A Real Dark Night of the Soul

by Julia Verinder

19,000 words

Note: This story is set after the 'Doppelganger' episode of the second season of Without a Trace, at a time when Martin is at his lowest ebb.

- 1 -

46 hours missing

'So, he had learning difficulties of some kind?'

Jack's question used the kind of politically correct language in which the modern FBI was steeped. The reply he got from the employer of their latest missing person was less diplomatic.

'I guess that's one way of putting it. Curly must have gone to the john when they were handing out the smarts.'

'But you still took him on?'

It was textbook stuff, Martin noted. Explore every fact you discover and exploit every prejudice you uncover. He was pretty sure this man's attitudes were a good bit more enlightened than his vocabulary but Jack was right to follow up the remark.

'Why not? Christ, I'm lookin' for a guy who'll shift stuff all day every day without complainin' for minimum wage. What's smart gonna do for me?'

'He's strong guy then?'

'Oh, yeah. There've been days when he's loaded fifty-pound sacks for twelve straight hours and still looked like he had something left.'

'Strength and low IQ can be a bad mix. Ever had any trouble with him?'


'Do you like him?'

The man shrugged. 'Wouldn't wanna spend Christmas with him but, yeah, sure, he's okay. We go for a beer now and then, with the other guys, and shoot a few frames of pool.'

'Did he ever get into any trouble when you were out drinking?'

'Not that I saw. He never has more than a couple, and only then if someone else is paying. Almost like he's afraid to spend his own money. Then again, I might be scared if I was married to a woman like Shirl. You seen her?'

Jack shook his head slightly. Their interviewee made a gesture to indicate that Mrs. Parker was of ample proportions, a fact that Martin had already gleaned from her social security file.

'Did that make for any bad feeling?' Jack persisted. 'Him not paying his way?'

'And what - somebody killed him for not buyin' a fuckin' round?'

Jack did not react to that, instead waiting for an answer to the question.

'No, not really. The guys used to kid him about it now and again but it's not like he was... normal. I guess we all figured he'd had enough tough breaks.'

'Which were...?'

'Just what I've said... his brain... his wife...'

'Was that why you called his absence in? It's kinda unusual - with a married person, it's usually the spouse who makes the call.'

Martin had wondered about that too. While waiting for an answer, he saw that their latest case's boss was starting to regret playing the good citizen and wonder if their suspicions would turn on him. Martin wasn't aware that they had made a false arrest during his time in missing persons and regretted the diet of pulp fiction in various media that made the public so ready to believe the FBI regularly got it wrong. Eventually, the man shrugged.

'He's usually pretty dependable. He doesn't come in two days running so I call his house but I get no answer. I drop by when I'm passin' that way and can't see no sign of anyone home. Far as I know, they got no family to get sick all of a sudden. They aren't the kind of folk who take off without a word. So I figure maybe something happened and I call the police. What do you expect me to do?'

'But you reported Matthew Parker missing, not Matthew and Shirley Parker.'

'I spoke to Curly three days ago and he didn't say nothing about taking time off so I figure he's missing. I don't know nothing about his wife's plans. For all I know, she coulda left weeks back.'

'Any reason she would?'

'Like I say, I don't know nothing about her plans.'

They left soon afterwards, without uncovering anything else. Martin was already beginning to suspect it would be a tough case. They would be talking to the sort of people who didn't like each other much and law enforcers even less. Parker might not be the victim of any crime that had taken place and they might be lucky to find anyone who cared about his absence. In a way, it seemed even more important for the FBI to step in for citizens who had no one else to care for them but, then again, it was hard to get motivated about looking for someone who meant so little to anyone.


- 2 -

50 hours missing

Martin scanned the cluster of shacks and suppressed a shudder. Not even the brilliant spring sunshine could do anything to lift the gray misery of the view. He was ashamed to find his feelings owed less to sympathy for the occupants and more to relief that he was not one of them.

Just lately, he'd been asking himself whether missing persons was really the job for him. Half the time he felt that people brought their troubles on themselves but then the others, the ones he identified with, presented him with emotions that he couldn't control. He had never before felt anything like the fury that coursed through him when he faced Reyez over his torture of children. He felt no regret for the man's death but that didn't quell the guilt he felt at his part in it. He had been out of control and that meant there had been no guarantee that the right person would die. Such rage did not mix well with guns: he saw that on the streets all the time and the fact that he carried a badge made it no less true. Just as he thought he was getting over it, he seemed to have a relapse - right in the middle of a case that had moved him to pity. They'd been decent people, working hard and getting on with life, when a brutal rapist had torn their family apart, leaving husband and wife unable to touch each other while their twenty-year-old son blamed himself for forgetting to lock a door when he was a kid. Once again, Martin was glad that the man was dead and this time he could rest easy because he hadn't been the one to kill him.

Except that he couldn't rest easy.

Recriminations still roiled around inside his brain whenever he tried to sleep. Every night he watched the digits on the clock roll around to three, four or even five o'clock before exhaustion eventually overcame self-doubt, leaving him wearier with each dawn. It wasn't that he didn't think the job was worthwhile - but he was no longer sure that he was the right man to do it. Not wanting to have his decision made for him, he got smarter about hiding the signs of his fatigue. He took supplements to try to counter his lethargy and an array of alarm clocks, out of reach of his bed, finally ensured he was always showered and shaved before he went into the office.

Now they had a missing couple: Matthew and Shirley Parker. With names like those, they might have been anybody. Only when you discovered Matthew was never known as anything but Curly and his wife answered to Shirl did you start to get a flavor of their lowly station in life. Martin didn't have a problem with that in itself. He'd been brought up on the American dream, the childlike hope that anybody could become anything, but sometimes the dream only made it harder not to judge those who were unwilling - or unable - to make something of themselves. Parker's boss had made it clear that the man they needed to find was not the sharpest tool in the box: likable and mostly reliable but by no means smart - a man who was unlikely ever to amount to much.

Martin had been tasked with background checks of Parker's neighborhood. His knowledge and experience of computers and administrative records meant that he often did less routine legwork than the rest of the team. It was the simplicity of the Parkers' finances that put him out on the street that day and a rare sick-day for Viv that left him on his own while Samantha and Danny looked into Shirley Parker's life. They had so much work on right now that he doubted Parker would get more than a couple of days of their time unless they turned up some firm evidence of foul play.

He decided to start with the house facing the Parker residence. Windows front and back, with none at the sides, told him that they were more likely to have seen the comings and goings at 1532 than the neighbors on either side of the property. The house was tidier than most, the front yard swept and edged with potted plants. The windows were clean and the front door looked as if it had been washed recently too. He took a deep breath and rang the doorbell. When the door opened half a minute later, gray eyes filled with a fatigue that matched his own peered over the chain.


The woman was ready to turn him away, expecting him to try to sell her something. That told him that she was probably honest. People who had regular contact with the police usually recognized law enforcement staff of any type in seconds.

'Special Agent Fitzgerald.' He held up his badge. 'FBI.'

She looked surprised before disappearing behind the door and releasing the chain. He went inside.

'FBI?' she repeated uncertainly.

He nodded. 'We're looking into the disappearance of Matthew Parker.'

She frowned, clearly not placing the name.

'The man who lives across the road... at 1532.'


He couldn't read much from the word. She didn't sound surprised but then the police had been all over the house in the previous few hours. The neighbors surely must know that something was going on.

'Did you know Mr. Parker?'

'Curly? No, well, I knew who he was.'

The expression set Martin thinking. The woman meant that she knew which man went by the name of Matthew Parker. Knowing who someone was went far deeper than that: Martin was still trying to figure out who he was - in that more profound sense - and certainly wouldn't claim to know who anyone else was.

'You didn't have much contact then?'

'No.' The woman looked uneasy. 'It's bad enough having to live here, without talking to these people as well.'

'These people?' he prompted neutrally.

She paused to glare at him. 'Don't come the bleeding heart with me. Your sort are all the same but I can't see you being in a hurry to move out here.'

He didn't rise to that, given that it was true and he had the kind of family background that ensured he would never have to, unless his pride forced him to refuse help. 'What kind of people are they?'


'Bad neighbors?'

She opened her mouth but then paused to consider the question.

'I guess not,' she grudgingly admitted after a few seconds. 'Better than the last lot.'

Martin looked up with renewed interest. 'The last lot?'

'Yeah. They moved out maybe five years ago. He was one of those conspiracy types.' A shadow of a smile passed fleetingly over her face. 'Now, if he'd gone missing, I'd figure you guys were trying to shut him up. He was always on about his stupid theories and he had a whole bunch of guns to protect himself when the balloon went up. You know what else?'

Martin raised an eyebrow invitingly.

'He spent a summer digging a fallout shelter under the workshop out back. He was convinced somewhere like North Korea would build a bomb and turn it on us.'

'Seems like you talked to him.'

She shook her head. 'Couldn't help but hear though. He was a loudmouth.'

'What about Mr. Parker? What have you picked up about him?'

'Not much. He's creepy. Never says much at all, just stares over at us. Real creepy.'

'Has he ever done anything to give you cause for concern?'

'Not apart from staring, no.'

'What about Mrs. Parker?'

'Shouts at him a lot. Real nasty language. Don't know why he stands for it.'

'Anything else that might help us?'

She shook her head. 'Can't believe you're wasting tax dollars on looking for him. It's not like he was much use to anybody.'

'Thank you, ma'am.'

He spoke curtly, letting himself out as he did so. Sometimes he still felt the pounding fists of the woman whose son they'd found with his ear cut off, shrieking in Spanish that they didn't care about the children of poor immigrant families. Now he was being told by one poor person that it was a waste of money to look for one of her neighbors. Can't please all of the people, all of the time, he thought as he moved on to the houses on either side of the Parker home.

An hour later, he was wondering - not for the first time - about modern communities. No one seemed to know anything and few showed any sign of caring either. He got back into his car and slammed the door petulantly. Maybe it was a waste to look for a man that no one cared about. Maybe there was a reason that no one cared.

He accelerated sharply away, feeling even more conflicted than he had at the start of the day. As if sensing his precarious mood, a warning light on the dashboard flickered into life. Determined not to run out of gas on top of everything else, he trawled his recent memories and recalled seeing a gas station when he pulled into the sprawling slum that the Parkers called home. He headed decisively for it, glad to have something to occupy him.

The girl who filled up his department sedan was friendlier than anyone else he'd met that day. She was all curves, he reflected idly, from her wavy, coarsely highlighted, chestnut hair to her wide brown eyes to her... yeah, he thought, all curves. Maybe she was trying to hit on him but, if she was, the attempt was more subtle than her heavy makeup and plunging neckline. As far as he could tell, she was simply being nice and part of him was eager to believe that interpretation. Listening to her chat over the noise of the pump, it occurred to him that the gas station might have been Parker's regular fill-up spot. He pulled a photo from his jacket pocket.

'I don't suppose you know this guy, do you?'

She wiped her hand on the seat of her skimpy shorts before taking the picture, a casual gesture that stirred Martin's interest in a way that her make-up and attire had failed to do. He knew she recognized the man and felt his estimation of her rise a notch when she became suspicious.

'Who's asking?'

He smiled and showed his badge. 'Martin Fitzgerald. FBI.'

'Is he in trouble?' She still seemed reluctant to assist.

'We don't know. He's missing.'

'So you're trying to help him?'

He nodded.

'His name's Curly Parker. He comes in here once or twice a week.'

'I guess that's all his gas, given he works locally.'

'Probably,' she agreed. 'He likes to do things the same way all the time.'

Martin frowned. 'How do you mean?'

'Well, you know he's...'


'Not very clever,' she finished tactfully. 'I'm not sure exactly what's wrong with him but he's a bit slow. He doesn't like things to be different.'

'For instance?'

'Oh, I don't know...' she looked around as she holstered the pump. Her gaze settled on the kiosk behind her. 'Like when they changed the store front last year. It was yellow but they changed it to red. Curly likes yellow but red upsets him. He wasn't going to come here any more but I managed to convince him it was okay. He still won't go inside though. Not even when it's raining.'

Martin considered the gaudy red sign, so out of place among the peeling paint and aging vehicles. The girl seemed to know more about Parker than most people did.

'Were you ever worried by him?'

Some of the suspicion returned to her voice. 'Just because he's a bit slow? I'd expect that crap from a trucker but...' She didn't spell out the rest, which was clearly that FBI agents should know better than to make assumptions on the strength of a man's intellectual limitations.

He shrugged. 'Was there anything else?'

'You've been talking to some of the people around here, haven't you?'

'That's what we do,' he admitted.

'No, I wasn't worried by him. He's a sweet guy.'

'Another woman told me he's creepy, that he stares.'

The girl snorted. 'Lots of men stare.'

She was looking right at him when she spoke and it took a deliberate effort to keep his eyes on her face when her posture was defying him to ignore her cleavage. He gave himself a metaphorical pat on the back when he succeeded and kept his reply in the same friendly tone that had served well so far.

'Including Curly?'

She grinned at him, as if admitting she'd failed to throw him off track, then became more serious.

'I majored in psych before I got myself thrown out of college. I'm not as dumb as you probably think I am. Yes, he stares at women but he doesn't mean any harm by it. He doesn't have good social skills and so, if he's thinking about sex, he doesn't hide it very well. That doesn't make him any more likely than any other man to act on what he's thinking.'

Martin's training told him that she could be right but equally that she could be wrong. It depended on the combination of disorders or disabilities that Parker had, and on the rest of his personality profile. She was probably more right than wrong: low IQ did not in itself make him a particular threat. Handing her a credit card for the gas, he explored her judgment further.

'You said he's a sweet guy. What made you think so?'

She considered the question as she went into the scarlet-liveried kiosk to process the payment and he followed her in.

'Just little things, I guess. He was polite, for a start, which isn't as common as it could be, and kinda helpful. Sometimes he would carry stuff for me if he was here when a delivery came. And once he had this squirrel on a blanket on his passenger seat. Poor critter had been hit by a car and there was no way it was gonna walk again but he'd picked it up and said he was going to take it to the vet. Must have been hard for him with all the blood, knowing how he feels about red.'

'Taking it to the vet would be expensive, wouldn't it?'

She shook her head. 'The local one treats wildlife casualties for nothing. I doubt Curly would have dared take it otherwise. I think his wife has a pretty tight grip on the purse-strings.'

'You know her?'

'No. I saw her once when she was with Curly. She wasn't very nice to him.'

Martin doubted that many wives would be nice to their husbands while within sight of the girl's firm and ample breasts but the remark tied in with what the neighbor over the road had told him. He noticed that she made no reference - spoken or unspoken - to Shirley Parker's considerable bulk, confirming his impression that she did not judge people on such trivia.

'I can't really imagine why a woman would marry a man like Curly,' the girl admitted, 'If she was all there herself, but I think it's pretty mean to do it and then make his life hell as if he can help being how he is. Have you spoken to her?'

Martin knew that he wasn't obligated to answer the question but for some reason he did anyway.

'No. Matter of fact, she's missing too.'

The girl look startled for a moment but then smiled, as if she felt he'd been playing a game with her.

In fact, he hadn't. Their case was Matthew Parker, because he was the man whose absence had been reported. Until they knew otherwise, he was on record as the missing person and his wife was a possible suspect. Those positions could very easily be reversed if evidence came to light that supported a different interpretation.

'Well,' she concluded. 'I hope nothing's happened to Curly.'

Martin nodded, took his card and receipt, and then smiled. 'Thank you.'

'Thanks for calling in. Stop by again soon.'

Her voice was playful as she gave what he guessed was her regular farewell. Although she was teasing him, he thought she probably would be glad to see him if he passed by again but, although that might happen, he probably wouldn't be alone if it did.


- 3 -

54 hours missing

'There's nothing about a fall-out shelter here,' Martin said, puzzled.

Danny frowned. 'Excuse me?'

'A neighbor told me that the previous occupier was some kind of nutcase and dug a shelter under his workshop to protect him against the North Koreans. There's no mention of it in the search reports.'

'Sounds like gossip to me.'

Martin shrugged. 'She was very specific. How about we take a look?'

'Sure, whatever.'

They made good time and were soon back outside the run-down shack. Danny stared at it through the fly-spotted windshield for a few seconds. 'You wouldn't think this could be less than an hour from some of the most expensive real estate on the planet, would you?'

Martin matched his inspection. 'It's the same with most cities,' he said noncommittally.

'That makes it okay then.'

Martin grinned. He no longer rose to such remarks, having begun to understand that they said more about Danny's battle with his past than his opinion of a colleague. 'I never said that.'

They let themselves into the workshop. One glance told Martin that it had been Parker's hideaway. He paced the building methodically, looking for a hatch. Finding nothing, he picked up a length of pipe and began to tap the floor every foot or so.

'You really think some guy spent his summer digging a bunker against nuclear war?' Danny said incredulously. 'I thought the Cold War was over. I saw them knocking down the Berlin Wall on TV.'

'Who knows,' Martin replied, continuing his examination of the floor. 'I'd have thought he'd have enough to worry about just looking out the window, without looking for foreign enemies.'

Danny stared out at the view and muttered, 'Maybe it's easier to deal with some crackpot on the other side of the world, instead of your neighbor... or yourself.'

Danny's insights often caught Martin by surprise, each time making him resolve anew never to underestimate his colleague. 'Could be,' he said, still tapping. 'From what I hear, Parker's worst enemy was probably his wife. I can't shake the feeling that we've got this one wrong. I don't know what we're missing but...'

'You mean what Jack's missing?' Danny asked.

'Not just Jack. All of us.

'You know Viv and Sam think we've got the wrong victim on the board?'

Yes, Martin knew that. He shrugged. 'Maybe the worm finally turned but I'll tell you this - if he did, I reckon he probably had good cause.'

'Man and woman go missing, chances are (a) they've had an accident, (b) they've been the victims of a crime together or (c) he's killed her and run. The others are just playing the percentages. That's what we do in this game.' Then, perhaps realizing how that might sound, he added, 'You know that.'

Martin did indeed know that. In the couple of years since he joined the team, he'd slowly come to accept that it was the predictability of human behavior that enabled them to do their job. One of the predictable qualities was what any homicide detective soon learned: when someone went missing, their nearest and dearest was usually involved, and more men than women committed violent crimes. Those facts meant that Parker remained their prime suspect, as well as being their prime missing person.

He kicked a greasy rug to one side, ready to test the floor under it. Deep score marks through the crust of dirt on the floor showed beyond doubt that a nearby chest had been dragged over it.

'Here, give me a hand.'

Even with both of them pushing, it was hard work to move the chest.

'His boss wasn't kidding about him being strong,' Danny puffed.

Martin watched their efforts slowly reveal a hatch in the floor. It was a cement-filled metal frame, making his attempts to detect a hollow area seem pretty futile.

They looked at each other.

'We should probably call Jack,' Danny said.

'Yeah,' Martin agreed. 'Probably.'

'But then we've already got clearance to search the place.'

'Couldn't hurt to take a look.'

Once again, it took both of them to raise the hatch, making them wonder at the strength of the man they sought.

'Fu-' Danny's voice caught before he could complete the expletive.

Martin got a waft of the stench that had elicited the exclamation. Two years earlier, he might have placed the feces but not the death. Now the cocktail was familiar but familiarity did not prevent his gorge rising. He tried to hold it down and saw Danny doing the same. They lost the battle at the same time, spewing vomit into a bucket standing by the bench. Seeing Danny having as much trouble with it as he did made him feel better, but it was still too close to how he had felt before he confronted Reyez. At least, this time, he wasn't expecting to find a little girl with her ear cut off.

He held his breath and leaned over the hatch. There was no staircase and he glanced around the workshop. There was a three-part extending ladder leaning against a wall so he carried it over and lowered it into the void. Danny brought a flashlight from the bench and they knelt at the edge of the pit to probe the darkness below.

'Oh, my God,' Danny said slowly.

''What?' Martin leaned further into the void.

'They've been keeping someone down there.'

'You sure?'

Danny began to descend the ladder in lieu of an answer. Martin followed the sweeping arcs he made with the flashlight beam. Slowly their inspection confirmed Danny's suspicion. There were several bits of old furniture, including a bed and a couch.

Lying beside the couch was a female corpse, which Martin assumed must be Shirley Parker. Her neck was at an unnatural angle and there could be no doubt that she was dead. He knew from her social security records that she weighed over two hundred pounds but, looking at the mountain of flesh on the floor, he suspected she'd put on a few more since admitting to that. The dark stains that spread halfway down the back of the sweats stretched around her vast thighs accounted for some of the stench. He followed Danny downwards, still gagging at the onslaught on his senses.

Looking around the shelter, he couldn't believe what they were seeing.

'What the...? Do you think it's a sex thing?'

'I hope not,' Danny replied from the shadows on the far side of the room. He turned around and held up a toy rabbit in one hand and a picture book in the other.

'Son of a bitch,' Martin growled.

'He must have been keeping a kid down here and his wife found out. Looks like it was us who read this one wrong.'

Martin appreciated Danny sharing the blame for the misjudgment, when in fact it was he who had been so certain that Matthew Parker was their victim. He rubbed his forehead wearily, seeing it as just another indication that he was not cut out for missing persons investigations.

Danny came over and put a friendly hand on his shoulder.

'Don't take it so hard, Fitz. So you might have made a wrong guess - you've still done the job, found this place and turned up new evidence. It's not like you screwed up.'

That was true, Martin realized, which only underlined how much past mistakes had knocked his confidence. If he kept thinking like that, he would end up crippled by self-doubt. Still, he was not looking forward to seeing Viv and Sam proved right again. Come to that, he wasn't looking forward to the rest of the day: more door-to-doors while the forensic team dismantled the shelter in search of clues. He sighed, pulled out his cell phone and, finding no signal, climbed back up the ladder.


- 4 -

58 hours missing

After dropping Danny, Martin had nothing to do but go home to his empty apartment. He knew that he ought to be grateful to have a comfortable home in a decent area. Equipped with every convenience, he could get home, microwave a meal and put the plate into the dishwasher - all within 15 minutes. The trouble was that the absence of everyday chores left too much space in a single person's life. It was all too easy to fall into unhealthy patterns of over-indulgence to fill the space where living used to be. He countered that by meticulously constructing precise replicas of ships, an engrossing hobby that devoured his spare time voraciously. Its only disadvantage was that he couldn't do it when he was wound up. Past experience told him he would fumble some delicate operation and leave himself with days, if not weeks, of work required to put him back where he'd already been.

Since moving back to New York, he often felt lonely. With few friends outside work, he found himself unable to get away from that world most of the time. His only social life revolved around his frequent visits to his aunt and uncle, whom he loved dearly but whose loving marriage seemed only to underline that he was still alone. Once or twice, desperation led him to try singles bars but lining himself up with other lonely souls made him feel more isolated than spending a solitary night in his apartment. Only the movies offered some escape but he'd already seen all the new releases that interested him and he wasn't in the mood for sitting still for a couple of hours anyway. He considered going to the sports center, in the hope of finding a partner for squash or badminton, but the prospect of managing an introduction without appearing to be cruising for a date, gay or straight, put him off.

He was waiting at a red light, staring into the distance, when a girl shimmying along the street in a short skirt and high heels drew his eye. The combination of self-confidence and crude sex appeal reminded him of another girl he'd seen that day with good assets and poor taste. A sudden image of his father's displeasure at such a conquest reinforced its appeal. When the light changed, he made a careful U-turn in the mouth of the junction and headed back north. The girl at the gas station had probably gone home hours before but driving up there again would dispose of most of his evening.

The miles and minutes flowed by as he drove on. He passed the time in memories of her cleavage, letting his body respond in the way he'd denied it earlier. He felt like a cop who refuses a drink while on duty but then knocks back a few at a bar on the way home. Knowing his luck, she would prove to be a material witness and he would have found a new way to compromise his professional position. When the only people he ever met were colleagues, witnesses and suspects, he wondered how he would ever strike up a relationship that did not encroach on his professional judgment at all.

When he eventually reached the gas station, it was closed. He eased onto the forecourt, braked to a halt and switched off the ignition. With his pants tented over his eager cock, he wondered if the station had security cameras. The thought of providing amusement for some bored guards was just starting to dampen his desire when he caught a movement at one side of the kiosk. It was the girl.

She turned back to lock the door she had just come out of and then took a few steps before stopping at the sight of his car. She was too far away for him to read her expression in the twilight but her posture conveyed surprise, caution and then renewed confidence. He guessed she had placed the car. That didn't surprise him as much as it might have: by the end of their conversation, he had noted her sharp eyes and come to believe that she was no fool. Without those observations, he doubted that her breasts, however perfect, would have been enough to bring him back up there.

'Still investigating?' she called out cheerfully, walking towards him.

He got out of the car and leaned on the top of the open door, letting it hide his shrinking erection. Her response to him was a chastening reminder of the responsibility that his role carried. She was not afraid of him because he was with the FBI. He did not intend to betray his office by taking advantage of that but supposed it was okay to let it give him the chance to get to know her.

'Seem to have hit a dead end right now,' he lied.

'I thought you guys always went around in pairs.'

It was a mark of his state of mind that his immediate reaction to that was lewd, accompanied by a brief fantasy of her imaginary twin. 'Usually do,' he admitted. 'Only just dropped my partner off.'

'Long day.'

'You too.'

'Do you have some more questions?'

He looked back at her, wondered if he was just another staring man, and tried to think of a reply. She was wearing a zip up jacket now and the thought of her body inside was more alluring than the sight of it had been before. She inspected him levelly and then smiled.

'Can I see your badge again?'

He fished it out of his pocket and handed it to her. She went over to a battered Dodge pickup, opened the door and inspected the wallet closely in the glow of the interior light. He saw her run a fingertip over the surface of his ID card to check that nothing had been stuck onto it and then pull out a leopardskin-print cell phone. He guessed that she was calling the verification line shown on the card. She read out his badge number and seemed satisfied with the reply. She kicked the pickup door shut, locked it and then came over holding out the badge.

'Girl's gotta try to look out for herself,' she said, a note of apology in her voice.

'She'd be a fool not to,' he assured her, taking back his badge. 'Dinner?'

He saw in her eyes that she was pleasantly surprised by the one-word invitation. It was the first thing that had come into his head, probably because he was hungry, but he realized that it was a step up on a drink and a hell of a lot better than a fumble in a lay-by, which may have been all she expected from him. He also saw a complex web of emotions under her reaction: she was wondering where to suggest and how he felt about being seen with her. He had no doubt that she could ride out any situation but he could see that she wasn't looking for a confrontation that evening.

'There's a place about ten miles north,' she said eventually. 'It's not very smart but the food's nice.'

'Sounds great.'

It did. Good food, good company and miles from his world. He was glad she couldn't hear his thoughts because she might have misunderstood the last one. He wanted to be miles away from his world, but the wish had nothing to do with any feelings he might have about her.

No longer compromised by his body, he went around and opened the door for her. It was a gentlemanly gesture from a time almost gone by but he had his father to thank for teaching him manners if nothing else. When he started work, it had taken a conscious effort to suppress some of the concessions that professional women sometimes interpreted as insults. As it happened, he understood their position, realizing that chivalry sometimes brought with it more problematic attitudes, but he still liked to treat a woman like a lady when he was dating her.

Back inside the car, he could smell the woman beside him. Thankfully, her taste in perfume was less full-on than her taste in clothes. He had no idea what brand she was wearing but it was a light scent, reminiscent of flowers and sunny days. Below it were hints of fresh soap where she must have washed after her shift and, fainter, hair products, probably from her morning shower. Her breath smelled of spearmint gum, although she was no longer chewing, and there was no trace of smoke. The last observation came as a relief. He would not have been surprised to discover she smoked but had found it hard in the past to overcome his dislike of that habit when trying to get laid.

Realizing he didn't know her name, he asked. 'Meryl.' Without giving him time to comment, she added, 'My mom was a fan. Do you think you'll find Curly?'

'Don't know.'

After what he'd learned, he had no wish to dwell on that topic. He'd thought he'd got a sense of the man they were looking for but that had since been turned on its head. Parker now appeared to be the kind of weirdo so beloved of The National Enquirer and the need to find him seemed to arise more from the risk he posed to other citizens than from any threat to his safety.

'Quite a lot of missing people never show up, do they?'

'The odds get worse with time,' he admitted.

She nodded, seeming satisfied with his answer.

'Why did you come back?'

He wasn't sure what to say. He could get smart, talk about the invitation she was sending out with that cleavage, but he'd ignored plenty of tits before and wasn't even sure that was the real reason. Part of it, at least, was that she had the capacity to care about a man she didn't know just because he seemed nice. That might prove unwise but such openness of heart still appealed to him.

'Lonely, I guess.' He was shocked at the admission that seemed to come out unbidden.

'It is a lonely city, isn't it?'

She smiled at him, a warm beam that made him feel better than he had in a long time. Being honest with her was the right choice. By dropping his defenses, he'd encouraged her to do the same.

'You'll like the restaurant, I'm sure,' she added.

She was right. He did like it: the homely atmosphere, the tasty food and the friendly proprietor. In fact, he couldn't remember the last time he'd felt so welcome, so relaxed or so sated. He liked how she came alive among her friends and how some of the men clearly envied his place at her table. Most of three hours flew by in her distracting company before they returned to his car. He felt as if he'd got to know her, although he really knew little more about her than he had that morning.

'Shall I take you back to the station?' he asked, hoping she would refuse but taking no liberties.

'We could go back to my place,' she offered, sounding more shy than he expected.

'Which way?'

'Turn left just before the crossing.'

He'd noted the rail crossing on their way and guessed it was only about three miles from their present position. She had brought him right into her world. His father would probably have made some cynical comment on that, seeing him as a prize for a girl like her, but Martin doubted it was so simple. She might have had all sorts of fears about how he would treat people whom she cared for.

Her home proved to be a trailer, out back of a clapboard house with peeling paint and children's toys littering the yard. Once again, he saw apprehension beneath her casual smile. He drove confidently into the space alongside the trailer and helped her out as he had at the restaurant.

Her home was cluttered but scrupulously clean. Martin had seen inside more homes in the previous two years than he had in the rest of his life. Homes told you all sorts of things about people, from their personal hygiene to their psychiatric state. This home told him that its occupant had a very soft center inside that brassy shell. That, he knew, was a cliché - the tart with a heart of gold - but he also knew that there was some truth in most stereotypes. The thought amused him: that was the kind of thing they taught you at Quantico, not the sort of stuff that a man's murderous twin had recently goaded him with. The amusement had a bitter aftertaste, as he recalled the tongue-lashing he'd got for that little session. Sometimes it seemed like nothing he did was right for Jack Malone.

Meryl clattered away with a coffee pot, while he watched. Her halter-neck top left most of her back bare and her skin was flawless. She was wearing a denim skirt in place of the shorts she'd had on earlier, and it left an inch or two more to the imagination than they had. She busied herself clearing spaces on the worktop and then on the sofa while the coffee brewed.

Soon they sat side by side, hot mugs in their hands and music playing in the background, smiling awkwardly when they caught each other's eyes. His apprehension mostly came from the knowledge that he could still screw this up. He didn't want to say or do anything that would close the play before they had acted out the final scene. Past experience told him that, no matter how willing she might be, that was still possible. Knowing that he wasn't great with women, he feared he would manage to make the one mistake that could end the evening prematurely.

Before she had drunk half of her coffee, Meryl put her mug onto the floor. He put his alongside it and let her climb onto his lap. This time he made no effort to hide the effect she was having on him. He pulled the tie on her top and let it go as the bow unraveled. The weight of her breasts pulled the top down, leaving her nipples swaying enticingly in front of his eyes. He took one in his mouth and the other in his right hand, bringing her slowly to his own level of arousal.

Her work-roughened hands cupped his cheeks and drew his lips up to meet hers. He sat up straighter, pulled her closer and returned her kisses. Her skirt was hitched up like a belt with just a pink thong half-covering her cleft. Feeling a hunger far more intense than his earlier appetite for food, he eased down his zipper and worked the thong to one side. Only then did she resist him, making him wonder if he'd blown it after all.

'Lucky one of us has some sense,' she whispered.

Reaching for her bag, she unzipped a pocket on the inside and pulled out a packet of condoms. It was a shock to realize what he'd been about to do, too caught up in his immediate need to consider the consequences. It was easy to think people fools for the messes they got themselves into but how much better was he? Any unprotected sex was stupid enough but unprotected sex with a stranger you'd met only hours before had to be worse than most. Feeling stupid doused his ardor.

'But there's nothing wrong with getting carried away,' she told him softly. 'It's nice in a way.'

He held her tighter and kissed her ear, while she stroked his erection back into life and then sheathed it proficiently. He wondered for an instant how many cocks she must have handled to become so skillful but discarded the thought as unproductive. Besides, he wasn't in a good position to judge, given the eagerness with which he had joined the queue.

She slid onto him with a soft exhalation of pleasure and then began to rise and fall in time with the beat of the music. He worked one hand between them and held his knuckle so her clit rubbed against it when she moved. A little shy they might be, he realized, but she wasn't the only one with some experience. He could feel that he wouldn't last long but knew from her shuddering sighs that she wasn't far behind him. He relaxed, letting her control their movements and touches to suit her body's demands. She was in the full grip of her orgasm when he finally erupted inside the condom. She collapsed into his embrace and they stayed like that for a while, clinging tight and sharing the companionship they'd found. He wondered if it was tawdry but it didn't feel that way.

His softening cock forced them to separate but it was Meryl who carefully removed and knotted the condom. She patted him clean with tissues and then kissed him. He pulled her close again, his mind already interested in a replay even if his body wasn't there yet. She laughed delightedly and then began to strip him. He hesitated, thinking he ought to leave but wanting to stay. He saw her register the dilemma and await his decision. An empty apartment twenty miles away didn't stand a chance. He snapped the stud on her skirt and pulled the zip smoothly down. She let it fall to the floor and stood in front of him, perfect in the thong. No, he argued with himself, not perfect. Her body was a lot better than her face, which was saved mainly by the kindness of her eyes.

She knelt before him and pulled off his pants and briefs in one movement. Then, to his surprise, she gathered up his shirt and underwear and bundled it into the washer in the kitchen area. He couldn't help watching the movement of her breasts while she measured soap powder and turned dials on the machine. When she saw where he was looking, she put a hand on one hip and waggled the other forefinger at him. He couldn't recall the last time that a woman had struck him as so sexy.

'I can see why men are always staring at you.'

She laughed and finished hanging up his suit before coming back to him.

'You don't have to do my laundry,' he said, nuzzling her ear.

'I know, but now you can't leave and you don't have to worry about not being ready for work.'

She was right. Her actions freed and trapped him at the same time.

'What time do you need to be in?' she asked.

Although he worked flexible hours, they all aimed to be prompt during the key stages of each case. He was usually an early riser, which was why his recent erratic time-keeping had been noticed so quickly. 'No later than nine.'

'I start at eight so you should be all right.'

Feeling more confident and just as horny, he swung her up into his arms and strode through to what he assumed must be the bedroom. It was just as chaotic as the living room and he had to fight his way through a battalion of cuddly toys to locate the bed. He tossed her into the space he'd cleared and then began to explore her body far more assertively than he had yet done. She did not protest when he opened the top drawer of the bedside table. Condoms of all sorts were scattered among some sex toys. He laughed and chose a ribbed one. Within seconds, he had rolled that on and her thong off. Raising himself over her, he mounted a triple assault, his tongue in her mouth, his hand on her breast and his cock between her legs. Her hands caressed his shoulders, exploring his musculature and encouraging him to intensify his lovemaking. For a few precious minutes, he thought of nothing but his body against her body, live bodies not dead bodies, his life not someone else's. They both lasted longer with the edge taken off their desire but, feeling in his balls that he would be able to come again, he relaxed into their leisurely journey towards another release.

Meryl gazed up into his eyes, hers bright with arousal, while her fingers raked through the hair that he no longer kept clipped as close as he once had.

'That's so good,' she sighed.

He nodded and kissed her again. It was good but he didn't take that as a measure of his talents. Having had plenty of bad sex, he knew that it wasn't down to any magic touch of his - they just seemed to be in tune with each other.

'Aw,' he groaned as his desire began to near its peak.

'Oh,' she gasped in response.

Their grunts became more animalistic as higher functions lost ground to the more urgent demands of their primitive brains. Then, when the moment came, they both moved in silence, breath held in shared tension. They clung together and then he exhaled heavily against her shoulder, shattered.

'Shit,' he said softly.

'It sounds like you needed that,' she whispered against his ear.

He nodded, realizing that he had been letting problems accumulate in all areas of his life for far too long. Many could not be easily solved but his need for company might be the least intractable. He cleaned himself up as fast as he could and then pulled her close again. He was glad to be staying, spending the night in someone's embrace instead of passing lonely hours waiting for sleep. She yawned into his shoulder and then cuddled up tight. Within minutes, her steady breathing told him she was asleep.

When he stirred, it was still dark. He was lying on his side, facing Meryl's back with their bodies in contact from head to toe. He glanced at the bedside clock. It was not yet three o'clock and he'd already slept for a couple of hours - he couldn't remember the last time that had happened. He kissed her neck, comforted by the earthiness of her sex-scented skin, closed his eyes and drifted away before he could think any more.


- 5 -

70 hours missing

Martin was at his desk ten minutes before his self-imposed nine o'clock deadline. He was showered and shaved - having managed to use Meryl's safety razor without mishap despite not being a wet shaver from choice - and dressed in clean clothes that she had insisted on pressing despite his assurances that he didn't expect her to.

Jack, Samantha and Vivian were already in the office and seemed to notice nothing amiss. He was just beginning to feel confident that his all-nighter would pass unnoticed when Danny came in. Perhaps it took a man with a lively love life to recognize the signs in a colleague.

When he returned from the coffee machine, Danny grinned and said, 'Nice tie.'

Given that they weren't usually into complimenting each other's dress sense, Martin knew he'd been rumbled. He said nothing but Samantha looked puzzled.

'He's worn it before.'

'I know,' Danny told her. 'Yesterday, if I'm not mistaken. With the same shirt.'

Jack looked over from where he'd been talking to Viv. Martin grimaced, wondering what to expect from a manager who seemed to have been monitoring his every move since the Reyez case. His sex life was no one else's business but he knew he could expect a rocket if the fall-out found its way into the office, regardless - or perhaps because - of the fact that Jack had conducted an affair right under his manager's nose in the past. Martin had been shocked to discover that the Catholic family man had been screwing his beautiful blonde subordinate, shocked by both the infidelity and by Samantha's falling into the classic married-boss trap.

He felt his cheeks burn when he saw Jack and Viv exchange smiles. Both had told him in the past that he needed to get a life and his laundered clothes presumably reassured them that he hadn't spent the night passed out in a bar. He wondered what all of them would think if they knew he'd been in a trailer screwing a gas station attendant he'd met only hours before. He hoped again that Meryl wouldn't prove to be a material witness to what they had discovered at the Parker house.

He was saved further anxiety about what Samantha might think, or how his fooling around with Meryl might affect any prospects he might have with her, by the arrival of the preliminary report from forensics. He and Danny waited with poorly concealed impatience while Jack scanned it.

'Was he...?' Martin could hardly bear to ask about what Parker had been doing in the shelter.

Jack shook his head slowly. 'All we got so far is Parker's prints all over the place but his wife's few and fresh. No semen. A small amount of blood - old, human, localized, and not belonging to either of them.'

They all digested those facts while Jack read on.

'Apart from that, there's food and drink, toys and books, a radio, and a commode for waste. It looks like someone's been down there a while.'

'If it weren't for the toys,' Viv said thoughtfully, 'He could just as easily have been harboring a fugitive or something like that.'

'But there are the toys,' Samantha countered.

Her voice was sharp, conveying the horror they all felt every time they uncovered child abuse.

'Well,' Jack said slowly. 'Let's not jump to any conclusions on this one. We know the guy's not your regular Joe and this may not be how it seems either. Even if it is,' he looked at each of them in turn, 'We don't know what he thought he was doing. Cut him some slack until we know for sure. Okay?'

They all nodded, Samantha last and with least conviction. One of the things Martin liked and respected about her was how, like Jack and Vivian, she had retained her humanity through many tough cases. He knew he had to work on controlling his fury without losing all of the sensitivity that brought it on; Danny usually did better with redirecting the anger but sometimes only by retreating into the wise-cracking persona that he had developed during his harsh teenage years.

Martin's desk phone rang. He picked up on the second purr, giving his usual clipped, 'Fitzgerald.'


'Yeah.' He spoke before thinking and then wondered who would ask for him by his first name.

'It's Meryl.'

He almost dropped the phone. How had she found him? Through the verification number? She must have one of those weird, perfect memories... or she'd saved the number in her cell phone.

'Hey,' he said.

He thought his voice sounded okay, not too startled, not too defensive.

'I saw Curly.'

She was calling about the case. He breathed a sigh of relief. Then his gut knotted up again at the reminder that, completely unnecessarily, he had mixed his personal and professional lives.

'At the station?'

'Driving past. He didn't stop.'


'Couple of minutes ago.'

'Which way was he going?'

'North. Probably headed home.'

'Okay. Thanks.'

'So I guess he's not missing after all.'

'We'll check it out.'

What else could he say? He could hardly tell her what they'd found.

'Okay,' she said lightly. 'Did you make it into the office on time?'


'Can't talk now?'

'Not really.'

'Okay. Bye then.'

He almost repeated the casual farewell but caught himself just in time.

'Thanks for calling, ma'am.'

She giggled, and then hung up.

He took a moment to compose himself and then turned to face the others. Jack and Vivian were looking at her screen as they had been before the forensic report arrived. Samantha was scanning the report, with Danny reading over her shoulder. None of them had paid any attention to the call. Martin wished he didn't have to mention it but he couldn't withhold Meryl's information. He cleared his throat abruptly, making them all look up in surprise. Nice, he told himself, they weren't suspicious - not until you told them something was up.

'That was the woman at the gas station near the Parker home. She says Parker just drove past, headed north.'

Vivian raised her eyebrows. They didn't always get that kind of co-operation.

'You must have made an impression.'

Martin hoped he wasn't blushing.

'Parker gets gas there a couple of times a week. She was concerned for him.'

'Well, you better get back up there,' Jack said. 'Go with him, Danny. I'll stir up the locals.'

Martin covered the same route as he had an hour before, this time headed in the opposite direction. He pondered Meryl's role in the case, wondering if he'd missed something. Was she toying with him, keeping him close to see what he knew? Then he told himself not to be paranoid: that was surely the stuff of films.

'Is that the gas station?'

'Huh?' He came to with a start. 'Oh, yeah.'

'Might as well stop in - see if she noticed anything else, apart from what she told you.'

'Oh, right.' He caught Danny's sideways glance and knew that his monosyllabic responses were out of character. 'Sure.'

It seemed to Martin that the next ten minutes went pretty well. Meryl played her part to perfection and he thought he was his usual self. He and Danny got back into the sedan but then, casually he hoped, he said he was thirsty and was going to get a can of Coke, something he did often enough. Inside the kiosk, more relaxed but aware they were still visible, he kept his smile friendly.

'Can of Coke please, miss.'

She made sure he got a good look at her ass when she reached into the refrigerator and he let his fingers brush hers when he took the can.

'That'll be forty cents.'

He handed over the coins.

'Sorry about...'

'Being ashamed of me?'

She didn't quite pull off the nonchalance she was aiming for and he could see her kick herself for betraying her disappointment.

'It's not that.' That was the truth, or at least part of the truth. 'It's more complicated.'

She gave him an appraising stare and then nodded. 'You know where I am.'

Still taking care what he revealed to Danny waiting in the car, he didn't go for a broad smile but just let his eyes crinkle reassuringly. He wasn't making any promises but he knew that he was leaving her with the impression he'd be in touch. What he wasn't sure of was whether he meant it or not.

They were back on the highway before Danny spoke.

'Do you have any idea how much trouble you'll be in if she's caught up in this?'

Martin's guts lurched sickeningly. He said nothing.

Danny casually popped the can and took a swig of Coke.

'Wouldn't have thought she was your type.'

Martin glared at the road ahead, knowing that Danny's reaction was a fair indication of what he could expect from everyone he knew. Perhaps he was ashamed, or at least embarrassed.

'But then I guess she's got all the right things... and they are definitely in the right places.'

'Leave it.' Martin growled the warning.

He didn't want to fight with Danny and he'd be in real trouble if it escalated into physical violence. If they returned to the office with cuts and bruises, Jack would be all over them. Again, he thought sourly. He admired Jack's investigative abilities but sometimes wondered about his management skills - the man definitely followed a 'do as I say, not as I do' philosophy. He was getting tired of being bawled out every five minutes, but knew that he had helped to bring it on himself.

'Is our young hero in love?' Danny asked, couching his surprise in sarcasm.

Martin debated his answer too long, his silence revealing that he hadn't just found a port in a storm. He wasn't in love, but he did care enough for Meryl not to talk about her like she was a streetwalker.

'Right, so you're already in trouble,' Danny chuckled.

Martin shook his head and then repeated, 'Leave it, Danny.' This time the words were a request.

'My lips are sealed.' Danny grinned a while longer but then sobered. 'I'm surprised the local boys haven't picked Parker up yet. Doesn't say much if a guy like him can run rings around them.'

'He can't have gone home. They'd have him if he had.'

'Why would he come back at all?'

'Maybe he never went away,' Martin said thoughtfully.

'How's that?'

Martin thought carefully before deciding that he could hardly make things any worse than they were. Danny already knew enough to put him out of the team.

'Meryl told me Parker doesn't like things to change, always does things the same way.'

'What sort of things?'

'Everything - always fills up at the same gas station, stuff like that. And he gets upset about weird things like colors, like red.'

'You get that with autism.'

'That so? But they're smart, aren't they? Like in Rain Man.'

Danny had already punched a number from his cell phone's memory.

'Viv? What can you tell me about autism?'

Martin waited while Danny got the low-down. It might not even be relevant but it never hurt to know too much.

'It's a spectrum disorder,' Danny announced.

Martin obliged him. 'Which is...?'

'A range of conditions. It's to do with poor social skills but they can be high or low functioning.'

'Meaning smart or not so smart?'

'Yeah. I guess they're just like anybody else: smart, dumb, good, bad...'

'That's a big help,' Martin pointed out but the phrase Danny had used stirred a memory. 'But Meryl told me Parker doesn't have good social skills. She said that's why some people around here badmouth him.'

'So she has a brain as well?' Danny goaded.

Martin went on as if he hadn't heard the remark. 'So you could be right.' He shifted uneasily at the wheel. 'But that could be bad news. Think about it. You've got poor social skills, a wife that puts the fear of God into you and your co-workers all think you're several sandwiches short of a picnic.'

Danny nodded slowly. 'Lonely man.'

'And if no one wants to spend time with you...?'

'Put a lock on the door.'

'Or a heavy chest on top of a concrete slab.'

Danny unwrapped a stick of gum and rolled the foil into a tiny ball. 'But no trace of semen...? I mean, I've never heard of a man holding someone prisoner just to talk to them.' He put on a bad German accent. 'You vill be my friend.' He laughed. 'I bet you did more than talk to Meryl.'

Martin resigned himself to Danny's ever-present humor. 'Get it out of your system now, then can it when we get back to the office.'

Danny's grin only grew broader but Martin found himself surprisingly confident that his fellow agent would keep quiet when it mattered. He hoped so, because he knew that his future was not with Meryl and he did not want it to be scuppered by his surrender to present loneliness. He told himself he had nothing to feel guilty about: he had made no promises to Meryl and he had, as yet, no relationship with Samantha to betray. Besides, no closer to explaining Parker's disappearance than he had been twenty-four hours earlier, he had more pressing issues to deal with.


- 6 -

73 hours missing

It took a while to go through the motions, checking the Parker residence, touching base with the local cops and then cruising around the area hoping to stumble on something useful. Danny called the office but there were no developments there either and Viv suggested they stay on it. They were pulled over at the side of the road when Martin finished the rest of the warm, flat Coke.

'What now then?' he asked.

Danny looked at him, and then at the can he was crushing in frustration.

'Seems like we only know one friendly native.'

Martin looked at the can, scowled, and said, 'Give it a rest.'

'I mean it, Fitz. You said she was concerned for him. Maybe she knows something. We haven't got far with anybody else.'

Martin shrugged. He couldn't obstruct an investigation just because he'd been stupid enough to fuck a witness. He pulled back onto the street and headed for the station. Meryl was watering the display of cut flowers outside the kiosk when they arrived. Once again, he read her surprise at his return, this time coupled with some anxiety. He parked in the corner of the lot, out of the way of any customers wanting the pumps, and walked over with Danny. They were both wearing shades and he saw her shrink from them, daunted by their official personas and unsure what to say.

He took off his sunglasses and gave her a proper smile.

'It's okay, Meryl. He knows.'

She looked anxiously at Danny and then back at him.

'Will you get into trouble?'

He shrugged. 'We need you to think hard about Parker. We're getting nowhere fast and there's more to this than you know.'

She raised her eyebrows.

'I can't tell you.'

'Okay,' she said slowly. 'Come inside.'

She led them into the kiosk and through to a back room. She was wearing a pink sundress, short and tight but with a bit more class than her previous outfit. Martin saw that Danny's gaze had settled on the hem of the dress, as if waiting for her movements to reveal even more than they could already see. He felt a sharp stab of emotion, which took a few moments to register as jealousy.

'Coffee?' she offered.

'That'd be great,' Danny told her.

There was already a pot on a hotplate so it was the work of seconds for her to fill three mugs. He glanced around the room - it was a comfortable, if shabby, little staff room. The furniture was likely half the price and twice the age of anything in an FBI building but could have been worse. Potted plants and fluffy toys littered the surfaces, just as they had in her trailer. His eye was drawn to a naked man sprawled across the notice board, identified in an ornate typeface as Mr. April.

Meryl followed his gaze and then looked back at him, her expression both amused and defiant.

Danny grinned at her. 'You'll make him feel inadequate.'

Meryl strolled casually over to the board and moved a poster about safety procedures for handling oil-based products so that it obscured Mr. April. She waved to a similar calendar on the other side of the board that showed an artificially enhanced blonde. Martin wondered what it said about his attitudes that he had only noticed that one in passing, unsurprised by its presence in a gas station.

'Pete, the night guy, won't take that thing down so I put up one of my own. He trashed the first one but I told him he wouldn't be so pissed if he was secure in his own sexuality. Now he doesn't know whether taking it down or leaving it up will make him look most gay.' She smiled. 'I figure he's a hell of a lot more bugged by...' she leaned closer to the board '... Dale than I am by... Suki.'

This time Danny's smile showed genuine amusement. Martin wondered what he made of Meryl, sure that he must know plenty of people whose circumstances were not as fortunate as those of the average FBI agent - maybe he wouldn't be so quick to judge as others might be.

'I didn't realize this place was open at night,' he said, voicing a thought with no particular motive. 'You locked up last night, didn't you?'

'Yeah, Pete's off this week and the company forgot to book a temp. I doubt the night business here covers the overheads anyhow.' She sat on one of the angular couches and waved them onto the one facing it. 'So what do you hope I can tell you?'

'We're not sure,' he admitted. 'You're sure it was Parker drove by earlier?'

'Positive. I saw his face and he's got an almighty dent in his driver's side door.'

'He hasn't been to his home or workplace. We're trying to figure where he could have been going.'

'He must have done something to make you this interested.'

Martin did not reply. He'd already told her that they couldn't discuss that and saw no point repeating himself.

'All right,' she mused. 'For some reason, he's left home and hasn't gone to work. You think, if he ran away from his wife - or from something even worse than her - he'd leave the area.'

Martin said nothing and kept his expression neutral, not underestimating her ability to read him. Danny was equally impassive.

'I'm not so sure he would go far,' she went on. 'For one thing, like I told you, he can't deal with things changing. He'd find a strange place real tough. For another, I don't think he's got much idea of distance. He'd probably think ten miles down the road was a long way.'

'What makes you say that?' Danny asked her.

'Sometimes we chat about stuff. At least, I chat and he listens. I know he didn't realize that Hawaii was further away than New York. Even though he'd seen pictures and knew it's all sandy beaches and palm trees, he didn't know that meant it couldn't be around here.'

'Can you think of anywhere locally that he might go?'

'I know he doesn't like motels. He doesn't like using things other people have used, especially the john. He likes the outdoors though.'

She frowned and went through to the kiosk, returning a moment later with a map. She unfolded it on the table between the couches and studied it. Martin leaned forward and felt Danny do the same. The local area was a sprawl of unplanned development, no doubt with countless violations of the zoning laws. Meryl tapped a rhinestone-studded talon on one of the few open spaces.

'His company did some work up there last year. Maybe he would go there? I don't know.'

'It's a lead,' Martin said encouragingly. 'We've got nothing better.'

'How much for the map?' Danny asked.

She shook her head at the offer of payment. 'Just take it easy if you find him, will you? Even if he's done something bad, I doubt he meant it that way. He's not a regular guy.'

They nodded. Even without Jack's instructions in the same vein, Martin didn't think they were in the business of bullying people with disabilities. Back in the car, Danny took his turn at the wheel.

'She is kinda cute,' he said, as he merged into the southbound traffic.

Martin remained silent.

'Hey, lighten up, Fitz. You only screwed her. Looking at you, I'd think you'd killed someone.'

'I'm planning that now,' Martin said, his voice sounding as if he wasn't sure whether he was joking.

'I know Jack's been on your case since...' Danny left the rest unsaid, 'But that's just the way he is. He can see you've got it in you to do better and he's trying to make you do it.'

'And you know that how?' Martin asked wearily.

'Cause I've been through it with him myself, and 'cause I've seen how he is around guys he thinks can't cut it.'

'I'm still getting sick of...' He wasn't sure of the wisdom of being candid about his resentments.

'The double standards?'

By not disagreeing, Martin knew he had agreed.

'Guess you gotta work your way up before you can lay the law down. And don't forget he gets roasted by the people above him as well. Don't let it get to you - he doesn't.'

Martin looked at Danny thoughtfully. It was true that Jack knew full well when he was breaking the rules and he accepted the flak that went with it. Perhaps he'd been missing the point when he saw it as double standards. Jack expected him to take whatever came, just as he did himself. He had known that he might be breaking the rules when he went back to the gas station the night before, depending what Meryl's role proved to be, and he would have to face the possible consequences. He thought back to what he'd learned when Samantha was taken hostage. Jack had been playing with fire when he fooled around with her, risking his job and his marriage, but Martin doubted that he had lied to himself about what might happen or that he would have blamed anybody but himself if his life had unraveled. He wondered if Danny knew about that secret history.

Danny looked back at him and raised an eyebrow, inviting him to ask whatever was on his mind. He decided against it. It made no difference whether Danny knew or not and, if he didn't, Martin didn't want to be the one to spread gossip.

'Nothing,' he said, followed by, 'Thanks.'


- 7 -

75 hours missing

By the time Martin had phoned in their report and got Jack's permission to look around the area that Meryl had identified, Danny was already navigating the back roads that led to it. Martin took over the map-reading, taking them in by what looked the least built-up road, thinking that would most likely be the route that Parker would choose. It was a scrap of leftover land, presumably only left empty because it wasn't fit for much. Where Martin had subconsciously envisaged trees and lakes, there were stunted bushes and muddy streams. They drove around the perimeter but saw nothing.

'What was Parker driving again?' Danny asked. 'Off-roader?'

Martin nodded. 'He has an ancient Jeep.'

The sedan wouldn't get them far over the stony terrain. Danny pulled into an area that criss-crossed tire tracks declared an unofficial parking lot. They got out and scanned the view in all directions. It wouldn't be difficult for someone to watch them unseen but there weren't so very many hiding places. They followed a well-trodden footpath that descended gently from the parking lot.

'Not much of a place,' Martin said, looking around again. 'Surprising so many people come up here.'

Danny laughed. 'Fishing and fucking.'

Martin gave a slight frown, more in surprise than judgment. It still caught him off-guard when Danny used that kind of language, not because he hadn't heard it before but more because it wasn't common currency in the world of white-collar crime he'd inhabited.

'That's what a buddy of mine used to say,' Danny expanded.

A used condom caught in a bush confirmed the hypothesis. Once again, Martin felt his gut tighten at the prospect of what Parker might be doing with his young captive.

'Let's hope it's fishing,' he said tersely.

The trail they were following did indeed lead down to a stream, faster moving and less muddy than the ones they'd glimpsed from the car. The sandy soil beside it bore the traces of many visitors. They circled the trodden area cautiously, trying to distinguish one set of prints from another. Martin could only be sure of two things: at least one set belonged to a child but several sets of adult prints had walked over them, making him think that they couldn't be that recent.

'If it is the local lover's lane,' Danny began thoughtfully, 'That could just be one night's action. Maybe the kid was here yesterday?'

'A kid,' Martin pointed out. There was absolutely no guarantee it was the kid they were looking for.

'They're small,' Danny said.

The prints looked like sneakers and were indeed small. So far, they'd had no idea of the child's age. The toys and books in the shelter looked like they'd been accumulated over a child's lifetime and yet some of the youngest ones were nearly new. Either Parker took what he could find in yard sales or he couldn't judge what would be suitable. Before Martin could comment, his cell phone rang.

'Patching a call through to Special Agent Fitzgerald,' said the voice of an FBI operator with tired efficiency.


This time, he was not so surprised. 'Meryl?'


He could almost see her heaving breasts when he heard the anxiety in her voice.

'Listen,' she gasped. 'I just went to open up the men's room for a trucker...' Another breath. 'It's been busted open and there's what looks like blood in there.'

The news focused his mind firmly back on the case.

'Don't let anyone in there,' he warned.

'I have seen CSI, you know,' Meryl told him impatiently. 'The trucker used the ladies' room.'

'Okay, we'll be right back.' He snapped the cell phone shut and turned back towards the parking lot. 'Meryl says somebody's busted open the men's room and left blood in there.'

They were back at the gas station in left than half the time they'd taken on the outward journey. Meryl was waiting on the forecourt. He could see worry for Parker all over her face.

The first thing she said was, 'I hope he's okay.'

It reminded Martin that there was still more than one interpretation to the scenario. He had been hoping the kid was okay. He and Danny followed her to the back of the property, where a low brick building ran along the perimeter, its two red doors marked 'his' and 'hers' in carefully but inexpertly painted letters.

He shouldered the door open and they both looked inside. He'd been prepared for the worst kind of public pisshole but should have known Meryl wouldn't stand for that. Cheap and basic like the staffroom, it was clean with everything present, from soap to paper towels, and even a posy of silk flowers on a ledge. There was no graffiti, although patches of fresher paint suggested that keeping it at bay was a constant chore, and he could see no telltale holes in the stall doors. Two of the basins were as clean as you'd find in most private homes. The third contained the blood.

He hadn't quizzed Meryl about the quantity on the phone. When he looked at Danny, he knew they had both feared lakes of blood across the floor and a child's drained body lying somewhere nearby. What they saw was the amount of blood you might get from a bad cut but no worse. A first aid kit on the wall hung open, its former contents scattered over the floor. Of course, the blood was still worth investigating. If it belonged to Parker, or matched the old stain from the shelter, they would have a firm fix on their fugitive.

'So,' Danny mused. 'Maybe they're up at the stream yesterday. One of them gets hurt somehow and Parker needs to deal with the wound. Why does he come all the way back here?'

'They?' Meryl asked.

Ignoring that, Martin said, 'He doesn't like using things other people have used but he has to. This is a familiar place. Maybe he knows the rest room is clean? Would he ever have used it, Meryl? Home's not far for him from here.'

'I doubt it,' she said, still sounding confused. 'But I guess most regulars know what it's like because the truckers rib me about it. They gave me a prize one time for prettiest gas station rest room, after they saw this survey somebody'd done on rest rooms on the TV.' She added defensively, 'I just don't see that we need to live like animals.'

'Well,' Danny said. 'Guess we need backup. Get the forensic guys in here and some locals up at the stream?'

Martin nodded. With luck, they would know a lot more by the end of the day. He was uneasy at how events were starting to center on the gas station. He still doubted Meryl was implicated but wished that he'd realized her kindness would probably seem as attractive to Parker as it had been to him. They might both be lonely but, Martin hoped, his own life was not quite as bleak as Parker's. Of course, if he managed to get himself thrown out of the FBI, it could yet become a close-run contest.


- 8 -

79 hours missing

The forensic team finished with the rest room before the afternoon was out but the local cops were still combing the waste ground when the light began to fail. They were a decent bunch, diligent and relatively uncomplaining, who reported findings as they made them. Martin had worked with far less cooperative cops in the past and appreciated their efforts. They turned up enough evidence to suggest that Parker had been camping up there with a child, probably a boy, and feeding them both on fish. They packed up samples for forensic analysis and wound up their search before night fell.

'Have we covered all the bases?' Martin asked Danny.

He heard the anxiety in his own voice. Normally Jack, or Viv in his absence, would have overseen the local investigation. An unusually heavy caseload was stretching them pretty thin and so he and Danny were managing the Parker case. He wasn't privy to the rationale behind that choice but couldn't help wondering if it was because Parker was so insignificant. Normally, a case involving a child got top priority but they had two other high profile cases in progress that involved children and Parker's captive seemed to be an invisible child that no one had reported missing. There had been a time when he would have welcomed the chance to prove himself but such was his recent insecurity that he saw it more as another opportunity to screw up. He hoped Danny's greater experience would prevent that from happening.

'Can't think of anything else,' Danny said after a few seconds' thought. 'I don't buy him going back out to the stream. Even if he tried it, he'd surely see the cops out there today and get scared?'

'Sounds about right,' Martin admitted. 'So all we've got to do is figure out where else he might go.'

He already knew they would be making a night of it. Parker might be starting to panic, with an injury to worry about and nowhere to go. They had to find him before the situation got out of hand.

'How about back here?' They were sitting in Meryl's staff room, drinking more of her coffee as they considered their next move. 'He knows the place. There's food and drink, somewhere to sleep and a men's room. The night guy's off. Could do worse for a place to rest while he tries to think.'

They already had word out with every motel in the area to report the arrival of a man matching Parker's description, with or without a child, and so Danny's idea seemed as good as any.

'Want to stick around then?'


They called Meryl through from the kiosk and explained their intention.

'You think he'll come back here?' she asked doubtfully. 'I would have thought he'd expect trouble, after breaking into the rest room last night.'

'Maybe,' Danny conceded. 'But we're all out of options right now.'

'Okay,' she decided. 'Sure.'

She fussed around for another half an hour before going off duty, making sure they had keys, supplies, her phone number and various little comforts she deemed necessary for a night in the staff room. Martin watched her preparations with affection, recognizing in her a caring tenderness that modern people so rarely seemed to show. After she eventually deigned to leave, the gas station became what it really was: a cheap, soulless shell of utilitarianism. Only the warmth of her presence gave it the friendly ambience that had contributed to his seduction.

He wondered how much of his thinking Danny had followed when he smiled and said, 'We must look like we need taking care of.'

Perhaps they did: two lonely city bachelors. Of course, Martin could only speak for himself there - he had no idea whether Danny was lonely.


- 9 -

84 hours missing

Martin was watching Danny sleep when his cell phone rang. It was gone three o'clock and he had offered to take first watch, given that he didn't expect to find sleep until the early hours of the morning anyway. Danny looked different in sleep, his streetwise humor replaced by something close to vulnerability. Martin wondered whether that was what Meryl had glimpsed in him, making her reach out to him in a way that he doubted she would normally do to a representative of law enforcement. She hadn't expressed an opinion on cops but several of her anecdotes had suggested that she had difficulty with authority figures, from the college she'd been thrown out of to the company she worked for now. As someone who had spent his life living up to other people's expectations, he found her refusal to give in to such pressures held a curious appeal.

He opened the phone and spoke softly so as not to wake Danny. 'Fitzgerald.'

This time, the operator must have put Meryl straight through. She was whispering too.

'Martin? He's here.'

He sat up sharply. 'Are you all right?'

'I'm fine. He's just driven up outside. I'll try to keep him here.'

'Okay but... be careful.'

'Always am, sweetie.'

Calls to FBI phones were automatically monitored and somewhere in Martin's brain flickered a faint hope that no one would be checking his logs any time soon. There was no time to worry about it then though.


Danny jerked awake and upright. 'What the-?' Seeing first his surroundings and then his companion must have brought everything back. 'Is he here?'

'No, he's at Meryl's place.'



Despite the care they'd taken and the discussions they'd had at every stage, they'd still guessed wrong. As they let themselves out and hit the highway, Martin wondered if Jack would have done any better. He had a remarkable degree of skill and intuition, which had brought success in many tough cases, but Martin had seen him make bad calls and wrong guesses. Nobody got it right all the time. Still, he felt no better at getting it wrong this time.

He drove northward as fast as he dared, while Danny called in their report and requested backup.

'She'll be okay, Fitz.'

He didn't argue, seeing nothing to be gained by pointing out what they both knew: there was no guarantee of that. He hoped Danny was right and told himself that they had no evidence that Parker was a danger to other people. He'd been involved in a domestic, for sure, but did not appear to have harmed the boy in his care and there had been no reports of any other assaults in the vicinity. Whatever he thought he was doing, it didn't seem to involve indiscriminate violence.

He pulled up out front of the clapboard house with the kiddy toys and got out of the car.

'This her place?' Danny asked.

Martin shook his head. 'Around the back.'

They eased their way down the side of the building. Parker's car was behind Meryl's. The lights in the trailer were on but the drapes were drawn. There was no sign of anything amiss. He found himself examining the trailer, still uneasy what Danny made of his involvement with Meryl. Fresh paint and pots of flowers all around made it look attractive in a feminine kind of way, although that did nothing to disguise the fact that she was an unskilled worker, probably making minimum wage , who lived in a trailer in a back yard in a cheap part of town.

'He might just have come for help.' Danny's words told Martin that he had been thinking of nothing but the case. 'Maybe the cut...?'

They had followed procedure when they called for backup but it might escalate the situation unnecessarily. Martin was tempted to move before reinforcements arrived. The decision was made for him when he heard vehicles down the street. On Danny's instruction, there were no sirens as black-clad figures began to accumulate noiselessly in the shadows. The SWAT commander came forward, introduced himself and asked the status in a businesslike tone that reminded Martin of how he was supposed to act on a case.

'Suspect in the trailer with the resident, a young woman, and possibly a child. He's been missing after a domestic, known to have behavioral problems and learning difficulties.'

The SWAT man nodded curtly. 'Any demands?'

'Doesn't know we're here. We were just about to establish contact.'

'Wait on my mark.'

The man began to deploy his forces, adopting a standard formation around the property. They would clear the area to protect bystanders before they gave the go-ahead for contact.

Martin waited, wondering again how they should tackle the situation.

'You could go in,' Danny suggested.

Martin was about to protest but Danny continued.

'Not as an FBI agent. What if you just dropped by as the boyfriend?'

'Could blow up in our face.'

'Could give us a man on the inside.'

Martin glanced down at his suit. It wasn't looking so great after 14 hours following in Parker's footsteps but it had still cost about $200 more than anything Meryl was likely to wear. Was he being snobbish or would he look out of place?

Danny grinned. 'I've been helping a friend fix up his place. I've got some old clothes in the trunk that might make you fit in better. Haven't even worn them since they last went in the laundry.'

Danny was no slouch when it came to picking a wardrobe but, even if his decorating clothes had started out pricey, their age would mean they could have been picked up in a thrift shop. Martin considered the idea and decided it might be the safest bet. It would put him at more risk but should put everyone else at less risk, Meryl for sure and probably even Parker. He changed hastily in the shadows beside the car, finding Danny's clothes a decent fit. They had only a few spots of paint and otherwise they seemed the sort of thing that a manual worker might wear on the job and not change out of to stop by a regular girlfriend on his way home. Only the sneakers were a problem, being a size too small, but he'd have to live with that since $80-dollar loafers would stand out.

'Look okay?' he checked with Danny.

Danny grinned. 'Beautiful.'

He handed his gun to Danny, who frowned. 'If he's got one, I don't plan to start any shooting, not while Meryl and the kid are in the line of fire. If he hasn't, there's no sense taking one in there for him. He's probably gonna search me at some point.' He adjusted the concealed wire that one of the SWAT guys had fitted while he was changing. 'Hear me?' he checked.

'Loud and clear,' Danny confirmed.


He strode up to the door, adopting an air of confidence that he didn't really feel, and knocked boldly. There was a long pause. He could imagine the confusion inside. Who was it? Ignore them. The lights are on. He hoped Meryl would realize it was him and do her best to support his plan. He knocked again. A few more seconds passed before the door opened by a few inches.

Meryl peered anxiously out. Her eyes were wide and he saw her confusion. She hadn't expected them to try to bluff their way in. He couldn't blame her for that. He hadn't expected them to do that either.

'Hi, honey,' he said, in what he hoped sounded like an average working class voice. He didn't get ambitious with the accent, pitching for generic rather than local. 'Just thought I'd drop by on my way home. Hope I ain't putting y'out.'

'Well, to be honest, baby, you picked a bad time.'

He'd expected her to put him off, no doubt following Parker's instructions, but he was ready for that.

'You got someone in there? Who the hell's car is that?'

'Just a friend,' she tried to pacify him. Please... look, come by tomorrow and I promise I'll make it up to you. I'll even do that thing you like.'

Martin felt the color hit his cheeks. He hadn't asked her to do anything out of the ordinary but he could already hear Danny baiting him about that one when it was all over. Of course, that wouldn't be too bad if it meant that they had all survived to tell the tale.

'Please, baby,' Meryl pleaded again, starting to close the door.

He blocked it with his foot and then shouldered it open, right into Parker. The statistics on his social security record and the blurred picture on his driver's license had not conveyed the power of his physique. Six-foot-one and one-hundred-and-eighty pounds would describe a fair proportion of the laborers in New York. Only when you saw that not one of those pounds was excess fat did you realize Parker's potential to wreak havoc. The knotted muscles in his forearms alone made Martin nervous but he had adopted the role of jealous boyfriend and now he had to play it out.

'Some friend,' he spat.

'No, he is,' Meryl insisted. He couldn't tell how much was real and how much was acting but she certainly sounded anxious enough. 'He's a single parent and his boy's got a cut. He just stopped by to see if I thought he should take the kid to the emergency room.'

Martin glanced swiftly at her, looking for a clue to whether she was speaking the truth or reading from an imaginary script. He was pretty sure it was the truth, except that Parker wasn't a single parent and Meryl knew that. Surely she wouldn't believe him if he suddenly produced a son now. On the other hand, they were only acquaintances and Parker might have a son from an earlier marriage. Suppose he claimed the boy had come to stay because of some problem with his mother. Meryl would probably give him the benefit of the doubt and, in fact, that story would fit the circumstances as well as any other. Perhaps the kid was a new arrival.

One glance at the youngster sitting on the couch banished that thought from Martin's mind. Everything about the kid said he probably had been kept prisoner in the shelter, from the uneven haircut that could only have been created by an amateur to the pale skin and wasted muscles. He was staring with huge, frightened eyes, as well he might if he had never seen anyone but Parker until they went on the run. Studying the assortment of ill-fitting clothes and with few of the clues by which one would normally judge age, Martin guessed he was about four.

Aware of the moments passing, Martin scowled and looked at the kid's arm. An untidy bandage showed a large bloodstain. 'Looks like that'd be a good idea t'me.'

The best thing that could happen was for Parker to walk out with the kid. The waiting agents would take him down without killing him and the situation would be resolved without bloodshed. Only then did Meryl let him down. Now she knew what he had meant when he said there was more to the situation than she knew, she was afraid for Parker. Most likely trying to protect him, she stepped in.

'No, I said I'd put a fresh dressing on it for him. They can always go to the emergency room in the morning if it's no better.'

Parker was watching Martin suspiciously but he clearly trusted Meryl totally. He did not interfere when she went into the kitchen area and opened a cupboard, moments later pulling out a bulging first aid case. She seemed to set some store by having a first aid kid in every space. Martin cursed under his breath, his frustration with her genuine and his expression of it consistent with the role he was playing.

'Suit yourself,' he said sharply and pushed past her to the refrigerator. Yanking the door open, he pulled a beer from an unopened six-pack on the shelf and then slammed the door without offering one to Parker. He sprawled over the far end of the couch from the kid and popped the can messily. He saw Meryl's frown and shrugged, annoyed with her and not caring if she was annoyed with him.

'Cool it, Fitz,' he heard from the tiny receiver that he'd tucked inside his ear.

Making an effort to calm down, he watched as Meryl sat the kid on a stool and inspected the cut. It was deep and ragged, unlikely to be a knife wound and more likely the result of falling against something sharp like a piece of scrap metal. It was certainly consistent with an accident on the waste ground. He considered what he could do with the situation. It sounded as if Parker had lied to Meryl - even he could probably see that the truth wasn't going to sound good - and Martin wondered whether he could wheedle the truth out of the guy.

He looked up at Parker.

'I've got a kid myself, not that I ever see him since my ex-wife took him back to her folks in Oregon.' He spoke the words carefully, injecting lingering affection for his fictitious son and simmering resentment of his equally fictitious ex-wife. He knew he had to watch his step because the sort of man he was pretending to be was unlikely to bear his soul to a stranger. 'Kinda miss the little SOB, even if he was a pain in the ass at times.'

Parker nodded slowly.

'You got custody now?'

Parker frowned. Martin wasn't sure if he didn't know what custody was or didn't know whether he had it.

'Well,' he went on lightly. 'Possession is nine-tenths of the law, ain't that what they say?'

Parker nodded uncertainly. Martin thought he'd probably heard the saying but doubted he knew what it meant. Watching Parker's expression made him begin to understand how tough it must be to live in perpetual confusion, used by a boss who wanted cheap labor and shrieked at by a wife who had presumably married a man like him solely so that she could feel superior to someone in her wretched little existence. He nodded to the refrigerator.


Parker hesitated. He wanted a beer but was still afraid of the whole situation. Martin got one anyway and tossed it to him. If nothing else, a drink or two might take the edge off any reflexes the man might have. Parker opened it and then sat cautiously on the spot that the kid had vacated.

'I look after him.'

Martin had been prepared for the simple and disjointed response to his conversation but he had not been prepared for the forlorn tone in which Parker spoke it. He would bet his life that the man was harmless... if he had not seen Shirley Parker's broken neck with his own eyes.

'Looks like you're doing a good job,' he lied.

'I try.' Parker heaved a deep sigh that came close to a sob. He seemed to have forgotten Martin as the jealous boyfriend and now identified with him as the fellow lone father. 'She never wanted him. So it was down to me. He's my boy.'

'Blood's thicker than water,' Martin agreed tritely.

Parker sucked on the beer. 'When Ronnie was born, she said to...' He lowered his voice. 'Get rid of him... put him out with the garbage.'

Before he could stop himself, Martin had looked up sharply, showing more interest than he intended to. It didn't matter. Parker was staring at the beer can in his hand. Martin met Meryl's gaze and saw in it her horror. She believed Parker completely and Martin was surprised to find that he did too.

'She said no one would know... but I couldn't... he was so...'

Martin leaned forward. 'What did you do? Throw the bitch out?'

Parker looked shocked, as if that thought had never occurred to him. 'Hell, no. Shirl's the smart one. If it wasn't for her, I'd have been locked up long ago.'


Parker frowned in concentration. 'I don't know but that's what she always says.'

'Where is she now?' Martin pressed.

'At home.'

That was true, in as far as it went, but Martin couldn't tell whether it was a deliberate evasion.

'Why don't you take the boy home then?'

'Shirl found out I kept him. She was so mad. She tried...' he looked across at the boy and whispered, '...she tried to hurt him. I shoved her out of the way and got the hell out. We can't go back there.'

'Jesus,' came Danny's voice in Martin's ear. 'He doesn't even know she's dead.'

Parker was becoming agitated. 'She'll call in the men in white coats and they'll lock us up. But I'm not going to let anyone hurt him. We're going to run away.'

Martin recognized the last sentence as a futile hope, something Parker had probably heard on the TV but had no idea how to turn into reality. It was easy to see the great brute as harmless but Martin knew that the appearance was deceptive. If he perceived a threat to the odd child on which he so clearly doted, Parker would kill in an instant. Worse still, Martin suspected he might kill the boy rather than let him be taken by these mysterious men with whom his wife had terrorized him.

'Why not leave the kid with Meryl tonight? She can mind him till you get yourself set up with a place.' He gave a friendly smile. 'Guys like us have gotta stick together.'

Parker shook his head apologetically. 'Thanks, but I couldn't leave him. We gotta stick together. I'll get out of here as soon as he's patched up - I don't wanna get in your way.'

Meryl's bandage fitted snugly on the boy's skinny arm. Martin raised his eyebrows, asking what she thought of the wound. As far as he could judge, she looked confident both that it had happened accidentally and that it was not too serious. Martin gave it one last try.

'It's no trouble, buddy. We'd take good care of him.'

He knew he'd pushed it too far when Parker clutched the boy's good arm and pulled him towards the trailer door. 'You're not taking him. That's how Shirl said it would be. Folk'd say I wasn't fit to have a son and they'd kill him and... and... make sure I couldn't have no more.'

'Oh, Christ.' Danny's voice again, echoing Martin's concern. The man was dangerous, not because he was bad but because his spiteful wife had made him scared enough to do something dumb.

'Nobody's taking him any place,' Martin said soothingly. 'We were just trying to help. Why wouldn't you be fit to have a son?'

'Because I'm not smart enough.' Parker certainly wasn't looking smart at that moment, his face creased into deep lines of worry and confusion. 'I don't know what to do,' he whined pitifully. Caressing the boy's lank hair, he reached into his pocket.

Martin wished he'd kept his gun after all.

Parker drew not a gun but a blade. It was an evil-looking hunting knife but age and wear combined to reassure Martin that it had been acquired long ago for more legitimate purposes. Even so, it had the potential to be fatal at close range. Parker held it out of the boy's sight, clearly agonizing over whether to use it.

'I could put us out of our misery,' he mused. 'Like they do with animals. They don't know nothing about it.'

'You don't want to do that,' Martin kept his voice low and reassuring, throwing aside any pretense of acting and concentrating on what he'd been taught in training. Jack would never have left them alone with such a situation if he'd known how it would unfold, but they were alone and Martin was determined that they would handle it. On paper, Parker had murdered his wife and now he was threatening a child. However much sympathy Martin felt for him, his priority must be the boy.

Parker pulled his son closer into a hug and held the knife to his thin, white throat. There was no fear in the boy's face as he leaned against his father in total trust. The door of the trailer was right behind Parker, held closed only by a flimsy latch.

'Don't do it,' Martin pleaded. 'Put the knife down.'

That was all he could do, conveying to the men outside that Parker held a blade and not a gun.

'It's for the best,' Parker said sorrowfully.

Martin felt any choice he might have had begin to slip away. He sprang to his feet and lunged towards Parker, relying on his own speed and Parker's slowness to give him a chance. The fact that Parker was a southpaw came as an unexpected bonus. Martin's outstretched right palm engaged with Parker's left shoulder and spun him around, throwing his knife arm wide. Pushing the kid out of the way with his left hand, Martin let his momentum carry Parker into the door. It burst open, barely slowing their passage.

If he'd hoped to land on top, Martin was disappointed. Somehow, they twisted in mid-air. The ground came up fast and hit him squarely in the back, knocking the wind out of him. Parker landed half on top of him, crushing the left side of his body and temporarily paralyzing him. He looked up helplessly, seeing the fear and rage of a trapped animal in Parker's face.

The knife glinted in the glow of a streetlamp. It began to fall.

'No!' Martin bellowed.

He thought he heard Danny's voice somewhere in the distance echo his protest.

Then he heard a single gunshot.

It was sniper fire and he knew that it would be aimed to kill. Given the darkness, poor angle and imminent threat to an agent's life, the shooter would not take a chance on trying to disable Parker.

'Shit,' he moaned, as the body fell backwards and send a sharp stabbing pain up his trapped left thigh. 'Shit, shit, shit.'

Above him, Meryl's face appeared in the doorway. She stared on, appalled. He knew she would blame him. He already blamed himself.


- 10 -

It was hours before the scene was cleared but, around dawn, they were finally free to leave.

Meryl looked up at him sadly.

'That was your idea of helping him, was it?'

Not knowing what to say, he said nothing.

'Aren't you guys supposed to be smart? Surely you could have thought of something?'

He heard in her voice the pain of trying to deal with a bad outcome. He knew from experience how hard that could be, even with an FBI training, and expected it would take her some time to reconcile herself to Parker's death.

'You could have let him move on,' she was almost pleading with him now. 'Picked him up another time.'

'We couldn't leave the child at risk,' he told her in the tone of an agent, not a lover. 'It's procedure.'

'Then you need a new procedure,' she flared up at him.

The trouble was that procedures had to serve in every situation. They couldn't get into guessing how much danger the kid was in or what Parker might do to him. A man who managed to kill his wife with his bare hands by accident wouldn't be anyone's first choice of child minder. The sad thing was that, although he could understand how Meryl felt, he knew that she would never understand how he felt. It wasn't until you faced people, not knowing whether you would kill or be killed, not knowing whether they were a victim or a perpetrator, that you understood that there were no easy answers. Even so, just because you lived with the bad stuff didn't mean you didn't feel anything.

One thing he knew was that it was over between them. If he'd had time to think about it, he might have expected to feel relieved. As it was, he just felt empty - even lonelier than he had when he sought solace in her arms. Something had to give, he reflected. If the job, or something else in his life didn't start to look up soon, he would have to make some radical changes.

'I'm sorry,' he said.

She stared at him for a few seconds, on the brink of an outburst, but then sighed. 'Me too. If I hadn't helped you, you might never have found him.'

'At least, the kid'll have a chance.'

'Make sure he does.'

He nodded. It wasn't for her to give him orders or for him to dictate terms to social services but he would do what he could, if only because he felt as bad as she did. He turned away and headed for the car. Danny fell into step beside him. Martin waited for a wisecrack that never came and glanced across at his colleague. Danny held his eye for a second or two, and then, although the sun had barely cleared the horizon, reached into his jacket pocket for his shades. Martin took out his own, looked over his shoulder at Meryl, and then put them on. It was all he could do - hide the feelings that he was unable to bury.


- 11 -

It was the end of the week before Martin got the full forensic report. He and Danny studied it together, equally keen to be sure whether Parker had been telling the truth.

'So the boy wasn't Parker's son,' he read the result in dismay.

Danny pointed at the next set of results. 'But he was Shirley's.'

They looked at each other in amazement.

'So she gets knocked up,' Danny said slowly. 'Has the baby... hell, who'd even notice she was pregnant?'

'Tells him to dump it...' Martin picked up the story.

'But he tries to take care of the kid without her finding out.' Danny breathed out heavily. 'Poor, dumb bastard.'

They leaned back and stared at each other for a while. Another rotten case... another unfair ending.

Martin wondered at the injustice. It was the death of Reyez that had almost cost him his job but it was the cases like Parker that made him feel a failure. They had been the last in a long line of individuals and institutions to let Matthew Parker down. The only thing they could be grateful for was that the boy, Parker's adopted son as it were, might manage to salvage a decent life out of the wreckage of the Parker household. A single-page summary from the departmental psychologist lay on the desk. As well as developmental abnormalities associated with poor nutrition, the boy exhibited a range of behavioral problems consistent with his unconventional infancy but she was of the opinion that he had average intellectual capacity and would make a good recovery in time.

Martin hoped so. Only the boy's future could vindicate their investigation and give meaning to Parker's existence. Then the man would have given life to a son as surely as if he had fathered him. Martin clung to that belief as he added the results to his report and wished his own involvement felt as noble. He knew that he would see three o'clock in the morning many more times before he rediscovered a sleep as sound as the one he had so fleetingly found in Meryl's arms.

Please send comments to Julia Verinder

The title comes from F. Scott Fitzgerald in 'Handle with Care' published in Esquire in 1936:

In a real dark night of the soul, it is always three o'clock in the morning.