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23.12.2018

"I think I FOUND a place."

Ed sat solidly at his desk, hammering away two finger-style at his typewriter.

"Oh, yeah?" Ben sat at his own, the map of the city in front of him again. Patiently, he drew lines with a pencil to connect the murder scenes. "A place for what?"

"To live."

"Umm-hmm."

Someone opened the refrigerator and complained loudly that their A amp; W had been stolen. No one paid any attention. The staff had been whittled down by the flu and a double homicide near Georgetown University. Someone had taped a cardboard turkey onto one of the windows, but it was the only outward sign of holiday cheer. Ben put a light circle around Tess's apartment building before he glanced over at Ed.

"So when are you moving?"

"Depends." Ed frowned at the keys, hesitated, then found his rhythm again. "Have to see if the contract goes through."

"You having someone killed so you can rent their apartment?"

"Contract of sale. Shit, this typewriter's defective."

"Sale?" Ben dropped his pencil and stared. "You're buying a place? Buying?"

"That's right." Ed patiently applied Liquid Paper to his last mistake, blew on it, then typed the correction. He kept a can of Lysol spray at his elbow. If anyone who looked contagious walked by, he sprayed the area. "You suggested it."

"Yeah, but I was only- Buying?" To cover his tracks, Ben pushed some excess paper into his trash basket on top of the empty can of A amp; W "What kind of dump can you afford on a detective's pay?"

"Some of us know how to save. I'm using my capital."

"Capital?" Ben rolled his eyes before folding the map. He wasn't getting anywhere. "The man has capital," he said to the station at large. "Next thing you know, you'll be telling me you play the market."

"I've made a few small, conservative investments. Utilities mostly."

"Utilities. The only utilities you know about is the gas bill." But he studied Ed with an uncertain eye. "Where is this place?"

"Got a few minutes?"

"I've got some personal time coming."

Ed pulled his report out of the typewriter, cast a wary glance over it, then set it aside. "Let's take a drive."

It didn't take long. The neighborhood was on the outer and rougher edges of Georgetown. The row houses looked more tired than distinguished. The fall flowers had simply given up for lack of interest, and stood faded among tangles of unraked leaves. Someone had chained a bike to a post. It had been stripped down of everything portable. Ed pulled up to the curb. 1 here it is.

Cautious, Ben turned his head. To his credit, he didn't groan.

The house was three stories high, and narrow, with its front door hardly five paces from the sidewalk. Two of the windows had been boarded up, and the shutters that hadn't fallen off tilted drunkenly. The brick was old and softly faded, except for where someone had spray painted an obscenity. Ben got out of the car, leaned on the hood, and tried not to believe what he was seeing.

"Something, isn't it?"

"Yeah, something. Ed, there aren't any gutters."

"I know."

"Half the windows are broken."

"I thought I might replace a couple of them with stained glass."

"I don't think the roof's been reshingled since the Depression. The real one."

"I'm looking into skylights."

"While you're at it you ought to try a crystal ball." Ben stuck his hands in the pockets of his jacket. "Let's have a look inside."

"I don't have a key yet."

"Jesus." With a mutter, Ben walked up three broken concrete steps, pulled out his wallet, and found a credit card. The pitiful lock gave without complaint. "I feel like I should carry you over the threshold."

"Get your own house."

The hall was full of cobwebs and droppings from assorted rodents. The wallpaper had faded to gray. A fat, hard-backed beetle crawled lazily across it. "When does Vincent Price come down the steps?"

Ed glanced around and saw a castle in the rough. "It just needs a good cleaning."

"And an exterminator. Are there rats?"

"In the basement, I imagine," Ed said carelessly, and walked into what had once been a charming parlor.

It was narrow and high ceilinged, with the openings of what would be two five-foot windows boarded up. The stone of the fireplace was intact, but someone had ripped out the mantel. The floors, under a coating of dust and grime, might very well have been oak.

"Ed, this place-"

"Terrific potential. The kitchen has a brick oven built into the wall. You know what bread tastes like out of a brick oven?"

"You don't buy a house to bake bread." Ben walked back into the hall, watching the floor for any signs of life. "Christ, there's a hole in the ceiling back here. It's fucking four feet wide."

"That's first on my list," Ed commented as he came to join him. They stood for a moment in silence, looking up at the hole.

"You're not talking about a list. You're talking about a lifetime commitment." As they watched, a spider the size of a man's thumb dropped down and landed at their feet with a noticeable plop. More than a little disgusted, Ben kicked it aside. "You can't be serious about this place."

"Sure I am. A man gets to a point he wants to settle down."

"You didn't take me seriously about getting married too?"

"A place of his own," Ed continued placidly. "A workroom, maybe a little garden. There's a good spot for herbs in the back. A place like this would give me a goal. I figure on fixing up one room at a time."

"It'll take you fifty years."

"I got nothing better to do. Want to see upstairs?"

Ben took another look at the hole. "No, I want to live. How much?" he asked flatly.

"Seventy-five."

"Seventy-five? Seventy-five thousand? Dollars?"

"Real estates at a premium in Georgetown."

"Georgetown? Christ on a raft, this isn't Georgetown." Something bigger than the spider skuddled in the corner. He reached for his weapon. "The first rat I see is going to eat this."

"Just a field mouse." Ed put a soothing hand on Ben's shoulder. "Rats stick to the basement or the attic."

"What, do they have a lease?" But he left his weapon secured. "Listen, Ed, the realtors and developers push back the borders so they can call this Georgetown and take idiots like you for seventy-five-thousand dollars."

"I only offered seventy."

"Oh, that's different. You only offered seventy." He started to pace but ran into a magnificent cobweb. Swearing, he fought himself free. "Ed, it's those sunflower seeds. You need red meat."

"You feel responsible." Ed smiled, terrifically pleased before he strolled into the kitchen.

"No, I don't." Ben jammed his hands into his pockets. "Yes, dammit, I do."

"That's the yard. My yard." Ed pointed out when Ben trailed after him. "I figure I can grow basil, some rosemary, maybe some lavender in that little spot right outside the window."

Ben saw a patch of knee-high grass nearly wide enough for two swipes of a lawn mower. "You've been working too hard. This case is making us all loony. Ed, listen carefully to these words, see if they ring a bell. Dry rot. Termites. Vermin."

"I'm going to be thirty-six."

"So?"

"I've never owned a house."

"Hell, everybody's going to be thirty-six once, but not everybody has to own a house."

"Shit, I never even lived in one. We always had apartments."

The kitchen smelled of decades of grease, but this time Ben said nothing.

"There's an attic. The kind you see in shows where there're trunks and old furniture and funny hats. I like that. I'm going to do the kitchen first."

Ben stared out at the pitiful clump of grass. "Steam," he said. "That's the best way to strip this old wallpaper."

"Steam?"

"Yeah." Ben pulled out a cigarette and grinned. "You're going to need plenty of it. I dated this woman who worked at a paint store. Marli… yeah, I think her name was Marli. She'd probably still give me a discount."

"Date anyone who works at a lumberyard?"

"I'll check. Come on, I have to make a call."

They stopped at a phone booth a few miles away. Ben found a quarter and dialed Tess's office number while Ed went into the 7-Eleven.

"Dr. Court's office."

"Detective Paris."

"Yes, Detective, just a moment."

There was a click, then silence, then another click. "Ben?"

"How are you, Doc?"

"I'm fine." As she spoke she was clearing her desk. "Just on my way out to the clinic."

"What time do you finish there?"

"Usually five-thirty, maybe six."

He glanced at his watch and shifted the rest of his schedule. "Fine. I'll pick you up."

"But you don't need-"

"Yes, I do. Who's on you today?"

"I beg your pardon?"

"Who's watching you at the office?" Ben explained, and tried to find a corner in the phone booth where the wind wouldn't reach.

"Oh, Sergeant Billings."

"Good." He cupped his hands around a match as he lit a cigarette, and wished like hell he'd remembered his gloves. "Have Billings drive you to the clinic."

There was silence. In it he heard her temper, and was tempted to smile at it. "I don't see any reason why I can't drive myself to the clinic as I've done every week for the last several years."

"I'm not asking you to see a reason, Tess. I've got plenty of them. See you at six."

He hung up, knowing she'd hold the phone, and her temper, until she could replace it quietly. She wouldn't want to do something as childish, and typical, as slamming it down.

He was right, tess counted backward from five, slowly, then quietly replaced the receiver. She'd hardly set it down when Kate buzzed her again.

"Yes?" It took effort not to bite the word off.

"You have another call on line two. He won't give his name."

"All right, I-" The nerves in her stomach tangled, and she knew. "I'll take it, Kate."

She stared at the slowly blinking button. Her finger was steady when she pushed it. "This is Dr. Court."

"I saw you in church. You came."

"Yes." The instructions she'd been given raced through her head. Try to keep him on the line. Keep him calm and on the line. "I was hoping to see you there so we could talk again. How are you feeling?"

"You were there. Now you understand."

"What do I understand?"

"You understand the greatness." His voice was calm. A decision reached, faith confirmed. "The sacrifices we're asked to make are so small compared to the rewards of obedience. I'm glad you were there, so that you understand. I had doubts."

"What kind of doubts?"

"About the mission." His voice dropped, as if even whispering of doubt was a sin. "But not anymore."

Tess took a chance. "Where is Laura?"

"Laura." She could hear the tears. "Laura waits in purgatory, suffering, until I atone for her sins. She's my responsibility. She has no one but me and the Blessed Mother to intercede for her."

So Laura was dead. Now she could be sure of it. "You must have loved her very much."

"She was the best part of me. We were joined before birth. Now I must make restitution for her before we can be joined after death. You understand now. You came. Your soul will join the others. I will absolve you in the name of the Lord."

"You can't kill again. Laura wouldn't want you to kill again."

There was silence… three, four, five seconds. "I thought you understood."

Tess recognized the tone, the accusation, the betrayal. She was going to lose him. "I think I do. If I don't, I need you to explain things to me. I want to understand, I want you to help me understand. That's why I want to come talk to you."

"No, it's lies. You're full of sin and lies." She heard him begin to mumble the Lord's Prayer before the connection was broken.

When ben walked back into the squad room, Lowenstein was standing by her desk. She signaled to him, cradling the phone against her ear so her hands would be free.

"She can't keep away from me," Ben told Ed. He started to slip an arm around her, not aiming for her waist, but for the bag of chocolate-covered raisins on her desk.

"He called Court again," Lowenstein told him. His hand froze.

"When?"

"Call came through at 11:21."

"The trace?"

"Yeah." She lifted a pad from her desk and handed it to him. "They pinned it to that area. Had to be within those four blocks. Goldman said she did real good."

"Christ, we were just there." He tossed the pad back on her desk. "We might have driven right past him."

"The captain's sent out Bigsby, Mullendore, and some uniforms to comb the area and look for witnesses."

"We'll give them a hand."

"Ben. Ben, wait." He stopped, turning back with impatience. Lowenstein pressed the mouthpiece of the phone against her shoulder. "They're sending up a transcript of the call for the captain. I think you'll want to see it."

"Fine, I'll read it when I get back."

"I think you'll want to see it now, Ben."

A few hours' work at the Donnerly Clinic was enough to take Tess's mind off her own nerves. The patients there ranged from manic-depressive businessmen to street junkies who were withdrawing. Once a week, twice if her schedule permitted, she came to the clinic to work with the staff doctors. Some of the patients she would only see once or twice, others she would see week after week, month after month.

She gave her time there, when she could, because it wasn't an elite hospital where the rich came when their problems or addictions became too much to cope with. Neither was it a street-side clinic run by idealists on a shoestring. It was a struggling and capable institution which took in the emotionally and mentally ill from all walks of life.

There was a woman on the second floor with Alzheimer's disease who sewed dolls for her grandchildren, then played with them herself when she forgot she had grandchildren. There was a man who thought he was John Kennedy and spent most of his day harmlessly writing speeches. The more violent patients were kept on the third floor, where security was tighter. Thick glass doors were locked and windows were barred.

Tess spent most of the afternoon there. By five she was nearly wrung dry. For the better part of an hour she'd been in session with a paranoid schizophrenic who had hurled obscenities then his lunch tray at her, before he'd ultimately been restrained by two orderlies. Tess had given him an injection of Thorazine herself, but not without regret. He'd be on medication for the rest of his life.

When he was quiet again, Tess left him to catch a few moments of quiet in the staff lounge. She still had one more patient to see: Lydia Woods, a thirty-seven-year-old woman who had run a household with three children, held down a full-time job as a stock broker, and worked as president of the PTA. She had cooked gourmet meals, attended every school function, and had been named Businesswoman of the Year. The new woman, who could have and handle it all.

Two months before, she had fallen violently apart at a school play. There had been convulsions, and a seizure many of the horrified parents had taken for epilepsy. When she'd been taken to the hospital it was discovered she'd been in a withdrawal as serious as one from heroin addiction.

Lydia Woods had held together her perfect world with Valium and alcohol until her husband had threatened divorce. To prove her strength, she'd gone cold turkey and had ignored her physical reactions in a desperate attempt to keep her life as she had structured it.

Now, though the physical illness was well under control, she was being forced to deal with the causes, and the results.

Tess took the elevator down to the first floor, where she requested Lydia's file. After studying it, Tess tucked it under her arm. Her room was at the end of the hall. Lydia had left the door open, but Tess knocked before going in.

The curtains were drawn, the room dim. There were flowers beside the bed, pink carnations. Their scent was light and sweet and hopeful. Lydia herself was on the bed, curled up to face the blank wall. She didn't acknowledge Tess's presence.

"Hello, Lydia." Tess set the file on a small table and glanced around the room. The clothes Lydia had worn the day before were heaped in a corner. "It's dark in here," she said, and moved to the curtain.

"I like it dark."

Tess glanced at the figure on the bed. It was time to push. "I don't," she said simply, then drew the curtain open. When light spilled in, Lydia rolled over and glared. She hadn't bothered with her hair and makeup. There was a drawn, bitter look around her mouth.

"It's my room."

"Yes, it is. From what I hear you've been spending too much time alone in it."

"And what the hell are you supposed to do around this place? Weave baskets with the fruits and nuts?"

"You might try going for a walk on the grounds." Tess sat, but didn't touch the file.

"I don't belong here. I don't want to be here."

"You're free to go any time." Tess watched her sit up and light a cigarette. "This isn't a prison, Lydia."

"Easy for you to say."

"You signed yourself in. When you feel you're ready, you can sign yourself out."

Lydia said nothing, smoking in brooding silence.

"I see your husband was in to see you yesterday."

Lydia glanced at the flowers, then away. "So?"

"How did you feel about seeing him?"

"Oh, I loved it," she snapped. "I loved having him come in here to see me looking like this." She grabbed a handful of her unwashed hair. "I told him he should bring the kids so they can see what a pitiful hag their mother is."

"Did you know he was coming?"

"I knew."

"You have a shower in there. Shampoo, makeup."

"Aren't you the one who said I was hiding behind things?"

"Using prescription drugs and alcohol as a crutch isn't the same as making the effort to look nice for your husband. You wanted him to see you this way, Lydia. Why, so he'd go away feeling sorry for you? Guilty?"

The arrow hit home and started the blaze, as she'd hoped. "Just shut up. It's none of your business."

"Did your husband bring you those flowers? They're lovely."

Lydia looked at them again. They made her want to cry, lose the edge of bitterness and failure that was her defense now. Picking up the vase, she hurled it and the flowers against the wall.

From out in the hall where he'd been told to wait, Ben heard the crash. He was out of his chair and heading toward the open door when a nurse stopped him.

"I'm sorry, sir, you really can't go in. Dr. Court's with a patient." Blocking his way, she went to the door herself.

"Oh, Mrs. Rydel." Ben heard Tess's voice, cool and unruffled. "Would you bring a dustpan and a mop so Mrs. Woods can clean this up?"

"I won't!" Lydia shouted at her. "It's my room and I won't clean it up."

"Then I'd be careful where I walked, so I didn't cut my feet on the glass."

"I hate you." When Tess didn't even wince, Lydia shouted it more loudly. "I hate you! Did you hear me?"

"Yes, I hear you very well. But I wonder if you're shouting at me, Lydia, or yourself."

"Who the hell do you think you are?" Her hand worked up and down like a jack hammer to crush out her cigarette. "You come in here week after week with your smug self-righteous looks and your pretty, upscale suits and wait for me to strip my soul. Well, I won't. Do you think I want to talk to some ice maiden who has her life all worked out? Miss Perfect Society who treats basket cases as a hobby then goes to her just-so home and forgets about them."

"I don't forget about them, Lydia."

Tess's voice was quiet, a direct contrast, but in the hall, Ben heard it.

"You make me sick." Lydia heaved herself off the bed for the first time that day. "I can't stand the sight of you with your Italian shoes and little gold pins and that 'I never sweat' perfection."

"I'm not perfect, Lydia, none of us is. None of us has to be to earn love and respect."

The tears started, but Tess didn't rise to offer comfort. It wasn't time. "What do you know about mistakes? What the hell do you know about how I lived? Dammit, I made things work, I did."

"Yes, you did. But nothing works forever if you refuse to allow for flaws."

"I was as good as you. I was better. I had clothes like yours, and a home. I hate you for coming in here and reminding me. Get out. Just get out and leave me alone."

"All right." Tess rose, taking the file with her. "I'll be back next week. Sooner, if you ask for me." She walked to the door and turned. "You still have a home, Lydia." The nurse stood in the doorway, holding the dustpan and mop. Tess took them and set them against the inside wall. "I'll have them send down a fresh vase for those flowers."

Tess walked out the door and shut her eyes a moment. That kind of violent dislike, even when it came from illness and not from the heart, was never easy to take.

"Doc?"

Tess shook herself back and opened her eyes. Ben was there, a few steps away. "You're early."

"Yeah." He came to her and wrapped a hand around her arm. "What the hell are you doing in a place like this?"

"My job. You'll have to wait a minute. I have to enter some things in this file." She walked down to the nurses' station, checked her watch, and began to write.

Ben watched her. Right now she seemed totally unaffected by the nasty little scene he'd overheard. Her face was calm as she wrote in what he was sure was a very professional hand. But he'd seen that one quick unguarded moment when she'd stepped into the hall. Not unaffected, but impossibly controlled. He didn't like it, just as he didn't like this place with its clean white walls and blank, miserable faces.

She handed the file back to the nurse, in an undertone said a few things he assumed referred to the woman who'd just berated her, then glanced at her watch again.

"I'm sorry you had to wait," Tess said when she came back. "I have to get my coat. Why don't you meet me outside?"

When she came out, he was standing at the edge of the grass, smoking steadily. "You never gave me a chance on the phone to tell you I didn't want you to bother with all this. I've been getting myself to and from the clinic for a long time."

He dropped the cigarette and carefully crushed it. "Why did you take all that crap from her?"

Tess drew a long breath before she linked her arm with his. "Where are you parked?"

"That's psychiatrist shit, answering questions with questions."

"Yes. Yes, it is. Look, if she didn't attack me, I wouldn't be doing my job. It's the first time we've really gotten anywhere since I've started seeing her. Now, where are you parked? It's cold."

"Over here." More than happy to leave the clinic behind, he began to walk with her. "He called you again."

"Yes, right after you did." She wanted badly to treat that with the same professional ease she had the patients in the clinic. "Were they able to trace it?"

"Narrowed it down to a couple blocks. No one saw anything. We're still working on it."

"His Laura is dead."

"I figured that much out." He put his hand on the car door, then released it again. "The same way I figured out you're his next target."

She didn't grow pale or shudder. He hadn't expected her to. She simply nodded, accepting, then put her hand on his arm. "Would you do me a favor?"

"I can give it a shot."

"Let's not talk about it tonight. At all."

"Tess-"

"Please. I have to go to the station with you tomorrow and meet with Captain Harris. Isn't that soon enough to hash all this over?"

He put cold, ungloved hands on her face. "I'm not going to let anything happen to you. I don't care what I have to do."

She smiled, lifting her hands to his wrist. "Then I don't have anything to worry about, do I?"

"I care about you," he said carefully. It was as close to a declaration as he'd ever come with a woman. "I want you to know that."

"Then take me home, Ben." She turned her lips into his palm. "And show me."