True to her cop instincts, Rita unconsciously catalogued the two young girls who stood across the room, chatting with Suzanne Rickers, the acting administrator of Night Moves. They were approximately fourteen years of age, snowbirds by the look of their complexions, slightly disheveled and decidedly weary from their time on the streets.
A fellow coworker brought over their file, receiving a mouthed thank-you from Rita as she switched her phone from one ear to the other. Opening the folder, she scanned the contents: Gina Hartman and Jordan Lawson…age fourteen…Cincinnati, Ohio…reported missing by their parents the previous month…no history of abuse…
Rita breathed a sigh of relief. Abuse wasn’t a factor in the pair’s running away. Even as a seasoned veteran with countless such cases under her belt, she never found it any easier. She smiled as the girls approached her desk, motioning for them to have a seat.
“Thanks, Oscar, I appreciate it. Right. Yes, two bunks. Great, thanks again.” Rita hung up the phone and addressed Jordan and Gina. “Okay, I’ve got a couple beds for you. Nothing fancy, but it’s just for a couple of days. Try to hang tight till Saturday. Your parents will be flying in, and I promise to help you straighten everything out. Okay?”
“Thanks, Rita. See ya’,” was the joint reply.
“Take care, girls.”
The teens walked out of the main area, waving their goodbye to Suzanne as they passed her.
“Rita, I want to introduce you to Alex.”
“She’s the architect who came in from Atlanta, right?”
“Yes, she has been gracious enough to volunteer her services to give Night Moves its desperately needed face lift. And she’s really looking forward to co-chairing the Carnival with you. She’s just checking her messages in my office, can I send her your way when she’s finished?”
“Sure, I just have to fill out my log and I’ll be done for the night.”
“Great, I’ll let her know.”
Rita was just adding her initials to her shift record when an attractive businesswoman in her early sixties approached her.
“Excuse me, are you Rita?”
The two exchanged pleasantries, instantly clicking.
“Suzanne is quite proud to have you on staff here. I’m glad we’ll be tag-teaming the fundraising festivities together. If you have a few minutes to spare maybe we can compare schedules and set up some times to brainstorm?”
Rita gathered up her belongings and checked her watch. Today was her early shift at the center, and it was only nine o’clock. “That sounds great. How about we go next door to the café?”
Lattes in hand, Rita and Alex chose a booth in the back of the café where they could spread out remodeling plans and paperwork regarding the Carnival.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t able to meet you when you flew in yesterday,” Rita remarked, “I would have loved to have had dinner with you and Suzanne, but I was in the middle of a deposition.”
“A deposition? Are you a lawyer?”
“No, a cop, actually. Homicide Detective.”
Alex gave an elated cry. “But that’s fascinating, Rita! I have always loved police work; I completely admire your profession. About five years ago I was asked to redesign Logan’s Alley for the Atlanta Police Academy, and I’ve been an instructor at the Academy ever since.”
“You teach architecture at the Academy?” Rita asked, her curiosity certainly piqued at the notion.
“Believe it or not, yes, I do. ‘Knowledge of architectural structure as it relates to officer safety,’” Alex recited. “As cadets learn proper procedure in safely navigating their surroundings, I reinforce it with what they should expect when faced with different types of architecture, and how to turn architectural disadvantage into advantage. And for fun I add the best places criminals would hide loot in various kinds of buildings.”
Rita’s face lit up as she listened to the explanation. “That’s amazing, Alex!” she exclaimed earnestly. “Wow!” Then a thought struck her. “Would you be willing to give a seminar here? I know my Captain would love this, and Vice would definitely be interested.”
They continued their conversation on law enforcement, each listening intently to the other’s insight on their common passion. When the subject matter generalized to careers, the youngest woman in Palm Beach history to earn a gold shield, and the only prestigious woman architect of the 1950s, realized they shared a similar drive, strength, and philosophy in their male-dominated professions. This knowledge helped to advance a growing respect of each other.
As the topic finally strayed toward Night Moves, they discussed their reasoning for volunteering. Deeply personal information was revealed, yet the normally private individuals found no discomfort in their respective disclosures. A bond of understanding loss was established, continuing to solidify the newly laid foundation of friendship.
“Many of these kids are so distrustful of adults – and most of them having every reason to be. It’s a privilege to show them that not all adults are out to get them. And it’s incredible to earn their trust, show them they are worth protecting, and watch them beat the odds and succeed in life. We’re lucky at the Atlanta Night Moves that a lot of our younger staff are alumni.” Alex smiled proudly. “They are my family.” As explanation she quietly mentioned, “I almost had a family of my own once, but my child was stillborn, and my husband was killed trying to make it to the delivery. With the
long-term programs I run at Night Moves, I get to be a mom. These kids appreciate honesty, and I’m able to relate to them that I really do understand the difficulties life throws at us.”
Rita nodded in agreement, suddenly finding her coffee cup very interesting. “It’s easy to connect with them when you recognize the same scars, you know? I know what it’s like to feel alone. My mom died when I was born, my dad when I was seven, and my foster parents died a few years back. When I come across a case where ‘home is safe,’ I love watching the teen work things out with his or her parents and get off the streets. It means we’ve won.”
A comfortable silence settled between the duo, until Rita glanced at her watch once more. “Oh my gosh!” She looked to Alex and laughed, “It’s midnight! We haven’t even set up times to meet yet!”
Planners were hastily opened and a series of lunch and evening meetings were arranged, along with the last minute details for the remodeling of Night Moves headquarters.
As Rita and Alex walked to their cars, they exchanged a warm handshake once again, offering their appreciation for the wonderful chat. Both were looking forward to lunch the following day.
Rita unlocked her apartment to find it illuminated by only the light of her television. She could just make out Chris’ slumbering form, stretched out on the couch. The sight warmed Rita’s heart, and she quietly re-locked the door and tiptoed over to him. Settling herself on the floor next to him, Rita just watched him.
God, how she loved him.
Their intimate relationship was still new, adding a special dimension to four years of solid friendship and decorated partnership. Rita continually marveled at how this one man could complete every facet of her life. She wouldn’t have it any other way.
Rita placed a kiss on Chris’ forehead and raked her nails through his jet-black hair, causing him to stir. “Hi,” she called to him softly.
“Hey, Sam,” he mumbled sleepily. “I waited up for you.”
Rita giggled. “I see that. Come on, Christopher, let’s go tuck you in.”
Chris stretched, and pulled Rita to lay on top of him. “Okay, goodnight, Rita.” He closed his eyes again and tried to hide his grin.
Rita allowed herself a moment to enjoy his hard body beneath her and his muscular arms wrapped around her. Then she poked him in one side, then other, watching him squirm and grin broader.
“You are a mean woman, Sammy.”
Breaking free from his grip, Rita stood up, turned off the TV, and pulled on one of the arms that had held her captive. “I know, I’m sorry,” she purred. “I’ll make it up to you, I promise.”
At that, Chris cracked one eye opened and allowed himself to be dragged off the couch.
As Rita pushed him at arm’s length up the stairs, he inquired about the time.
His question earned him another snicker. “It’s about one. I’ve been finished at the center since nine, but Alex and I got to talking and we totally lost track of time.”
“Yeah, the architect who’s fixing up Night Moves. Remember? We’re co-chairing the carnival together?”
“Oh, yeah, Alex…”
As Chris flopped on the bed, Rita gave – what seemed to him – a mile a minute rundown of her chat with Alex. Fighting sleep, he could barely keep track as she zipped from the bedroom to the bathroom, getting ready for bed.
“She’s amazing, Chris. We have so much in common…”
Chris faded out briefly, shaking himself awake at the realization.
“…Did you know that in the ‘50’s she was the only female architect to be
well established? Isn’t that fascinating? I think – ”
In the doorway to the bedroom, Rita stopped at the sight of Chris, propped up against the headboard, snoring lightly. “All right, Lorenzo, I’ll retell this story in the morning when you’re conscious.” Shaking her head, Rita set the alarm clock and turned off the lamp. She guided Chris down to his pillow, and pulled the covers over them both. “Goodnight, Sam,” she said into the darkness as she laid her head on Chris’ chest, letting the rhythmic beating of his heart lull her to sleep.
Chris and Rita drove in together to the Palm Beach Police Department, so that Rita could have the chance to share the details of her conversation the night before. For falling asleep on her the first time, Chris bought her breakfast.
The Homicide Division proved to be dead that morning, suggesting that the citizens of Palm Beach were not dead. With downtime comes paperwork, and the Sams were swamped. But boredom swiftly set in, causing Chris and Rita to play a wide variety of desk games: paper football, tic-tac-toe, and catch.
“Five, four, three, two, one…lunchtime!” Rita announced with glee as the neon-outlined clock struck noon. She got up from her chair, and tossed the red and blue stress ball back to Chris a final time. “Take care, partner, I’m outta here.”
“You know, all you’ve been talking about is this Alex. When do I get to meet the infamous Alex?”
“Well, how ‘bout I invite her back here after lunch?”
Rita nodded and picked up a file off her desk. Before handing it over to Chris, she used it to shield her face from the rest of the office, and blew her love a kiss. “See ya’, Sam!”
Chris watched her saunter away, and slyly grinned in appreciation. “See ya’.”
“Well, I met with Ocean Park officials and toured the grounds, and there is space in both the main promenade and the midway for our extra booths. I reviewed the banners and promotional posters – all looks fantastic – and the Park will drop them off to me at the center with the distribution logistics in a couple of days. How are we doing with Departmental help?”
“Great,” Rita exclaimed, thumbing through her notes. “The blues are going to take the kids out in patrol cars to deliver the posters, so when you get specifics on the times, I can relay it on to Dispatch.” A Cheshire cat grin slowly spread across Rita’s face. “Now, Homicide has volunteered to man the dunk tank, and we have more than enough officers who are willing to take the plunge. But, my Captain wants no part of it. He is absolutely certain he will catch his death by pneumonia.”
Alex blinked. “Seriously?”
“You don’t know Captain Lipschitz,” Rita laughed, waving off the need for additional explanation. “He will, however, be joining Vice at the pie throwing booth, compliments of his wife, Frannie, who assured him that no harm will come to his nasal passages from such small doses of whipped cream and other such pastry products.”
Continuing to process through this enlightening information, Alex dissolved into laughter, grabbing her napkin to dab away the tears that were forming in her eyes, while Rita could only shake her head and giggle in return at her friend’s reaction to the Cap’s endearing quality that made him, well, the Cap.
“The final blow came when Frannie batted her eyes at him and reminded him that it was for the children.”
“Wow,” was the only comment Alex could make.
“Oh, yeah. My partner? He had to leave the room at that one.”
Rita and Alex stood up, collected their paperwork, and wove their way through the maze of the outdoor café. As they reached Rita’s powder blue LeBaron, Alex inquired, “you mentioned your partner, how long have the two of you been a team?”
Rita beamed unconsciously as she considered the timeframe. “Almost five years now.”
“It must be incredible to trust in someone so completely that you trust him with your life,” Alex remarked with reverence.
“And with your heart,” Rita added to herself, just as reverently.
Rita pulled into her assigned parking slot and chuckled at the sight of her beloved partner, who was apparently deep in conversation – the kind requiring the swing of an imaginary baseball bat – with two uniformed officers.
“Chris!” Rita called across the parking lot, smiling as he said goodbye to his friends and jogged over to her and Alex. “This is Alex. Alex, this is my partner, Chris.”
“Nice to meet you, Alex.” Chris paused, his mind alert with recognition, “uh, have we met before?”
Alex cocked her head and concentrated on the handsome face in front of her. “I don’t believe so… When were you last in Atlanta?”
“It’s been a while. Never, actually.” Chris flashed her a patented grin. Changing the subject he stated, “Rita’s been talking non-stop about you and the project the two of you are working on.”
“Well, I deny everything, except that we’re having an absolute ball. And yes, I’ve heard a lot about you as well. It’s a pleasure to meet you. Will you be playing with us at the center tomorrow?”
“Michelangelo is my middle name. Just make sure that Rita doesn’t take any calls when she’s supposed to be holding the ladder.”
Rita jumped in, “and make sure that Chris doesn’t climb to the top step of the ladder I’m not holding because I’m taking a call.” The Sams exchanged trademark smirks, opting for a customary, nonverbal end to their ribbing. “Listen, Chris, I’m going to give Alex a quick tour around. If George happens to call before I get back, can you just tell him that Wednesday is fine for trial prep?”
“Will do. Ladies, enjoy your tour; Alex, it was great to meet you.”
“Likewise, Chris, thank you.”
As Chris turned and walked toward the station, Alex regarded him with great interest.
“Rita, if I may be so candid, I’m going to venture the opinion that that man is not only your partner, but he is also your best friend and the love of your life.”
Rita blushed instantly and smiled shyly. “What makes you say that?”
“Well…yeah…he is,” Rita finally stated, her tone turning affectionate as she somehow found it easy to share such personal information with her newfound friend.
“Hmph,” came the triumphant reply.
As Chris pulled open the door to Night Moves, he was greeted with a blast of construction noise, chatting and laughing volunteers, and a blaring radio. He made his way around sheets of drywall and sanders, looking for Rita and Alex so he could report in for painting detail. He finally found them in what used to be a conference room.
“I’m gonna have a stern chat with that paint department. What were they thinking?!” Alex stood up and held out with disdain the paint can she had inspected, fully intent on removing it from her sight. As Chris entered, she greeted him warmly. “Hello, Chris!”
“Hey, Alex. Trouble in Paint World?”
Alex laughed and shook her head, depositing the contemptible can out in the hall. “A four-year-old could have mixed the color better. Thankfully, your lovely partner is batting clean up for me, and re-mixing these other two gallons so I do not become a homicide suspect, chatting with you both in an interrogation room at your station.”
It was Chris’ turn to laugh. “Speaking of batting, Alex, that’s some shirt,” he commented, referring to her Atlanta Braves jersey. “Wait a minute, that’s not a replica! That’s a real player’s jersey!”
“Told ya’ he’d notice, Alex,” Rita piped in. “Wait till you hear how she got it, Sam.”
Chris looked expectedly at Alex.
“Well, the guys gave it to me after we worked a benefit together last year.”
“The guys. As in the players, themselves.”
“Yes. I had met them earlier, during the season, when management was showing the plans my firm had drafted for a new stadium. Wonderful guys, they are. Would you like me to see if I can get you a jersey of your own, Chris?”
By now, Chris’ jaw was on the floor. “You could do that?! You wouldn’t mind?”
“Of course not. I pass ‘the Launching Pad’ everyday on my way to work.” As Alex dispensed brushes, rollers, and full trays to her painting team and they began to work, she continued the baseball chat. “So, Chris, did you catch Mercker’s no hitter to the Dodgers? And how about that Braves’ victory against Chicago, huh?”
Before Chris could answer, Rita mused, “yes, ask about the Chicago game. He talked about that one for an entire week.” By day seven Rita had tired of the talk, but she never grew weary of watching the excitement that lit up her love’s face – even if it was only attributed to a baseball game.
Chris sent a playful cocked head, narrow-eyed glance her way. “Back-to-back-to-back homers, 19-5 victory, hah!”
“An Atlanta record, I might add,” supplied Alex, proudly.
“You do realize don’t you, Alex, that you’ve made Chris’ life? You’ve met his Braves, you can get him a jersey, you are in!” Rita splayed a hand on Chris’ chest as she spoke.
It was a few seconds before Chris realized the graceful handprint that remained on his shirt. “Sam!” He streaked a finger through the paint that coated the fabric, and transferred the liquid to Rita’s nose.
“Oh, so that’s how we’re gonna play it!” she exclaimed, and proceeded to rake her still wet hand down Chris’ face, from hairline to collar line.
For a brief moment, Chris was too stunned to respond, but he quickly recovered and swiped Rita with his brush.
And the paint fight was on. The Sams soon took to fencing with their brushes, parrying and reposing each other’s attacks, until an exasperated Alex decided to end the bout.
“Enough!” She took Rita’s brush with her left hand and Chris’ with her right. “Do I have to separate you two?”
The grown children in question stood still before simultaneously breaking into “he started it” “she started it,” and pointing a finger at each other.
Alex lifted her eyes to the heavens as she transferred both brushes to one hand. Looking back and forth at the mischievous duo, she feigned seriousness and shook the brushes at them stating, “I pity your Captain, I truly do.”
Alex arrived at Rita’s apartment early the next morning, her rental car filled to capacity with the promotional posters and banners that advertised Night Moves’ fundraising carnival. She and Rita would be heading to the Palm Beach P.D to meet up with the uniforms and adult volunteers who were bringing the kids, and decide delivery routes and partnering.
“It was so amazing watching you in action yesterday, Alex,” Rita remarked, “the place looks absolutely fantastic.”
“Well, amidst the paint and the sanders and the plans, I am truly in my element. But, I can’t take all the credit,” admitted the architect. “Those kids! I was amazed at how many participated! They all did such a wonderful job, and they were so proud of their work.”
“Well, it was so much fun for them, and it really gave them a chance to feel useful. I’m just glad that Night Moves had made a strong enough impact on them so they wanted to help with its remodeling. We must be doing something right.”
Rita welcomed her friend further into her home. “Make yourself comfortable, Alex. I just need to grab my jacket.”
With a professional eye, Alex approvingly scanned the colorful living room. “This is a great apartment!” she complimented. She looked with keen interest at the pictures adorning the table near the front door. As Rita descended the stairs, Alex asked, “are these your foster parents?”
Rita glanced at the picture in question and smiled. “No. Not legally, anyway. This is the infamous Cap and Frannie.” She paused, and softly added, “They are family, though.”
“Sure, Chris,” Rita promised diligently.
“Sure, Chris,” Alex echoed. “Bye, Chris.”
Amused, Chris watched their retreating forms and shook his head. He had the keen suspicion that he had just been given the smile-and-nod routine. Rita and Alex hadn’t even left the bullpen yet and they were already laughing and plotting about something.
“Yeah, I’ll bet you’ll stay out of trouble,” he thought to himself. He turned his attention back to the report in front of him, signed his name with great flare, and tossed the folder onto Rita’s desk.
And that’s when he saw Alex’s purse.
He glanced over to the still-swinging door of the department; if he hurried, he could still catch up with Alex.
Chris stood and made a quick grab for the bag, but in his haste he only sent it toppling over the edge of the desk.
“Arg!” He maneuvered around his own desk and bent down to pick up all the objects that had fallen out. Mere centimeters away, he froze dead in his tracks. What he saw stopped his heart.
Dazed, Chris retrieved the items and slowly placed the purse on his desk. He slumped back in his chair, lost in thought. It was impossible…yet he had no doubt.
He knew he had seen her before.
Did Rita know? She couldn’t have, she would have said something. Chris’ cop instincts waved a red flag. Just what were Alex’s motives regarding Rita? Was he overreacting?
He really needed to talk to Rita – no, maybe not Rita. He looked to the Captain’s office. Conflicting loyalties battled within him: could he justify breaching Rita’s confidence for the sake of protecting her? Chris really needed to talk to somebody.
“Hey, Cap, got a sec?”
Harry glanced over the top of his glasses at his detective. “What? You bored already, Lorenzo? Join the club. I’m getting sick of my own name.” He motioned to the looming stack of files that seemed to be taking perpetual residence on his desk. “Have a seat. So, what’s on your mind?”
Chris sat down, but hesitated to speak.
“Does this involve a girl?” the Captain asked, not bothering to wait for the explanation.
Chris made an attempt to laugh. “Yeah. Yeah, it kind of does.” He relayed his findings and their possible implications.
Harry had never witnessed anything quite like the fervent bond that thrived between his two favorite detectives, and he now understood Chris’ delay in passing on his information.
“Does Rita suspect anything?”
“Well, I don’t know. I don’t think so. She would have said something to me, Cap.”
“She’s gonna have your head if you leave her out of the loop.”
“Yeah, probably. But she really likes Alex, and I may be completely wrong.”
The Captain considered this. “Okay, I’ll authorize the background check.”
“Thanks, Cap,” Chris exclaimed as he stood up to leave.
“Listen to me, Chris. Just be careful. You don’t know what you’re going to find. Take this one step at a time. And think with your head.” Harry emphasized his final point with a look over the rim of his glasses, ending his conversation with Chris the same way he started.
Chris recognized the Captain was right on all accounts, though it was difficult to adhere to his advice when it involved the most important person in Chris’ life.
One step at a time, one step at a time…
“Hey, Cherie,” he called to the uniformed officer who would become his accomplice. “I need a favor. I need you to run a background check on this name here. Get me everything you can, okay? Thanks.” With that step taken, he was free to complete a little computer searching of his own. Chris went back to his desk and opened his laptop.
His findings offered many mixed emotions.
Time to call in another favor.
“Medical Examiner’s Office, this is Keisha.”
“Keisha, it’s Chris.”
“Uh-oh. To what do I owe the privilege of this call?”
Chris laughed. “I’ll buy you lunch at the Roach Coach if you tell me you have friends at Holley State Hospital who would be willing to do a little digging for me.”
“The Roach Coach…”
“Hey, after that ‘Stones’ prank you pulled you should be glad you’re not buying me lunch.”
Keisha, fully aware that Chris was right, sighed dramatically. “Fine, be that way. Yes, I think I can arrange a little digging for you. What exactly are you hoping they find?”
As Chris explained the situation, Keisha acknowledged the repercussions of Rita finding out prematurely. Protection was best afforded with her unawareness.
With their business settled, the two friends volleyed additional barbs back and forth before agreeing they both needed to get back to work.
“Oh, and Chris? Tell Rita that her dream came true.”
“Her dream? What do you mean, Keisha?” Chris listened to the cryptic clue he was to give Rita, which did nothing to ease his curiosity or further his understanding.
“Just do it, Chris. Rita will explain.”
“All right,” Chris grumbled. “See ya’.”
Rita entered the Homicide Division to find her partner walking out of their superior’s office. “Hi’ya, Sam. What’s up?”
“A special assignment with Vice.” Chris opened a drawer of his desk. “Here, I think Alex might want this back.”
“Thanks,” she said as she took the purse, “we were halfway across town before she realized she’d left it. I told her I’d drop it off at the center when I finished up today.” Focusing on his mention of a special assignment, Rita eyed Chris suspiciously. “Is this a ploy to get me to do your paperwork?”
Her accused appeared wounded, and with an air of total innocence explained that it was nothing of the sort. “I hold valuable information that I simply cannot keep from our brothers in Vice. But that does not mean that I won’t have ample time to sit here with you going through form after form…pen after pen…”
“And will this assignment be requiring your services at night?” Rita dropped her voice to a low purr, careful not to be overheard by anyone other than Chris.
Chris narrowed his eyes. “Definitely no,” he promised with a smoldering look, “my nightly services will be right where they belong.”
Since there were hours left to go in the workday, there was no sense in torturing themselves with the promises of later.
After completing another stack of forms and reports, Chris stood up and stretched, ready to begin his investigation. “Well, Sam, it’s time for me to go hit the pavement. Get some real detective work done.”
“You be careful, Christopher,” Rita requested sincerely, not liking the fact that she wouldn’t be watching his back.
“I will,” Chris assured her. “I love you, Rita,” he added in a whisper, wishing he didn’t have to hide his investigation from her.
“I love you,” was the empowering response that made him feel he could accomplish anything.
“Get him out of my sight!”
Chris’ muffled order reached the Homicide Division from outside Interrogation Room 3, which was down the hall.
Rita looked up and a few seconds later Chris came storming through the doors.
A fury that was barely contained radiated from his hard stare, and he ripped his sports jacket off his chair and slammed his laptop shut.
“Chris?” Rita ventured quietly, rarely having seen him so affected by an interrogation. But as he shifted his gaze to meet hers, her heart stopped cold. There was pain behind his anger…
Pain she somehow realized he felt for her.
Before Rita could blink, Chris had hidden the emotion.
“Don’t worry, Sam,” he mumbled. With that, he stalked back out of the Division, leaving a very puzzled and very concerned partner in his wake.
Rita waited an impossibly long five minutes before getting up to follow him. She knew exactly where to look, and sure enough, she found Chris lost in thought, sitting on the back entrance steps of the building. She took a seat next to him, but remained silent. When she finally spoke, she softly asked, “you wanna tell me what this is all about?”
“I can’t,” came the equally soft response.
“The Vice assignment?”
Chris slowly closed his eyes at Rita’s words, and nodded.
Aware of his position, Rita asked no more questions, but simply offered her hand to him, which he took between his own and stroked gently.
“Thank you so much for dinner, Rita. It was most delicious,” Alex complimented, hugging her hostess at the door of the apartment.
“Well, we had a lot to celebrate: everything’s in order for the carnival. The posters are delivered, the kids had a blast...”
“They could not stop talking about riding in the front seat of the patrol cars. Please tell your coworkers how much I appreciate their help.”
“I will,” promised Rita, “I will.”
Alex turned to leave, but stopped after opening the door. “Rita? Is there something bothering Chris? He was awfully quiet tonight.”
Rita herself had picked up on his prolonged silences and arduous ventures into conversation, and was a little unnerved that it had been so obvious to Alex as well. “He had a pretty hard interrogation this afternoon…” she explained, “I think it’s still affecting him.”
Satisfied with the clarification, Alex said goodbye and made her exit, but left Rita even more concerned about Chris.
Rita gazed intently at her pensive partner, curious as to his state of mind. Taking a seat on the opposite end of the couch from him, she asked, “you okay, Sam?”
Chris snapped his head up and offered her a small smile. “Yeah, yeah. Sorry, I was just thinking.” He paused, not wanting to continue.
But he knew the time had come.
“Uh, Rita? What was your mother’s full name? Your real mother’s?”
Rita was taken aback. It was certainly not a question she had anticipated. “My what? Jeez, Chris, what brought that on?”
“Well, I’ll get to that, I promise. So?”
Rita stared at him for a full thirty seconds, trying to gauge if he was really serious, and if so, where the conversation could possibly be heading. “Her name was Alexandra Lilia Fontana. Now, why would you want to know that?”
“That’s beautiful, Sam. Is that why your middle name is ‘Lee?’”
The affirmative response was calculated and cautiously drawled out. “According to my dad… Chris –”
“Rita, I wasn’t loaned out to Vice. I was on special assignment, like I said, it just wasn’t with Vice. Things were slow in Homicide… The Cap gave me permission to investigate your mother’s death.”
Rita sprang from the couch as if she had been stung. She gaped, wide-eyed, at Chris.
“He – You did what?!”
“Rita, just hear me out. I love you, Sam. And I couldn’t risk getting you involved until I was sure I had the facts straight. Remember when Alex left her purse at the station?”
Rita nodded mutely.
“When I saw it on your desk, I reached for it, but it tipped over and Alex’s wallet fell out. I picked it up, and that’s when I saw her license. Rita, Alex’s full name is Alexandra Lilia Fontana.”
The shell-shocked woman before him expelled a breath as if she had been kicked in the stomach. Her words were barely audible. “Are you suggesting…”
“I had Cherie run a full background check on Alex. I cross-checked it with info on your parents’ marriage license and the deed to their house. They matched. Then I checked the death records within two months after your birth. There is no record of an Alexandra Fontana dying during that time, or ever, Rita.”
“But I have the death certificate…” Rita whispered.
“I had Keisha call in some favors from her contacts at the hospital where you were born. They did some checking. Alexandra Fontana was admitted to the OB/GYN at 8:33 a.m., May 2, 1964. She delivered a six pound, nine ounce baby girl at 1:24 p.m. There were complications with the birth, and she remained in the hospital for two weeks. She was discharged on May 18. Keisha’s friend in the morgue assured her there is no record of an Alexandra Fontana ever dying at Holley State Hospital.”
“But I have the death certificate,” repeated Rita.
“It’s a fake.” Chris replied softly.
“Why would my mother fake her death certificate?”
“She didn’t.” Chris’ voice dropped softer still. “She never knew it existed. When she was released from the hospital she was given your death certificate – and your father’s.”
Rita swayed on her feet. “I have to sit down,” she exclaimed breathlessly as she slumped down next to Chris. She braced her elbow on the back of the couch, massaging her forehead and closing her eyes. She stayed that way for some time.
“Tell me everything,” she finally relented.
“I interrogated the doctor in charge of your mother’s care, a Doctor Mitchum. A week after your mom’s discharge he was given the cushy post of Chief Researcher for the Cobalt Obstetrics Institute. All he had to do was drug your mom, tell a few lies, and the job was his.
“When your mom was in labor, there were complications that made her black out. She stabilized, but remained unconscious. Mitchum put her in a drug-induced coma. She was then given a private room, under strict orders that no one but Mitchum was allowed to get anywhere near it. Once everything was in place, he went out and broke the news to your dad that his wife didn’t make it.”
Rita’s first line of defense was to scoff at the whole idea. “Do you have any idea how insane this sounds? It’s like a bad movie plot! It’s crazy! Who would go through all that trouble, huh? And why?! What would be the point?!” For the moment, credulous disbelief and growing indignation were able to mask serious consideration of the implications Chris’ discoveries posed.
Chris knew that the explanation Rita sought would put an abrupt end to her relatively calm appearance, unleashing an array of emotions so strong no external force could hope to temper them. The answers to all of her questions lay in a single name. Words failed Chris, as he solemnly realized there were no means to soften the blow. He took a deep breath.
Rita’s world came to a screeching halt.
She tried desperately not to believe what she heard. Her eyes went ablaze with fury and her petite frame became rigid. Her mouth moved, but no sound was produced. “No,” she finally uttered forcefully, “No, Chris! Damn it!”
If there ever was an archenemy in the life of Rita Lee Fontana Lance, it was represented in the loathsome, purely vile presence of Harlan Cameron. Her hatred toward him already ran strong and deep.
Rita couldn’t remain seated, and she jumped up from the couch once again, pacing back and forth, fisting her hands so tightly that her long nails made crescent-shaped indentations into her palms.
“The plan to destroy your father started years before the investment deal. Cameron wanted to break him one piece at a time. First his wife, then his home and reputation, and finally his life. He convinced your dad to have a closed-casket funeral, then took care of all the details for his grieving friend. While Alexandra Fontana was in a coma, across town she was being laid to rest in the eyes of Palm Beach. According to Mitchum, Cameron simply played both sides… He helped your dad go through his wife’s belongings then turned right around and gave them back to her when she was released from the hospital. Alexandra detested high society here, and Cameron knew it. She made the decision to get the hell out of here, and he fueled that emotion until she finally left.”
Liquid rage and pain flowed down Rita’s cheeks as the information assaulted her soul. Armed with a mounting distrust for a past she thought she knew, Rita spat, “and my mother never suspected a thing?!”
“Well, you’ll have you to ask her that yourself, but think about it, Rita. Did you ever question her death certificate and try to find her?”
Distraught as she was, Rita knew Chris had a point. “No, never,” she confessed.
“That’s right. She was given the same amount – no, even more information than you had on her.” Chris paused before clarifying his statement. “When your mom was discharged, Cameron took her to Boca Raton Cemetery and showed her your grave and your dad’s. He had paid for it all. The cemetery and marker company both have records of his involvement. Alexandra had been unconscious for two weeks…two weeks is a lot of time to plan.”
Chris lowered his head and his voice. “I saw it, Rita… I saw your grave.”
His tone cut right through to Rita’s heart, causing her to stop and face him.
Haunted blue eyes met tear-clouded green. “I know it wasn’t real, but – I can’t speak for your mother, Sam, but it was damn convincing.”
Rita’s rage swelled up again. “That bastard! How could he put her through that?! How could he put all of us through that?!”
Helpless, Chris watched Rita turn back away from him. She wrapped her arms around herself and bowed her head, a physical gesture he recognized as accompaniment to the mental act of drawing inwards and internalizing her questions and wrath. He resisted touching her, knowing that she wouldn’t keep him locked out for long.
True to form, Rita withdrew and looked to Chris again. “Today at the station… It was Mitchum you had interrogated, wasn’t it?”
Silently, Chris nodded affirmatively.
“Can I see the transcript?”
“Are you sure you want to?”
“No, but I think have to.”
Chris retrieved the typed pages from his jacket, and went back to the couch where Rita was now sitting, staring into space. “Here,” he said quietly.
Rita snapped out of her trance and accepted the papers. She leaned back against Chris and began flipping through them.
Question: “Doctor Mitchum, would you mind telling me where you
practiced before you came to Cobalt’s?”
Answer: “I really do not see how that is pertinent, or why you have
even brought me here in the first place, Sergeant.”
Question: “Just answer the question.”
Answer: “Holley State Hospital.”
Question: “Why’d you leave?”
“I asked you why you left, Doctor. Is this too tough for
Answer: “Sergeant Lorenzo, my last days at Holley drove me to drink.
Excessively. I have spent the past thirty years trying to
forget them. . . . . . .”
A large tear fell, and was quickly wiped off the legal document that spelled out in black and white the merciless, inhumane offenses that shattered three lives and obliterated the formation of a family.
...Answer: “Let me inform you, Sergeant, of how Palm Beach society functions. Harlan Cameron is old money. Here, old money is protected at all costs. People will look the other way. Outsiders, are just that. No matter what their wealth, they will always be outsiders. Alexandra Fontana was an outsider. She was wealthy, but she was an architect. She worked. Remember, Sergeant, this was the 1950’s and 60’s. Even if she wasn’t an outsider, as a working woman – especially in a field such as architecture – she would never have been accepted. People like Cameron rule this city, Detective. They are invincible. They know they are safeguarded no matter what.”
Question: “Invincible, huh? Don’t bet on it.”
Rita set the transcript down. “I knew you were angry for me. I saw it in your eyes.”
“Rita, I’m sorry I had to keep everything from you.”
“No. No, don’t be, Sam. I understand. If I had been in that interrogation room with you, Mitchum would have had me up on brutality charges two seconds after I walked through the door.”
Chris turned on the couch, so he could partially recline and Rita could rest her head against his chest. He held the love of his life tight in his arms, and she in turn hung on to him with all her might. The silence and the stillness blanketed them, securing them from the rest of the world, if only briefly.
Chris kissed the top of Rita’s head. “Where do you wanna go from here, Sam?”
Rita’s answer was a defeated scoff. She sat up and considered the question, a task that greatly taxed her waning supply of mental energy. “I have no idea,” she answered truthfully. “I can’t just spring this on her. God, she has a life!”
Chris’ heart shattered as he watched Rita’s entire being sober, two and a half decades suddenly melting away in her anguished expression as a petrifying thought struck her. “What if she doesn’t want me?”
“What if she doesn’t like me?”
“She already likes you.”
“Yeah, as a friend, she likes me. But not as a daughter.” Questions and doubts spiraled out of control, and Rita was powerless to halt them. “What if it’s not her?” Facts or no facts, Rita was terrified to allow herself to believe in the miracle. It was too fantastic, too unfathomable to risk hope.
Rita paced her living room like a caged animal, innumerable thoughts and emotions cycloning through her, so much so she couldn’t concentrate on a single one in particular.
Chris never took his eyes off her, at a loss for words or actions, and watched as a spark of logic lit her face and she headed off to her bedroom. Rita returned with a dusty box that Chris knew she kept on the top shelf of her closet.
Settling herself on the floor, Rita wordlessly took off the lid, and stared at the contents. Nestled on a thick stack of file folders was a small music box, one of Rita’s most treasured possessions. She gingerly picked it up and set it on her lap.
It had been her mother’s.
Since she had been a child, Rita would always take it out when life dealt her a crushing hardship she wasn’t sure she could overcome. Its mechanical song was a source of connection and comfort almost magical in its calming abilities.
Today, there was comfort to be granted, but gone was the fairy tale feeling of a mother watching over her from above. Rita’s heart skipped a beat at the notion of a flesh and blood mother. She gently set the music box aside, and brought out the top file of the stack, not bothering to open it. There was no need. Rita knew the contents were her father’s birth and death certificates, followed by her mother’s, followed by their marriage license – in that order. “Chris,” she asked quietly, “could you please get the picture off my dresser?”
“Sure thing,” came the willing response as he headed off.
Chris didn’t need to question the picture to which Rita was referring. There were only two photographs reserved in that place of honor: on the left side was her favorite candid shot of the two of them, with Chris embracing her from the back. And on the right… On the right was a cherished picture she had recently received from Karen Krane, which portrayed a carefree five-year-old and her dad enjoying the Krane’s yacht.
“Thank you, Sam,” Rita mumbled. She looked at the special photo and file of records that together would form the evidence for the shocking claims she was about to deliver to an unsuspecting friend. With a jolt, Rita realized that when Alex learned the truth of their past, she just might experience the same fears and doubts that currently tormented Rita herself. Too many ‘what ifs,’ too much information… Rita gave her head a quick shake, and got up from the floor. “I don’t think I can do this,” she remarked aloud.
“Yes, you can,” was Chris’ reassuring response. The statement was neither patronizing nor placating. For years Chris had witnessed the enduring strength of his best friend, and no matter how hard life tried to break her, Rita always triumphed. “I’ll be right there with you if you want me to be, Sam. I’ll do as little or as much of the talking as you want. It’s your call, Rita.”
“Oh, I want you there,” Rita vehemently exclaimed, “I – I need you there.” She scoffed at her out-of-control emotions. “God, I wasn’t this shaky when I pulled my first undercover assignment or Vice sting!” As Chris stepped in behind her, drawing her close to his chest with his strong arms circling around her, Rita accepted his silent gesture of comfort by leaning back against him and closing her eyes.
“They were a different kind of danger,” Chris supplied matter-of-factly.
Rita focused her turmoil on his soothing presence, desperate to regain a sense of balance. But when the doorbell rang, it startled her as effectively as if it had been a gunshot. She gasped, and her eyes snapped open.
Chris gave her arms a quick squeeze and whispered ‘I love you’ in her ear. He went to the door. “Hey there, Alex, come on in.”
“Thank you, Chris. I came back as soon as I c – Rita? Are you all right?” The haunting expression on the young woman’s face was instantly unsettling.
“Ah, yeah, Alex. Um, I’m gonna go pour the coffee.” With that, she virtually flew out of the room.
“She’ll be okay, Alex. Here, let’s sit down.”
Chris guided Alex to the kitchen table where he made an effort at small talk, and when Rita emerged from the kitchen with a tray of mugs, she heard him casually ask Alex if she had ever been in Palm Beach before.
“Yes, I have. I used to live here, actually.” She paused, as if deep in thought. “It seems like another lifetime ago…”
Rita concealed her picture and folder of documents as she slipped into the chair across from Alex.
“Can I ask you something personal?”
“Sure, Chris, go ahead.”
Chris looked to Rita, who finally responded with an almost imperceptible nod. It was now or never. “I mean no disrespect, and I’m sorry, but… How did your daughter and husband die?”
Alex stiffened immediately, squaring her shoulders. She held her head high, as was her way of facing the pain only slightly diminished by time. For Chris, it was a powerful sense of déjà vu’, having watched Rita on numerous occasions in the past carry herself in much the same manner.
“My child was stillborn. My husband…was killed in an auto accident, trying to get to the hospital when I went into labor.”
“What was his name?”
Alex was mute for a moment. “Donald Fontana,” she finally stated.
Rita finally broke her silence. “My dad died when I was seven. Do you remember me telling you that?”
“Yes, that’s why you went to live with foster parents…”
“That’s right. I went to the Lance’s because my dad, Donald Fontana, committed suicide in 1971 when I was seven.”
Alex inhaled sharply. “Suicide?! But – No, that’s impossible! He would never – he couldn’t have – No, the Donald Fontana I knew was killed in 1964.”
“Alex?” Chris asked soothingly, “how did you find out that your husband had been killed in an accident?”
It took Alex several tries to find her voice. “During delivery, I slipped into a coma that lasted two weeks. When I woke up, I learned I had given birth to a girl, but she was stillborn. Donald had been killed in a car crash…”
“Who told you this?”
“My doctor… Wait, that’s not right. He was in the room at the time, but he wasn’t the one who told me. Harlan did. Harlan Cameron.”
Chris nodded. “Bingo,” he said softly.
Rita’s lip quivered under the strain of holding back her tears. Alex had just confirmed what Chris learned through his investigation. That meant she really was Alexandra Fontana…
And that meant…
When Rita was sure she could speak with some semblance of dignity, she handed Alex her father’s death certificate and explained, “Donald Fontana…shot himself in the head. I was the one who found him in our bathtub.”
With shaking hands, Alex accepted the piece of paper, and read:
Donald L. Fontana…Date of death: September 29, 1971…
Cause of death: Contact Gunshot Wound of the Temple
“This just can’t be! I was at his grave the day I was discharged. Harlan had arranged and taken care of everything, and I felt terrible for ever doubting him.”
Chris immediately jumped at the ending statement. “What did you mean by that? That you doubted him?”
“Well, Harlan was one of Donald’s best friends…but I could never shake the feeling that there was something…sinister about him. Frankly, he gave me the creeps, and Don used to always tease me about it. So, naturally, when I found out that Harlan had arranged for me to stay in his private suite at the hospital and had made all the funeral and burial arrangements for Donald and the baby, I felt ashamed for ever doubting his character.”
“Don’t ever feel ashamed about that,” Rita muttered hotly, hatred dripping from every word.
She cleared her throat, as an unspoken apology for her unexpected sidetrack. “Um, there’s more.” She stared down at the other certificate she was holding, and furrowed her brow. “I also told you that my mother died when I was born.” Without looking up, she slid the paper across the table to Alex.
Alexandra Lilia Fontana…Date of death: May 2, 1964…
Cause of death: Amniotic Fluid Embolism
An icy chill radiated up Alex’s spine as she gazed at her own name under the official seal of the State of Florida and the Gothic calligraphy font heralding ‘Death Certificate.’
“Oh, my God.” Then her mind worked through the logic regarding…Rita… She snapped her head up to stare at the young woman in front of her. “Oh, my God!”
“As you can probably guess, this is the only copy. And there obviously is no evidence of its existence in the state records.”
“But… That would mean you’re – But how?!”
Rita listened in suffering silence as Chris once again explained what his investigation had uncovered, her pain not even fractionally abated this second time around. When he finished, she offered the version she had lived with, had accepted as truth, for thirty-one years.
Alexandra Fontana could only gape in staggering shock. She was stunned speechless, emotionless. Several minutes passed before she was physically and mentally capable to react. The fuse was lit, and the dam suddenly burst. Bottomless rage, resentment, and inwardly directed shame laced her words. “Damn it… I played right into his plan. At Don and the baby’s graves he asked me about the house, and I told him to just sell it. Sell it all. Donald was the only reason I had stayed in Palm Beach. I was fed up with being an outcast simply because I was a successful businesswoman and not their precious ‘old money.’ Harlan told me he would take care of everything. He told me not to go back to the house because it would be too painful. And I left for Atlanta that very day. I severed all ties. I gave him a list of the possessions I wanted, and he sent them. A few weeks later he wrote me saying that the house sold, and he gave me the check. My God…he must have funded that himself…”
Alex bowed her head and stared at her hands in her lap, her thoughts swimming over lost time with a child she never knew survived. “Every day for thirty-one years I’ve mourned your death. Every day as the years passed I’ve wondered what you’d be like as you grew.” She lifted her tear-stained face and focused on the similarly effected face of her friend…turned daughter. “For thirty-one years, I’ve missed your life!”
Rita shook her head and reached a hand across the table to Alex, who immediately clasped it. “It wasn’t your fault,” she stated fervidly. “It wasn’t your fault.”
In an instant, Rita and Alexandra felt time suddenly freeze. How many nights had they prayed to see each other’s face just once? How many days had they longed for the opportunity just to meet, to get to know one another? In an instant, Rita and Alexandra truly realized the precious gift that had been granted to them.
“Your smile,” Chris quietly exclaimed.
“What?” came the stereo reply.
“Your smile, Alex. That’s why I was so sure we had met before. That smile has lit up my life for over eight years. I don’t know why, but I just couldn’t place it when we were introduced.”
As if on cue, two pairs of green eyes focused on Chris, and he received a double dose of raised eyebrow and lopsided grin.
“Aw, see, that’s just freaky now. Now you two are just being mean. I don’t know why I take this abuse!”
For the Fontana women, it was increasingly surreal, yet beautifully so, to agree with initial observations of features and mannerisms they shared. It was an instant bond of mother and daughter.
Leaning back against the couch in the living room, Rita and Alexandra sat surrounded by an array of pictures, letters, schoolwork, the music box, and other special treasures.
“Do you remember this?” Rita asked, handing her mother the worn copy of ‘Suzy Pratt: Girl Detective.’
“Oh my gawd,” Alex cried. “I can’t believe you still have this!”
“What do you mean ‘still have it?’ This is still one of my favorite books! Daddy used to always read it to me when I couldn’t sleep – and even Chris and I have pulled it out when we’ve had insomnia. It still works like a charm!”
“This was the first book I ever bought when I learned I was pregnant with you. Your dad thought I was nuts, and was laughing so hard he was in tears. He had always teased me about my love for police work.” Alex’s smile turned a shade slyer as she remembered other works of literature that evoked the laughter of her husband. “Have you ever heard of Dashell Hammett, Rita?”
“He was a mystery writer, wasn’t he?”
“A mystery writer whose writing was inspired by his life’s work. He was an operative for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency before he wrote classics like ‘The Maltese Falcon,’ ‘The Thin Man,’ ‘Special Agent X-9.’ When I was pregnant, and couldn’t sleep because you decided to be quite active, I’d sit in my rocking chair and read to us out loud book after book of his. And it seemed like his were the only ones that would settle you down. Those are some of my fondest memories of being pregnant…”
For a moment, Rita was speechless, having never experienced a first-hand account of a bond she shared with her true mother. Her eyes twinkled at the realization that she herself could add another piece to the special connection. “‘Special Agent X-9,’huh?” she asked.
“Yes, it was a comic book, actually, not a novel. Why?”
“Oh, nothing,” was the innocent answer. “It’s just that ‘X-9,’ well, ‘X-ray’ in the police alphabet, has been my designation ever since I switched to Homicide from Vice.”
“Nope.” Beaming, both Rita and Alex widened their eyes and shivered at the uncanny coincidence.
For mother and daughter the hours slipped away effortlessly. Alex listened devotedly to recounts of important events in Rita’s life, and Rita sat spellbound as she learned of the carefree, prankster, romantic man her father had been when Alex had known him, and the hopes and dreams Alex had had for motherhood.
It wasn’t long before they had talked, cried, and hugged most of the night away. Dawn was almost breaking when Alex finally moved to leave, promising to return for a late breakfast once she and Rita had the chance to rest their overloaded but ecstatic minds.
Standing by the door to the apartment, they shared a final embrace, and Rita offered Alexandra one last memory.
“Every night when Daddy would tuck me in, we would tell you about our day. And when he would kiss me goodnight, he would always use the words ‘Mommy and I love you.’ You were always a part of our lives.”
Humbled and grateful, Alex took every word to heart. “I can’t tell you how much that means to me, Rita. You know, when I first moved to Atlanta, I would wake up at night having sworn that I had heard you crying. I knew it wasn’t real, but I never wanted to fall back asleep until I had comforted you in my mind. Every night my last thought was asking your dad to take care of you in heaven…and saying how much I loved you both.” Alex smiled sweetly as another idea struck her. “Who knows, Rita, there were probably many a night when we were all telling each other ‘I love you’ at the very same moment.”
Before slipping into bed, Rita paused at her window. One by one the stars were fading from sight…
…signaling on so many levels, that the long night was coming to a close.
Rita moved flush against the warm body of her Sam, who even in his slumber instinctively reached out to hold her. She basked in the overwhelming sense of love she felt for him, for his immense accomplishment, and for the woman who was so much more than an amazing friend.
“I have a mom,” Rita whispered in humble fascination to her sweet soul mate.
The arms that held her tenderly gripped tighter, and without opening his eyes, Chris smiled.
With arms braced against the railing of Rita’s balcony, Alexandra stood motionless as she gazed out, hypnotized, at the crashing ocean.
“You know, if you stare at the waves long enough, you can find the answers to just about anything.”
Rita’s voice successfully brought Alex out of her solemn reverie. “I never realized just how much I miss it,” she responded sincerely. “There’s nothing on earth quite like it.”
A small smile slowly spread across her face, and she turned toward Rita. “Your father proposed to me by the ocean, did you know that?”
Rita casually flopped down onto a chair, wonder illuminating her features as she searched her memory. “Um…”
Quiet nostalgia filled Alexandra’s voice as she continued. “I was living in a fifth floor apartment in Highland Beach. Every morning I would go out on my balcony and just watch the surf. And then one morning, I looked out, and there in the sand in these big letters was written: ‘Alexandra, will you marry me?.’” Alex laughed at the remembrance. “I almost fell over the railing… I raced down to the beach, but I didn’t see your dad anywhere. Then I noticed there was a heart drawn above my name. In the center of the heart was my engagement ring, mounted in a seashell.” She toyed with the diamond that after forty years, still encircled her finger. “As I picked it up and looked around again, your dad was about fifteen feet away, down on one knee, holding a bouquet of tiger lilies, which are my favorite flowers.”
The memory slowly faded, as did the happiness from Alex’s face, and she hung her head. “I can’t believe he let you find him like that,” she whispered in horror. “I can’t believe how Harlan could inflict so much pain on him and make him lose sight of how important you were to him. I let you both down, Rita. I should have come back. If I had come back I would have found you. Both of you...” Taking several deep breaths, Alex drove the thoughts from her mind with a fierce determination. “God, I miss him… But, you know what? Last night was the first night in thirty-one years that I didn’t miss you.” A radiant maternal pride beamed in her eyes, as she offered her daughter a brilliant grin.
Rita stood up and tightly embraced the woman who for Rita’s entire life had lived only in the realms of her imagination. She felt like a child, yet she felt safer than she had in a very long time, or possibly ever. “I’m out of practice in being a daughter,” she confessed, “especially yours.”
Alexandra stroked Rita’s chestnut hair, which was just a shade darker than her own. “I’ve lost a lot of time,” she counter admitted. “And I find myself asking ‘do I know how to be your mother?’”
Rita giggled impishly and stepped back. “Well, whenever you’re in doubt, just remember how well you handled me when I started that paint fight with Christopher!”
Alexandra Fontana laid a bouquet of fresh flowers at the foot of a granite headstone engraved with the names of Tom and Sue Lance. She knelt down, and drawing in a ragged breath, she gathered her thoughts. “What could I possibly say to you both?” she whispered. “How could I ever repay you? I look at my – I look at my daughter… My precious child… And I see a woman who was given as much love and support and guidance as her father and I would have provided, had we been given the opportunity. I am truly indebted to you. I am proud, so very proud, that Rita took your name.”
Rita watched the silent tears of the woman who had been cheated out of a family, as she knelt at the actual grave of her husband. For Donald’s widow, knowing the truth of his real death was, in a sense, like losing him all over again. Alexandra sighed heavily. “Oh, Donald… I am so sorry.” Through her sorrow, she managed to smile.
“We’re together now, dear, Rita and me. You should see her, Don… She’s beautiful, she’s intelligent, she’s strong in character. She’s everything we ever dreamed for our child. And, she’s a cop, sweetheart! Can you believe it? I know you were laughing when I found that out – I can just hear you. I wish you were truly here with us… Watch over us, Don.” Alexandra brought a long-stemmed red rose up to her lips before laying it across the headstone and, in the language of the songs she always danced with her husband, fervently whispered a plea for her love to wait for her. “Aspettami, amore mio.”
Alexandra stepped back, and Rita took her place. She laid her rose and the poem attached to it, on top of her mother’s. “Guess what, Daddy? I’ve been hanging out with Mom – and I didn’t even know it. She’s amazing…I – I understand why you loved her so much. We miss you, Daddy…and we love you…” Rita stood up. She closed her eyes, and her mind echoed the mingling voices of a time long ago, as she and her dad had memorized the nursery rhyme she now placed upon his headstone:
For every evil under the sun,
There is a remedy or there is none.
If there be one, seek till you find it.
If there be none, then never mind it.
Though Rita and Alexandra could not remedy the evil begotten to Donald Fontana, thereby undoing his death, they had remedied the evil that kept them separated. Now it was time to reveal the remedy to the Evil itself responsible for their years of pain. Their next stop would be to the Dade Correctional Institution Annex…to descend upon Harlan Cameron.
Alone, Rita strolled casually into the infirmary, high heels echoing determinedly.
Harlan Cameron, hooked up to oxygen and various monitors, spotted her immediately and leered, “why Rita Lee! What a surprise! Have you come to wish me a joyous parole? You do know that I’ll be granted parole, don’t you?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t be packing my bags just yet, if I was you, Cameron,” Rita drawled, before sweetly adding, “you’re never going to see the light of day again!”
“Come now, you can’t still be harboring bad feelings toward me simply because your father lacked good investment sense.”
Rita stopped herself just short of physically lashing out at him. Cameron’s audacity and twisted logic, with which he removed his personal involvement, infuriated Rita to the core, though her outward appearance remained unfaltering. “Well, since you mentioned the past, that’s exactly why I’m here. See, my partner had a wonderful little chat with your old friend, Doctor Mitchum.”
At that, Cameron’s heart monitor made a series of erratic blips, thrilling Rita immensely.
“You remember him, don’t you?” She didn’t bother to wait for the response. “Of course you remember him. You made him Chief of Research for Cobalt Obstetrics – once he helped you carry out an elaborate little scheme against both my parents.”
Cameron wheezed, angrily exclaiming, “I have no idea what you’re talking about!”
Rita made a tsk-tsk sound as she slowly shook her head from side to side. “See, now that’s the wrong answer, Cameron. We both know your power of recollection is perfectly intact.” “But just the same, I’ll help you remember. See, you decided to play God with our lives. You turned on my father. Almost everything he cared about…you wiped out. You broke my mother’s heart. You made her think she was alone in this world – that the two people she loved more than life were gone. You stole both of my parents from me. You ended my childhood when I was only seven years old.”
Rita had reigned back her fury and pain, keeping her tone neutral as a sign of sheer defiance, but she now returned to the sweet, sardonic timbre that intensified her mental attack. “Still can’t recall? Well, maybe this can jog your memory.”
Another pair of unwavering, high-heeled footsteps was approaching. Alexandra Fontana came into sight, causing Harlan’s eyes to widen and the monitor to beep rapidly.
“Surely, you remember my mother?”
Pure hatred was clearly visible on Alex’s face. “Well, well, Harlan. The years certainly haven’t been good to you.” She gave a snort of contempt. “I’d apologize for my impertinence, but I think my daughter has been more polite to you than you deserve, you bastard. Donald and I trusted you! Do you have any idea what kind of hell you put us through?!” Alex, too, refused to let Cameron interrupt. “Do you honestly think they’re not going to keep you chained up in here for the rest of your pathetic life?”
Harlan made a last-ditch attempt at control. “I have very powerful friends! I – ”
Rita’s eyes flashed with a predatory gleam. “You might have had the upper hand when you were out in Palm Beach, but you’re part of the justice system now. This is my territory. My game.”
Alexandra held her head high, filled with a deep pride at witnessing the flare of her child’s authority and internal strength. “Take a good look at us, Cameron. Your life is over…ours is just beginning. I want the last thing you remember about the outside world to be the knowledge that you failed.” She wrapped her arm across Rita’s shoulders. “We’re together. And you failed.” With a triumphant smile and a purely saccharine tone she added, “I hope you rot in hell.”
As mother and daughter turned to leave, Rita paused. All sarcasm left her features, as she prepared to deliver her final blow of vengeance for her father’s death and her mother’s pain. She looked back at Harlan, her purely venomous glare making him physically flinch in fear. “Oh, and Cameron? Now Little Miss Rita has closed the books.”
Music, laughter, and screams mingled with the mechanical roar of the rollercoasters, the spinning lights of the smaller rides, and the smell of food that was reserved strictly for amusement parks. Chris returned to the picnic table with his third chilidog, causing Alex to gape at him in wide-eyed fascination.
“You’re really gonna eat another one?”
“What?” Chris asked innocently. “This is a carnival, ladies. You’re supposed to eat more than one corn dog and a bottle of water.”
“Hey, we had cotton candy, too!” Rita protested in their defense.
“You tell him, Rita!”
Muffled, familiar voices approached. “Oh, Hesch, I’m so proud of you.”
“What, proud? I’m going to be sneezing whipped cream for a week, Fran.”
The Sams could not help but laugh at the sight of poor Harry: a towel draped over the collar of his trademark white dress shirt with its rolled up sleeves; his dark hair slicked back after rinsing out all the offending pastry ingredients from his beat at the
pie-throwing booth. And then of course there was the ever-bubbly Frannie, hugging his arm and guiding him toward the table.
Chris, Rita, and Alex stood up. “There, see, Cap?” Chris quipped. “That wasn’t so bad, now was it?”
His answer was the inimitable above-the-glasses stare.
“Cap? Fran?” Rita asked quietly. “I’d like to introduce you to…my mother, Alex.”
Harry’s demeanor softened, and he shook her hand. “It is truly an honor, Alex.” To his detectives he barked, “Lance! Lorenzo! What kind of cops are you, huh? You mean to tell me that you couldn’t see from the start that Alex’s the spitting image of Rita?”
Before Rita could reply, three of her kids from Night Moves physically whisked her away to ride a coaster with them.
Knowing that Alexandra and Frannie still had to meet, Harry and Chris moved back so as not to interfere.
As they made eye contact, something passed between the two women, and they knew a handshake would not be sufficient. As they embraced, everything was said, though no words were exchanged.
It was Alex who first moved to verbally emphasize their silent conversation. “I hope you realize just how important you and your husband are to Rita. You both are family to her.”
“I can’t even imagine your pain, Alex. Losing your child – especially one as special as Rita…” Fran shook her head, in a rare occasion of feeling speechless.
Alex watched as Rita dissolved into laughter as she was dragged to a shorter line. “I can’t believe how amazing she is, Fran…” Alex turned her attention back to extraordinary woman in front of her. “Thank you…mother to mother…for taking care of her. And please, please continue to do so. I know Rita wouldn’t have it any other way.”
“Will you be a part of her life, Alex?” While Frannie may not have been bound to Rita by blood, she was bound by two years of loving her as if she was her own. Rita had been through so much in her short years, Fran felt obligated to protect her from any additional heartbreak.
“If she’ll let me,” Alex replied wistfully.
The correct answer given, Fran beamed and turned Alex’s words right back around on her. “Honey, she wouldn’t have it any other way.”
From their removed distance, Chris and Harry watched the interaction between the two older ladies. “I’m proud of you, kid,” the Cap complimented sincerely, “you did a hell of a job. You do know that this was probably the most important case you’ve ever worked – or will work? You gave Rita back a very important piece of her heart. Something she’s never had…”
“Thanks, Captain,” Chris responded softly. “You’ve gotta watch them together, Cap. It’s so natural, it’s like they’ve never been apart.” Watching Alex talk to Fran, Chris was taken aback by how much more than just her smile she shared with Rita. “She really is phenomenal… And I’ve never seen Rita so happy.”
Suspended high above the ground, Chris and Rita sat in an enclosed car at the top of the Ferris wheel. From their perch in the sky, they could see the rolling ocean and the twinkling lights of the city.
“You’re quiet,” Chris mumbled as he dragged his lips across the soft skin of Rita’s neck.
Rita opened her eyes and pulled away, waiting for him to look at her. She offered him a smile filled with more love than he had ever seen. “I want to thank you, Chris,” she drawled once she had his attention, “but I’ll never be able to thank you enough. What you’ve given me…” There were simply no words. Instead, Rita resorted to a searing kiss that offered him her heart and soul. She raked her nails up his thigh, and at his sharp intake of breath, broke off the kiss with a sultry grin. She nuzzled his ear, taking it briefly between her teeth before promising in a husky whisper, “I’ll make it up to you for the rest of our lives.”
“I love you, Rita.”
“And I love you.”
“Now boarding: first-class passengers, flight 2293 for Atlanta, Georgia.”
“Well, I guess this is my ride,” Alex remarked with a sigh. “I’ll give you a call when I get home.”
Smirking, she narrowed her eyes and regarded Chris with a mother’s scrutiny. “When Rita was only my friend, I thought you were perfect for her. But, that was before thirty years of unused maternal instinct came crashing through me, and I didn’t have a daughter to protect…” Her smile broadened and her gaze softened. “I’m glad I got to know you, Chris, before I learned about everything else. I can’t be certain that I wouldn’t have gone insanely critical on you if things had happened in the reverse order.” More seriously, she appealed, “if I haven’t earned the right as a mother yet, I ask you as a friend: take care of her. Be good to her, and treat her right.”
Chris looked with sheer respect to the woman who had endured so gracefully the pain of loss and the astonishment of reunion. Her charm and fire and spirit were no less captivating than that of his precious Sam who shared its inheritance. “I promise you, Alex,” he vowed wholeheartedly.
Alexandra Fontana embraced the cop whose investigative skills had restored her soul; the man whose spellbinding love would undoubtedly make him her son-in-law. “I came out here to repair a building… But thanks to you, I repaired my heart. I will be eternally grateful to you, Sergeant Christopher Lorenzo.”
She turned to Rita. “And you! My beautiful baby girl... Thank you so much for letting me into your life, and for giving me the crash course of your experiences.” Laughing away fresh tears she exclaimed, “I can’t believe I have to leave already!”
Rita concentrated hard on the ability to speak. “I just got you back, and…” Unable to finish the sentence, she paused to collect herself. “You’ll be back in three weeks for the seminar with Homicide and Vice?”
“Yes, and you’ll be getting lots of calls and emails from me throughout those three weeks, too, I assure you.” Alexandra took hold of her daughter’s hands, looking deep into the emerald eyes that mirrored her own. “I, uh, I don’t know how much this will mean to you, but I am so proud of you, Rita.”
Once again Rita reeled from disbelief and delight. With a fierce veracity she answered, “it means everything to me.”
As of one accord, the Fontana women embraced, locking into memory the tangible, precious hold that was denied to them for so long.
“I love you, Mom,” Rita whispered.
Alexandra let out a soft cry.
“I have waited my whole life to hear that from you – to be called that by you! God, I still can’t believe this! I love you, too, sweetheart.”
“Now boarding: passengers in rows 25 through 30…”
Alex groaned. “Oh, all right, already!” She separated from Rita, and picked up her attaché case – only to go right back for another quick hug. “Be well, Rita. I will see you soon. Bye, Chris!”
“Take care, Alex.”
“Have a safe flight,” added Rita.
When Alexandra Fontana disappeared from sight, Rita and Chris draped an arm around each other and moved to stand in front of the terminal’s fully glassed wall.
Looking out at the docking area, Chris suddenly remembered:
“By the way, Sam, when I was talking to Keisha at the start of all this, she said to tell you that your dream came true.”
“What did she mean by that?”
“Well, I don’t know, really. She wouldn’t tell me, but she said to remind you about foster children.”
As the realization struck her, Rita ducked her head and slowly nodded. Swallowing the sudden lump in her throat, she whispered, “I guess she’s right…”
Chris nudged her with his shoulder. “So?”
“Ah… Well, when Keisha and I got together during Michael’s case, she asked me how he was related to me. I explained that he was my foster brother, but his real mom eventually came and got him. All foster children have this dream that their real parents will come and get them. Michael’s dream came true…”
“Ah,” Chris exclaimed, finally understanding. “So, in a way, Keisha’s right. Your dream did come true.”
Rita watched her mother’s plane taxi to the end of the runway and take flight.
“Yes… It did.”
The making of ‘Closing the Books’ – the methods to my madness:
For me, the research I put into a story is as fun and frustrating as the writing itself. It’s all about details…
- For starters, how about the fact that Rita didn’t and couldn’t know Alex’s last name? Well, as you may recall, Rita only uses her first name when she answers the phone at Night Moves (Natural Selection). We know Suzanne’s last name because she was a suspect in her husband’s murder (Ghosts of the Past). I always thought that the absence of last names reflected a sense of anonymity and casualness that would be essential to the Night Moves cause. Is it completely plausible that Rita never heard ‘Fontana?’ Probably not. But this is fan-fic, and it’s the only way my premise would work.
- Next up, Alex’s career/personality. The birth mother of Rita Lee Fontana was going to be successful. Her achievements in a once male-dominated profession would parallel Rita’s. She was going to be strong. She was going to embody many of the amazing qualities we know and love in her daughter.
- Now, what about Alex teaching architecture at the Academy? Flight of a fan-fic author’s fantasy? Not entirely. I have seen architecture listed in Cadet curriculum. Whether the material includes anything Alex mentioned, I am not sure.
- And Chris’ involvement? It is common knowledge to the nth degree that Chris is an extremely important, ever present aspect of Rita’s life, and vice versa. Therefore, the true identity of “Alex” was to be discovered by Chris himself. But, before that, I wanted him to connect with the woman that would turn out being the love of his life’s mother. The connection would be Chris’ favorite baseball team, the Atlanta Braves (Hardcopy), which was the reason Alex had to be from Atlanta.
- Okay, the baseball stats. The Launching Pad is referenced because the Braves’ current home, Turner Field, didn’t open until 1997. The games mentioned were played in 1994. Technically, the story cannot take place in 1994 due to all the inferences made to Brother’s Keeper, which aired January 22, 1995. Well, I researched the Braves for 1994 because I associate 4th season Silk (the timeline after ‘The Three Faces of Fate’) with 1994, and wrote up the entire scene before questioning the air date of Brother’s Keeper. I’ve justified keeping the error because by the time the Braves played in 1995, Chris and Rita were probably already getting tense with each other and gearing up for the real 5th season timeline and factual sparks/fireworks.
- And speaking of timeline errors, I stopped just short of making another one. As you will later read, the original idea for this story was centered on the music box that Rita is listening to in Into the Fire (right before Chris brings her his Italian penicillin). Well, I almost included in this story how Rita had brought it out when she thought Eric was dead…but then I realized: Rita never dated Eric in my stories! ‘Three Faces of Fate’ created a bypass for that lil misadventure, so I most certainly couldn’t mention ol’ Eric in ‘Closing the Books!’ J
- Now, one of my favorite fun facts: the date on Donald Fontana’s death certificate. September 29, 1971 was chosen simply because it was a Wednesday, and therefore a school day. As we all know, Rita raced home from school and found her father dead (Going to Babylon). She states she was seven when he died (Ask the Dust), so that would mean seven years from her birth date – which we don’t know, so Mitzi’s is the most logical choice.
- As for the cemeteries, Boca Raton and Hillcrest are actual Florida cemeteries and the closest to Palm Beach.
- Similarly, the Dade Correctional Institution Annex is also real, and would hold a prisoner like Harlan Cameron.
- Miami International Airport is also referenced because of its proximity to Palm Beach, and Alex’s flight number… Well, 2293 is the address of the condo in San Diego that doubled as Rita’s apartment.
- And lastly, but most importantly: a beautiful name, a classic name, befitting the mother of Rita. ‘Alexandra’ was used by permission, as I simply cannot imagine any other name for her. She debuted in the powerful, remarkable “Shadows of Remembrance” by our most loved ResAuthor. As for her middle name… Well, her middle name had to be something from which Rita’s ‘Lee’ could be derived. A lasting legacy and presence in her daughter’s identity. ‘Lilia’ was the most beautiful and enchanting choice. A name that when pronounced correctly in the language of its origin, is the very definition of Italian elegance. Above all else, if you like Alex’s full name, please, please, please write me and tell me.
Getting back to basics:
This story was uncharted territory for me, as I was forced to hone the skill of dialogue and strip away the descriptive style to which I am well accustomed. Man, that was hard!
The initial inspiration for this story came to me while watching Into the Fire. When Rita is hunched over her music box, I got to wondering if it could possibly be her mom’s. That lead to ‘what if her mom came back and realized it was hers?’. The Muse had struck. Well, a nonchalant mention to Lia led to an extensive jam session that turned a sweet, short story idea into a plot of cunning deception and challenging, complicated angles. So much for simplicity! But, throughout all my stalemates (and just plain stalling), Lia was the driving force, quick to remind me that Alexandra’s story needed to be told. Her encouragement was constant, her ‘jamming’ was crucial, and for both I thank her immensely.
It is to the great *L* “C” B that I dedicate ‘Closing the Books.’
Special note: Additional inspiration for this story came from sitting…on Rita’s beach, while staring at the condo that was Rita’s apartment. It doesn’t get much better than that! I offer a heartfelt ‘thank you!’ to Lorry The Navigator and Lia The Driver for the precious opportunity to join them for Silkfest 2002, in the very Land of Silk.
Thanks also to the site masters who give my stories a home: your hard work is most appreciated.
Dani/D of the DA’s Office
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