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Today seemed to prove her wrong, the tenth anniversary of Jarod's escape, a decade of her life doing the same old thing, get a lead, follow a lead, have it all blow up in her face. She tried not to think about it, but every time she looked in the mirror she couldn't help being reminded. The toll of those years was too evident in the lines around her mouth, the weariness in her eyes. She always had the same thought in those moments: I'm older now than my mother was when she died. It came as a fresh surprise each time, and she wasn't quite sure why, if it was because she never expected to last so long or because she'd done so little with the time.
This latest lead had come from the communications monitoring department, extremely vague as usual. "We've picked up some chatter. We think it has to do with Jarod. It leads us to believe he's working on New York's Restaurant Row," the very nervous technician had reported to her.
"How long has he been there," she gave him the once-over, trying to place him, "Mervin?"
"Um," he hesitated, "it's actually Marvin, ma'am. And we don't have any information about the timeframe."
He shook his head, sweat starting to bead on his upper lip. "We don't know."
"What's he doing there?"
"We don't know."
"Is he a chef? A wine steward? A baker? A candlestick maker?"
He swallowed visibly. "We just don't know."
She snatched the report out of his hands. "If I asked you what color the sky is, would you have a clue about that?" She gave him the hard, flat smile that made people see their lives flashing before their eyes, and he scuttled away. She picked up the phone and ordered the Centre jet. That was a week ago.
Seven days in New York, and it had been clear from the start she was going to get nowhere asking questions. She'd tried various cover stories, as a health inspector, a magazine writer, a long-lost relative looking for her cousin twice removed. Everyone she'd spoken with had been politely tight-lipped, offering her discounts on dinner theatre or free hors d'oevres at happy hour instead of answers. It was an insular world where people didn't give out information, she guessed, or maybe they just thought she was from Immigration.
If she were going to discover anything, she knew, she'd have to find it herself. So she settled into a routine, spending the mornings and the afternoons at one of the tables outside the Little Pie Company, drinking coffee, watching the crowds. It was just across from the place she was staying, old-fashioned hotel with its wooden carrels behind the front desk for the guests' mail, small, spare rooms with iron beds and bare walls. Like living in another century, she thought whenever she stepped through the door. Every day for lunch and dinner, she tried a different restaurant, went back to the kitchen to offer her compliments, get a look at the staff, try to extract a few answers in the course of the flattery.
No one, it seemed, knew Jarod.
She wasn't sure why she hadn't just packed up, given in, gone home days ago. It didn't take a genius to figure out that Mervin had gotten it wrong yet again. Whenever she thought about being back at the Centre, though, imagined sitting at her desk, doing all the things she normally did, she just felt too tired to face it.
Tonight's restaurant was an Italian place called La Lanterna, usually booked up months in advance, but the hotel's concierge had no trouble getting her a reservation. She had gone to Saks that afternoon for a dress--black, silk, classic--because this was going to be her last night, had to be, and black silk was what you wore to say goodbye.
The night was cool, in that pleasant way that made things feel new, and she loved walking in the city, the warm lights spilling through windows out onto the street, the rush of people eagerly heading somewhere, toward something. La Lanterna was cozy inside, dark wood and candles on the tables, a fire in a huge stone fireplace. The hostess showed her to a table, and a waiter brought her a vodka tonic before she'd even ordered it.
She raised an eyebrow at him, and he made a little half bow. "My name is Paolo. I'll be looking after you this evening. I pride myself on knowing what my guests will enjoy."
"Is that right?"
He bowed again. "Indeed, signora."
In the old days, she'd never cared much about food, practically lived on booze and nicotine. The few meals that stood out in her memory had more to do with the company or the occasion than the cuisine. So when Paolo brought her first course, mussels in a delicate white wine sauce, once again not bothering to consult her, she was surprised how familiar it was, how much she enjoyed it. And then the pictures started springing to life in her head, of the last holiday she ever went on with her mother, to the Amalfi coast, and that night when she'd wanted to feel grown up and ordered all the same things her mother did, including this.
Paolo materialized with a bottle of wine and poured it for her, and it tasted like that night too, the first time she'd ever been allowed to have wine, her mother's laugh low and throaty when she offered the glass, like they were getting away with something. She must have told Jarod about it, long ago, when they were children. How he got the details so perfectly right was anyone's guess, although if anyone could, it would be him.
The courses kept coming, bringing more memories with them. Tomato soup with basil, the one thing her father knew how to make, always a big pot of it as soon as the weather turned cold, the closest thing they had to a family ritual. Veal marsala, the dish Thomas fixed the first time he cooked dinner for her. A bowl of raspberries, like the ones she'd picked every day on that trip to Maine after college, before the Centre got hold of her, when she could still see her whole life ahead of her and the possibilities seemed endless.
She took her time with every dish, lingering over each bite, letting the experience wash over her like a caress. Maybe Jarod was only toying with her the way he always did. Maybe he meant to hurt her with this. Maybe. But it didn't feel that way. It was their anniversary, in some twisted sense, and it felt like she was being given something. If she weren't so tired, she probably wouldn't have accepted it, but then, if she weren't so tired, he probably wouldn't have offered it.
Afterwards, Paolo brought her coffee and then came back with a covered silver dish. "A little bird told me to give you this." He pulled off the lid with a flourish, and there was a Wonder Woman Pez dispenser.
She shook her head. "Of course," she said dryly, "what else would it be?"
When she had finished her coffee and was ready to go, Paolo brought her wrap and saw her to the door. "I hope you enjoyed your evening, Signora."
She walked the short way back to the hotel. In her room, she stood at the dresser to take off her jewelry, unpin her hair. Her secret, one of many, was that sometimes after these wild goose chases she would do this when she was alone, close her eyes, and imagine him there. Imagine him coming up behind her, his hands going around her waist, taking her by surprise, his specialty.
"Don't bother going for your gun," he'd say. "It's not where you left it."
She would laugh and answer, "Oh, yeah? Well, how about I go for your gun instead?"
Then she'd turn and kiss him, hard, make him really feel it, push him down on the bed, slide her body all over his. He'd kiss back, gently though, slow things down; he'd be sweet in bed, she felt sure of it.
She let out her breath, opened her eyes, stripped off her dress with businesslike efficiency, pulled on a nightgown, and turned out the light as she slid into bed. Tomorrow it would be like none of this ever happened. "Happy anniversary," she whispered into the darkness.
A flood of emails was waiting for her the next day when she got back to the Centre, a stack of memos on her desk, including one from her brother that made her want to stab him between the ribs more than usual. To cheer herself up, she called Mervin and lambasted him for a good five minutes before she was interrupted by Stan from the mailroom, with a box addressed in familiar blocky printing.
"Came for you this morning, Miss Parker."
She nodded to her desk, and he left it there. She opened it, and inside was a box from the Little Pie Company, with a note that read: All those days, and you never had one piece of pie. That's an oversight I had to remedy.
There was even a fork in the box.
The phone rang right on cue. "If it isn't the pie man," she said.
"You got it then?"
"It's sour cream apple walnut. The best." She could hear the smile in his voice, "I say that with authority. I did try them all."
"So you were watching me the whole time."
"Let's just say I was never far away."
She closed her eyes. "What did you hope to accomplish with this?"
There was a pause. "Just to remind you that you deserve a little sweetness in your life. And it's never too late to get it."
The phone clicked off, and she hung up, let out a sigh as she sat down and picked up the fork. She took a bite, tilting her head as she considered, taking her time.
"Not bad," was the verdict at last.