DISCLAIMER: The Kay Scarpetta novels, and all of their original characters belong entirely to Patricia Cornwell. I make no profit from this story, and no copyright infringement is intended. The character of Laura Halton however, is entirely my own creation.
CHALLENGE: Written for Passion & Perfection's Big 5000.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

The Modus Operandi Series
Prologue: The Calm before the Storm

By Nico


Wind howls restlessly beyond my window, and the dark storminess of the night presses in against the drapes. Not unlike the dark feeling in general that presses in around me. Practically every morning since I can remember, I've woken up at a god-awful hour. If indeed I had ever managed to get to sleep in the first place. The hours after midnight are not the same safe haven of rest for me as they are for others. It's at this time of night I become truly fearful.

As I switch on lamps, a warm glow illuminates the rich, deep red of the wooden floor and the patterns of carefully placed rugs. I survey my bedroom for a few seconds, it's comfortable and it's safe, but I don't feel safe. I could be sitting sixty feet beneath Quantico, with a vast armed guard, and still would not feel entirely safe. I think I'll always be looking over my shoulder.

Although I've gotten used to living here, the apartment has never truly felt like home because technically it isn't my home. The apartment belongs to my Niece, Lucy. She moved me into it when I first arrived in New York, and she spent a total of twenty-four hours with me here before she decided it was like living behind enemy lines, and disappeared to Aspen.

Lucy's choice of apartment is a top floor penthouse, located on Fifth Avenue with glorious views of Central Park, the reservoir and the city skyline. My great room walls feature floor to ceiling windows, that glow when the sun shines, and a side terrace that's big enough to host a party on. It's elegant, it's beautiful, and it's too much.

I feel uncomfortable here. I cannot shake off the feeling that somebody coming from a background as poor as mine, doesn't really belong. I don't know how much Lucy paid for it; but it reminds me that she seems to have limitless reserves of cash. At least there is twenty-four hour security and underground parking, both of which I've appreciated greatly over the three years I've lived here.

I throw back the covers of my bed, knowing I will not drift off to sleep now no matter how hard I try, and swing my legs over the side. I groan slightly as I stand. This body isn't getting any younger and aches and pains seem to be a constant unwanted guest. I look at my watch, as I pull clothes from drawers. It's three in the morning, and I'm about to make coffee, because there isn't anything else to do besides let my imagination run riot.

As I pad softly from my room and follow a familiar path toward the kitchen, I think about Lucy, Marino and Benton. At the moment, the four of us are just about as disjointed and as emotionally far apart as you can get. Sadness presses against my soul. Three of the people I love most in the world, found as many ways to punish me as I punished them. And suddenly we found ourselves staring at each other, from different sides of a huge chasm.

I see Marino every day because I still work with him, and I see Lucy at least once or twice a month if she's in town. As for Benton, I've met with him twice in the last three months, and both times neither of us could think of anything to say. Every one of us has shut ourselves off emotionally from the rest. Although this is nothing unusual for me. Since I watched my father dying of Leukemia when I was twelve, I've become an expert at shutting myself and my feelings off. I'm so adept at it, that sometimes I disconnect my emotions even from myself.

My heart aches momentarily; I miss them all so much, especially Lucy. She sees me as more of a Mother than an Aunt, since her own mother, my Sister Dorothy, was a bad parent and I pretty much raised Lucy myself. I spoke to Lucy barely four hours ago, and I was overjoyed to hear her latest news. It seems Janet; her ex-partner has turned up again, just as I always hoped that she would. I still don't know the full story, Lucy won't speak about it, but I do know she was as devoted to Janet, as she used to be to me. I also know that Janet returned that devotion, but Lucy doesn't make it easy for people to care about her. Lord knows how many times I've tried to get through to her and failed.

The point of her call was to tell me that she may be unreachable for a few days. She's heading off on a trip to her place in Aspen with Janet to catch up for old time's sake. I'm hoping it's more than that. Perhaps I'm hoping for just a little too much, but secretly I'm counting on Janet to turn my niece back in to the woman she used to be. If I'm not careful, I'm going to start wondering if I'm becoming too sentimental.

I don't suppose anybody would ever think of me as being sentimental. I've dedicated so much of my career to being absolutely professional, and not allowing my emotions to cloud my judgment. I'm supposed to work in a cold and clinical environment, where facts are the only constant in a world of confusion. But I am sentimental, I long for a time where the world doesn't contain psychopathic murderers like Jean-Baptiste Chandonne, his twin brother Jean-Paul, and Temple Brooks Gault. I long for a time when I was young, when my life and the world at large appeared to be untainted by violence.

It isn't possible and it never has been. Before the Chandonne Brothers, there were other monsters, other reasons I couldn't turn out the light at night. I consider the very real prospect, that the monster I'm constantly running away from these days is me. Oh I know what my friend Doctor Anna Zenner would say; she'd tell I'm not a monster. That I disconnect myself, because it's less painful than facing up to the reality. That I push myself far too hard, because I'm a perfectionist, am too immersed in my work, and more often than not, I am never present emotionally when I should be.

I believe its time to confront the truth. I would actually like to clear away the baggage because I want a normal life. A normal life is something I never thought I could have for me. To my surprise, I'm beginning to believe that it's possible, but it's going to involve a monumental amount of work. If I don't sort it out, the alternative won't be all that attractive.

All I have left outside of my family and friends, of which there aren't many, is my career, and it's no longer enough. I'm reminded that anything I hoped to achieve academically or professionally has already been more than achieved. In fact, there isn't a Forensic Pathologist in this country, and in several others, that doesn't know my name. Contrary to what a lot of people believe, I don't like the spotlight. I prefer to work quietly and anonymously, while I fight for people that can no longer fight for themselves.

The area that's lacking, and has always been lacking, is my personal life. Most of my lovers have taken one thing after another from me and I've never been able to see it until afterwards. Only when I'm sitting heartbroken, do I realise I've been taken for a fool again. The great Doctor Scarpetta, one of the foremost professionals in my field dedicated to finding the truth and delivering justice. Yet, I can't tell when a lover is deceiving me.

But strangely, the one time when anybody tried to give back as much as they took, I fought against it. Benton was married; he had a family to go home to at night. And even when he no longer did, and it was me he was coming home to, I found that I didn't or couldn't want what he had to give. I often wondered why and couldn't come up with an adequate explanation. I still can't.

As much as it hurts to say it, like a lot of things in my life, he is no longer enough. I have always wanted to love, and be loved, deeply and freely. But every relationship I ever had, has failed because my partners could never come to terms with who I am. I'm not totally blameless, because I have never made it easy for anyone to be with me. I have been too afraid to open up, too scared to take the risk, when I perhaps expected others to do just that.

Tony, my ex-husband, completely missed the point of why I was unwilling to give up my career and stay at home to be a baby factory. He couldn't compete with my job, not that he tried all that hard, but he complained long and loud about the way I made him feel less of a man. He should be the breadwinner, he said. I should be at home with hordes of children, chained to the kitchen sink like a good Italian wife. Amazingly, it lasted six years before we decided to call it a day.

Then there was Mark James; he was an on-going obsession of mine. I first met him when we were at Law School in Washington DC. We became lovers but went our separate ways until I met up with him again, after I was divorced. He died suddenly one morning, when a terrorist bomb hidden in a trash can, blew London's Victoria Station apart. He was the love of my life and my grief was heavy and unbearable. I didn't find out till much later that he was with a woman when he died. Benton, his closest friend, eventually revealed to me that there had been others. He had been planning to leave me, yet one more thing everyone else knew that I didn't.

Benton Wesley is very different. He's one of the most caring, considerate and gentle men I've ever known. In the end though, even his devotion to me took a slightly sinister turn. I can still remember the hate in his eyes, when he caught me working late one night and told me that if I could teach a microscope to fuck, then I wouldn't need him at all. The painful thing about the whole episode is that he was exactly right, because as awful as it sounds, I didn't need him.

Not long afterwards, I was told that he too, was dead. His body burnt up in a fire, whilst pursuing a lead in his capacity as a profiler for the FBI. I had held his burnt bones in my hands and grieved. I had scattered his ashes out to sea, as tears ran down my face, wishing we could have had our time over again. I spent day after day, mourning his loss, some days the pain so bad that I could barely haul myself out of bed. I carried on shrouded in a cloud of grief that pushed everybody away from me.

Just when I had learnt to cope with that loss, he was suddenly back in my life; for reasons I couldn't comprehend at first. It was only later I discovered that he'd chosen to enter the witness protection program in order to shield Lucy, Marino and I from the Chandonnes. I also discovered that Marino and Lucy had known about it the entire time. I swung from being angry to being devastated that the three of them had lied to me. The betrayal was unbelievably painful, and although we're all speaking again, I still hold them at arms length.

Things between Benton and I will never go back to how they used to be, that much I'm sure of. I also know he's aware of it. Things were never perfect even before he went away, both of us too set in our ways and hiding parts of ourselves that we felt we couldn't or didn't want to share. At first we accepted it, but gradually it became harder to live with.

Both of us are living in two different worlds now, spending time apart because we can't look each other in the eyes when we are together. We're avoiding the discussion where we agree to go our own separate ways permanently. At the moment we're maintaining the illusion that everything is fine, we have been for almost five years, but in truth it's far from it. I've explained to him that until I know what I want, I have to distance myself from him. He understands this, because he did the very same thing himself months ago.

When I tell him how I feel, that I'm tired of him alternately loving me one minute and hating me the next, he'll try to convince otherwise. He'll rail on, reassuring me that we can fix things. We both know we can't, and I'm fairly certain neither of us wants to. The bottom line is the same as it's always been, he wants me to need him and I can't. I've never really forgiven him for leaving me, and I don't know that I ever will. All I want for us now, is to carve out some sort of friendship, because I love him too much to lose him forever.

I realise I've been stood in front of the coffee maker for the last ten minutes going over all of this in my mind. I shake my head and sigh. Either I'm beginning to lose my mind, or it was never there to lose in the first place. The machine fires up, and coffee loudly drips as I rummage around in the refrigerator, just for something to do. I'm not hungry, I can't remember the last time I was, and today is no different. Not sleeping and not eating have been constant features in my life.

The phone suddenly rings and I'm startled. "Scarpetta."

"You've got coffee on right?" the chirpy sounding female voice at the other end says.

"Yes I've got coffee on," I reply and can't stop myself from smiling. "How is it you always know? How did you even know I was awake?"

"I must be psychic. It's a real problem," she replies, the hint of a smile in her voice.

"You know me too well. I think that's your problem."

"Never. In any case, knowing you so well is what keeps me out of mischief," she replies with a laugh.

"I don't think I've ever known you not to be in mischief Laura," I reply, and thoroughly enjoy every minute of our little conversation about nothing in particular.

"Damn, I guess there's no hope for me then. However, being the polite woman that I am, I'll accept your invite."

"I don't remember inviting you," I say as I take a seat at my kitchen table.

"Oh come on, have a heart. I've been out all night, freezing my ass off as you would say…"

"And what would you say?" I interject, not being able to remember when I had phone conversations just for fun. I probably didn't.

"Chilling one's posterior," she replies, using her British accent fully to her advantage.

"Quaint," I reply as I stand up, once again digging in the refrigerator. I decide I'll cook breakfast, because I love to cook for her. "I guess if you're that cold, you and your posterior should swing by for breakfast."

"Kay my dear, my posterior thought you'd never ask."

Barely fifteen minutes later, she has arrived and is filling my kitchen with laughter. I've often noticed that the minute she walks through the door, the atmosphere changes for the better. She hauls herself up onto a countertop and swings her legs like a child as she watches me gather ingredients for breakfast. Happy memories of the past flutter into my mind, and all at once, I wish the others were here too. She looks curiously at me, she can tell something is on my mind but she's tactful enough not to mention it.

Sergeant Laura Halton is barely more than thirty, that particular birthday having arrived just several weeks earlier. She's been in her current rank for the last six months, and if her superiors are to be believed, she's heading for big things. The one thing anybody ever remarks upon, is how she's caring and generous. She's one of those people that's cheerful and friendly by nature; nothing is forced or fake and she never hesitates to lend a hand if somebody needs her help.

I've never met anyone like her for brushing away compliments either. Reminding the person in a gentle and humourous way about how flawed she is, in both looks and personality. I often want to tell her, that its part of her charm. The fact that she isn't perfect, and fully admits it, is one of the things that make her genuinely likeable. I'm really not sure she'd appreciate me saying any of those things; so thus far, I've refrained. For the record, she's an attractive brunette with blue eyes, and not at all as flawed as she makes herself out to be.

"Another typical night shift," she's saying as I crack eggs into a bowl. "Convenience store hold up, sawn off shotgun. Owner of the store is dead, shot in the chest. The scumbag didn't get away with it though; one of the uniformed lads crept up on him, knocked him for six and chucked him in the back of a Black Maria."

I suddenly stop what I'm doing and smile up at her. I know full well what she's saying; I had managed to translate her way of speaking long ago. But I like the way she continues to be herself, in a place where her accent and her words are strange and will stick out no matter where she goes.

I remember the first time I met her three years ago. I had only just moved to New York and met her at a Seminar, which I had attended with Marino. We got on well from the outset. I came to know her incredibly well in what seemed such a short amount of time and, I'm glad to say that we are firm friends, even though the age gap between us is a little more than twenty years.

But her age isn't a factor, I don't feel like I'm any older than her, all I feel is an equal. And we sure as hell aren't equal, she's thirty and I'm on the wrong side of fifty. She's tall and lean and graceful, and I'm short and constantly running from the effects of gravity. She's capable of so much more than I am physically, and on the occasions when I have a reason to make physical contact with her, I'm reminded of her considerable but gentle strength.

She had originally transferred to New York from the Metropolitan Police in London, to gain more experience of violent crime. The transfer had been intended only for twelve months, and she'd already gone over her time by a year when I met her. For now though, she seems to be content with the setup, and from working some of the same cases, we've developed an incredibly close bond that is almost telepathic in its working. I worry that it won't last forever.

"Sorry, I sometimes forget I'm not talking to somebody from home," she smiles sheepishly at me, taking my silence as confusion over what she's saying, and swings her legs again.

I shake my head and smile back, not quite knowing what to say and would settle for just about anything except what comes out of my mouth. "It's kinda cute."

Her legs freeze; she's shocked, as am I. Cute isn't a word I routinely use and definitely not in conjunction with a friend. I prefer not to wonder why I used it, but my mind doesn't listen and wonders of its own accord. I know about her lifestyle. I know she prefers women and doesn't have any kind of relationships with men other than platonic ones. I had been through it with Lucy and the revelation didn't turn out to be as much of a shock to me as Laura thought it would.

I have never ever once believed that she'd be attracted to me, throwing that notion out of the window the very second it appeared in my mind. I'm old enough to be her mother, and my looks, whilst never spectacular, aren't what they once were. I make noises when I bend over, I make noises when I get out of bed and I wear spectacles for reading, although I'm beginning to feel they should be a permanent fixture.

But if I stick to that theory then I'll never be able to adequately explain moments like this, when the air between us is heavy with static electricity. Moments, that have happened between us frequently, since the early days of our friendship.

"Stop it," she replies, her tone not harsh at all, just gentle as she herself is.

"Stop what?" I reply, taking up the abandoned breakfast once more.

"Compartmentalising," she replies.

She jumps down from counter and stands close behind me. So close that I feel her warmth on my back. Some days I feel like hell and all I want is to be held tightly by her; just to sink into her arms and forget the world exists. It's only just recently that I've understood why. I crave her, simply because I am attracted to her. An attraction that probably goes far deeper than I'm willing to admit right now, but that's beside the point.

"I'm doing no such thing," I say, trying to keep my voice steady as her hand finds its way to my shoulder.

"Kay, look at me."

I comply, only because I've never really liked having my back to people. At least that's what I try to tell myself.


"It's ok. What you said was ok."

"I didn't mean…" I say and then pause, if I say that I didn't mean it I'll be lying and if I say it wasn't meant in that way, then she'll expect me to tell her how I did mean it. Since I've already lost my train of thought, I won't bother.

"It's ok even if you did mean it," she smiles at me again. "Nobody, least of all me will expect anything from you."

Damn, I can tell by her statement that she knows, and I wonder if she's always known how I feel about her. It would be typical if she knew about it before I did. I'm supposed to be better than this. I'm supposed to be more adept at hiding my feelings.

"I don't know if I'd have anything to give," I say honestly.

"Then that's ok too," she takes a chance in pulling me toward her, knowing I could very easily be pissed off with her for violating my personal space.

I walk toward her arms, the feeling alien and a little bit frightening. But when I'm finally there, it doesn't feel anything other than natural. I feel her soft body beneath my fingertips and her perfume fills my senses. The warmth emanating through her shirt seeps into my body and makes me feel as if I'm suddenly revived.

"I'm scared," I say quietly into her neck, and I know she will appreciate how much of a huge sacrifice I just made in order to tell her that.

I have never told anybody that I was afraid. I couldn't afford to with so many people waiting and hoping to see me fail. Admitting I was scared was like throwing a flag up and telling everyone it was open season and that they should come get me. This conversation, and confronting whatever it is that's between us has been coming for a long time I guess, and I'm genuinely afraid now that it has arrived.

"Me too," she murmurs, holding me a little tighter than before, her way of trying to reassure me.

"You're afraid?" I lean back, still firmly in her arms but now I can see her face.

"Yes. Wouldn't you be afraid if you were me? Its not every day I get to hold the great Doctor Scarpetta in my arms," there's a glint in her eye and it makes me smile.

"You may need to get used to it," my reply bold, it's not something I would normally have said, even to Benton.

I'm sure she knows exactly how I'm feeling without me having to say it. But she doesn't expect me to explain it, or make any promises, or even have a discussion about it any further than we already have done. She knows that what I've said and done already is so much out of character for me, and so doesn't push me any further right now.

Not for the first time since I've known her, I marvel at how connected we are. I'm not that well connected with anyone else. I thought maybe it was because she was a woman. Then it occurred to me I wasn't quite connected with Lucy like that and she was a woman too.

I had touched upon it briefly with her once, as we had one too many glasses of wine after a long day. She didn't come out and say it specifically, merely hinted at the fact that perhaps it was not only because she was a woman that we connected. Perhaps we connected in a way Lucy and I couldn't.

At the time, I took that to mean it was because she wasn't family and I didn't feel the same sense of personal failure with her as I did when I interacted with Lucy. I've now begun to understand it's because there is an attraction involved, which makes it so very different.

"I could easily get used to it," she chuckles softly, bringing me back to the present.

"Marino won't," I can already imagine his reaction to it, and I've not done anything yet.

This is beginning to sound like step number one of me backing away. Any excuse to find an escape route.

She's still holding onto me, unsure of how to voice her reply. I know she and Marino are incredibly fond of each other. I can tell by the way they constantly banter with each other that there's a real and deep affection. He came to care for Laura the same as we all did when she joined our little group. Well, all but Lucy that is, she can't stand to be in the same room as her. She doesn't like Lucy either. It's the one reason Laura and I don't see eye to eye at times.

"Maybe Marino already knows."

I'm shocked and it shows by the way I pull away from her. I can see she misses the contact as much as I do, but she also knows its best not to pursue me.

"Who the hell has been discussing my goddamn private life? They had no goddamn right!" I fly off the handle just as I have many times before, but knowing I shouldn't, and being able to stop are two different things.

"Hey, nobody has been discussing your goddamn private life as you put it," she's angry with me and I can't blame her.

"Then how come you know Marino knows?" I fire back, wishing already that I hadn't done this.

"I don't for sure; I was thinking aloud!" she shouts and I take a step back, not because I'm afraid of her but because for a split second I was thinking of running to my room in a temper like a child would.

"What makes you think it?" I say, a little calmer now I've taken a deep breath.

"One night after a few too many bourbons, he started talking about a woman he'd always loved. It doesn't take a genius to figure out it's you. He's probably been in love with you for the twenty years he's known you," she sits down at my table, and lights a cigarette. "That would mean he's been in love with you since I was still at school," she grins, temper suddenly gone because she doesn't stay angry for long.

"Cut it out," I say, sitting in front of her at the table, cigarette smoke driving me crazy because I'd quit yet again. "You make me feel ancient. You're not too old to go over my knee you know."

"That's a little too kinky for this time of the morning," she laughs, and the sound of her voice soothes me. "From the way he talked, he knows you'll never be interested in him that way. I got the impression he's always known."

"That doesn't mean I don't care for him," I say sadly, not wanting to be the cause of his broken heart.

I have a great love and affection for Marino, whenever he isn't around I feel like part of me is missing because we seem to have known each other forever. But there isn't, and never will be, a sexual interest in him.

"I know that and so does he," she looks at me uncertainly, not knowing whether to impart her next piece of information or not. "He told me he could see which way the wind was blowing and just to be patient. Which to me, sounded pretty vague at the time."

"That sounds like Marino," I reply, cheekily taking a cigarette from her pack without asking; holding onto her hand tightly as she lights it for me.

"Until tonight, I had no idea what he meant. Now I know he knew more than I did," she says softly.

"I really don't know what to say," I'm stuck for words, it doesn't happen often. Marino, damn him, was right.

"I'm not advocating you and I jump into bed and live happily ever after. Life doesn't work that way. I just want to be here for you in any capacity you can handle."

I look at her; this wasn't a discussion either of us had wanted to get into at this point in time. I forced it by losing my temper and shouting. Part of me wondered whether I'd done it on purpose, to get her to say words I need to hear, without being able to return the favour.

"I know. Right now though, I don't know much of anything except this," I hold our joined hands up and grip hers tighter, as her thumb strokes the back of my fingers. "The world will have to wait while I figure this out, and play catch up on everything else."

Her smile returned. "You, me, and the rest of the world is always playing catch up. That much we can cope with."

Rose, my secretary, looks sternly at me the moment I walk into my office and sit down. Its not often she looks at me like that and I wonder what the hell I've done now. Well into her seventies, she should be slowing down and enjoying her retirement but she continues to follow me about wherever I go, just as she has done ever since my first days working as Chief Medical Examiner in Richmond, Virginia. I thank god every single day for her, I would have been lost long ago without Rose.

I look at my desk, nothing stands out that should have been done urgently. I look around the office, everything looks to be in place, and I'm stumped. She knows I don't know why she's apparently annoyed with me, and I can sense a small part of her is enjoying watching me squirm for a moment. She often jokes that my forgetfulness is the one way she has of keeping me in check.

"What is it Rose? We could still be sitting here by tonight if you don't tell me what's wrong."

"Doctor Scarpetta, I told you I had a birthday coming up, and that I didn't want any fuss over it."

'Shit,' I curse inwardly, her birthday, I'd forgotten all about it.

I'd meant to buy her a gift, had even gone out to buy it but I'd had a call from Benton that left us in the same situation as always. He'd said something, I got angry, he got angry back and we ended up slamming the phone down on each other. Forgetting what I'd been about to do, I'd gotten straight back in my car, and driven home.

"I told you not to make a fuss, but what do you go and do?" a huge smile breaks out onto her face. "Doctor Scarpetta, the pearls are absolutely lovely and the flowers, boy are the flowers something else."

She walks back into her office with me following and the biggest bunch of roses I have ever seen, sits atop a filing cabinet. Deep blood red roses nestle against an array of bright white Gypsophila. I look at the card: To Rose, many happy returns of the day, Kay.

She tells me how delighted she is with the pearls and I smile, telling her I'm pleased she likes them, trying and failing not to feel like the biggest heel in the history of the world. The pearls are real; they must have cost a fortune as did the flowers. I know right then who went to all that trouble and expense on my behalf. Laura had bought exactly the same gifts I would have.

"Really, they're lovely, thank you," she hugs me awkwardly, the gap of being boss and secretary still there even after my attempts to get rid of it.

"You're very welcome," I tell her, silently thanking god above that things had turned out this way, it would have broken my heart if I'd hurt Rose.

"By the way, Laura called earlier, to wish me a happy birthday. She says to make sure you keep your schedule free for this evening. She's got a surprise for us both apparently."

"I just bet she has," I say and smile, because she's just surprised the hell out of me that's for sure.

I manage to grab Laura for a moment in the ladies room of the restaurant she's treating Rose to, while there's a lull in waiting for the main course to arrive. Buying Rose's gift has put us on an unequal footing in my mind and she's made me feel bad without intending to. She knows it and won't apologise for it. I wouldn't let her even if she tried, because if anyone is at fault, it's me. She waves away my thanks, as gracious as ever, and for a moment, I wish she wasn't so polite. I'm so annoyed with her and I shouldn't be. I feel like a walking contradiction, as the song goes.

"It's fine honestly," she dries her hands and looks at me in the mirror. "I realised this morning you'd forgotten, and I wanted to help."

"Is that all it is?" there it goes, step number two of me backing away.

"Yes, of course it is for god sake," she suspects I'm close to bolting, and she doesn't want me to do it, "how many times have you hauled me out of the shit in the past three years? More times than I can remember, and the one time I help you, you pounce on it like I've done something wrong."

"And this?" I open my arms and gesture to the building around us.

"A nice birthday dinner for a woman I'm extremely fond of. As are you, as is Marino."

Marino was, at this moment in time, entertaining Rose in our absence.

"And the theatre tickets?"

"Why must you try to find an ulterior motive in everything?" she whirls around, keeping her temper, more weary of the fact that I'm constantly searching for things that aren't there.

"It's what I'm used to," I reply honestly and without hesitation, she knew that much already.

"Then stop, because it does get pretty tiresome," there's a hint of annoyance without any real power behind it. "I'm paying for dinner and have paid for theatre tickets because I really wanted to. I would like to spend a nice evening having dinner, and watching a play, with people I care about. End of story."

"Then this wasn't intended as some sort of a plan to dupe me into going on a date with you?" its meant to be a joke but doesn't quite turn out that way, my tone displaying a hint of suspicion which she immediately picks up on.

"You know, I'm not like most people you've been with. I ask for something, I don't take. And if you refuse me, I still don't take. I resign myself to the fact you will always say no and I leave it at that."

"But you and I are not together," I state emphatically and could instantly kick myself. Why on earth am I this destructive with people who care for me?

She sighs, her head drops toward the floor, a curtain of shiny dark hair obscuring her features, her hands finding their way to her pants pockets. She leans her head to one side and looks at me, sometimes it feels like she's looking right into my very soul and it thrills me as much as it unnerves me.

"You're right. We're very much apart, and are ever likely to be if you don't stop piling brick after brick up on that perimeter wall of yours Kay. I'm not the enemy."

She approaches me, I feel a frisson of something run up my spine, I'm not sure if its excitement, fear, or intense attraction. It's most probably a combination of all three.

"There's Benton," I look for a reaction when I mention his name and there is none, she's good at hiding it.

"Benton isn't here," she says, knowing I'm evading the issue.

"Those walls have been there for such a long time. You know I can't break everything down that quickly," I pull her into a cubicle, we're in a busy restaurant and I don't want us to be some sort of floor show for the general public.

"I'm not asking you to," she replies. Her face honest and open, just as she herself always is.

I feel envious of her, she's not afraid to go for who and what she wants, and never has been. It's different for me, however. I know she's afraid to pursue me more than she already has because she knows her link to me, just like everyone else's is fragile, very fragile indeed. It could snap at any moment because I'm still looking for ways to close myself off from her before it goes too far.

"Nobody knows more than I do about what you've been through, about your pain and your fears."

This is also true. I've opened up to her in ways I never have with anyone else before, and that includes Benton. I look at her, and I know she's expecting me to say something. To perhaps reassure her that I'm not going to push her away. But confirmation isn't coming easily; nothing does to me, except work. As much as I want to take a leap of faith, I can't because it isn't in my nature to take personal risks unless I can guarantee the outcome.

"I can turn right back around and forgot any of this ever happened. We'll go back to being best friends," she smiles, eager to try and put me at my ease.

"We can't and you know we can't," I hesitantly move towards her, this time it's me violating her personal space as I place my arms around her waist. "Nor would I want to. I can't promise to be perfect Laura, and oh god this feels ridiculous," I let go of her and move away, wondering why my head, heart and mouth are all saying different things and conspiring to lead me further into trouble.

She's instantly with me, doesn't care if I don't like being spun around or held on to tightly. For the record, I do. It's nice to have somebody chase after me for a change. I return her hug with all the strength I can muster, wishing that I could stop feeling jumpy in case we take too long, and Marino comes looking for us. I shouldn't be worrying about what anyone else thinks, but I am and I do.

"Why is this ridiculous?" she whispers into my hair, not wanting to give the group of women outside our cubicle something to listen to.

"I'm old enough to be your mother for a start. You've got your life ahead of you, mine is behind me, and I seriously couldn't cope if you became tired of me. Of all the people I've ever known, you're the one I'm least likely to ever forget," my heart is beating so loudly that I'm sure she can hear it.

"Excuses," she smiles in that infuriatingly sweet way she has when she knows she's right. "If you feel, the way I think you feel, then please try to trust me Kay."

"It's not that simple," I inhale slowly, the smell of her perfume overwhelming me again.

I look to her lips, shiny and damp because she wears just a hint of lip gloss; her only concession to makeup this dark rainy night.

"It's not no and nor will it ever be. We have to try though, Kay. There are no certainties in life, only chances, and this is one we must take advantage of."

I look at her lips again, and I know she's watching me doing it. She knows exactly what I'm thinking but I won't be giving in to the overwhelming urge to kiss her. Not in a public restroom, not with Marino around, and definitely not without a bottle of Bushmills three feet away in case of an emergency when I flake out because I've kissed her.

"Be patient with me," it's not an order, it's not a plea. I'm not sure what it is, just that I know she'll need patience and lots of it.

She looks at me, wondering which way my decision will fall. There's a hopeful look in her eyes, she knows how far out of my comfort zone I am and I think she's hoping that because I made it this far, I'm going to be brave and give this thing a go.

"I am and I will be, come what may," she replies before pulling me close and holding onto me in the confined space.

I hold onto her, and this time thoughts of Marino are pushed to the back of my mind. For the first time in a long time, perhaps for the first time ever, I'm on the brink of something that could be what I've always wanted and needed. I quickly take stock, willing myself to answer questions of whether I really can just let go and give in to what my heart wants. I know the answer already, and I knew it this morning too, before I gave her false hopes that we could see where this took us. I can't do it, because I'm more terrified of allowing myself to fall over the edge than I thought I would be.

"It's already too late, you're too late," I see the confusion on her face, she doesn't know what I'm talking about, can't understand why I've suddenly turned my back on her.

The door of the cubicle bangs loudly as I pull it open and walk away. This time, she doesn't pursue me

The rest of dinner feels awkward. I'm finding it near to impossible to sit next to her, and I'm repressing the urge to stand and run. But I know I can't run, not during Rose's birthday dinner and certainly not with Marino around. I don't want him knowing any more than he thinks he knows already. He's been sending looks in my direction, he's not lost any of his instincts and I feel uncomfortable under his gaze. I also feel his concern; he's worried that something bad has happened because I'm quieter than usual.

I'm startled when I feel Laura's leg brush against mine under the table, and it's entirely unintentional so I'm fairly certain she hasn't noticed my reaction. I take another bite of my salmon, trying to force myself to swallow it but my stomach is clenched tightly like a fist. This should never have happened; I shouldn't have compromised our friendship this way. It's not who I am, but at the same time I'm reminded of everything I've ever said to Lucy about her sexuality. I would tell her there is no normal, love is love, and love matters more than gender.

I'm reluctant to use the word gay; lesbian, or even bisexual in connection with myself. Of course during my lifetime, I've been attracted to a woman more than once and I quite rightly viewed this as a normal part of growing up. I certainly haven't thought of another woman that way since I was in my teens. But as I think it, I am suddenly startled. I'm tempted to laugh out loud at the simplicity of it all. The problem is, I have thought of other women in that way since my teens. And what I had thought was once mere admiration of a woman now seems much, much more.

Three pairs of eyes turn to me, and I apologise, coughing slightly for effect, claiming the food went down the wrong way. I can tell at least two pairs of eyes don't believe me but they both know they won't be getting an explanation and turn back to their main courses.

I take a sip of my wine, an overwhelming sense of shame washing over me. I've treated Laura awfully this day. I've prided myself on never being less than one hundred percent honest with people, and I'm not sure I can say that about myself anymore.

"Nice joint they got here," Marino dabs his lips politely with a napkin, effectively breaking the silence which I'm grateful for.

I marvel at the way he's changed every time I see him. Gone is the loud-mouthed, brash, and heavily overweight drinker and chain smoker. In his place is a well dressed, for the most part polite, and much leaner man who now practices moderation in everything, and has quit smoking entirely. The heart attack saw to that, because for a horribly frightening twenty-four hour period two years ago, we all thought we were going to lose him.

Laura smiles at him. "I thought you'd appreciate the steak here. How was it?"

"Truthfully?" he leans back in his chair and pats his stomach. "It's friggin' fantastic."

I smile at this. The one thing about Marino that has never changed, and probably will never change is his language. It's now worse than ever, because he's back in his native New York. I reflect on how strange my choice was to move here at the time. I had no real connections with New York apart from working a few and very awful murders here from time to time. This is where Marino's career started, and I remember how pleased he was at coming home. Over the years he said he'd never live back in New York, but we both knew deep down he had missed the place.

I still don't know my reasoning on the matter. I previously felt Temple Brooks Gault had ruined New York for me forever, when he'd murdered his twin sister and left her body by a fountain in the snow on Christmas Eve in Central Park. The nightmare ended with me confronting him deep in a subway tunnel in The Bowery, just yards from Bleecker Street Station. I can still see his terrible face illuminated by the sparks from a passing train, as he bled to death from where I'd stabbed him in the groin with a scalpel that fatally transected his femoral artery.

Now that I think of it, basing myself in New York was probably an act of defiance. After being targeted by so many psychopaths, I'd decided I'd had enough of running and hiding. Moving here hasn't been such a bad choice, I'm about as safe here as I am anywhere I suppose; it's as good a place as any to set down roots.

"I was told this joint had bread pudding with Jack Daniels sauce," Marino speaks again. "How about that Rose? You fancy warmin' those bones of yours with a little of the JD?"

Rose blushes slightly as she always has in his presence; I think she secretly admires him. "Why not Pete, it's a special occasion."

"Absolutely," Laura echoes with a smile. "You could both do with a treat. Been a long time for you Marino."

"You got that friggin' right. Some nights I can't sleep for food cravings. They make me eat those damn low calorie snacks when I got pangs but sometimes, I just want some real food ya know?" he grins at her.

Even though his face is much thinner, the smile has never changed, and I would know it anywhere. One of these days I'm going to have to get over myself, and tell him how proud of him I am.

"I'm sorry, please excuse me for a moment," Laura apologises, quickly rising from the table and placing her napkin aside her plate.

"Pager," Marino nods knowingly, he's been there, done and seen it all before.

"Oh hell," Rose sighs. "Do they never leave the poor girl alone?"

"That's what happens when you work for the NYPD Homicide Unit," he says proudly. "Never a minute's peace but she's a good cop. She's got instincts and more importantly she ain't afraid to haul ass when she's gotta."

I'm tempted to go and see what's happening but I know it's none of my business. I only give my help when it's required and things are fragile enough between us right now.

"Think she'll throw a bone our way?" Marino peruses the menu, already thinking of dessert.

"I don't know, if it's a Medical Examiner case then maybe," I wonder the same thing myself, but it's not my bank balance I'm worried about.

My heart thuds offbeat now she's finally back and I know she's going to make her excuses and leave. The expression on her face pains me. I know she genuinely cares for Rose and having to ruin the night isn't what she wants.

"Rose sweetheart," she says. "I've been called to a scene. I wish I could stay…"

Rose waves her hand around. "Don't you go apologising. I've had a lovely evening as it is."

"Pete and Doctor Scarpetta will still go to the theatre with you I'm sure," she smiles, knowing Marino will and probably hopes I will too, so she doesn't have me trailing after her. "I'll call you and you can let me know how the play was."

"Is there anything I can help with?" I catch her eye, and see by the look on her face that she knew it was coming.

"Not at this point," she states and I'm stung by the icy tone of her voice.

She rounds the table, hugging Rose goodbye and kissing Marino on the cheek. She's telling them to finish off with whatever dessert they'd like and not to worry about the bill, since she's already taken care of it. She's full of apologies, and then suddenly she's gone.

"Go after her Doc," Marino says with unusual sensitivity. "Go sort whatever fight the two of you had. I'll take care of Rose; we'll have the best date two people ever had."

She smiles at him coyly and turns to me. "I really don't mind Doctor Scarpetta. I think I'd feel happier if she wasn't alone."

Thanking them both, and not being able to articulate how much I care for them, I settle for impulsively kissing them both on the cheek and then I rush off after her.

I manage to catch her just as she unlocks her car, after a quick breathless chase which reminds me of how old I'm getting.

"Wait!" I call out and try to avoid a large puddle as I step off the sidewalk.

"Kay," her tone sounds like I am a naughty child who's disobeyed her, by not staying put inside the restaurant.

It's an act though, she's happier to see me than she will admit. But something else crosses her features. I'm not sure what that something else is.

"What's the matter? I don't like the look on your face."

Her breath fogs out in the cold night air, as a fine drizzle of rain falls. "A body has been discovered down in the subway. There's a similarity to another known case," she says, being honest but choosing her words carefully so as to try to protect me, but nothing in the world can protect me from the memory of Temple Gault.

I look at her, mouth moving but no words coming out.

"Bleecker Street Station," she adds, knowing that would have been my next question.

"It's not…" I ask, unable to finish the rest of the sentence.

"It's not him, Kay. He's dead."

"Can I come with you?" I ask, knowing I cannot demand; that's not how things work between us.

"You shouldn't put yourself through that. Why would you even want to?"

"To prove that I can, because I'm still here, and he didn't beat me. Who knows?" I shrug; knowing she decided the moment I called out to her that she'd let me ride along with her.

"I tried…"

"To protect me I know," I reply, and I soften towards her, "but I have to face up to things, I can't bury my head in the sand forever."

She nods silently, and we climb into the car. She avoids using my own words against me, refraining from asking me why I'm burying my head in the sand about the obvious attraction between us. Her refusal to be horrible to me is really annoying at this moment in time. Quite frankly, she has every right to be sitting there saying whatever the hell she wants, because of the way I treated her.

I can sense how out of sorts she is. I'm making her feel ineffective; I have that effect on most people so I've been told. She's frustrated with me on a personal level. And she is torn between protecting, and respecting me on a professional one. Often times, I make it impossible for her to do either. I shake my head as I realise its something else Marino is right about. I really am a pain in the ass as he frequently likes to remind me. The fact that she hasn't forced the issue and refused to allow me to accompany her, also tells me how much she respects me. Guilt stabs at my insides again, I've let her down and I shouldn't have.

I steal a glance at her in the dark as she drives, and she looks pensive. She catches me looking and smiles, maybe I'm partway forgiven already. Unless of course it's just out of habit and then I really am up Shit Creek, without a paddle, a canoe and a tour guide.

There's no point thinking about it now, because with every passing minute, we edge ever nearer to the crime scene. As our destination appears up ahead, both of us rapidly transform. Professionalism comes into play, and a mask drops cutting our personal life off from our professional one. She's still Laura though, and that makes me want to be close to her in any capacity. I silently berate myself, I can't think of her like that now. I can't afford to be anything other than one hundred percent professional, because if I lose that, I've got nothing left.

She pulls over to park, and we approach the entrance to the subway. Police cruiser lights throb red and blue, and radio static drifts on the night air. My stomach clenches painfully, but suddenly Laura is beside me and she's taking my arm. Despite having jerked her around so much today, I'm relieved to find she's still on my side. I grasp her tightly, knuckles white as they tighten on her arm. We descend the stairs into the dark subway station, and get closer to my inevitable reunion with the past.

The End

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