EXPOSURE

The Second Season

Parental Advisory Rating: L, AC

Break out those V-Chips, everyone!

 

Credits:

Created, Produced, Directed and Written:

Fanatic and TNovan

 

Episode Seven: Special Delivery

Okay, maybe I missed the damn place. I mean, it's not all that big. Only four thousand people. And a couple sheep. Or whatever it is they raise around here. I'm driving down a two-lane highway, a designation which seems rather generous, and trying to find Jamestown. If I don't find some sort of civilization soon, I'm gonna turn around.

Then I see the golden arches up ahead. Ah, McDonald's. A sign of semi-intelligent life, at least. Coming over the slight rise in the highway, I see the restaurant and a scattering of buildings radiating out from it. Must be the place.

I turn down the volume on my new Glen Moore CD, Nude Bass Ascending. Radio signals don't seem capable of getting this far out into the countryside. Mars, yes. Jamestown, no.

Hmm, it's just about lunch time and a Big Mac, fries and chocolate shake would really hit the spot. I love MickeyD's shakes. As a kid, T-Jean once told me that their shakes were made out of plastic. For the longest time I couldn't have one without imagining I was swallowing a bunch of tiny plastic pellets, like packing material. Didn't keep me from having them. Just made my imagination go off the deep end.

I pull into the lot and park my rental Explorer. Nowhere near as good a ride as my precious new Land Rover but not bad, overall. The restaurant is located in a small strip mall that holds a grocery store, a video rental store, a hardware store, an H&R Block and a couple empty store fronts. There are two competing car dealerships across the street, with an auto parts store next to the larger lot.

Another small town just like every other small town in the U.S.

I lock up the Explorer and head inside for food. My Little Roo would have a fit if she knew how I ate when I'm on the road alone.

Alone.

God, I hate being alone. I hate being here without her. Especially right now. How can four days seem like an eternity? I know how: four days of sitting in a law library reading up on the case, talking with Professor Henley and her group of advocates, getting stonewalled trying to reach people connected with the case on the phone.

I review the past four days of frustration in my mind one more time. This case has more holes in it than a sieve. For starters, the defense attorney refused to talk to me. The entire staff of the police department, all seven of them, uniformly responded with a resounding, "No comment." The prosecuting attorney refused to talk. Hell, I canít even get the coronerís office to talk to me. Thereís something very wrong with their report. Something was dicey in the material used in the DNA testing process. I havenít been able to figure out exactly what was wrong with it, but the records arenít very clear. And nobody in the coronerís office is talking. I have several calls into the DNA testing facility, but that seems a long shot right now.

Even more strange are the convoluted relationships Iíve discovered around here. There is some link between the Mayor, the Police Chief and someone way up in the state prosecutorís office. I suspect that there are family relations all over the place but I havenít been able to track it all down yet. I may spend some time in the registry looking up birth certificates trying to figure out whoís related to whom.

Finally, there is the issue of the other rapes. Johnstone doesnít seem like a rapist; he doesnít fit the typical profile at all. And he has several iron-clad alibis for some of the rapes, including one night when he was in jail for drunk and disorderly when the rape occurred. So the presumed link there is clearly not solid. The more I look at this, the more it stinks.

So here I am. Hoping that a face-to-face encounter will get people to talk to me. Because there's a story here. I can smell it.

I get in line behind what must be the entire local high school class. Wonder if this is their cafeteria.

Little Roo, I miss you. Hell, Harper, call her, stop pining. I tug my cell phone off my belt and flip it open. No service. Crap. I should have known. This far out in the sticks I'll be lucky if they have real phone service and not party lines.

I finally order and get my food, surprised any is left after the herd has come through. I carry my tray over to a booth where I can keep an eye on my rental. Too many high schoolers running around out in the lot for my comfort.

I notice a police cruiser pull into the car lot across the street. Nice to know they're on top of things around here. Yeah, right. Like they were on top of it when that girl got killed. Like they were when they investigated her murder.

Maybe they were too busy watching teenagers hang out, eating junk food.

I finish my food, wishing Kels were here to go with me to a decent restaurant. I'm gonna be paying for eating this crap all night. Doesn't keep me from taking my shake with me though.

I pull out onto the main road, heading further into the small town. My plan for the day is to have a look around and get to know the lay of the land Ö er, so to speak.

Speaking of lays, I need to either get my ass home or get my Little Roo out here soon. I didn't think I'd ever enjoy sex with the same woman night after night. Day after day. Afternoon after afternoon. Morning after morning.

Ugh Ö

Snap out of it, Harper, or you'll have to take matters into your own hands. And what fun is there in that?

I love the feel of her skin against mine, the taste of her, the smell of her hair, the sound of her voice and the sight of her perfect body. It is perfect, in every way. It fits against mine exactly right. And she has a delightful little birth mark immediately below her bottom left rib.

She has the softest skin, silky smooth. My hand glides over it so easily. And it feels so good against mine Ö

Jesus, Harper. Stop trying to kill yourself.

I'm so distracted it takes me a minute before I realize there are red and blue lights flashing behind me. I glance down at the speedometer. Oh shit. Forty-five in a thirty-five. Shit.

I pull into a gas station lot. I wait, leaving my hands right on top of the steering wheel. I wouldn't want to give a gung-ho redneck cop a reason to shoot me.

Finally, he gets out of his car. Yup, pretty much what I expected from this place. He's in his mid-fifties, graying and a good forty pounds overweight. Definitely a good ol' boy. Fuck. 'Cause I'm not a good ol' girl.

I lower the window as he peers in the truck from back to front. "Afternoon, officer."

"License and registration."

I reach above the visor for the rental papers and then into my jacket for my wallet.

His free hand comes to rest on his gun.

Son of a bitch. These boys play mean out here.

I hand the items out the window. As I do, I notice another cruiser pull into an empty parking lot next to the station. All this over a simple speeding ticket? Damn.

He grunts something and goes back to his car. I watch him pick up his mike. The other car pulls out of the lot and comes behind the first one. Fuck me.

I will never fantasize about making love with Kelsey while driving again.

Well, at least in Ohio.

Okay, in Jamestown.

He gets out of his cruiser again and comes back to my window. "Your license says you're from California but, funny enough, you claim to live in New York on your rental car papers. Now, which is it?"

"I recently moved. I haven't had time to switch my license over yet."

He shifts his weight and resettles his equipment belt, the squeak of leather not reassuring at this moment. "Would you get out of the vehicle, please?"

"Is there a problem?" I ask, unhappy with this turn of events.

He opens the door of the truck. "Please, step out, Ms. Kingsley."

Okay. I can see the other cop approaching me from the passenger side. Let's not get all upset here, fellas. I have too much to live for to get shot over a simple speeding citation. I unfasten my seatbelt and slide out of the truck.

The cop draws himself up to his full height, which is still shorter than mine. That's what in-breeding does for ya.

The other officer brings over a sheet of paper. The heavyset one takes out a pen. "Ms. Kingsley, we get a lot of drug traffic through here. Is there anything in the truck I should be aware of?

Drugs. You must be kidding me. Do I look like a drug runner? "No."

He shoves the paper toward me. "Then you won't mind if we have a look?"

Ah, I get it. It's a consent to search form. I take it without a word and sign it on the top of the truck. "Of course not, officer." I hand it back to him.

"Thanks." He hands the form to the other cop. "Will you step back to my car, please?"

I don't like this. I wanted to watch and make sure nothing suddenly appeared in my ride that I didn't put there. I follow him nonetheless. He has the gun, after all. "Place your hands on the car. For my safety, I'm going to place you in the back of my car. Before I do that, I need to pat you down. Do you have anything in your pockets I should be aware of? Weapons, needles?"

"No." Jesus H. Christ. For ten miles over the speed limit, I'm being pulled out of my car, frisked, and placed in the back of a cruiser while they search my vehicle. The sad part of it is. It's all legal. They can justify this shit. So there's not a damn thing anyone can do about it.

God, I'm glad Kels isn't here to see me all cooped up in the back of this cruiser. I'd never hear the end of it.

 

* * *

 

I'm impatient. I admit it. If that damn clinic doesn't call soon, I'm going to explode. I can't think. I can't work. I can't sleep at night without Harper, unless I'm on the sofa with the TV on all night. Then it's only for an hour or so at a time. Good thing I'm not actually going on the air until the thirtieth. I look like hell.

God, I miss her.

Even though this story has caused us several anxious moments, I know it's not Harper's fault. I really can't be mad at her for going to protect our careers while I fell apart.

I fell apart. Some professional I turned out to be.

My phone rings. I snatch it from the cradle. "Yes?" I feel like a teenager waiting for a call after the first date.

Brian chuckles. "Hold your horses, it's not Stud on the line." Oh, Brian, if you only knew who I was hoping it was. "It's a Dr. Lillian Solomon. Would you like to speak to her?"

It's all I can do to keep from screaming 'yes' in his ear. I manage to say it professionally and calmly. I hear him transfer the call and suddenly I am mute.

"Kelsey? Are you there, dear?" Dr. Solomon asks, her voice gentle.

I nod.

Good going, stupid. She can't hear your brains rattling. "Um Ö yes."

She laughs a little. "I have your test results."

"Uh huh." Another intelligent comment, Kels. Can't wait to see how you do on your first interview here. Geez.

"Congratulations, Kelsey. You're pregnant."

Pregnant? Me? A mother-to-be? "Really?" I whisper. Please don't let this be a joke or a mistake. I couldn't stand that. I can't have my one thing taken away.

"Yes, ma'am, so it would seem. The test is positive. Now we're going to have to do it again in two weeks, but right now it definitely registers positive."

Nope, not a joke. Not a mistake. "That's great! God, it's wonderful."

"I thought you'd be pleased. Listen, one word of advice. I know you're going to want to share this with Harper, but I'm going to caution you against making a general announcement right now. A lot of things can still go wrong. A number of pregnancies end naturally without the woman being aware she's even pregnant at all. It happens for any number of reasons and there's not really anything you or I can do about it."

"I read the literature you gave us. I know the odds."

"Okay. See you in two weeks." She pauses. "And congratulations!"

"You bet and thanks." I hang up the phone. I pick it right back up and dial Harper's cell.

I hang up the phone before there's an answer.

Kels, you don't just blurt out this type of news over the phone. Geez, get a grip. You need to find the right way to tell her. I feel a real smile cross my lips, the first one in a week.

I'm pregnant. We're going to have a baby. My hand travels down to my stomach. Right underneath my hand is a little life. Amazing. I love you, little one. My mind flashes back on our time in the doctor's office and Harper saying those same words as she kissed my stomach.

Harper, I wish you were here right now.

There's a knock on my door and Brian sticks his head in. "Kelsey, is everything okay? I mean, with a doctor calling and all Ö?"

"Everything is great and I'm buying you lunch." Who cares if it's barely eleven in the morning? "Come on, let's go."

 

* * *

 

The cops were surprised to not find drugs in my rental car and only reluctantly gave me back my keys. My keys and a seventy-five dollar ticket. Wonder if I can write it off?

I drive to where Verrett was found murdered. Shitty neighborhood. Fits in well with the shitty town. Wonder if it was better or worst at the time of her death? Either way, I'm glad I dropped off my stuff at the hotel before coming out here.

The house next door looks occupied and I get out of my Explorer and cross the street. I pause at the mailbox and note the inscription: The Conners. Same family as when Verrett was killed. I straighten my shoulders and head to the door. Knocking twice, I am soon greeted by a harried looking woman. "Yes?"

"I'm Harper Kingsley. I'm a producer for CBS, with the news magazine Exposure. I'm working on a story about Beverly Verrett's death. I was wondering if I could ask you a few questions."

Her eyes grow hard. "I have nothing to say; I thought you would get the hint when I didn't return your phone calls. Bev was the sweetest person I ever knew. I don't want to see her memory murdered as well." She starts to close the door.

I put a hand on it, holding the door open. "Mrs. Conner, I have no intention of doing that. But I need the help of people like you - her friends - to make sure I present the truth as you knew it."

Mrs. Conner studies me critically. "You're writing for him. You're trying to get him off."

"Not at all. I'm trying to figure out what really happened that night. I've read the prior reports on the trial and the testimony given. Were you entirely happy with it?"

"Of course not. The justice system in this country is terrible. Damn lawyers. Kept me from testifying, even though I wanted to."

Ah, now we're getting somewhere. "Please, Mrs. Conner, can you spare a few minutes to talk to me?"

She steps aside. "Come on in, I just made a fresh pot of coffee."

The house is furnished simply, the only clutter coming from the entire stock of Toys-R-Us strewn about. I wonder if that's what our home will look like soon. I really hope so.

"How do you take your coffee?" she calls from the kitchen.

"Black is fine, thanks." Mrs. Conner returns with two mugs and hands me one. After taking a sip, I ask, "So what did you want to testify about, Mrs. Conner?"

"Please call me Emily. Bev was a sweet girl, always taking care of the people around her. She had a big heart, if you know what I mean. I was always afraid for her because of that. This isn't the best neighborhood, or the best town, for someone like that. I told her a couple times that she needed to be more careful."

"Why was that? Had someone hurt her or threatened to?"

"No, not that I knew of. But, I would see her with people - men - that I knew weren't looking out for her best interests. She just didn't know any better."

"Was she seeing someone in particular?"

Emily stares into her mug, as if it might provide the answer. "She wouldn't say. I knew she was, but she didn't want me to know about it."

"Why not?"

"I guess because she thought I wouldn't approve."

So Beverly had a boyfriend that Emily wouldn't have liked. I wonder if the cops knew about him. "Any idea who he was?"

"I can only guess it was someone from her school, but I honestly don't know. Iíd see his car, and a man going in and out every so often. He looked kinda familiar, but I could never actually place him."

"And that was what you wanted to testify about?"

Emily shifts and puts her mug down. "No. Who knows? Maybe they were right not to call me as a witness. It was late at night and I was tired, what with the kids and all."

"What did you want to testify about?"

"I thought I saw someone leaving Bev's apartment that night, a little after midnight."

"Someone?"

"A man."

"Johnstone?"

She shakes her head. "Definitely not."

 

* * *

 

"How would you feel about taking a trip out to the kennels?" I ask, trying to sound casual.

Brian is having none of it. He puts his elbows on the table and leans toward me. "Oh, Kamali got to you, didn't he?"

I blush and nod. The day after Harper left, Brian took me to see a friend of his upstate. It was a thinly veiled ploy to get my mind off of everything but I didn't mind as I found myself buried in puppies, each eager to lick away any of my troubles.

Just like Harper.

Stop it, Kels. She's not around. God, how long has it been? It feels like forever.

Brian's friend, another impossibly handsome gay man, Doug Oberson, is a dog-breeder/trainer. He raises German Shepherds as companions and guard dogs. I never realized how beautiful the breed was until a couple days ago.

By the time we left several hours later, I had fallen in love with the most beautiful eighteen month old. Kamali is absolutely wonderful and the sweetest thing on four legs. The fact that Doug's been training him as a guard dog certainly didn't lessen the attraction either. We bonded instantly. He even ran the length of the fence following the Range Rover when we left. It was almost as if he were trying to get me to turn back for him.

"You going to get him?"

"I think so. Will Doug keep him for me until we get this thing in Ohio resolved?"

"Oh, hell, Kelsey, if you want to get him today, go ahead. If you have to go to Ohio, I'll dog sit."

"You wouldn't mind?"

"I've helped train Kamali. We get along great. Although Kamali's owner hasn't yet succumbed to my charms," he pouts.

"I didn't know you had your sights set on Doug." Not a bad place to set one's sights. He's incredibly handsome and a total charmer. I can understand why Brian is smitten.

"I meant you," he deadpans and then bursts out laughing. "Not! Just kidding. Stud would kill me if I even were so inclined. Yeah, I've been trying to get Doug to see the light for awhile now."

"Well, I think he's stupid if he doesn't," I assure Brian, covering his hand with mine. "And thank you for your offer. I'd really like to get Kamali. I think I'd feel better in the apartment while Harper is out of town with him there."

"And what is Stud going to have to say when she finds out you got a dog?"

I let a smile play on the corners of my mouth. "Oh, I guarantee you, Kamali will be a most welcome addition to the household." Especially when I tell her I bought him so he and our baby could grow up together.

 

* * *

 

On our way out to the kennel we make one stop. It's a small house at the end of Main Street in Nyack. The discreet sign hanging from the mailbox states that the occupant does tarot and psychic readings. No appointment necessary. I glance over at Brian who is giving me a confused look.

"Research on my alternative religions story." I raise my brows, giving him a look I hope will convey my sincerity.

"Yeah, right. You call it that and then you can write the entire day off on your taxes. I should have become an on-air personality. You guys get to write off your clothes, dry cleaning, makeup, haircuts Ö"

"Jealous, jealous." I pull the keys from the ignition. "Come on, it'll be fun."

"Kelsey," he grasps the door handle, "we seriously need to redefine your definition of fun."

The inside of the small house is decorated with various symbols and icons, some of which I recognize from my research. I try to memorize the ones I don't so I can look them up later. Every one of them seems to hold an energy I can sense. It's very odd indeed.

An older woman smiles at me, gently taking my hand and holding it rather than shaking it. "What's your name, dear?"

"Shouldn't you tell us?" Brian says from a chair across the room as he thumbs through a magazine.

"Behave," I chastise my friend, then turn back to the woman. "Kelsey."

"Won't you come back into my room?"

I look to Brian, who holds up the magazine and shrugs. "I'll sit here quietly and peruse Witches Weekly and Mediums Monthly."

Shaking my head, I follow her room into the next room. She directs me into an extremely comfortable chair then takes her place across from me. She seems to be taking an inventory of me so intense is her gaze.

"Normally," she states, crossing her legs and smoothing the gown she is wearing, "I take a moment to get to know a client a bit, but there is so much to you. Do you mind if I just express what I see, feel and hear? There are a lot of voices surrounding you. They all want to speak."

"Sure." Everyone wants to yell at me. Why should the spirit world be any different?

"You have recently experienced great pain."

It's a statement, not a question. But I'm not impressed. She may recognize me. Anyone who was paying attention to national news in January knows my face. I simply nod.

"You've also made some major changes in your life. Very major changes. Very quickly."

Tell me something everyone in the Tri-State area doesn't know from watching television when I signed my contract with CBS. I nod again.

"The one you love is far away from you."

Hmm, could be a lucky guess. And it's a pretty general statement. Once again, I nod.

"Kelsey, you're angry and very frustrated."

Sitting here in jeans, Harper's sweatshirt, a baggy jacket and a baseball cap, I know I'm not looking my best at the moment. Lack of sleep will do that. She could just be reading my body language, making logical deductions from the way I look. But this comment has me leaning forward a bit and one word leaves my lips, "Yes."

"You have a lot on your mind and your burden is a heavy one, Kelsey. This person you love," she pauses and seems to be listening to someone, "this person is a woman?"

"Yes." Okay, that's creepy. I don't think I look stereotypical. In fact, I know I don't. Langston would deal with that.

"Ah, yes. She's is one you never expected to fall in love with. He cautioned you, told you to be careful."

"Who?" I force myself to ask. I feel like I am trapped in an X-Files episode.

"The one who left you. The one who speaks to you now."

My stomach flips, then ties itself into knots. She couldn't possibly mean Erik. Could she?

"The young man, your friend. Kelsey, he's still your friend and he watches out for you. The way, he says, you watched out for him."

Calling Mulder and Scully! They are bound to come charging through the door any second. "Go on."

"In order to bring forth the new life you carry, you must heal the pain of the past."

How could she know about my baby?

"You can save your child, Kelsey. Share your joy with the one you love and find the help you need to heal your wounds."

I'm shaking. I struggle to my feet and feel in my pocket for my wallet. "I've got to be going. What do I owe you?"

"I didn't mean to frighten you, dear," she offers, getting to her feet and steadying me with her wrinkled hand. "There are just so many people looking out for you, from the tall woman to people who have departed this realm. You should listen to their advice. The life of your child may depend on it."

Okay, I want to leave and I want to leave now. "How much do I owe you?" I ask again, opening my wallet.

"Normally I charge fifty dollars for a session, but you've barely been here for ten minutes, so whatever you feel is reasonable."

I hand her a hundred.

 

* * *

 

"You want to tell me what she said?" Brian asks as we turn up the drive to the kennels.

"Later. I'm a little freaked out, to be honest. Let me think about it for a bit."

"Okay." He accepts my reply gracefully. He perks up and points out the window. "Hey, look, there's your baby."

I look over and Kamali is tearing across the field for us. We climb out of the Range Rover and walk over to the fence to await Kamali's imminent arrival.

"I'll go get Doug. See if he has the papers ready," Brian says as he heads over to the house. We had called Doug on the drive up to let him know we were coming.

Kamali stops by the gate and sits down, his tail thumping hard against the frozen ground. I move to the gate and open it. He comes out and sits in front of me.

"Hi ya, baby." I kneel down, giving him a good scratch and a hug. "You wanna go home with me today?"

I'm rewarded with a sloppy dog kiss. It's kinda like a sloppy Harper kiss when she being playful, only it's got a little more tongue behind it and it's external.

God, I miss her.

 

* * *

 

"Harper, I'm pregnant."

To the point, but really boring.

I look over at Kamali who is laying stretched out on the floor looking at me like I'm nuts. His tail thumps the floor when I smile at him. "You think it's so easy, you tell me how to do it."

He yawns and puts his head down.

"Yeah, I thought as much."

I sit back with my juice, propping my legs up on the coffee table. "I could tell her about you first."

He doesn't raise his head, but his ears perk up.

"Nah, better tell her about the baby first."

The phone rings. I am expecting Harper's call, so I have it handy. Yeah, right, handy. I've practically had the thing Super Glued to my hand since entering the apartment. I didn't want to risk missing her call.

"Stanton-Kingsley residence."

"You have no idea how sweet that sounds."

Her voice is low in my ear. "Oh, yeah, I do." I tease a bit.

"How come you get top billing though?"

"One, I'm the person who answered the phone. Two, you're not here. And three, the talent always does."

She chuckles. "Hmm, good point."

I want to choke on my next words but I have to ask. "How goes the story?"

"It goes well enough that I want you on a flight out here tomorrow morning."

"Oh." I'm not happy about that, but I made her a promise. One I won't go back on. "Okay."

"Hey, does it help at all that I'll be here?"

I hear the disappointment in her voice. Good going, Kels. She's been gone a week and you're not helping matters. "Of course, Harper. Honey, I'm sorry. It's just -" Hell, I'm not even going to offer an excuse. "I miss you."

"I miss you, too, baby" she admits. "Every day and every night."

Speaking of babies. Oh, there's a lousy opening.

"So you willing to come to Ohio?" Harper asks.

"Only because it's where you are."

"That's fair."

"Harper?"

"Yeah."

"I um Ö I'm Ö I Ö"

"Honey, what's wrong?" Harper is instantly alert, concerned.

"I bought a dog." Kelsey Diane, you are a chicken.

"A dog? We just got rid of the damn cat."

I shake my head. "We didn't get rid of Trouble; he was cat-napped by your Mama. Big mistake asking your Mama and Papa to take him to New Orleans for you. You know your mother spoils anything and everything she can get her hands on."

"Trouble ain't spoiled, he's royalty. Kinda like that cat in the Fancy Feast commercials. You know the ones with Lauren Bacall doing the voiceovers?"

I know exactly the one she's talking about. "That's pretty close to accurate. Your Mama feeds him fresh salmon every day. Hell, Harper, Trouble wouldn't come to New York now if we begged him."

"So you bought a dog because you were missing our cat?"

"Well, he's more for when you're not home. He's a sweetheart. You're gonna love him."

"Ah," she pauses, I can hear her adjusting her position on the hotel bed, "glad to know I can be replaced by a dog. Any particular reason for getting one?"

"Company. He's also a guard dog. I feel a lot safer with him here."

"Then I'm sure I'll love him. What type of dog is he? And does he have a name? Or are we gonna call him 'dog' forever?"

"He's a German Shepherd and his name is Kamali."

Thump, thump, goes Kamali's tail when he hears his name.

"Interesting name," Harper replies. "Well, I'm looking forward to meeting him."

Especially since he's going to be keeping an eye on your son or daughter. Come on, Kels, she needs the good news, too. "I um Ö I Ö love you, Harper."

"Love you too, baby. Listen, I need to find some dinner here soon. Places close a helluva lot earlier here than they do in New York. Or even New Orleans. I went out last night and couldn't find a decent restaurant open past nine o'clock."

"So you're eating junk food?"

She sighs, caught. "I'm afraid so. In fact, the girl at Taco Bell recognized me last night. I'm hoping to avoid that dining experience tonight, so I need to get going in a moment. I hope I can find a place still open at six."

"Already a New York snob," I tease. "Don't worry, when I get there, I'll make sure you eat properly."

"You're my favorite food group."

Warmth spreads through my body at her words. "Same here."

"Okay, I'm going to get going. I'll see you tomorrow afternoon sometime. Just call me with your flight plans. I'll come pick you up at the airport."

"Absolutely. Love you." I hang up the phone. Kamali offers me another yawn. "Yeah, I know, I'm hopeless."

I look at my watch, five to six. I wonder when the next flight to Columbus is.

 

* * *

 

I gather up my work notebook and head out of the hotel. I found a guide of Columbus that recommended various restaurants around the city. One caught my eye, The Grapevine. It was listed as the best place for drinks and eats for lesbians. Considering myself a card-carrying one at this point in my life, complete with a steady girl and a possible baby on the way, I figure I owe it a go. Besides, it's on Gay Street. How can I turn it down?

The place is hopping with the dinner crowd when I arrive. I fight my way up to the hostess, a pretty girl with a pierced eyebrow. She gives me a warm smile. "Good evening. How many in your party?"

I shrug. "Me, myself and I, I'm afraid."

"Party of three, then?" she teases.

I look to the left into the dining room which is filled to capacity. "Busy night?"

"They're all like this. We have about a forty-five minute wait for a table, or I can seat you in the bar immediately." She gestures to the right, to the other room, which is also full, but there are a few spaces at the bar available.

"Bar's fine." It'll be kinda nice to not be all alone. I'm so tired of eating meals and not talking to anyone, it's unreal.

"Follow me," the hostess says as she gathers up a menu and leads me into the bar. She seats me at an empty place at the end where I can see everything going on around me. "Enjoy."

A quick perusal of the menu leads me to my choice of blackened shrimp. The bartender comes over when I lay the menu down on the counter. She leans down on her elbows and gives me an engaging smile and a view of her ample bust. "What can I get you?"

"Becks and blackened shrimp." I keep my eyes carefully raised to meet hers.

"You got it. Baked potato?"

"Extra sour cream," I reply.

"Good choice," she replies, leaning even closer. "Any appetizer? The stuffed mushrooms are especially good."

I shrug, a bit uncomfortable with her attention. "Sure, thanks."

She walks away to place the order and I blow out a breath. I open the binder and review the notes I've been making over the last week. It's all starting to come together, making me believe it's gonna be a kick ass story.

The neighbor saw a man, not Johnstone, leaving Verrett's house on the night of her murder. She also knew that Verrett was seeing someone. Someone not mentioned in any other report, anywhere, even though she says she told the cops about him.

Professor Henley has walked me through the trial transcripts, giving me a point-by-point breakdown of legal irregularities, including what appears to be suppressed evidence. Johnstone had to rely on a court appointed attorney, who, unfortunately had other priorities. Such as drinking. And sleeping during the trial.

Then there's the entire lack of physical evidence linking Johnstone to the crime. And the physical evidence that was there was so mishandled as to be worthless.

Of course, there are those who are convinced of his guilt. The police, the prosecutor, and several of his old acquaintances are all adamant that he did this. Even his now ex-wife believes him capable of the murder.

Everything keeps coming back to the police, I note.

The reason why I called Little Roo out here, besides my intense longing for her, is the Ohio Department of Corrections has finally agreed to an on-camera interview for Johnstone for the day after tomorrow.

I think I'll tell Kels on the drive out to the prison.

Oh, yeah, that'll go over well.

"Here you go, good looking," the bartender says delivering the stuffed mushrooms and the beer. She lingers, glancing down at my notebook. "What do you do for a living?"

"I'm a producer."

"Movies?" She perks up, flipping her hair.

I shake my head. "Nope. News. Nothing exciting," I lie.

"You working on a story now?"

I casually close the binder, not wanting a chatty bartender to know what I'm here for. "Always."

"You from Ohio?"

I shake my head. "Hardly. This is a whole new world to me." One I look forward to leaving as soon as possible.

"Well, if you need someone to show you around Ö" She lets the question linger in the air.

"Thanks, but I've been doing pretty well on my own."

"Hmm, it's a shame to think of you doing anything on your own. What a waste."

My God, it's getting hot in here. I pick up my beer and drain about a third of it when she turns away to fill a glass for another customer. I'm glad the bar is busy tonight. I really don't need this in my life right now.

I stab a helpless mushroom on the end of my fork and just when I get it to my lips, she returns. Oh Lord, help me. I take the food into my mouth, trying not to make eye contact with her.

Jesus. I'm getting that tingling in my stomach. The same one I used to get before I'd pick some woman up. The thrill of the chase. Oh shit. No. I don't want to go there.

"Hey, beautiful." Her voice is low and smooth as she refills my beer. "I'm outta here in about fifteen minutes. Maybe after you eat I could show you some of the night life?"

I clear my throat a little and try not to choke on the mushroom. "Actually, I'm spoken for." There, that should clear that up. Now leave me alone.

"Umm-hmm, by someone who isn't here, I take it?"

"She's at home."

"And you're here. My motto is 'what they don't know, won't hurt 'em.'" Her fingers 'accidentally' graze the back of my hand. "Come on, gorgeous, I'm sure we could have a great time together. If nothing else, just for the night."

I'm about to comment when she gets called to the other end of the bar. Thank you, sweet Jesus! My Mama always said he looked out for those who behaved themselves. I should have listened to her sooner on that one.

I manage to eat in peace and finish my beer by the time she reappears. She places my shrimp down in front of me. Then she takes a seat on the stool beside mine. She signals the new bartender to give us both a refill.

"So? What do you think? You, me," she lowers her voice, "hot, sweaty sex. You know, the kind that makes you want to bite the sheets?"

"No, I don't think so." I give her my best smug smile. "Like I said, I'm spoken for." I wish I had a wedding band I could wiggle in front of her. That's one of the advantages of being straight. Maybe the only one.

"Uh huh, sure. That's why you're sweating and shaking? Come on, get real. If someone's got you, she hasn't had you all that long. And are you sure you're all that had?"

My stomach roils. I push my plate away from me, and fish into my pocket for my wallet, tossing a bill down on the counter. "You're right," I admit reluctantly. "She's not had me all that long. But, by God, I hope she'll keep me around forever. And that means no fucking around. Not now, not ever." I slide off the stool and gather up my binder. I'm outta here.

"Okay, have it your way." She laughs easily, not flustered by this exchange at all. "But when you go back to your hotel room alone tonight, you can't deny you didn't think about it. I know your type, been in the business too long not to. You thought about it, you wanted it. Don't lie to yourself." She picks up her beer and gestures with it to the end of the bar. "And if you change your mind, I'll be over there until closing."

"I wouldn't wait around for me," I mutter.

 

* * *

 

Come on, be home.

Be home.

Be home.

"Hello," the deep voice rumbles.

Thank you, God. "Gerrard, it's Harper."

"Well, hey there, little sister! How are you? To what do I owe the pleasure of this phone call?"

I slump down in the chair in my hotel room. "I need help." I wipe my brow, still damp with sweat from my flight from the bar.

"I've been telling you that for years. What makes you finally convinced?"

I love Gerrard. He always instictively knows when I need to not freak out. "Life. I'm out in Ohio on a story. It's in this little pissant town where the cops make Louisiana graft look like amateur hour."

"My, that's no good at all. It takes a lot to do us one better in corruption."

"And, on top of it all, I got a speeding ticket the other day."

He laughs. "That reminds me of a story T-Jean told me the other day. Seems Boudreaux got a job in Golden Meadow as a traffic cop giving out tickets in the speed trap they have out there. Of course, Boudreaux wasn't literate, so his tickets were made out ahead of time. All he had to do was write the speed the violator was going and have the speeder sign the ticket. Then Boudreaux put his X on it and gave a copy to the driver."

Boudreaux jokes have long been a favorite pastime of Gerrard and Jean. They tell them to rile up Mama who was a Boudreaux before she married Papa.

"So one day Boudreaux catches his good friend Thibodaux speeding. Thibodaux isn't worried, though; he knows his buddy Boudreaux won't give him a ticket. But Boudreaux makes one out and asks Thibodaux to sign it. Thibodaux is mighty upset and says, 'Boudreaux, you and me, we been friends since we was real little. Mais, why you give me a ticket? I wasn't going so fast.' Boudreaux replies, 'Thibodaux, you know I gotta do my job. Besides, if I don't turn in my quota I don't get my cut.'"

Ah, the life of the crooked Louisiana cop.

Gerrard continues, "In a huff, Thibodaux takes the ticket book, puts his X on it, because he had the same fine education that Boudreaux did, and hands the book back to Boudreaux. Boudreaux takes the book, looks at it, and becomes angry himself. 'Maudit, Thibodaux, I know you mad at me, but you didn't have to sign my name to the ticket!'"

I laugh, in spite of my stress level.

"So, what's so wrong that you're calling your big brother?"

"I got hit on tonight."

"I take it Kelsey wasn't the person doing the hitting."

I snort. I wish. I wish to hell she was here right now. "Nope. A bartender."

"You drunk?"

"Hardly. Barely finished one beer. And didn't finish dinner." Hearing my comment, my stomach growls.

"Did you hit back?"

Another snort. "Mais non! I ran out of there like a scared jack rabbit with my tail on fire. Ran all the way back here to the hotel and am hiding in my goddamned room."

"Sounds like you did fine, Harper."

"You ever get tempted, Gerrard?"

He sighs. "Sure. It's natural. It happens. I'd have to be blind and deaf to not notice other women. There are lots of beautiful women in the world."

"I hope to hell you don't tell Kate that."

He laughs. "She's here in the room with me, Harper. It's not a secret any longer."

"There are plenty of handsome men out there too!" I hear Kate call in the background.

"See. Nothing to worry about. Look, Harper, temptation happens, but infidelity shouldn't. As long as you didn't cheat, you didn't do anything wrong."

My heart rate slows down, my breathing calms. "Should I tell Kels about it?"

"I don't believe in secrets. Kate and I talk about everything so nothing can come and bite us in the ass. Communication is key, Harper. You'll find that to be true. And Kelsey seems like an easy person to talk to."

I remember the night I told her about Rachel. "She is. Thanks, Gerrard."

"What are big brothers for if not to give free advice?"

"See, that's why I called you. Robie charges by the hour."

"That's because he's still in private practice. When he becomes a judge one day, he'll be free too."

"Give my love to Kate and the kids. I'm going to call my own blonde."

We exchange good-byes and I punch in our number.

And get no answer.

This is not my night.

 

* * *

 

It's been almost two hours.

Where the fuck is she?

It's nine o'clock in the city. Why isn't she home?

What if something is wrong?

Jesus. She bought a guard dog because she was scared.

You left her alone again.

She didn't want you to go. You knew that. And you still left. Career first. Last time it was your fucking Harley. When does Kels get to be first?

Or does she have to die to earn that ranking?

God. Don't go there. Don't think about that. She's just out. Working late at the office. Of course, that doesn't explain why she's not answering her office phone. Or her cell phone.

Where are you?

Please call me, sweetheart. I'm going out of my mind here.

 

* * *

 

There's a knock on my door. My heart nearly explodes out of my chest. Somehow I know it's about Kels. They've come to tell me she's been hurt. Or is dead.

I force myself to open the door.

A room service attendant is standing there, silver tray in hand. I didn't order anything, despite not having dinner. I stare at him blankly.

"Special delivery," he says, when I don't say anything.

"Huh?" I grunt. My brain is trying to compute. What is that ugly thing he has on the tray?

"Special delivery," he repeats. He's looking a bit worried now, like he's gone to the wrong room or something. He pushes the tray toward me.

I look down at it and study the thing. It's a stuffed animal, I realize. A bird of some kind.

A stork.

What the fuck?

Then it hits me.

A stork. Special delivery. To me.

"Kels!" I call. Pushing past him, I step out into the hallway, looking left and right. My heart is racing still, but now for a much better reason. This explains why I can't reach her on the phone.

She steps out of the snack alcove. Dressed in jeans, a loose knit sweater and carrying a garment bag, she's never looked lovelier. She is glowing. Damn, that isn't just a myth. I race the remaining distance to her and scoop her up in my arms, twirling her around.

She laughs and wraps her arms around my neck. "Hi, sweetheart. Glad to see me?"

"More than you know," I whisper, kissing her, not caring that we're in the middle of the hallway with an audience. I pull away, at last, reluctantly. "Is it true? Really?"

Kels' nose crinkles. "Really, truly. You do good work."

I feel myself puff up, like I actually had something to do with it. "You do good work, baby. Wow! Wow!" I whoop again and spin her around again.

We both look down the hallway and see the attendant staring at us slack jawed. I think we've enlarged his world a bit.

I pick up the garment bag from the floor and lead Kels by the hand to the room. I take out my wallet and give the kid a big tip, snagging the stork from the tray as we head into the room. If he stays outside our door, he'll get an even bigger education.

I got my Little Roo.

And she's gonna have a Baby Roo.

 

* * *

 

I'm lying in her arms. God, this is wonderful. She's giddy. I feel her chuckle every few minutes. "I'm guessing you're happy?"

"You couldn't tell?" She kisses my hair, my cheeks, my nose.

"Yeah, well, I got that impression sometime between when you opened the door, the message sunk in, you picked me up in your arms, brought me over here and made love to me."

She untangles from me and dives, literally, under the covers, stopping at my stomach. I feel her lips moving against my skin. I lift the blankets and peer down at her. "What are you doing?"

"I'm having a private conversation. Go away." She pulls the blanket out of my hand, covering her head.

I can't help it. I throw my head back and actually laugh for the first time in more than a week.

I think I'm gonna like being pregnant.

<fade out>

 

 

 

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