Barry Pauly's palms were sweating. He hated confrontations with Brandon. They reminded him of going in front of the principal. If Brandon were a reasonable man this wouldn't have to be an ordeal, but he wasn't a reasonable man. An old school type all the way. Women were meant to be receptionists, mistresses, and wives, not Feds... and never serial killers.
As the big man's secretary ushered Barry in, he took a deep breath and tried to puff out his chest.
"Make it quick, Pauly, this is not on my agenda. I can only give you a few minutes."
"Yes Sir, just let me pin up these photos and tell you the theory ..."
"I don't have time for show-and-tell, just hand me the pictures and give me your pitch."
Barry gave him the photos and started an abbreviated version of Shirlee's report, not mentioning the original source.
"Bath towels and Ameretto! Are you telling me that some idiot down in that sewer of yours has built a case for a cockamamie lady serial on bath towels and Ameretto? Tell me you're joking." Brandon wasn't being sarcastic, just rude.
"Sir, with all due respect, there's a lot more here than bath towels and Ameretto. Please just look at the rest of the material at your leisure. I'm sure you'll see the connections, they're very clear." Barry was trying not to break out in a cold sweat.
"Pauly, I assure you I have no intention of wasting my time on this bullshit. This is not your typical kind of hooker murder. Maybe one, or even two of them, was a hit. Big deal, that's a local problem. Is there's some new lady hitter, could be, they usually take out the scum anyway, so more power to her. But a female psycho, no sale." On that final note Brandon returned to the papers he'd been reading and motioned his hand toward the door. Barry was being dismissed.
He quietly gathered his things and walked out. Worried about how he'd break the news to Shirlee. He did warn her, but he believed she was right, and he believed even more strongly that she wasn't going to let this go. Not for Brandon, not for anyone.
Barry tried to quietly let himself into Shirlee's computer room, but he wasn't quiet enough. She'd been expecting him and pounced like an anxious cat the moment he walked through the door.
"So ... What happened ... Where are we?"
Barry looked down and shook his head. "What can I say, Hart. I was afraid of this. No sale. I'm really sorry."
Shirlee's voice rose to a fever pitch. "You're sorry? What the hell is sorry. How many more people have to die before that dim bulb upstairs parks his ego and starts his job!"
"Calm down, Hart, this won't do any good. We're just going to have to shelve it until a pattern develops. I warned you this was a definite possibility." Barry was trying to give her a comforting hug.
"A pattern has developed and the more obvious it becomes the more people will die. What's wrong with everyone around here?"
"It's not everyone, I believe you. I agree with you, but the System is the System. Come on, let's go for a beer or something." Barry was motioning toward the door.
"It's not even lunch time. What happened to Perfect Pauly, the Fed of the Year? Don't you have a dozen cases to solve before lunch?" Shirlee was pacing and howling at the same time.
"Don't take this out on me, Hart. I'm on your side, remember. Even Super Feds are aloud a couple of hours every ten years to console troubled colleagues." Barry put his arm around her and nudged her out the door.
The Cinnabar was a dive's dive. It was just a couple of blocks from San Jose State University and attracted a crowd that varied from young, preppy alcoholics who were cutting class to hard core junkies who sold everything, including each other. The chances of them running into someone they knew were nil.
"Barry, I don't want a beer. I have too much work to do. Did you bring the casefiles and my report? I want them back..."
Barry put his hand toward her mouth and motioned for a time-out. "Hart, you don't have to have a beer. You can have a shot, you can have a soda, you can have anything you want."
Shirlee pointed to the bottle of tequila on the lower shelf. "One of those, with a Diet Coke back." The bartender gave her a strange look and silently obliged. "Barry, you didn't answer my question. Do you have all of my casework with you?"
"Yeah, it's in the car, but it doesn't matter right now. More to the point, it's hot stuff. If Brandon thinks there's anyone in the place who's still chasing this, it'll be their ass and mine too." Barry carefully cleaned off the top of his Miller before taking a swig. "Believe me, Hart, he was not taken with your little theory."
"Did you tell him who came up with it?"
"No. You do want to keep your job, don't you?"
"Well, he's going to find out eventually anyway." Shirlee tossed the shot glass back in one quick move. "I'm telling you, Barry, I have no intention of letting this go. I'm not sure how I'm going to do it, but I'll convince Brandon that it's in his best interest to follow my lead."
Barry was using a napkin to wipe off the counter before putting his elbows on it. "In that case it was nice working with you, Hart." He patted her on the back, then turned her barstool around so they were facing each other. "I don't want to be rude, Shirlee, but I am kind of curious about something."
"Spit it out ... You want another beer?" Shirlee motioned to the bartender as Barry was shaking his head 'No.'
"Did you know one of the victims?"
She gave him a puzzled look. "No, did you?"
"No, but ... well ... I was wondering ..."
"What? Spit it out." Shirlee tossed back another shot with a quick jerk.
"Why are you obsessed with this case. How did you come up with the idea in the first place? And why are you taking it all so personally? Hart, I've known you for ten years, and you don't take work home, you stay late instead. You never bring a bag lunch, and you never talk shop. Suddenly, all bets are off, and you're acting like Shirlee Hart's evil work-alcoholic twin. What is it with you and this particular case?" Barry took a deep breath.
Shirlee leaned back on the barstool until she nearly tipped over. "Jesus, Barry, I told you to spit it out, but really..."
"Sorry, I got a little carried away, but I'm worried about you. This thing's gotten a hold of you."
"Don't I know it, and as for why, ah hell ..." Yet another moment when Shirlee wished she was a better liar.
"I know you better than this ... I've been a friend of yours for too long, Hart, ... it's your turn to spit it out." Barry finely finished his beer and was motioning for another round.
"The hunt, I guess. Now I understand what the young Turks talk about in the lunch room. You play that hunch, you start from nothing, you construct a web, you get the smell in your nostrils and it's like there are only two people in the world, Predator and Prey. I'm just having trouble figuring out which is which." Her voice had become insistent, almost mesmerized. She tossed back another shot and continued. "I can get in her head, Barry, I know I can."
"Yeah, but once you're in ... can you get out?"
Parker walked into the house and dropped his backpack on the floor. Shirlee was sitting in the recliner with an iguana on her knee and a bottle of Cuervo Gold in her hand, mindlessly flipping through cable channels.
"Hart, what are you doing here? It's only three o'clock? Are you sick or something?"
"I'm getting drunk." She said, not turning around.
"I noticed." Parker sat on the couch. "Why?"
"Did you see Sunday's paper?" Parker asked with trepidation.
"Nope. Figured I'd read it later. Why?" Shirlee swung the bottle up and took another swig.
"No reason." Parker didn't lie much better than Shirlee, but she was too drunk to notice. "Did you get fired?"
"I give ... what happened?" He reached for the bottle, but Shirlee hugged it close.
"This is mine, get your own."
"Shirlee ... What happened!?"
"Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Brandon thinks I'm full of shit." She took another swig.
"Have you eaten?"
"Yep, Barry took me out to lunch. Barry's a nice guy. He pitched for me today. Kept my name out of it, nice and neat. Brandon gave him a new asshole for his trouble. Barry thinks I'm obsessed. Do you think I'm obsessed?" She sat the bottle on the coffee table and tried to hug the iguana.
"I think you're drunk, and I think you're taking this way too personally." Parker stood up and grabbed her hand. "Put Rupert down. Lets go upstairs and lay down. I'll paint your toenails or something ..."
"I'm gonna bring Rupert. He's my friend ... He believes me ... Don't you, Rupert ...?"
She passed out on the bed before Parker could get her shoes off. He threw a blanket over her and walked back downstairs. The Sunday paper was still sitting on the kitchen table. He thought for a moment about throwing it away, but that wasn't his choice. He loved Shirlee because she let him live his own life. He had to do the same for her. Wherever it led.
She woke up around midnight with a splitting headache and a spotty memory. What was that about the Sunday paper? Parker was dead asleep, and she was so busy on Sunday that she'd forgotten all about it. She went downstairs and found it sitting on the kitchen table. Bleary-eyed, she could just make out a small notice in the bottom right corner: Man Found Dead in Monterey Hotel Room. Multiple stab wounds, no arrests.
"Oh my god, why didn't anyone tell me?" She shook her head and the pain pierced through. She cut out the article and pulled together the rest of the files.
When Parker found her in the morning she was sprawled out on the couch, covered with pictures of dead men. So he took a picture of her.
Shirlee didn't mention the article to Parker or Barry, though she was sure that at least one of them had caught on. She still wasn't acting like herself; then again, Parker and Barry were having a hard time remembering exactly what that was. By late Wednesday she'd received all the information on the Monterey killing. Cutting through police red tape had become an art. She took off a little early, leaving a note claiming illness. The way she'd been behaving recently it was easy to believe.
She drove directly to Terry's, breezing over the summit in record time. It was nice to be the only car on the road. Terry was expecting her.
"I wondered how long it would take you?"
"What do you mean?" Shirlee asked.
"I saw the Sunday paper, too, and Parker called me. I figured it was just a matter of time." Terry walked up to the loft puffing on a cigarette. "So, is this round two?"
"Yeah, I figure the last one didn't have enough solid data points, so they asked you to do it again. Right?"
"It wasn't the style was it? I mean ... I thought it turned out pretty well." Terry started to save the material she'd been working on so she could bring Shirlee's file up on the screen.
"It looked great."
"I know." Terry smiled.
Shirlee frowned at her and laid a stack of files on the floor.
"Modesty is for midgets, Hart, you know that."
"In that case I'm feeling pretty small."
"Seriously, what do you want to do here? If you don't want to rewrite the old pitch, what's the new program?" Terry lit another cigarette and opened the window.
"A hypothesis." Shirlee was looking around for a place to sit. "Do you have another chair up here?"
"No. I have one ass. I have one chair. But you can go down to the kitchen and grab another one."
Shirlee returned with a chair in tow and a couple of diet cokes. "OK, so this is what's happening. Last Saturday they found another body. Cree Koffman. Same scene as the rest, but, this time, multiple stab wounds ..."
"Yeah, I got all the reports and talked to the hotel staff..."
"Let me guess ... no snacks, no wine ..."
"No towels ..." Shirlee smiled, "and multiple stab wounds."
"So the boys in blue must be absolutely thrilled with you. Right?"
"Not exactly ..."
"What do you mean, we wrote this thing on Sunday ... Then ... BINGO ... in the middle of the report, the paper comes out with another stiff. We're talking major credibility here."
"I don't even think they noticed the new stiff."
"Why the hell not? I did. You've got me sold, and I'm one of the most skeptical people in this state!"
"Not any more. Let's just say my report wasn't well received." Shirlee tipped back the coke.
"Now you've got me confused. They didn't buy it, but you're back here for round two. Why?"
"Because they didn't buy it."
"Yeah, but Hart, we're not talking publishers here. If one turns you down there are twenty more to call. You have an only game in town situation."
"I want to up the ante."
"What, you want us to hit somebody this weekend and send the body to your office special delivery?" Terry smiled and grabbed a Post-It note. "Ooh, another good idea ..."
Shirlee shook her head. "I need to write a hypothesis. A projection of where I think the next murder will be, what it'll look like, the whole bit. If that doesn't grab 'em, I may have myself committed."
"If you do, go to El Camino, the food's really good."
"Just kidding, just kidding. O.K. I suppose you know what you want to say. I'll just hunker down at the keyboard, and you ramble on. We'll have it done by dinner time." Terry lit another cigarette.
On Thursday morning Brandon walked into his office and found a thin manila envelope with a "Your Eyes Only" stamp on it laying in the middle of his floor.
He settled down with his coffee and opened it up, moments later Barry Pauly found himself summonsed for round two. "Pauly, what the hell is this about? I could have sworn I told you to drop this thing."
"What, Sir?' Barry didn't know what he was talking about.
"This lady-serial bullshit!"
"I haven't done a thing on that but try to forget about it." Barry's voice had the earnest tone of an honest man.
"Then what the hell is this?" Brandon tossed a file at him and Barry opened the front cover.
It was a projection on the next victim. What he would look like. What would be missing from his hotel room. The approximate degree of violence, and a possible location of San Francisco due to the upcoming convention activity. Barry wasn't sure if he should kill Shirlee or kiss her. This was a fine piece of work.
"I didn't do this, Sir, and neither did anyone in my department. I'm sorry, Sir, I wish I could be of more help." The earnest tone in Barry's voice was gone.
"You sure as hell can be of help! You were in here on Monday with this cockamamie thing, now who gave it to you? Don't dick around with me, Pauly, who's pulling this shit?" Brandon was leaning over his desk, red in the face.
"Agent Hart, I think." Barry leaned back in his chair as if checking for any semblance of a spine.
"Who the hell is Agent Hart?"
"Database, Sir. She's a computer expert. Do you want me to call her? I'm sure she'd be happy to come up here and explain this to you personally." Barry had no spine left, none at all.
"This isn't the work of a field man? This is from some woman downstairs
who plays with a keyboard?!"
"Yes, Sir ... Want me to call her up?"
Brandon leaned back in his chair and started to chew the end of his pencil. "No, don't call her. I thought we had some rogue field man out here wandering the streets. But I'm not going to lose sleep over some broad in the basement."
"Anything else, Sir?" Barry stood to leave.
Brandon didn't reply, he flicked his hand toward the door. Barry picked up the file and walked out, quickly deciding not to say anything to Hart, at least not for the time being.
Copyright ©1998 Toni Leigh, All Rights Reserved