Part 3

Robert checked his watch for the dozenth time. Five till. Where was everyone? With the approach of dusk, the people were draining out of the park. Pretty soon Robert's position behind a clump of trees would be precarious.

Footsteps on the path signaled Ann's arrival. She looked like a casual stroller who had just found herself in the vicinity of the carousel. She was by no means the only person still out and about as the light faded. Sunlight gleamed on the towers of Manhattan, but shadows were growing under the trees of Central Park. The lights were still on around the carousel, but no one was in sight near the brilliantly painted machine.

Ann scanned the area one more time, then walked into the building. She remembered her father bringing her and her brother and sister to ride the merry-to-round. Nate had always demanded the lion, but Becky refused to ride anywhere but in the swan car. Ann's secret love was the dapple grey horse. She went up to it now and patted the painted neck, remembering the dozens of pretend apples and carrots she'd fed it.

Her memories were dispersed by a quiet voice just around the curve of the carousel. "Anastasia? Is that you?"

"Marguerite? Where are you?"

The girl came walking through the horses on the deck of the carousel, petting them as she came. The light hit her face, and Ann gasped in horror.

"Oh, my god, Maggie, what did he do to you?"

Marguerite tried to turn her black eye away, but that only revealed the ugly bruise on her cheek and her split lip. "He got mad," she whispered. "I talked back to him."

"Let me get you to a doctor--"

"No, you can't. Just listen." But she hesitated, and she wrapped her arms around the neck of a prancing black steed. "Are you a cop?" she finally asked.

"Excuse me?" Ann climbed up on the carousel and went to her.

"Are you a cop? Pietro thinks you are because you wouldn't sleep with him and Robert wouldn't go to bed with me."

"No, we're not cops." Ann gently brushed the girl's hair back. "Maggie, come on. You know you can't stay with him now. He'll kill you."

But Maggie only shook her head. "There's nowhere I can go."

"Your parents want you home."

Maggie looked up as if to question Ann, but a new voice forestalled her. "But would they have her back if they knew what she'd been doing?" Sandahl came strolling around the other side of the carousel. Ann stepped clear of Maggie and loosened her hands.

"I'm sorry," Maggie whispered in agony. "He made me call you."

Sandahl casually slapped a blackjack into his palm as he approached through the ranks of gaily colored mounts. "So you're not a cop. Then why are you and Robert so interested in one little runaway? Or are you really after me?"

Ann tugged on Maggie's arm. "Come on," she said tersely. Where was her backup?

Maggie hesitated. Sandahl smacked the blackjack into one of the wooden horses. "No, Marguerite," he said. "I'd only catch you. You haven't required stitches yet. Keep it that way." He turned his attention back to Ann. "My delightful Anastasia. You'll be coming home with me now, and we'll have a long talk on what Robert's up to. And if you don't want to talk ..." He hit another of the carved animals.

Ann had a clear line to the doors if she ran, but she wasn't going to leave Maggie. If she could just get the girl clear of the building, Robert would surely be able to move.

She grabbed Maggie's wrist and pulled her after. "Jump," she ordered at the edge, but when they reached the floor Sandahl's doorman of the night before came from around the side to block their way. Maggie sagged in terror, tying up Ann's hands.

"Don't hurt them, Wally," Sandahl said cheerfully. "Let's just get them home." He jumped down to join them. When he reached Ann, he caressed her face. She tried to pull away, but he grabbed her hair. "I'm not like Marty," he said. "I don't enjoy women with a lot of fight in them--at least, not when they use it." He yanked her head back and kissed her roughly. She was tempted to bite him, but the blackjack in his other hand was running up and down her ribs threateningly.

When he let her go, he ran his hand down her body and squeezed a breast painfully. He chuckled at her muffled wince. "Not going to throw me into anything? Or maybe you enjoy this?"

"Scum," she muttered.

He slapped her and grabbed her arm to keep her from stumbling. "I am going to enjoy myself when I get you home. Wally, bring Baby-Slut."

Something must be stopping Robert, Ann thought grimly, her free hand to her face. So I guess I'm on my own. "Robert will kill you," she told Sandahl calmly.

"Yes, but he's not here, is he? Or is he?" He twisted her arm behind her back and yanked her close. "Surely you weren't stupid enough to trust darling little Marguerite?"

"No, I wasn't." She made sure of her footing and punched him as hard as she could in the stomach. He sagged but held on to her arm. Her heel went into the top of his foot and she twisted around her captive arm to chop at his elbow. He let go.

Wally let go of Maggie to draw his gun. Ann spun her whole body around and put it into a flat kick to his chest. Something cracked, and Wally fell back. Maggie stood and gaped until Ann grabbed her arm and dragged her to the outside.

"Police! Drop it!" came from the other side of the building.

Ann shoved Maggie into the bushes as gunfire rang out. Some of those bullets came through the doorway they'd just been in.

"Come on, Wally!" Sandahl shouted, and he came running out the door, gun in hand. Ann pushed Maggie down behind a shrub. "Where did they go?" he muttered, looking around.

"We can't hang around, boss," Wally said, joining him but holding a hand against his chest.

"How many did you see?"

"McCall and one other. She said McCall wasn't a cop."

"Some damned independent. We can take them."

"You said shooting cops was a bad idea."

"We won't have to if we can find two pretty little hostages." He glanced into the carousel building and let off a short burst of fire. "You check that way. They won't be far. And, Wally, if you can't catch Marguerite, shoot her. She knows too much."

"Right, boss." They split up.

Maggie's eyes were huge and horrified. "He said he loved me," she whispered.

"I think he lied," Ann said softly.

"What I did for him ... Oh, god, I'm such a--"

"Person who made a mistake," Ann interrupted. "You're hardly alone." She peered out through the shrubbery and sighed in relief when she saw Robert looking around one edge of the doorway. He was scanning the pathways and bushes carefully, his gun in his hand. Ann parted the branches just in front of her, trying to attract his attention. His eyes locked on hers, and she gave him a thumbs up. He silently sighed in relief and gestured for her to lay low.

Maggie gasped as, directly above them, a street light popped and crackled into life, spotlighting them in their hiding place. The lights inside the carousel building clicked off, leaving Robert in darkness.

"I see you," Sandahl's voice said a few yards away. Ann looked around desperately.

"Stay down!" Robert ordered, coming out into the light, gun ready.

"I see you, too." Sandahl was almost on top of the pair in hiding. "Back off, or the pretty ladies get it."

"Give it up, Sandahl. There are more police on the way."

"Thank you for the warning."

Ann heard a stealthy footstep on a converging path. Wally or Bennett? She tried to see through the leaves. Beside her, Maggie was shaking in terror.

"But I couldn't possibly let Marguerite go," Sandahl continued. "Bye-bye, pretty."

Maggie whirled, saw Sandahl aiming at her, screamed and bolted.

"Maggie, no!" Robert shouted, firing at a target he barely saw to draw the shot away from the girl. To his right he saw Wally step out of cover and aim at him.

"No!" Ann screamed as Wally fired and Robert fell. Her heart and soul told her to run to him, but some infection of duty ordered her to follow Maggie and cover the silly bitch's butt. Sobbing, she went out on Wally's side.

"Hold it," he ordered, bringing his gun around.

She piled into him at full speed, finesse forgotten in her desire to get her claws into his face. He fell beneath her, and she made sure his head bounced off the ground. But hurrying footsteps behind her stopped her from the grinding her knee into his groin.

"Hold it, Anastasia," Sandahl said, and she ran. Gunshots came past her head, spurring her on.

Muffled sobs from a bush pulled her up a hundred feet down the path. She dove into the brush and found Maggie crouching at the foot of a tree. The girl started in terror as Ann came up and grabbed her arm.

"Shut up, he's right behind me." Ann heard running footsteps and dragged Maggie behind the tree, pulling her close and clamping a hand over her mouth.

The steps slowed. "Come out, come out, wherever you are," Sandahl called. "Don't make me track you down. It can be a lot harder on you than you think."

Maggie moved uncertainly, and Ann clamped down on her.

"You can't be far. I heard you stop running."

If I let her go, Ann thought wildly, she'll run and draw his fire, and I can make a break for it. No, I guess not.

"Robert's down, Anastasia, and you can't do anything if I don't let you within reach."

A branch cracked in another direction, and Sandahl stopped talking. Footsteps moved off faintly then stopped.

Maggie made to pull away, but Ann squeezed tighter, though she did uncover the girl's mouth. Maggie looked over her shoulder, and Ann shook her head warningly.

Another few footsteps, then more silence. Ann stared through the branches at the lights coming on in the buildings on the East Side. Someone over there was looking out over the park, never knowing what they were staring at. A broken branch dug into her left shoulder, and the thought that Robert might actually be--gone--chewed her heart. Make it end, she prayed silently, feeling Maggie shake in her arms, make it end.

"Boo," Sandahl said nearby, and two guns fired. Maggie swallowed a sob as someone groaned horribly and fell. Slow footsteps approached, then stopped.

"Ann?" Robert called anxiously. "Ann, where are you?"

Ann all but shoved Maggie away from her and stumbled out of hiding. Robert, gun still drawn, saw her and ran to meet her, dragging her into his arms. She didn't protest the pistol butt digging into her ribs, her tears of fear and relief kept distracting her. When he pulled her face up to kiss her, she clung to him desperately.

"McCall, where are you?" Bennett's voice came faintly.

Robert reluctantly freed Ann enough to answer. "Over here, Jefferson! I've found them, they're OK." He pushed Ann away enough to study her. "You are all right, aren't you?"

"Yes, yes, I'm fine." She was looking at him, anxiously searching for damage. "I thought Wally--"

He covered her lips. "All he hit was my jacket, I saw him in time." His fingers moved to the red mark on her cheek. "He hit you," he growled.

She shrugged nervously. "It's OK. What about ..." She broke off at the vicious satisfaction on his face. She didn't need to ask.

Bennett came down the path quickly, but stopped at something lying to the side. "Shit," he muttered. "Well, I suppose you had no choice," he told Robert. He hid a smile when he saw the man and woman together. "Where's the other girl?"

"Jesus," Ann gasped. "Maggie?" Robert let her go to search. Ann found her sobbing at the base of the tree. "Maggie, it's OK, it's over." The girl catapulted into Ann's arms. "Come on, let's get out of here." She led the way back to Robert. "She should see a doctor," she told him quietly. "He beat her up." Maggie cringed against her, and Ann kissed the top of her head.

Robert glared at the body on the path, surrounded by policemen. The bastard had died too quickly.

Bennett came back with a policewoman carrying a blanket. "Maggie, this is Sgt. Cruz. She's going to look after you."

"Can't I stay with Anastasia?" she said softly.

"I don't mind," Ann said.

Bennett shrugged. "Fine by me. I need to ask both of you some questions." Cruz handed Ann the blanket and left.

"Can't they go to the station?" Robert asked as he helped Ann wrap herself and Maggie up. Maggie refused to look at him, and he didn't push the point.

"I'd rather keep the scene of the crime intact." Bennett looked around at the flashing lights and milling people. A crowd was gathering on the fringes, straining for a glimpse of blood. "Gonna be a hell of a night. I've got people hitting Sandahl's place on a probable cause warrant, and there's Sandahl's sidekick to talk to when he wakes up. You did a real number on him, McCall. You shouldn't hit so hard."

"I never touched him," Robert said, confused. Ann studied the local flora.

"Well, somebody broke his sternum and cracked his skull." He followed Robert's glance to Ann. "Miss Marshall?" he said, surprised.

"I thought he'd shot Robert," she said quietly, remembering. "I'm a 2nd dan brown belt in karate." Robert stroked her hair comfortingly and hid a smile.

"I think we can put that under self-defense too." He sighed and looked around again. "Time to go to work. We'd better let her folks know she's safe. Will you take care of it?" he asked Robert.

"You surely don't want to bring them down here."

"God, no. We'll head back to the station soon enough. But call them and warn 'em. I'll send Cruz back over to look after the ladies here."

"I can do that," Robert protested.

Bennett grinned. "I'm sure you can. But I think I should send over a cop as well." He left.

"I'm sorry I let it get so far out of hand," Robert said to Ann, running his hand along her shoulders. He wanted to hold her closer, but Maggie, hidden under the blanket, was still clinging to Ann like a leech. Ann freed a hand to touch his face.

"It was for a good cause." The shakes were starting to hit. The body of a man she'd talked to was lying not far enough away. He'd fired at her in anger, and Robert had come very close to... "I need to sit down."

"Of course. And when the doctor's done with Maggie, I want him to look at you."

"Robert, it's just a bruise. It doesn't even hurt that bad." She hated when he got fussy.

"Still--"

"No. I am fine. I've been hit before, this is nothing!" The shock in his eyes reminded her of what she'd just said. "Please, just let me go sit down," she said quickly, trying to forestall the questions she couldn't answer. "And you need to call the Andersons."

He looked worried, but gave in. "All right." He looked over his shoulder and saw Sgt. Cruz approaching.

Cruz patted the hidden and silent Maggie on the shoulder. "Come on, sweetheart, there's a car by the carousel you can sit in."

"I'm staying with Anastasia," was the muffled reply.

"I'll come with you, Maggie." She glanced at Robert, who kissed her and reluctantly left.

Cruz started to lead them to the path. Ann hesitated and nodded at the cluster of people dealing with Sandahl.

"Oh, yeah, good point," Cruz said. They took a detour through some brush.

When they reached the path, still too close to the incident scene for Ann's taste, Maggie asked quietly, "What's that smell?"

Cruz met Ann's eyes. "Mulch," the policewoman said easily. "For the trees."

"Oh."

Ann figured it was more than the perverted bastard had been good for before.

Several cop cars stood around the carousel building, lights flashing and radios crackling. Cruz opened the back door of one and helped Maggie in. Ann joined her, and the girl slid against her, still huddled on herself. Ann let the weariness take her, not thinking of close calls. When she leaned her head back, she bumped into something soft. She looked into the back window.

"Oh, Pooh-bear! Come here, Pooh-bear." She pulled the stuffed animal down and squeezed it hard.

"Teddy bears are for babies," Maggie said quietly.

"Says you." Ann buried her face in Pooh's fur. "Pooh-bear," she murmured, letting herself feel three years old again. "Christopher Robin and Rabbit and Piglet and dear, wonderful Eeyore."

"And Tigger," Maggie whispered.

"Oh, yes, Tigger. Mustn't forget Tigger." She moved the bear closer to Maggie, who slowly reached out to stroke him. "But most of all, Pooh." Quietly, Maggie started to cry. Ann put her arms around her.

"Daddy read me Pooh stories. He did all the voices. Anastasia, what is he going to say?"

"I don't know, honey. But he'll say he missed you and he loves you."

"How do you know?"

"I talked to him this morning."

Maggie pulled back to stare at her. "You saw Daddy? And Mama?"

"She's here, too. They've been looking for you."

"Where are they?"

"At a hotel in Queens. Robert went to tell them you're all right. They'll meet us at the police station when we get there."

"They'll want to know ..."

"What they find out is up to you. If you don't want them to know everything, just tell them a little. Maggie, they don't really want to know everything. It's up to you."

The concept of being in control of something seemed new to the girl. "Will they ever forgive me?"

"Probably. But only if you forgive yourself."

"What do you mean?"

"What Sandahl did to you is not some kind of divine punishment for running away."

"But I let him ..."

"You didn't have a lot of choice. A: you thought he loved you. People do amazing things for love," she said knowingly. "B: you found out for yourself what he did when crossed. Don't wreck yourself because you survived."

Maggie was quiet for a few minutes. "Where is he?"

"Who?"

"Pietro."

Ann swallowed. "Um, he's, uh ..."

"Dead?"

"Yeah."

"Good." Very grown-up anger was in her voice, but tears followed soon after. "He seemed so nice at first."

Ann held her and onto her own tongue. Glancing outside the car, she saw the ambulance backing towards the path where Sandahl lay. "Robert, where are you?" she muttered. She saw Maggie looking at her curiously. "What is it?"

"Who are you? You're not a cop, Robert's not a drug dealer. Are you and he really ..."

"Thankfully, yes," Ann grinned. "Well, Robert is a sort of private investigator your parents contacted to find you. Me, I'm a computer consultant who volunteered to help."

"Why?"

"Why?" She thought a moment. "I saw your school picture. I saw something in it that reminded me of myself. Like you'd been hiding from something too long and you had to face it or burst. Why did you run away?"

"I don't know now," Maggie said slowly. "I can't remember what I was feeling that made it worth it to come here. I'm looking forward some to going back. It's safe there. Dull, but safe."

"Yeah, I've gone that route, dull but safe. It'll work for now. Give it a few more years, and you can try your wings again."

"Maybe. Maybe I'll just forget all this happened."

"No. Maggie, you can't just sweep all this under the rug. Come up with a good lie for the gossips, but find someone you can tell the truth to, someone you can trust absolutely. Your parents won't want to talk about it, but you must. If not with them, someone." She was shaking with memories. "If you don't, it will only drive you mad. Hell isn't too bad once you've mapped it out."

Maggie tried to imagine telling any one of her lunchtime friends. All she could see coming of it was whispers and come-ons. "I don't know anyone."

"Your father said something about finding a counselor or something. Tell him, if he's a decent sort. If nothing else, I'll give you my address. You can always tell me."

Maggie bit back sniffles. Tears were becoming tiresome in the growing unreality of the night. "Why would you do that?"

"Because even though I only met you last night, I care what happens to you." Some of Robert's character became immediately clearer. "Because saving your butt is useless if the rest of your life goes to hell." She spotted Robert out the other window, coming their way. Maggie giggled. "What?"

"You saw Robert, didn't you. You lit up like a Christmas tree."

"Yes, well, I do that around him. Oh, sure, laugh, it'll happen to you someday."

Maggie immediately looked sadder. "I thought it had."

"Oh, no, sweetheart. Someday you'll find a guy who thinks the world revolves around you, and maybe you'll feel the same way about him. He won't ask things of you that need excuses and you won't have to lie to anybody."

"How do you know?"

"Because I've got the scars that come from settling for the other kind." She kissed Maggie's forehead. "So do you now. At least you know what to look for that you don't want in a man."

Maggie blinked and considered the concept.

Robert tapped on Ann's window. "I'm sorry that took so long, darling. How are you two doing?" He crouched down to see them better.

"Pretty good, I think. I've been bending Maggie's ear with freeze-dried wisdom."

"Freeze-dried takes less room," Maggie said judiciously. "If I add water, will it grow?"

Ann stared at her and laughed. "Very good. A sick taste for puns is a sure sign of good mental health."

Maggie managed to look at Robert. "Thank you," she said, "for helping me." She blushed and looked away. Ann patted her hand.

"My pleasure, Maggie." He turned his attention back to Ann to let the girl recover her poise. "Has the doctor seen you yet?"

"No. I think they've been busy with other things. That's the second one out of here." She nodded at the passing ambulance with lights flashing but no siren. "Besides, I don't need one, and Maggie's mostly OK."

"Still ..."

"Worrywart. I've taken worse in karate class."

"Did--did you call my parents?" Maggie asked in a small voice.

"Yes, I did. They're anxious to see you."

"What did you tell them?"

"That you've been frightened and knocked around a little, but that you're mostly all right."

"What did they say?"

"They didn't asks for details. They just wanted to know when they could see you. As to that," Robert said, standing and looking around, "I'll track down Bennett and see what's taking him so long. Will you two be all right?"

"Sure," Ann smiled. "We've got Pooh to protect us."

Robert reached through the window to touch Ann's face. "I trust Pooh. I don't know how much longer this is going to go on. This could be a long night."

"Just stay close."

"I will." He straightened and saw Bennett approaching. "Just the man I wanted to see. What's going on?"

"Mayhem, madness, the usual. We're going to take the ladies down to the station. I assume you want to go with them."

Robert didn't respond to the knowing grin. "Yes, I do. I called her parents." He sighed. "I should go get them, I'm the only one they know here."

Ann had been listening. "Robert, go. We'll be OK."

He leaned down to talk to her as privately as he could. "I don't like leaving you. I promised I'd look after you."

"You also promised them." She put her hand on his where it rested on the door. "Sweetheart, I can't say they need you more than I do, but probably just as much. And they're probably very confused right now. I'm just tired."

They looked at each other for a moment, then he nodded in resignation. "You're right, darn your pretty eyes. Take care of yourself."

"I'm surrounded by cops. I think I'll be OK."

Robert, thinking of all the catastrophes that could happen, didn't answer. "I'll join you soon. Maggie, I'll be bringing your parents to the police station to join you. Do you want me to tell them anything?"

Maggie looked at Ann, who shrugged. "Tell them I miss them and I didn't mean to worry them," she said in a very small voice. She still had a very difficult time dealing with a man she'd propositioned.

The fatherhood in Robert's head wanted to scold her and ask her how she could think her parents wouldn't worry when their only child disappeared. "I'll tell them," was all he said. He squeezed Ann's hand and gave her a significant look that made her grin, then stood up. "Who's driving them?" he asked Bennett.

"Cruz. Don't worry, McCall, she can drive."

Robert glared at him. Another one who thought it was cute that he'd found a woman who liked him. "I'm sure she can. All right. I'll be there soon." Robert sent one more look to Ann, who was resting her chin on the car door as she watched him, then he left.

"All aboard, Dolly," Bennett told Cruz. "You're chauffeur for the witnesses. Ladies, Sergeant Cruz will take you where you need to go, so stay with her."

"I'm hungry," Maggie said abruptly, sounding surprised.

"So am I," Ann agreed. "Sgt. Cruz, can we go through McDonald's drive-through?"

"No, I'm sorry," the sergeant said as she buckled herself in.

"Why not?" Ann persisted. "I see cop cars all the time go through there."

Cruz looked at Bennett for help. He shrugged and leaned down to the window. "Miss Marshall, you can order anything you want when you get to the station. But she's not taking you through take-out."

"Poo. Oh, well, maybe we can order pizza."

"Mickey-D's delivers," Cruz volunteered as she started the car. "Twenty dollar minimum."

"Great, that won't be hard. Maggie, start thinking. Sergeant, you want in on this? I'm buying."

 

 

The Andersons huddled together in the back seat of the cab on the ride to the police station. They wondered occasionally about what to say to Maggie, but for the most part they were silent. Robert sat up front to give them some privacy. He hadn't answered any of their questions yet, only assured them that their daughter was just a little worse for wear.

For his own part, he kept shaking with the reaction of how close Ann had come to serious harm. If Bennett hadn't grabbed him he'd have jumped Sandahl when the bastard had hit Ann. No matter that he would never have made it, his lover had been in trouble. That bruise growing on her cheek haunted him. And Sandahl would have done worse if he could. Robert should never have allowed her anywhere near the man.

When they arrived at the precinct, Wayne Anderson tucked his wife protectively under one arm. "Where's Maggie, Mr. McCall?"

"This way, Mr. Anderson."

The desk sergeant directed them to the third floor. Robert led them past the hookers, junkies, and assorted detainees swearing their innocence to all and sundry. Jane Anderson stared at the girls and wondered if their mothers had any idea of what their daughters were doing.

On the third floor, the detective division held better dressed suspects and their lawyers. Lt. Bennett spotted Robert and hurried over.

"Took your time, McCall. We're almost done with statements, and the ladies had dinner first."

Robert performed the introductions. "Where are they, Jefferson?"

"Your Ms. Marshall's in Interview Room 2, and Maggie Anderson's in Room 5."

"Can we see her?" Mrs. Anderson asked anxiously.

"Sure, ma'am. Child Advocacy sent someone over to be with her."

Robert kept his dismay private. Child Advocacy had a way of complicating things that should be simple. Duty warred with anxiety as the Andersons headed for Room 5. But the reunion was a private thing.

Ann was slurping the last of her diet Coke and munching on fries when Robert opened the door. "Hi, sweetheart," she smiled. The police clerk looked up and frowned.

"We're taking a statement here, sir," she said sternly, gesturing at the tape deck on the table. "I have to ask you to leave, unless you're Ms. Marshall's lawyer."

"He's not my lawyer, he's my--"

"Darling, don't. Lt. Bennett told me to come in here, officer. He wanted a statement from me as well."

"We don't take statements together, he knows that."

"I thought we were done," Ann said. "I've already told you everything that happened to me."

"I'll tell you when we're done."

Ann's eyes widened, then narrowed unpleasantly. Robert went to her quickly. "Of course, officer," he said. "We don't want to be any trouble." He put a calming hand on Ann's shoulder. It did not pay to annoy cops.

The officer sniffed. "I'm going to track down Lt. Bennett and find out what he thinks he's doing." She left in a huff.

"Don't annoy police, darling," Robert said. "They’re allowed to shoot you." He sat down next to her and studied her carefully. No black eye, thank god, but there was a faint bruise forming. Sandahl had gauged the blow carefully. Playing with her. Rough stuff would have been for later. Robert's soul shivered at what might have happened.

Ann saw his thoughts on his face. She put a hand on his. "I'm OK. A little shaky, but that's passing. I gave him worse than he gave me."

"You shouldn't have had to."

"Will you stop fussing already? I'm not some delicate little tea rose."

"You are to me. I was supposed to look after you, not let you get beat up by mobsters."

Memories of pain slithered out of hiding. "I've taken worse," she tried to say calmly. "I went in willingly. I knew the hazards."

"No, you didn't." He shook his head, disgusted at himself. "You don't know anything about this kind of work. It was only sheer luck that you knew how to get away from them, luck and that mad courage of yours. I should never have let you go in there."

"I am not some helpless ninny who needs her hand held to cross the street, dammit. I was nearly mugged when I was twelve, outran a gang of kids who meant me no good in grade school, got in three no-holds-barred fights in junior high. And I've been shot! For god's sake, Robert, I can take care of myself!"

"You wouldn't have been shot if I'd been thinking."

Ann flung her mostly empty drink across the room. "God damn it, Robert, you are not my father! Stop acting like it!"

Bennett opened the door. "Have I come at a bad time?" he asked, looking at the pair.

"No, Jefferson," Robert said flatly. Ann glared at him for a moment, then stared at the far end of the table.

"Yeah. Ms. Marshall, if you're done with your statement, Miss Anderson would like to see you. There's a lot of crying going on over there, and that twit from Child Advocacy is talking about foster care until they see if the Andersons are fit parents."

"Fit parents!" Robert repeated angrily.

"Why did she run away, what kind of home life did she have, what isn't she telling, blah blah blah. They're starting to believe those movies of the week down at Social Services."

"How can I help?" Ann asked, confused.

"Don't know, maybe she just wants someone who's on her side."

"OK. It's the least I can do." Without a word to Robert, she left.

Bennett waited till the door closed. "Trouble in paradise?" he asked knowingly. He put his hands up defensively at Robert's furious glare. "OK, OK, none of my business." He sat down and made sure the tape deck was off. "It's just as well she's gone. She shouldn't hear this. Sandahl's bartender couldn't wait to talk. We're getting stuff on the creep we never dreamed of. Like what he did with the girls he was tired of."

Sick dread twisted Robert's stomach. "What did he do?"

Bennett picked up Ann's empty fry sleeve and crushed it in his hands. "He held private auctions over the Internet. We're trying to track down some of the girls."

"Who won the auctions?"

"If I gave you names, what would you do?" He nodded at the look on Robert's face. "You're smarter than that. Don't start thinking vigilante. You don't want me coming down on you, and I would. You're in too close on this one, McCall, because your lady's involved. I understand. Just remember where I'm coming from." They looked at each other a moment, and Bennett nodded. "One thing, though, that I'll have nightmares about if I don't tell someone. Carolina Wilkes."

"I've heard her mentioned. Sandahl beat her up, then she disappeared."

"Yeah. Sandahl auctioned her off. Luke the Geek won."

"Luke the--Lucas Buonaricci? The snuff film maker?"

"The slimy bastard himself. Carolina's description matches that of a Jane Doe pulled out of the Sound three days ago." He answered the question on Robert's sickened face. "Yes, dead. According to Charles the bartender, Sandahl gave the Geek a head start on the bidding." He checked the tape deck one more time. "Completely off the record, McCall, I'm glad you did what you did. We'd never have made all these charges stick. Sandahl's lawyers were too good. He'd have plea bargained down to assault or something, and he would have walked." He turned on the tape recorder. "I'd better get your statement. Have a seat."

Ann was welcomed as an unbiased observer by the Andersons. Sandra Rose from Child Advocacy only looked tired. Ann introduced herself, and Maggie began easing towards her.

"Ms. Marshall, why are you here?" Rose asked. "This is a family matter."

"I wanted her to come," Maggie answered. "She's my friend." She looked hopefully at Ann.

Ann nodded and took her hand. "She's had a bad few days. I know what she's been through."

"What group are you with?"

"I'm just a concerned private citizen."

Rose grimaced. "Then you have no legal standing."

"Do I have to?"

"Yes. So I'm going to have to ask you to leave."

"But I want her here," Maggie insisted.

"Maggie, I'm sorry, but it's not your decision. Ms. Marshall--"

"Well, then, whose the hell is it!" Maggie demanded.

"Margaret Jane!" her father gasped. "Watch your language!"

Maggie sputtered with all the things she wanted to say, then she caught Ann's eye. Ann was having trouble smothering a laugh and giving Maggie a very approving look.

"Calm down, Maggie," she finally managed, though snickers kept escaping. She managed a warning look. "Try to remember your folks aren't from around here."

Maggie swallowed her new vocabulary. "I'm sorry, Daddy," she said meekly.

Jane Anderson cleared her throat. "If you don't mind, Miss Rose, I'd like Miss Marshall to stay. She knows more of what's been going on than we do." She saw her daughter's grateful smile and smiled back hesitantly.

"Oh, very well," Rose gave in.

"They want to put me in foster care," Maggie told Ann quickly. "They won't let me go home."

"Why not, Ms. Rose?" Ann asked.

"It's just a temporary measure. Lt. Bennett gave me information that suggests some amount of rehabilitation might be in order."

"Rehabilitation!" Wayne Anderson burst out. "What does that mean?"

"It means your daughter has been through some traumatic experiences that will need dealt with."

"She can get that at home."

"Then there are the circumstances of why Maggie originally left home. There might be unresolved issues, such as the kind of situation she might be going back to."

"She's going back to the parents who love her," he said defiantly. Maggie looked ready to cry.

Ann intervened. "If there are no criminal charges involved against Maggie, can't she go home while you conduct your home investigation?"

"The last time we tried that," Rose said grimly, "the girl was beaten almost to death by her father. Disciplining her for causing such trouble, he said." She glared at Wayne Anderson.

"I have never raised my hand to a child," he said quietly.

"My apologies. I see too much in this job." Rose sighed. "I'm not really your enemy. I'm trying to look out for Maggie's interests."

"Is there any way Maggie can go with her parents?" Ann asked.

"Well, if the family or a friend of the family was willing to put up a substantial bond."

"How substantial? And is it held in escrow or gone forever?"

Rose blinked. "It's refundable, but it's five hundred thousand dollars."

"Half a million dollars?" Anderson protested. "Just to say I won't hit my own kid?"

"It's not used often. Most people I deal with aren't willing to dedicate that much to getting their children back," Rose finished bitterly.

"What constitutes a friend of the family?" Ann asked.

Anderson snorted. "Anyone willing to put up that much money." Rose shrugged and didn't deny it.

"Well, then," Ann grinned, "I qualify."

"I beg your pardon?" Rose said into the sudden silence.

"Will certificates of deposit do? Cash will take longer."

"Miss Marshall," Jane Anderson whispered, "am I hearing you correctly. You're willing to put up this huge sum of money for us?"

"Yes, I am."

"Why?" her husband asked. "You don't even know us."

Ann smiled at him. "I know Maggie. And I know what kind of people you'd have to be to have a daughter like her."

"But, Ann," Maggie protested, "can you afford it?"

"Maggie, what color credit card did I pay for dinner with?"

"Uh, silver."

"Platinum, actually." Wayne Anderson's jaw dropped. "Ms. Rose, I don't suppose you take American Express, do you? I have a very high credit limit."

"We don't take credit cards," she managed.

Ann laughed. "No, I don't imagine you do. So what paperwork is involved?"

Mrs. Anderson burst into tears. "Miss Marshall, you're a saint, you and Mr. McCall both."

"Odd sort of saint," Maggie whispered with a grin. Ann gave her an approving look.

The next two days were hectic as Robert dealt with the fallout of Sandahl's death and Ann bullied her bankers into transferring a large chunk of her capital into an escrow account. Her brother called her six times to make sure she knew what she was doing.

It wasn't until she'd hung up from her last talk with Nathaniel that Ann realized she'd seen very little of Robert. He had called earlier to assure her that a ruling of self-defense was all but certain, but that was almost a day ago.

She hesitated in reaching for the fourth button on her speed dial, where Robert's home number was programmed. Maybe he was busy with a client or the Andersons. But Jane Anderson had called to thank her again and to arrange a farewell meeting before heading home with Maggie. She'd mentioned that Robert had said his good-byes already.

Ann leaned back in her chair and put her feet on her desk. Most odd. When Bennett had released the two of them to leave, Robert had taken her back to his place and most definitively shown his continued interest. But they'd only avoided another blow-up over Ann's involvement in the whole nasty affair by the narrowest of margins. He was badly rattled by the violence that had brushed against her. He refused to believe that violence was something she could deal with. Being shot at was never fun, but an absolute faith in the difficulty of hitting a moving target allowed her to sleep at night. She was glad she could be of help.

But Robert insisted he was to blame, even though the only one doing any blaming was him. With a growing uneasiness, Ann realized he was not inclined to let her take the responsibility for the risks she took. She respected his concern for her, but she feared he'd start stifling her. Maybe in a couple of days, when everything calmed down, they'd be able to talk it out rationally.

As she reached for the phone, the door bell rang. A glance out the window showed Robert's car in the driveway, and she bounced to the intercom. "Hi, sweetheart, be right down."

"Take your time on the stairs," he answered.

She jogged out of the library, but hesitated on the stairs. Something was wrong, she'd heard it in his voice. A case gone bad, the self-defense ruling screwed up? She got her patient listening mode ready.

Robert was fidgeting with his jacket cuffs when Ann opened the door. "Hello, darling," he said as he kissed her briefly.

"What's wrong?" she asked, closing the door and leading the way into the house. She hid her uneasiness. She'd seen him angry, scared and worried, but she didn't remember ever seeing him nervous.

"I need to talk to you."

"You want some coffee?"

"No, thank you." He stopped by the pool table. Ann came back down the stairs slowly, confused by his refusal. Robert stared at his fingers, then took a deep breath. "I don't think I should see you any more."

"Excuse me?" She stared at him, baffled.

"We shouldn't see each other any longer." He gazed back at her, uneasy but determined.

Sick dread clutched her lungs. She could only make inarticulate noises of protest and confusion. "Why?" she finally managed.

"It was criminal of me to get you involved with Sandahl. It was the worst kind of exploitation, to allow you to go into harm's way."

"Exploitation! It was my idea!"

His jaw firmed. "I didn't have to allow it."

"Allow!" Anger warred with terror. He was serious.

"I used you, just like Sandahl did Maggie."

"I hardly think so."

"I let you turn yourself into a party favor just for window dressing."

"There was a life at stake." She grinned at him. "And you didn't seem to mind how I turned out. And I was willing. How many times do I have to say it?"

"Maggie was willing, too," he said quietly. "It was a betrayal of your trust, no better than what Sandahl did." He refused to remember how she'd looked that night.

"This is insane," she muttered in disbelief. "That party was no more than play-acting. Nothing that happened to me there mattered. I saw worse at parties in college."

"He would have killed you." Remembered horror filled his voice.

"I take a lot of killing." She stepped closer to him. "No one's managed it yet." Old secrets hovered on her tongue.

"No one was trying before you met me."

"Excuse me? Cochran and Dushenko were not taking me to tea."

"It may not have escalated so badly if I hadn't interfered." But he was beginning to sound uncertain.

She pressed her advantage. "No, someone probably would have found my body in a landfill somewhere."

"Possibly," he admitted. He stepped back when she reached for him. "But I should never have let you get involved with me. It's opened you up to an unacceptable level of risk."

"Unacceptable to whom?" Her anger finally broke free. "Stop deciding for me what I should and should not face! You have no idea of what I've faced and survived." She fought back a shiver. "I was introduced to Old Lady Death long before I met you."

It was on his lips to demand explanations, but he'd renounced any right to worry about her. He fought down his outraged concern. "Then it's unforgivable of me to make it worse."

He started to turn away, but Ann grabbed his arm. "I'm willing to take the risk." She made him look at her. "I think it's worth it," she added softly.

He carefully removed her hand from his arm. "I don't." He hated the shock in her eyes. "Your life is precious to me. I will not be a party to anything that could bring you harm. And so I must say good-bye."

Ann stared at him in disbelief. He'd reasoned himself into a box, and she couldn't break through. She could only shake her head helplessly. Her heart constricted as he reached into a pocket and laid something on the pool table. It was the key she'd given him.

"But I don't want you to go," she finally whispered.

He started to reach over to touch her face, but he stopped himself in time. "I'm sorry. But it's for the best. If you ever need my help, though, please, don't hesitate to call." He looked at her a moment longer. Shocked disbelief was all he saw in her eyes. He didn't want to hurt her, but better a small pain now than a larger one later. "Good-bye, my dearest Anastasia." He turned and headed for the door.

It couldn't be real. She tried to think of something, anything to bring him back. But nascent doubt kept back the one confession that might have worked. It was such a specious argument, surely it must be masking something else, some politely disguised waning of interest, some growing boredom.

And so she watched him walk down the long corridor, unable to think of a way to bring him back. She almost ran after him, but wounded pride held her still.

Robert paused at the door, hand on the latch. He knew she was watching him. He wanted to turn and look back. But too many hours had been spent agonizing over this decision to endanger his resolve for a last look. Quietly he opened the door and left Rapunzel's tower.

Ann slowly sank to the floor beside the pool table. Silence filled her house. Faintly she heard Robert's car start, then drive away. Alone. She'd forgotten how to be alone.

A tough, sophisticated voice woke in her mind. "Good riddance to him, then. Put on some glad rags and hit the club tonight. Lots of fish in the sea."

She thought about it. That new black dress would be perfect for hunting.

Then she remembered the gleam in Robert's eye when he'd first seen her in it. "But he made me happy," she whispered. She leaned her head against the pool table and cried.

 

Back