Curt Phillips grabbed up the spread of newspapers and flung them angrily away. They didn't go far; the open pages floated down to land all around him. The one section that had kindled so much emotion still lay open, the two people in the picture smiled mockingly.
He stared down at it for a long moment. Then, almost against his own will, he picked up the front page of the society section and read the stupid, clichéd caption underneath the photo.
Detective of the Year: Remington Steele, considered one of Los Angeles' most eligible bachelors, has been seen recently in the company of one of his associates. Are those wedding bells we hear, Mr. Steele?
Columnists were so sappy. Curt wondered if anybody ever really took this trash seriously. It wasn't Steele's romantic trysts that interested him anyway. His eyes found the accompanying article, the reason for the picture of Steele and the woman. The bold print of the lead line glared darkly.
Remington Steele Chosen Detective of the Year by the California Private Investigators' Association. The coveted Sleuth Award is not given lightly and Ireland-born Steele is the first non-American to receive it.
The article went on to expound on Steele's merits, lauding his laurels high enough to consider him for sainthood. Curt read the tripe in disgust. Where did this Steele get off waltzing in from some foreign country and blissfully stealing the award that should have come to him, Curt Phillips, Private Investigator. Hadn't he worked long and hard, in dingy dives, in harrowing neighborhoods -- sleeping in his car, casing sleazy motels. Sam Spade himself couldn't have tried any harder, and here this Limey or Mick or whatever he was comes along and takes the prize out from under his nose.
Curt grabbed at the paper and crumbled it, hurling the ball of newsprint at the wall. He sighed heavily and ran both hands through his hair. It wasn't fair! It just wasn't fair! He was good. He was more than good -- he was the best. It should have been his picture in the paper. People should have been reading about his exploits.
He stood up and shuffled over to stand before the mirror in the hallway, pulling out all the red-inked overdue notices he'd stuck there, and dropping them onto the carpet without a thought. The specter that stared back at him wasn't exactly the image of success. He tried vainly to straighten his disheveled hair, the brown tufts wildly stubborn. He needed a shave badly and the dark circles under his eyes told of the many sleepless nights over the last few weeks.
It hadn't always been like this. Oh sure, maybe he hadn't been rolling in dough or driving big, fancy, antique cars, but he'd done all right the first few years. After all, it had been the thrill of the chase, not the size of the fee that mattered. But in the end, even those small fees had trickled off. A one man crew failed to inspire confidence for some reason and people had been lured over to the corporate agencies, Remington Steele in particular, just because the leads had been a little slow in developing.
It wasn't fair. He'd never stood a chance against all that hype and glamour. His eyes caught sight of the ball of newspaper and he moved over to pick it up and take it back to the mirror. He opened it, smoothing out the wrinkles the best he could. He studied Steele's face a moment then glanced at his own reflection. It was a sad comparison. In a burst of sudden anger, he slammed his fist at the disappointing image in the glass.
The mirror shattered under the blow, sending jagged pieces falling to the table and onto the floor. Hardly aware of his violence, Curt continued to frown down at the picture, his thoughts dark and brooding, until a red droplet plinked onto the face of the woman beside Steele. It contrasted glaringly with the black and white of the paper and was soon followed by several more drops, each hitting different parts of the two people smiling at him. He watched for a moment in silent fascination until he at last looked up at where he'd cut his hand and the blood dripping from the laceration. Funny, but it didn't even hurt.
He studied it as if it were detached from him, following the trickle once more down to the newspaper. Both Steele and the woman were nearly covered with blood now, and the thoughts that came to his mind caused Curt's haggard face to break into a malevolent grin. Steele would pay for his award. Oh yes, he would pay dearly.
Laura Holt slapped the morning edition of the Times down on her desk, her fingers drumming the picture absently. She wondered, not for the first time, how it was possible to care for someone so intensely one moment, while the very next thing you wanted to do was to wring that same person's miserable neck. It was an old question, one she'd never quite completely resolved.
With a sigh, she rested her chin in her hand and studied the newspaper picture under her fingers. It wasn't a very good one of her, she decided critically. Her freckles showed up plainly and that dress did little for her. She made a mental note to never wear it again.
He, on the other hand, looked perfect as usual. She'd never seen him take a bad photo. Even the poor medium of newsprint couldn't detract from that charming smile. Just looking at him there on the page, she felt the familiar stirring of emotion that always threatened to take over her thinking whenever he was concerned. She jerked her gaze away from the picture, angry at herself for her lack of willpower. She was upset. At the moment she didn't want to risk letting anything distract her from the reason for her anger.
That reason lay in the article spread out in front of her and accompanying the picture. Detective of the Year indeed! Who did he think he was kidding? After all the years she'd spent, all the hard work, the sleepless nights -- worrying about red ink and making ends meet during times when the ends couldn't even be found. Who was he to just step in and waltz off with the most recognized and prestigious award an investigator could hope for? And on the merits of cases she'd worried and lost sleep over. Oh, of course he'd helped during the last couple of years, but even he would have to admit the major portion of the leg work and brain-storming had been hers.
She sighed again and rested her forehead in both her hands. She supposed she was being petty and childish. The recognition was good for the Agency, that was what mattered in the long run. She knew that, but she couldn't quite squelch the longing for the personal accolades that had always eluded her.
She also wasn't sure which she was the most upset about: the fact that he was getting the award in her place, or that he hadn't told her about it. He'd let her read it in the paper -- something he knew would be important to her. He'd let he find out with the rest of his adoring public.
The jangling of the phone startled her out of her muddlesome musings and she jumped violently, knocking over her coffee as she reached for the receiver. Cursing silently, she tried to mop up wet newspaper with one hand and field the call with the other. It wasn't going to be a good day.
Remington Steele pushed himself away from his desk and got up, rolling down his shirt sleeves and refastening the cuffs. He glanced out the office windows; the lights of the city were already gleaming in the early darkness of December. It looked cold, but it was probably a good deal warmer than it had been in the office all day. He didn't know what he might have done recently to warrant Laura's anger. He did know, however, that whatever the reason, each time she'd breezed in today, she'd brought the North Wind with her. It was a chill he hadn't felt willing to brave yet to find out the reason for its existence.
Now the day was over and the inevitable could be put off no longer. Slipping on his suit coat, he stood for a moment at the door that connected his large, plush office to Laura's smaller, more cramped one. He knew she was still in there. He'd heard her talking on the telephone. Gathering up his courage and putting on what he hoped was his most dazzling smile, he pushed open the door and rushed in boldly, before he changed his mind.
"Laura, Laura. It's five-thirty on a Friday night. Time to put away those files for the weekend. The evening is waiting for us, starting with dinner at my place, remember?"
The words had tumbled from his mouth in an effort to say as much as possible before she could interrupt. As he paused for breath and to measure the effect he was having, Laura merely stopped writing in the file spread out on her desk and laid aside her pen. She didn't look up at him, didn't give him a chance to look into those expressive brown eyes that might have clued him in to what was bothering her.
Now he was genuinely concerned. This boded of something more than just the usual flare of temper over some slight faux pas on his part. He'd assumed he'd merely stepped on some client's sensitive toes, but he could see it was something much more serious. For the life of him, though, he couldn't think of anything he'd done that terrible.
"Laura?" He spoke softly, letting her know he was aware of her agitation and he was ready to listen to her.
She met his eyes at last, her face calm and expressionless -- whatever she was feeling hidden deep within her. Her eyes never wavered as she reached for something in her top drawer and laid it on the desk. He supposed she meant for him to see it, so he tore his gaze away from her unfathomable countenance and glanced down at the newspaper.
It was a bit the worse for wear, having fought a losing battle with what must have been a cup of coffee, but he could still recognize the picture of Laura and himself. He knew what the article would be about.
"This wasn't supposed to come out until tomorrow," he stated a bit bewildered that this was what she was upset about. "The banquet isn't for two more weeks."
"Is that when you were going to tell me?" she asked evenly.
"Well, no. Actually I was planning on telling you over dinner tonight. A bit of a surprise celebration." He gave her a bright smile, hoping to coax her into a more congenial mood. Apparently she wasn't ready to be persuaded.
"Thanks for the inside scoop," she shot back sarcastically. She grabbed the file she'd been working on and moved over to stuff it into the file cabinet, not giving much care as to how it fit. Noisily shutting the drawer, she faced him, a tight smile on her face. "Congratulations, Mr. Steele. I'm sure you must be thrilled. I guess I'll be going now. I wouldn't want to keep you from any urgent press conferences. Besides, I have Christmas shopping to do." She grabbed her coat and hat off the brass rack and moved toward the door.
He wasn't about to let he leave, not like this. As she brushed past him he caught her arm, stopping her abruptly, his own temper rising dangerously.
"Damn it, Laura. I thought we'd come farther than this. I've obviously done something to upset you, but I'm not a mind reader. You're going to have to talk to me."
She jerked free of his hold angrily, but made no move to leave. Instead she stood glaring up at him, her eyes bright and challenging. He met her gaze unwaveringly, waiting for some kind of explanation -- convinced he was free from fault in this whole episode.
How long they stood that way he didn't know. He was distantly aware of the rain that had started splattering noisily against the windows, but the only thing that mattered was the face before him. Suddenly Laura broke the spell between them. She lowered her eyes to the floor, her hand fluttering to her forehead in a flustered gesture.
"I'm sorry," she mumbled softly, shaking her head. "I don't know why I've been acting this way. It's really foolish." She glanced at him, half embarrassed, half apologetic, as if unsure where to begin.
Steele allowed himself to breathe easier. This was more like it. They were back on solid ground now and Laura would eventually tell him what was wrong. They could work anything out as long as she let herself open up.
"Do you want to tell me about it?" he asked gently, taking her arm again. This time it was tenderness not anger that prompted him.
She hesitated, her face reluctant. "I'm not sure you'd really understand." She pulled away from him and he let her go, knowing she thought best while moving and this was not an escape from his presence.
"Why don't you try me, eh?" he offered brightly. "Rumor has it I'm a pretty clever fellow." He held up the newspaper for her to see the proof.
She smiled ruefully and came over to take the paper from his hand. "But you've already missed it," she informed him softly.
He stared at her blankly, trying to piece it all together.
"Are you talking about this silly award?" he asked in amazement. When she merely smiled in answer, comprehension dawned on him with a resounding crash. He cursed his own stupidity. "But not such a silly award, eh?"
She shrugged, a small gesture, but one which left him wanting nothing more than to take her in his arms and hold her. Without a word he closed the space between them and gathered her into an embrace. He felt her arms tighten around his waist as she lay her head against his shoulder.
They stood together silently for a time and Steele took in the silken sweetness of her hair against his cheek. The rhythm of her heartbeat and the pattering of the rain kept time with each other. It was a luxurious moment, one he wouldn't have traded for any amount of gems or paintings or daggers.
At last he felt Laura lift her head and he looked down to see her gazing up at him, studying his face.
"Thanks," she said simply.
He smiled casual acknowledgement. "You know of course, any recognition given to Remington Steele is really for you. I know how much of you there is in him."
Her eyes sparkled her appreciation. "I told you it was foolish."
"But it stills bothers you," he concluded.
She nodded a bit sheepishly. "Sometimes."
"Then it's not foolish. If it upsets you at all, it's worth discussing."
She pulled away from him a bit so that she was holding onto his hands at arms length. Her face had grown serious, but there was no more anger there, only a deep thoughtfulness.
"Ever since I was a little girl I felt overshadowed by my sister. I don't think it was ever done on purpose, but it was like everything I did Frances had already done. So I stopped doing things she did. But even then my mother couldn't relate to my new interests so she didn't pay a whole lot of attention."
She paused, let go of his hands and walked over to stare out at the rain.
"When I got my investigator's license I thought I'd finally have a chance for people to see me for once... to recognize the things I did." She turned away from the window and gave him an ironic smile. "Thing didn't turn out the way I planned."
"But Laura," he protested. "You're still the main energy behind this agency. I mean, I do feel I help a little, but there would be no Remington Steele without you."
"But don't you see? It's still Remington Steele and that's you. Even though most of the time it's us, the world thinks it's you.
She moved forward and silenced him with a touch of her fingers to his lips. "It's all right," she assured him. "I told you it didn't make any sense. But thank you anyway."
She slipped into her coat and settled her hat on her head, obviously ready to leave.
"I suppose this means dinner is off, eh?" He didn't hold much hope for a favorable answer. He'd felt the evening slipping through his fingers, but was willing to make a last ditch attempt.
Laura gave him an apologetic look. "I hope you don't mind. I don't think I'd be very good company tonight. I'm sorry." She kissed him lightly on the lips. "Another time?"
"You can count on it," he assured her, giving her hand a tight squeeze then releasing it.
She quickly kissed him one more time then she was gone. He stood at the door watching after her until she was through the double glass doors and out of his sight. With a sigh, he walked out of Laura's office and into the lobby, where Mildred was busy locking up for the night. He jammed his hands into his trouser pockets and regarded her activities distractedly until she became aware of his stare.
"Is anything wrong, Chief?"
"What?" He blinked, realizing she was talking to him. "Oh, Mildred. No, no. Everything's fine."
"Good. Because I saw Miss Holt leave and I thought maybe you two had a fight or something."
"No, no, Mildred," he hastened to assure her. "Miss Holt's merely a bit under the weather."
He paused to gaze out at the corridor where he'd last seen her. An inexplicable chill coursed down his spine and he frowned in puzzlement. Laura was fine. There was no reason to be worried about her. It must just be the weather.
He made a determined effort to shake off this mood and addressed his receptionist.
"Ah, Mildred. Enough of this now. It's Friday night. Time to be out of this office and on the town."
"Right, Boss." Mildred laughed as she picked up her coat and purse. She walked around her desk to stand beside him. "When you reach my age, Friday is no different than Tuesday or Wednesday. Except I can watch J.R. Ewing ruin people's lives."
"What, Mildred? No plans for this evening, no candlelight dinner, no romantic walks in the rain?"
"Hardly, Boss," Mildred laughed again.
"Well then, we'll have to remedy that situation." He took her coat and held it out for her to slip into. "Dinner's on me tonight, Mildred."
The woman's eyebrows lifted in surprise. "I'm sure you've got better things to do than keep me company, Mr. Steele."
"I can't think of one, Miss Krebbs." He held out his arm for her to take. "If you'll do me the honors."
Mildred hesitated only briefly enough to fix him with a suspicious glare. Apparently deciding he was sincere, she slipped her hand into the crook of his arm.
Steele smiled broadly and walked her out of the office, stopping to lock the glass doors. His eyes caught and held momentarily on the block lettering that spelled out Remington Steele Investigations. Once more that cold feeling of unexplained dread washed over him.
"Boss? What's wrong?" Mildred's voice sounded concerned.
"Nothing, Mildred. Nothing at all."
He took her arm again and led her toward the elevator, but he couldn't resist one more glance backward toward the office.
Curt slouched down behind the wheel of his dirty yellow Opel and watched intently as the woman from the picture emerged from the elevator and headed toward her car. He'd done his homework well. He knew this was Laura Holt, an associate of Remington Steele -- a very highly thought of associate. She wasn't a bad looking woman. It was a shame circumstances would soon make her an expendable pawn.
It was cold and damp in the underground parking facility at Century City and he saw her pull her coat around her thin body more tightly. He knew exactly where she was headed. He was a detective, after all. It hadn't been hard to match her to the white convertible Rabbit.
He waited patiently as she unlocked the VW and got in, starting it with a loud rev of the engine. After a few minutes to warm it up, she pulled the car out of the stall and headed for the exit.
He gave her a bit of a head start, then followed after her. He was confident that with the rain and the darkness on his side, he would be able to tail her unobserved. Surveillance had always been his strong suit anyway.
He allowed himself a small smile of satisfaction as he emerged from the parking complex and spotted her a little ways down the street. Now, if everything else went according to plan, the great detective Remington Steele was going to rue the day he'd ever set foot on American soil.
Laura sat curled up on her sofa, absent-mindedly stroking Nero as he lay purring in her lap. Her thoughts were full of self-recrimination over the way she'd acted at the office.
She didn't know how she could've let things get her so worked up. She felt terribly foolish and more than a bit embarrassed. It certainly wasn't his fault the world didn't extol her fame. He'd put forth a lot of effort to be the Remington Steele she wanted him to be. Part of that included wooing the cream of high society and the press that followed after them. She had to admit he did a better job of that sort of thing than she ever had. She was never quite comfortable at those social galas where he blended in so well. She wondered idly if maybe a part of what had upset her was a touch of envy at the ease with which he played his part. It was possible, and she conceded the fact that if he'd been anything less than what he was, she would've booted him out of the agency and her life long ago.
The unexpected ringing of the doorbell brought her out of her musings with a start. She wasn't expecting anyone and she wondered who might be calling on her. She smiled, thinking it was probably the persistent Mr. Steele come to make sure she was all right and possibly in need of his company. She rose quickly, dumping Nero unceremoniously onto the hardwood floor. The cat meowed once in protest, then wandered away to preserve his dignity.
Laura ignored him as she walked deliberately to the door. No sense in appearing out of breath when she greeted him. Though she couldn't quite still the habitual racing of her heart at the thought of spending an evening with him, a cool exterior was always a requirement in dealing with the sometimes over-eager Mr. Steele.
She unlocked the bolt and slid back the heavy, wooden door. As she faced her caller, the smiled froze on her face even as her heart sank a little with disappointment. She recovered enough to greet the delivery boy with a pleasant, "hello."
"I'm lookin' for Laura Holt," the tall, gangly youth announced through a wad of chewing gum. "Is that you?"
Laura nodded. "Yes, that's right."
"Sign here, please." He extended a clipboard toward her.
As she moved to sign her name, she noticed for the first time the flowers he held in his other hand. Puzzled at who they might be from, she signed for them and sent the boy on his way with a small tip.
The door was awkward to maneuver with only one free hand, but she slid it shut the best she could manage and moved over to set the flowers down on top of the piano. They were gorgeous: a mix of carnations, daisies and other she didn't know the names of, all in a brilliant variety of colors. Spying the small, florist shop card, she plucked it out and hastily read over its brief message.
You were always number one in my book. Congratulations!
Just a few words, but they suddenly chased away Laura's self-pitying mood and all the glum thoughts that had gone with it. She smiled, re-reading the card several times. Leave it to Murphy to make her see some sense in a situation. She'd been feeling sorry for herself and there wasn't any need. The people she cared about appreciated her and that was all that mattered anyway. That was, of course, what Mr. Steele had been trying to tell her in the office, but she hadn't been willing to listen to him.
She also remembered guiltily that he'd been planning a dinner to celebrate with her. She'd certainly put a damper on that. She glanced up at the clock. Seven -- still early. She could make it over to his apartment in plenty of time to try and make amends for her behavior and salvage what was left of the evening.
Resolved to do just that, she scooped up her coat and umbrella from where she'd dumped them when she came in, glad she hadn't yet changed from the dress she'd worn to work today. It wasn't the fanciest outfit, but she didn't want to waste any more time. She slipped into her coat and headed for the door.
She'd only gone a few feet when she stopped abruptly, suddenly filled with a vague feeling of disquiet. Every trained detective sense she possessed told her something wasn't right. She stood quietly a moment, listening to her own breathing and the pounding of her heart.
All at once she realized what was wrong. The door to her apartment was open -- only about a foot or so, but it was definitely wider than she'd left it. The thumping of her heart grew a fraction louder to her ears. Outside the rain still beat a relentless rhythm. There was no other sound in the loft.
Wondering if perhaps she was being a bit of a paranoid, she took a tentative step towards the door.
She never heard the intruder. She sensed his presence only an instant before she felt herself being grabbed from behind, a rag pressed roughly over her mouth and nose. Recognizing at once the sickly sweet smell of chloroform, she tried not to breathe as she struggled to free herself from the strong arms that gripped her. She couldn't hold out forever and at last had to inhale, filling her lungs with that awful odor, her head spinning even as she did so.
Her arms were leaden now and she felt an overwhelming panic as the world turned black around her and she sank into oblivion.
The black limousine cut a smooth path down the dark, wet streets. It slowed at times for the large, flooded puddles that stretched across intersections never designed to handle massive amounts of rain.
Leaning against the plush back seat, Steele stared out at the passing lights, not really seeing them. His thoughts were far away. His dinner with Mildred had been pleasant enough, though he knew she had sensed his preoccupation. Tactfully, she hadn't pressed him and had filled the evening with trivial small talk. He appreciated her efforts, but even so had been relieved when he'd finally seen her home and could have some time to himself to try and mull through his jumbled thoughts.
He berated himself for not foreseeing Laura's reaction to that damn award. He knew her feelings about the agency and her own anonymity. He should have anticipated her response.
Even though she seemed to have calmed down and was no longer angry with him, he couldn't shake that disturbing sense of impending disaster. He couldn't explain it rationally, and he wasn't quite sure he wanted to try. All he was certain of was his worry for Laura.
Impulsively he came to a decision. Whether or not Laura wanted to see him tonight, he was going to stop by -- if only to satisfy himself that she was all right. He leaned forward to tap Fred lightly on the shoulder. The chauffeur turned slightly, keeping his eyes on the road.
"Yes, Mr. Steele?"
"I think we'll take a slight detour, Fred. Swing by Miss Holt's, would you?"
Steele leaned against the seat once more, still anxious but much more pleased with himself for making his choice. It would be a simple enough matter to go up and check on her -- to see for himself that his fears were groundless. That way, at least he'd be able to sleep tonight.
The drive to the loft seemed interminably long, but at last they reached the old building and were parked out front. Steele spotted Laura's Rabbit on the street. At least she was home, though he doubted she would have gone anywhere tonight.
"I won't be very long, Fred," he told the driver as he got out of the limo. "Half an hour tops."
The rain had stopped, but the cold wind was still biting and he turned up the collar of his overcoat against the chill as he made his way across the street and into the building. He took the stairs two at a time, ignoring the fact that he'd arrive at Laura's out of breath and anxious. It wouldn't matter as long as he found her safe and sound and puzzled at his behavior.
At last he was standing in front of her door. He took one brief moment to collect himself, brushed his hair back out of his eyes, then knocked loudly on the heavy door.
There was no answer. He pounded again, louder this time. A long minute crawled by and still no one appeared. He frowned. She had to be home. She wouldn't have walked anywhere in this weather.
"Laura?" he called through the door. Silence was his only answer.
Maybe she was only in the shower, he told himself and he tried the door just for the hell of it. To his alarm it slid back noisily on its runners. It wasn't like Laura to leave it unlocked.
The panic he was feeling sounded clear in his voice now. He did a quick, frantic once-over of the apartment to confirm what he already knew. Laura wasn't here.
Calm, he told himself. Icy calm. You don't know anything has happened to her.
He stood in the middle of the room, his hand to his forehead, trying to think what to do. Suddenly struck with an idea, he moved to the telephone and quickly punched in Mildred's number.
"Come on, come on," he urged impatiently at the distant ringing, suddenly interrupted by Mildred's voice.
"Hello, Mildred. By any chance has Miss Holt called on you this evening?"
"Boss?" The older woman sounded confused. "What's going on?"
"Just tell me, Mildred," Steele begged. "Have you heard from Laura tonight?"
"No, Chief." Now Mildred's voice echoed his own concern. "Is something wrong?"
He took a deep breath, consciously trying to gain control of his voice. No sense alarming Mildred unnecessarily.
"No, no, Mildred. Nothing to worry about," he assured her, hoping he sounded more certain than he felt. "I just can't locate her is all."
"Have you tried the loft?" Mildred asked helpfully.
"I'm at the loft," he informed her evenly. "The car is here, the door is open, only no Miss Holt."
"Maybe she's in the laundry room," Mildred suggested, obviously trying to inspire confidence.
He brightened at that thought, willing to believe he was being overly concerned.
"You're probably right, Mildred. I'm sure she'll walk through the door any moment now."
"Well, call me and let me know," his receptionist ordered. "Otherwise, I won't sleep a wink all night."
"All right, Mildred. I promise I'll call. Goodnight now."
He hung up the phone an stood a moment, hands in his pockets, staring at the door -- waiting, he supposed, for Laura to walk through. When she didn't appear, he wandered over to the small Christmas tree standing in the corner next to the piano. Impulsively, he reached down and plugged in the lights, their blinking rainbow of color catching and dancing off the long strands of tinsel.
There were already a goodly amount of packages spread underneath the tree, though Christmas was still several weeks away. He stooped down and curiously inspected the tags on some of them. He found one for Frances, several for the kids. Off to one side were gifts for Murphy and Bernice. Steele smiled softly. Of course, the ever-organized Laura would have the presents she needed to mail all stacked neatly together.
He found one addressed to himself, a little apart from the rest. He reached out and brushed at the curled ribbon that spoke of the care she'd taken to wrap it. He could almost see her here, making sure every corner was neatly folded, every piece of tape smoothly fitted.
Abruptly he stood up, chasing away the much too vivid image. Something was wrong, terribly wrong. He knew that for a certainty. No matter what he would like to think, he knew Laura too well. She wouldn't go the to laundry room or to the neighbors or even out into the hallway without locking the door behind her. The only way she would have left the loft open was if she'd been forced out against her will.
He began prowling the loft again -- not in utter panic this time, but with a purpose. He was looking for something out of place, a sign of some kind to tell him what had happened. It was an unrewarding search.
There wasn't a drawer left open, a garment discarded casually, no food out on the sink -- nothing to show that Laura had ever come home tonight. But her car was parked in its place outside, belying what the apartment showed. Frustrated, he slammed a fist against the wall. There had to be something.
He must have stared at the rag on the floor for a full five minutes before his mind finally registered the fact that it was there. He blinked out of his stupor and rushed over to pick it up from beside the piano bench. He recoiled at the odor of chloroform that still emanated from it.
He felt a knot of anger tightening in his stomach, and in a burst of helpless outrage, he hurled the rag across the room. This wasn't going to help Laura, he knew. He took a deep breath, pushing his hair out of his eyes. He would have to remain in control. There would be plenty of time for exacting revenge after he found Laura. But how to go about that? He wasn't even sure where to start.
Without realizing it, he began to pace as he pondered his next move. He made a quick mental inventory of their current cases. There was nothing noteworthy, nothing to warrant anything like this, he was positive. As for past cases, he couldn't be as certain. Laura had been a detective on her own and with Murphy for several years before a flesh and blood Remington Steele had arrived on the scene. Lord knew they'd had experience with ghosts from Laura's past assignments popping up. A sudden fearful thought flashed into his mind, but a quick telephone call put to rest any worry about Descoine. He was still safely tucked away behind bars.
His fingers drummed absently on the phone. The only thing out of the ordinary recently was that damnable award, which was fast turning out to be more trouble than it was worth. He recalled the picture of Laura and himself from the newspaper and it occurred to him that perhaps this might be a simple case of kidnapping, not connected to any case at all, but rather brought about by the notoriety of the newspaper article.
He straightened up, ready to grasp at that notion rather than stumbling blindly, going nowhere. If that were truly the case, then the kidnappers would no doubt want to get in touch with him, presumably for some kind of ransom demand. The best place for him then was back at his own flat, where they could contact him.
Hoping he hadn't wasted precious time, he raced out of the loft, taking time only to put the padlock in place. He wanted to be sure Laura returned to her apartment as she'd left it. He then flew down the stairs faster than he'd ever done so, his feet hardly touching the steps.
The cold wind blasted at him as he slammed out of the building, feeling a sudden pang of guilt at the sight of Fred coming around to open the door for him. He'd left the man out here in the cold for an awfully long time. He beat Fred to the door and waved him back inside the car.
"Sorry for taking so long," he apologized hastily as he climbed in and shut the door. "Back to my place, Fred, as fast as you can. Miss Holt's life may depend on it."
The limo sped across town at a fast clip as Fred skillfully steered around or determinedly plowed through the flooded streets. Inside, Steele sat forward, shoulders tensed, wishing they were going ten times as fast, impatient at the slightest delay. He bit back any criticism, however. He knew Fred was an excellent driver and was doing the best he could. It was only Steele's own frustration making the trip drag on so.
At last they pulled up into the circular driveway of the exclusive apartment building. Steele was out the door before Fred was completely stopped. All semblance of dignity forgotten, he raced into the building. He fretted at the wait for the elevator, then dashed down the hall to his door.
He tried the knob once, just to be certain, and found it locked. He fumbled with his keys a moment, then finally got the door open and ducked inside. It was only then that he stopped to catch his breath, leaning against the door, willing his heart to slow down. He had to stay calm. He wasn't going to help Laura by running about madly.
As he stood there, breathing heavily, his gaze fell upon the fireplace mantle and he frowned. Something was out of place. He pushed himself away from the door and strode over to the far side of the room. The small, manila envelope lay propped up on the mantle, Remington Steele scrawled across it. He felt that same familiar chill run down his spine at the thought of someone being in here while he was out -- that someone who in all probability had Laura.
He stared at the package. Suddenly apprehensive, he moved through his apartment, satisfying himself that whomever had visited earlier was no longer around. It was only then that he returned to the fireplace and gingerly opened the envelope. He spilled out the single cassette tape into his hand.
Without stopping to think, he slipped it into the machine, pressed play and waited. He listened intently for the ransom terms. Suddenly the air was filled with music. Taken aback at the unexpectedness of it, it took him a moment to place the song.
You walked in to the party,
Like you were walking onto a yacht.
Your hat strategically dipped below one eye,
Your scarf it was apricot.
He scowled as it played on. He recognized it now and he knew what was coming.
You're so vain,
You prob'ly think this song is about you.
You're so vain...
His scowl deepened. What in God's name was he supposed to make of this? He'd been prepared for any kind of outrageous demands for money or at the very least an explanation. Instead, all he got was Carly Simon lambasting some poor, conceited schlep who thought he was the ultimate... He paused in his musings. Could that be it? Was this a jab at him for having won the award?
The song was ending and Steele waited as it faded, wondering what else was in store. As the last strains were muted out, he bent closer, not wanting to miss anything. Abruptly a crazed laugh erupted from the speaker, followed by a voice proclaimed wildly, "Wipe Out!"
Steele jerked back, his ears ringing, convinced that Laura was in the hands of an absolute lunatic. Then the music stopped and there was finally a voice -- cool and calm and addressing him.
What did you think of that, Mr. Detective of the Year? In case you haven't figured it out yet, I've got your little lady friend. She's even prettier up close than in the newspaper. Does she think you're the greatest detective around? I'd hate to burst any or her romantic bubbles. So maybe you better prove to her how good you are. Maybe you should prove to the world that you deserve the award they gave you. You're certainly going to have to prove it to me.
We're going to play a little game, you and me. The lady here is the prize. And to give you a little extra incentive, we'll put a time limit on it. I'll be generous and give you all weekend. But the game's over at twelve-o-one Monday morning. It's all very simple. You find her before time runs out and you win... you keep the lady. If you don't find her... then you lose and she dies. So, if you're ready for you first clue, listen to this.
Steele's heart filled with dismay as once more music filled the air. He tried to place the vaguely familiar tune -- men's voices, three or four of them, but he couldn't recall the group's name. This particular song he knew he'd never heard before and he listened to it play. As it drifted off, replaced by only silence, he knew there would be nothing else on this tape.
He sank onto the sofa, struck by the ultimate irony of the whole situation. Detective of the Year indeed. What a farce. Certainly he'd played the game and enjoyed it. But that's all it had ever been. Laura had been right to be angry with him. He didn't deserve the award. She did -- with all her diligence and hard work. Now he was being asked to prove that he was worthy of the fame that should have been Laura's all along and her life was hanging in the balance. The wrong person had been kidnapped. He had no doubt whatsoever that, had the tables been turned, Laura would have found him in no time. Instead, he had to find her and he had no idea in hell where to even start looking.
He sat dumbly for a moment then his eyes fell on his watch. He noted the time with great alarm. Nine o'clock! Time was ticking away while he sat here doing nothing.
With sudden determination, he hunted down a note pad and pen, then rewound the tape. He began writing down the lyrics as they poured out of the speaker, going back many times to pick up phrases he hadn't quite caught. When he was done, he read the words over and over, trying to make some sense of them.
There's a place where I can go and
Tell my secrets to,
In my room, in my room.
Rather an inane song, he thought to himself. What can it possibly have to do with Laura?
Do my dreaming and my scheming,
Lie awake and pray.
Do my crying and my sighing,
Laugh at yesterday.
He read on and sighed heavily, running his hand through his hair. What "clue" was he supposed to glean from this? The first, rather obvious answer would be that Laura was being held in a room somewhere. That was too easy. Of course she would be in a room. He frowned at the hastily scribbled words. The song wasn't talking about any room, it was talking about a specific room -- the singer's room. Perhaps he was supposed to find the kidnapper's own special room.
He sighed again in exasperation. Where in the hell was that room and how was he going to find it? Who was this mystery man who held such a grudge over something so trifling?
He shook his head. He was going to have to stop denigrating that award. He remembered too well how strongly Laura had felt about it. He supposed there might be others who felt they deserved it more than he did. God knew, every detective out there deserved it more than he did. If this was truly the case, that the man was insanely jealous about Remington Steele taking an undeserved prize, then the perpetrator of this scheme was in all probability a fellow investigator -- a colleague, as it were. He got up and rummaged around for the telephone directory. It would take a long time, but at least it was a place to start.
Consciousness returned to Laura slowly. It brought with it first, nausea from the chloroform, then, more urgently, a sense of panic as she realized her hands were tied behind her. She was gagged as well, her mouth dry and sore from working against the cloth.
As she became more aware of her surroundings, she lifted her head, trying to ignore the painful throbbing. She needed to assess her situation. Wherever her abductor had brought her, it was dark. A small, bare bulb was the only source of light. She could see no windows or doors, only dull gray, metal walls -- and pipes. There were pipes everywhere. She realized she must be secured to one where she sat on the cold floor.
She tugged against her bonds. She hadn't really expected to free herself; she merely had to satisfy her own curiosity and be done with it. They held her tightly, the twine cutting roughly into her wrists. She registered the discomfort, but put it aside to deal with later. What she really wished was that the awful pounding in her head would stop.
She blinked, fully alert, as she realized it wasn't only her head. A high-pitched, rushing noise from all around filled her ears and added to the ache she was feeling. She glanced around, bewildered at where she might have ended up.
She strained against the ropes again, fear adding strength to her effort, but still they held. Stay calm, she ordered herself. Think this thing through. You're still alive, so obviously he's not out to kill you... at least not right away. That's something in your favor. Come on, Laura... think what to do.
The number one thing she needed was to have this gag out of her mouth. Her tongue already felt twice its normal size and her throat was parched. She worked at the fabric for several minutes, trying to get it between her teeth. She finally gave up. It was useless and all she'd gotten for her effort was a sore jaw.
Tired and discouraged, she leaned her head back against the hard metal of the pipe. Her eyelids closed wearily, then opened again as she stared up at the high, stark ceiling. Her mind was far away, wondering how different the night might have turned out if she hadn't acted like such a child. She would have been with him, enjoying the night and his company. A vivid picture floated into her mind -- the table set for two, romantic candlelight reflected in his blue eyes shining across from her, that crooked smile as he leaned forward to salute her in a toast.
She squeezed her eyes shut tightly, hoping to chase away such taunting visions. It wasn't going to do any good to sit around dreaming about what might have happened. She would have to keep her senses fully in control if she was to think of a way out of her predicament.
Come on, Laura, think, she chided herself. There's got to be something you can do.
She worked at her bonds once more, determined to free herself, but a distant clanking froze her hands. Her heart thumped loudly enough that she wondered what kept the sound from echoing.
She listened, her whole body tense, as the sound grew near enough to be discernible as footsteps. Closer and closer they came, until at last Laura could see the man they belonged to, obviously the person who'd abducted her. He was carrying something that looked electronic and he wasn't really paying much attention to her one way or another. It was almost as if she wasn't even there.
He stopped opposite her and began working over the gear he'd set down on the floor. She studied him as he did so, trying to size up her opposition the best she could in this dim lighting.
He looked fortyish, though it was difficult to be certain. His hair was a generic shade of brown. His height and build were medium -- nothing great, but not bad either. There was nothing to distinguish him as crazed or maniacal -- or criminal even. She could have passed him on the street every day and never noticed him. He didn't appear flustered; his manner was calm and methodical as he tinkered with whatever project he was fussing over.
Laura frowned a bit as her attention moved from the man to his handiwork. What exactly was he putting together? Then her eyes widened with horrified recognition of the copper wiring, electric coils and timing device. Involuntarily she drew in a gasping breath.
He turned at that, acknowledging her presence for the first time.
"I see you've noticed my little firecracker here," he observed conversationally, as if he were discussing the price of gas or the evening forecast. "Well, you don't have to worry about this. Not if the great Remington Steele is as good as everybody thinks he is."
He turned back to fidget with the device as he continued his one-sided conversation. Laura could only watch in mute terror as gradually the bomb took shape.
"Of course now," the man went on, "my theory is that he's just a smooth-talking bull artist. What do you think, Miss Holt? Does he have you conned? Do you think he's Sherlock Holmes incarnate? For your sake I hope he doesn't disappoint you. All he has to do is follow my clues and he'll find you in plenty of time. So let's hope he proves me wrong, huh? I'd sure hate to think of your pretty little face blown all to bits."
He interrupted his soliloquy with a small chuckle. Then he caught Laura's horrified stare. His face grew dark and foreboding. He leaned over her menacingly.
"That award should have gone to me. What is he besides a ritzy office, expensive clothes and fancy cars? He's not a detective. I'm the one who did all the work, took all the flak. I'm the one who paid all the dues. But he's the one with the face and the money so he gets all the fame as well. So maybe he is a detective under all that hype. He's gonna have to prove it to me... and to you, sister."
He whirled back to the explosive, set the timer and then stood up, ready to take his leave.
"You've got 'til midnight on Sunday, lady. If he doesn't find you, I win... everything." With that, he turned and disappeared down the corridor.
It was all Laura could do to keep from screaming after him not to leave her like this. She knew it wouldn't have done any good, even if he could have heard her through the gag. He cared for nothing except his chance to prove he was better than Remington Steele.
She tried to look everywhere but at the bomb -- so carefully left in her line of sight. She didn't know what scared her the most, the fact that she might die or that she'd heard her own last words to Mr. Steele echoed by this lunatic. Had she sounded like that? So wrapped up in self-pity and wounded pride? Were her own words tonight the last he would ever hear from her? The realization that they very well might be came rushing full force and welled up in bitter tears that couldn't be suppressed. Drawing her knees up, she leaned her forehead against them and let the tears come, giving in for the moment to all the anger, regret and fear of the day.
Mildred Krebbs was very worried. On her scale of bizarre days since coming to work for Remington Steele Investigations, today would have to rank right up there in the top ten. First, Mr. Steele and Miss Holt hardly say "boo" to each other all day. Then she gets wined and dined on a Friday night when he'd obviously had other things planned. Then that first, frantic call from the boss looking for Miss Holt. Now, at nearly midnight, he calls again, asking her to come into the office. No explanations, no nothing. Just a "please come, Mildred," and an abrupt hang up.
She shook her head and wondered at her own compliance to the strange request. Mildred left the elevator and took the familiar walk down the hall towards their suite of offices. Funny how ordinary things looked different when viewed in extraordinary circumstances. It didn't seem like the same, everyday work place at 11:30 p.m.
She reached the suite, saw the light was on in the lobby and pushed her way inside, only to stand staring at the shambles that used to be her desk. Telephone books were strewn everywhere, some even spilled onto the floor. Her computer reference manual was lying open in front of Miss Holt's office door, as if flung there from the desk. Confused, she turned toward the half-open door to the main office. By the sound of the music that poured out of it, that's where she assumed she would find Mr. Steele.
The room was dark, so she stood in the doorway, letting what light spilled in from the lobby help her to search for her boss' whereabouts.
"You in here, Chief?" she called a little loudly, to be heard over the music. It was the Beach Boys by the sound of it. She'd recognize them anywhere. How many times had Bernard inflicted them on her? It was a little odd though for the sophisticated Mr. Steele to be listening to California surfing songs.
"Ah, Mildred," came a voice from the darkness, and she heard a stirring from the sofa.
He must have been stretched out there as he listened. She could see him now as he got up and headed in her direction.
"So good of you to come like this," he went on as he gestured her ahead of him into the lobby.
"What happened here, Boss?" she asked, pointing to her usually well-organized work station.
"What? Oh, the desk. Yes, well, you see... I'm working on a little project here... special case... top priority." He moved over as he talked and began haphazardly collecting the books and papers, trying to straighten up a bit. "I hated to bother you, Mildred. But I couldn't get the damn thing to cooperate." He gestured at the computer with an armful of manuals.
"You mean you actually tried to use all this?" Mildred was incredulous.
Steele smiled sheepishly, then moved over to scoop up the book from the floor where he'd obviously hurled it in his frustration.
"I think the operative word here is try, Mildred. I mean, I've used the bloody thing before. But for some reason, tonight it just isn't making any sense. I'm sorry for dragging you down here like this, but it is rather important."
Mildred studied him suspiciously. He looked terrible. His clothes were wrinkled, his tie hung loosely around his neck. His hair was disheveled and falling over his eyes -- eyes that for all his blarney held a touch of fear in them.
"Does this have anything to do with Miss Holt?" she asked.
Steele assumed an innocent air. "Miss Holt? What makes you think that?"
"Only a panicked phone call I got a few hours ago because you couldn't find her."
"That?" He gave her a nervous laugh. "False alarm. Sorry if I worried you. Laura's gone off for the weekend. Visiting her mother, I believe she said."
"Her mother?" Now Mildred knew he was lying to her. Besides the fact that it wasn't like Miss Holt to run off for the weekend without telling anyone, the last person Laura would ever be tempted to pick up and drop in on would be her mother. On top of that, Mildred recognized the quality of the boss' voice as the one he saved to use when trying to pull a fast one. No, he wasn't fooling her at all. Something was going on here.
The best course of action for the moment, Mildred decided, would be to go along and see if she could wheedle some information out of him as they went. She shuffled to the desk and sat down at the computer as Steele hastily cleared a place for her to work.
"Okay, Boss. What is it you need that couldn't wait 'til Monday or at least until the morning?"
"I need a directory of all the licensed private investigators in California," he informed her matter-of-factly.
"What?" Mildred glared at him, then glanced around at all the telephone books. "Who are you looking for?" she finally asked.
"I don't know yet," Steele replied very seriously. "But believe me, Mildred, I wouldn't have bothered you unless it was terribly important."
Mildred met his gaze, saw the desperation in his eyes, and for the first time felt her bemusement turn to something closer to fear. Silently she accessed the terminal, its soft hum and the clatter of the keyboard the only sounds in the room.
Curt stood alone in the empty patio of the ABC Entertainment Center, arms wrapped around himself against the cold wind. The renewed rainfall whipped against his face, but he hardly registered the discomfort. His gaze was riveted upwards at the twin towers that dominated Century City. The exclusive office buildings were sparsely lit, only a few safety lights burned here and there on each floor.
He wondered idly what it would have been like to work out of a place like that. He'd never been able to rise above his shabby little dive in Van Nuys. Not that he'd disliked his digs. They's always seemed so appropriate for a detective -- so Sam Spadish. Still, it would have been nice to have the kind of money it took to rent one of these babies.
It didn't matter now, he reminded himself. Only one thing was of any importance at the moment. He smiled when he counted floors and found the light from suite 1157 burning brightly. So Steele was hard at work, trying to divine the message in that stupid song.
He laughed softly to himself. It was all so simple. That poor Limey was probably beating his brains out trying to find something complex and important. Well, he'd let him stew for a while longer, then give him the second tape. It wasn't any fun unless fuel was added to the fire. He laughed again. He only wished he could be a fly on the wall so he could witness the mental havoc he was responsible for.
Steele paced restlessly in front of the reception desk, not sure what to do next. He had the information he'd requested from Mildred and her trusty computer. But what to do with it was another matter entirely. The list of investigators was despairingly long and covered the entire state. It just wasn't feasible to think he could track down all of them. He wouldn't be able to do it in two months, let alone two days.
He sighed. He was alone again. After much protesting on Mildred's part, he'd persuaded her to go home. Now he was back to square one. The only clue was still that damn song and he'd listened to it so many times he could sing it by heart. He sincerely doubted he would ever be able to rid his mind of the tune.
He glanced down at his watch. Two a.m. Time was fast ticking away and there didn't seem to be a thing he could do to stop it. He'd never felt so useless -- so utterly helpless. He tried not to think of Laura and the fact that he was letting her down, but her face kept flashing through his mind -- that wonderful, beautiful face. What he wouldn't give to have that face here before him now.
He moved into his office, not bothering with the lights. He made his way over to the windows and stood gazing out at the city. The rain had started up again and it looked dismal and cold, calling forth distant memories of many nights he'd spent out in weather like this and much worse. He'd certainly come a long way since those early years, but he would gladly fade back into the bitter, cold streets if it meant Laura could be here, safe and warm and unconcerned with the whims of a troublesome conman who'd brought nothing but turmoil into her life.
He could well remember how many times she had reminded him in their early days that he wasn't really a detective. A lot of time and cases had passed since then -- cases he honestly felt he'd contributed to. Laura assured him he had, but it appeared that perhaps she was going to be proven right after all.
He lowered his head and turned from the glass and such disturbing thoughts. Nothing could change what had happened. True detective or not, Laura's life was in his hands now. He was going to have to think this one through on his own. There would be no helping hand to jump in with the solution.
Finding the portable tape player on his desk, he angrily jabbed at the play button. He stood listening one more time to the infuriating song that was his life line to Laura. The words filled his ears, their tone almost mocking now.
Now it's dark and I'm alone,
But I won't be afraid
Was Laura alone in the dark someplace, waiting for him to save her? Was the song a clue to Laura's whereabouts or merely a lead to the next clue? He pressed his hands to his forehead in frustration. He couldn't think. But he had to do something. Even if it was in the wrong direction, he had to feel he was trying -- not letting time slip away while he sat here feeling sorry for himself.
He glanced at the printout in his hand. It was a formidable task, but no better time to check out offices than in the middle of the night. He would no doubt be setting the world's record for the most breaking and entering accomplished in one evening.
Mildred stood inside Laura's loft apartment, taking in the emptiness. Nothing was missing. Everything seemed in place, but there was a definite sense of loneliness -- a presence was gone. That presence was Miss Holt and Mildred knew it wasn't because she was off visiting her mother, or anyone else for that matter.
No. Something had happened to her, something that was eating at the boss in a way she'd never seen. She hadn't missed his nervous pacing while he waited for her to call up the information he needed. Neither could he hide the despair on his face as the list printed out -- an endless stream of names and addresses.
It had wrenched her heart to see him like that, but try as she would, she couldn't get him to fill her in and let her help. He'd kept up that blustering facade, that false cheeriness, and had insisted she go on home and get some sleep.
Well, she'd left, since he wasn't going to give in, but she certainly wasn't about to go home and sit around. The Boss needed help. She wasn't sure how she was going to accomplish it, but she was certainly going to try and give him some. Since the main problem seemed to be the whereabouts of Miss Holt, Mildred had driven to the loft to scope the place out a bit. Just maybe, in his worry, the Chief had overlooked something.
She'd gone through the apartment with a fine-toothed comb, every nook and cranny. She'd only found one thing unusual -- a smelly rag by the piano that she couldn't figure out. It was discouraging, but she wasn't about to quit.
She sat down wearily on the piano bench and plinked experimentally at the keys. She winced at the sudden break in the stillness of the loft. With a sigh, she leaned her folded arms on top of the piano and rested her chin on them. Her eyes focused on the large flower arrangement near enough to her nose that she could pick out the scent of the carnations.
It was certainly a pretty mix of color. She leaned closer and breathed in deeply. Fresh too, by the fragrance. She wondered if they were from Mr. Steele, though roses were more his style, rather than this casual bunch of bright garden flowers.
Curious, she reached for the card. She hesitated briefly at the breech of privacy, then shrugged protocol aside. It could be important to the case. Taking the small card out of its envelope, she read the brief message.
There could only be one Murphy in Miss Holt's life. The flowers had to be from Murphy Michaels, private investigator and ex-employee of the agency. Mildred heard his name often enough in conversation, especially when she'd first come to work. She'd never met the man, but she'd seen his name plenty in the files and knew he'd done good work. She also knew Miss Holt kept in touch with him and he obviously kept up with Laura, if these flowers were any indication. Mildred wondered if he and the Boss were on as good of terms. If they were, it just might be a way to get Mr. Steele the help he needed.
Impulsively, before she could talk herself out of it, she slid off the bench and moved over to the telephone. She rummaged around for an address book, found it and flipped through the pages until she found an entry for Murphy Michaels in Denver, Colorado.
She reached for the phone, then paused. Denver was awfully far away. Maybe she was overreacting. Or maybe she should just call the local police.
She vetoed that idea right away. Probably the last people the Boss would want to have to deal with would be the police. No, this Michaels person was her best bet. A friend, or at least an acquaintance, and an investigator as well. He was bound to be able to offer some assistance. Besides, if he didn't want to come down and help, she wasn't any worse off than she was now. She picked up the phone again, determined to find out just how good a friend this guy was.
She punched in the numbers then waited. Her foot tapped impatiently as the phone rang distantly -- four, five, six times.
"Come on. Be home," she urged into the receiver.
Then she heard a click as someone picked up the receiver, followed by a crash as it was obviously dropped. After a moment a very groggy masculine voice came on the line.
Guiltily Mildred realized how late it really was and that it would be even later in Colorado.
"Is this Murphy Michaels?" she asked a bit timidly, hoping she'd dialed the right number.
"Yeah, this is Michaels." The voice cleared his throat and then sounded a bit more awake. "Who's this?"
Mildred gulped and took the plunge. "Mildred Krebbs. You don't know me. I work for Remington Steele."
There was silence on the other end and Mildred could well imagine the man trying to pull himself together and make some sense of her call.
"Right," he finally answered. "Laura's mentioned you." There was another pause and when he spoke again, his voice sounded alarmed. "Is something wrong? Is Laura all..."
"Just listen, okay?" Mildred interrupted, not wanting to cause the man any undue panic. "I didn't know who else to call. I think we've got trouble down here. I don't know where Miss Holt is and the Boss is acting kinda flippo, if you know what I mean. I think he's really worried about her and needs some help. But you know how he is about asking."
There was a short laugh on the other end. "Yeah, I know how he is."
Mildred bristled. "This isn't funny, bub. I only thought..."
"Okay, okay. Sorry." The voice sounded sincerely apologetic. "Some habits die hard."
That was certainly cryptic, but Mildred chose not to delve into past history.
"Tell you what," the voice went on. "I'll see about getting a flight down. Where are you now?"
"At the loft."
"Miss Holt's apartment," Mildred explained.
"Right. Hang tight for a few minutes. I'll get back to you with my flight information."
"I won't budge," Mildred promised. "And Mr. Michaels?"
"Could you hurry it up?"
There was only one more brief pause before the voice came on again, this time deadly serious. "As fast as I can," he assured her.
The line went dead in Mildred's hand. She stared at it for a moment, then replaced it carefully. She'd certainly set things in motion now. The Chief would probably get sore at her for interfering, but she didn't regret calling for help. She only hoped this Murphy would be able to tilt the odds back in their favor.
Laura jerked awake with a start and instantly regretted the small amount of sleep she'd gotten. Her neck ached with every movement; her hands had gone numb some time while she slept and her arms and shoulders felt ready to break off.
She leaned her head back, trying to stretch out the kinks, and her eyes immediately caught sight of the metal case that housed the bomb. She was suddenly filled with anger. All night long she's nursed sorrow, fear and self-pity. Now the only thing she felt was a burning rage, kindled against that one individual responsible for all of this.
How dare he inflict this torment to satisfy his own needs for fame. What right did he have to put her through the kind of night she'd just spent -- not to mention what Mr. Steele was probably going through. God, she didn't want to even think about what kind of frantic search was being conducted this very minute, or what guilt he might take upon himself if he couldn't find her. She was too practical minded not to consider that possibility and the ramifications filled her soul with dread.
What would he do if he did lose her? Laura wondered if she was being morbid by even thinking about it, but she couldn't help herself. She didn't think it was conceited of her to feel it had been her influence that had lured him away from the shady side of his existence. Bereft of her companionship, would he slip back into those old ways? They weren't gone from his life, she knew -- only suppressed, tucked away as no longer necessary or desirable. Would they resurface to entice him away from the life she'd given him -- a life that would only remind him of her?
She didn't plan on dying to find out. She wasn't going to let anything happen to test her theories. She was going to get out of here. She overlooked the "if it's the last thing I do," that followed automatically after.
She wiggled her fingers experimentally and found them tingling, but still there. She tested the extent of movement they were capable of and found triumphantly that, with a little effort, she could worry the twine against a rough weld in the pipe. Without another thought, she set to work, ignoring the pain in her shoulder blades the motion caused and the blood from where the twine bit into her wrists. None of that mattered now. It was going to be all right. They were going to be all right. She was going to get out of here.
Murphy stifled a yawn as he hurried down the ramp that led from the plane to the Western terminal at LAX. He hadn't gotten any more sleep since the phone had awakened him and he'd been too wound up to catch any shut-eye on the early bird flight in from Denver. He hadn't been able to drag any real details out of Mildred -- only an insistent, "Get your rear down here as fast as you can."
He smiled. Laura had once described her new receptionist as a mixture of Ann Landers and Calamity Jane. From the little Murphy had talked to her, she seemed to fit the bill.
There were few people here this early in the morning, and when he caught sight of the short, stocky older woman hovering nervously near the check-in counter, he knew it had to be Mildred Krebbs. He made his way towards her, determined to get some answers to all the million questions that had plagued him the last several hours.
She must have picked him out, for Murphy saw her straighten up as he drew near. Her face looked tired and drawn and Murphy realized she'd probably gotten less sleep than he had.
"Murphy," he corrected with a smile.
"Okay, Murphy it is. You got any luggage?"
Murphy held up his single carry-all. "I know this airport too well. I figured we didn't have two hours to kill."
She smiled at that, and Murphy decided he was probably going to like this lady.
"Let's move it then. Fred's down in the limo."
She took off at a fast clip and Murphy quickly followed after her. She was hard to keep up with, even with his long strides. After a few minutes of this hurried pace, Murphy at last broke the silence.
"You wanna tell me what's going on?" he demanded, a bit breathless. This pace was hard on his bad leg, even after nearly two years of rehab.
"In the car," the woman promised tersely.
Murphy sighed and bit back a retort. His worry for Laura was making him edgy and he didn't want to put any enmity between Mildred and himself, in spite of the fact that he was dying for some kind of explanation.
At last they stepped through the double glass doors. Murphy stood a minute, letting his nose take in the smell of wet pavement, diesel fumes and carbon monoxide -- all the nostalgic odors that meant LAX, and home.
"There's Fred," Mildred pointed out and moved to the curb.
Murphy caught sight of the sleek, black limousine with the familiar license plates, and felt a tug of homesickness. Then he saw Fred step around the car to open the door for Mildred. He was grinning from ear to ear at his old employer. Murphy broke into a wide smile of his own as he walked up to clasp the chauffeur's hand affectionately.
"How ya doin', Fred?"
"Fine, sir. It's good to see you again, Mr. Michaels."
"Come on, you two," Mildred urged from inside the limo.
Murphy gave Fred a friendly slap on the shoulder, then climbed into the car. Soon they were speeding down Century Boulevard, on their way to the freeway. Murphy gazed out the tinted windows for a moment, taking in all the old sights, then he turned and faced Mildred resolutely.
"Okay, we're in the car. What the hell's going on around here?"
Smiling with self-satisfaction, Curt stood alone in the plush apartment and resisted the urge to laugh out loud at the smooth way his plan was unfolding. He'd followed Steele when he'd finally left the office at Century City. The man had come home merely to change clothes, then left again. He'd been hard to spot -- a dark, lean figure in black, obviously dressed for some professional calls. Curt watched him as he left in the big, white Auburn. He knew Steele must be out pursuing some track he thought would lead him to his precious lady.
` Curt's smile widened as he pulled another manila envelope out of his jacket pocket. If Steele thought he'd figured out the first tape, just wait 'til he heard this one. Curt wished again there was a way he could witness the reactions to his clues.
He placed the package on the mantle, then moved around the apartment, amazed at how much money this place had to cost. It was probably more a month than he made in a year. He shook his head, his resolve renewed by the injustice of it all.
He wandered over to the front window and felt a momentary flash of panic. The sun was coming up. Glancing down at his watch, he cursed silently. Lost in his daydreaming, he'd spent a great deal of time here -- too much time. He hadn't meant to, but he'd been caught up in the atmosphere, wondering what it must be like to be Remington Steele. Hours had slipped away unnoticed while he sat in Steele's furniture, tried on Steele's clothes, drank Steele's bourbon. It had been an exhilarating fantasy, but now he had to get out of here fast before Steele came back or anyone else showed up. With one last glance at the envelope on the mantle, he slipped out the door and down the hall to the elevator. He'd have to be more careful, he chided himself. He couldn't afford any slip-ups.
Steele opened the door to his apartment more out of habit than because he'd actually seen the lock and purposefully inserted the key. A heavy fog enshrouded him and he couldn't dredge up the energy to pull himself out of it. He'd returned home without giving much thought to the matter -- trance-like, his feet taking him on their own initiative.
His night's work had proven fruitless, except for qualifying him as an expert in different styles of office decor. He'd lost count of how many establishments he'd actually checked out, but none of them had revealed any great mysteries -- no clues to Laura's whereabouts. Of course, something deep inside had told him it would be useless, but damn it, he'd had to try.
Failure was something that came very hard to him. In his entire life all his endeavors, occupations, undertakings and the like had always succeeded to some extent. Even if a job hadn't panned out right, getting out clean was success in itself. It was with great bitterness that he faced the bleak morning, tired and discouraged, at a loss as to where to turn.
He dropped his jacket and bag of equipment onto the coffee table, sinking wearily onto the sofa. He rested his head in his hands and closed his eyes. Immediately Laura's face appeared -- quiet and stern -- demanding an accounting.
"I tried, Laura," he told the vision. "God, I tried. I just don't know what else to do."
The face smiled then -- a small, forgiving look that lifted his heart. Laura had forgiven him so many things over the years. Of course she wouldn't hold this against him. She understood. He found he was smiling himself as he studied her image -- those lovely brown eyes that knew his so well, the soft hair that framed her delicate face, even the freckles she hated but he found so perfect and appealing.
He wasn't aware of the exact moment the vision blended and merged with his subconscious, becoming a dream as his weary body succumbed to its own demands. He only knew that she stepped up beside him and he rose to meet her, to take her into his arms and to hold onto her for dear life.
Murphy walked down the familiar hallway to Steele's apartment, feeling like he'd done this only yesterday. The one thing that changed was the woman walking beside him. It should have been Laura. It had always been Laura there next to him. Even after he'd realized she would never feel for him the way he did for her, it had still been Laura working at his side until he'd decided he would have to break away -- for his own good, as well as theirs. Three was never a good number, especially for the odd man out.
So he'd left, with no regrets, except perhaps, for that part of himself he'd left behind -- the piece of his heart that would always belong to Laura. He hoped to God that whatever had happened to her, he and Steele would be able to handle things. That was assuming, of course, that Steele would confide in him and let him help. But he knew a few good means of persuasion and he was too concerned for Laura to be very patient.
They reached the door and Murphy regarded Mildred quizzically as she took a key and carefully opened the door without knocking.
"I don't want to wake him up if he's asleep," she whispered in explanation. "He's had a hard time."
They entered quietly, Mildred going first. Murphy paused to silently shut the door. When he turned he found the apartment looking much the same as the last time he'd seen it and he reconciled himself to a few days of deja vu.
He glanced around for Mildred and spotted her coming out of the bedroom carrying a large quilt. It was only when she stopped at the couch and unfolded the comforter that Murphy noticed Steele sprawled face down, obviously asleep where he'd hit the sofa. He was dressed for night work and Murphy wondered what he'd been up to left to his own devices.
While Mildred went about covering her boss against the early morning chill, Murphy began quietly poking into the leather bag on the coffee table. He found all the required equipment for an easy job of breaking and entering, a portable cassette player and a sheaf of papers all dog-eared and marked up with a felt pen. It was a computer printout of names and addresses. He frowned in puzzlement, straining his eyes to read the list in the dim light.
He glanced at Steele, tucked in by Mildred and sleeping soundly. Funny, Murphy thought, but three years ago he would have given even money that this classy con man who'd shoved his presence upon them all would never have stuck around once the novelty had worn off. He thought of Laura and how hard she'd fallen for this man and Murphy was glad Steele had beaten the odds and proven him wrong.
He felt Mildred's hand on his shoulder and turned to find her beckoning him away. He picked up the bag of curious items and followed after her into the bedroom. She shut the door quietly behind them.
"Okay, we can talk a little easier in here," she whispered.
Murphy dumped the contents of the bag onto the bed and sat down next to them. "This is what he had with him," he observed, whispering as well. "These are pretty obvious." He pointed to the window jimmy. "And this..." he held up the printout. "I guess these are the places he hit."
Mildred settled on the bed beside Murphy and took the list from him. "This is what he had me run off tonight... uh, last night... whenever. Look at this. At least twenty marked off. No wonder he's tired. I told you he was looking for another P.I."
"Sure seems that way," Murphy agreed. "But if he keeps going this way, it'll take months to hit everybody on the list."
"Maybe that's why he was so upset about it," Mildred suggested.
Murphy picked up the tape recorder and studied it. "Hmmm... I don't think he needed music to break in to. Let's see what we've got." He hit the rewind button, adjusted the volume so it wouldn't blare into the living room, then pressed play. When the music of Carly Simon came on, Murphy blinked in surprise.
"Maybe he does need music," Mildred offered.
Murphy merely frowned at the recorder as the song played out. He would listen to the whole tape, even if it was just music. He was positive it was important to whatever was going on around here. Steele wouldn't have had it without a good reason.
Now it's dark and I'm alone, but
I won't be afraid
In my room...
Steele stirred in his sleep. That bloody song was pervading his dreams now. There didn't seem to be any place he could escape its mystery.
Abruptly he sat up on the couch, realizing now that he'd allowed himself to nod off. Alarmed, he glanced at his watch. How much of Laura's time had he wasted? 7:30. He couldn't remember what time he'd staggered in. He made a silent vow not to let it happen again.
He threw off the comforter and swung his legs to the floor. He rubbed the heels of his hands at his tired eyes, then froze. His fingers ran over the blanket curiously. He didn't remember getting it out, especially since he hadn't planned on sleeping. Strange -- maybe he'd taken up sleepwalking.
He reached out toward the coffee table. It was empty -- but it shouldn't have been. It should have been cluttered with his paraphernalia from last night. He knew he'd dumped it there when he came in. It didn't make any sense unless...
His ears had picked up the strains of music coming from behind his closed bedroom door. Someone was in there, and judging from the tucking in he'd received, he didn't have to try too hard to guess who it probably was. He smiled at her determination to try and help.
He got up slowly and shuffled over, meaning to reprove Mildred for butting in, no matter how well-intentioned she'd been. Without giving her any advance warning, he pushed open the door and walked in.
"I was under the assumption this was my apart..." He stopped in mid-sentence, caught completely off guard by the person who glanced up to greet him.
He must have stared at Murphy in open-mouthed silence for a full minute before he composed himself enough to step forward, his smile once more in place for the charade, even though he knew how badly he'd stumbled. He extended his hand in greeting, trying to keep playing the game.
"Murphy, so good to see you, old chap," he prattled. The odds that his former associate was here by coincidence were extremely low, but Steele was determined to keep up the front, just in case. "What on earth brings you down from the rocky climes of Colorado?"
Murphy had risen to take his hand, his face serious. He wasn't buying any of it, Steele knew too well. How often had he confronted that same expression on Murphy's face when trying to bluff his way out of one corner or another?
But that had been years ago -- when they each had felt threatened by the other, each trying to prove himself the better man. They'd come past that and so, when Murphy returned the handshake, Steele read more there than just the challenge of his story. Murphy still saw through him, but there was an understanding of his reasons now. Steele felt the warmth of friendship seep through his weary soul. His expression changed from that wide, false grin to a quieter, sincere smile at meeting his old friend, especially now when everything else was wrong and out of kilter.
Murphy's sober face broke into an affectionate smile of his own, but the moment of re-acquaintance was brief. There was no time for long reunions. Always one for coming straight to the point, Murphy let go of Steele's hand and turned to gesture at the contents of the bag.
"It looks like you could use a little help," he observed.
Steele straightened indignantly. This was his fight, his game. It was up to him to work this one out and save Laura. The gauntlet had been thrown at his feet. He wasn't about to let Murphy pick it up for him. He'd never been one to let others fight his battles for him.
"I don't know what you're talking about," he replied evenly, waiting to see how Murphy was going to play it.
"I've heard the tape," Murphy stated matter-of-factly. He seemed unruffled by Steele's evasions. "It sounds like you've got your work cut out for you."
"Thank you for your opinion, mate," Steele answered icily. He moved past Murphy and began stuffing his tools back into the leather bag. "I've got everything under control."
As if feeling the tension building, Mildred chose that moment to stand and try to smooth things over. "You know, we're all pretty tired, guys. Anybody want some coffee?"
"If you've got everything under control," Murphy went on, as if Mildred hadn't said a word, "then where's Laura?"
Steele whirled angrily, coming closer to hitting Murphy than he ever had before. He controlled his impulse somehow. His fists clenched tightly as he fought the surge of frustration and helplessness building inside of him, aching to be released.
"I'll go get some coffee," Mildred repeated and hastily left the two men alone to have this out between them.
There was a stony silence in the room as they faced each other. Steele regarded Murphy standing there unflinchingly, waiting for explanations, evidence -- whatever it took to prove he wasn't needed here. Suddenly, for the first time, Steele knew he'd failed. That defeat drained him of everything, even his anger. He felt his shoulders sag and he sank to the bed, his eyes focused on the floor.
"I don't know where she is," he admitted quietly. "I wish to God I did."
There was no response. Steele looked up and saw Murphy leaning against the closet. For a moment Steele saw a bit of his own pain reflected in his friend's face. Murphy's feelings for Laura ran deep, Steele knew. He wondered briefly what he would have done if Laura had chosen Murphy over himself. Would he have been able to face up to it as Murphy had done? Probably not. He would have moved on, telling himself she hadn't been worth the trouble and he was well rid of her. But he didn't think he would have believed his own lies.
"You know," Murphy spoke up at last, his voice controlled, his feelings once more buried deep inside. "You don't have to prove anything to this lunatic. You're doing just what he wants you to do."
"I'm not trying to prove anything to anyone," Steele snapped, his anger returning at the accusation. "I'm trying to find Laura... to save her life."
"You'll never find her this way."
"Damn it, Murphy!" Steele exploded. "I'm doing this the only way I know how. I don't care what this bastard thinks or doesn't think of me. I only want to find Laura."
Murphy was silent a moment, then he came back to sit next to Steele. "Then let's find her together," he suggested quietly.
Steele regarded the man beside him for a long time. The fact that his friend was actually right about what he'd been doing at last sunk in with forceful impact. He had been indulging his own pride, but it was Laura who was ultimately important.
"I'll welcome your help, Murphy," he conceded, breaking the silence between them. "Anything to get Laura back to us alive and well." He shrugged self-consciously. "I suppose I was bent on doing this myself. A bit short-sighted of me though, wasn't it? To think I could save her myself... without any help."
Murphy laughed kindly. "Hell, man. Even Sherlock Holmes had a partner." He paused, then went on with a meaningful smile. "Even Laura Holt has a partner."
Steele nodded gratefully at the gesture. "Or two," he added.
"Occasionally," Murphy agreed.
"You guys ready for coffee?" Mildred asked from the doorway, apparently testing the waters before coming in.
Steele stood and stretched. "Sounds wonderful, Mildred. Come on, Murphy. We've got some brainstorming to do."
When the last strand of twine finally snapped, releasing Laura from her painful bondage, it took a moment for her to register the fact. She'd been pushing herself for what seemed like eternity, enduring the agony in her back and shoulders as she worked at the rope that held her. Now, her newly-freed hands lay unmoving on either side of her, the relief in her arms making her hands feel detached from her body.
She stared at them a moment, then broke into exuberant laughter as she reached up to tear at the gag. As she pulled it off and hurled it far away, she worked her jaw and tongue, trying to moisten her dry mouth and throat -- her cracked, chapped lips. The she reached down and untied her ankles. She was completely free now and she laughed again in triumph.
Slowly, she got to her feet -- every muscle stiff and clumsy -- protesting the position she'd been in for countless hours. She wasn't sure exactly how long it had been; she'd lost track of time since she'd been taken from the loft, but her first order of business was to get out of this place. She glanced warily at the bomb. There was no way to tell when it would go off and she wasn't about to start playing around trying to disarm it. Besides, she had no idea whether or not her abductor was still in the vicinity.
Quietly, she moved down the corridor, finding to her surprise that it curved around an inner chamber. Eventually she ended up in the same spot she'd started out from. She frowned as she studied the pipes that ran along the entire wall.
Strange, she thought. Must be some kind of processing center or holding tank. She sighed. He brought me in here, there has to be a way to get out. Maybe I overlooked it in this lighting. Once more she started down the walkway, inspecting the outer wall carefully for any sign of a door. She knew there had to be something there. She'd heard the man disappear this way.
It was a battle to keep going. She was tired and her body ached every place imaginable. All she really wanted was to curl up somewhere and go to sleep. Of course, that would be after she'd quenched her nagging thirst with a huge pitcher of water. But she continued on, her biggest fear being the kidnapper would return and tie her up once more.
She kept on doggedly until at last she was rewarded. She came upon a break in the pipes and there she found a small, half-sized door. She gave a cry of victory as she reached for the old, rusted push-bar, but her cry stuck in her throat. She halted her move towards the hatch as she caught sight of the wires on the handle.
"No!" she cried aloud, while her mind was screaming its denial. It can't be! God, please, no! But she knew it was true as her eyes followed the wires all around the doorframe and found the explosives they were connected to.
In bitter despair she realized this man was cheating at his own game. Even if Mr. Steele did find her within the given time, before the big bomb went off, he would be killed opening the door. There was no way she would be able to warn him. They would both perish in the resulting blast -- dying at the same time without the consolation of being together, of touching one another and looking into each other's eyes.
She sank to the cold, metal floor, her eyes still fixed on the door that offered the allure of freedom, but spelled doom for the man she loved if he ever stepped through it. There were no tears, only a small throbbing in the back of her throat.
If she never heard the Beach Boys again in her life, it would suite Mildred just fine. The two men in the room with her had listened to that tape over and over again, trying to dissect it bit by bit in the hopes of finding something hidden -- something they'd missed. Mildred was certain that if they played it one more time she'd be forced to smash the tape player.
She studied both men now and wondered how they were keeping from tearing their hair out in frustration. Murphy sat on the couch, his long legs propped up on the coffee table, his blond head resting in one hand as he studied the printout of names, trying to find someone they might have crossed in the past. The Boss, obviously too wound up to sit still, was pacing in front of the fireplace, one hand on the back of his neck, his fine features wearing a dark, brooding look.
They were so different, these two, but they seemed to have one thing in common -- their affection for Miss Holt. As she looked at them both, Mildred wondered what had actually motivated Murphy to leave his place with such a prestigious agency as Remington Steele Investigations. He obviously still cared very much about the people he'd left behind.
It was a puzzle, but whatever the reason, Mildred was glad he was here now. He seemed to have provided a steadying hand for Mr. Steele. It was as if the Boss had come back from some precipice. While the search was still discouraging, at least there were three of them working together, instead of one poor guy beating his head against the wall.
Out of the corner of her eye, Mildred caught Murphy glance at his watch and automatically she did the same. It was almost one. The time was slipping away and they hadn't accomplished anything. They'd gone over to the loft, searched the apartment once more, questioned the neighbors, checked out the Rabbit -- all to no avail. No one had heard a thing they hadn't merely attributed to the stormy weather. Anything they might have found outside had been washed away with the rain.
So they'd come back to the Boss' place in silence -- each person's thoughts kept to himself. Back to the tape in this vain attempt to find the one thing they might have missed. That tape! If she ever got her hands on the little slime ball who'd left it on the mantle, she'd...
She blinked in surprise. How long had Mr. Steele been pacing in front of that manila envelope? She couldn't remember if it had been there when they'd gone out.
"Hey, Chief, look at that." She got up from the armchair and hurried over to the hearth.
His eyes were questioning until he perceived where she was headed and turned that way himself. In the same instant that he snatched up the envelope, Murphy bolted from the couch to stand beside him. He peered over Steele's shoulder as the Boss opened the package and shook the tape out into his hand.
"How the hell did this get here?" Steele asked to no one in particular.
"Is that it?" Mildred was disappointed that some greater clue wasn't enclosed.
"So it appears, Mildred," Steele answered. "We'll just have to see what our friend has given us this time." He moved over and replaced the first tape with the second. He stood with folded arms, awaiting the next installment.
Mildred stood beside Murphy at the fireplace, almost afraid to hear what might be on the tape. Her apprehension must have shown on her face, for she felt a reassuring hand on her shoulder. She turned to see Murphy's encouraging smile. She took a deep breath and steeled herself for what was to come.
Round two, Mr. Steele.
Mildred was beginning to hate that voice.
I hope you've had fun with my first little clue. It should have been fairly simple for a great detective such as yourself. I suppose it's time you had the next one. Here it is. Listen well.
Mildred was unfamiliar with the song that began playing. It was rather mellow -- something about a traveller leaving home. She glanced over at Murphy, who had gone back to the couch to grab his notebook and was busily scribbling down the lyrics. The chorus stuck in Mildred's mind the most as it was repeated several times.
Days are numbers,
Watch the stars,
We can only see so far.
Someday you'll know where you are.
Days are numbers,
Count the stars,
We can only go so far.
One day you'll know where you are.
"What the bloody hell is that?" Steele exploded once the song had ended and the apartment was silent again.
"Alan Parsons," Murphy answered evenly, still trying to write down the last words.
"What?" Steele turned to demand.
Murphy glanced up from his book. "That's who it sounds like. The Alan Parsons Project. I don't really know this song."
"Well, now that we've played Name That Tune, can we get down to what it means?" Steele sounded close to the breaking point.
"Relax," Murphy soothed. "You've got to start at the beginning."
Mildred felt it might be a wise time to step in and divert these men's energies from each other to the business at hand. She knew how quickly frayed nerves could flare.
"What does it mean by Days are numbers?" she asked. "Maybe some kinda code for an address or something?"
"It's possible." Murphy glanced back at his notes. "I think this guy's only using parts of these songs. Like, here it says, There's always one more mountain to climb. He could be telling us Laura's up in the mountains."
"Or not," Mildred felt compelled to point out.
"Or not," Murphy conceded reluctantly.
"Damn it all!" Steele burst out, obviously fed up with the entire process. "The point is, we're only guessing. We don't have any idea which parts he's using. This bugger's a bloody madman. It could all be a sham. How do we know any of it will lead us to Laura?"
There was an awkward silence. Mildred knew the Chief had just given voice to what they'd all been afraid of for quite some time.
"So, what else are we supposed to do?" Murphy's voice was quiet. "We can't stop trying. We'll lose her for sure that way."
Steele paced over to the window, thinking, then he turned to faced them both. His eyes were bright and Mildred was suddenly filled with renewed hope. She'd seen that look in the Chief's face before. He was hatching a scheme of some kind.
"I for one am tired of playing this little game... going along with his rules," Steele declared decisively.
"What do you have in mind?" Murphy asked warily. From the look on his face, Mildred could tell he'd been here before as well.
"I say let's make him play our game," Steele suggested. "He's obviously been following me around, waiting for me to leave so he can drop off his little notes. I say let's give him another opportunity, eh? Only this time we'll have a surprise waiting for him."
"What kind of surprise?" Murphy asked suspiciously.
Steele grinned broadly and walked over to rest a friendly arm on Murphy's shoulders.
"Why do I even ask?" Murphy implored skyward.
"What do you say, Murphy?" Steele asked brightly.
"I don't know," Murphy hedged. "If we scare him off..." He shook his head. "Do we want to risk him doing something to Laura?"
"He's going to do something to her anyway," Steele pointed out in exasperation. "Do you really think we're going to find her from these ridiculous songs?"
Murphy still looked unconvinced so Mildred decided to put her two cents worth in. It certainly sounded like a good idea to her.
"It sure beats sitting around listening to the clock tick, doesn't it?"
Murphy stood for a moment, weighing possibilities. He finally came to a decision.
"Okay. Count me in."
Laura shivered and pulled the thin fabric of her dress over her knees in an effort to warm them up a bit. It didn't help much. Sitting on the cold floor didn't help any either. She got to her feet once more and began to pace back and forth in front of the wired door. It had been a heavy blow that, after all her pain and hard work she'd finally freed herself, only to have the way out barred before her. Never before had she felt so helpless -- blocked at every turn. There had to be a way out. She couldn't just sit here and wait for death -- neither her own nor Mr. Steele's.
With a last look at the door, Laura started another search of her prison. Poking and prying, squinting in dimness, she went over every inch of the wall until, at last, she sank back down to the floor -- weary and cold.
She leaned against a pipe, staring up at the ceiling. Her mind was filled with thoughts of home and warmth, of her mother and Frances and Christmas, of Mildred and the office -- and of Remington Steele. What would he say if she invited him home for Christmas? What would her mother say?
Laura smiled, picturing Abigail Holt in her glory, doting on Mr. Steele and wearing her all-knowing smile, confident that she'd been right all along and happy in the fact that her rebellious daughter had finally landed "the big one." Somehow the scene didn't really bother her like it would have a few years ago. It might even have been fun watching him in a family environment.
It was strange, but she could picture him fitting right in, more so than she'd ever been able to do herself. She didn't know what it was that made her fight and resist anything connected to her home -- especially when she thought about him, growing up alone, without any kind of family, fending for himself in the streets of Ireland. She'd been lucky to have her family, even with the heartaches and the fighting. She'd never realized that until she met this man who'd never been so fortunate.
As her mind meandered on in this vein, Laura suddenly blinked herself back to her surroundings and stood up. Her eyes focused on the ceiling where she'd been staring so absent-mindedly. She could see light up there where it had been pitch black before -- not a brilliant light, merely a difference in the shade of darkness. She moved over to the wall and peered up, a smile spreading slowly over her face.
There was a vent up there and it led outside. It was the newly-risen moon she was seeing through the mesh. If only it was a big enough opening for her to squeeze through. Then she could escape and warn Mr. Steele about the bomb on the door.
She burst into giggles at that silly thought. If she was outside, then Mr. Steele would have no reason to open the door.
Come on, Laura. Don't get giddy now, she chided herself. You're not out yet.
Growing serious, she studied the wall before her. Then, with revitalized determination, she found a foothold among the pipes and reached upwards.
Little by little she climbed, stopping only to remove her heels so she could cling better with her toes. Her shoe straps clenched in her teeth, she continued on. Her confidence grew with every step until she finally found herself at eye level with the wire-meshed air vent.
She could see outside into the starry night, the landscape outlined in deep blue. Her desire to be out there breathing free air spurred her into action.
She reached up with one hand and felt around the wiring. The opening seemed large enough for her, though it would probably be a tight fit. She was glad it had been a while since she'd eaten. Her stomach chose that moment to emphasize just how long it had been and she laughed a little at herself. Now, if she could only get this mesh off the wall.
She pulled herself up a bit higher for better leverage. Relying on her sense of touch, she felt for the fastenings. She found small, metal staples about every three or four inches. She tried to pull one out, but succeeded only in breaking a fingernail.
"Damn," she swore softly as she sucked on her throbbing finger. "There has to be a way."
She rested for a time. Hanging there by one arm, especially one that ached already, was more than a little tiring. Then she reached out, stuck her fingers through the mesh, and pulled for all she was worth.
The soft wire, rusted with age and weather, moved with her. She grit her teeth and pulled again, putting every ounce of strength she could find in her weary body into the effort.
First one, then two of the staples popped loose. Then, abruptly, one whole side tore away, nearly toppling Laura from her precarious perch. Wiping her forehead on her arm, she once more grabbed hold of the screen. She twisted and pulled until nearly all the staples had either pulled loose or broken off. At last she let go, certain she'd worked a large enough hole now for her to slip through.
She crawled up and poked her head out, dropping her shoes onto the ground below. It was a pretty long drop. It wouldn't be a good idea to fall out head first. Backing out, she managed to reverse her position and stick her feet through the opening.
She'd been right. It was a tight squeeze. Very tight. The rusted prongs of the broken wire ripped at her dress and dug into her tender flesh unmercifully, but at last she was out. She dropped the six or seven feet to the ground ungracefully and more than a little breathless.
Recovering her senses, she grabbed up her shoes and leapt to her feet. She stifled the laugh of joy that threatened to pour out. She couldn't make any noise since there was no telling where her captor might be lurking. She stepped back a bit and glanced up at the building she's just escaped from.
Round and squat, about fifteen feet high, it looked like a water storage tank. High up one side were four painted stars. For some reason the logo was familiar to her, but she didn't want to waste any time pondering it. She needed to get far away from this place, as fast as possible.
She studied the surrounding area, trying to get her bearings, and shivered once, then again. She rubbed at her arms, just beginning to feel the cold. She glanced up at the sky. There were no clouds. The storm must have passed on, taking with it the protective blanket that might have kept the temperature up.
With another shiver and a sigh of resignation for what would have to be endured, she slipped back into her shoes and headed down the hill. She knew the heels would greatly reduce her hiking ability, but she also knew anything was better than being barefoot. It was going to be quite a trek, she supposed. The direction she picked was random. Not knowing where she was, she couldn't tell which direction was home and there was no sign of civilization. It didn't matter though. What mattered was getting away from here. With any luck, she just might find some help.
With a great roar of the engine, the Auburn peeled out of the driveway and into the dark street. Curt watched from his car as Remington Steele and his battle-axe of a receptionist disappeared down the road. They'd certainly been in a hurry. He smiled broadly. They probably thought they were onto something, but there was no way in the world they could have found where he'd stashed the Holt broad from only those two songs. He knew the clues he'd given had been vague to the extreme. Oh, he would eventually give more information, but it was so amusing to imagine what Steele must be going through, trying to read some deep meaning into them.
He felt his jacket pocket and made sure the packet was there. It was night and Steele was gone. It was time he paid another visit to the apartment to leave another gift. It was also time to get more specific, especially since he really did want Steele to find the water tank. That would be a laugh. Just when he thought he'd proven himself Sam Spade, he'd reach for the door and, BLAM! There would go his pretty face.
Curt nodded to himself at the justice it would serve. Then he slipped out of his car and walked into the apartment building, ready to avail himself once more of Remington Steele's hospitality.
Murphy shifted the weight off his left leg as he leaned against Steele's bedroom wall. It had been a while since his leg bothered him like this. He wondered what had triggered it tonight. Maybe it was the change in weather. He chuckled at that, seeing his old bullet wound becoming like an old man's bunions or rheumatism.
He sobered, thinking back to the night when he's picked up his little souvenir. Steele had saved his life that night and it had marked a change between them. Neither had spoken of it since he'd returned and it was probably for the best. Anything that needed to be said had already been spoken years ago.
Now the only thing that mattered to either of them was Laura. Funny, how the same thing that had kept them from being friends for so long was now bringing them back together. Murphy no longer harbored any doubts about Steele's feelings for Laura, though it was still hard not to worry about her. He supposed he would always worry about Laura. It was an old habit -- one he was really rather fond of.
He tried not to think about what might be happening to her at this moment, or what would happen if they didn't succeed. They would catch this crazy bastard and make him tell them where he'd hidden Laura. Murphy also entertained notions about tying him to a chair and forcing him to listen to the Beach Boys over and over again. But that would come later -- after Laura was home safe and sound.
He peered out the slightly open bedroom door into the darkened living room. Everything was still. The storm had blown over so there wasn't even the sound of the rain. They were betting everything that this guy would show tonight. Steele and Mildred had made a big production out of leaving. They should be finished with their decoy drive and be back in position by now. It was only a matter of waiting -- the hardest part of any case.
Murphy rubbed at his tired eyes, feeling like he hadn't slept in days. It was hard to believe it had only been twenty-four hours.
A sharp click from the other room brought him abruptly alert and he straightened up away from the wall. He scooped up the agency gun from where he'd placed it on the dresser. It felt awkward. He could count on one hand the number of times he'd ever really needed to use one, but tonight he hadn't said a word when Steele had silently handed him the weapon before departing with Mildred. They'd left him alone to face the kidnapper until Steele would return to back him up.
The front door opened softly and Murphy felt the sweat break out on his forehead. This was it. The next few minutes would decide Laura's fate.
The dark form entered confidently, sure that Steele was gone and he would be undisturbed. Murphy strained to see him in the darkness, waiting for just the right moment to reveal himself. As he watched, the man suddenly held out his arms wide and spun around, laughing loudly.
"Here I am again, Mr. Remington Steele," he cried out in a voice Murphy instantly recognized. "I'm back and you're dancing on my string."
He stopped his speech and stood still. He pulled something Murphy couldn't see out of his jacket and walked up to the fireplace. It had to be the next tape.
"Here's the next clue for the Detective of the Year," the man's voice sounded again as he placed the envelope on the mantle.
Now, Murphy decided, while he has his back turned and he's preoccupied.
He slipped out of the bedroom and padded noiselessly in his stocking feet over the plush carpeting. Stealthily he maneuvered around the sofa until he was only a few feet from the man. He stopped and stretched out his left arm, hoping that in the darkness the man wouldn't see the tremble in his hand. Two more steps and he jabbed the pistol into the kidnapper's back.
"Hold it right there," he ordered harshly.
He heard the sharp intake of breath that told of surprise, but somehow the man kept his wits about him. he didn't turn around, but when he spoke, his voice sounded calm and composed.
"You're not Steele."
"No, I'm not," Murphy answered, "but he'll be here shortly and he's got a few questions I'm sure he'll want to ask."
"Oh, naturally," the man agreed. "I must admit, he pulled a fast one on me. I thought he'd be too frazzled about his little tramp to be thinking very clearly."
Murphy took a step closer, pressing the gun harder into the man's spine. "Watch it, creep," he spat out, "or I'm liable not to wait for Steele."
"Certainly. Although I'm in no hurry. You gentlemen are the ones who should be concerned with the time."
He rambled on and Murphy only half-listened. He wondered what was keeping Steele. Surely he'd seen the man come in. More than enough time had passed for him to make his entrance.
In the darkness Murphy never saw the man's hand leave the mantle and slip into his jacket pocket. His constant droning covered his movement effectively, but Murphy did see the man's arm jerk abruptly at the same time he felt the sharp, searing pain in his left forearm as the hidden knife plunged into him.
With a yelp of pain, Murphy lost his grip on the gun, his fingers suddenly numb. Immediately the kidnapper whirled and swung hard, connecting with Murphy's nose painfully.
Murphy stumbled, still with it enough to kick out as he went down, entangling his assailant's legs with his own. Both men fell and Murphy struggled to keep the kidnapper from getting back up, but the man eluded his weakened grasp. Murphy heard him scramble to his feet and head for the front door.
"Damn!" Murphy swore between clenched teeth as he rolled to his stomach and got to his knees, determined to go after the man.
The front door suddenly burst open in the man's face as Steele flew in and lunged at him. They went down, out of Murphy's sight. He only heard their struggles in the dark as they rolled into furniture and pummeled each other. Helpless, Murphy clutched at his arm, trying to staunch the flow of blood, and waited breathlessly for the outcome.
The room was suddenly flooded with light. Blinking in the glare, Murphy caught sight of Mildred at the door, her hand on the switch as she surveyed the scene with horror.
In the distraction of the abrupt illumination, the kidnapper slipped away from Steele, lashing out a harsh kick at the detective's abdomen. Murphy heard Steele grunt with the force of the blow and he saw the man standing over his fallen opponent, his face filled with dismay as he assessed his situation.
He must've opted not to try to get past all three of them on his way to the front door. Instead, with obvious panic, he fled out the double glass doors that led to the balcony. It was a foolhardy move. Murphy knew there was no avenue of escape out there.
In an instant Steele was on his feet and out the doors as well. Murphy could hear their fight resume and he struggled to get up. His arm was throbbing and his head was reeling, but he was ready to give whatever help he could. The small concrete enclosure didn't lend itself to hand-to-hand combat. With both Steele and himself out there, the man would have to give it up.
Murphy reached the glass doors and stepped onto the balcony just in time to see the kidnapper leap onto the waist-high ledge. He swayed there a moment, fighting to keep his balance. Then, as if in slow motion, he went over. In the same, fluid movement, Steele dove after him, as if connected on a string. Murphy moved instantly, grabbing Steele's legs as he went over as well.
Murphy knew Steele had caught hold of the man as he braced himself against the weight of two hanging there suspended over the garden several floors below. Murphy strained to hold on, calling on strength he didn't know he had. Time had stopped for him. There was only the fight to hang on, despite the agonizing pull against his arms, the blood flowing from his arm and from his nose. He couldn't let go of Steele. If he did, Steele would die. It all came down to that. He couldn't let Steele die.
At last he was able to reach out with his good arm and grab hold of Steele's belt. He slipped his hand through it and pulled with all his might, managing to drag his friend back from the edge enough so that the detective's legs were once more on the balcony side of the ledge. Eternity dragged by as he clenched his teeth and fought the tremors in his leg. He wondered briefly if the three of them might stay frozen like this forever.
Mildred was suddenly at his side and she too grabbed hold of Steele's waist and tried to help.
"Hang on, Boss!" she cried. "We've got you. Hang on!"
Just when Murphy thought his arms were going to pull free from his shoulders, he heard a scream. In the dull haze of his senses he thought it came from Steele. Abruptly the weight was gone and Murphy and Mildred fell backwards, bringing Steele with them.
Murphy lay breathing heavily for quite some time. All the muscles in his body quivered spasmodically. At last though he pushed himself to a sitting position. He saw Mildred standing at the ledge, staring open-mouthed at the scene below. Steele sat propped up at the wall, his face scraped and bleeding from the stucco, his eyes staring with horror at his outstretched and trembling hands -- hands that hadn't been able to hang on to the kidnapper.
Steele must have felt he was being watched. He tore his gaze away from his hands to look into Murphy's face.
"I've lost her." His voice was barely above a whisper. "I've lost her."
The wind whipped through the brush and rustled the leaves of the tree overhead as Laura huddled near its trunk, her arms wrapped around herself in a vain attempt to keep warm. The moon had long since set, taking with it the small amount of light she'd been using to see by. The stars still twinkled distantly in the night sky, but their feeble luminescence was hardly enough to navigate this rough terrain. So here she sat, teeth chattering violently with the cold, more hungry than she could ever remember being -- and thirsty, so very thirsty. The only thing left to do was to wait for the night to end and the sun to make an appearance.
She tried not to dwell on the fact that she wasn't much better off than she had been in her small prison. She had no idea where she was and there was more than a good chance she might die of exposure. Still, she reminded herself, at least she had time now. There was no bomb rigged to go off out here. As long as there was that time, she could hold onto the hope that someone might find her or that she might find him.
She knew who that him was. She wondered what Mr. Steele was doing at this moment. What she wouldn't give to feel his arms around her, sharing his warmth with her. She let the image linger in her thoughts, taking her mind away from the bitter cold. Her body was shivering, but for a while she was a bit warmer than she had been. It didn't last long.
A distant howl jerked her upright. It came again, from exactly which direction it was hard to tell. The sound seemed to bounce off the hills and echo every which way.
Wild dogs... or coyotes probably, she reasoned. She didn't think there were any wolves in Southern California, but an unbidden thought crept into her mind. Wolfen... ah... Albert Finney, Gregory Hines... let me see, what year did I see that? Nineteen... nineteen eighty-one? Two? She shook her head, laughing at herself. Some things were contagious.
Another howl sounded, wiping the smile from her face. Murphy had dragged her to that movie against her better judgment. Now, her imagination geared up for anything, she wished she'd never gone. All the gory images flashed back into her mind vividly and she shuddered, berating her own foolishness. After all, it was only a movie. That kind of stuff didn't happen in real life. But she knew she wasn't going to get much rest this night.
Steele stood on his apartment balcony staring out at the street, watching the neighborhood come slowly to life on this crisp, cool Sunday morning. It was hard to believe that this day was different than any other. He supposed that for the people down there it wasn't, but he would never be able to forget this day. If something didn't happen soon, this would be Laura's last day of life.
He glanced down at his hands. God, he'd tried to hold on, but that bugger had acted like he wanted to die. Steele closed his eyes as once more last night's scenario played out in his mind. The whole thing had been like something out of a Hitchcock film.
He'd been fighting with the man here on the balcony and was fast getting the upper hand. The kidnapper had most certainly realized it, just as he had, that there was nowhere to go and no way to escape. Steele thought it had at last come to an end, when the man suddenly leapt to the ledge, only to fall over the side.
Without a second thought, Steele had lunged after him, grabbing his hand, but realizing too late that he would go over as well. Somehow he hadn't fallen. Through some miracle, Murphy had appeared, grabbed hold of him and hung on for dear life. For what seemed a lifetime, he'd dangled there, feeling like he was being pulled apart. All he had concentrated on, though, was keeping hold of the hand he grasped in his own. The owner of that hand was the only link to Laura.
They might have made it. He'd felt himself slowly being pulled back towards the ledge. But for some reason the blighter wouldn't hold still. As if he wanted Steele to drop him, he's twisted and fought -- as if death was preferable to losing out on the game he'd been playing.
Steele could still feel the strain on his arms as the man wiggled and kicked, but he grit his teeth and held on, praying that Murphy's strength would hold out and get them up before his own arm was pulled from its socket.
Then the man had ceased his struggles. He'd looked up, met Steele's eyes calmly and smiled triumphantly, as if he'd just had the last laugh. Then, in one swift movement, he pulled himself up and sunk his teeth deeply into Steele's hand.
The pain had been too much added to everything else. He'd instinctively loosened his grip. Everything else happened in slow motion. Steele remembered hearing the scream that had torn from his throat as he watched the only person who could take him to Laura plummet to his death, even as he felt himself being pulled back onto the balcony.
Steele opened his eyes and glanced at his hands -- bandaged now where the bite had drawn blood. The paramedics had given him a tetanus shot as well and he unconsciously rubbed at his shoulder. It had certainly been one hell of a morning.
The authorities had come of course. They could hardly have been kept out of it now, with a dead body lying in the flower beds. There had been endless questions and forms and then more questions. The entire story had come out, and after hours of investigation, the police had left, with vague promises of finding Laura, assuring him he had nothing to worry about.
He supposed they meant well, but something deep in his nature made it impossible for him to put his life completely in the hands of the police. He certainly wasn't about to trust Laura's life to their well-intentioned bumbling. He patted his back pocket to reassure himself that the item was still there, then pushed himself away from the ledge and re-entered the living room. He only hoped there was enough time to act on the slim lead he had.
It was quiet in the apartment. He could almost feel the heavy gloom that had settled there. Murphy lay stretched out on the sofa, his left arm swathed in bandages, an ice pack held to his face. Steele couldn't tell if he was awake or not. Mildred had obviously straightened the room from the scuffle, but now, with nothing to do, had settled in the chair, her head pillowed in the crook of her arm. She was definitely asleep.
Steele sighed heavily. He couldn't blame them. They were all exhausted, and his failure at the balcony had squelched any more hope of finding Laura -- at least as far as they knew. Steele, however, had an edge -- one last ace in the hole in a life that seemed charmed at every turn. He was going to play that card now. Slim as it seemed, it might be one more chance to find Laura. He was willing to grab at any straw before he would give up on her.
Not wishing to disturb his companions, Steele made his way quietly through the living room -- past Mildred's quiet snoring and Murphy's supine figure. He wanted to slip out unnoticed. No sense building up their hopes if this didn't pan out.
He'd just reached the front door and was grabbing the knob when he felt a hand come down on his shoulder. He knew who it was even before he turned. Murphy stood before him, nose swollen and left eye discolored, but his face wore a patient look.
"Where you going?" Murphy whispered, so as not to disturb Mildred.
"Out," Steele replied vaguely. He wasn't sure if he wanted to let Murphy in on what he was up to.
"Out where?" Murphy was calmly persistent.
"Just out," Steele fidgeted. "I have a few errands to run."
"I'll be back shortly, ol' chap." Steele grinned broadly, trying to convince his friend that all was well. "Watch after Mildred, there's a good man." He patted Murphy's good shoulder a couple of times and turned to go, but Murphy caught hold of his arm and stopped him. Steele turned a questioning eye.
"Could you use some company on these errands?" Murphy smiled and Steele finally relented.
"Certainly, Murphy, ol' boy. Never hurts to have somebody along to talk to."
They left the apartment silently, leaving Mildred asleep in the chair. The elevator ride down was done without a word between them. As they reached the Auburn and climbed inside, Murphy at last spoke.
"Where we headed, anyway?"
Steele reached into his back pocket and held up a worn leather wallet. "It belonged to our man."
Murphy stared at him in disbelief. "You rolled the corpse?"
Steele shrugged. "I prefer to think of it as appropriating for the duration. He didn't need it any longer and I'd much rather search his room before the local men in blue do their job."
"That's withholding information," Murphy advised him with a smile.
Steele considered for a moment then returned the smile. "Exactly," he agreed.
They were soon out on the road and headed for the freeway. The sun was shining brightly and the wind whipped pleasantly, all traces of the storm vanished as if it had never occurred.
They drove along in silence for a while until Steele finally turned to Murphy and gave voice to a thought that had been nagging at him since the police had left.
"I certainly wish we had that third tape. Or could have at least listened to it. It might have helped."
Murphy didn't answer, but his face broke out into a wide grin and he chuckled to himself.
"Have I said something funny?" Steele asked, curious at his friend's behavior.
Murphy shook his head. He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a cassette tape. Steele stared at it in wonder.
"But I saw the police take it," he protested.
"I switched it," Murphy explained. "They'll be listening to the Beach Boys for a while."
Steele slowly broke into a grin of his own. "That's withholding information, old chap," he pointed out.
"Exactly," Murphy laughed.
"You're learning, my friend," Steele announced proudly. "You're learning."
Laura trudged on wearily, forging her way through the tangle of undergrowth. She'd long since discarded her shredded pantyhose and her legs were scratched and bleeding. Her lips were chapped and swollen, her throat parched. If she didn't get some water soon she was certain her tongue was going to dry up and crumble away. Her mind told her she could go longer than this without water or food, but her body didn't have to like it.
Shading her eyes, she squinted up at the sun. Past its zenith now, it must be one or two o'clock. There were a few hours left to cherish the warmth before night returned, bringing with it unmerciful cold. She didn't know if she could survive another night out in the open.
She stumbled over a clump of brush, nearly falling onto he face. If she wasn't more careful, these shoes were going to cause her to break her neck. She couldn't risk taking them off though, considering the harshness of the terrain.
She took a moment to let her eyes sweep the hills surrounding her. Deceptively green and rolling, they looked like great fields of grass, perfect for running barefoot through. All that was missing were a few sheep peacefully grazing. She couldn't remember seeing any place quite like this near Los Angeles and she wondered if she were even still in the state.
In any case, she'd quickly experienced the treacherousness of this luscious looking landscape -- dense underbrush, cracks and crevices that twisted ankles painfully, hidden rocks and every creature that lived under those rocks. She shuddered, recalling the few snakes she'd avoided.
She struggled on, determined not to give up, hoping that each new rise she topped would offer up a view of civilization. Each new disappointment took its toll little by little, until at last she sank down at the top of a hill, exhausted to the point of collapse.
The wind had kicked up harder and Laura shivered at the chill. Alarmed, she glanced at the sun. It was now low on the horizon and sinking rapidly. The daylight hours had flown by and she hadn't even taken note of their passing. Night would soon be upon her. She had to find some kind of shelter.
Suddenly, above the sound of the breeze, she heard a noise. It was distant and muted, but still there nonetheless. It sounded like an engine. Hope brought her to her feet as she scanned the hillsides.
"Hello!" she cried out impulsively, though the small croak her voice could muster wasn't likely to be heard by anyone farther than a few feet away. "Hey! Hello! Anybody there?" she tried again, despite the protesting of her throat.
There was no answer and she suddenly realized why. Lifting her eyes skyward, she found the remote jet liner sailing along smoothly, unaware of her feeble efforts.
It wasn't fair. Those people were probably all enjoying dinner and cocktails and human companionship. She shivered again with the chill of the coming evening and she stared after the plane until she could no longer make it out.
She wanted someone to come for her -- someone to shout out her name from the top of the next hill, happy to find her at last. And she knew in her heart who she fantasized that voice should belong to -- whose face she wanted desperately to see running across the grass to meet he. There was still enough little girl left in her to want Prince Charming to come rescue her.
It wasn't about to happen though. The practical side of her nature still outweighed the dreamer. She knew she had wandered far from her prison -- the only place Mr. Steele might possibly find in his search for her. She didn't think she could even find her way back there.
No, she was on her own as she had always been. She'd always looked out for herself, depended on her own instincts, her own determination. She'd done all right by herself up until now. She could get out of this one too.
It was in this frame of mind that she set off again, forcing her weary body to walk down the hill into the hollow at its base. It was even colder here -- darker, the trees dense and green. Perhaps they would keep some of the wind off of her tonight.
As the ground leveled off and she made her way into the small grove, she found herself on a trail of sorts. It was partially overgrown with weeds, but it was definitely there. She followed it, wondering when the last time was that anyone else had walked here. Without warning, the trees suddenly gave way to a large clearing and the trail became a wide, dirt road.
Laura halted and stared blankly for a full minute at the cluster of wooden buildings that lined either side of the road she stood on. They hadn't been visible from the top of the hill, but now it seemed she'd stumbled across a small town, complete with post office, general store, barber shop and church. It looked like something out of an old western.
At last she gathered her wits about her. If this was a town, that meant people, water, food, a telephone -- and a way home. Relief washed over her and surged through her very bones, filling her body with renewed energy. She pulled herself together and started down the road, ready to pound on the first door. It happened to be a bank.
Something wasn't right. She felt it even before she knocked on the locked door. She didn't know what day it was. It could be that the bank was merely closed. It was late in the day, after all. As she peered in at the dirty front window and saw only an empty room, a heavy feeling of disappointment settled in her stomach. She tried other buildings, but each was the same -- only a built-up front with nothing inside. It probably was something out of an old western, probably some deserted movie set.
She tried to fight the bitter tears, blinking them back where they belonged. It wasn't right. The promise of an end to her ordeal had seemed so close. Then to have it cruelly yanked away was asking too much of her tattered resolve. She felt a few of the tears escape and she wiped at them angrily.
Stop it, Laura! she scolded herself. It won't help any and it won't change anything.
She stood sniffling quietly, waging her silent battle, when she suddenly stopped crying. It had occurred to her that while she wasn't home yet, at least she'd found a place to spend the night. Not exactly the Sheraton or Hilton, but it beat another night under the stars.
She picked the general store at random. With a little persuasion she got the door open and stepped inside. Dusty and filled with cobwebs, it wasn't very comfy looking.
Think of it as a stake out, she told herself as she shut the door and settled down in a corner, too tired to worry about it very much.
Murphy sighed wearily and rubbed his hand across his face. The stubble on his jaw told of a weekend of neglect. Glancing at his companion, he noted that Steele looked as bad as he felt. They made quite a pair, stumbling around in exhaustion, trying to fit together a puzzle in which most of the pieces were missing.
They'd located Curt Phillips apartment -- a shabby little one-roomer in Van Nuys. It was cluttered with papers and file boxes, an unmade cot and a hot plate.
"Hardly the lap of luxury," Steele commented as they sorted through the mess, trying to uncover something noteworthy.
One of the first things they'd come across was the man's cheap, portable tape player and they'd listened eagerly to the third clue. Curt had babbled on as before, then they'd been favored with Gene Autry's rendition of Home on the Range. It hadn't been much help and they'd given up and begun a methodical search of Phillip's belongings.
Little by little the man's life unfolded before them -- overdue notices from creditors, shut-off warnings from utility companies, a framed investigator's license beside an eviction notice from his office building, the stacks of file boxes along the walls, some over-the-counter sleeping pills. He was obviously a man whose life had not worked out. He'd been at the end of his tether. Something had caused him to lose his grip.
Then Steele had found the crumpled newspaper, with the photo of Laura and himself. The brown stains covering their faces could only have been blood and it spurred both men on to a more frantic effort.
The hours fled as they lost themselves in their task. Now, as he squinted at the file he was reading, Murphy realized it was nearly dark in the room. He stood up on stiff legs and peered out the window. He glanced at his watch. Coming up on 6:00. They were running out of time.
He walked to the doorway and switched on the overhead light. Nothing happened. He flicked it again a few times to no avail.
"No power, remember?" Steele reminded him without looking up from the file he was studying.
"Great," Murphy muttered, stretching his sore back and hearing the vertebrae crackle their protest.
"There are flashlights in the Auburn." Steele tossed him the keys.
Glad for the chance of a break, Murphy trotted out to fetch the lights. He paused as he caught the last bit of pink fading from the sky and he wondered if Laura could see this from wherever she might be. He leaned against the big car and closed his eyes for a moment. He couldn't think of a world without Laura in it. Even though they hadn't been together the last few years, he'd known she was here. She was always as close as the phone or a letter, or a write-up in the paper.
He'd followed her exploits from his new home in Denver -- keeping tabs on anything having to do with Remington Steele. At first, it had been to satisfy himself that Steele was still around, taking care of Laura as he'd promised when Murphy had left. Later it was with an almost envious appreciation of the agency's accomplishments. He felt somewhat like Cliff Robertson in The Man Without a Country, living life in exile from where he most wanted to be.
He had to chuckle at himself. Comparing life to the movies was his job. Murphy grabbed the flashlights and headed for the apartment. He'd left Los Angeles of his own free will anyway. No one was to blame.
He entered the room to find Steele sprawled on the floor, surrounded by open files, his nose only inches from them as he tried to read in the dark.
"Here, this might help," Murphy suggested as he handed over one of the lights.
"Thanks, mate," Steele answered distractedly.
Murphy knelt down next to him and turned on his own beam, shining it over the array of files.
"What've you got?"
"I found these all bundled together," Steele explained. "It seems our man had lost quite a few clients lately. These," he pointed to the ones on the floor, "he lost to us. I remember some of them vaguely."
"Vaguely?" Murphy chuckled.
Steele scowled at him. "I can't remember every single case we work on... especially when Laura insists on doing most of the legwork herself."
"Selfish of her to do that," Murphy grinned.
"Well, you know how Laura is."
There was a long silent moment as each man's thoughts dwelt on just that. Then Steele sighed and brushed his hair out of his eyes.
"At any rate," he went on, "I thought maybe there might be something in one of these."
"Okay." Murphy sat down and picked up the nearest folder. "Let's see what's here."
They worked side by side, pouring over the paperwork in silence. The cases were routine -- security checks, background probes, one missing person -- nothing that stood out as unusual; nothing they hadn't done a thousand times.
At last Murphy tossed aside the file in his hand and fell back to lie on the carpet, his arms crossed over his eyes.
"We're not getting any closer," he complained to the ceiling. "There's nothing here."
Steele didn't answer him, still intent on the report he was studying.
"Come on, man," Murphy went on, his frustration finding a voice at last. "We're back where we started. All we know is that Laura's in a room where the buffalo roam, counting stars and watching the antelope play. We're never gonna..."
"What did you say?" Steele interrupted his rambling sharply.
Murphy thought a moment. "I don't know. I was just thinking about the songs. Why?"
Steele turned back to his file. "Antelope!" he exclaimed. "Antelope. Murphy, she's in Antelope Valley!"
Murphy sat back up to peer over Steele's shoulder at the papers in his lap. "What are you talking about?"
"It's here in this file." Steele's voice was excited and his speech tumbled out rapidly as he explained. "This case. It was a security check for the Water and Power Department."
"So. Look here." Steele spread out several black and white photographs of what looked like water tanks. "They have a lot of these facilities all over the place... usually out in the middle of nowhere. They gave us the case because they'd had quite a bit of vandalism. They wanted us to look into it. It was all rather dull, so I let Laura handle most of it."
"Of course," Murphy interjected. "But what does this have to do with..."
"I'm getting to that. These tanks are manufactured by a company named Four Star. Count the stars, Murphy! And they had a group of tanks out in Antelope Valley, around Saugus and Newhall. If the antelope can't play out there, I don't know where they could."
"Then you think Laura's at one of these water tanks?" Murphy was skeptical. "That's a pretty long shot."
"But that's not all," Steele persisted. "They label their tanks by their maintenance schedule. One group is Monday, another Tuesday, and so on."
"Days are numbers!" Murphy exclaimed, catching Steele's enthusiasm at last. "But how do we know which tank Laura is in?"
"There's got to be a list here somewhere," Steele muttered as he pawed through the papers. "Ah, here it is." He studied the report closely. "It's my guess she'll be in a Monday tank since that's the day we had to find her."
"So how many Monday tanks are there?" Murphy inquired.
Steele counted a moment. "Six." He scrambled to his feet. "Come on. We don't have very much time."
They dashed out to the Auburn and tore away from the curb. It was a race now -- down to the wire unless fate smiled on them and Laura was at the first one they found. It was agonizing to have to sit and wait for the miles to pass by as Steele sped along, coaxing more speed out of the old car than Murphy would have thought possible. He sat in the passenger seat and fidgeted, feeling entirely helpless.
The city soon melted behind them as they hit the more wild and open areas that led to the high desert. The wind from the open Auburn had turned bitingly cold and Murphy wished he'd grabbed his heavier coat when they'd left Steele's apartment. He tried not to think of Laura suffering through this weather. He wasn't sure how warm a metal storage tank could be.
"There's a map book under the seat," Steele informed him after a while and Murphy fished around until he found it.
He flipped through the book until he found the area they were headed for.
"The tanks are marked with grid numbers from the maps," Steele went on. "Find the first one."
Murphy poured over the map until he found the corresponding numbers. "Here is it," he shouted above the wind. "Turn off at San Fernando Road."
"Hang on," Steele advised.
He swung off the freeway and onto the surface road. Devoid of highway lights, the night closed in around them, broken only the Auburn's headlights and occasional street lights. After many miles, however, even those disappeared. They were forced to slow down as they searched the darkness for unmarked dirt roads.
"Here, here. Turn here," Murphy shouted as they passed where they needed to go.
"Damn," Steele swore softly as he backed the Auburn up and took the turn as best he could. "I think we brought the wrong car."
To emphasize his words, the Auburn lurched suddenly as they hit a boulder in the road. Steele brought the car to a skidding stop.
"I think we walk from here."
They set out at a brisk trot, their way lit only by the flashlights. It was all Murphy could do to keep up with Steele's anxious pace. His leg was bothering him again and he kept stumbling over the ruts and rocks in the little-used path. He kept silent though, unwilling to call attention to himself. He wasn't about to give up the search and he was well-aware of the urgency involved. Lord only knew how long it was going to take if they had to hike in to each facility.
"Are you sure we're not lost?" he asked, after they'd taken several turns and switch-backs.
"Of course not," Steele called back over his shoulder. "It should be right up ahead of us." He paused and shined his light on Murphy. "Are you all right, mate?" he asked in concern.
Murphy drew up beside him and tried to minimize the limp that had started. "I'm fine," he assured Steele. "Let's go."
He couldn't see Steele's face in the darkness, but he seemed to be considering for a moment. He didn't press Murphy for more, though. He merely turned back to the path. But his pace had slowed a bit -- a gesture not lost on Murphy.
They trudged on for about another mile when suddenly Steele ran up ahead, then stopped, waving his flashlight in front of him.
"It's here!" he shouted. "See there." He focused the beam on the high tanks walls and the four large stars emblazoned there.
As Murphy reached the tank, Steele was examining it closely, looking for some kind of entryway. Murphy went around the way and was rewarded with the outline of the small maintenance hatch.
"Steele!" he called and his companion tore around the tank to join him.
Steele stared at the door a moment, then reached for the latch. Impulsively, Murphy grabbed his arm to forestall him. Steele shot him a questioning glance.
"What if it's wired?" he asked, suddenly apprehensive.
"That's a chance we'll have to take," Steele replied calmly. "He said we had 'til midnight."
Murphy reluctantly leg go and held his breath as Steele tested the door. It was locked up tight, but that didn't stop Steele. He took out his pick and smoothly worked the lock. The door soon moved in his hand.
Murphy breathed out a sigh of relief. No explosion anyway. "Glad to see you haven't lost your touch," he quipped.
"You forget, we installed these," Steele reminded him. He pushed the door open cautiously.
"Laura!" he called into the darkness.
There was no answer as they both entered the tank.
"Laura!" Steele repeated. His only answer was his own echo.
"She might be gagged," Murphy suggested as he flashed his light around. "Or unconscious."
"Or she's not even here." Steele's voice was disheartened.
"Let's check it out," Murphy urged.
They split up again, each going the opposite direction until they met once more in the middle by the door.
It was more than obvious the place was empty. They left without a word. As soon as Murphy had shut the door behind them, Steele kicked at it in frustration. Then, without a sound, he turned and began trotting down the path to the waiting Auburn. No words needed to be said. Both men knew the probability of what they were trying to do.
Murphy glanced at his watch. 9:00. Only three more hours -- three hours to comb through this vast wilderness and find the one woman who meant the world to both of them. Murphy followed hurriedly after Steele's retreating figure, telling himself she would be in the next one. She had to be in the next one.
Life had taken on a nightmare quality for Steele as he and Murphy continued on their frantic search. They'd found three of the tanks thus far and each had been hauntingly empty. He had reached the point now where he was beginning to doubt that he'd even read the clues right. It was a frightening possibility, but there was nothing else to do now except finish the job and pray to God that they would get to them all in the little time they had remaining.
It was 11:30. Half an hour left, after which he either returned to life as usual, with Laura beside him, or he faced a life that stretched out dark and empty -- alone once more.
He glanced at Murphy beside him in the car. The man's eyes were glued to the map book. Steele wondered what was going through his friend's mind -- if Murphy was as plagued by doubts as he was. He remained silent, however, fixing his eyes once more on the road, urging even more speed out of the car.
"There," Murphy spoke up suddenly. "Sand Canyon Road." He pointed to the offramp.
As Steele headed for the exit, Murphy bolted up straight.
"My God!" he exclaimed.
"What?" Steele demanded in alarm. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing's wrong," Murphy hastened to assure him. "I just found one of our Monday tanks in a place called Holt Canyon. You don't suppose that's too obvious, do you?"
"At this point nothing is too obvious," Steele informed him. "What do you say we give this one a miss and head right for Holt Canyon."
"I say let's go," Murphy agreed whole-heartedly. "Up here a ways, then get off at Placerita Canyon Road."
Steele punched the accelerator and they churned mud and grass as they screeched up the mountain road. As it had been in each case, they could only take the Auburn so far. After what seemed like a lifetime, they'd come as far as they could and they scrambled out, hitting the road at a run.
The clock was ticking even as Steele ran. Murphy was trailing behind him, he knew, but he couldn't slow down now -- not now. Laura was waiting for him. Laura was depending on him as she'd never depended on him before. He couldn't let her down now.
He raced on in the darkness, stumbling over rocks and brush, his legs burning like fire as the miles went by. His lungs were heaving with the effort of breathing, but still he ran on. He didn't know what time it was; he couldn't spare a minute to even check. The sweat rolled down his face in spite of the icy wind that blasted him. Still he ran, only one thought in his mind now. He had to get to Laura.
He saw the outline of the tank as it rose above him on top of a small hill. He was almost there. Only a little further and she would be in his arms. Only a little further and his life would resume again.
The explosion ripped through the night without warning, lighting up the sky for one moment of brilliance, knocking Steele flat on his face as bits of metal and a fine mist of water rained down on the landscape.
He lay on the rocky ground, stunned, his breath gone, unable to think for a long time. His ears rang and the world was spinning. At last, however, he was able to lift his head. What he saw filled his soul with sickening horror.
The tank was in flaming ruins, fed by the dry brush surrounding it. He stared at the scene in mute disbelief, his mind screaming out that it couldn't have happened.
"Laura?" he called softly, wishing -- praying -- for an answer. "Laura?" he repeated. He got shakily to his feet. He couldn't seem to stop calling her name. "Laura! My God, Laura!" He was shouting now as he headed toward the wreckage. "Oh bloody hell, Laura!" He ran at the flames, would have plunged into them to find her, to bring her out alive and well. Somehow he would have done it.
Someone shouted his name at the same moment he felt himself being tackled from behind. He found himself once more face down on the ground. He tried to kick loose from the iron grip around his legs.
"Let me go!" he ordered. "I've got to get to her."
"There's nothing you can do now," the voice told him fiercely. "She's gone. There's nothing you can do."
The refrain finally beat its way into Steele's shocked senses and he stopped struggling. It was only then that he registered the voice as being Murphy's. It was Murphy who had stopped him from throwing himself into the fire. He felt his friend get off of his legs to crawl off a small distance away and sit and stare into the fire as if mesmerized. The orange glow reflected off the detective's stricken face.
Steele lay where he'd fallen, turning to watch the flames as they slowly died down. Something inside of himself seemed to die along with the fire. He felt something wet on his face and he realized dimly that there were tears spilling down his cheeks. He didn't care -- not now -- not about anything.
Earthquake! Laura thought and bolted upright from where she'd been sleeping on the hard, wooden floor.
But it hadn't felt exactly like an earthquake. There had been that distant sound as the ground rumbled under her. It was almost as if there had been an explosion somewhere and...
She ran outside into the dark, but was unable to see much for all the trees. Frantically she raced up the path, away from the town, not stopping until she reached the top of the hill she'd rested on the day before. She stood there now, scanning the horizon. At last she found a dull, orange glow from a distant hill off to the west.
Her legs, already weak, trembled and gave out on her. She sank to her knees, never taking her eyes from that far away light, even after it faded and died. All she could see in her mind were the wires on the door -- Mr. Steele pulling on that door -- opening it -- expecting to find her, but instead...
"Nooooo," she moaned and covered her face with her hands. "Please, God, no."
She let the tears come. She couldn't have stopped them anyway. Laying face down in the wild grass she cried -- cried for the orphaned, unloved child, for the angry, rebellious youth, for the consummate conman and master thief who'd relinquished all that to become Remington Steele for her. Always for her -- everything had always been for her and she'd put him off, questioned his judgment, distrusted his motives, suspected his feelings for her -- the feelings that had just led him to open the door to his fate.
Michael, Harry, Mick - the name didn't matter, should never have mattered. She loved him and now it was too late -- too late to tell him, too late to apologize, too late to make up for lost time. She had just lost all the time they would ever have.
Wrapping her arms around herself, she rolled onto her back and stared up at the stars. The tears still came, rolling down into her hair. She supposed she should get up and go back to the building. She needed to get out of the cold night air, but she couldn't move -- not right at this moment. Maybe in a little while. And in the morning she would get up and head back towards that hill. She knew what direction to take now. His death had provided her with a beacon to find her way home.
"Look, guys. I can't serve you any more," the old bartender warned them for about the tenth time as he set another bottle of bourbon on their dark, corner table. "It's past closing time now. You're the only ones left in the whole joint."
Murphy waved him away and reached out an unsteady hand to pour two more glasses. There wasn't enough liquor in the world that would make him forget tonight, though he was giving it one hell of a try.
He glanced across the table at Steele who was beating him hands down in amount of drinks. But then, maybe it was true about Irishmen and booze. Steele certainly looked gone in any case. Of course, he'd looked almost this bad when Murphy had finally been able to drag him off the mountain.
He tossed back his drink, shutting his eyes as the liquid burned down his throat, reliving again the explosion -- the blast in his face, being knocked to the ground, Steele screaming out Laura's name and running straight towards the inferno. Murphy squeezed his eyes shut even tighter, but the images wouldn't go away. Neither would the aching emptiness in the pit of his stomach. Not even the drinks were filling that, though they were succeeding in blurring things just a bit. Maybe if he drank enough it wouldn't hurt quite so bad. Probably not, but it was worth a try.
"Gi' us some music, Murphy m'lad," Steele suddenly requested. He was leaning heavily on the table, his speech slurred, his accent heavier than usual. "I don' thin' I could walk that' far."
"Cert'nly," Murphy complied, not at all sure if his legs would make it. He got up ungracefully and wobbled over towards the juke box. After only three tries, he managed to pull a quarter out of his pocket, but he was having trouble finding the slot to put it in. Frustrated, he banged on the top of the machine.
The bartender hurried over to rescue his equipment. "If I pick three songs for you, will you go afterwards, Mister? I gotta close up."
Murphy bowed graciously, nearly falling over on his face. The old man caught him before he fell and helped him steady himself.
"Thank you, sir," Murphy agreed. "You got a deal."
He handed over his quarter and staggered back to plop into his chair. Soon a lively old Creedence Clearwater song filled the air.
"Exc'llnt choice," Steele approved. "Good man." He took another shot of bourbon. "Nuthin' better th'n good music. 'Cept perhaps a movie. How 'bout it, Murphy? A visit to the cinema?"
"Why not," Murphy agreed. "But it's prob'ly too late fer one t'night."
"Damn," Steele swore conversationally and fell silent. After a few moments he spoke up again. "Y'know, Murphy, I was think'n. You could move back here. You could run the agency."
Murphy shook his head. "Tha's your agency."
"S'not mine. Laura's. Was always Laura's. But you could run it. For Laura. Whaddya say, mate?"
Murphy's foggy brain couldn't tell if Steele was serious or just plain drunk. Probably just drunk. He shook his head again, sending the room spinning.
"You c'n run it. You're Remin'ton Steele, not me."
"He's a fraud, y'know." Steele chugged another glass. "Not worth his press. He couldn't come through in the pinch...couldn't save his own 'ssociate... let her down. She trusted him and he didn't pay off."
His voice trailed off and Murphy watched as his head sank to the table to rest on his folded arms. His black hair fell forward to obscure Murphy's view of his face. Murphy's own emotions were too numb right now to do more than feel a vague sense of pity for the man at the table with him. He sat and stared at the glass in his hand, not really thinking of anything until the bartender interrupted him.
"This is the last song. Then you both gotta scram."
"Okay, okay. Keep yer shirt on," Murphy grumbled. "Let us get our money's worth at least."
Muttering to himself, the man shuffled over to the bar to wait them out.
Murphy supposed he really ought to get Steele home anyway. There was also Mildred who would need the bad news broken to her. Considering Steele's state, Murphy supposed that duty would fall on him. Good ol' reliable Murphy. It was almost as if Laura had said it. Laura. God, it can't be true. Murphy closed his eyes again, but her name kept going through his mind.
Think of Laura,
but laugh, don't cry,
I know she'd want it that way.
Murphy let his head fall to the table. God, not that song. Why that particular song? He tried not to listen, but it played on as if taunting him.
Where are you now?
Are you far away from me?
I don't think so,
I think you're here,
Taking our tears away.
"Stop it!" Steele suddenly shouted, rising to his feet and nearly falling over his chair. His hands were pressed to his ears. "Stop it, damn you!"
Without warning, he picked up his chair and headed zig-zag fashion over to the juke box, his intentions all too obvious.
The bartender got to Steele before Murphy, shoving him back and grabbing the chair out of his hands. Steele was hardly in a condition to put up much of a fight.
"Get him outta my joint," the man ordered as Murphy finally reached his distraught friend.
"We're goin', we're goin'," he assured the man. He grabbed Steele's arm. "C'mon."
Steele resisted long enough to land one good kick at the juke box before Murphy could pull him away and drag him outside. He piled him unceremoniously into the passenger's side of the Auburn.
"Gimme the keys," he ordered. He knew he shouldn't really be driving, but he was better off than his friend.
Steele slapped at his trousers. "Can't fine 'em. Now where are..." He reached deep into his front pocket. "Ah, here." He handed the ring to Murphy. "Take us home, Fred. Go slow, I don't feel very well. I know Miss Holt gets upset when I'm late, but I can't help it today."
Murphy watched as Steele leaned back against the seat and closed his eyes. The neon light from the tavern caught the glint of a tear as it slipped from those closed lids. The sight of it there was sobering and he pulled himself together and climbed in behind the wheel. He had to stay with it enough to get them home. That was all.
Hang in there for a little longer, he told himself. But then what? he asked in return. After we get home, then what?
He didn't have an answer and he didn't want to ponder it -- not this soon. It would take some time. He couldn't deal with it right now. Wasn't that why they'd stopped at the bar in the first place?
Enough was enough. He started the engine and pulled onto the highway. He hoped that at this hour the only people they might meet on the road would be other drunks. That way, at least, if they had an accident, it would only be fair and just.
Mildred sat watching the late, late show and shoveled popcorn into her mouth. She was alternating between being furious with those two for going off without telling her, and being concerned that something might have happened. She would also never forgive them for making her suffer through the midnight hour alone, not knowing what had happened to Miss Holt.
So she waited, not knowing where they'd gone, but not wanting to go home in case they came back. She'd made herself at home and snuggled down on the sofa, turning on the television to kill time. The movie wasn't bad and the popcorn helped her to manage her anxiety.
It was somewhere between the second and third Cal Worthington commercial that she heard the key in the lock. Her stomach did a somersault as she jumped up to open the door, bursting to have her questions answered.
The sight that greeted her told all. She didn't even have to ask. Murphy stood supporting Mr. Steele. Both men were swaying, obviously intoxicated. No, Murphy was intoxicated -- the Boss was stoked to the gills. Their condition and the fact that they were alone could only mean one thing -- they hadn't found Miss Holt.
"Hi, Mildred," Murphy greeted thickly. He led Mr. Steele into the apartment. "Could you help me get him t'bed? He was sick in the parkin' lot."
Mildred ran to take some of Mr. Steele's weight. Together, she and Murphy led him into the bedroom and flopped him onto the king-size bed. He seemed oblivious to their efforts as they divested him of shoes, socks and shirt. Mildred drew up the quilt and tucked it in gently.
"Do you want anything, Chief? she asked. She reached out to smooth away that stubborn lock of hair from his eyes.
Those eyes -- red-rimmed from the drink -- merely closed as he let go a trembling sigh. He wasn't aware of their presence any longer.
Mildred turned to Murphy, who looked almost as bad off as the Boss. Neither one of them had shaved in two days and they were filthy dirty besides. But at least Murphy was still conscious and available for questions. She took him by the arm and guided him out of the bedroom, closing the door behind them.
Murphy hadn't said a word since coming into the apartment. Sitting him down on the couch, Mildred knew this was going to be hard on him, but she had a right to know what had happened. It was Murphy's bad luck to have to be the one to tell her.
"You wanna fill me in on what's been going on around here?" she asked, a bit harsher than she meant.
Murphy didn't meet her gaze. Instead he ran a hand through his sandy blond hair until it practically stood on end.
"Come on," Mildred protested. "You guys leave me here all alone... no word, no nothing. I deserve some explanations. So tell me." Mildred paused a moment and softened her tone. "What about Miss Holt? I guess you didn't find her, huh?"
Murphy shook his head. "We found her." His voice was quiet. Mildred already knew somehow what he was going to tell her. "We found out where she was," he went on. "Out in the desert... nothin' there... no roads, no people... only these water tanks... too many of 'em. We couldn't find the right one... had to hike a million miles. Then we fin'lly got there... the right one... Holt Canyon Road."
Murphy stood on unsteady feet and walked over to the fireplace. He was limping and he used his uninjured arm to hold onto the mantle for support. "He, uh... he had this timer rigged for midnight. We got there... Steele was running... I was behind him."
He stopped talking. Mildred walked over to where he stood and took hold of his arm. He closed his eyes and breathed in shakily. Her heart went out to him. She wanted to tell him he didn't have to continue, but it was as if he needed to tell it now. He'd started and had to get the whole story out.
"There was... there was a bomb... blew up just as we got there. Steele was running... it just blew up and we, uh, I didn't know what else to do."
He sounded lost and Mildred could see the trembling in his strong chin, the tears in his quiet eyes.
"Laura..." He paused and swallowed hard. "She... Laura was in there when it blew."
He closed his eyes again and the tears spilled over and ran down his cheeks, leaving trails in the dirt on his face.
In a sudden revelation, Mildred knew without question why Murphy had left the agency. It was only obvious from looking at the man that he loved Miss Holt. Mildred felt tears of her own welling up in her eyes as only now the full weight of what had happened began to sink in.
"What you need is some sleep," she informed Murphy brusquely. She led him over to the couch, where she sat him down and helped him take off his shoes. She went to get him a blanket and when she returned he had toppled over sideways and was already out. She lifted his feet onto the sofa and covered him. Then she turned off the television and sat down in the armchair, finally giving in to her tears -- letting them fall for the friend and near-daughter she'd found in Laura Holt.
The world was a gray haze to Laura's numbed senses as she plodded on, trance-like, over the hills. She felt nothing at this moment. Her mind was focused on only one thing -- getting to the remains of the storage tank.
Somehow she'd found her way back to the buildings and spent the night there. Sleep had taken her away from the torment of her loss. When the sun rose in the morning, its brightness reaching in the windows to awaken her, she'd moved mechanically, without thinking of anything except her goal.
She marched on, no longer aware of her thirst or hunger, or extreme fatigue. Life was merely taking one step after another, each one bringing her closer. She didn't bother to think about what she would do once she got there. That was too far removed. Besides, she was counting on other people being there -- people who could take over once she got there. Her only concern was getting there and that's all she allowed herself to dwell on.
When she stepped into the half-concealed gopher hole, her ankle twisted and gave out from under her, causing her to fall face first into the grass. Her first thought was to get up and keep moving, but she couldn't. The sharp stab of pain that shot up her leg brought her abruptly back to reality.
Gritting her teeth, she bent to examine her right ankle, wincing at the pain even that slight movement caused. Her foot was already swelling and she had no idea if she'd fractured it or merely sprained it severely. In either case, her trek to the hilltop had been brought to a halt. She wasn't going anywhere now.
What else can possibly happen?
Laura gazed around at the beautiful, but lonely landscape, feeling detached from life, as if she were the only person on the face of the earth. Even the aching and throbbing of her abused and injured body seemed a thing apart. She was aware of her physical condition, but it didn't really matter. She would stay here in this lovely setting, soaking up the sun and the wind and the grass and the flowers and the songs of the birds.
She fancied she was in Ireland. If she closed her eyes she could almost hear the bleating of the sheep, the distant lilt of the pipes. She saw herself running lightly through the grass, laughing at the dark haired lad with the deep blue eyes who followed her over the hills until he caught her. They tumbled down together onto the sweet smelling earth.
She lay back and closed her eyes, losing herself to the fantasy, content to stay there wrapped in his arms. When night came and brought the darkness they would go to sleep together, holding each other under the stars, his arms keeping her warm and safe and nothing more could touch her.
Steele didn't remember the sun ever being quite so bright before as he stood at the balcony ledge, coffee mug in one hand. He squinted painfully at the day. There was a hammer pounding at his skull and he felt as if he'd been run over by a bulldozer. All that paled, however, in comparison with the aching emptiness he felt inside.
He felt hollow -- as if his heart had been removed from his body. No, not removed -- yanked out violently. There was a difference. There was a scar he doubted would ever heal. He wondered if it was possible to go on living without a heart. It must be. He was alive. But he wasn't the same. He could never be the same. Not when the most vital part of his soul had gone up in flames last night.
It seemed strange to wake up in his bed this morning -- well, not quite morning. As he got up and mechanically went about showering and shaving and doing all the daily, routine things in life, it was as if nothing had happened. He was merely getting ready for work -- true, a bit late, but that wasn't new. He must have been out on a stakeout last night for he felt awful, but he could live with that.
It had been a pleasant enough fantasy while it lasted, but he hadn't been able to sustain it. Walking out into the living room -- seeing Murphy sprawled on the couch grimy and haggard -- finding Mildred's note telling him she'd gone home to get some sleep, but to call if he needed anything -- it was all too much reality for his fragile bubble.
Not quite sure what to do with himself, he'd brewed some coffee and come outside to try and sort out his feelings, but he'd found that an impossible task since he was empty of any feeling right now.
He was thus occupied when he heard a shuffling behind him. He turned to find Murphy standing at the glass doors, hand up to shield his eyes from the glare of the day.
"You look frightful, mate," Steele commented drily.
Murphy glanced down at his disheveled clothing and smiled sarcastically. "Thanks for the critique. I do my best." He jerked his thumb over his shoulder. "Mind if I jump in the shower?"
"Please do," Steele replied.
Murphy grimaced again and turned to go, but he paused and met Steele's eyes. The pain in the detective's face was all too obvious.
"I... I suppose somebody will have to tell her mother," Murphy stammered, breaking the long silence.
Steele held up his hand to allay any fears on that count. "Don't worry. I'll tell Abigail," he offered gently.
Murphy nodded once, then fled to the safety of the shower before anything else was said. Steele stared after him for a time, then once more focused his attention on the street.
What would he say to Abigail Holt? That her daughter had been brave and beautiful, intelligent and charming, spirited and bold as brass? But Abigail knew all those things already. What then? That Laura was dead because he was a fraud? That he'd loved her more than life itself and would have sold his soul to exchange places with her?
Try as he would, he couldn't think of where to begin. There was no way he could tell Laura's mother that her daughter was dead and he suddenly realized it was because he couldn't tell himself. That was why he couldn't feel anything more than a deep-rooted loneliness. Certainly Laura had been taken from him, kept away from him, but to think of her as actually being... He wasn't able to accept that -- not today, removed from the grim shock of the explosion.
It had been too neat, too fast. One second Laura was alive and within his grasp. The next she was gone, out of his reach forever. He couldn't reconcile that between his mind and his heart. He knew what he had to do. If he stayed here in the city, Laura would always be out on a case, ready to waltz through the office at any moment. He had to go back out there. He had to see, prepared now and sober, the proof of last night's carnage.
He entered the living room only to find Murphy standing there, hair still wet from the shower, shoes in hand, as if he'd been expecting him. Steele stood for a time, debating whether or not to say anything. He didn't have to. Murphy merely tossed him the keys to the Auburn.
"What are we waiting for?" he asked as he dropped his loafers and stepped into them.
Steele stared down at the car keys. He hadn't really planned on Murphy coming along. He'd wanted to do this alone. But he could hardly refuse. Murphy had been in on this from the beginning -- had been there last night. Hell, he'd known Laura a lot longer than Steele had. He deserved this trip.
"Let's go then, mate," Steele said quietly.
They drove out to the desert in silence. For Steele, it seemed to take half the time it had last night and they were soon at the end of the dirt road and hiking along the trail. It looked so different in the daylight -- so bright and beautiful and green. It was a far cry from the dark, treacherous trail he'd ran in those last, desperate seconds. But as he approached the charred ruins of the water tank, his heart sank with dreaded familiarity. This was all too vivid.
He stared at the blackened scene dismally, hardly aware of Murphy at his side. This was the reality he needed to convince himself. It had happened. Laura was gone, taken from his life. Laura was...
His head jerked up. He could have sworn he'd heard something. Had someone called his name? It could have been the wind, but... No, it had been a voice and not just any voice. It was Laura. She'd called him from over the hills as surely as if he'd been Heathcliff and she his beloved Catherine.
He made his way over to the edge of the hill and let his eyes scan the landscape. Nothing but green as far as he could see.
"What is it?" came a voice at his side and he distractedly acknowledged Murphy's presence.
"Wuthering Heights," he muttered.
"What?" Murphy sounded confused.
"Laurence Olivier, Merle Oberon, Nineteen thirty-nine."
"Excuse me?" Murphy asked again. Obviously he thought Steele had lost his grip.
Steele didn't explain, however. If Murphy didn't know the story, he wasn't going to spell it out. He walked part way down the hillside and stopped to listen as the wind rustled the grass and trees.
"What is it?" Murphy called after him.
Steele didn't respond. He merely stood, head cocked to one side, absorbing the sounds around him.
"Steele." Murphy trotted down to join him, a puzzle look on his face. "What is it?"
Steele finally turned and regarded Murphy for a long moment. Then he came to a decision.
"Do me a favor, would you, Murphy?"
"What's that?" Murphy asked suspiciously.
"I was thinking of taking a bit of a stroll around. I thought perhaps you could do the same, say in that direction." He pointed to the east. "I'll cover this way."
Murphy frowned at him. "What do you think we're going to find?"
Steele reached down and plucked a long strand of grass and chewed it thoughtfully.
"Steele," Murphy prodded irritably.
"I'm not sure. Maybe nothing. Maybe..."
"Nothing is right," Murphy interrupted. "Steele, she's gone. That hurts me almost as much as it does you, but you have to face up to it."
Steele studied Murphy's earnest face. His friend was obviously concerned for him, but he couldn't shake this feeling and he wasn't about to try and explain it. He knew in his head that Murphy was right, but something else drew him on. He had to do this, with or without Murphy.
"Stay here if you like, Murphy," Steele told him with a casual pat on the shoulder. "I'm taking a walk."
With that, he resumed his trek down the hillside, very much aware that after only a brief hesitation, Murphy started off in the other direction.
Murphy wasn't convinced he was doing the right thing, but he hadn't the heart to argue with Steele. Hiking a few miles to humor him wouldn't hurt, he supposed. Actually the fresh air had done wonders for his hangover.
He walked slowly over the hillsides, his thoughts far away. He remembered the old days at Hayvenhurst, the heartbreaking failure of Laura's first agency, the challenge and excitement of pulling off the incredible hoax of Remington Steele. He must have sounded like a broken record to her back then, telling her over and over again how much he hated the whole scenario. But he had enjoyed it when it came right down to it. There had been a lot of years shared, both good and bad times, but mostly he remembered the sheer fun of working with Laura -- watching her face light up with the thrill of the chase, hot on the trail and eager to find that one clue, tie up that last loose end that would close the case. Hers had been a contagious enthusiasm. He'd never been able to be around her for very long without catching her excitement. That was probably how she'd talked him into the whole Remington Steele thing to begin with.
His thoughts had carried him far away and he stopped, realizing he'd come further than he planned. He was near the top of a rather large rise and he decided to go ahead up to the top and take a look around. Then he'd head back, hopefully satisfying Steele's obsessive need to canvas the area. He knew though that Steele would never be completely at rest with himself and Murphy couldn't say that he blamed him. He knew how hard it was to accept it himself with the way he'd felt about Laura. God only knew what it must be like to have had Laura return those feelings, to have had a relationship with her and then to lose that without any warning and for no reason. It was understandable that Steele might be a bit off track today -- insisting they look around, as if they both hadn't seen the tank blow, as if they didn't know Laura had been imprisoned there, as if this two-man dragnet had a chance in hell of finding her.
Murphy stopped at the crest of the hill and stood catching his breath. He rubbed at his tired leg. He let his eyes search the valley below him. It was all the same -- the clumps of trees, green, rolling grass, jagged outcroppings of rocks. Nothing out of the ordinary except... He paused and strained to see better. It was far away, but it looked like a patch of blue contrasting sharply with the brilliant green of the valley floor. It was probably only a rock. It could only be a rock. He wouldn't allow any foolish hope to rise inside of him. But he started down the hillside nonetheless, only to confirm what he already knew.
He made his way down the hill, slowly at first, then almost unconscious of the fact, his pace quickened. With each step he went faster, drawing closer and closer, until he was suddenly running. The faster he ran, the more certain he became that the blue he'd seen was clothing -- a dress. And there was a person wearing that dress. On he ran, ignoring the pain in his leg and side. He was close enough to see the woman lying in the grass. He knew who it was.
"Laura!" he shouted, losing a clear picture of her as his eyes blurred with unshed tears.
"Laura!" he called again and he was kneeling beside her still figure, unable to convince himself that she was real -- that he hadn't just gone plain crazy and joined Steele in his Brontë fantasy.
She seemed to be sleeping peacefully. There was even the trace of a smile on her lips, as if she'd merely lain down in this meadow to nap in the sunlight. Murphy reached out a tentative hand to brush against her cheek, to gently touch those lips. It was then he noticed how dry and chapped they were, how dirty her face was -- the pink flush of sun and wind on her skin. Her hair was tangled with grass and twigs, her dress muddy and torn. She'd obviously been through hell, but she was the most beautiful sight Murphy had ever seen. He reached down and kissed her forehead lightly.
"Laura," he called, trying to reach her and bring her back from whatever refuge she'd fled to. He took one of her hands in his own, frowning darkly at the dried blood on her wrists, evidence of her bondage. If Phillips weren't already dead, Murphy would have seen to it gladly.
"Laura," he repeated, a bit more insistently. This time she stirred.
A soft moan escaped her lips and her eyes fluttered open. Those wonderful brown eyes fixed on Murphy blankly for a moment, then opened wide in astonished recognition.
"Murphy?" she croaked in a small voice. "Murphy, you're here?"
"Where else would I be, partner?" he asked, his own voice husky with emotion.
"I didn't think anybody would come and find me."
Her eyes closed again. He could see her lip quivering. Impulsively, he gathered her up to hold against him. She clung to him tightly.
"It's all right now," he soothed. "Everything's all right now." He held her a moment more, relishing the feel of her in his arms before he would have to give her up. Then he pulled away. Steele would be waiting. It wasn't fair to keep her away from him.
"I need to get you out of here. Can you walk?"
She shook her head slightly. "I did something to my ankle."
Immediately he was down by her foot, examining the injury. The ankle was swollen and purple. It looked pretty bad.
"Can you move it?"
She tried and winced, biting her lower lip.
"Okay, relax. It's probably broken." He smiled and added, "I think we can save it."
She smiled back at him -- that smile he thought he would never see again. The sight of it warmed his soul.
"My God, Laura. You don't know how glad I am to see you again."
"What are you doing here, Murph?" she asked, her face serious again.
"Looking for you," he replied. "I thought maybe Steele could use some help, but he did pretty damn good on his own." He stopped. Laura had tensed suddenly and turned away. "Laura?" he asked in alarm. "Laura? What's wrong?"
She didn't answer and he decided the best thing to do would be to get her back to Steele as quickly as possible. He scouted around until he found a few passable sticks and set about splinting Laura's ankle the best he could. During the entire process she remained silent. She seemed to have withdrawn into some inner place -- for what reason, Murphy wasn't sure. He chalked it up to shock and the trauma she'd just gone through.
When he'd bound her foot securely, he reached down and lifted her into his arms.
"I'll take you home now, Laura," he told her gently as she rested her head against his shoulder.
Steele kicked at a clump of brush dejectedly. He should have known better. He'd been daydreaming -- caught up in a brief, hopeful fantasy. Laura wasn't out here. She'd always told him he watched too many movies.
His search had taken him to the highway. If, by any stretch of the imagination Laura had freed herself and come this way, she would have found the road and eventually gotten home on her own. Intensely disappointed, he wandered back to the hill, half-expecting to find Murphy waiting for him. His friend was only doing this to humor a distraught man's wish fulfillment, Steele knew, but surprisingly, Murphy hadn't been there.
He waited, settling down on a large boulder and gazing out at the horizon. His thoughts were jumbled. What was he going to do now? Laura had given him a name, an identity, a place to finally belong. Without her there to reinforce it, did it still hold together? Without Laura Holt could there really still be a Remington Steele? He wasn't sure he even wanted to find out. What point was there to finally knowing who you were if you had no one to share that knowledge with?
It was a ponderous issue -- one that was going to require some very serious thinking. It was too weighty a matter for his brain right now. Maybe tomorrow, or perhaps the next day. Maybe after enough time had passed to finally convince his heart that it was alone again.
He sighed and lowered his head to rest in his hands. He hadn't exactly led an exemplary life. He'd reconciled himself long ago to a few years in purgatory for some of his less than legal activities, but he'd never hurt anybody intentionally -- well, maybe a couple, but they'd been ruthless buggers anyway and had deserved much more than he'd ever given them. He just couldn't recall doing anything so terrible that he would deserve having to suffer through hell now.
He was still mulling over the scales of universal justice when he caught the sound of someone climbing up the hill. Murphy must be coming back -- and fairly dragging, judging from the sound of it. He got slowly to his feet and shuffled over to the edge of the hill, curious as to what had kept his companion for so long.
Never in his life would he forget the sight that greeted his eyes. For a moment he thought he must have gone mad. There was Murphy, limping his way up the steep hill, carrying in his arms a most precious burden.
"Laura," Steele whispered reverently, almost in prayer. He began running down the hill.
Murphy glanced up at that moment, a smile as bright as the sun lighting his face. He must have whispered something in Laura's ear, for she lifted her head from Murphy's shoulder and turned to look up as well.
Their eyes met and the look on Laura's face halted Steele in his tracks a few feet from her. She stared at him with incredulous astonishment, as if he was the phantom back from the dead and not her.
"Laura." He reached out a trembling hand to touch her face, to convince himself she wasn't an illusion.
Laura's own hand took hold of his, her eyes never leaving his face. Finally she spoke.
"You're not dead," she whispered. "You're not dead."
"Dead? Me?" Steele nearly laughed in relief. "My God, Laura, we thought you were..."
At that moment Murphy stepped up and handed Laura over to Steele, placing her into his arms. He took her gratefully. He'd thought he would never again feel her here and he longed to do nothing more than just hold her close. As she settled against him and he felt her bury her face in his neck, he was suddenly curious about her reaction to seeing him.
"Laura... you were the one kidnapped. Why would you think I was dead?" he asked tenderly.
She shuddered in his arms and her voice was muffled, but he could still hear her answer. "That man. He rigged a bomb."
"We know," Murphy spoke up. "We saw it explode."
Laura lifted her head to look over at Murphy, then up into Steele's eyes. "You saw it? Then you thought..."
"Yes. Well, we were looking for you, Laura. What were we to think?"
"My God," Laura breathed. "I'm so sorry."
"You have nothing to be sorry about," Steele soothed as she once more lay he head on his shoulder. "And the man who caused it has already paid the price."
"You never got to the door?" Laura asked quietly.
"No," Steele replied honestly. "We were a few seconds too late."
"Thank God you were," Laura breathed. Her arms tightened around Steele's neck. "He had the door wired. It would have gone off anyway."
"That bastard!" Murphy swore.
Steele remained silent, thinking about what torment Laura must have gone through and still reveling in the miracle that had brought them all out of it safely.
"We better get her home," Murphy advised. "I think she's broken her ankle."
Steele glanced down at Laura's crudely splinted foot. "You're right, of course, Murphy. Let's get her out of here."
He followed Murphy up the hill and back to the waiting Auburn -- away from the blackened ruins and all the horror they represented.
To Laura, the return home was all a blur. There were certain impressions she remembered well -- riding in the Auburn, held close in Mr. Steele's arms, listening to the beating of his heart, feeling his hand stroking her hair as they rode in silence, being carried into a hospital, Murphy telling someone very matter-of-factly he would break their face if he didn't get a doctor immediately. Then she had gone to sleep for a long time.
She woke up once and saw Mildred snoozing in a chair by her bed. She'd gone back to sleep only to wake up the next morning to the noisy sounds of the floor nurse. The chair beside her was empty, but shortly after the nurse left, Mr. Steele's dazzling smile appeared around the door as he slipped inside, unnoticed by the staff. He came up beside her and took her hand. With his other, he revealed a bouquet of flowers from behind his back.
"Good morning," he whispered and leaned down to kiss her cheek. "How are you feeling today?"
"Fine now." Laura smiled. "Actually, sort of numb all over."
"Only natural, only natural," Steele reassured her smoothly. "Your doctor says you won't have to stay long. Of course, you won't be up to much leg work with that." He gestured to the cast on her leg.
"I guess that means you'll have to do it," Laura teased.
He didn't smile though. His face was thoughtful and he sat down on the side off the bed. "There isn't anything I wouldn't do for you," he said very seriously.
She squeezed his hand. He abruptly bent down and captured her lips with his own. The kiss was deep and lingering and Laura's arms reached up to encircle his neck. When at last he broke away, Laura could see in his eyes the last, haunting traces of the pain he'd gone through. She could imagine what it must have been like, knowing what a hell she'd gone through herself.
"I'm certainly glad you didn't give up on me," she said finally.
"Murphy's the one who found you," Steele pointed out.
"You did it together," she reminded him. "That's what it's all about, you know. Teamwork."
Steele regarded her curiously, then smiled. "Right you are, partner."
A small tap at the door turned them both. Murphy slipped inside with a wink and a grin. "That staff nurse is quite the watchdog. I almost didn't make it." He came over to the other side of the bed. "I didn't want to intrude here, but I wanted to stop by before I left."
"You're going so soon?" Laura asked in dismay. "Murphy, I've hardly had a chance to even see you."
"I know," Murphy said, "but I wasn't exactly planning this little vacation. I'm pretty busy myself these days."
Steele suddenly stood up and made his way to the door. "You two have a nice visit. I'll keep a watch out for Brunhilda." He smiled and was gone in a flash.
Laura smiled after him, then turned to Murphy. She could see his black eye and he'd been limping when he came in. She hadn't gotten any details out for anyone yet, but it was obvious the ordeal had been a rough one. She took hold of Murphy's hand and pulled him down to sit on the side of the bed.
"Do you really have to go?" she asked.
Murphy nodded reluctantly. "'Fraid so. I worked with you too long. My calendar's booked solid through next leap year."
Laura laughed and gave his hand a squeeze. "Thanks, Murph."
Murphy raised his eyebrows. "For what?"
"For being here. For helping out. Just for being a friend."
Murphy merely shrugged.
"And thanks for the flowers," she added with a laugh. "You'll never know what good timing you had."
Now it was Murphy's turn to laugh. "I just figured if he got a prize, so should you. Who knows better than me how much you deserve it, huh?
Laura grew sober. "He deserves it too, Murph. He really does. I guess I forget that sometimes too."
Murphy nodded. "I guess we all do. But he really came through on this one, Laura. He never gave up and he solved the case. I guess he really is the great detective Remington Steele after all. Who would have believed that our make-believe boss would turn out like this?"
Laura smiled at her old friend. "Does that make us Dr. Frankenstein or the Blue Fairy?"
Murphy laughed loudly, then glanced guiltily at the door. "I better go before we get busted." He reached down to kiss Laura's forehead. "I'll be seeing you, Laura. Why don't you guys come up to Denver? We've got great skiing, you know."
"We just might do that," Laura warned. "Take care, Murph."
She watched as he left the room with one backwards wave goodbye. How different it had been than that last time he'd left. She was glad things had worked out between the three of them. Murphy was a good friend -- the best. He had always been there when she needed him. It was nice to know she could still depend on him to come through in the rough times -- and to know Mr. Steele could count on him as well.
Steele stood in the sterile hospital corridor, his hand outstretched, saying goodbye to Murphy. There was so much he owed to this man, so much he wished he could put into words, but there had never been much casual conversation between them. Perhaps now there was no need for it. This silent handshake was all that was required.
"Take care, Steele," Murphy said, once more dropping his hand to his side. "I guess I'll be seeing you around."
"Of course, Murphy," Steele reassured him, awkwardly searching for something to say. For one of the few times in his life, words were failing him.
"I've got to go," Murphy said. He turned to leave.
"Murphy, wait," Steele called.
When the detective turned, Steele merely offered a self-conscious smile. "Thanks," he said simply, but heartfelt.
Murphy gave him a smile in return. "Thank you too," he replied.
Then he was gone. Steele stared after him. His life had certainly turned out differently than he'd ever expected it to. Becoming Remington Steele had not only given him the woman he loved more dearly than his own life, but it seemed it had also given him something he'd had damn few of in his nomadic life. He had a friend he could count on. A small thing perhaps, to some, but he knew too well how much that mattered in a world where having a true friend made a man consider himself fortunate.
Feeling richly blessed, he walked back into Laura's hospital room. He didn't care if the nurse saw him. Let her try and keep him out.
Murphy stood inside his old office, travel bag in hand. It was different than when he'd left it. There were more file cabinets and the coffee machine had been moved in here. It was obviously being used as a file room. The biggest change was the doorway to Laura's office. It wasn't there anymore. That avenue was blocked now. He supposed it was fitting -- even right somehow. He'd seen the two of them together. There was no other way it could possibly be. What mattered was that Laura was finally happy. After years of searching and being hurt, she found what she'd always been looking for. That was all he had ever wanted for her anyway.
He glanced at his watch. He'd better get going. Fred was waiting downstairs to take him to the airport. He backed out into the lobby and saw Mildred standing there, smiling warmly.
"Well, can you?" she asked cryptically.
"Can I what?"
"Can you go home again?"
Murphy laughed and shook his head. "Nope. I guess ol' Thomas Wolfe was right. This isn't mine anymore. Denver's home now."
"Well, I'm sure glad you came to help," Mildred told him emphatically.
"I'm glad you called." He paused, taking in the feel of the office. Then he sighed. "I guess I better go."
"Want some company? I could ride to the airport with you.'
Murphy smiled grateful acceptance. "Thanks, Mildred."
He crooked an elbow for her and they walked arm in arm to the waiting limousine.
"And now, without further ado, the winner of the Sleuth Award, the Detective of the Year, Remington Steele."
The applause sounded loud and long as Steele made his way up to the podium to accept the award. It seemed like years had passed since the picture in the paper had announced the honor. So much had happened since then.
He glanced down at Laura who sat at their table smiling encouragement up at him. It was all the boost he needed.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he began as the applause died down. "Fellow investigators. I'm sure each of you is well aware of just how much hard work goes into solving cases -- from the most routine to the most complex. I'm also certain you are all aware that no one person does all that work. We each have well-trained staff and valued associates who contribute greatly to the overall success of the agency."
He paused and once more his eyes found Laura's. She looked uncertain and he smiled reassuringly.
"Tonight," he continued, "tonight, you are honoring Remington Steele. Well, tonight Remington Steele honors that one most highly-esteemed associate without whom Remington Steele wouldn't even exist. Tonight I give this award to Private Investigator Laura Holt."
He stepped back from the podium and began applauding. The entire room followed suit until Laura, hampered by her crutches, made her way slowly up the steps to stand beside him at the microphone. She was red-faced with embarrassment, but he could also see she was pleased as well. She seemed at a loss so he merely handed her the award and leaned over to kiss her on the cheek.
"Congratulation, Miss Holt," he said, smiling broadly.
Laura stared down at the award, then back up into his eyes, breaking into a wide smile of her own.
"Why, thank you, Mr. Steele."