Part 2

They strolled to the windows in silence. Robert checked the room's reflection. The men on the couch were still oblivious, and Marguerite was giving Sandahl a minor scolding. Sandahl himself was keeping a casual eye on Robert and Ann.

"Are you angry with me?" Ann finally asked.

He glanced at her in surprise. "Should I be? By the way, this champagne's safe, I opened the bottle myself."

She sipped to cover her edginess. "I hid behind the piano the whole time you were gone. I didn't find out anything." She kept thinking about the lissome blonde undressing for Robert.

"You're spooked about something. What happened?"

"Decadence, debauchery, me providing the soundtrack for it all. I kept playing because I didn't want anyone remembering I was unattached. Being Muzak seemed safer."

"I wish I could say it was for a good cause. Maggie seems completely loyal to him. I couldn't budge her."

"At least you got her clothes back on her," she muttered.

Robert stared at her. "I told her I preferred my women to be at least high school graduates," he said mildly. Ann's brief, catty smile amused him. "She offered to show me things you couldn't learn in school."

Ann heard the displeasure in his voice. "I don't think she has any plans to go back to Buffalo."

"I asked her how she got hooked up with Sandahl," Robert went on. "She said she was introduced by a girl named Carolina, who afterwards dropped out of sight. I got the impression Carolina was recruiting. Marguerite says Genevieve has gone out looking for new girls."

"Sandahl asked me if I thought you'd be willing to loan me out in return for Maggie," Ann said reluctantly.

"Did he? Women as commodities. I was offered a share of Marty's weekly drug shipment for you." She stared at him. He kissed her and smiled reassuringly. "I turned him down, of course."

"Thank you."

Genevieve and Hyacinth came back into the living room. They looked a little the worse for wear. They headed for the bar, where the bartender poured them drinks from a concealed 7-Up bottle.

"Is anyone looking for them, I wonder?" Ann said softly.

Robert followed her gaze. "I don't know. I hope so." He sighed. "I'm stumped. Without telling Maggie the truth, I can't think of any way to shake her."

Ann glanced over at Maggie. She was still sitting on Sandahl's lap, her head on his shoulder. She didn't see that he looked mostly bored as he studied the room. Was he thinking he needed some new blood in his stable? He caught Ann watching him and smiled. She tried not to turn away too quickly. "I have an idea."

"Good."

"Let me talk to her. She's not pleased with me. I might be able to sneak a few more truths in. Like I said, you see daughter, I see stupid girl who's going to get a large hunk of reality in the face sooner or later."

Robert considered. "It could work. How do you want to work it?"

"You distract Sandahl with business, I'll drag her off. We'll see what happens."

He nodded and studied her out of the corner of his eye. "Why did you think I was angry with you?"

She fidgeted with her glass. "You didn't look pleased when you saw me with Sandahl."

"My dear, I wasn't. But then you weren't exactly happy to see me with Marguerite. Was he being very insistent?"

"He kept his hands mostly to himself, but yes. He said he thought it was an unfair double standard for you to be off having fun while I wasn't."

Robert stared at her, not believing what he heard in her voice. "Anastasia, you are honestly jealous."

"Am not," she muttered. "I knew what you were up to."

"But you didn't like her making the offer." He knew better than to smile.

She hesitated, then faced him squarely. "No, I didn't," she said defiantly. "Not one little bit."

He laughed and kissed her. "Darling, none of these girls holds a candle to you. You should be flattered that I'm getting offers for you."

Ann relaxed, but only a little. "The idea of being bid on is not completely comfortable."

"So what can I do to reassure you that the only woman I'm interested in is you?" He rested his hand on her cheek. "That either of us would be willing to do here, that is."

She smiled. "I'm willing to wait until we get home."

He sighed unhappily. "But before we can go home ..."

"Yeah."

"Give me a few moments to peel him away from her." He paused. "Don't be too hard on her."

"I promise not to throw her into anything."

"Having fun?" Sandahl said as Robert approached. Marguerite straightened but made no effort to get off Sandahl's lap.

"The evening is having its moments." Robert smiled at the girl. "The ladies are quite gracious hostesses." It was the best he could manage for civility on the subject, but she looked pleased. "Pietro, how firm is your rule about not discussing business?"

"Fairly firm." He traced a pattern on Marguerite's thigh. "I prefer to have fun at these parties."

"How unfortunate." Robert sipped his champagne. "You made an offer to Anastasia that I believe bears discussion."

"Oh, really?" Sandahl pushed Marguerite to her feet. "And she was so certain you wouldn't have anything to do with the idea."

Robert turned to look at Ann thoughtfully. From the way her eyes narrowed, something in his expression bothered her. That was the idea. "Every now and then," he said easily, "a man gets tired of working so hard for his relaxation. Something a little less ... involved is required."

"A TV dinner as opposed to a gourmet meal. Less effort but essentially the same."

Robert took another drink to cover his desire to punch the man. "Not the most gallant of metaphors, but that's the idea."

Marguerite was trying to follow the conversation and not liking what she thought she heard. "What offer?"

Sandahl patted her rump. "Don't worry about it. Go make nice."

She humphed and stalked off. Ann started on an intercept course.

"I don't think the ladies will be too pleased," Sandahl grinned.

"That could be a problem," Robert said.

"No, not really. The TV dinner analogy fits. Cheap, disposable, infinitely replaceable."

Robert bit his tongue hard and vowed to break him. He glanced once more over his shoulder. Ann had gotten Marguerite's attention.

"I want to talk to you," Ann told the girl firmly.

Marguerite glared at the older woman. "Good. The balcony's private."

"I hope you're not thinking of throwing me off it," Ann said softly.

The girl remembered Marty flying through the air. "No," she said reluctantly.

The breeze on the 44th floor was stiff and chilly, but the view was worth it. Ann walked to the waist-high wall to look out over Central Park and the glittering city beyond. Marguerite studied her, trying to figure out what made her special. Good God, there were even lines on her face.

"How old are you?" she finally demanded.

Ann glanced over her shoulder. "I'll be thirty in a few months. About twice your age." She lifted her hair off the back of her neck, letting the wind wash some of the evening's taint out of her mind.

"Thirty? God. I hope I don't live to be old."

"Keep living like this and you'll get your wish."

Marguerite shrugged that off. "What's this offer Pietro made to you? Robert's in there talking to him about it."

"Is he." Ann glanced into the room. Robert was still chatting with his host, but every line of his body showed disgust. She hoped he could talk his way out of whatever idea Sandahl was proposing. She couldn't help letting some of her annoyance show. "Briefly put, this offer proposes that I stay here and you go with Robert."

"What? I won't leave Pietro."

Ann met the girl's eyes. "I don't believe our opinions have any bearing on the matter." Thank God she didn't have to listen to that conversation. Robert had warned her how he might have to treat her, but that didn't mean she had to like being a commodity.

Marguerite was still struggling with the idea. "He wouldn't do that to me. He loves me. He said so."

"And Reagan said he didn't know anything about Iran-Contra."

"I don't believe you," Marguerite said firmly.

"Kid, do you think I'd want to make up something like that?" Ann studied the girl's defiant pose, her perfect blonde hair, and young body. Why the hell was she feeling threatened? She channeled that feeling into her role. "If Robert thinks I'd go along with it, he's got another thing coming. I wouldn't have that scum of yours if he came with the keys to Fort Knox."

"He's very nice! He loves me."

"Sweetheart, I don't care if it's the purest love since Romeo met Juliet, he's turning you into a whore."

Marguerite gasped in outrage. "Well, you're no better!"

"I'm not one of three and having men take turns at me." Ann wondered if the girl was going to storm off, but apparently she was determined to defend her man.

"I think you're making up this story about Pietro wanting you," Marguerite said haughtily. "When I'm your age, I hope the only men who find me attractive aren't too old to do anything." She swallowed at the look in Ann's eyes.

Don't do it, Ann told herself. You're supposed to be trying to help the stupid bitch. "Doesn't it bother you that your protector is dickering with Robert to trade you off?"

"If it was true, it might."

"Boy, you've really bought into all this, haven't you. 'I love you, I wish I didn't have to ask this of you, someday I'll keep you for myself.' Did I miss anything?"

Marguerite clamped her jaw shut.

"I hope you're getting health benefits, you're going to need them." Only confusion showed in the girl's eyes, and a dreadful suspicion bloomed. "My god, he lets you use condoms, doesn't he?"

She blushed. "Those are icky."

"Jesus Christ! So's AIDS, girl! Have you been tested? Has he?"

"Uh ..."

Ann stared, horrified. "Didn't it ever cross your mind?"

"It's a gay disease--isn't it?"

"Oh, Maggie, this guy is going to kill you--and himself, but not soon enough." She shivered. If Robert had been one jot less honorable...

"Why did you call me Maggie?"

"Excuse me?"

"My name's Marguerite," she said tensely.

"My apologies." Ann thought carefully. "Maggie just seemed right." She stared at the girl, wondering how to salvage this young life. "Why did you run away from home?" she asked quietly.

Marguerite jumped. "What makes you think--"

"Girls your age don't normally end up in situations like this. Your parents beat you?"

"What? No!"

"Some relative put the moves on you?"

"No!"

"So why?"

Marguerite looked away and went to stand by the balcony's edge. "I got bored. Such a nowhere place." She shrugged and tried to look sophisticated. "I wanted to see more of life than my parents would let me. They wouldn't even let me date!"

"Well, you've more than made up for that." Ann leaned on the railing next to her.

"It's not like they don't know where I'm at," Marguerite said softly. "I wrote them a letter to tell them I'm fine. There's no reasons for them to worry."

"Nature of the beast, I'm afraid. My mother still worries about me."

"I keep meaning to call them, but I never get the time." She fidgeted with her hair. "They'd just make me come home."

"And expect you to show up in Algebra class as if nothing had ever happened."

Marguerite looked at her. "You're the first one who understands that."

Ann stared out at the blinking Chrysler Building. "I've tried to pretend that nothing's changed. It doesn't work. It's happened, and you've got to deal with it. I imagine the senior prom would seem a little tame after all this."

"There's nothing there for me. Not now."

"Hopefully people who love you. That generally counts for something. What do you have here?"

"Pietro ..." Her voice faded off.

"Oh, Marguerite, to him you're a pretty toy to amuse his guests. I waited a long time for Robert. I know how lucky I am."

"Does he love you?

Ann felt her heart chill. "I don't know," she said softly. "He likes to be with me and all that, but love? I don't know."

"Do you love him?" Somewhere that had to be in the equation. Marguerite didn't want to think of these kinds of relationships without love.

"Oh, yes," Ann said softly. "I do love him, God help me." She took a deep breath. "I guess it could be worse for you. You're not down on the street spreading your legs to perfect strangers for food or your next fix. There's no pimp beating you up because you're behind on your quota." She heard Marguerite make a noise of protest and wondered which statement had struck too close to home. "I've lived in this city all my life. It's a nasty place. If you're going to survive doing this, you have to learn some nasty truths. Those men in there could care less about your name. All they're interested in is a pretty body and open legs. If you're not here next week, they won't even notice."

For a moment she believed she was a woman for sale, and a hatred of the kind of men who went shopping took her. "They're making deals with our lives in there, Maggie. You could do a lot worse than Robert, but I'd sooner gut Sandahl then bed him. If you don't want to be traded off, make a stand."

Marguerite didn't object to the use of her old name. "Pietro's got an awful temper. Carolina stood up to him once. He--beat her up."

"Oh, Maggie, get out of this. You don't want to live with a man like that."

"I don't have anywhere to go," she said bleakly.

Ann thought of the three empty guest rooms in her house. "If I could find you someplace, would you go?"

Marguerite looked into the living room. Two more men had arrived, and Genevieve was doing her best to make them both happy at the same time. Marguerite knew she should be in there entertaining. "It would just be more of the same, wouldn't it? We should go back in."

"Maggie, it wouldn't be more of the same. Listen to me, I--"

She broke off as Sandahl appeared at the balcony door. "Marguerite, my flower, what on earth could be so fascinating out here?" He studied Ann thoughtfully.

"I was just coming back in," Marguerite said quickly, hurrying to his side.

Sandahl let her pass, then, after another hard look at Ann, went back to his party.

Ann turned away and looked back over the city, shaking and trying not to listen to the drunken laughter from inside. The city was all but silent from up here. Faint sirens pierced the night, but Manhattan was just a pretty sparkle of lights in the darkness. Ann wondered how many people were dying out there tonight.

A foot crunching on the pavement behind her made her turn quickly. Robert quietly joined her, but he stayed back a little from the balcony edge. Ann leaned on the railing again. She didn't trust herself to speak just yet, remembering how it felt to be dickered over.

"What did you tell her?" he asked quietly.

"Some nasty truths. I asked her if she liked being trade goods. She acted like she wanted out of it all, but when I started telling her why we were here, Sandahl showed up. Anyway, she doesn't think she has anything to go home to."

"She may not have a choice when I get done with that bastard."

Ann looked at him in surprise. His quiet was of barely contained rage. His hands were clenched, and there was a vicious look in his eyes. "What happened?"

"What happened? What hasn't happened? What he's doing to those girls--" Robert looked at her sharply. "I'm breaking him, no matter what. Are you with me?"

His determination left her a little breathless. "I don't know. Did you trade me off for Marguerite?"

He was in no mood for jokes. "No, of course not. But we are leaving."

"Thank God."

He studied her as she came to his side. A look of nausea was on her face, a look he recognized in himself. Sighing, he touched her face. "Forgive me for bringing you into this."

"I asked to come." She looked into the living room. The party was getting noisier as the night wore on. Marguerite was nowhere in sight. "Can't we just bust her out of here?"

The idea was tempting for a second. "Too many people with weapons in there. And she wouldn't go quietly."

"She would after I got done with her."

"Bloodthirsty, aren't you. No--or at least, not yet."

Some noble part of her mind got control over her good sense. "There is one way you could get her out of here, and the only protests you'd have to deal with would be hers."

Robert stared at her, then pulled her into his arms. "No. Never. I'd sooner cut your throat then let that man put his hands on you."

"I didn't say I'd stay," she whispered. His tight hold was almost painful, but she clung to him in return as something normal in this sick world.

"No," he repeated, but proudly. "We are going home." He stepped back and looked at her. "Once more into the breach."

Ann took his arm and they went back inside.

They avoided the couch and the drunken noises coming from it. Marty intercepted them halfway to the door. "You can't go yet," he protested.

"Yes, we can," Robert said shortly.

"But I never got a chance to make a proper apology to the pretty lady here."

Ann put a quelling hand over Robert's as he took an angry breath. "You said there were no hard feelings," she said to Marty.

"Well, no, there aren't, ma'am, but I still would like that kiss."

Ann glanced at Robert questioningly. He looked undecided, then firm. "No. We have to be going."

Marty, too drunk to be sensible, pushed the point. "Oh, come on, McCall--" The look on the other man's face finally sunk in.

"You've already found out what she can do," Robert said softly. "Do you really want to find out what I'm capable of?"

"Uh, no. See you 'round, Anastasia."

"Perhaps," she answered carefully, wary of what she heard in Robert's voice. He tugged peremptorily on her arm, and she followed him to the door.

Sandahl was waiting. "So soon, Robert? But the night is still young."

"I, however, am not. I gave up partying till the wee hours a long time ago."

"Ah, well. Anastasia, a true pleasure." He held out his hand. After a glance at Robert, Ann took it. Sandahl kissed her hand and held it a moment. "Robert, I hope we can still do business. I would like to see more of the both of you."

Robert managed to manufacture enough sincerity to make his smile believable. "Oh, I imagine we'll find reasons to see you again. But for now..." He drew Ann's hand out of Sandahl's. "We must be going."

Sandahl opened the door for them. The big henchman outside glanced at them, then continued his observation of the foyer.

As Robert gestured her out, Ann glanced around one last time for Marguerite. The girl was still elsewhere. Genevieve was still doing her job on the couch. One of the men observing the activity looked up at Ann and poked the man beside him."

"I thought there were only three girls to play with," she heard him say. "Who's she?"

"Huh? Well, she's not Pete's, she's too old. She must belong to the geezer."

She growled softly under her breath. Robert gave her a warning look and conducted her out the door. He breathed a silent sigh of relief as it closed behind them and they made their unimpeded way to the elevator. He hit the down button with a little more force than necessary. They waited in silence. A man and woman got off and headed for the door across from Sandahl's, giving audible sniffs of contempt. Robert waved Ann into the elevator and pushed the button for the garage.

The door slid shut, and Robert leaned against the wall. "Oh, god," he muttered.

Ann hesitated, wanting to go to him but uncertain if he was back to the man she knew.

He gave her a rueful smile. "You're so outraged at me you won't come near me?"

"Oh, god, no." She hurried to him, and he wrapped her in his arms. "I'm sorry if I--"

He silenced her with a kiss that was more than a little rough. Ann didn't protest. The slowing of the elevator made them put a little space between themselves.

"So what--" she started, but he covered her lips with a finger.

"Not yet," he said. "When we get out of here. Just let me hold you for a while."

A silent man got on at the 31st floor and rode to the lobby, ignoring Ann and Robert. They ignored him, too.

As the elevator doors opened in the garage, Robert went back into character just in case. "A little bit longer, darling," he murmured to Ann. "When we're clear of the building, we can relax."

She nodded her understanding. Robert glanced around the cavern, looking for anything out of the way. Things happened in garages late at night. But they reached the car without incident, and Robert handed Ann into her seat with a feeling of some accomplishment.

She fastened her seatbelt and stretched her arms above her head. Her neck was a mass of knots. Maybe the hot tub would help. She took a deep breath of the scents of the car--leather, Robert's after shave, the normal, pleasant aromas of a world with a lot more lucidity than ever was in Sandahl's penthouse. She watched Robert get in the car, simply enjoying the way he moved and the light on his profile.

"And what are you looking at so intently?" he asked as he started the engine.

"You. I like looking at you."

He gave her a brief smile as he backed the car out and headed for the street. "I can't imagine why. I, on the other hand, think you're much more worthy of looking at."

"Enough people have looked at me tonight."

"Yes," he muttered. "I believe I'll be selfish with you for now."

After they cleared the guard at the garage entrance, Robert picked up his cell phone and dialed. "Hello, Mickey, we're out and all's well." Ann saw a car halfway up the block blink its lights twice. Robert tapped his dimmer switch in return.

"No," he continued, "I'm afraid we didn't make much progress. The little nitwit thinks she's in love with the smarmy bastard. Yes, he's everything we've heard and worse. Let me debrief you in the morning. I'm exhausted, and I need to take Ann home. Oh, she did marvelously." He smiled at Ann. "She may have made more progress than I did, but we'll have to wait and see. Yes, I'll call you. Good night." He hung up and looked at Ann. "Do you mind if it's my home I take you to?"

"None whatsoever. But there's a hot tub at my place."

"Very tempting, but I gave Marguerite my card, in case she thought of any business pointers I could use with Sandahl. By the looks of it, they'll be up all night, and if she decides to call I want to be there."

Ann nodded, her anticipation of being with him dimmed a little with the thoughts of where they'd just left. "What if she wants to talk to me?"

"Tonight, at least, you'll be handy."

She played with his hand where it rested on the gear shift. "And if she doesn't call, I'm sure we can while away the time. Unless you really are exhausted, that is."

He smiled at her hasty qualification. "That was an excuse for Mickey." He studied her. Away from the tawdry surroundings, she was once again looking delightfully sultry and enjoyable. His jealousy hadn't been much of an act. He wanted to explore this aspect of his lover without any distraction.

Ann preened under his regard. The sleazy pursuit she'd undergone was flattering in its own depraved way, but she'd dressed this way with only one man's reactions in mind. "I'm glad you're not exhausted. That little soiree has put me in the most nervewracking of moods."

He chuckled knowingly and played with the shoulder of her dress. "I understand completely." He pretended surprise when her neckline started slipping; she began playing with the back of his neck in return.

"Keep your eyes on the road," she said softly. "I'd hate to wreck before we got home."

"Indeed. But once I get you there ..."

She smiled in anticipation.

 

 

Ann woke to the sound of faint snoring. Disorientation took her for a moment at the sight of a bedroom other than her own, but Robert's sleeping breathing reminded her quickly. She rolled over carefully to look at the man beside her. Yes, it was nice to wake up next to someone.

She watched him sleep for a fond minute, then peeked over him at the clock. Seven-thirty. Time to snuggle down for more sleep, but first to relieve some bodily demands. She slipped out of bed as gently as she could. At least there weren't any cats making noisy demands.

Robert muttered in his sleep as she straightened, then he rolled over and grabbed her pillow. Muffling a giggle, she headed for the door. She tripped over her dress on the way, her expensive slinky new dress. She scooped it up and carefully draped it over a chair. If Robert's approval was any gauge, she'd have to wear it often.

Her shoes were in the hallway, she noticed, along with his shirt. She smiled smugly to herself in the bathroom mirror.

She decided to pause in the living room to do some tai chi to loosen her muscles. She wasn't used to sleeping in a different bed, though it did help that she was usually exhausted by the time she got around to actually sleeping in this bed. She wondered if Robert had the same trouble sleeping at her house.

She moved into yoga and balanced carefully on one foot, then she noticed movement behind her. Logic said it was Robert, but her surprise knocked her off balance. He caught her and held on, kissing her for good measure.

"I do wish you wouldn't just abandon me in bed like that," he told her.

"You seemed quite happy with my pillow."

"Not the same at all. Kissing cloth is dull."

"Kinky, too."

He gave her the kind of narrow, calculating look that said he was debating showing her what he thought kinky was. Ann just grinned at him. Those looks of his invariably led to the most interesting ways of spending time.

The phone rang.

They looked at each other in annoyance.

"Let the machine get it," Robert said, kissing her again.

They concentrated on each other through the second ring and the recorded message. At the beep, they paused to listen, but still indulged in gentle explorations.

"Uh, Anastasia? This is Marguerite. Are you there?"

Robert shoved Ann to the phone and headed to the other room to grab the extension. Ann banged her shin on a chair as she snatched up the receiver. "Maggie? Hello?"

"Hello? Anastasia?" There was an intake of breath that sounded scared.

"Yes, I'm here." Ann saw Robert pick up the extension. "What can I do for you?"

"Uh, I need to talk to you."

Her voice sounded muffled. "Sure, go ahead."

"Not on the phone. I need to meet you."

Ann looked at Robert in surprise. He nodded. "OK, where and when?"

Marguerite hesitated. "The merry-go-round in Central Park, tonight."

"Tonight? Central Park at night is a very bad place to be. What time tonight?"

"About eight? It's still pretty light."

Robert gestured Ann to accept. "OK, the merry-go-round at eight."

"Don't bring Robert," Marguerite added quickly. "Just you."

"Sure. Marguerite, are you OK?"

"I'll see you then. Bye." Marguerite hunt up.

Ann looked at Robert suspiciously as she hung up. "Something's happened."

"It might be she just didn't want Sandahl to hear," he answered as he dialed. "Go get dressed."

She kept her sigh of disappointment to herself. A few minutes later, she came back out, dressed but for her shoes and stockings. One stocking was tangled up in Robert's jacket, but it took some searching to find where the other was pushed down between sofa cushions.

Robert didn't notice. "Mr. Anderson," he said very patiently into the phone, "you did ask me to keep you apprized of my progress. That's what I'm doing. No, I'm sorry, I can't tell you when Maggie will be back with you. That depends a great deal on her. Sir, please, yelling at me won't help." He gestured Ann to pick up the extension. "Yes, I'll be seeing her later tonight."

"I'm coming with you," Ann heard Maggie's father say firmly.

"I don't think that would be a good idea--"

"She's my daughter, damn it all! I'll talk some sense into her. Jane," she said to someone else, "you stay out of this. You were always too easy on her."

Robert looked a warning to Ann to stay quiet. "Mr. Anderson, this would be much easier if I came over there to talk to both of you. Would an hour from now be acceptable?"

"Sure, come ahead if you think it would help." He hung up.

Ann stared at Robert. "He's a polite one."

"He's a worried one. He wants his daughter back. Would you come with me to talk to them? Maggie seems to have been more honest with you."

"Look, I can't go dressed like this."

"Hm, you're right. Delightful, but not very respectable. We'll go by your house." He went to get dressed himself and kissed her in passing. "Thank you."

"Just understand that I may be a bit more honest with her parents than you or they like."

"We'll see what happens."

It took Ann fifteen minutes to reassure and feed her cats and change into more respectable slacks and shirt. On principle, she grabbed her black leather jacket, though the one without the chains.

"It's a classic," she told Robert as she plopped back into her seat and he looked askance at the jacket.

"I just hope it is in Buffalo," he replied.

The Andersons were currently staying in a Holiday Inn in Queens. When they'd arrived in New York, they'd gone for low-cost lodging, and Robert had found them in a place which featured hourly rates.

Wayne Anderson was holding forth on the evils of New York when his quiet wife opened the door for Robert and Ann.

"Wretched, awful town," he fumed, pacing across the room. "How could Maggie have thought this place worth coming to?" He spotted the new arrivals. "What kind of God-forsaken place is this?"

"My home," Ann said easily. "And it's not God-forsaken. He's down on the corner right now offering to save our souls. People are ignoring him. Wouldn't it be a kick if he was for real?"

"Mr. and Mrs. Anderson," Robert said quickly, "this is Ann Marshall. She spoke to Maggie last night."

"You saw my daughter?" Jane Anderson asked anxiously. "How is she?"

"I'll handle this, Jane," her husband said. "Well? What does she have to say for herself?"

Ann glanced uncertainly at Robert, who nodded. "She's not sure if she has anything to go home to."

"Of course she does. For god's sake, we're her parents. This Peter she mentioned in that letter. Is he real or was she making all that up?"

"No," Ann said slowly, "he's real. She told me she didn't want her parents to worry about her."

"How can I not?" Mrs. Anderson cried out. "She's my baby."

"I told her that, too. She's been wanting to call you."

"Oh, and we're not home for her to call," the distraught mother said. "Where is she? Can we see her?"

"I don't think that will be possible just yet," Robert answered.

"You're meeting her tonight, you said," Mr. Anderson said. "I'm coming with you and I'm going to take her home."

Robert tried to explain, but Ann jumped in. "What if she doesn't want to go home?"

"What? What bearing does that have on anything, what she wants? She's fifteen, she should be home."

"She's getting so far behind in school," her mother said anxiously. "Miss Marshall, did--did she say why she left? Was it because of us, her father and me?"

Ann took the woman's hands. "Mrs. Anderson, I honestly think she misses you. The reason she gave me for leaving was that she was bored."

"Bored!" Mr. Anderson burst out. "I'll give her bored! With a strap on her behind I'll give her bored!"

"Now, Wayne, you don't mean that--"

"Oh, yes, I do. This wouldn't have happened, Jane, if we'd spanked her more often. It didn't hurt you or me. We're going to take Maggie home, and she's not leaving her room except to go to school."

"And she'll be out of there so fast you'll never know she's gone!" Ann snapped.

"Now see here, young woman--"

"Ann," Robert started.

She ignored him. "You think you can take her home and just pretend nothing ever happened? Send her back to school like she's just been off visiting her grandparents or something?"

Robert didn't stop Ann's tirade. He watched the Andersons for their reactions to the very points he would have made eventually, though without the vitriol Ann had in her voice.

"Maggie left for a reason, and I think bored is just the word she came up with," Ann continued. "You've been trying to do the right thing for her, but she thinks she was being stifled."

"That's ridiculous," Anderson said. "Adolescent rebellion. Oh, maybe some kind of counseling for her, so this doesn't happen again, but then everything will get back to normal."

Ann looked at Jane Anderson. "And what passes for normal in your family, Mrs. Anderson? Are troubles to be ignored in the hopes that they'll just go away? Is it better for the family to have dead spots in the middle than for the neighbors to have any hint that you're no different from Ozzie and Harriet?"

She saw Robert's frown out of the corner of her eye and stopped transferring her anger with her own family onto desperate strangers. "Did you know Maggie was so unhappy that she'd up and leave? Granted, it was stupid, but it's happened and it's got to be dealt with. If you don't find out what made her so unhappy and fix it, you'll lose her for good."

"You don't make over a family to suit the children," Anderson said. "You raise children to fit into society."

"Maggie is not a child," Ann said fiercely. "Not anymore."

Robert moved in to intervene. "Ann, please. Let me handle this." She subsided and went to stare out the windows. "Mr. Anderson, she does have a point. There's nothing to prevent this from happening again if Maggie thinks there's nothing for her at home."

"McCall, you said you have a son. You know what I'm talking about, you can't raise children to think the world's going to bow to their wishes. They have to learn to fit in."

"But some children don't, and you have to figure out what part of the world will suit them."

"Nonsense. Any kid can fit in if they try hard enough."

"Unless they break--or run. They may not want to fit in."

"Who listens to what children want?"

"No one," Ann whispered to herself. "That's why we turn out as messed up as we do."

"Miss Marshall?" Maggie's mother had come up behind her silently. "What is she doing?"

"Surviving, Mrs. Anderson."

"But how?" she whispered. "She doesn't know how to do anything. A pretty girl alone in this awful place... I've seen the news. I saw the little girls working in that other hotel. Is my baby doing that?"

Ann swallowed. "What if she were? Would she still be welcome home?"

Mrs. Anderson drew herself up, offended. "She's my daughter. Of course she'd be welcome. She could come home, and we'd forget all this had ever happened."

"But you can't forget. You can't send her off to school like any other kid. They'd want to know where she's been. She's been living in a grown-up world. She can't go back to being just another teenager."

The other woman stared at her hands. "Tell me what she's doing."

"No. But we can get her back for you, and you can ask her yourself."

"Then where is she living? Is she eating? Is she warm?"

Ann hugged her. "Maggie is as warm and well-fed as some of the wealthiest people in this town. She could be doing much, much worse. You won't find her on any street corner."

"That's good--I guess." She glanced over as her husband raised his voice.

"And why shouldn't I go with you tonight? I can talk to her and demand that she come home."

Robert wished he could tell this angry man just how unlikely it was that Maggie would be able to simply walk away from Pietro Sandahl. "Mr. Anderson, it may not be that simple..."

"Yes, it is. There's not a court in the land that would deny we have the right to take her home with us."

"Wayne, that's not the issue here," his wife said firmly. He looked at her in surprise. "These people are trying to help us. They know what's going on. We should listen to them."

"They may know what's going on, but we know our daughter."

"Do we?"

The Andersons looked at each other for several long moments, then Maggie's father collapsed in on himself. "No," he whispered, "we don't." He found a chair and sagged down into it. His wife hurried to his side and leaned down to wrap her arms around him.

"She's all we have," he continued in a broken voice. "All I want is my little girl back."

Ann bit her lip to keep from pointing out that his little girl didn't exist anymore.

"Mr. Anderson," Robert said unhappily, "we'll do all we can. But I can't lie to you. It won't be the same."

Anderson nodded slowly. "I know that, in my head. Do what you have to, Mr. McCall, Miss Marshall. Just tell her that we love her and we miss her."

"We will." Robert glanced at Ann, and she followed him out of the room.

"I'm sorry if I screwed up," Ann started.

Robert hugged her. "You didn't. You have as much difficulty with denying the truth as I do. It'll work out." He became more businesslike as they headed for the car. "Keep a low profile today. What did you have planned?"

"A chat with my accountant on the hazards of becoming an independent computer consultant."

"That should be sufficiently different from the world we were in last night. What time is the appointment?"

"Two."

"Good. I'll be at your house at six-thirty."

 

 

Ann was dressed and ready to go when Robert showed up. He brought someone new with him.

"This is a friend of mine, Lieutenant Jefferson Bennett of the police," Robert told her as she shook hands with the tall, black man. "He's after Sandahl."

"Oh, good," Ann said. "Someone should be."

"I was hoping you could tell me more about what happened last night," Bennett said. "Especially any names you may have heard."

Ann led them up to the kitchen and fixed coffee as she talked. Bennett took several pages of notes while petting Ankh with one hand. She had immediately adopted the newcomer as her appointed attention supplier.

The lieutenant thought for several moments after Ann was done. "Would this girl be willing to testify? We could give her protection."

Robert glanced at Ann. "I don't know. Darling, what do you think?" The policeman's eyebrows went up. That explained the odd note in McCall's voice when he'd mentioned this woman. So Mr. British Reserve was smitten.

Ann didn't notice the reaction, busy thinking as she studied the depths of her coffee mug. "Oddly enough, she might. It's certainly an alternative to Buffalo."

"Her parents would never allow it," Robert pointed out. "They mean to take her home."

"We could see to her family as well," Bennett said.

"What, change the family dynamics because of a kid?" Ann countered scornfully. "Wayne Anderson would be horrified."

"Ann, you're being cruel," Robert said mildly.

"Darn straight."

"Ms. Marshall," Bennett said, studying his notes, "did any of the people you talked to mention any shipments that are due in?"

"Well, they didn't discuss that kind of business with me." She looked at Robert.

"One of them did mention a regular shipment he received every week. He offered me a share in return for certain considerations."

"Which man?" Jefferson asked. He glanced up from his notes when the answer wasn't forthcoming.

"I dislike turning my sources in," Robert said ruefully. "But considering how sleazy he's turned out to be, he deserves it. Marty Richards."

"Oh, yeah, I know him."

As Bennett wrote, Ann studied him. "Lieutenant, what brings you here tonight?"

"I'm going with you to meet the girl."

"Robert, she said just me."

"Darling, you didn't honestly think I'd let you go in there by yourself, did you?" he said, aghast. "There's better than even odds that this is some sort of trap."

"He's right," Bennett added.

"Well, won't she run?" Ann protested.

"We'll stay well back," Robert assured her. He looked at his watch. "We should be early. Are you ready?"

"Yeah. This time I'm wearing comfortable shoes. I hope she recognizes me in civvies."

Bennett took his car while Ann and Robert took a cab. The last of the rush hour traffic made progress slow. Ann stared out at the street life, but Robert studied her.

"You don't have to do this," he finally said. "I could go in to meet her."

"She doesn't want to see you," Ann replied, slightly irked. "Sweetheart, you keep trying to talk me out of things. It won't generally work. Save your energy."

Robert took her hand. "My dear, I worry about you. I don't want anything to happen to you. And if you were to come to harm because of something I asked you to do ..."

"I'm a grown woman, Robert," she said, touching his cheek. "I can take responsibility for my own choices."

"I know that in my head, but in my heart ..." They were nearing Central Park all too quickly for Robert's peace of mind. There were things he needed to say to her, but there wasn't time. He was nervous about tonight, there were so many things that could go wrong. And Ann was in the middle of it all. Just remembering Sandahl's eagerness to get his hands on her made Robert angry.

Ann studied him, wondering why he looked so grim. "Sweetheart, is there something you're not telling me?"

There was, but he wasn't going to go into it now. Besides it wasn't relevant. He kissed her hand instead. "No, darling. Sandahl and all things connected to him just make me very antsy. I don't like having you anywhere near him and his ilk."

She looked out and saw the park ahead. "I will be careful, you know. And I'm not completely helpless."

Robert looked exasperated. "That has no bearing on it. I still worry."

She smiled and kissed him.

They were twenty minutes early when Ann got out of the cab. Ten minutes slow walking would get her to the carousel, but that could wait. For now she would stroll the park and let her back-ups case the situation and find their positions. She decided to buy a hot dog and remember happier times in the park.

 

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