I started when Mallory blasted into the newsroom, interrupting my thoughts and my browse through the Post. I pulled my feet off his desk and rocked upright in his chair. He waved me back when I started to stand.
"Stay where you are." He tossed a small package onto the desk in front of me. It was addressed to me at the wire service post office box. There was no return.
Smiling under Mallory"s curious eyes, I stripped off the brown wrapping, opened the box, and joyfully dug through tissue to find . . . a rubber finger, with red droplets painted on the side. It appeared to have been part of a Halloween costume.
My eager anticipation deteriorated to puzzlement. Searching further, I found a note scrawled on a piece of standard-sized copy paper folded at the bottom of the box.
"You"ve been warned. Keep it up and the finger in the next box will be yours. How good can you type with nine?"
My tremulous smile dissolved to a frown.
Mallory yanked the paper out of my hands, scanned the writing, looked at the finger, then reached in front of me to pick the container up carefully, using a thumb and index finger. He placed the box and its contents in a sack left on his desk from lunch.
"Probably some wise ass idea of a joke."
I thought of the faces of the pranksters in the newsroom. No, I didn"t think the culprit was one of them.
"Stay here." Mallory picked up the sack. "I"ll be back in a little while." Abruptly, he stormed out the back door through which he had arrived.
Duke returned in forty minutes without the sack. During the time he was gone, I paced, flipped through pages in another newspaper, tried to straighten our work area a little, and paced some more. Mallory insisted on following me home.
Having trailed me all the way into the parking garage, he accompanied me into the Chestnut Hotel, through the lobby, and even rode the elevator with me to the ninth floor. He remained at my side all the way to my room.
He didn"t say much until I was unlocking the door.
"Is your boyfriend"s brother still around?"
"No. They finished the job. He"s gone back."
Mallory nodded. His face was uncharacteristically grim.
* * * * *
"Some people in the newsroom try to one-up each other being clever," I told Jim on the telephone that night, describing the incident. "I figure it"s probably a gag that went sour. Didn"t turn out to be as funny as the joker thought."
"Probably." He sounded serious. "Have you got a file on the burglaries?"
"Why don"t you fax me copies of that stuff in the morning."
"That isn"t necessary."
"Jim, there"s too much of it to fax. Besides, you have your own cases. What about the Glass thing?"
"Wrapped up. I"m schooling witnesses and tagging evidence."
"You"re not taking me to raise, you know. You don"t have to solve all my problems for me."
"Jance, crime solving is what I do for a living and as a hobby. Some people fool with puzzles in their spare time. I follow felonies. You don"t want me bored, do you, more restless without you than I already am?"
I really wanted his help but felt foolish. "Okay," I muttered finally. "I"ll mail the stuff."
"Everything," he prodded. "Overnight it."
"I love you." His words came in a throaty whisper.
"Sure you do, when you get your own way."
He laughed suggestively. "Not to be contrary, but if you"ll remember, I haven"t gotten my own way with you on a lot of more significant issues than this, and I love you anyway."
When I hung up the phone, I paced. I wanted to go downstairs, have something to eat, but I was afraid to venture out, even to the coffee shop. Shoot, I didn"t even want to risk room service.
"Too many James Patterson novels," I chided myself out loud. "You"re here on an adventure, maybe the last solo adventure of your whole life. How do you think you would manage in these same circumstances in an overseas bureau where the threats might not even be in English?
"Face it, Dewhurst, you are a wuss." My debilitating fear irritated me. "You big sissy, running to Wills for help like Pauline in peril." I glowered at my reflection in the bathroom mirror and picked up my toothbrush.
Still, I had to admit, it was nice there was a strong, handsome hero to whom a girl could turn. I brushed my teeth vigorously, putting that scathing energy to use.
Dabbing my mouth with the towel, I felt refreshed and reassured. I hadn"t scrapped my plans for a career as a wire service correspondent overseas, but this little sojourn on the West Coast, my apprenticeship miles from home and family, had taken a lot of the romance out of my original notion.
In the beginning I had been trying to establish an identity of my own. No longer content to be the Dewhursts" little girl, tagging along with my younger brothers like chicks trailing the mother hen. I had formulated my plan, my dream, and pursued it with determination. Pursued it, that is, until State Bureau of Investigation Agent Jim Wills appeared, dapper, efficient, watching me, tracking me with the determination of a hound on the scent.
Early on, Jim was only a distraction"handsome, funny, easygoing. He made no demands, seemed content with the time and attention I was willing to give him.
But gradually, almost insidiously, he had grown intense, wanting more. I struggled to maintain my independence but he was persuasive, cajoling . . . kissing . . . touching.
"Damn," I said out loud.
I had told Jim ours was a Br"er Rabbit/Tar-Baby relationship. Like the rabbit, I was happily on my way. All I intended was to say a polite how-do-you-do. Suddenly, I"d "gots my hands and feets so stuck up wid dat Tar-Baby, I couldn"t get a-loose."
Not a romantic picture, I admitted, but bull"s-eye accurate.
* * * * *
At the office Thursday morning, I collected every news clipping, every police report, and every cryptic note from my interviews with the victims, made copies of some of it for me, stuffed the originals into a large envelope and mailed it.
Admittedly, Jim was a good investigator, nearly five years with the state bureau, but no one could expect him to track a culprit or even to develop a definitive theory of the crimes long distance.
Jim called mid-morning. He sounded businesslike, formal. "Jancy, if there are more burglaries and you do the stories, I want you to omit your byline."
"I know how you feel, but I think we need to do what we can to get this bird focused somewhere else. Will you do it?"
I thought about it a while before I exhaled a big breath, mostly for effect. "Okay." If I did this for him, maybe he would return the favor. "Do you want clips and notes on any new ones?"
"Did you get the stuff I sent? Are you able to make heads or tails out of it?"
His laughter burbled from the telephone and I was glad to hear him loosening up. "Yeah, I"ve gotten a whole new perspective on you from the contents of this envelope. I"m amazed you can take that hodgepodge of chicken scratches and partial sentences you call notes and produce a news story that makes any sense at all. It"s obvious that you are even more gifted than I realized."
I laughed dutifully but didn"t say anything.
"You still missing me?" he asked quietly.
"Is this Candlesticks guy going to steal your heart and break mine?"
"Not a chance."