased in a cast, so she could rub it. "Last year, I taught Annie Brawley how to bury her feelings by snapping a hairband against her wrist."
Tanya doesn't answer or further the conversation. Instead, she crosses to the doorway of the private room and flicks off the light switch. The television in the corner is silent, but casts the small room in flickering, blue light. Stella watches her while she returns to her chair, pulling it up close to the bed. She catches Tanya's eye in the near-dark and shakes her head. Stella pats the side of her bed while she hits the button to lower the upper portion beneath her back. She can't properly move herself, arm casted and lacking leverage. There's adequate room, though, for Tanya to slide herself under the sheets, her arm careful to snake around the unmarked portion of Stella's waist. They share a single lumpy pillow, words entirely not necessary.
When Stella's dressed and her things assembled, she stands and winces at the pulling sensation across the undersides of her feet. Thinking prudently, Tanya had brought over a pair of her own athletic shoes earlier in the morning. An emergency call for an autopsy, however, prevents her from returning home with Stella for the day. It had taken time to convince Tanya she would be fine, but convince, Stella did. 'It's just as well,' Stella thinks to herself while she calls for a ride. She's never done well with time off.
Her head jerks up, taking in the image of a surprisingly sober Jim Burns. He's casually dressed, but well groomed as always, and lacks the perpetually distraught look of recent. For the first time in a very long while, Stella sees the man she used to actually like a bit.
"What are you doing here, Jim?" Stella is utterly calm, but her feet are burning fiercely beneath her, and she truly wishes it had been Eastwood through the door to give her a ride to PSNI headquarters.
"I got a day pass." Jim flushes. He hadn't really discussed with anyone his plan to check into a facility. "I saw that Katie Benedetto has been apprehended. I wanted you be sure you're alright."
"I am." Stella replies plainly, and she can see Jim's eyes flit to the large cast encasing her arm. There is an awkward air in the room, and Stella doesn't feel it's her responsibility to clear it. She hasn't yet moved past her resentment of Jim and his actions.
"I owe you a number of apologies, Stella." Jim's gaze falls away from her arm and to the floor. "More than I really know how to express."
Stella can't help herself. She scoffs, causing Jim to return his contrite glance to her face. "What if there aren't enough apologies, Jim?"
He looks vaguely shocked; Hurt. But he's gotten Stella started. He hasn't seen fury from her in a long while; her blind fury makes him ashamed of himself. Eerily, her voice needn't raise above a harsh speaking tone to completely slay him.
"I already told you, Jim - I nearly lost my job. I got the distinct pleasure of sitting in front of a review panel and facing questions about whether my being a whore should preclude me from performing in a professional capacity. And I don't want to hear about how none of that panel actually felt that way, because I know they did. I saw it in their eyes, heard it in their voices - in how their questions were just sensitive enough to avoid crossing the line. In great part because you fed the anger of a man who could not accept that I didn't want more from him. What made you do it, Jim? The fact that I bothered to remind you that you hurt me?"
Jim, while obviously upset, is completely clear, and Stella does find it refreshing. "I was out of control. All I knew was that I would do whatever it took, in my mind, to convince you to give me another chance."
"Your actions humiliated me, Jim."
Jim nods solemnly. "I know. But Eastwood, and the hearing..."
Stella scoffs again. "You and your fucking hearing. You are to attend a hearing related to matters which you know you have no legitimate justification for. Just to be clear, I was nearly dismissed because of how I choose to spend my personal time. How I chose to spend one night, while on a case which was, in my mind, finished. I spent time with an officer over whom I had no true command, but whom was acting as a liaison and interviewer. Tell me how anything about those two scenarios is alike."
Stella can see that Jim is at a loss for words. The wind out of his sails, he doesn't stand quite so tall; he seems far less hopeful. "They're not alike at all. But I truly can't begin to say how sorry I am."
Calming herself with a deep breath, Stella purses her lips then continues. "I know you're probably part of a program which asks you to apologize to those you've wronged, and I respect that. But, it's still my decision whether or not to accept that apology. I suggest you go back to your facility. Learn how to live without such fear, Jim. Stop worrying, and find out why the fuck it is that my approval means a damned thing to you."
No longer mindful of her stinging feet, Stella grabs her overnight bag, slings it over her good shoulder as well she can and leaves Jim alone in the mussed inpatient room. Eastwood waits for her across the other side of the nurse's station. His look is suspiciously nonchalant, but he says nothing, only reaching to take her back from her. Stella's certain Matthew has heard a number of things about he he'd prefer to forget. Her unlikely confidant walks her to his car in companionable silence.
"You should know... " Matthew looks over to Stella, her pained feet anxiously avoiding the vibrating floor of his sedan. Nonetheless, she returns his glance, thankful for the break in silence. It's been an awkwardly quiet ride from the hospital, Matthew no doubt wondering the state of things with ACC Burns. "I received a message this morning that Paul Spector has fired his council, and has petitioned the court to change his plea to guilty."
Stella is astonished, and very nearly speechless, her mind unsure of how to process or react to the blunt news. For the moment, she can't decide whether to feel glad or disappointed. She had so been looking forward to his public atonement, and yet she'd found herself growing fearful of it. "It seemed he was unhappy with his solicitor. I don't know what to say."
Matthew nods, but has since returned his eyes fixedly to the busy Belfast road. "I've not told the team; I thought you'd prefer to wait. I checked with the court and confirmed there is a hearing scheduled for 10 am tomorrow morning."
"Could you please call the jailer and see if we can arrange for an interview with Spector today?" Stella's mind continues to reel. The sharp sense of foreboding she's experienced since returning to Belfast is very present in the pit of her stomach, and the front of her mind. Surely, there must be more to the story. She thinks of the shrunken, overly-civil and obedient Spector she'd looked at only days ago. He'd struck her as another man entirely, but can he be so utterly broken? The man's level of conniving cannot have been muffled with simple gunshots and a wheelchair, can it?
Matthew turns away from the road to serve her a confused look. "What shall I tell him is the purpose for the interview?"
Stella's eyes dart back and forth while she considers her next move. Truth of the matter is, she has absolutely no legitimate reason to see Spector, outside of curiosity and more than a little unexpressed frustration. "Tell him it's in the matter of Katie Benedetto. That should buy us an interview. The jailer will push for Spector to consent for a voluntary solicitor to sit in; I'd not be surprised if we're denied access prior to the hearing, but it's worth a try."
"I haven't heard since last night, and I meant to ask -- how is Katie?" Matthew turns the subject deftly, and his voice is soft, nearly a coddle. It's something of an annoyance to Stella. But, there again, most everything in the car, in front of her eyes, and inside her head has begun to feel like an annoyance at this very moment.
"I don't know." Stella delivers her line flatly, removing all emotion from her voice and face. She's an expert at it. After a long night to think about it, she'd berated herself her feelings about Katie. The girl is a murderer, but Stella can so clearly see the path to her killing. She can almost feel it. She can feel herself being inappropriate in her favoring of the girl, but the story pulls at her nonetheless. How many steps removed before the experiences of 16 year old Stella morphed into violence, she wonders? "I left without going to see her, but it's my understanding that she'll pull through, with skin grafting and physical therapy."
"And mentally? It seems to me the struggle is going to be very pressing for her." Matthew stares out the windshield sympathetically.
"Yes, it shall." Stella turns to him, and his eyes again depart from traffic briefly to take in her expression. She can't help just a flicker of sadness in her eyes. Stella has yet to decide whether she's saved Katie or damned her. For fuck's sake, she wishes she could get past the feeling that it's her fault. More so, Stella very desperately wishes her feelings about Katie weren't so pitifully obvious to those around her. "Katie will need a great deal of help if she wishes to have a chance at rehabilitation."
Matthew hesitates for a moment, thinking, and steering into the car park at the PSNI. When he stops the car, he sighs. "Is that why you want to see Spector? To tell him what he's done to Katie?"
Stella considers her answer carefully, wishing she could find a way to feel less vulnerable. She wants her four inch fuck-me shoes and leather skirt back. Instead, she looks like she's had the shit beaten out of her, she's too short, the heavy cast around her arm is making her feel claustrophobic, and she thinks the jeans she borrowed from Tanya are so terribly ugly. She knows the looks men give when their female supervisor stumbles; physically, emotionally, professionally - it doesn't matter. The look is the same. It's the pious, soft and accommodating look on Matthew's face, and it pisses her off. As much as the look irritates her and makes her feel less than herself, she can't rightly be angry about his sympathetic and supportive eyes. She looks to Matthew with fire in her own eyes. She can tell he can see her anger, and Stella wonders if he understands, but decides he probably doesn't. His gaze remains receptive and open. He wouldn't be receptive and open if he knew. "I want to tell him to go to hell."
Stella struggles out of the car, and struggles to maintain her dignity as her body so obviously lets her down. Any moron can clearly see the pain in her gait and the frustration in her shoulders. She's thankful to be out of the car, and to have the opportunity to step aside from her badly assigned anger. She should have followed Tanya's advice and returned to her home. Would she be any less crazy there, though? Probably just crazy and alone, and she's not sure it would be an improvement.
Matthew doesn't follow very closely, but he does silently remove her purse and coat from the car like a dutiful husband. He hands neither to her, and his masculinity is unfazed by the feminine bag draped over his shoulder. He doesn't hold the door for her or guide her towards her office, electing to drop the bag and coat into a chair in front of her desk while she sits carefully in her chair and drops her forehead to the cool, oak surface of the desk. The lights are off, and she thinks she's leave them as they are.
"I'm sorry, Matthew." Her voice is muffled, her hair spilled out about her head. Matthew doesn't look at her, but he does smirk.
"Don't worry; I'd like to tell the sick fuck to go to hell, too." He speaks softly, pulling out his cell phone. "I'll let you know the results of my conversation with the jailer."
Feeling much more herself, and much less like screaming, Stella walks ahead of Matthew into the Maghaberry Prison. She's glad to think of how numb her feet have become, though she has to concede to herself that she still looks quite the disaster. She carefully avoids glancing down at the whitewashed jeans and beaten sneakers encasing her body. Still, her mind is quiet, if not downright blank, and Stella feels it a minor comfort. She needn't say what she feels to Paul Spector, much as she would like. He doesn't deserve the comfort of knowing just what she thinks of him, and she considers it one of the remaining cards she holds. While he has spit and hissed his disapproval and outright hatred of her directly into her face, her neutrality towards him has only served to anger him further. He knows she loathes him, but her deeper psyche, though he talks a proud game, is an utter mystery to him.
A quick call from the Jailer at Maghaberry summoned she and Matthew over immediately. Stella can't help but feel a little nervous - it hadn't been a grant of their vague request. It had been an urging to come see. To come investigate. The gray sky above the prison is particularly ominous, with the kind of green glow only apparent before a monsoon. It somehow feels appropriate. Stella never would have thought she'd consider London to be bright or sunny, but today she longs for a departure from the gloom that's settled over her existence in Belfast.
Rather than a paunchy guard or the overrun jailer, Matthew and Stella are greeted by the exceedingly well-groomed Justice Minister Doyle. The man is the definition of impeccable and stoic, but his kind blue eyes and red hair make him approachable nonetheless. He reaches to shake Matthew's hand first, and Stella finds she doesn't care in the least. Instead, she's drawn to the man's slowly-moving mouth as he draws out his greeting and hedges the rest.
"I'm glad you were able to come right away." Doyle dourly nods at both, and gestures for them to follow him. "We've run into a situation."
The walkways through the prison are like catacombs, narrow and dim. As the three ascend to another unit, the stairs complain beneath them, and the reinforced catwalk wobbles uncomfortably. Stella takes back her wish for the stiletto heels - Tanya's well-loved shoes feel a fine fit for the job at hand. Doyle leads them to the maximum holding suite, where prisoners held for high-profile court are housed. The doors to each cell are solid, with a small window through which to peek. Stella can see a few faces curiously looking about, and a few menacing gazes making their way towards her. The cell at the end of the catwalk is curiously open. Stella's heart rate quickens considerably. She thinks she needn't see the scene, as she feels she's gotten the picture.
Doyle gestures for the two of them to precede him into the cell. It's not a large cell, and the spectacle is visible before she enters the doorway. There's a wheelchair forced up against the concrete slab serving for a bed, lying on it's side and defenseless. Its owner isn't in it, though. Its owner is, instead, slackly hanging down the wall from the tiny barred window above, a ripped section of a regulation sheet suspending him rather tautly. Spector's face is no longer so deathly thin, bloated from the struggle for oxygen and purple-black in spots where his skin has already begun to die. His bone-thin hands just barely graze the concrete, his legs sprawled and useless. It would appear he wheeled himself to the window and trussed himself up before forcing away the wheelchair. He always did think he was clever.
Stella can't help the utter hatred bubbling to the surface while she stares at his mottled face. The man felt he was too good for punishment, and she should have seen it coming. He said it himself - while every other god-fearing human cowered in the shadow of righteousness, he lived in the freedom of violence, hate and murder. Stella is careful to avoid disturbing anything as she shuffles herself around to his side. Matthew watches from two feet behind her, curiously blank. She can imagine he's as stymied as she.
A sheet of folded, lined paper peeks out from Spector's side. It appears to have been stuffed into the waistband of his pants, probably forced out as his body was wracked by mortal seizure. "Have you any gloves, Matthew?"
Matthew looks unsure and reaches into his overcoat to check. He makes an unspirited "ha!" noise, fetching a rather rumpled latex glove from his inner breast pocket. Stella looks to the clunky cast on her left arm with with dismay. Matthew chuckles a bit when she holds out her right hand. He gets the hint and quickly gloves the hand for her.
Stella struggles to unfold the paper in question one-handed, but manages well enough. Paul's handwriting upon the paper is recognizable enough. Stella nearly shudders at the far-away thought of her dream journal and how she misses it, but she shrugs it off as a silly memory. The chicken-scratched page is written upon hastily, with a cheap, half-dry, blue inked pen. She can imagine Spector must have despised it. How very disturbing to suffer insufficient tools with which to impart his pedantic wisdom. Matthew reads silently over her shoulder while she does the same.
You'll need not worry about me. It's my time to go elsewhere and learn more. I've asked that my plea be changed because there is no sense in continuing the game. We all deserve the right to heal. Perhaps we'll meet again, Stella, Shining Star.
He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss gazes back into you.'
Stella's brow is knit and her lips pursed, her mind grappling for coherent thought. He didn't sign his name. Matthew turns from her to look at the Justice Minister, and Stella can only faintly hear their conversation. She feels as though she's in a cloud, or an alternate universe. A horrid alternate universe wherein no one gets what they deserve.
"The prisoner had access to writing materials?" She can vaguely hear Matthew ask, and the Justice Minister's casual reply.
"Of course... all prisoners without court orders barring them so have one hour of library access per week, which includes monitored use of writing utensils... He must have found a way to pocket the paper."
Stella wishes she could sit on the floor. Or vomit. Perhaps both.
"This isn't where I thought we would end up five days ago." Stella's forehead rests in her singularly able and tired palm. She looks down to the bothersome cast resting on the interview room table. The long table is a plywood contraption, impressive in its cheap, roughshod appearance. Maghaberry isn't accustomed to spending on their prisoners or visitors; apparently, not even accustomed to watching or monitoring their prisoners or visitors. Stella still feels an oppressive nausea, her body protesting the wrongness of the day. Matthew sits across her in similar posture. It's the posture of overwhelming defeat. Neither want to think about the Chief Constable, or the press, or even the disappointed faces of their team awaiting them back at the PSNI headquarters. None of them know just how poor a turn things have taken. They're still collecting evidence from Katie's suicide attempt day before last, building more of a case against Spector. No need now, really.
Matthew scoffs. "First, no one thought Katie Benedetto could possibly have killed Chloe Walsh, and now we're here. One murder, one deranged teenager, and two bombs later. No one could have thought this mess up. We need better jobs." Matthew smiles crookedly, but Stella doesn't look up or smile. She can appreciate the levity, but lacks the energy to lift her head. She feels drained of blood.
Matthew and Stella await the Justice Minister's return with the CCTV recordings they'd requested two days ago. A deflection from their hard questions, the Minister had suddenly brought them up. Stella wanted to scream that they didn't matter nearly so much as what had been allowed to happen to Spector, but she also didn't have the nerve to admit that she'd forgotten about the tapes. They'd all had such bigger worries.
"How is it that this man was so unattended to? It had to have taken him hours to rip the sheet, string himself up and somehow push the wheelchair out from under him. He used to be a very physically fit man, but not anymore. How did this happen?" She'd raised her voice at the Minister, wishing she could rip into him. It was the third time in the day she'd wished to tear someone apart. She'd found herself both impressed and unsatisfied with her restraint. What has restraint gotten her thus far?
"This happens fairly regularly, Detective Superintendent." Doyle may as well have shrugged in dismissal, so obvious was his lack of care. No doubt, he's of the belief that Spector's death is little more than an exercise in savings. One more bed, one less mouth. "The suicide rate among unconvicted holds is quite high. They don't like the waiting." Her blood had fairly boiled, she's sure. She'd forced herself to civilly discuss the tapes.
Now she worries that the recordings could have given insight so as to avoid this crushing turn of events. How many mistakes will she answer for when she returns to London? Stella feels herself the worst kind of glutton for punishment. With each return to Belfast, her career slips ever so farther outside of her control. Heaven help her should she ever work here permanently. She feels like an abused housewife, stricken to the floor repeatedly only to return to her feet and apologize.
A guard neither she nor Matthew recognize wheels in an elderly television set on a schoolhouse-regulation cart. She hasn't seen such a set-up in ages, and again marvels at the prison's lack of provision. The guard is quiet, and goes about his business without looking anywhere other than the task in front of him. Wheel, plug, and place the antiquated VHS into the VCR and beat a hasty retreat. No doubt the Justice Minister has been grooming the staff. Doyle is curiously absent, probably hiding in the monitoring room and watching for their reaction. It feels perverse and upsetting, but Stella attempts not to think about her anger towards the Minister; it's not the sort of anger that accomplishes anything.
The VHS is low-quality and quite grainy, but she can make out Katie and Paul siting across from each other in a visitors' booth. They speak through small holes cut into the plexiglass separating them. The sound is very faint, and Stella wonders at what kind of set-up they use for monitoring there. It doesn't even come close to rivaling the monitoring capabilities of a serious crimes suite. Katie and Paul mostly talk about nothing. She's dramatic, and cries while she postulates on what life will be like once he's out. He can't walk, but she doesn't care. She'll take care of him like no one else. Sally Ann deserted him, but Katie will stand by him until death do they part. Spector, for the most part, remains silent, mostly just drawing more and more unbelievable words from Katie's mouth. During their interview, he had told Stella he enjoyed toying with her; that her juvenile drama irritated him, but the company was better than nothing. So far, their conversation tracks with his statement.
"I need to tell you something." Katie whispers, and both Matthew and Stella lean in towards the TV, straining their ears to hear the low quality recording.
"Yes?" Paul completely lacks emotion.
"I've killed a girl. Murdered, I mean." Katie looks to each side of her. She should have known better, but her naivete, not for the first time, let her down. Her taped confession continues. "You would totally approve."
"Why?" Paul leans forward, for the first time during the conversation looking interested in what Katie has to say.
Katie shrugs, attempting to look cool and collected. Her body language still appears nervous. "She was your type, but she was a little bitch. Something needed to be done, and I needed to prove myself to you. I told you -- I'm ready and willing to do anything for you. Anything at all."
Paul looks down at the table before him. Stella can't see his face in the recording, but she imagines he would appear quite astonished. In his mind, he would be vindicated. Her reverence towards him means nothing. Her killing for him, however, does. "What's your next move?"
"The police found the body; I'll be watching for the memorial. I want to kill that fucking Detective Superintendent, whatever her name is. I want to fucking kill all of them." Katie spits the words a little too loudly, and looks over her shoulder dramatically.
"Stella Gibson?" Paul cocks his head. "Why do you want to kill her?"
Katie shrugs again. "You said it yourself. She's a self-righteous, English whore. And she put you here."
"How are you going to do it?" Paul whispers, enraptured by the thought.
"I've been learning about how to make small bombs. It's pretty simple; I think I can make two or three, and they'll fit in a backpack." Katie leans into Paul, but the dirty plexiglass separates them. It kills the mood, Stella's sure.
"Wait." Paul leans in impossibly farther, his voice even lower. Stella almost rolls her eyes. It's almost impossible to hear them. "Are you planning to kill yourself?"
Katie stalls for a moment. Her face is fuzzy on the VHS, but Stella can imagine her warring with herself. Trying to make herself say the unthinkable. "With you in here, I have nothing to live for."
Paul is silent for a long moment. He leans back in his chair, looking up at the ceiling, thinking. Katie leans forward still, watching him closely. Waiting to hear what he thinks, or to give her direction. Finally, Paul leans forward and drums his hands on the table lightly. He's almost absent-seeming. "I'll tell you what." He whispers to Katie. He sounds as though he's speaking to a four year old. "You kill yourself and I'll go, too."
Stella can just barely make out Katie's wide smile. It's disturbing, and she can feel her neck straining with unbelievable tension. The conversation is sickening.
Again, she can't see Paul's face, and Stella's almost glad of it. Katie's still smiling. "Really?" She whispers in a high-pitched, overly girly tone. It makes the scene all the more disturbing. "We can be together forever, Paul."
Paul doesn't answer her. He knocks on the table and calls for a guard to unchain him from the station. He stares at Katie until he's directed away. They say nothing more, but Katie watches until long after he's gone.
"Fuck." Stella curses in the quiet interview room. Matthew's eyes are still glued upon the screen, unable to look away from the train wreck before them.
"He should be here momentarily." Matthew looks down to his watch for the fifth time in the last ten minutes. Stella looks down at her cast, wishing it's her watch wrist squeezing her bones; she hates checking the time on her cellular. It's a little complaint, in the scheme of things. Her eyes are full of hatred for the cast and her less than stellar appearance in general. She'd effectively managed to hold down vomit while watching the surveillance tape of Katie and Spector, but the nausea has yet to pass. She could blow at any moment, and she feels vaguely like chuckling about it. At this very moment, the Chief Constable is sitting in the back of his town car, probably wringing his hands in frustration or anger, on his way to Maghaberry to witness the monumental fuck-up with his own two eyes. A cast-free, iron-clad appearance might help Stella find some grounding. There's no fucking mercy today, she realizes.
"Just nod, Matthew. I don't want you taking responsibility for any accusations. I'm sure there will be plenty." Stella feels somewhat breathless, like she's moments away from death by firing squad. The policing executive and high ranking officers in Belfast are combative with her, to put it kindly. Chief Constable Franks, the proverbial man behind the curtain, could most certainly be behind the vitriol spit by her most staunch haters. She'd seen him once and heard him speak once. She hopes he's as reasonable as he seemed that one morning a year ago.
For the first time he can recall, Matthew can see true anxiety in Stella's behavior and being. She appears almost breathless, and her eyes carefully avoid him. He can't help his own feeling of a lamb out for slaughter. As the instigator of an unflattering claim against Assistant Chief Constable Burns, Matthew imagines he's not high on the Chief Constable's list of favorites, either. But, as with nearly everything, Stella's experience differs from his, and he knows it. Her treatment at the hands of PSNI upper-levels is informed by age-old and, perhaps, even unknowing misogyny and unnecessary public intrigue over the DSI's enigmatic sex life. The confident, artfully sexy woman Matthew met a small age ago is replaced by a bruised, plastered, somewhat unlikely heroine.
How will Chief Constable Franks look upon the woman so unlike the tawdry, newspaper rag legend? Her shimmery eyeshadow is long rubbed away, leaving naked worry lines, and she unknowingly hugs herself around her casted arm, likely aching beneath its stiff shell. Matthew dare not speak it, but can't help but imagine that Stella deserves at least one grand victory before she leaves Belfast forever. Isn't that how the world is supposed to work? The faithful servant, downtrodden and dirty from fighting knee-down in the trenches, is rewarded a just victory and the spoils of war. Matthew fears Belfast and its unapologetically cruel justice system has little to offer the outsider DSI, in spite of her service. It's a damned shame.
"You know," Stella still looks down at the floor. "When you're a young officer, they caution you: it's not the big mistakes that'll bring you down. It's the little, insignificant ones all piled on top of each other. Those little bastards will bring you right down. I've said it to other officers, even. So then, why is it so hard to see the little mistakes, Matthew?" Stella shakes her head. Matthew can't see her eyes, but he can feel her disgust.
"You need to give yourself some credit. You were focused on saving lives." Matthew tries not to sound condescending, but the self-eulogizing is unlike her.
Stella nods, chewing on her lip, forming a response. She's interrupted before she can even speak.
"Detective Superintendent Gibson." It's not a questioning identification; it's the sound of a man who's found his query. Both Matthew and Stella turn to see Chief Constable Franks standing in the dim hallway outside the Maghaberry viewing suites. He's a nondescript man, really. He's of an indeterminate middle age, and average height, with sandy hair that's neither blonde nor brown. He looks casually blank, neither angry nor pleased to meet them, though he moves forward to shake their hands calmly. He nods to Matthew by way of acknowledgement and precedes them into the viewing suite.
It's a strange feeling, Stella supposes. Private meetings with the Chief Constable in a green-tinged, prison viewing room aren't supposed to happen. Matthew sits on one side of the table, with Franks on the other, and Stella moves to grab the VCR remote from its place, Velcro holding it to the side of the TV. There is no small talk or noise. Neither man looks at each other, but they both look to her, eagerly awaiting the video to end the awkward silence. Stella takes her seat beside Matthew and across from the Chief Constable, barely able to look at the screen. Her mind is curiously blank, and she finds herself staring at Franks' hands across from her. Neither is tense, one perched atop the other. They're well manicured and not careworn. He's worked behind a desk for many years.
The silence continues through the duration of the film. Stella doesn't look to Franks for a reaction. Instead, she watches his hands; they move curiously little. He appears quite schooled in him mannerisms. Years of interaction with the press and combatant Belfast natives have taught him to hold his cards close, Stella supposes. She looks to Matthew, who dutifully watches the tape to its conclusion. His eyes never bounce from the screen, as he, too, knows the stakes involved in the meeting. The Chief Constable holds their careers in his well-polished, unflinching hands.
When the tape runs into white noise, Stella turns the TV off and dutifully sets the remote between herself and the Chief Constable. She finally brings herself to look the man in the face under the hard fluorescent lights. He appears remarkably unperturbed, just as his hands had been. "What happened here, DSI Gibson?"
Stella takes a deep breath, feeling calmer than she has in some time; accepting of whatever fate is bestowed upon her. "The request was made to the Justice Minister two days ago. The same day, we were informed that Katie Benedetto had planted one bomb, and evidence found in the room she'd been squatting in led us to believe she'd made more. From that point forward, we were working to secure Chloe Walsh's funeral and maintain public safety. Upon returning to Maghaberry to investigate Paul Spector's suicide, the tape was released to us by the Justice Minister."
Franks nods, working his bottom lip casually. "Can I speak to you alone momentarily, DSI Gibson?"
Stella turns to Matthew, who suddenly looks far more nervous than he has. His glance to her is questioning, and she nods, dismissing him. There is a brief silence when Matthew leaves, but Stella continues to evenly meet the eyes of the Chief Constable.
"No one will miss Paul Spector." Franks lets out a deep breath. "His family is devastated, and the evidence against him is overwhelming."
Stella's gaze remains level. "With all respect, Sir, I believe his victims will miss very dearly the opportunity to see him convicted."
"Be that as it may, we have a responsibility to the public. You chose to serve the public very bravely, Gibson. As far as I'm concerned, you made the right decision."
Stella purses her lips, looking away from Franks for the first time since the door closed. "I could have possibly stopped it. The bombing and the suicide. All of it."
Franks nods his head. "Perhaps. But you know as well as anyone else the unknown isn't worth troubling yourself over. Like it or not, you acted heroically yesterday. The victims will understand."
"I'm afraid I'm not here for all good news, Detective Superintendent." Franks reaches into his oversized inner breast pocket, passing her a folded leaflet. "I'm afraid I'm also here to issue you a subpoena in the matter of Assistant Chief Constable Burns."
Stella's brows knit. It's the last thing she expected to hear from Franks, and she can't help the shaken expression upon her face. "Pertaining to what, may I ask?"
Franks nods. "Of course. You're not under suspicion of any misconduct. My office received an anonymous written testimony alleging that ACC Burns sexually harassed and assaulted you at your hotel last year. As I'm sure you understand, even such anonymous complaints must be given full consideration in light of the seriousness of the claims against ACC Burns. Can you confirm to me whether there is any substance to these claims?"
Stella's mouth gapes momentarily as she searches her overly-tired brain for an answer. To the best of her knowledge, while she had vaguely reported the event to her Met senior officer, true details about that night are known only to she and Jim Burns himself. She breathes deeply and raises her eyebrows. "There is some veracity to the claim, Sir."
"I ask nothing more than that, DSI Gibson. The inquiry panel is to convene one week from today, and will hear your full testimony. As I'm sure you know, you are fully within your right to retain council should you wish, but I would like to reiterate that the panel does not consider you in violation of any policy or procedure. I will consider you sequestered to the Belfast area for the next week, and will inform your Metropolitan Police Chief Officer as soon as possible. I ask that you not leave the area and make yourself available should the inquiry need to be rescheduled." Franks stands, and Stella rises to meet him out of habit.
"Yes, Sir." Franks reaches to her uninjured hand for a brief handshake.
"I would also like to express my appreciation for your service to Belfast. You truly went above and beyond the call of duty. I understand that the case was difficult, and did not resolve the way you would like, but your service is well commendable. A press conference is scheduled for noon tomorrow to relay details to the public. If you could please round up your team to be present, I would like to thank them all publicly."
Stella nods once more, and Franks is out of the room in an efficient blur. Stella reseats herself at the table, resting her forehead against her upturned, cast-free palm. It's not the first time she's wondered today: What the fuck just happened?
"I know you're surprised, but I've seen it before." Matthew speaks to her from behind the wheel of the car. He's called ahead to the team, and they're on their way to the last leg of their atrociously long day. The briefing will be disappointing and unsatisfying, and then they'll all return to the office tomorrow to shuffle some paperwork and cover some asses. Such is life. For now, Stella feels vaguely dizzy in the car, and her eyes want so badly to close. Matthew's voice seems far away, and she thinks she may have been sleeping with her eyes open. Peculiar.
"What have you seen?" She doesn't turn to Matthew, and her voice barely works, but he hears her over the engine nonetheless.
"This charade with Franks. He's done it before. You were expected to be reprimanded mightily, but the events of the day can be used to bundle the case up tight, and he'll use your testimony to get Burns out."
She does turn to him at this, surprised. Matthew chuckles, appearing more lively than he has for several hours. His revenge on Jim Burns brings out a certain childish giddiness. "I suspected he would subpoena you for the hearing. Don't forget, I'm the one who raised the inquiry. If my conversations with Franks are any indicator, he wants Jim Burns out, badly. He will use Katie's tape with Spector to plead for leniency and argue grooming, keeping her out of prison. He'll announce to the public that there is nothing further to fear from Paul Spector; He's dead, and the PSNI, cooperating with DSI Gibson, did an outstanding job. He will recognize your heroics, then use your stature to decimate Burns during the hearing. The PSNI looks good, he looks good, and he gets to look for a new ACC."
Stella isn't sure how to feel. Truthfully, she can barely think. Is she being led into a trap? It's a trap she'll walk out of looking mightily fine, but at what expense? When is honor more important than decoration and perception? They're not questions she's pondered often. The right path is often more apparent than this. " That's quite a theory, Matthew. You said you've seen it before."
Matthew nods, sobered a bit at her quiet. "How do you think Jim got his job?"
"And what is it that you know about my relationship with Jim?" Stella thinks back to Franks' knowing look as he issued his command for her attendance. She'd been so sure no one knew. Had Jim opened his mouth, bragged even? It didn't seem like him, his self-deprecating frown pointed in her direction the next morning. He'd been the picture of contrition. Spector may have known, but why would he care? And what a herculean task for him to track down the Chief Constable to give a report reliable enough to issue a subpoena upon. Still, does Matthew know, or only suspect?
"Nothing, really." Matthew shrugs. "I know you two have a past, and I see the way he looks at you. When I spoke to you about his behavior days ago, I sensed that you confirmed my suspicion. If you're asking whether I asked Franks to subpoena you, the answer is no. But I'm not surprised, either."
Not for the first time in the last week, Stella isn't entirely certain who to trust. She turns back to the window, and Matthew returns his full attention to the road. At least he's sensible enough to figure there's no use prodding her for lurid details. The ride back to the PSNI is relatively comfortable, and silent.
As in her first day back to the green-tinged halls of the headquarters, Mary is the first to greet Stella. It's late for her to be working, but the other woman doesn't appear to be weary. Rather, she seems relieved, and fusses over Stella like a dear sister. Is there a single person in all the headquarters of the Met who would do the same for Stella? She can't say there is, and she finds herself appreciative of Mary's welcoming face and offer of fresh coffee. It sounds like heaven. For the moment, Stella's convinced: Mary is heaven. It takes some effort to pull Stella's coat sleeve from around her cumbersome, roughened cast, but the two women manage. Once free of the garment, Mary leaves Stella to walk to the briefing room while she goes to start a pot of coffee. It'll be a late night for many of them.
"Ma'am." Stella misses seeing Ferrington round the corner, and barely hears her voice before she's tucked into the young detective's embrace. It's short, and to the point. Just how Stella likes it. As always, she appreciates Dani's intuition. Stella smiles, just barely, and so does Dani. She looks Stella up and down, seemingly convincing herself that all is well enough. "I'm glad to see you well, Ma'am. We were all quite concerned for a bit."
Stella nods. "I don't know about well, but certainly alive. I'll take it."
"The rest of the team is assembled and awaiting your arrival. I was only stepping away momentarily to visit the restroom." Dani points nervously to the twin restroom doors in the corner.
"Take your time. It'll be a few moments before I have my thoughts together."
Stella leaves Ferrington to her business, making her way through the entry to the large, open briefing room. Indeed, the entirety of the team is assembled. Matthew has grabbed his things and taken station at the back of the room. The lot of them look as though they've marched into and out of war in business attire. They slouch, yawn, hold heads in hands, and appear easily as rough as Stella feels. She reminds herself that her tough night and day are her own. In her absence, the men and women before her have been working tirelessly to crank the wheel of justice. She thinks it, then she's reminded that their heroic efforts are largely wasted in Spector's untimely death. They don't know yet.
A few individuals stand as they see her, and Stella waves them to relax. She goes to her customary spot at the front of the room, but works hard to make herself appear busy. She isn't ready to speak yet. Besides, Dani isn't back. It's a pause she needs. She hasn't paused once today, and she fears the condition of her thoughts reflect it. They are scattered, and still traumatic. Just as one thought begins to process, another pushes its way in to steal the spotlight. She desperately needs a good night's sleep. She desperately needs Tanya.
Stella sees Dani return out of the corner of her eye, and turns to the quietly whispering group behind her. They quiet immediately, attention rapt. "Good evening, everybody. I want to thank you very much for agreeing to meet tonight. I know you've been working tirelessly, and the effort shows." Stella's voice feels weak, still, her vocal chords easily as exhausted as the rest of her. "I will cut to the chase, so you can ask any questions, but we do have a few separate items to cover. I need you to know that, earlier this afternoon, Paul Spector took his own life while in custody at Maghaberry prison."
There are no gasps. No anger or blame. The mood shifts almost to sadness, as the news sinks in. Many eyes fall to examine desks, pens, notepads, and hands. It'll take them a bit to process, Stella surmises. She's not sure she's quite yet come to accept the development.
"As you're all aware, Spector was confined to a wheelchair. Preliminary examinations suggest he used his bedsheet as a ligature around his neck and between the bars of his cell, holding him in place as he pushed his wheelchair out from under him. A note was left at the scene. Matthew, could you read Spector's note, please?" She hasn't the will to do it. Truth be told, Matthew doesn't, either, but does as he's asked.
You'll need not worry about me. It's my time to go elsewhere and learn more. I've asked that my plea be changed because there is no sense in continuing the game. We all deserve the right to heal. Perhaps we'll meet again, Stella, Shining Star.
He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss gazes back into you.'"
"Thank you, Matthew." Stella nods to him, and he returns to his seat. "As of yet, there is no cause to suspect foul play. Spector appears to have not received any visitors for quite some time. As you've probably ascertained from the letter, Spector issued a letter to the court changing his plea. Due process is still called upon in order to advance the understanding of the case, but emphasis will now be greatly placed on reducing cost burden and moving information along timely. From this point forward, I am suspending unauthorized ad hoc discovery ventures. If you have a potential discovery item to review, inform myself or Matthew so that a budgetary analysis can be taken into account. Are there any questions?"
The team members each peruse the room, their half-closed eyes telling Stella all she needs to know.
"I'm sure questions will arise later. Please don't hesitate to ask. I'll relay information to you as quickly as possible, so we may all get some rest. Regarding the attempted bombing at Chloe Walsh's memorial; Efforts to contain Katie Benedetto were largely successful. The incident has, thus far, produced no casualties. As of this afternoon, Katie was in stable condition in hospital. She has not yet been charged, and there will likely be an entire separate inquiry into the events at the memorial. New evidence was brought to light this afternoon, indicating that Paul Spector engaged in significant grooming of his teenaged babysitter and may have contributed to her apparent turn in behavior. That evidence will be examined further at a later time. We are awaiting chain of evidence protocol releasing tapes of conversations between Spector and Katie to the physical possession of the PSNI, thought the tapes have been revealed and are... compelling." Stella sighs.
"Compelling, how?" Gail McNally shakes her head from the center of the room. Others nod their heads affirmatively.
"I would rather not color your interpretation of the tapes. They'll be here tomorrow, and I'll call another briefing so we may discuss them in detail." Stella looks to the team members for approval. They nod congenially. They'd all rather go home, anyhow. "Chief Constable Franks would like me to pass along his sincere gratitude for the successful handling of these inquiries. There will be a press conference called for noon tomorrow. Your appearance at the conference is mandatory so the Chief Constable may thank you all publicly."
Martin raises his hand from beside Gail, looking cheeky. "How exactly can this be termed a successful inquiry?"
Stella nods. "It's all a matter of perspective, isn't it?"
Stella stares herself down in the mirror adorning Tanya Reed-Smith's marble bathroom vanity. It's a cold stare, but she doesn't stare for any particular reason. It's better than dressing herself, and then there's the matter of walking down the stairs and joining Tanya for a nightcap. These tasks feel downright herculean. But she's agreed she will; Stella's never been one to go back on her word, even in the face of this miserable kind of exhaustion.
The bathroom is an utter mess of wrinkled clothing and strewn towels. A slight fog still lingers about after Stella's over-hot and over-long shower. The bottom of the shower stall is home to remnants of her time there, watered down blood settled into the grout between the pearl white tiles. The angry cuts on the soles of her feet opened willingly in the shallow water; the bottoms of her shoes had confirmed that they'd been bleeding much of the day. She'll clean the mess, but for now she stands on a fluffy white towel, allowing the terry to tend to her still-seeping feet, and studying the reflection in the mirror.
She appears rather downtrodden. Beaten. Her hair hangs in an unmanaged mess, and that mess tops a rather battered face. Her eyes are stony, even by Stella's standards, and her jaw is, just for once, soft and pliant. She's let the day go down the drain with her blood. Her body is a maze of injuries, and her cast is a sopping mess. "Fuck it", she'd muttered to herself on her way into the shower. It wasn't worth looking for a bag, but the sopping white disaster encasing her arm is pathetic looking. She'll have Tanya fix it before the press conference; Stella can see the 'Tsk Tsk' look on her lover's face now. She'll be forgiving, but exasperated.
The self in the mirror is unfamiliar to Stella, but not unknown. She is a woman who had fought her way to her mostly-desk job. Her PC days were as bruised and battered as she is now, many a night lying injured on her decrepit lounger, naked and perhaps even just a little teary. That woman had cried more frequently. It is her hardness, however, upon which Stella's career is built. She owes a tremendous debt to her younger self, and her numerous beatings, some mental and some physical. Sometimes, she even misses her old self, less sure and more accepting, but never quite innocent. More open; more loving.
Tanya's been kind and knowing, and laid out some clothing for Stella. It's an ultra-soft cotton sleeper set. It isn't the least bit "her", but it feels divine smoothing along her stiff shoulders. It's better than the layer of gunmetal lace lining the bottom of Stella's suitcase. She runs the shower head for a few moments while she grunts to reach the mess of clothing and towels on the floor. They all go into an unfortunate corner; it's all she has the energy for. At least no one will slip and fall on the mess. The shower head washes away the pink-stained puddles in the grout, and Stella feels satisfied.
When she emerges from the bathroom, the cool air of the bedroom hits her like a welcome wall, and she can feel the coolness enter her lungs. The steam pours out behind her, and Stella's surprised to see Tanya already sitting atop the bed, two glasses of wine perched upon her night table. She smiles genuinely, but not widely, while she takes in Stella's less-than-herself appearance. Stella can see her eyes linger on the soggy cast, but she says nothing. "I thought going downstairs might be a bit much. I thought I'd bring the nightcap to you."
Tanya's hand gently retrieves a wine glass and extends it towards Stella. She walks to meet Tanya at the side of the bed, suddenly feeling like a timid animal. "Thank you."
Tanya nods and opens her night table drawer, pulling out a wooden hair brush. "Here." She gestures at Stella with the brush. "You'll regret it in the morning if you don't deal with that rat's nest." Her smile is teasing, and she points for Stella to sit in front of her on the side of the bed. Stella slowly does so, and her muscles complain at the angle. On leg tucked beneath her, she's careful not to fuss at her cut foot. She grunts a bit, but pulls the wine up for a healthy sip. Perhaps it'll help her aching self.
The brush gently working at the knots in her hair feels heavenly. Stella thinks back in time, and can't recall if her mother had ever really brushed her hair past the age of infancy. Her mother had never really been fond of her. Stella remembers one year, when she was ten. Her father surprised her at Christmas time by learning how to french braid her hair. He'd sat her on the floor in front of him, Christmas tree glow all around them, while he teased, combed and pulled at her hair. Her scalp had tingled most pleasantly, while her eyes closed and her lips arched into a content smile. She does the same now, the comb and Reed's gentle hands working their way through her hair. All those years ago, her mother had sat in the corner with a cocktail, not particularly caring. She has no witnesses now, and she wishes desperately that she felt well enough to do more than fall into bed and sleep.
"My father used to do this for me. Every Christmas, he would brush my hair and braid it in front of the Christmas tree." Stella's voice is little more than a whisper.
Tanya's hand strays to Stella's narrow neck, scratching and massaging lightly. There are no cuts or bruises there. "He passed away, didnt' he?"
Stella nods the tiniest bit, and her eyes remain closed while her hand comes to rest in her lap with her wine glass. "When I was fourteen. He was my favorite thing."
"I understand." Tanya reaches around to pull the wine from Stella's hand before it topples over. The other woman opens her eyes, just barely, and turns to sit straight on the bed. She watches Reed leave the glass on her night table before she returns to her. She extends to pull the duvet cover and sheets down on her side of the bed, then gestures to Stella to lie down. "You can have my side tonight. I don't think you could get up if you tried."
Stella is compliant, and she allows Reed to pull the pillowy bedding around her before turning off the light and making her way to the other side. She doesn't cuddle Stella; it would hurt too much. Instead, she gently rubs her upper back and neck, and still fusses about with her hair.
"I'm not afraid of this anymore, Stella." Reed says it firmly, making sure Stella believes that she believes it.
Stella fiercely struggles to keep her eyes open. "I'm only afraid you deserve better."
"What?" Tanya pulls herself up onto her elbow so she can see Stella's face in the dim light pouring in from the hall. The other woman is asleep, her mouth agape and eyes wildly flitting beneath her lids. Tanya forces herself to lie back down and close her eyes.
The shiny black brace encasing her abused wrist is a vast improvement over the lump of misshapen plaster and fabric she'd gone to bed in. Tanya had surprised her with it in the early morning, the sun still down and the air still curiously cool and heavy. It hadn't shone quite so beautifully in the dull, blue light from the window, but the crack of plaster falling away from her skin was heavenly. In the afternoon sun, it glistens magnificently. It accompanies Stella's stiff Met uniform quite nicely, and she hadn't missed the mildly naughty glint in Tanya's eyes as she'd dressed. A joke about women loving men in uniforms had come to Stella's mind easily, but she isn't sure Tanya's ready for comfortable lesbian humor. She'd bitten her tongue.
After a night of uninterrupted sleep, Stella feels a million miles from where she'd been the night before. Her body aches anew, but her mind feels sharp and churning, her outlook rosier, and she's almost certain she'll somehow manage to escape Paul Spector, mentally and physically. She hasn't discussed with Tanya what she said the night before, and Stella isn't sure Tanya's any more interested in discussing. She waits for the subject to come up; for her lover's dark eyes to squint in confusion and for her to ask in her sweet voice, "But don't you want to be with me?" Stella thinks, perhaps she'll sit on the couch with Tanya, open some wine, and hash out the details about her seemingly unlovable and unloving self. It's not a conversation she's ever had with a lover before - why bother when they're turned out the door before they can get attached? Once upon a time, she'd cared what her lovers thought of her too much: was she damaged goods? Was she really so shut off? Could she see herself spending eternity with him or her? She doesn't ask herself frivolous questions anymore. In Belfast, she's simply enjoyed Tanya's company, their explorations an organic extension of their easy friendship. She's not experienced it before, and she wonders if the Professor has, herself.
Stella can see Tanya at the back of the sunny room. The Belfast press is assembled and milling about anxiously as they await the start of the press conference. Tanya stands behind them, no chair, her hands tucked into the crooks of her arm pits. She appears anxious, herself. Perhaps she's thinking of what Stella said to her last night, wondering and worrying. A beaten leather coat swishes in the flurry of anchors and newspaper reporters, and Stella's attention is drawn away to a roughshod Ned Callan. It's no wonder he's dragged her attention from Reed-Smith; His eyes are locked upon her from the middle of the room, having made her out from her corner hiding place in record time. The man is like a dog, his jowls open and waiting. He sneers at her with a knowing, shit-eating grin. He has no shame, and looks upon her like an easy buck to be made. It makes Stella more uncomfortable than any leer, or advance, or even any blow to the face. She takes comfort in the fact that he looks like shit; he can't have had any better a week than she.
The remainder of the PSNI dedicated task force aligns the wall behind her into the back end of the large conference suite. They're awaiting Franks' opening remarks and their opportunity to be paraded like prize pigs before the Belfast public. None of them appear particularly enthusiastic, heads hung and sighing or yawning. They may have better appreciated a late morning in bed. Martin nimbly pulls candy from his pocket and eats as discretely as possible. Matthew Eastwood stands separated from the rest, leaning against the wall opposite Stella. He looks at her calmly, conveying his dismay. He knows as well as she that the whole proceeding is a grand act. It's an incredibly shallow attempt to shield the public from the unfortunate outcome of the Paul Spector case. It's a dog and pony show meant to delight the audience, and razzle dazzle them away from their nagging, wandering thoughts about how a man like Spector could be allowed to commit suicide while under watchful eye.
Chief Constable Franks makes his way down the hall, and the team stands at attention. His entourage of aides and assistants is a rather noisy shadow. They all continue into the conference room, further crowding the press. No doubt, the Chief Constable hopes to suppress the greedy press to the furthest extent the law is allowable. No doubt, while quite loathed, the press is smarter than Franks would prefer to extend credit for. The man looks well-pressed and ready for a swindle. He approaches Gibson calmly, almost cheerfully, and holds his hand to her amiably. "I'm honored you could all attend." He tears his gaze away from Stella momentarily to acknowledge the line of officers along the hall. His eyes latch back on to her face, somehow sizing her up differently than he had before; Stella can't quite put her finger on what's different, but something in his eyes has shifted; his focus has intensified. "You look perfect. As before, I appreciate your cooperation and your dedication to the PSNI."
Stella fights the urge to avert her eyes in discomfort. She'd have thought the man would make at least a marginal effort to convey to the team that the press conference is for more than appearances only. Instead, he seems to unknowingly marginalize her by commenting on her appearance. Is he really so unknowing? She's not quite so sure. As he steps away to, again, address the entirety of the team, she catches the glances of Gail McNally and Dani Ferrington. Both appear similarly perturbed by Franks' comment.
"As I said, I appreciate you all being here today." His hands make a controlled wave in front of him. Even in the back hallway of a cheap conference suite, he's delivering a speech. Stella wonders if the man ever steps away from his persona. "I've worked extensively with Martina Dean on our presentation today. I'd like to thank her and point out that she is hear to assist any of you with any questions you may have prior to stepping out. I understand that this can be uncomfortable, and that some of you may be unaccustomed." For the first time, Stella sees Martina standing ten feet down from Matthew, like a shadow leaning against the wall. Her hair has grown longer, but otherwise, she is unchanged. Stella's liked her from the start, and makes note to herself to thank her.
"I will update the press on the closing of the case; then, I will introduce Superintendent Gibson, but she'll not be making any prepared remarks today. At that point, I'll welcome you all on stage momentarily, then dismiss you all. You're welcome to stay or go; I understand you have families to see and lives to get back to urgently. I ask that DSI Gibson please remain with me while we move into the question and answer session." His eyes search out Stella's face again, still curiously probing. "I'll not ask you to participate in the question and answer session unless necessary, but please understand that there may be questions I am not prepared to answer for. I trust your judgement, should you need to speak."
Stella nods. She'd expected as much. She thinks she must be such a prize for Franks, with her obviously injured arm, and the dark bruises her makeup can't quite hide. She looks beautiful and polished, but clearly beaten, and it'll no doubt work to their advantage. She sincerely doubts the majority of the press is willing to disparage her while she stands injured before them. She's not sure she can say the same for Ned Callan, though, and she's ready for a fight from him.
Franks waves to them before stepping around the corner and onto the stage. The throng of press quiets considerably as he takes to the podium. Stella doesn't watch. Truthfully, she doesn't listen, either. She sees the rounded toes of sensible shoes enter her field of vision as she focuses blankly on the broken tile in front of her on the floor. Martina looks back at her when she raises her head, her eyes so very understanding. She doesn't speak, but she doesn't need to. Martina gets it. She brings her hand up to rest gently on Stella's shoulder. "Is there anything I can do?"
Stella shakes her head slowly, but kindly. "He's not like Jim, is he?" Her gaze looks out to where members of the press raptly hang on Franks' every word.
"Be careful." Martina whispers, her expression unchanging. "Everyone is only as good as how they make him look."
Stella never thought she'd actually miss Jim Burns, but she misses the fact that he is a terrible manipulator. Working directly with Franks feels like swimming in a tank with a Great White Shark, holding a barrel of blood-soaked fish. When the treats run out, she'll be ruthlessly eaten. Martina drops her hand from Stella's shoulder and she makes her way silently back to her shadowy perch. Stella turns to see Matthew watching her closely; his stare is charged, and he seems poised for a fight. She hasn't a clue what he can possibly do to help the situation, but he carries his sense of injustice openly, and Stella appreciates it for the same reason she appreciates Jim's dim attempts at control.
If there's one thing the Chief Constable is, it's good with the press. The din of conversation dulls immediately, and cameras roll while eyes watch, enraptured. She isn't sure what's so captivating about the man, beyond his obvious power. He's a man who uses his power both subtly and demonstratively. He reminds Stella of the nasty gaslighting husbands of domestic abuse victims. The men had all adeptly manipulated their wives so as to believe the fault was squarely their own. Their power was so absolute, Stella had found it frightening. Franks' glib delivery and smooth looks of cunning disturb Stella in a way she hasn't been disturbed in quite some time; in a way which leaves her questioning whether her distrust is a product of her own overactive imagination. Martina's words almost soothe her: she isn't just imagining it.
There is no interruption from members of the press corps, but Franks' recounting of the story of Paul Spector is hardly compelling or complete. He's holding his cards close, and she begins to worry for herself. Is he playing coy so he can leave all the hard questions for her to answer? What good will it possibly do him to throw her to the wolves? She supposes he could play innocent and frame the numerous mistakes during the course of the investigation as oversights by a Metropolitan Police officer. It doesn't seem likely, but she's heard stranger. She's well aware the press' disdain for her presence in Belfast, and she can't quite squelch the suspicion that the Chief Constable may be tempted to harness that hatred for his own political gain.
Stella's entire team turns to look at her as Franks makes a complimentary introduction of her. Her thoughts are running away from her, and she can't quite hear what he says, but his inflection changes. Somehow, he gentles himself. Stella pulls at the hem of her Met blazer and straightens her cap. Her arm is throbbing, but it's a good kind of throb: it keeps her in the moment. The task force members all view her with a sick sort of sympathy. It's as if she's walking towards a funeral procession rather than a congratulatory press conference. Everything about the energy in the back-end hallway is somehow "off".
She walks out to a similarly silent stage, but the silence is broken quickly by the whirs and clicks of a hundred cameras. The cameras flash viciously, and she feels almost as though she should close her eyes. Perhaps if she closes her eyes, she can manage to be somewhere else. But, Stella dutifully takes her place beside the Chief Constable and allows the press to take unending photos of her beaten body. It feels vile, in a way Stella can't quite put her finger on. She's always attracted press attention; it isn't anything new. However, she's never been pushed into feeding and manipulating the press, and it feels against her very nature. Momentarily, she wonders what's happened to her. She's never approved of being the "pretty thing" or the pawn. Somehow, she's found herself crushed beneath the weight of Belfast and its unending, complicated circumstances. Adding insult to injury, she can't decide if Franks thinks she's too stupid to catch on to his strategic shuffle.
When Stella looks beyond the writhing press below her, she catches Tanya's eyes in the back of the room. Her calm expression and serene half-smile do calm her nicely. She'd like to be anywhere but this room, in this very moment. In her peripheral vision, she sees someone in the throng below turn with a camera. She catches Ned Callan turning to photograph Tanya with her enigmatic smile. She cant see his face, but Stella can see the smile disintegrate from her lover's face. Callan turns back to her to flash a knowing, wolfish grin. Stella doesn't turn away from him. She may be pinned by Franks, but she's yet to be pinned by a sniveling, sleazy weasel like Callan. He's cartoonish in his glee, as he snaps more photos of her, making extra certain to pan the length of her body as he does so. If she weren't so disgusted, she might feel violated.
"At this time, I'd like to open the session up to questions." Hands tip immediately, and Franks manages the questions, as he did his briefing, with ease. The questions are benign; flimsy, even. "How did Paul Spector die?" or "Will the inquiry be ongoing?" or "Has sufficient evidence been found to definitively link Spector to all charges?"
When Callan's hand flies up, Stella can't help but feel something of a lamb walking to the slaughter. The man is holding something back, and he clearly feels it'll hand a shock to the Chief Constable and herself.
"An anonymous source inside Maghaberry Prison has made a statement that Katrina Benedetto visited Paul Spector on numourous occasions. Can you confirm these interactions, and can you tell me whether these interractions were of substance to the investigation?" Callan's shit-eating grin is a special kind of despicable.
"Detective Superintendent Gibson did find significant evidence of those interactions." Franks turns to look at her, but doesn't actually look at her. Instead, he gestures in her general location. "However, as this line of questioning involves a minor, I cannot answer in earnest."
Callan bullies in ahead of others with a shouted question. "Then, can you confirm the existence of a disciplinary panel set to convene in the coming days? A source has stated that this panel will review the actions of PSNI officers involved in the Spector case. Can you confirm whether Detective Superintendent Gibson's inappropriate sexual conduct is slated for review?"
"Mr. Callan; As I'm sure you're aware, the subjects of internal disciplary review are proprietary to the PSNI and not open for discussion with the press. DSI Gibson's conduct has only ever been considered acceptable, even exemplary, in view of the PSNI and the Policing Executive."
"James Olson's wife would still beg to differ!" Callan smiles slyly. He doesn't shout or run film. The damage is already done, as press around him clammor to get it all down and to snap their blessed photos. Stella remains largely unresponsive, and she prides herself for it.
"This conference is concluded. Any members of the press corps with further questions may contact the PSNI Press Office. Thank you for your time today." Franks doesn't look to Stella or gesture for her to walk out ahead of him. He leaves her in the dust, and she calmly follows him out. When she comes around the corner, she finds him angrily waving at the task force team still eagerly gathered in the wings. The conference had been shit, their plans blown to hell, and her team had gussied themselves up for nothing. Stella finds herself fairly enraged, but not nearly so enraged as the Chief Constable.
"You all better pray to Jesus I don't find that any of you are responsible for these fucking leaks." And he's gone in a flash, a blur of black and white Armani. He doesn't wait for Martina, and she smiles to Stella sullenly from the shadows. Thank God for Martina Dean, Stella thinks.
The Belfast street is pleasantly busy as Stella and Tanya walk. Tanya had talked her into a brisk jaunt to take her mind off the absurd press conference, and Stella is grateful. The sun still shines cheerily, and the number of souls occupying the street offer the two of them some anonymity. She only wishes not to be in her Met uniform, as it does tend to draw some unwanted attention. Plus, her feet are still aching and itching, and, truthfully, she can't think of anywhere she would prefer to be other than naked, in a hot washtub. Perhaps she can persuade Reed later.
"What was up with that performance in there?"
"Which one?" Stella quietly scoffs, looking to Tanya next to her. The soft light flatters her immensely. Her skin looks like coffee, and her eyes somehow appear brighter. It's quite the lovely departure from the pasty, fluorescent-splashed flesh she's exposed to at work. But there again, Tanya is simply a lovely departure from everything Stella knows. It occurs to her that she can't recall the last time she's seen a lover in the light of a sunny afternoon. It's an unexpectedly depressing thought.
Reed nods and pauses in front of a busy sweet shop. "I'll concede... there were a few performances going on in there. I was wondering about yours, though?"
Stella can't help her surprised expression. She'd been certain Tanya was wondering about the varying forms of grandstanding and intimidation coming off of Franks or Callan. "Mine?"
"Look, I don't know how to explain it." Tanya gently taps Stella's arm to motion her to the side of the busy pedestrian way. "You weren't yourself. It was like you shrunk, or lost something. But just for that moment. I can't really say why, but for the first time since I met you, I got a true sense that you were frightened."
Stella absorbs Tanya's words, thoughtful and pensive as she always is. She'd known her internalized fear: of Tanya leaving her, of losing her job, of being torn apart by the wolfish Belfast public; of going home a failure and to her woefully dreary apartment. Stella's prided herself, for more years than she can count, on her stony countenance. Is she losing herself? Will someone as pedestrian and soulless as Paul Spector, in a round-about way, be the beginning of the threat which unravels Stella in the long run?
"You don't have to answer me." Tanya saves Stella from her own recriminations. The world rushes by them, oblivious to their troubles, and the shop window behind them is full of customers waiting in line to buy sweets, but grand gestures aren't really either woman's style. Rather, the every-day street corner, blended about with early afternoon commuters, suits them beautifully. Stella knows she won't ever find someone who makes her feel adored in that specific way Tanya does, even as the rest of those around her can't spare her a glance. "I may not know everything about you, but I know YOU, really. I know you are good, and kind, and better than what this place and fucking Paul Spector have done to you. Better than whatever else has scarred you in the past. Better than you believe yourself to be. But I also know you hide a lot. You have nothing to fear."
"Thank you." Stella nods, keeping it simple, as she so often strives to do. She tucks her hair behind her ear. The wind has picked up, whipping her previously well-groomed bun into a mess. She removes her cap, fearing it may blow away. "Perhaps we could go home and talk?"
Tanya smiles at the thought of "home". Does Stella truly think of her place as "home"? God, she hopes she does. Tanya nods eagerly and turns to lead Stella away. She jumps a bit, though, as she turns directly into Ned Callan. His camera hangs cavallierly from his neck, and he's a bag of clove rock sweets hanging from his wrist. Apparently, he'd been amongst the crowd awaiting service in the sweet shop. As per usual, he looks short on sleep, short on hygiene, and poised for a fight. Repellant though he may be, Stella understands his brand of 'scrappy'. He overtly confident smile, however, drives her mad. She's never been a fan of the unjustifiably confident.
"Lovely day, ladies. What a coincidence, running into you two here!" His voice is high and mocking. What a twit, Stella thinks.
"Yes; what a coincidence, indeed, Mr. Callan." Stella nearly rolls her eyes, but exercises what she feels to be uncommon restraint.
Callan nods. "Ah, but you see, it ended up being my pleasure. I happened to catch the most beautiful photos of a couple lasses outside the window of the sweet shop. I must say, they looked most enticed by each other."
Tanya's eyebrows go up and she turns to catch Stella's reaction. The other woman is back to her trademark stoicism, obviously back in her wheel house. Tanya supposes she saw Callan snap a photo of her while in the press conference. She probably shouldn't be surprised. Call her old fashioned, though: extortion makes Tanya nervous.
"I'm sorry, but if you think this act is fooling anyone, you're an idiot." Stella cocks her head towards Callan. "How about we stop playing around. What the fuck do you want?"
Callan laughs, almost nervously. "A little rough, there, Detective Superintendent. I bet you like it hard in bed. Thing is, it's shaping up that you'll fuck anything and everything in Belfast, but I gotta say: I love the thought of you two together the best."
"You didn't answer my question. What do you want?" Stella is steely-eyed, and her gaze never wanders from Callan, who's begun shifting from one foot to the other.
"It would be quite the feather in my cap if I could expose the purpose behind the disciplinary hearing the Chief Constable has scheduled. Very rarely does the Chief Constable become involved in matters of Human Resources. I imagine, whatever it is, it's quite the embarrassing mess for the PSNI."
It doesn't take Stella long to weigh her options. "I'm afraid I can't do that."
Callan nods, and stands proud, but he's a lousy liar. "Then I'll have no choice but to assume the hearing is to address your conduct, or lack of it, and publish these photos as proof of your many, varied love interests."
"Then you would be committing clear libel." Callan stares back at her, seemingly unfazed. "Mr. Callan... you seem to make your living entirely off rumors and lies about others. Have you ever considered giving journalistic integrity the old College Try?"
"Journalistic integrity doesn't pay the rent, Detective Superintendent. However, two fine looking ladies engaging in intercourse will always garner some type of attention. Let me assure you, there are plenty undersexed Irish Catholic rumormongers in Belfast, who care more than you think about who you fuck."
Stella returns fire as soon as Callan finishes speaking. "I'll call your bluff. If you had proof of any of it, why would you need to talk to me? You've already made it quite clear you're willing to publish lies about me without a private consultation. As far as I'm concerned, you can go fuck yourself."
Callan doesn't bother snapping any further photos as the two women walk away. Tanya works to look as calm and collected as Stella does, but she's admittedly new to this dangerous, surprisingly coy world Detective Superintendent Gibson inhabits.
“That man is a perfect slime,” Tanya surmises in the car. It’s been some time since they returned to the vehicle and began their modest journey back to Tanya’s home. Tanya’s heart rate still drums a little fast, angry at their lovely afternoon walk so abruptly bungled. She’s a pathologist – the public really has no interest in what she does on a daily basis. She’s never been in a position to feel so manipulated and violated, and yet, by a person who needn’t even touch her or know her at all. She wonders if this is one of the many injustices Stella is sadly familiar with, or is this an unusual experience?
“That, he is.” Stella leans against the passenger side door, pensive as always. Her braced arm rests against the window, and her fingers gently, unknowingly scratch her chin as she thinks. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have provoked him. I had your integrity to protect, and all I could think of was putting him in his place.”
Tanya scoffs lightly and eases the car to the shoulder of the road. She unbuckles her seat belt and turns slightly so Stella can see her whole face. “You certainly are into the self-punishment, eh DSI Gibson?” She’s teasing, and smiles so as to show it.
Stella purses her lips and shrugs almost cavalierly. “I prefer to think of myself as brooding. Thoughtful.”
“Those things you most definitely are.” Tanya playfully slaps at Stella’s knee. “But I told you – I’m not afraid of this. I have nothing to fear, and I need you to start believing me. And, there’s one thing, brilliant though you may be, that you seem to have not considered.”
Stella cocks her head. “What’s that?”
“Ned Callan is a pig. Of that, I have no doubt. But, those pictures he got today are the truth. I look at you the way I do because I think I love you. And I really, truly hope you feel the same way, because I’m nervous as hell about whether you’ll come to see me, or if I’ll come to see you, or if you might prefer to leave Paul Spector behind you, and me along with him.”
Stella smiles slightly, almost relieved by Tanya’s nervous energy. Her own cool, calm heart has been wonderfully confused since the entry of the unexpectedly warm pathologist into her life. It suddenly seems to her that Tanya’s done the work of bending while Stella, oblivious, goes about the routine business of protecting herself. Perhaps it’s time to try for a little more faith, she thinks to herself.
“That was a lot to say.” Stella’s unusually sardonic, anxious laugh makes Tanya chuckle along with her. Tanya, herself, is completely enamored of the nervous, almost foolish-seeming Stella beside her. She’s a woman who appears younger, and infinitely less troubled.
Their light laughter is interrupted by the loud buzzing of Stella’s cell phone in the car’s middle console. She glances at the screen to see that it’s Matthew calling. She turns to Tanya with an apology on her face, but Tanya fully understands and appreciates the DSI mask which descends over Stella’s features as she answers the phone. The look is familiar, almost comforting in the maze of confusion which comes with trying to get to know one another.
The hard mask remains in place throughout the entirety of the call. Tanya can’t make out any of Matthew’s placidly-delivered words, only the general tone of his voice, and Stella says little of consequence.
“I’ll be there in fifteen minutes.” Stella almost whispers. She re-delivers the phone to the console and speaks quietly. “We’ll need to continue this conversation later. I need you to turn around; We need to go to the hospital.” Tanya recognizes that she’s looking at “emergency” Stella, her calm tones sufficient to soothe an injured, frightened animal.
“What’s going on?” Tanya shifts the car, buckles her seat belt, and whips back into traffic.
“Jim Burns tried to hang himself this afternoon.” Stella looks out the window, feeling vaguely as though she’s having an out-of-body experience.
“Oh, God.” Tanya whispers to herself and hits the gas more firmly.
“I’m here for information about Jim Burns, please.” Stella’s voice and gaze are intense. Tanya is reminded of standing at this same counter in the aftermath of Annie Brawley’s attack, and Stella’s dogged determination to get a forensic examination. Her face appears calm, but with an element of anger beneath the surface. Tanya wonders – is she angry at Jim? Or the nursing staff? Perhaps she’s simply angry at life; Tanya certainly wouldn’t blame her.
“I’m sorry, Ma’am. I have no information on Mr. Burns’ condition as yet…” The nurse trails off, poised for a fight. But, Stella isn’t stupid or confused. She understands that she has no victim to fight for. She has no helpless individual for whom to champion. Instead, she’s left to pick up the mess trailing behind a man who vexes her completely. Tanya watches as Stella deflates and asks to be informed when his condition is known. The nurse nods, almost surprised.
Matthew is a shadow in the corner of the waiting room when they arrive. It’s a slow day, and the waiting area is empty. An ailing coffee maker wails out bizarre noises, but the room is otherwise silent. Matthew only looks to them by way of a greeting. He looks so disappointed, Tanya wonders if he’s glad or dismayed at his boss’ unfortunate choice. Matthew and Stella seem to understand each other keenly, though. She feels like a third wheel, unaware of something important lingering in the air.
“Do you know anything?” Stella asks Matthew quietly as she drops into a love seat opposite his uncomfortable chair. Tanya lightly perches beside her, still feeling somewhat the interloper.
Matthew shakes his head ‘no’. “I’ve been here little more than an hour. Apparently, his wife visited over the lunch hour, and left quite angry. When an aid came to deliver lunch, he found him hanging from his bathroom door. He wasn’t considered a risk, so no precautions had been taken. He used a bed sheet slung over the closed door.”
“There was no sign of other visitors? We have to be absolutely certain he chose to do this.” Stella stares at Matthew blankly. They both appear shell shocked.
“No visitors according to staff. Of course, we’ll have to review CCTV footage to be sure. It would appear he did this to himself, Stella.” Matthew’s eyes appear ready to shut, and he takes in Stella’s deflated demeanor. He feels almost as though he’s looking to another soldier with whom he marched into battle. It’s certainly felt like a battle, and perhaps as damaging. As the moments pass by, the remnants of the Spector case meet their ultimate fate, or settle beneath the blanket of misery which seems to shroud them all, even if only by virtue of having seen the suffering. “As I’m sure you can imagine, I’m quite exhausted. I think I’ll take some rest and return in the morning.”
Matthew stands, hulking above the two women, and Stella remembers her offer of a creaking old cot in the corner of her office what seems a lifetime ago. She wishes she could offer the same now. “Yes, I understand. Thank you, Matthew. For everything.”
The two women are left in silence, but not of the comfortable type. The view of Stella on the couch beside her is sobering. Tanya feels inept, and in the dark. “What are you thinking?” She whispers.
Stella takes a moment, then turns on the love seat. She tucks one leg beneath her and brings her arm up around the top of the sofa-back. She rests her head upon her arm and doesn’t quite meet Tanya’s eyes. “I’m thinking that, even in his death, Spector is killing us all. In one way or another, I mean. Perhaps just killing all our spirits. Will there be anything left when all is said and done?”
“I suppose that’s up to you, and the rest. How you look at it.” Tanya shrugs. She doesn’t understand the darkness she sees in Stella’s face, having so quickly replaced the nervous but happy woman in the car. She wonders if Stella’s level of investment might someday come to harm her in ways unimagined.
Stella finally looks Tanya directly in the eye, somewhat rejecting her notion. “It’s hard, when there is no justice. It’s hard to look at a man like Spector and know that he would snuff out my life in a second, if only he could. To see his thoughts so clearly articulated, and know the terrible things those thoughts brought him to do. And then to have him slip from my hands. He gets to go and rest, while his victims are robbed of that luxury. They’ll spend the rest of their lives attempting to reinvent themselves, and they’ll struggle, and they will never have seen some semblance of justice.”
“Are you one of his victims?” Tanya asks timidly.
Tanya can see Stella think very deeply, pondering the question for all it’s worth. Finally, she opens her mouth, and a small noise escapes. She isn’t sure where to start. “In a way.” Stella sits more upright and clears her throat. “I am a victim in that I got sucked in. Same as Matthew, same as the rest of the team. But then the worst thing he did to me was to know me.”
Tanya urges her on. “How do you mean?”
“He thought the best way to upset me was to invade my privacy, and he was right. Knowing he was in my room that night; knowing he read my dream diary, that he had access to my personal thoughts… It was devastating in a way I hadn’t experienced in my life.”
“And Jim?” Tanya is truly curious, having watched the air sucked out of Stella at the news of his condition.
“Is Jim a victim of Spector?” Stella raises her eyebrows for clarification, and Tanya nods back. “Again, in a way. But, really, Jim is a victim of me.”
Tanya almost wishes she could step back from Stella. “I don’t understand.”
“Jim and I met a number of years ago, at the trial for a larger case in London. We didn’t really have much to do with each other as far as the trial went, but we met at one of the bars near the courthouse. I think you know what my past is like with men… What happened with James Olson was hardly an isolated incident.”
Tanya nods. She can’t pretend to understand Stella’s needs, but she is most certainly aware.
“I still promise to tell you how my… habits came to be. Some other time.” Stella looks sadly to her lap. “Anyhow, Jim and I had a pleasant conversation. We were quite drunk, and I invited him back to my flat for an evening of mediocre sex. I was tired, though, and let him spend the night over. It was the biggest damn mistake…”
Stella works her jaw for a moment while she gathers her story. “In the morning, he told me that he had a wife waiting for him at home in Belfast, but that he couldn’t remember when he’d had such a good time and asked if he could see me again. I told him that’s not really how it worked, but he just seemed to think I was playing coy. He found me at every opportunity during the trial. Through the years, we would have cause to work together, and it was always the same: he would almost beg me for my attention. He would offer to leave his wife and his children. Finally, he offered to get sober if I’d give him a chance.”
“What did you say?” Tanya doesn’t know whether to be disturbed or engrossed.
“I told him no. That he was making a terrible mistake, and that I was not what he thought I was, but he would insist that we would never know until we tried. Those last years before I returned to Belfast, he did sober up. He was doing what appeared to be a good job in his position. But, around the time I arrived for the Spector case, he just fell apart.
“He made some mistake with the policing executive, and it got ugly. One day, he confessed again that he’d have left his family for me. Then, the night that Spector broke into my hotel room, Jim came to my door drunk, unannounced. He wanted to talk about his issues with the policing executive; about Eastwood possibly knowing about it. He was practically crying; begging me for one night of sex… to make it go away.”
“Oh my god…” Tanya shakes her head. “Did he hurt you?”
Stella shakes her head. “He grabbed onto me, just begging, and wouldn’t listen. I ended up nearly breaking his nose. The disciplinary hearing Callan was talking about was to be about Jim; his problems with Eastwood. His… attempts… with me. I didn’t tell you because I had no idea how I was going to handle it. Jim makes me furious, but I would never want to be the person to lose him his career. I can’t even figure out how anyone got wind of the incident – the hearing was originally brought about by complaints filed by Eastwood. The Chief Constable informed me that someone anonymously tipped him off about the incident between Jim and myself. I think he may have done it himself.”
“Jim?” Tanya shakes her head, confused.
“The man handles guilt like you’ve never seen – with anger and poor decision making. And the last time I saw him, I basically told him I want him out of my life.”
“I’m so sorry, Stella.” Tanya wraps her own arm up onto the back of the love seat, so she can brush the other woman’s hand. “I had no idea.”
Stella nods. “Just as with James Olson, I really wish no one had ever had to know. Instead, I seem to set myself up for endless opportunities for others to misinterpret my actions. Why is that?”
“Well, you are a mysterious woman.” Tanya smiles slightly, but Stella isn’t having it.
“In all seriousness,” Tanya corrects, “People don’t know how to handle those who don’t conform to their standards. You are incredibly intelligent, and lovely, and wonderful to be around. You’ve made your choices, though, and it’s not up to you how others choose to respond to them. All you can do is rest assured that you’ve made the best possible choices for yourself, for your reasons.”
Stella nods. “I wish all these supposedly compassionate officers knew just what it’s like to be a victim.”
“Me, too.” Tanya nods, still rubbing Stella’s hand. “But if they all knew, then you wouldn’t be so special.”
The hallway is strangely dim outside Jim's room, with a long fluorescent bulb flickering as it slowly fades to its death. The nurse had quietly woken Stella from Tanya's lap, both of them slumped sleeping on the over-hard sofa in the waiting area. It had somehow morphed into evening. They'd done nothing while they waited, barely said anything after their earlier conversation. For the first time in a long while, Stella knew she had nowhere to be, and she'd allowed her heavy eyes to close. He'd been asking for her, the nurse told Stella. She didn't ask how the woman knew who she was. No doubt she reads the Belfast Chronicle.
Stella's stomach had flopped heavily as the nurse woke her. Only half in her body, and suddenly unsure of why she came in the first place, she had instantly felt the need for a little moral support. Tanya had woken along with her, and her deep brown eyes blinked away sleep slowly as Stella sat up. She hadn't offered words, knowing that words can't help, but her smile had offered the silent support Stella needed. "l'll be back soon," she'd said as she rose, somewhat staggering away from the sofa.
She can't quite bring herself to walk in the room. What is she doing? Why had Jim even asked for her? What could she possibly say to the man? Still, she forces her hand to clasp the handle on the barely-open door. The room isn't much lit, but it's enough for her to see a silhouetted man staring at his hands. Jim always stares at his hands when he doesn't know what to do or say. Maybe this is a bad idea.
"Stella." Those haunted eyes appear even blacker, somehow, but Jim gestures for her to sit in the seat next to his bed. Outside of the purple-black welt around his neck, and his papery-sounding voice, the man appears relatively well.
"Jim". Stella almost whispers while she plants herself on the very edge of the chair. It's just as uncomfortable as the waiting area sofa, she thinks. She feels awkward, like she would rather run for the door than continue. Struggling to find words, she settles for the most obvious question. "What happened?"
Jim's look to her is both withering and pathetic, his face twisted in a bizarre mix of agony and anger. He scoffs. "You know what happened, Stella. It's all too fucking much."
"I..." Stella pauses mid-speech, thinking. "I know how that feels."
Jim shakes his head. "Of course you do."
Stella isn't sure what he means by it. She isn't sure she wants to know what he means by it, but she feels the familiar heat of anger creeping up her chest and neck. She suppresses it as best she can. Jim can't help himself. There's a long silence while she negotiates her cool, Jim looking out into the darkened evening. It's begun raining, and rivers of water run while the window patters with heavy drops. It's fitting, Stella thinks. She likes the melancholy rain; it's familiar, comfortable. She does her best work while the rain runs down the roof, refilling her coffee over and again, the room naturally a little dimmer. Is she doing her best work, here? Or is she another hammer driving Jim further down the rabbit hole? She isn't sure which.
Finally, Stella sighs and continues. "Did you write the anonymous letter to the Chief Constable, Jim?"
Jim nods, not enthusiastically, but he also looks completely unsurprised by her question. "I thought I was doing you a favor, Stella. I know what I did to you is inexcusable, and I'm a fucking disaster. In a matter of a few weeks, I went from the superior stance, lecturing you on your professionalism in the Olson matter...to a slobbering, pathetic drunk. And I was more than happy to lay the blame squarely on your shoulders. I said it was Eastwood I was angry at, but it was really you.... and I know you knew. I was being unfair."
Jim's begun staring at this hands again. His voice drifts in volume while he continues. "I thought I would let you tell your story. Let you finish my career for me, like I deserve for it to be finished. That panel deserved to know how good you are."
"Deserved?" Stella cocks her head.
"I called Franks before you came in, to resign my position. I'll never get back after this, and Franks knows it. Besides, I've had some time to think, and I realize now that I was forcing you to share something you may not be ready to share. I think, in spite of everything, perhaps you've rubbed off on me a bit, Stella. Perhaps you have taught me things I haven't given you credit for."
Stella isn't sure what she is. Stunned? Impressed? Confused? All three, she surmises. Jim finally looks at her like he means it, and the shadows lift just a little from his eyes. How long has he held on to such notions? Even worse, how is it that such notions have fed his fear, paranoia, and loneliness? Letting them go, he appears almost a different man. Stella isn't sure she will ever understand Jim's point of view. She gave up trying long ago, but she's always assumed that Jim has no interest in her own thoughts or perspective. Faced with evidence that she may have misjudged him leaves Stella completely unsure of how to feel or think, which is a rarity for her.
"I think there's something I need to say to you, Jim. Something I should have said a long time ago, and something I think you need to hear from me." Stella is sure to capture his eyes with her own gaze, to be sure he's listening. Her vision narrows so her entire attention is spent on his face. He's not accustomed to it, and Jim struggles to maintain the gaze instead of looking away. Stella's always been so terribly intense. If he'd been honest with himself from the start, he'd have known she's entirely too much for him. "I've said some combative, unfriendly things to you over the course of the last couple years. It's not because I hate you, but because I expect better from you. I've always felt that you could be a better man, if you could stop lying to yourself. You need to start forgiving yourself, Jim.
"I told you before that you look at me with this mixture of fear and anger. You need to stop, and realize that I am not what you deserve. Not because you deserve better, but because you deserve different."
Jim nods. "This time, I'm listening. I really am."
"I know you are." Stella stands and smiles sadly. "It's been a while since I've seen 'you', Jim. It's nice for a change. You won't see me again, but please consider me a friend."
"I understand. And I'll be honored."
As Stella leaves, Jim feels a strange lightness in his chest. He supposes he'll never completely understand the hold Stella Gibson has over him. It's a hold she's entirely unaware of and, even worse, a hold she never intended. As she departs from his door, pulling it mostly closed again, he sees her blond head leave the window in the door, and realizes her stepping out of his life is startlingly easy. He has a new life to assemble, this much he knows. His wife will be coming by soon; he's not sure why she hasn't been there already, and he's surprised at himself. For the first time in as long as he can remember, he cares.
"This isn't how I thought it would end." Stella lifts her abundant wine glass to her lips. The night is a little cold, and she's thankful for the warmth of the blanket over her lap. She's thankful for the warmth of Tanya's home, and the sofa she sits on. She's thankful for the warmth of her partner, watching her from a seat away. She has no idea what time it is, but it feels late. It'd been a wet slog back from the hospital, and she's about had it with it all, if she's honest. Exhaustion has finally given way to the frustration she's known to be lurking in her psyche. The overwhelming sense of dread and failure.
Tanya looks at the fire lit in front of them. Her face appears almost molten and glowing in the red-orange reflection. It's lovely, Stella thinks. "How did you think it would end?"
Stella almost laughs. "I don't know. Just... not like this. I was only supposed to be here for maybe two weeks. I was supposed to bring the answers with me, be out in a hurry. Jim wasn't really keen on me coming, I knew that. Then, things found a way to explode. And piece by piece, I made sure to find a way to fuck it all up. I keep hearing that I did well; fine; that I have nothing to answer for. But I know better.... I can't put my finger on what it is, but it could have been better. Maybe some people would still be alive. Maybe half of Belfast wouldn't think of me as a reckless whore, and maybe Jim wouldn't have started drinking again. Maybe Katie wouldn't have done what she's done. Something happened."
Tanya nods, taking in Stella's words. They're tough words, delivered frankly and with an eagerness she hasn't seen from Stella in a few days. She, too, can feel frustration pouring from her, alive in her gestures and the strength of her stare. Tanya knows it'll take time yet for Stella to come to terms with her experiences in Belfast. Truthfully, Tanya can't help but wonder how long it'll take Belfast and the PSNI to forget Stella. "I know I didn't have much to do with this, professionally. But, if there's one thing I've learned working with law enforcement, it's this: It takes a team. You have a team still. You may have led that team, but every outcome was the result of the thoughts, feelings and discoveries of a number of people. You can't wonder how things could be different, not only because they just 'are', but because you can't change the people who led to this moment. You can only change yourself."
"I have to debrief the team tomorrow. I'm almost scared to look at them. They all deserve justice just as much as I do, and I know how badly I wanted to see Spector sitting in court, listening to his victims. To, for once, turn him into a captive audience instead of a mouthpiece for whatever shit he was pedaling. It was just in sight, and I let the opportunity just... slip away. Who would have thought such a pedantic man-child would, in the end, hold so much over us all? It's moronic, and infuriating."
Tanya nods. "It is infuriating. And you'll know what to say to them; it always comes to you. I'll spare you some cliche garbage about how he only takes what you allow him to."
Stella can't help it. She laughs. It's a full-bellied, good-natured laugh, and Tanya joins in. Men, only taking as much as women give them? Tanya's cliche is a good one, indeed. Enduring, and a sack of shit as far as either woman is concerned. Stella's wine is jiggling in its glass, and she sees runs in her stockings. She hasn't changed from her Met uniform, and she knows she's a mess. It's nice to be a mess, for a while. It's nice to be a mess while Tanya is completely unconcerned, tears of laughter rolling down her wonderfully dewy cheeks. Suddenly, she wishes they could dance in the rain, or jump in the sea. Stella wishes they could hold on to that girlish laughter and never return to the reality of haunting Belfast.
"Did you ever play in the rain, as a girl?" Stella half-laughs still as she asks Tanya.
Tanya nods while she quickly sips her wine. "Mm, yes. Like I mentioned to you, once," Tanya smiles knowingly, "I grew up in Croydon. We were quite poor with little to do as children. During monsoon season, my friends and I would don our slickers and go down to the ditches to ride make-shift boats. We'd all salvaged junk from the industrial yards... pipes, sheet metal. We'd make these monstrosities. My mother would have killed me herself, had she known."
Stella nods knowingly. "When I was nine or ten, I had this grand fantasy of sailing away on a fishing liner so I could see the sea life. I wanted to see a dolphin so badly, I'd have sold anything in my possession for the opportunity." Stella chuckles and finishes her wine, setting the empty glass on the table. "So, one day I got cross with my parents over something or other and decided I would run away 'to the sea life'. I waited until my parents had gone to bed, put on my rain jacket and packed something like two outfits and a toy. I pilfered enough change from the kitchen jar just to, in my mind, pay for a tube ride to the sea. So, I get on my way in the pouring rain, and being quite dim, I get on the tube and end up in Cambridge wondering where the sea is and no change for a ride home."
Tanya almost guffaws. "Oh, Lord. How did you get home?"
"I toured the sidewalk outside Cambridge Station for all of thirty minutes before I turned myself in to a police officer stationed out front. I thought for sure I'd be arrested, or something. He must have wondered what was wrong with this batty little child.... In those days, no one seemed to notice much when children were out alone, and somehow we managed to survive. I was grounded for a solid two months."
Tanya sets her own empty glass down. "Indeed. I have a hard time imagining you as a child, Stella."
Stella tilts her head and smiles teasingly "Why's that?"
"I don't know... I suppose you seem like such an old soul."
"I can assure you, I was as idiotic a child as they come. Stubborn, and full of the oddest fantasies. My mother's friends always told her I was 'a strange one'. I think she agreed with them, too." Stella's smile is almost sad, but she does feel fondly for her childhood self. That child who had no clue what would hit her upside the head in her teenage years, precocious and smart, but almost shy. Her father had always told her she was the 'greatest thinker he would ever know', and she remembers wishing her mother could see her the way her father saw her. They took her in through two separate lenses entirely, it would seem. From an early age, Stella learned that there is no benefit to wondering what other people think of oneself, and certainly no benefit to attempting to change for them.
"I have an idea." Tanya smiles widely, grabs Stella's wrist and pulls her up the stairs, almost joyfully skipping. The rain is still holding steady. Stella always thought rain creates the most unearthly color inside a house. Somehow, the light becomes softened; not darker, but deeper. Richer.
Tanya pulls Stella into the master bathroom, not bothering to push to door closed. She sidles up to the control panel beside her expensive shower and selects 'rain forest'. The water that begins trickling from the expansive hardware in the over sized stall is beady and patters like the rain outside. The steam is strangely instant, and suddenly the shower stall calls longingly to Stella. It looks heavenly.
Tanya playfully pushes Stella against the wall, landing a strong kiss on her wine-buzzed lips. It's nice having someone else take the initiative, Stella decides. It's nice to feel like a partner instead of a controller. "I love this uniform on you", Tanya whispers against Stella's neck as she works the Met Offer's Jacket apart. It is a handsome uniform, and Stella's always turned an eye or two in it. Tanya working her fingers into the tie around her neck feels wonderfully sexy, and she wishes she had occasion to wear the uniform more often. She decides to answer Tanya's compliment with a light nip to the other woman's neck, her hair brushing wildly against Tanya's cheek and collarbone.
Once the tie is taken care of, the clothing is quick work. Tanya shreds Stella's already-snagged hose as they come loose from her body, and she finds the most beguiling lace thong beneath. It appears almost a gift for her, and Stella smiles slyly down upon her to confirm that it is. Tanya runs her hands over the expensive silk lace and hooks a finger into each side to bring the panties down to the floor. She wars with herself, as she can't decide whether to play with the decidedly inviting pussy in front of her or head to the delightful shower stall as she's planned. An already swollen, needy clit peeks out at Tanya, almost teasing her. She can't help herself, and decides on just a quick flick of the tongue before she rises to lead Stella to the shower. Stella almost growls, surprised in the best way possible by the unexpected lick.
It's a quick trip to the shower, and Stella needn't wait long before Tanya has her effectively pinned to the tiled floor. Her braced arm clumsily rests against the wall, but she wastes no time putting her good hand to work. Tanya continues to lavish passionate kisses on her, and Stella's mouth crooks up into a smile around her lover's lips. They've been intense, and slow, and angry, but they've quite missed out on the opportunity to be playful. To languish. To simply enjoy, without the world weighing them down. Laying carelessly in the bottom of the shower is gloriously whimsical, and Stella doesn't one bit miss her old liaisons. They'd been dances of dominance around the side of a nondescript hotel bed. A simple cock. A much-needed orgasm. This is a world that's become foreign to Stella, a fauna for her to discover for herself.
Tanya pulls Stella's leg up to grind against her and both women groan. The water continues to work its way around Tanya and dribble into Stella's face, and she closes her eyes. It's a new type of dancing in the rain, replacing twirling with writhing and a far more satisfying ache. Her arms grapple for purchase while her lover works her over, and Stella feels stunningly alive.
Matthew recalls waking to Stella Gibson one morning and thinking he could get used to it. His reluctant confidant leads the morning debriefing solidly and with resounding confidence he knows she doesn't feel. He's not just gotten used to her, he's grown accustomed to her. It hasn't been long, but he's found himself comfortable with a woman who once made him so uncomfortable he'd barely been able to excuse himself from the room. This morning, her clothing is as pressed as ever, and her hair coiffed like it hasn't been lately. Spending the night in a bed instead of a cot tends to elevate one's appearance, he imagines. In spite of her better rested and well put-together appearance, he can feel that she's checked out. Checked out from the PSNI, at least.
The previous evening had been something of a blur for Matthew. He'd left the hospital and his post as Jim's babysitter in total exhaustion, lumbering to his lonely apartment. The apartment where, by the way, he still lives out of enormous, jumbled boxes. One never is quite prepared for a marriage ended, and Lord help the man who has no sense of a good packing. Funny enough, that was always his wife's "job". Perhaps they'd have both done better had they not assigned each other such arbitrary jobs. As Matthew had entered his apartment, he was dismayed at the chirping of his cell phone. He was surprised to find that it wasn't Stella, though. It was the Chief Constable calling to tell him the hearing had been called off; that he needn't appear and that Jim had resigned. Also, Franks advised him of his consideration for a promotion.
Matthew can't help feeling somewhat slimy. Had he been placed under consideration for promotion for no reason other than Jim's resignation? Wasn't the hearing to address this sort of collusion amongst the ranks of the PSNI? The hearing was to address Jim's poor behavior, not a vehicle for Matthew to drive himself up the ladder. He isn't sure in whom he's more disappointed: Franks, Burns, the PSNI in general or, just maybe, himself.
In a way, Matthew envies Stella. The Spector case will leave a mark on all of them, and especially her. But he envies her ability to pack and go back to London; To spare herself the Belfast view and the reminders. Spector may not have ruined Matthew's life, but he's created a scenario difficult for his mind to leave behind, memories and disturbances he won't soon forget. Particularly, Matthew knows he won't forget those whose lives are absolutely ruined by the mere being of Paul Spector and his manipulation and killing habit.
"As you are all well aware, this was not an ideal ending." Stella speaks frankly, as she often does. She holds back the fact, though, that this is nearly a flaming fucking disaster for her own career. "I'll be here to lead the transition team as evidence is processed and reported for the court. I will be remanded to Belfast and the PSNI until all is in order such that we determine that there's no need for additional charges or other actions prior to the case being filed for final review and closure. Some of you will be moving onto more pressing matters. Others will work to wrap up documentation and close out the Spector case. I want to take a moment to thank each of you for your hard work and dedication. It is without doubt that you all played a valuable role, here. I appreciate each and every one of you and consider myself fortunate to have had the opportunity to work closely with you. You'll be hearing about continuing assignments later today, from your assigned senior officers. If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to ask me."
Matthew watches the regulars gathered around him: Ferrington, Martin, McNally, Mary McCurdy, all rapt and almost sad. He sees the same magnetism drawing their eyes to Stella he feels himself. He may not have been able to admit it to himself a year ago, but there really is just something about Stella Gibson. He can't put his finger on it; It's not her good looks, or her body, or her clothing. Those all create an image that's fierce and commanding, but it's rather in the way she speaks softly. The way her hips cock, and the way she is always endearingly, unapologetically herself. The way she has no idea what it is that holds attention to her, because she has no hand in manipulating that magnetism. She simply is.
Matthew allows himself to wonder if that's where James Olson got it wrong. The man saw a pretty older woman with a killer body and an invitation to the dance. He didn't see an individual so strongly herself. He didn't see that sharing with a personality like hers comes with a price. He didn't see that their agreement was simple, and had nothing to do with her beautiful lips or her breasts or any other part of her. It had to do only with him, and what he could offer her. At the time, Matthew looked down on her. But he feels he can almost bring himself to understand. At the very least, he now understands how little any of the business with James Olson has to do with who Stella Gibson actually is.
He can see Ferrington approaching Stella for an awkward hug. Only a few words are exchanged, but the young woman clings to her mentor for just a second longer than she should. He understands Ferrington pretty well, too. Stella Gibson inspires everything the younger woman hopes to be someday. Ferrington, though, is scared to admit that to the other woman. She doesn't know what to say or do. She needs to find her voice. He can only imagine that saying goodbye to Stella is times more upsetting than she lets on. She must be certain she's moving on into another assignment.
Matthew knows he'll be around for the long haul. He'll be needed to authenticate reports and compile the final statements for the file. Stella knows it, too. She smiles to him wanly, not bothering to try with a goodbye. "Thanks for everything you do, Matthew."
He nods and sits down to his considerable stack of paperwork. Good enough.
Stella arrives "home" at a normal time. It's nice, she thinks. She can't really recall the last time she's had someone to answer to as far as 'being home for dinner' goes. It feels good to be wanted; Not in a lustful, sexy way, but as a human being. It feels good to be told her personality uplifts the day of another person; That just being with her can make a time complete. Tanya's just getting home, too. It's a bit before six, and she's in the foyer unwrapping herself from her jacket and commuter garb. She looks tired, but glad to see Stella, and she pulls the other woman over for a quick peck on the lips. It feels so domestic, Stella marvels. For the first time, Stella notices the enormous takeout bag sitting on the entry way table. Come to think of it, the air is heavy with a garlic and soy aroma.
"Chinese?" Stella suddenly feels starved.
Tanya nods. "I stopped by Ming. I was starving, and the last thing I feel like doing is cooking. Besides, with the girls out of the house, I haven't been to shop, so I'm afraid we're a bit bare. I didn't know what you like, so I got a few things."
"Detectivehood has desensitized me to even the most atrocious Chinese food. I imagine anything from Ming will be fine. I'm starved, too."
"How was the debriefing?" Tanya asks quietly as she precedes Stella into the dining room. She makes quick work of the bag and containers, opening all and setting them on her rich, burgundy tablecloth. She sets out cheap paper plates and chopsticks, and Stella can't help but feel uncomfortable eating off of a paper plate in Tanya's decidedly fine dining area.
Stella pulls a container of lo mein to her paper plate and nods. "It went well, as you expected. I don't know why I worked myself up so badly about it. Everyone knows the case was fucked from the start...best to just get on with it so we can all move on."
"I think we can agree," Tanya smiles around a piece of chicken, "It's a good thing you were so worked up last night. Otherwise, I'd have had no reason to help you 'relax'." ''
Stella's smile is lopsided, almost goofy. She loves 'naughty' Tanya. She loves that Tanya already makes love to her like she's been loving women for a lifetime.
Stella's cell phone rings insistently on the dining table, making a god-awful sound as it vibrates against the oak beneath the table cloth. It seems she's always interrupted by the phone. Stella almost feels disappointed in herself answering, but she sees Tanya wave her OK.
"Congratulations, DSI Gibson." It's the voice of Jeremy Stern. It feels as though she hasn't heard her boss' voice in an age, and Stella can't help but feel relief that it's him calling. If she's honest, Jeremy is probably the only man in her life she trusts not to hurt her or belittle her. "You've made it through Belfast Boot Camp!"
"Hi, Jeremy." Stella smiles at his good-natured ribbing.
"Seriously." Jeremy chuckles. "It may have been a shit-show, but you came out on top. I hear you got pretty banged up, though."
"It's had a few days to heal. I'm feeling fine." Stella looks to Tanya, and can see her curiosity. "It seems you must have called for something else?"
"You do know me, Stella. I wanted to let you know that you'll be receiving a letter of commendation from CC Franks. Also, seriously, take some time and get some rest while you finish up that paperwork. I don't want to see your fucking face in my office for a solid 30 days. Capice?"
"You're not even Italian." Stella grumbles, but there's silence on the line. Finally, she sighs, "Fine. You won't see my "fucking face" for thirty days. Anything else?"
She can see Tanya's face brighten across the table as she listens as well she can. Stella feels her stomach flop, but in a good way. Tanya's devout gaze makes her stomach nervous like it was the first time she was kissed, 14, under the stairs at school. Normally, Jeremy's thirty day 'sentence' would piss her off. She'd sneak in after day 5 or so, and tell her assistant to keep mum. She'd make it an exercise seeing how long she could work unnoticed. Stella finds she has no care to.
"Jeremy, I have to go. I'll see you in 30 days." She doesn't wait for a response. She can't stop looking at the woman across from her in the glowing light streaming from the adjacent living room window. She needn't think. She knows what she's going to say. Stella finds she isn't particularly frightened or confused anymore, either.
"What is it?" Tanya probably thinks she got some sort of bad news on the phone.
Stella happily sticks her chopsticks upright into the container of lo mein, almost claiming it. She smiles.
"I think I love you."