Molly Burke was going to die because of a clown.
And not just any clown. An alien clown. With AIDS.
She really had to quit. It was all she could think as she lay splayed out on the floor of trauma room one with a screaming, two-hundred-pound psychotic sitting on her chest.
"Clowns!" the woman howled from above her, spittle flying across Molly's face like a lawn sprinkler. She was leaning so close Molly couldn't possibly miss the glitter of fresh blood on the butcher knife her new patient wielded in her face. "Big clowns!"
If it hadn't been her own blood Molly was looking at on that monstrous knife, this whole thing would have been really funny. It would be later, she decided, when she told it over drinks at the local watering hole. She'd make sure it sounded funny.
Then she'd come back into work and quit.
If she lasted that long.
She was just getting too old for trauma. Her reflexes had failed her. And without her reflexes, a trauma center was the last place Molly should be working. Especially when she couldn't spot a perfect ten on the crazy meter until it was too late.
"Big clowns with red noses."
Triage had announced a new patient to room six. Shortness of breath and chest pain. Twenty-nine-year-old female. Well, the twenty-nine-year old female had been short of breath, all right. She'd been short of breath because she'd been holding it. Against contamination from those AIDSINFECTEDclowns--to whom Molly evidently bore a striking resemblance. By the time Molly had caught on to the urgency of the problem, she'd been flat on her back on the floor being held down by a betrayed paranoid schizophrenic in full cry.
With a knife.
"They want the Water Child," the woman intoned in a high, eerie voice as she rocked back and forth on Molly's much-abused sternum. "They want to kidnap him and give him AIDS. They told me."
"The Water Child?" Molly managed on a gasp and a wriggle. Maybe if she could just dislodge that massive knee from her neck ...
"Yes-s-s-s-s," the woman hissed, sounding distressingly like Gollum. "Didn't you see them? They're waiting for him."
"I didn't ... see anybody. Maybe if I could look."
She was beginning to lose brain cells here. She had to get to the panic button on the wall so she could sound the alarm for the cavalry. She had to figure out what the Water Child was so she could climb inside the delusion and herd this crazy woman into a safety net.
She had to get her butt off this terrazzo floor before her pelvis shattered like an eggshell.
"Please," she begged. "Let me help you."
The patient stared at her. "All right."
And then, as precisely as a debutant, she simply rose to her feet. Molly sucked in her first breath in about ten minutes and scrambled up after her.
"Thank you," she rasped. "Now I can help you look."
That was when she saw the blood on the floor. Clots of it. Right beneath the patient, who Molly now realized was wearing a grimy, fulllength oversize raincoat and galoshes, the kind of schizophrenic uniform that made Molly really nervous. Even without the knife.
And then Molly heard the mewling, like a kitten. From one of the big, saggy pockets.
Great, she thought. Knives and animals. All they needed was a few candles and they'd have a scene from Rosemary's Baby.
"Now then," Molly said in a calm, supportive voice. "Clowns, right? We're looking for clowns? How 'bout if I check the hallway?"
"No. Help me offer up the Water Child. He's the protection ... his gift will end the AIDS ... ."
His gift. His gift.
And Molly, shaky and sweaty with adrenaline, couldn't think straight enough to decipher the code.
"What's your name?" she asked gently, taking another small step toward the wall and that big red panic button.
The woman stiffened. "Why, Water Mother, of course."
"Of course ..."
Molly stumbled to a halt. She looked down at the blood. She heard that curious mewling sound again. She finally put the pieces together.
"Holy shit ..."
The clowns might have been a delusion. The Water Child wasn't. The Water Child that crazy bitch was about to sacrifice with her big, bloody knife. And she was already reaching into the pocket of that raincoat.
Maggie never hesitated. She slammed into the Water Mother like a Green Bay Packer at the line of scrimmage.
Both of them crashed into the wall. The Water Mother screamed. Molly smashed the knife hand against the wall. She got kicked and just about bitten, but the knife clattered to the floor, splattering more blood. Molly threw a shoulder against the woman's chest. The Water Mother spun backward, and Molly caught the newborn infant just as he fell from his startled mother's hand.
Then, finally, she hit the big red button on the wall.
Molly had worked in trauma for thirty years. She was not given to panic. The last time she'd fallen apart on a work line had been the first day she'd laced up her combat boots and walked into the Evac hospital at Pleiku thirty some years ago.
But there was one thing that brought her close. And she held it in her hands as she ran out the treatment room door, the Water Mother screeching behind her and security pounding up the hall.
Babies in trouble made her panic. And the Water Child, all two pounds of him, was in serious trouble.
"She's got a knife!" Molly yelled to security, who skidded almost to a stop at the sight of Molly carrying a handful of dusky infant past them. "And she's pissed!"
At least Molly wasn't alone in hating the idea of caring for a tiny life.Most trauma staff hated kids. Hated trying to deal with their tiny bodies, their tiny hearts, their huge emotional payload. Kiddie codes were almost always an exercise in distress and disaster unless they were handled at a real kiddie hospital. And Grace Hospital, no matter its level-one status as the primary gun and knife club in St. Louis, was not a real kiddie hospital.
But nobody, nobody at that hospital hated critical babies the way Molly did. Nobody saw what she saw when she held them, when she fought for them and lost them.
Fortunately for Molly, there was one staff member on tonight who was impervious to the more terrifying elements of a kiddie code. As she scuttled into the pediatric code room, Molly screamed out for the desk to call a code. Then, she went for the big guns.
Molly threw open the door to find the room already occupied by (believe it or not) a guy taking the temperature on a sniffling toddler. Not tough to throw out, especially when the mother caught sight of what Molly was carrying and jumped straight in the air.
"Sweet Je-sus!" she shrieked, backing away.
"I'm sorry ..." Molly nodded to both the skinny, young African American woman and the forgettable white male tech Molly didn't recognize. "This baby is in distress. Could you ..."
God bless the mother. She grabbed her kid right out of the tech's hands and hit the back door at warp speed. The tech, nervous and dingy as the Water Mother's coat, jumped back a couple of steps when Molly laid the tiny, flaccid body on the cart.
"You new here?" she demanded, yanking open the drawers of the crash cart.
Flushing a dirty red, he gulped. "They, uh, pulled me from the floor. I'm cross-trained from, uh, housekeeping ..."
No wonder she didn't know him. He was one of the interchangeable mass of undertrained serfs that medicine now used to staff their hospitals. He wouldn't even have imprinted on her at all, except for the red rope of keloid scarring at his collarbone. Like seeing a bloated worm crawl up a guy's neck.
Forcing a smile, Molly motioned the tech toward the door. "You might want to catch that mother and find another room for her baby."
He fled, which left Molly with one near-dead preemie, a personal heart rate of close to two hundred, and a thousand decisions to make.
"Code Blue One, Emergency Department room three," the pager announced overhead. "Code Blue One, Emergency Department room three."
Code Blue One. Dead Baby Alert. People would run fast, breathe faster, and pray somebody else would take the responsibility. And Molly, still alone in the room, knew better than to do anything to this fragile, barely formed package without help. So, with sweating, shaking hands, she gathered equipment.
The baby lay in a growing pool of water and blood. The umbilical cord still dangled to the cart, the end of it looking gnawed and raw. Otherwise, the Water Child was perfectly formed: tiny hands and tiny feet and a beautiful little head. And a purple, still body.
Molly could barely look at it.
"You bellowed?" a cool voice greeted her from the door.
Busy yanking out suction catheters and ET tubes and O2 setups, Molly damn near fainted in relief. "It's a submariner, Sash."
A "submariner" being a baby who'd been born right into the toilet. A "Water Child." Sasha Petrovich took a second to evaluate the lifeless form on her bed and nodded. "Okay."
That was all the reaction they were going to get. Sasha, with her classic blond looks and spotless attire and dust-dry wit, was the perfect pediatric critical nurse. She never saw fit to be flustered by the fragile lives in her care. She never wasted that much energy.
"How long?" she asked, slipping on a gown and gloves.
Molly's hands were shaking so badly she could barely attach the EKG leads to the patches. If she'd tried to put the patches on the baby's chest before connecting the leads, the simple act of pushing in the connectors would crush those gossamer ribs. "I don't know how old. I heard it making noise till about a minute ago."
Sasha nodded again. "Then let's tube him. Give me a two-point-five, okay? And give me an umbilical cath. Good thing it's warm out today. Fidget might just have a chance ... geez, who cut this cord? Lassie? Get me some Betadine. Lots of Betadine."
Sasha had just gotten the endotracheal tube down when the rest of the team tumbled in the door. Respiratory took over bagging so that Mollycould do one-fingered CPR, and a supervisor stood in paralytic shock over by the crash cart.
"Take a breath," Sasha advised Molly dryly as she drew blood from the umbilical vein before hooking up the IV line.
"I will," Molly assured her, her own focus on imagining a viable rhythm on the monitor. "Later."
This wasn't the time she should be doing this. Not this. She could barely keep her feet in the room. Fortunately, the pediatric resident finally sailed in, coat flapping like a kite in a high breeze, lunch still clutched in one hand. Molly relaxed in minute increments. Bill was almost as sanguine as Sasha about these little crises.
"Who was fishing under the limit in here?" he brayed. "Throw this little carp back till it's bigger."
"That particular pond is dry, Bill," Sasha informed him, drawing up meds in tuberculin syringes.
"Where is she, this nurturing body of water that spat out our little fish?"
"With any luck," Molly answered, "being introduced to the joys of four-point restraint by security. She was in the process of sacrificing the Water Child here before the clowns got it."
"The clowns did get it," the resident assured them with a rattling laugh. "Jesus, Molly, what'd you do, wrestle a wookie to the ground to bring this kid in?"
"As a matter of fact, Bill," she said with a shaky grin, "yes I did. You don't behave, you're next."
Bill waved his sandwich at her. "Don't toy with me, Molly. I have a weaker heart than our little fish here."
Their little fish had a stronger heart than Molly had thought. After only another hour and a half of sweat, swearing, and a judicious application of the Pediatric Advanced Life Support treatment algorithms, the team bought the baby a viable rhythm, a quivering attempt at breathing, and a transfer to the real pediatric hospital down the street.
It also left Molly as spent as her bank balance and fully horizontal in the nurses' lounge.
"Ya know," Sasha said from where she leaned against the doorway,"you've been a nurse since Nixon was a crook. You'd think you'd be used to this shit by now."
"It was the surprise," Molly said without opening her eyes on the couch, where she lay like a slug. "If the Water Mother had just said right off, 'Hey, I have a one-kilo preemie in my pocket,' I probably wouldn't have hyperventilated. But she was too busy trying to redesign my face with a flensing knife."
"A face which is going to need some attention," Sasha said.
Molly waved her off. "Right after I start breathing again."
Sasha just watched her for a moment. "You're not going to save them all, ya know. You're probably not even going to save most of them. Which most of them might just thank you for."
A sentiment Molly would do well to cross-stitch and hang over her locker. But not one she needed to hear right now, especially when she was trying so hard to keep herself together all by herself. To cram the old memories safely away where they belonged, but where they refused to stay during Christmastime.
"You really are much more fun to live with in October," Sasha admitted, as if she could hear Molly's thoughts.
"I told you," Molly admitted wearily. "My regression festivals are scheduled every Christmas and summer. I wet the bed and throw tantrums." She sighed. "And I have a little more trouble dealing with kids."
She had a little more trouble dealing with everything. She had ever since her halcyon days in Vietnam half a lifetime ago, but she'd been managing pretty well until the last eighteen months or so. In that time, she'd forfeited her savings and the job she'd held at one of the more posh St. Louis County hospitals to a malpractice suit, and she'd lost her psychiatrist to suicide. Now she had two jobs, no money, and a once-again precarious hold on her peace of mind.
But then, she also had the friends she'd found when she'd been relegated to the battered old halls of the Grace Hospital ED in downtown St. Louis, and a new sense of purpose in her second job as part-time death investigator for the city Medical Examiner. For the moment, though, stability was still something that she'd relegated to "mirage in the distance" status.
But heck, she'd survived before. She could do it again. She just didn't feel like doing it at Christmas.
Or around two-pound preemies.
"I think I should retire, Sash."
Sasha even had an elegant snort. "And do what? Play death investigator full time? Even with all those buff young police to dally with, you'd be bored in a minute."
"At least it would be easier," she retorted.
As death investigator, her job was to filter the notifications of death throughout the city. Report the naturals and show up at the unnaturals to examine and take control of the body before seeing it safely back to the morgue, where the Medical Examiner would take over. Help organize the information if the case had to move toward trial.
Time consuming, yes. Detail-intensive, sometimes emotionally exhausting, since the death investigator usually notified families in the bad cases. But not dangerous. Not overwhelming. Not ever out of control, which trauma always was.
Molly sighed again, her attention on the Olsen Twins poster somebody had tacked to the ceiling and then redesigned with glued-on feathers, sequins, and G-strings.
"I'm tired," she said. "I'm old. I'm too cranky to be empathetic anymore."
Sasha lifted an eyebrow. "And the problem is?"
Molly had to grin.
"Please don't expect me to be your cheerleader," Sasha all but begged. "You know I find it distasteful."
"You're charge nurse. It's your job."
"Balancing the staff like a circus juggler and not massacring the doctors is my job. Yours is to come to work so I have someone worth talking to."
Molly didn't bother to look over, even for such a compliment. Sasha was fifteen years younger and a hundred years more world weary than Molly on her best days.
"Would you consider accepting a bribe?" Sasha asked.
"Is that part of your job, too?"
"Whatever it takes."
Molly heard Sasha reach into her pocket. She heard the rustle of cellophane. She almost came straight off the couch.
"You're fighting dirty and you know it," she accused, already salivating.
"It's a present from James," Sasha said. "He heard of your act of heroism and tubed me something special for you."
Molly's eyes closed in ecstasy. James was the evening pharmacy supervisor and supplier of the drug of choice for most of the nurses in the hospital. "Well, why didn't you tell me right away?" she demanded, her body reacting without her consent. "What is it?"
Sasha smiled like a pimp with a virgin in the closet. "What is it you want?" she asked.
Sighing, Molly briefly let her eyes go closed again as she battled a sharp flood of saliva. "Ding Dongs."
Sasha swept her hand from behind her back with a flourish and dropped the cellophane-wrapped package on Molly's stomach. "Have we ever disappointed?"
Anyone who saw Molly rip through the cellophane would have thought she'd been starving on the desert. She took one bite of saturated fat, sugar, and preservatives and felt her life force returning.
"I might just make it," she said with a profound sigh.
"Security, Emergency Department, stat! Security, Emergency Department, stat!"
"Oh, shit!" somebody yelled outside the lounge door. "She got away!"
Feet pounded down the hall. Molly sank back into the couch, her treat all but forgotten. She should have known.
"Uh ... Ms. Burke?" came a hesitant voice from the doorway. The voice of that security guard she'd warned not two hours earlier.
"You let the Water Mother get away," Molly accused without opening her eyes. "Didn't you?"
"Well, ma'am, she seemed ... well, quite calm ... uh, after you left."
"Tell me you at least took the knife away."
Molly took a few long moments to battle a sudden, flashing rage. She really was too old for this. And the rages never got easier, untidy bequestsshe'd inherited from the post-traumatic stress disorder she'd brought home with her from Nam. She came within an inch of giving this guy a broken nose just because he was incompetent.
"Ms. Burke?" the security guard ventured.
"Give her a minute," Sasha advised dryly. "At least until her eyes stop glowing."
Molly wanted to laugh. She couldn't. Hell, she could barely breathe.
"Call the police. It won't take long before she accuses some other clown of stealing her sacrifice."
The security guard got out of there so fast his big shoes flapped.
"See what I mean?" Molly asked a wryly amused Sasha, who still stood quietly by. "I used to be able to just laugh off stupid shit like that."
Sasha motioned for Molly to finish her Ding Dong. "Babies always set you off."
Molly did. "And, more and more, idiots," she admitted around a mouthful of mood elevator. "And more and more idiots are working in hospitals."
"Your security friend there's been with us all of three months," Sasha admitted. "I hear he worked at a Safeway market before that."
"Protecting frozen foods from potentially violent condiments, most likely." Finally giving into the inevitable, Molly tossed the remaining cellophane in the trash and climbed to her feet to finish her shift. "And who the hell was that new tech I threw out of three?"
Sasha's laugh was as dry as insurance forms. "Another cross-trainee in the brave new world of Kmart management. He's one of those housekeeping guys who's also doing patient care now."
Molly glared at her friend and charge nurse. "And you let them send him down here?"
Sasha shrugged. "He's mostly been emptying linen and cleaning crash carts. Don't worry. He'll be back up on the floor before you know it."
"By which time I'll be retired, puttering in my garden, and thinking fondly of the good old days."
Sasha didn't bother with empathy as she led Molly back up the work lane. "No you won't. You'll get in a good gunshot wound and be fine again. Just stay away from the kids."
Just stay away from the kids. Yeah, Molly thought as she pulled up in front of her home three hours later. Sasha was right. It was the kids who mostly set her off. In the hot, humid summers they transported her back to the red mud of the Vietnamese highlands. In the winter, they made her dread Christmas, when happy families forced her to remember that she had none of her own. If she could stay away from the kids, she'd be all right. If she could stuff the memories back where they belonged.
Shutting off the engine in her faded red Celica, Molly gathered her purse and nursing bag and climbed out of the car. The air was soft and damp tonight, the temperature hovering in the fifties. Typical St. Louis December. Fifties one nanosecond, minus twenties the next. Like Sasha had said, it was a good thing the Water Baby had decided to make his appearance on a warm day. If the temperature had been down another twenty degrees, he never would have survived the ride in.
He was still surviving. Barely. Surrounded by enough high-tech equipment to launch a space shuttle, wrapped in cellophane and foil to preserve his body temperature, so that the NICU nurses would call him "Spuds," isolated and alone and dependent on strangers to remember to stroke him so he could recognize himself as human. And all that so he could end up being discharged from the hospital just about the time his mother got custody back.
No wonder babies made her crazy.
Molly deliberately stopped a moment to consider her lawn. Even in the dead of winter, it pleased her. The flowers wouldn't be back for months, the trees were skeletal and scratchy in the wind, and the grass was brown and dormant. But there was order here. There was a predictability and pattern she could affect with her hands. There was beauty and structure and life. Considering what she usually had to deal with from either one of her jobs, not a bad thing to come home to.
It would have been nice if that feeling had only extended to her house. Sighing, Molly trudged on up the concrete steps to the small square front porch that fronted the Federalist house her grandparents had passed down. A classic, black-shuttered, red-brick box chockful of expensive artifacts her parents had collected and cherished, it reeked of security and elegance.
Most of her friends saw it as a privilege to live there. Maggie saw it as a prison, the place she finally came back to when she couldn't run anymore.A trap of family pretension she'd never quite escaped and certainly didn't own.
Molly slid the key in the front door and wondered again what her life might have been like in a different house. A crowded, messy, noisy house. Instead, she'd grown up smothered in social snobbery. She'd had two parents who spent all their energy on achievement and their diplomacy on strangers. She had memories of housekeepers serving up Christmas and infrequent visits from a brother who devoted himself to carrying on the family tradition.
Molly never had. She'd fought every restraint and grown contempt like cancer. She'd become a nurse because they'd wanted her to become a diplomat, like a good Burke. She'd slogged through the mud of Vietnam instead of embassy hallways and come home disinherited.
It was her brother Martin who owned the house she lived in, his two sons the ones the valuables were held in trust for. Maggie, the failure, would be allowed to live there on sufferance as long as she kept the Burke Shrine intact. She could touch nothing, change nothing, expect nothing.
Molly had run to the ends of the earth to escape the trap they'd set for her. After two failed marriages and thirty years of flight, here she was.
She'd sure shown them.
Well, at least the house wasn't the ED. There were no babies here to panic her, no trauma to survive. Only silence, expensive trinkets she hated, and a shower of bills scattered across the glossy hardwood floor where they'd fallen from the mail slot. After the shift she'd had, she couldn't say she minded so much.
The minute she stepped onto that hardwood floor, a monster the size of a small truck let loose with a spate of barking that should have awakened the dead.
Molly smiled. Okay, expensive trinkets she hated and a big, sloppy dog she loved.
"Hey, Magnum, it's me!" she called, shutting the door behind her and setting the alarm.
Magnum didn't seem impressed. A massive red-and-brown head popped briefly out the kitchen door, slid back in to safety, and continued barking. Maggie bent to pick up her mail and chuckled.
"Knock it off," she crooned, just as she did to the babies at work. "Burglars aren't impressed unless you actually come out of hiding to bark at them, honey."
But she was grinning anyway. She'd wanted children. Somehow she'd ended up with a puppy the size of a Clydesdale. A puppy who was now whining as if she'd personally insulted him. Maggie was chuckling at his noise as she leafed through the most predictable of her bills.
She stopped, one envelope caught in her suddenly shaky hands.
Magnum whined. Maggie didn't notice. Her heart stuttered. Her chest hurt. Her gut clenched.
It was just a plain white envelope. Nothing more. Her name and address in black ink.
She couldn't bear to open it.
Holding it tight in her hand, she looked up into the shadows, struggling for breath.
Not now. Oh, not now. I can't deal with any more tonight.
It was such a stupid reaction. So embarrassing. She was standing alone in the most secure house in the city of St. Louis, and she was suddenly afraid. She was checking shadows and startling at noises because of a plain white envelope.
But she'd gotten four others, and they'd frightened her, too.
She wanted to just stand there. She wanted to hide. She wanted to feed the damn thing to her dog. She opened it instead.
Not even original. Not particularly poetic or flowery. Not something that should cause palpitations.
But it wasn't the words that upset her. Heck, she'd been called worse by Sasha. It was finding them tucked away in her mail like spiders in a basket. It was the subterfuge of a plain white envelope and careful printing. It was the black, slashing letters inside that tore right through the paper, as if words alone couldn't possibly express the rage.
It was not knowing who sent them. Or why.
She'd called the police. They'd said to save the notes, and let them know if anything escalated.
She guessed she'd have to call them again.
Molly was just turning toward the kitchen to do that, to feed Magnum and let him out to maul her sleeping bulbs in the backyard, when she realized that she wasn't out of surprises for the night.
For a moment, she just stared into the darkened living room. Dared the precise shadows of her house to reassemble themselves into their correct pattern. The pattern she'd seen no more than twelve hours earlier.
"Magnum," she muttered, suddenly really afraid. "Just who did you let in here tonight?"
The late Catherine Louise and Martin Francis Burke, Sr., had spent their lives traveling in the service of the government and collecting tasteful collectibles with what was left of the family inheritance. As far back as Molly could remember, the Burke house had held the finest that Waterford, Chippendale, and Sèvres had to offer, not to mention the odd Feininger oil or Hopper watercolor. Molly knew each one like an adversary and checked on its health more frequently than her remaining family's. Which was why she would realize so quickly that there was an empty square of wall space over the Steinway. A square where the Rembrandt sketch had always resided.
Molly's spirits, already dangerously low, sank straight to her toes. She looked at the wall. Around the room. Back over her shoulder as she tried to remember whether she'd set the alarm properly that morning. She walked on into the room and checked behind the furniture and potted plants, as if she really could have taken the damn thing down and then forgotten where she'd put it.
"Please let this just be an episode of Twilight Zone, where I'm in an alternate universe that doesn't include Rembrandt," she begged.
Almost in response, Magnum started barking again. Molly jumped a foot. Her night had been bad enough. But this was seriously teetering toward chaos. She held on to that note, as if it were her only proof of sanity, and turned to the kitchen.
Magnum was delirious to see her. Molly almost ended up on her butt beneath eighty pounds of sloppy enthusiasm, but she managed to get him out the back door, and then she turned for the phone.
Molly had managed to punch no more than the nine when Magnum started barking again. A second later her doorbell rang.
"With my luck," Molly groused to herself, trying hard to ignore thesudden reacceleration of her heart, "it's the Water Mother coming back for her sacrifice."
Even so, she grabbed her portable phone and headed for the front door. And noticed on the way what was missing from the Queen Anne cabinet in the corner.
Molly took one look through her peephole and laughed. "I'd heard response times were getting better," she said when she got the door open, "but this is ridiculous."
The cop on her doorstep reminded her a lot of Magnum. Huge, a little sloppy, kind of clumsy, and smiling. Dee, or Delight Jackson Smith, was one of the local uniforms who walked a beat in the Central West End. Because a certain amount of Molly's calls for the Medical Examiner's office also happened to be from the same general neighborhood, she saw a lot of Dee.
Tonight she was particularly glad to find him on her porch.
"You lookin' for me?" he asked in his deceptively slow voice.
"I was. I've been robbed."
Dee scratched his bald head. "No kiddin'. Wanna hear a coincidence? No more'n half hour ago, I sees this kid hoppin' fences with a picture under his arm. One of your pictures, I'm thinkin'. Admired it when I was over 'bout those notes you been getting. Tried to call you at work but you already gone."
Molly was astounded. "You found my Rembrandt before I reported it stolen? You deserve a raise, Dee."
His grin was huge and shambling. "From your mouth, girl. Thing is, I got a kid here says how can he steal somethin's his anyway? Well, I figure, 'fore I smack his head for bein' a smartass, I should aks you. Be sure. This your painting?"
He held up his burden. Ten-by-twelve inches of faded yellow paper that held a red-charcoal-sketched girl in peasant dress, all wrapped in enough carved gilt to deck out a ship's figurehead. Molly sighed in relief. Well, at least one of her problems was solved. "It is."
"Well, then, who's this?"
At which point he reached out to his right and yanked over Molly's third or fourth surprise for the night.
She gaped. "Oh hell."
Magnum had started up again. It was after one in the morning, and her dog was throwing himself against the back door and howling. Molly had to take care of it.
In a minute.
"He lyin' to me, Molly?" Dee demanded, shaking the teenager like a rat in his meaty grasp. "'Cause I already told him what'd happen, he was. And bein' you be gettin' those threatening notes and all, I thought I might jus' be sure."
As achy and tired and overwhelmed as she already was, Molly damn near sat right down on the floor and cried.
He was sixteen. Beanpole tall, waiting to fill out. Blessed with the face of a poet and the grace of an angel. Molly took in thick, curling strawberry blond hair, a soft auburn goatee on a young, fey, triangular face, huge, lashheavy hazel eyes that were now leaking tears of frustration. She saw the five-hundred-dollar leather-and-khaki duster, work pants, plaid flannel shirt, and, ruining the gangsta image, Bruno Maglis.
He was the very last thing Molly needed tonight. She almost told Dee she'd never seen him before and shut the door.
Molly shook her head. "He isn't lying, Dee. He does own it. Kind of. Stand up straight, Patrick. You have some explaining to do."
"I'm sorry, Aunt Molly," he all but whispered in a marginally masculine voice.
Molly sighed, stood aside, and wished hard for something stronger than aspirin. "Might as well come in. This is going to take some time."
"I bet," Dee agreed, pushing the boy in the door ahead of him.
"I didn't mean it," Patrick insisted in aggrieved tones.
"Of course you didn't mean it, Patrick," Molly assured him drily. "It was an accident that you got a thousand miles from your house in Virginia, to walk off with the Rembrandt"--he'd just about been ready to step past her when she grabbed a corner of duster--"and the jade hung-ma."
"The hung what?" Patrick echoed innocently.
"The jade what?" Dee echoed much more darkly one step behind.
Molly didn't take her eyes off her nephew. "Believe it or not, I do notice those things, Patrick. The small carving on the third shelf of the Queen Anne cabinet in the dining room--the deep blue one that lookslike it's part horse, part dragon? It's missing. It was also a good choice. It's quite rare."
Tears welled all over again and he gulped. "I needed to get away. I didn't think you'd care."
She didn't. That was the worst part. No, the worst part was having her only brother's older son on her doorstep four weeks before Christmas when the only thing she possessed less of than yule cheer was Christian charity. Especially toward her family.
"You've been getting threats, Aunt Molly?" the boy asked as she closed the door behind them. "Maybe I could stay and help ... uh, protect you, okay?"
"You get in the kitchen and sit down," she commanded. "As soon as you hand over the hung-ma."
Magnum was going to wake up the baby at the end of the block. Pointing to her nephew, Molly addressed her friend the cop. "Don't let him out of your sight. I'll be right back."
"But Aunt Molly--"
But Aunt Molly was already stalking through the kitchen, where she could just make out Magnum's massive head outside the door.
He had something. Something he dropped every time he started barking, and then picked up again, like a furry bellboy with room service.
That shouldn't have given Molly the creeps. Tonight, it did. It looked like a flower box, the kind long-stemmed roses come in.
Probably something that had been tossed over the fence from the neighboring streets. Molly's yard sided along Euclid, where an eclectic crowd frequented the trendy shops and restaurants tucked all along the Central West End. Since she'd moved home, Molly had found everything from condoms to a full-sized mannequin dressed as Fidel Castro in her backyard.
But the way Magnum played with that box made her think she had more than Castro on her hands.
Pushing the door open, Molly reached out, and Magnum obliged, dropping his prize in her hand. Slick with dog drool and ragged with careful gnaw marks, it was, indeed, a flower box. And it wasn't empty.
"Uh, Dee?" she called, suddenly even more worried about those notes she'd been getting than she had been. "Can you come in here?"
He did, which set Magnum off all over again. Molly shushed the dog and motioned the policeman over as she laid the box on her kitchen table and opened it.
She saw the glint of gold first. Nestled in layers of white tissue. Heavy and solid. But not all gold. Decorated in gold. Painted with gold hearts. Gold hearts and red crosses.
And letters. Words.
"What the hell--" Dee muttered, leaning in for a closer look as Molly pulled the last layer of tissue apart to fully reveal what lay within.
"It's a fake," Molly insisted, even though she knew better.
She didn't touch it, even though she wanted to. She didn't pick it up or tilt it over just to make sure she was right.
She didn't have to, really. After all the time she'd spent in EDs and Medical Examiner's offices, it was virtually impossible for her not to recognize a human thighbone.
A thighbone painted with the salutation "This is for Molly Burke."
HEAD GAMES. Copyright © 2004 by Eileen Dreyer.