by Kate Webster
©December 20, 2000
"Are we going in?" Jim Reed prompted in the darkness beside him.
"Soon enough, partner," Pete agreed dully, his hands resting on the steering wheel he held way too much. His thoughts were dark and sullen tonight, despite the holiday, and calls like this certainly didn't help matters any.
"They said it was apartment sixteen," the younger officer pressed, playing with his watchcap nervously. These calls always made him uneasy. Jim was thinking of his own little bundle at home, dreaming of sugar plums while his own personal Santa was sitting on a dark street across town and not getting that Red Flyer put together.
"I know," Pete took one long, ragged breath, letting it out slowly. Pete's eyes gazed steadily at some point ahead that Jim couldn't locate. It wasn't the blinking Christmas lights reflecting on the rain soaked street.
"Well, let's get this over with," Pete sighed as they got out of the unit, donning their caps and slipping batons into the loops on their belts. The officers headed for the entrance to the unkempt apartment complex, Pete fully expecting to have to do battle with the cockroaches guarding the door. A single bare bulb harshly illuminated the shabby and peeling yellow lobby walls; the stained, threadbare carpeting was such a hideous green it made Pete's stomach roil. It was hard to imagine anyone intending for something to be that color. A door opened two inches, secured by a chain lock, a wary eye watching the officers. They ascended the creaking, broken-down staircase to the third floor, accompanied by a scratchy rendition of Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer from someone's radio.
It seemed the entire watch was working some aspect of the homicide that had occurred at 1845 hours on the east side of the division. Like several other units, Malloy and Reed had rolled as back-up on the initial call. The four-hundred block of Alameda was a small, seedy section full of filthy bars and boarded up storefronts, cheap hotels that rented by the hour yet still had more rats for residents than people. When they arrived on scene the street was chaotic-screaming women and angry men in a sea of wretched humanity converged on the site of the city's latest shooting. The officers were deployed into the mass of confusion to lend aid, repress further violence, gather information and preserve the crime scene. One of the primary goals had already been accomplished: the shooter had been found. The responding officers had discovered a pathetic, used-up female just shy of her twenty-third birthday, still standing over the body of the victim, holding the murder weapon in a trembling hand. She had taken a forty-five and shot her boyfriend three times in the chest at point blank range, putting an end to an argument over money and years of alleged abuse. She'd waived her rights and given her name as Gracie Paterson.
Half an hour later, Sergeant MacDonald had instructed the officers of 1-Adam-12 to follow-up on a report that the suspect's young child had been left alone in the woman's apartment and might have been witness to some of the violence. That thought had plagued Pete Malloy as he drove to the address, even more than the grizzly memory of the crime scene itself. The survivors were always the hardest to face, but the sorrow of the tiny innocents destroyed in the wake of their parents' reckless lives never seemed to get easier to bear.
Jim stopped in front of the door marked sixteen. A broken tile that may have been white long ago held the scratched "1"; a bent and rusted metal "6" hung crookedly from a single nail in the scarred door. He waited until his partner caught up with him, drawing to the other side of the doorway without a word. He had noticed that Pete was lethargic tonight and withdrawn, and wondered if it was the nature of the call or something more personal weighing on the other officer's mind. He'd wanted to talk with him about it, but Pete's demeanor had warned him off, so he was waiting for his partner to make the move.
Jim rapped on the door, which creaked open with that slight pressure, revealing a darkened room, its vile disarray barely discernible in the glow of a small portable television set. A tiny figure ensnared in a dirty, moth-eaten blanket lay on the littered floor before the glaring eye of the TV. Pete felt his gorge rise at the sight.
"Should I call an ambulance?" Jim asked softly.
"Hang tight, partner." Pete removed his watchcap, handing it to his friend. "Hold this for me, will ya?" he said quietly. He knelt beside the bundle on the floor, reaching out a gentle hand and pulling back the frayed cover. Beneath it was a small child, a girl of about four years. Her little body was curled around a love-worn toy bear, one eye missing and held together with patches, stuffing leaking from a burst seam at its side. The left ear was hanging by a couple of stitches.
Malloy shrugged off his own reactions and concentrated on the child at his knee. There was an ugly bruise on her right arm, the size of a large hand print, but no other injuries were apparent in this half-light.
"Hold off on that ambulance, Jim," he said in just above a whisper. "I think it'd be less frightening if we took her in to Central. But better get a message to Mac and update him."
"Mmmm" she stirred beneath his gentle hand, her chubby fist screwing against her tightly shut eyes.
"It's okay, little one," he said softly, feeling the emotions he knew would be his undoing. It had been a long day before he'd even started watch and had progressively gotten worse. He knew he had a long way to go.
"Santa?" she questioned, confused by sleep and unnamed fears. She started briefly, sitting up. Malloy's broad hand was tender and firm as he held her fast, patting her shoulder.
"No, honey. My name's Pete," he stated patiently. "It's okay. I'm a police officer, so you're safe."
Big blue eyes stared up at him, reflecting the dim glow of the television. She studied him intently, first fearful, then curious.
"Mama?" the girl asked with a tone of adult concern coloring her voice. "Is mama home?"
"No, sweetheart." Malloy swallowed the lump that fought against his speech. "Your mother isn't coming home tonight."
"Oh." The child returned to her position on the floor, pulling the bear closer, and sucking her thumb. "'kay." The resignation tore at Pete's heart. It obviously wasn't the first time.
"Honey, we're going to take you to someone who'll look after you tonight," he offered, making it sound a bit more like an excursion than it had any right. "Come on, why don't we go for a ride."
"I not allowed," she sighed, taking the thumb from her mouth briefly. "I not allowed to leave the 'partment."
"But it's okay to leave with us," Pete reasoned. "We're police officers. You're safe with us."
"I not allowed," she replied as though that should be all the answer he needed. There was a weariness in her words that went beyond the lateness of the hour. He wondered at it, until a snatch of memory chided him not to. There was still too much to do. Don't get involved, Peter J!
"What's your name, sweetheart?" he attempted, swallowing past that huge lump in his throat.
"Caillie," she replied with a yawn.
As he looked for a phone, Jim snapped on a light; another bare overhead bulb which did nothing to enhance the ambiance of the place. It was sparsely furnished and like the rest of the building, in desperate need of repair. There were piles of clothes on the floor and more draped over nearly every surface. There was a bed against one wall, its mattress bare, a dirty blanket and a brown-stained pillow without a case tossed carelessly atop the worn ticking. The adjoining wall held what passed for the kitchen, the chipped sink filled with dirty dishes and little on the shelves to indicate awaiting bounty.
Pete closed his eyes against his quick survey of the residence and returned his attentions to the tiny rumpled form beneath his hand.
"Come on, honey. Let's find your coat so we can go," Pete coaxed gently.
"I not 'llowed to go wit anybody," she demanded, her blue eyes flashing a warning he didn't miss.
"Where's your coat?" he insisted, his own stubborn streak showing just behind the patient smile.
"Don't got none," she focused again on the blinking television, its horizontal hold apparently faulty, letting the picture roll.
"Well then, let's get your shoes on so we can take that drive, huh?"
"Mama don't let me go out of the 'partment," she shook her head, still sleepy from the looks of her drooping eyelids.
Pete shot a glance across the room at his partner, still hunting for a phone. Jim shook his head, though it was unclear whether he was commenting on Pete's progress with the child or admitting failure in his search.
"You know you can trust policemen, right?" Malloy's voice took on that long-suffering tenderness he used with frightened children and confused seniors. "Well my partner, Jim over there and me, we're policemen. So you can feel safe with us."
"Real p'lice?" she asked, turning away from the snowy, rolling picture on the tube. He'd finally gotten her attention, or perhaps she was just coming fully awake.
"Yes ma'am," Pete smiled broadly.
"Like Dick Tracy?" she sat up, staring into his kind gray eyes as though the proof of his veracity could be found there.
"Well, except that Tracy doesn't wear a uniform," Pete replied, not shaken at all by the path the conversation was taking.
"Do you have a gun and a p'lice car?" Caillie questioned, her interest growing.
"Of course!" he chuckled. "And I want to take you for a ride in it. Have you ever ridden in a black and white police car, with red lights on top?"
Jim Reed seemed to enjoy witnessing his partner's fishing expedition and the simplistic description of the cruiser he knew Pete could quote specs on till doomsday. Somehow in the next few minutes the bachelor surprised the seasoned parent of a three year old by managing to get the child into a pair of shoes, locate a sweater that was reasonably clean and convince her to accompany him on a short ride in the patrol car.
"Fascinating!" Jim shook his head as they stood by the cruiser together, after Pete had secured Caillie in the back seat.
"What's that?" Pete's brows raised in question.
"Watching your technique with the women," Jim smiled. "Always educational."
"Yeah, well just keep watching, partner," Pete winked as he swung into the driver's seat. "But remember - it's an art!"
By the time they got the child to Central Receiving she had fixated on Pete. Walking towards the emergency entrance, the frightening hospital looming before them, a tiny hand had wrapped itself around his finger. A little voice made him vow to stay at her side. The child had wound herself about his heart.
"You the father?" the young intern asked gruffly as he eyed Pete. He pulled the curtains shut on the alcove and referred to a chart that Pete was certain couldn't have more than five sentences scrawled across its face. The doctor looked all of nineteen, though Pete figured he had to be at least twenty-five. His long, unruly hair and loud tie did little to instill confidence in the officer.
"No, I'm not," Pete replied.
"You can't stay in here then," the doctor snapped. "We're gonna need a parent or custodian present before we can examine her. There are papers to be signed, releases...consent forms. And you'll have to leave."
"Peeete!" Cailin grabbed his finger, nearly cutting off all the circulation in her desperation.
"It's okay, Sweetie," he calmed her.
"It is not okay," the arrogant doctor insisted. "You're gonna have to leave."
Pete looked down at Cailin, trying to calculate how well she would take his absence. Her blue eyes were wide and fixed on his with an anxious determination. Her grip on his hand tightened.
"I'll be right outside," he began, feeling like a deserter.
"No!" she mouthed, her little head slowly shook from side to side. "Pleeeease Peete!"
"Listen-" He took up his hat off the end of the gurney. "Why don't you hold this for me while I'm gone?"
Those bright blue eyes filled with tears she seemed resolute to keep from falling as she bit her lower lip bravely.
"I'll be right outside," he explained. "Be right back. Honest. I can't go anywhere without my hat, now can I?" The child considered this for a minute and then accepted the offered token. "Thata girl," he smiled, extracting his hand. Pete smoothed the hair that wanted a good brushing. He turned, walked to the curtain's opening, and winked at Cailin and then with two fingers crooked sharply, he summoned the young doctor.
"You...eh...got a minute, Doc?" he asked with a tight tone.
"I really don't," the young man replied. "We're very busy..."
"This will only take a sec," he insisted, his mouth in a tense smile. They left Caillie with the assisting nurse, and the keepsake police hat. When he'd taken a few long strides from the cubicle, Pete stopped abruptly, wheeling about, taking the doctor by surprise. The look on Pete's face spelled trouble. His gray eyes flashed in barely contained exasperation.
"That little girl in there just came from hell, where by all evidence she has lived for the four years she's been on this planet. And she's got a long way to go before her life gets appreciably better. Her mother is being booked on charges for shooting a man, possibly the child's father, and nobody seems to be falling over themselves to claim responsibility for Caillie, so at the moment we are fresh out of parents and guardians, making her a ward of the court." Pete took a quick breath before continuing.
"As an officer of the Los Angeles Police Department, I have been entrusted with her care until she can be placed with a family member, in a suitable foster home or McLaren Hall. So I appear to be the closest thing you have to a consenting custodian," he continued with hardly a pause. "Now, I'll sign whatever papers you like, but apparently she feels safer with me around and if that child wants me there, by God that's where I'll be. You can call security if you have a problem with that!" He turned sharply on his heel, leaving the pimply faced intern standing fish-mouthed in his wake, as Pete returned to his little charge
"Pete..." Jim had witnessed his partner's somewhat restrained tirade. Pete's voice had never raised much above a whisper but it had been undeniably stern, just short of menacing. And both officers knew he'd overstepped his bounds.
"Don't..." Pete warned, his look telling Jim that he already knew what was going to be said, and was in no mood to discuss it. "Just....don't, okay?"
Jim shrugged in compliance, but from his expression, Pete knew he'd only delayed the discussion.
They went together back into the curtained cubicle. Caillie was still holding Pete's hat like a lifeline. She brightened when she saw him and offered the token, which he placed instead on her small head, eliciting one of her rare smiles.
Several moments later Dr. Adler, a tall man with salt-and-pepper hair parted the curtain and stepped inside, his eyes going from the two officers to the tiny patient on the bed, giggling under the oversized watchcap. His dark eyes softened a degree when he focused on the child, then snapped back to total professionalism.
"You're Officer Malloy?" he confirmed, reading Pete's name tag.
"Yes, doctor," Pete acknowledged, then nodded toward his partner. "Officer Reed."
"And this is...?" the doctor prompted, as Jim excused himself, making a gesture of a phone and slipping through the curtains silently.
"Caillie Paterson," Pete introduced. "She's four years old." He supplied what information was available from the non-stop conversation they'd been having since they left the apartment.
"A little young to be a cop, isn't she?" Adler quipped, smiling at the young girl who was studying him from beneath the cap and holding Pete's hand much too tightly.
"Well, Caillie's pretty smart," Pete drawled, his other hand squeezed the child's shoulder, trying to calm what he was reading as distrust of the doctor. He didn't blame her. Dr. Adler looked nice enough and he was smiling and warm with the little girl, but Pete had never cared much for doctors or hospitals either. He could relate to her apprehension.
"I see," the doctor smiled at the child. "Could I get you to remove your hat, Caillie, while we check you over a bit?"
"Pete's hat," she corrected. "Pete's a p'liceman. Like Dick Tracy on TV."
"He is, huh?" the doctor chuckled, the look he turned to Pete said he was impressed with her level of trust in the officer.
"He chases bad guys," she explained further. "And we rode in his p'licecar. I sat in the back with Reed. He's Pete's partner. Pete has to drive 'cause it's his car. Reed don't, 'cause he hits stuff." She giggled with the joke and Pete was glad his partner had gone to call Mac with a status.
Dr. Adler was observing the bruising on Cailin's arms and legs, his eyes darting from his work to Pete, who was following it all and fully understood the expression on the doctor's face. When they both noticed the cigarette burns on her wrists, it was a blessing that Cailin had decided to continue the monologue of her experience in the black and white.
"Pete drives real good. He can drive very fast and put on the si'reen, but not 'nless the radio says code three." she went on. Pete's gray eyes welled with angry tears as he nodded silently to the doctor that he'd seen the obvious abuse.
"Thaaat's right," Pete drawled from his post behind her, his hand gently resting on her shoulder, for mutual support by now. He fought down the murderous rage he'd felt a moment ago at the thought of someone using the child for an ashtray. What sort of hideous monster did that take?
"And Pete wears a badge, too," Cailin was informing the patient doctor, who seemed a bit more able to control his emotions at the sight of the scars. He'd probably seen more than his share of this, Pete mused sadly, feeling immediate sympathy for the man. "Number seven-four-four," Cailin recited from memory.
"My, you know an awful lot about this Pete," the doctor chuckled with a wink at Malloy. "Are you two friends?"
"Yep!" she replied with pride. "And he's gonna stay with me the whole time." She was eyeing the doctor with concern, obviously thinking he had some idea of making Pete leave just as the previous doctor had.
"Well, that's great. He sounds like a good friend, too," Adler agreed. "Caillie, could I get you to take off your shirt for me please?" She looked back at Pete for confirmation.
"Want me to step outside?" he offered modestly to the girl, misunderstanding her meaning at first. It wasn't necessary for a policeman to witness the examination. Usually both officers would have excused themselves to give a female patient privacy. But Pete had stayed because Caillie seemed to need his presence before. She shook her head now with a definite No!. "Well, then, Sweetie, we better slip outta that shirt for the doctor, huh?" He helped her in getting the faded pink top over her head and was busy folding it in his hands when the doctor clucked.
"Malloy," he said quietly, calling Pete's attention to a mark on the child's back. Centered just over the kidneys was the indelible image of a man's belt buckle. It was an old scar, no longer red and angry, now merely disturbing, poignant. Pete felt sick. His hand instinctively went for the child's head, stroking the soft, matted hair that needed the care of a mother who wouldn't allow such heinous acts against her little girl. Pete knew the image would return, waking him from slumber, years from now. He felt the metallic taste in his mouth and knew he'd crossed a line on this one.
Dr. Adler finished the exam to the constant chatter of their little charge, while Pete stood leaning against the wall by the bed, feeling the physical effects of letting his armor down. Thankfully Jim had stepped outside, to call the station. Pete was glad his partner didn't have to witness the evidence of such abuse. Jim always took these cases extra hard, his thoughts no doubt going to his own little one, making it more difficult to find that professional detachment that got you through it. Malloy wasn't feeling all that detached himself at present.
When the doctor had finished, he helped Cailin dress again, spending an extra moment with the abandoned little girl and lowering his guard for a moment as well. She had that effect on you, Pete thought sadly as he watched the two of them. It had been his own decision, one he knew was against everything he'd been taught. One that would make this night's horrors and the memory of little Cailin Paterson difficult to shake.
The nurse stayed with Caillie as Dr. Adler summoned the police officer to step outside with him, Pete again leaving his hat as collateral. The doctor's face was grave and drawn, his eyes said that he wouldn't escape unscathed tonight either. It was cold comfort to Pete's heart that he wasn't alone in that respect. Adler would write up a report to be submitted to Children's Protective Services and he might be called to testify at the hearing, but it was Pete who had to find a way to leave that little girl at McLaren Hall.
Adler gave the officer a rundown of the injuries and bruising and referred again to the obvious signs of physical abuse.
"Do you see any reason to require additional tests for sexual abuse?" he asked Pete in a discreet tone. The look on the officer's face probably answered before his words could.
"She didn't exhibit any signs of... that sort of... molestation." He was a ten year veteran, but somehow the word stuck in his throat.
"I tend to agree. I did a pretty thorough examination of the child. I see no need to prolong her trauma - cause any undue stress."
"She's been through enough," the policeman affirmed sadly.
Adler sighed deeply and extended his hand to the officer. "I have to say, I admire your connection with her. You've attained an amazing level of trust in so short a time."
"My partner says I have a way with women," Pete quipped, uncomfortable with the compliment, especially since he had no idea why she'd taken to him so quickly. "You were terrific with her...tender and caring. Thank you."
"Good luck," Adler smiled gravely. The two professionals shared a moment of unspoken understanding before the doctor turned to leave.
"And Officer Malloy," Adler smiled as he headed down the hall to his next case. "Next time, try to take smaller bites out of my staff, huh?"
Jim was waiting in the corridor, observing the exchange. He pulled alongside his partner as they returned to the cubicle, his mouth open to say something about the doctor's chastisement.
"Reed," Pete interrupted the speech he knew he had coming. "Save the lecture, huh?"
'But.." his face showed concern for his friend.
"Look, I know what you're gonna say, and we both know you're right." Pete gave a half smile, knowing full well his partner was worried that he had let this one get personal. "Who d'you think you learned it from?"
Pete felt the constricting grip on his fingers as he led Cailin into the reception room of McLaren Hall. She'd kept up a non-stop interrogation of the two officers on the trip from the hospital, asking about each item inside the patrol car and everything that passed by the windows. Jim had captured her attention temporarily when he mentioned that he had a little boy of his own about her age, which started a completely different line of questioning. Pete had been thankful to be driving, his face free from scrutiny in the dark as his partner rode in the back seat with their chattering passenger. She'd gone silent as the building loomed before them. When he stopped the car, she called out Pete's name plaintively. Jim tried his best to quiet her, but she didn't stop until Pete took her hand, then she grasped his desperately and stared up at him with unspoken questions he didn't want to answer.
Jim found the administration office and a staff member on duty, who could take the necessary intake information. Meanwhile Pete sat with Cailin in the waiting room, trying to make it all sound better than the rotten deal it was.
"You not gonna leave me here, Pete?" she asked with tears threatening to tumble from those big blue eyes.
"Caillie -" he began, having no idea where he was going with this. "The people here are very nice. They will take good care of you..."
"No, please -" she pleaded, trying so hard not to cry, it tore at his soul to watch the effort.
"You can't possibly stay alone, you need someone to take care of you, make you hot meals and clean your clothes..."
"I stay with you..." It broke his heart to look at her.
"I have to work and I can't keep you with me in the cruiser while we chase bad guys."
"I could help you..."
"Our sergeant wouldn't like that. You have to be a policeman, it's regulations, and you're still a little too young for that."
She fell silent, looking around the dim room, two little fists fighting against letting those unshed tears win. Pete put a steadying hand on her shoulder.
"I scared, Pete," she admitted quietly.
"I know," he whispered, struggling with his own battle at the moment. It was against everything he'd been taught, every rule he had kept in all his years on the force, but he'd let her get past all that. He couldn't just leave her there on Christmas eve, alone. But it was the very thing he had to do. "Caillie, you're going to be fine. I promise."
She shook her head, that resignation so far beyond her years returning to her eyes. She looked away, her little fingers playing with the hem of that pink top. Pete wished they had thought to bring that ratty old bear with them. It had seen better days, but at least she would have had something to hold onto in this unfamiliar world. A talisman against loneliness and fear. He wanted to give her assurances, but he knew the reality of the situation, the statistics didn't give her much chance of any miracle fixes to what hadn't been a fairy tale existence so far. He wished he could promise her better days, a family to love her, a chance for a future. A brave sniffle pulled him from his reverie.
"We not friends no more?" the child asked with a profound sadness.
"Of course we're friends," Pete insisted, swallowing hard. "You can trust me, remember?"
"I don't wanna stay here, Pete," she pleaded. "You not make me, huh?"
"Caillie..." he wasn't sure what to say. "Sometimes we have to do things we don't want to do. But you are a brave girl and you will be just fine." She shook her head with a forlorn look. Pete pulled at his clip-on tie, unfastening the uniform's top button and reaching two fingers inside to produce a silver chain from which dangled a small, round pendant. He slipped it over his head. "I want you to keep this for me." He held the necklace out for Cailin's inspection. "You wear this and that means that we are friends always, okay? And wherever we are, we are connected, by this medal."
"Cause it b'longs to Pete?"
"Yeah," he smiled. "And when you wear it you remember that you can't ever be all alone. And if you ever need help, all you have to do is find a policeman. Right?"
"What makes you 'member, Pete?" her little forehead wrinkled with the question of what his token would be.
"Oh, I won't ever forget you," he replied. At least that was truth. He slipped the chain around her neck, touching the embossed medal in a moment of silent prayer that Michael and all the ministering angels would see to her care. Lord knows she needs it, he mused.
The talisman seemed to keep her tears from falling as he handed her over to Miss Davis, the soft-spoken social worker who would take Caillie up to her room, but it did little to soothe Pete's guilt when the time came for them to leave. Even the ministering angels couldn't help him escape without those scars.
Back in the locker room, Pete pulled the brown tie through the collar of a cream-colored dress shirt, tying a neat Windsor knot at his throat, his eyes never really focusing on his own image in the mirror.
"Hey - you wanna give me an assist with that wagon? The instructions look like they were written by the same guy who wrote the penal code."
"That's inviting," Malloy answered with a bit of sarcasm but no commitment.
"Jean's making eggnog and she's been baking for days. You could stay and help us play Santa."
"Play Santa?" Pete's expression took on some of its usual playfulness for his partner's benefit. "Reed - please don't tell me you're talking about donning a red suit and hanging around on the roof? Especially after a couple of glasses of Jean's eggnog."
"Naw -" Jim's blue eyes danced with the anticipation of the holiday. He could afford to be happy, Pete mused. Reed had the perfect little family and a cozy Christmas planned. Pete smiled as his partner went on to explain, grateful again that the night hadn't seemed to dampen his friend's spirits. Insulated by his own thoughts of Jimmy's first real Santa Christmas, as he'd referred to it, Reed apparently had been spared the brunt of the dismal watch they'd just finished. Either that, or he'd determined to have a great holiday anyway, just for spite.
"We make sure Jimmy's asleep in bed..." Jim went on.
"Dreaming of sugar plums, no doubt," his godfather cracked.
Undeterred, Jim continued, "Then we put out all the toys and gifts under the tree, finish putting up the decorations, stuff the stockings and eat the cookies he put out for Santa."
"Sounds like something for you and Jean. I'd just be in the way."
"Nonsense - you're Jimmy's godfather -" Jim insisted with sincerity.
"And as such I'll make it over bright and early, first thing tomorrow morning...shall we say...noon? Then I can watch him break all his new toys and play with the boxes."
He knew that look. Reed was trying his best to make him feel welcome, wanted. "Thanks, Jim," Pete smiled honestly, aborting his partner's compassionate invitation. "But I have plans tonight, remember?"
"Oh yeah, the party at Kimberly's."
"Exactly," Malloy smiled slyly. "A little adult holiday fun...punch that lives up to the name, a sprig or two of mistletoe, at least nine ladies dancing, and a few...reindeer games..." Pete's brows bounced in sprightly punctuation.
"I swear you could make a Shirley Temple movie sound suggestive!" Jim laughed.
"Merry Christmas, partner," Pete threw the tweed sportscoat over his shoulder and headed for the parking lot, before he lost his nerve.
A few minutes later, Pete closed his eyes as he sat behind the wheel of his off-duty vehicle, feeling the fatigue of a watch that he'd thought would never end. An image assaulted him again, a tiny hand waving as its little owner fought back tears of abandonment. This child who had accepted four years of her mother's neglect so stoically, had focused those sad blue eyes on his and silently accused him of desertion. Why couldn't he shake that kid?
She was safe and the problem of some social worker now. He'd filed the reports and left her with the staff at McLaren Hall. His job was done. So why was she still in his head? He turned the key in the ignition and headed for Kim's house in the hills, a few drinks and blessed forgetfulness. It was the holiday, he deserved a break.
About six blocks from the station he stopped for a red light. He watched some last minute shoppers at a toy store which was displaying a banner Open til Midnight Christmas Eve. Trucks and dolls and various playthings were being toted to waiting vehicles amid laughter and a jaunty carol on the loud speaker. That's what it was about, Pete mused, kids were what the holiday was all about.
When the light changed he pulled the car to the curb and hopped out, making his way through the shoppers to the store's entrance. Pete stood just inside the doorway, overwhelmed by the noise and the colors, shelves of merchandise in festive disarray and customers rushing to find eleventh hour gifts. He was pulled or maybe it was pushed into the crowded store in a rush of jovial patronage.
He saw the aisle he was looking for, the remote control cars. Jimmy Reed had seen a commercial for a police cruiser, with lights and siren, a black and white just like the one his father and his godfather drove every day, and hadn't stopped talking about it since. Pete had mentioned getting it for him several weeks before, but Jim had thought he was a little young yet. Jean had nixed the idea on principle, feeling he didn't need any more encouragement towards the police force as a career, with two such ready role-models. So Pete had purchased a fishing set, with a child-sized pole and little plastic fish that were caught with magnets. He'd thought it was appropriate, but he still wanted to see his god-son's face light up on Christmas morning when he opened that cruiser. Besides, getting a special surprise for Jimmy was just what he needed to get himself out of this dismal mood.
It didn't take long to find the toy car. Pete had been in this very store twice trying to talk himself out of getting it against the parents' wishes. He picked up the box, the picture of a real patrol car going Code 3 on the front no doubt an irresistible draw for little wannabe policemen.
Walking to the cash register, he caught sight of a furry stuffed teddy bear with a kind expression to its eyes and a bright green satin ribbon bow at the neck. He stopped in his tracks in front of the shelf that housed the solitary bear. It had an almost lonely look to it as it sat staring out upon the store full of customers, grabbing at robots and toy trains and other fancier playthings. It was a simple, old-fashioned toy. There was something comforting and familiar about it, so why did it make Pete feel sad? Why did it remind him of a tiny girl he didn't even know? Why couldn't he stop staring back into those big black eyes?
The next thing he knew, he was standing before the clerk, holding the boxed remote control cruiser and a soft, cuddly teddy bear.
"That'll be twelve dollars and fifty cents," the clerk smiled weakly. She looked tired from the hectic last shopping day of the season.
Pete pulled out his wallet but when he opened it, he realized he only had a five and a couple of ones. He hadn't gone to the bank, with everything else that had happened before his shift, he'd completely forgotten to get extra money for the holiday.
"Twelve dollars, sir," she prompted.
"I...eh...I seem to be a little short," he chuckled, embarrassed.
"There are a lot of people waiting." Her tone was no longer even marginally friendly.
"I'm sorry," he shrugged. "I thought I had...eh...I only wanted the car, anyway."
"The car?" she asked. "Okay, so give me the bear, huh? You're holding up the line."
Pete hesitated, holding the bear as he looked at the toy police car. He didn't even know why he'd brought the furry thing to the register. He set the stuffed animal on the counter and waited while the clerk rang up his purchase. He paid for the toy, accepted his change and wished the girl a Merry Christmas, then carried the teddy bear to his car. There would be other Christmases for Jimmy's cruiser. As he put the package in the trunk he wondered what he'd been thinking buying the bear, but he wasn't about to take it back in now.
Pete headed the car towards the freeway again, and the party that would certainly blow the cobwebs from his brain and lift those lagging spirits. But before he'd gotten three more blocks, he had to pull over to the curb. He couldn't see the road. Pete closed his eyes, trying to clear the mist, the fatigue. The image of Caillie waving goodbye, her eyes filled with hurt at his defection, swam before him as he tried to squeeze it out of his sight. He was tired. It had been a long shift, a difficult one, and he hadn't been up to it before it began. Some years the holidays were just harder to take than others. That had to be why he'd let that little urchin get past his well-maintained defenses.
When he finally got control again, he opened his eyes to see the tall gray building ahead. St. Swithin's Parish Church. He hadn't been there in so long he couldn't remember the last time. The bells in the tower were chiming, calling the faithful to midnight mass. Suddenly Pete realized he was in no mood for Kimberly's party, and no amount of drinks was going to chase the bad dreams away tonight. He put the car in park, slipped the key from the ignition and was walking down the sidewalk towards the crowded church before he could talk himself out of it.
It was halfway through the second carol that Pete felt himself relaxing, the familiar sights and sounds of childhood seemed to erase the years that stretched between. The smells of evergreen, incense and beeswax evoked memories he'd been avoiding for weeks - holidays when there had been someone waiting for him with a hot cup of cider and a loving embrace. When he had rushed home with an armload of gifts in happy, childlike anticipation, instead of silently laying a wreath at a double grave marked Malloy before reporting for watch.
Pete held the worn missal gently, smiling as it fell open to the weekly mass, before he flipped the yellowed pages to the Christmas order of service noted on the board against the wall. He wondered at the quietude each phrase he repeated seemed to give. Was it knowing it would have pleased Mary Malloy to see her only son in church on Christmas eve, or something less easily explained?
He only heard every other word of the sermon, his mind returning to dozens of holidays past when getting the lights to hang straight on the tree, or finding just the right gift to bring a smile had been the greatest worries of the season. Or even earlier Christmases when waiting for the big day to finally arrive had seemed an excruciatingly delicious pain. Lean years when meager gifts were secondary disappointments to missing a father away at war. When as a young boy defying sleep, he'd determined to apprehend Claus, reindeer and all.
Pete could see the faces of those he missed as clearly as the ones in the pews surrounding him. There was a new face tonight, one that didn't belong, a tiny cherubic face he couldn't escape. He remembered why it had been so long between visits. Church always seemed to open those wounds he'd thought long-healed, leaving him melancholy and sentimental.
By the time the priest moved to the altar to begin the Eucharistic portion of the mass, the words came from memory, the missal left unneeded on the wooden pew as Pete knelt in the candlelight. He took strength in the ancient ritual, the faith he'd often ignored but never fully abandoned. Inconspicuously it had remained the source, the core of his assurance: the Peace of God.
After the dismissal the worshipers filed out the open doors of the sanctuary and into the brisk night air. Each parishioner stopped to receive a brief blessing or wish for a happy holiday from the dark-haired priest in the lace-trimmed surplice, who looked as though he'd be more at home in sweats and sneakers. His easy smile gave him a youthful appearance but there was a sincerity and wisdom in his eyes.
"Peter Malloy!" the priest gasped as he reached out a suntanned hand to grasp the broad, freckled one. "Attending mass at St. Swithins? This is a momentous occasion."
"It's Christmas Eve, Jack," Pete replied quietly, shaking hands with the smiling priest. "What kind of a Catholic would I be if I missed midnight mass?"
"An atrocious one..." Jack Furillo laughed, his jovial tone diffusing the reprimand. "Which we both know you to be! And it's Father Furillo now. Respect the collar, my friend." The young priest tugged playfully at the starched clerical ring about his neck.
"Then it's Officer Malloy," Pete returned the teasing volley, a ghost of a twinkle in his eyes. "Respect the badge."
"Well you don't seem to be wearing one, Peter J." Jack Furillo laid a amicable hand on Pete's shoulder. "Ya know - I was just preparing to lay out some milk and cookies for St. Nick and a few carrots for those reindeer of his...I could use some help. Unless you've got some gorgeous elf waiting at home in your stocking with a sprig of mistletoe?"
"Not tonight," Pete chuckled, shaking his head at his old school chum's gentle jibes. "I'm expecting nothing but coal this year."
"Up to your usual standards, I see. It's good to know some things never change," Jack smiled.
The sexton secured the door, the last of the congregation having left some moments before. As Pete followed Jack back through the pews, he watched two young altar boys, extinguishing candles in the chancel.
"Nostalgia?" Jack asked, noting the direction of Pete's gaze.
"That was a long time ago," Pete said in just above a whisper.
"Amen to that," the priest smiled, opening the heavy wooden door to the rectory and ushering Pete into the cozy sitting room, hung modestly with Christmas. There was already an inviting fire on the hearth. Father Furillo made his excuses as he stepped into the next room, quickly ridding himself of the vestments of his office, he returned in a simple black turtleneck, gray wool slacks and a cardigan. He carried a bottle of twelve year old Glen Ord, single malt scotch and two heavy crystal glasses.
"I thought you said milk and cookies," Pete's eyebrows raised as Jack poured two generous doses of the Christmas cheer.
"A gift from one of the pillars of the church," Jack quipped. "You put out what you want for the ol' boy and I'll put out what he really wants. Where do you think he got those cheeks like roses?"
"Hmmm," Pete responded with a non-committal shrug.
"Let's just say -" the priest smiled slyly. "I always get what I ask for come Christmas morning."
"I don't suppose we're talking about peace on earth?"
"At least my little piece of that earth," Jack winked, handing Pete one of the glasses. "To Goodwill toward men?"
"You don't take any of this seriously, I guess." He didn't drink, but leaned against the mantel, staring into the fire.
"It doesn't get any more serious than world peace, my friend." Furillo followed Pete's gaze into the flames. "Unless it's that pack you seem to be carrying tonight. And I doubt it's filled with toys."
Pete didn't answer, his thoughts still way across town.
"When you bring a burden here, you're supposed to leave it, Pete."
"I don't have any burden," the blonde man defended.
"We could walk down to the confessional, but isn't that a little pointless?"
"Confessional?" Pete frowned.
"Drink up, my friend and then tell me why you came." Again Jack raised his glass.
"I told you. It's Christmas Eve..." He avoided his old friend's eyes.
"Did you work tonight?" Jack's brow furrowed a bit as he regarded his guest.
"Yeah..." the cop replied simply.
"Am I that transparent?"
"Just that human," Jack clinked his glass against Pete's "To old friends...will that do?"
"And memories of happier times," Pete conceded with a tight smile. They drank in silence for a while, until Pete couldn't bear it anymore.
"I don't know why I came..." he began.
"The child?" Jack smiled wistfully, taking a seat in one of the chairs flanking the glowing hearth. "It's Christmas. Isn't it always about a child? It all started that way, you know."
"A kid nobody seems to care for..."
"Born in the barn - pretty humble beginnings, I'd say," Jack smiled.
"That night someone cared. But tonight..." Pete shook his head slightly, still unable to comprehend the tragic neglect he'd witnessed as he began to recount the evening's pain, not exhibiting any need for the privacy of a confessional.
"You obviously care," Jack offered quietly, when the officer had finished his retelling.
"I left her at McLaren Hall - on Christmas Eve...if that's caring..."
"You did your job, Pete. What would you have done differently? Taken the child home with you?" Father Furillo took a draught of the amber liquid. "She's warm and dry and fed..."
"You didn't see her, Jack..." he countered.
"Haven't I? Do you know how long I've been wearing that collar backwards? About the same amount of time that you've been lugging that badge around, I seem to recall. You think I haven't seen children of neglect...abuse? Scenes that tear my heart out?"
"She's so full of life...despite what it's done to her...what it hasn't given her. If you could see..."
"She really got to you, didn't she?" Jack's legs were stretched out on the ottoman before him, crossed at the ankles in a deceptively comfortable attitude. "I'd have laid odds you were too much of a veteran to allow that."
"Maybe I am acting like a rookie..." Pete took a deep swig of the liquor, feeling it burn as it passed through his system and brought a false sense of warmth to his chilled insides. "But..."
"It's good to know you still have a heart that can be broken," the priest said enigmatically. "That's a good sign."
"Not in my profession." The weary cop drained his glass and Jack held up the bottle to offer another portion. Pete thought better of it, but then vetoed his own decision, accepting the tawny liquid and taking a seat opposite the hearth.
"So what happens now?" Jack asked with sympathy in his dark eyes. "Is there family?"
"We couldn't find any tonight. But they will try to place her with relatives, if possible."
"Foster care...I suppose," he replied, not attempting to keep the fatigue from his voice.
"You have to believe in the system, Pete," the priest said gently.
"I've seen the results of that system," he grumbled. "It isn't promising." Pete took another sip, wondering when this expensive alcohol was supposed to kick in and numb the pain. "Why did it have to happen tonight?"
"The holidays are hardly immune to heartache. I'm not giving away any trade secrets here. Tragedy seems harder to accept in contrast to the Norman Rockwell fantasy we're conditioned to expect."
"But McLaren Hall is no place to have to spend Christmas. They didn't plan for her - there will be nothing..." He thought about his partner asking him to help put out Jimmy's gifts beneath the tree. Pete didn't begrudge his godson even one candy cane. He'd even had a hand in the already hefty haul the toddler would receive, but he knew there would be a celebration of excess in the Reed's living room come daylight. Like many of the houses in Los Angeles, there'd be a mountain of discarded wrappings, a groaning table of food and the tangible expression of a wealth of parental love. But despite all that overflow of generosity, across town was a tiny child no one would remember with even the smallest token.
"They do their best, Pete," Jack sympathized. "I know. We work with them sometimes."
"I must be losing it..." he shook his head. "I bought a stuffed bear tonight - it's in my trunk."
"For the little girl?" the priest's brow furrowed.
"Yeah, I guess," Pete shrugged. "That's who I was thinking of...but it's ridiculous."
"How would I even get it to her?" the tired cop sighed.
"Drop it off at McLaren Hall?" Jack suggested. "Sounds pretty simple to me."
"I've already crossed the line on this one. I shouldn't have any more contact with her." Pete was adamant. "For her own good I can't get involved in her life."
"Too late," Jack smiled. "Besides- she doesn't have to know it's from you."
"You're right, I suppose," the officer admitted, staring into the fire again, wondering how a furry teddy bear could make the slightest bit of difference in the mess of her life.
But an hour later, he was standing at the night entrance of the children's home, ringing the bell. A staff member answered sleepily, accepting the package. A cuddly brown bear with sympathetic eyes and a jaunty green satin bow. The tag read simply To Cailin Paterson - from Santa. Merry Christmas!
Pete took the long way home, not keen on the idea of an empty apartment. He noticed the light displays. There seemed to be more of them every year. He'd come to associate them with commercialization of the holiday, but tonight there was something beacon-like about the gaily colored lights.
He hadn't realized the direction of his path until he turned onto the Reeds' tree-lined street. He felt a little foolish, but out of curiosity he drove past their cozy house, wondering if they were still up playing Santa and if Jim had finally gotten that wagon put together. There were too many lights for anyone to be asleep inside and when he noticed the garage lit up, he pulled to the curb.
Walking to the door, Pete hesitated, hoping he wasn't about to interrupt a holiday snuggle, but the door opened before he reached out a hand to knock.
"Pete!" Jean Reed, his partner's pretty wife greeted him warmly. She must have seen his car through the picture window. Her finger pressed to her lips as she ushered him inside. "They're asleep."
They were both James A. Reeds, senior and junior, snoring softly in the Lazy Boy next to the glittering Christmas tree.
"He couldn't get Jimmy to bed. All he wanted to do was play and Jim didn't seem inclined to stop him," she continued in a whisper. Pete could imagine his friend wanting to erase the ugly night they'd had with some quality Dad-time. "He read The Night Before Christmas four times, but Jimmy was just too excited to sleep."
"He seems to be sleeping now," Pete chuckled softly, smiling down at his godson's face, angelic in repose.
"Yeah - but I'm afraid if I try to wake big Jim, we'll never get little Jim to bed. I've been trying to put out the gifts, but his biggest present is still in the garage in about a hundred pieces."
"The Red Flyer," Pete nodded, slipping off his jacket. "Lead me to it."
"Pete. You don't have to. I'm sure you've got someplace you'd rather be. Jim said there was a party at some actress's place in the hills." Jean's confusion turned to a knowing smile as she took his discarded jacket.
"I'm the kid's godfather. In the event his father is unable to perform his duties - I put together all Christmas toys. It's in the godfather code."
"Right this way, Santa," she beamed, leading him through to the garage.
Twenty minutes later Pete was assembling the handle mechanism and attaching it to the front axle when a camera flash startled him.
"What!" He looked past the big temporary blotch in his vision to see Jean laughing quietly.
"Evidence!" she giggled. "I brought you some eggnog."
"Oh, I shouldn't," he straightened as she advanced with the cup. "I stopped off at an old friend's and had a couple drinks already."
"Well," she frowned a moment as she switched tactics. "I have cocoa? And fresh, home-baked gingerbread."
"Now that sounds terrific," he smiled, truly glad he'd come.
Pete missed the look of total confusion on Jim's face when he awoke under the afghan in the morning with a stiff neck and absolutely no idea how the wagon had come to put itself together. The bachelor was back at his apartment, asleep at last. And Jim didn't seem to believe his wife's staunch assertions that one of Santa's elves had paid them a late night visit, or his partner's equally resolute declarations when he arrived for dinner much later, that he'd had nothing to do with the procedure. It would be a couple of weeks before the film in Jean's camera was developed, and Jim learned the truth.
Pete tried to shake the holiday blues, but even spending most of Christmas day watching James Reed, Jr. destroy his mother's well-ordered house didn't seem to lift his spirits much. And after a night of restless attempts at sleep and disturbing dreams, he returned to work, and Pete fell into that same silent moodiness that had preceded the holiday. Calls seemed more difficult to endure, he took things harder than usual and worst of all, he refused to talk about it.
What worried him most was that he seemed to be losing both his patience and his sense of humor. It had been a long time since Pete remembered working an eight-hour shift where he didn't find something amusing. It was that wit that had gotten Malloy through some tough times. It was how he had survived ten years with the LAPD without making himself crazy. His silence now wasn't making things easier for either of them, but he couldn't shrug off the heaviness and he found his partner's efforts to get him talking more annoying than usual.
But when he heard himself snapping at Jim in the middle of one of his stories about Jimmy's latest antics, Pete knew he was in trouble. Anytime he didn't want to hear the minutia of his godson's life, something was definitely wrong. The angry words were out there, hanging in the charged silence. Pete wished he could take them back, but before anything conciliatory came to mind, the radio broke through with a 211 in progress.
Jim picked up the microphone and responded, jotting down the address and description on the pad. Pete flipped the switches for the lights and siren, watching traffic in the upcoming intersections. The unspoken agreement was that all conversation was put aside during a call for service, disputes included. Pete wanted to say something to smooth over his earlier rudeness, especially with them facing a dangerous call. Instead he just made a silent wish that his slip wouldn't get in the way of them working as a team, and a promise to clear it up as soon as they were finished with this call.
Pete cut the lights and siren a couple of blocks before the address, approaching the liquor store from the blind-side of the entrance. Jim unsnapped the shotgun from its rack beneath their feet. Pete shifted the car into park and grabbed for the door handle, unfastening his own weapon from its holster.
"Be careful out there, Partner," Pete said softly, just before he bailed out the driver's door. He missed the momentary frown of confusion on his friend's face. Pete hit the pavement in a crouch behind the open car door, his eyes scanning the scene for a sign of the suspects.
Two men clad in dark clothing and stocking caps ran from the store's entrance, the glint of metal flashed off their weapons in the street lights. The taller of the two saw the cruiser and fired three shots from an automatic in that direction. The shorter man took off up the street carrying a small duffel bag and another steel gray automatic.
Jim Reed gave chase after the second suspect, the shotgun tossed onto the seat as he traded it for his easier-to-carry side-arm. Pete shouted for the taller man to Freeze! but his only response came as two more shots, one of which shattered the window by Pete's head. The suspect ran behind the building, followed by Pete, not taking the time to call in their situation to dispatch.
The arrival of 1-Xray-43 from the rear of the building gave Pete the advantage he needed to apprehend the shooter. He cuffed him on the ground then pulled himself and his prisoner upright. He passed the suspect to Woods for the Miranda, as he beat it back to 1-Adam-12 to call in Reed's foot pursuit and follow his partner's probable route with the car.
Five minutes later he still hadn't found his partner or the suspect Jim had been chasing. Pete felt like a bird dog that had lost the scent, circling the blocks, hoping to find some hint of his friend or their quarry. 1-Xray-43, their prisoner locked in the back seat, had joined the search as had Mac in 1-L-20, but there was still no sign of Jim. Pete felt the first signs of panic setting in, his mouth dry, his palms moist on the steering wheel and his heartbeat fast, drumming in his ears.
Come on, Jim, he willed his friend. Don't do this...not now...
"Shots fired! Berkshire and Wakefield..." Woods voice came over Tac 2, tense with fear.
Please God... Pete breathed the unfinished prayer as his own unit careened around the corner. His foot stamped on the accelerator, speeding him to the location of the gunfire, his heart feeling like it was trying to race the cruiser to get there. Pete saw 1-Xray-43 sideways in the road ahead, both front doors open as the officers knelt behind them for cover. A dark figure crouched near a fence on the right. He brought his cruiser to a stop at a diagonal and practically fell out of the driver's side, trying to get hold of his emotions. His training told him to treat this like any other scenario, to take the feeling out of the equation. But no amount of experience could erase the thought that his partner was out there somewhere in the dark - his friend. And nothing he'd learned in ten years of police work could keep him from thinking it was somehow all his fault.
"Pete," he heard from the figure near the fence.
"Jim!" he shouted as he ran around the back of the car to that location. Two more shots rang out as the suspect in concealment took aim at the running officer.
"Man! You could have gotten killed, do you know that?" Jim chided as he pulled Pete behind the fence.
"Nice to see you, too, partner," he replied with a relieved smile.
By Jim's calculations the suspect was out of ammunition. The partners took the opportunity of his reloading to flush him out of hiding, backed up by 1-Xray-43.
Sergeant MacDonald had arrived at the intersection in just enough time to witness Malloy's narrow escape. Mac directed Woods and his partner to take both prisoners to the station for booking, leaving the paperwork for the men of 1-Adam-12. He stopped Pete as the officer began to walk towards the cruiser.
"You want to explain why you were doing an impression of a duck in a shooting gallery?"
"Mac...I...eh..." Pete shifted his weight from one foot to the other. He knew he was wrong, but Mac wasn't the friend with whom he needed to discuss it. "I thought Jim was hit..."
"So you figured you'd cash in on a two-for-one sale at the Emergency Room, huh?"
"I called to him, Mac..." Jim chimed in.
"No, it was my fault," Pete confessed.
"Well, you're both in hot water with me," Mac wasn't smiling. "Finish the paperwork and then see if you can make it back to my office without getting yourselves in more trouble. Maybe if you put your heads together you can manage to come up with one decent reason why I shouldn't bust you both for that lame-brained stunt."
"Mac..." Pete pulled the sergeant aside.
"I think you'd better let me cool down first, Malloy." Those blue eyes were still flashing with irritation. "I'll talk to you back at the station. I have a couple of phone calls to make, arrange a little remedial simulation work for two of my men who seem to think they're with the Keystone Cops."
When Mac finally drove off and the partners were left alone, Jim walked around to the driver's side of the unit, resting a hand on the top of the door as he examined the shattered glass in the window.
"This coming out of my pay or yours?' Jim chuckled.
"I think you ought to pay for it since I'm going to be taking most of the heat for that mad dash," Pete smiled.
"So I should pay because you want to resemble Swiss cheese?" Jim shook his head, regarding his partner in the light of the street lamp.
Pete sobered a bit. "I was distracted. But it was your fault, partner."
"My fault?" Jim walked around the cruiser and slid into his own seat. "Just how do you figure that it's my fault?"
"I was worried that if I couldn't find you I wasn't going to get a chance to apologize." It wasn't a concession that came easily for Pete Malloy.
"Well, it looks like we're going to have plenty of time for that," Jim smiled, accepting Pete's apology without comment. "I get the feeling Mac's got a lot of extra work planned for us."
"Then you'll have a chance to finish telling me that story about my godson and the Christmas lights," he added with a sincerely contrite look.
Pete knew the reason for his extended holiday funk had more to do with that tiny girl on Christmas Eve than he'd like to admit. He also knew himself well enough to realize that until he did something about it, the mood wasn't likely to lighten. He couldn't let it continue to effect his work or his relationship with the man who had come to be his best friend as well as his partner.
By the morning of the twenty-seventh Pete had a plan. He'd arranged for Reed to check out the shotgun, do the checklist and gas up the unit while he saw to a small errand. Then he made his way down the hall and into one of the offices to swallow a little pride and see an old friend about a favor.
"Hey!" the attractive brunette looked up from the files at her desk in Central's Juvenile Division. "What brings the department's finest blue-suit to Juvie?"
"Morning, Maggie," Pete smiled awkwardly at the backhanded compliment. "Just came to see you."
"Not you, Malloy," she shook her head, her eyes twinkling. "With you there's always an angle." Pete played at being stricken by her words, but she pretended to ignore it. "Besides, if you were here just to see me, you'd never come all dressed up like that."
"What, this ol' thing?" Pete winked, indicating his pristine uniform with mock disdain.
"Now suppose you stop wasting the taxpayers' precious time and tell me the scam."
"Why so suspicious?" he quipped. "I really just came to talk with you, Mags."
"Okay - now that will cost you!" she giggled. That old nickname always had the same effect. "Spill it!"
"Well, I did have a favor I wanted to ask..."
"I knew it!"
"Would ya let me finish?" he laughed. "I don't remember it being this hard to ask you out before."
"There's that selective memory for you," she crossed her arms, a smile playing on her lips. "I thought you said it was a favor you were asking for?"
"I'd planned to soften you up a bit first. A little wine-ing, and little dine-ing..."
"Down the hall for coffee from the vending machine?"
"Maggie!" he chuckled. "I was thinking more like...dinner, maybe?"
"My, this is a big favor!" she jibed. "I pick the restaurant?"
"I...suppose..." Pete replied with hesitation.
"Cap'n Rick's," she announced after what looked like considerable consideration.
Cap'n Rick's was a rather pricey place down by the marina, great food, even better view. It had been special between them at one time. He was a little surprised she remembered.
"You can think about it," he choked, more stunned that she'd choose the sentiment than concerned with the cost. They did have great seafood, but he hadn't been there in a long time. Not since that last time with her.
"No, that's my final choice," she smiled.
Pete knew she was toying with him. He'd expected as much. Lord knew he deserved as much.
"Too rich for your blood, Malloy?"
"No," he swallowed. "Just take pity on me, and don't order the lobster, okay? I still work for the city."
"And I had my mouth set for a big, red, juicy..." she burst into laughter. "Look. You don't have to take me anywhere. What's up?" Was she letting him off the hook?
"Oh, no. The deal was dinner. But I'd like to get this settled. Is tomorrow too short notice?"
"I was hoping you'd say tonight," she smiled. "Unless you're asking some other girl for a favor tonight?"
"Tonight would be terrific," he beamed. So she could still read him like a book. In a way that was comforting. "I just didn't want to presume..."
She just kept giving him a break. He wasn't sure that was a good sign, but he would hope for the best.
"Say...seven?" he suggested.
"Sure, Pete." She turned back to her files.
He'd been dismissed. Okay, maybe she wasn't going easy on him after all. "Thanks, Maggie." He stood, holding his watchcap, feeling ridiculous. Finally, he turned to go.
"Oh, and Pete..." she called as he exited into the corridor. "It was good to see you again."
"Yeah," he smiled. "It's been...a long time..."
Pete let the door close between them, a wave of memories hitting him like high tide.
"You never told me you dated Sergeant Baxter," Jim commented, pulling him from his thoughts.
"That's right," Pete drawled, falling into step with his inquisitive partner. "I never did."
Jim had been waiting just beyond that door, though Pete hadn't realized it until now. And with that smile on his face, he'd obviously overheard.
"But you and she..."
"Oh, come on, Pete," he insisted, as they made their way to the parking lot and their waiting patrol car. "You can't keep something like that to yourself."
"I think I've done a pretty good job so far," he quipped. "Until my trusted partner and faithful friend took to eavesdropping on me."
"I didn't know..." Jim straightened, sobering. "Pete, I didn't mean to..."
"I just asked Wells where you'd gone and he pointed down the hall..."
"And you just followed you nose to the door of Juvenile and..."
"Hey, is it my fault the walls are like paper in here?" Jim chuckled. "Besides, I think you two would..."
"Don't start, huh?"
"I just meant..."
"You always mean well, Jim, but this time...just...don't. Please?" The subject was dropped as they arrived at their patrol car. Jim cleared them with dispatch for the beginning of their watch and Pete pulled the unit out into midday traffic. But after nearly half an hour of silence, Jim took up the conversation with renewed interest.
"How long ago were you and Sgt. Baxter an item?"
Pete sighed, not answering until he'd executed a left-hand turn onto a busy four-lane street. "It was before your time, partner. She wasn't a sergeant then, and I really don't wanna discuss it."
"Are you two getting back together?"
"Reed -" Pete took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. "I'm taking her to dinner. Is that okay with you?"
"Hey, like I said...I think you two would make a great couple."
"Nothing like that," Pete shook his head. "Now can we please talk about your father-in-law?"
"My...Pete...you hate talking about my in-laws," Jim said with confusion lining his brow.
"Yep," Pete replied, a twinkle in his eye.
At seven sharp he rapped on her door, feeling his heart beating wildly. It was crazy to get all worked up about this. He was asking her for a simple favor. It was practically work related. So why did a love affair from nearly five years ago suddenly come to mean so much?
"Hi, Pete," she smiled as she opened the door. He returned the greeting with a pleasant nod. "Oops!"
"What?" he asked, his brow furrowing.
"I guess I forgot to remove the mistletoe from above my door," she prompted prettily.
"Oh?" Pete looked up to see a swag of dark, prickly evergreen with tiny blue berries on reddish stems, hung from a ribbon bow just above his head. "I guess we'll just have to make the best of it." He bent to bestow a tender kiss, gently pulling her closer as their lips met. They lingered, feeling that old attraction making them want to tarry. When they finally separated, it was a moment before either could speak.
"Well..." Maggie sighed, her eyes still holding a dreamy mist. "I suppose after that, I should confess."
"Confess?" Pete asked, one eyebrow askance as he awaited her admission.
"Uh...that's not really...mistletoe...I...eh..."
"Hmmmm," he gave her his best look of mock disapproval. "Oh, you mean the Mahonia Aquilfolium?"
"Huh?" Maggie's dark eyes went wide.
"Commonly known as Oregon grape holly," he continued.
"Not even in the same family as Phoradendron Flavescens...eh...what you referred to as mistletoe."
"You mean - you knew?" she gasped.
"I spent a year working for a landscaper, right after high school. Put in more of those bushes than I can count," his smile threatened to crack his face. "Yeah, I knew."
"I'm also a shameless opportunist," he laughed lightly. "Forgive me?"
"I suppose I started it," she chuckled, grabbing her wrap. "Shall we go?"
"Unless you have some other shrubbery you'd like me to identify," he led her to his waiting vehicle, feeling suddenly less worried about tonight's proceedings.
The conversation in the car consisted of what they'd each done for Christmas, Pete strategically asking her first. He remembered that she had a huge extended family and he knew from experience that she could go on with stories of her amusing relatives for hours. By the time she'd turned the tables on him, there was barely enough drive left for one anecdote about his partner's son and his holiday capers before they arrived at the restaurant.
After they'd ordered and the cocktails had been served Maggie smiled across the table, folded her arms and fixed him with a stare.
"Okay - suppose you tell me what's up?"
"I thought we'd at least have our entree first," he chuckled.
"Afraid if I reject you it will spoil your appetite?"
"You remember how much I like the salmon here," he nodded, laughing. "I just thought we'd enjoy dinner first - it's not really table conversation."
"You okay, Pete?" she was suddenly quite serious.
"Stop worrying, would ya?" he winked.
They finished dinner and he began to recite the details of Christmas Eve and a little girl who was etched on his memory. When he'd finished, Maggie was somber, playing with the linen napkin on her lap.
"There are hundreds of kids out there with horror stories," she shook her head. "You did everything you could and more, Pete. She'll be fine."
"I just..." he looked lost. Truth was, he felt that way. This was new territory.
"You let her get to you," Maggie chided gently.
"Yeah - I know. It's a rookie mistake. But sometimes.."
"You said you wanted to ask a favor...." she redirected.
"Uh huh," he nodded.
"Well? What is it?" Her smile invited any solicitation, relaxing him somewhat.
"I thought maybe...I was hoping you could...check on her. You know...just see what's being done...how she's getting along."
"Pete -" she put a hand on top of his lying on the damask tablecloth. "Let it go."
"Mags, I know that speech..."
"I mean it. If you let this, it will tear you up inside. Drop it. She's in the system. They aren't going to let anything happen..."
"I can't," he looked deep into her eyes. "This one's different."
"I don't know. Maybe because it was Christmas. Maybe I was overly tired or particularly vulnerable." He shook his head - truly unable to explain it himself.. "I could just as easily ask why she took to me so quickly. Why she decided I was someone she could trust."
"That's easy. She has real taste." Pete smiled at that. "And I completely agree with her."
"When did this happen?" he asked, surprised by her remark.
"I've always thought that," she defended.
"Really?" he snorted.
"Just because we couldn't make it work doesn't mean I don't think you're pretty terrific. I can see why she'd fixate on you," she replied. Pete was silent, trying to process her unexpected compliment. "But that doesn't mean you should take this on as a personal quest."
"Maggie - I only want to know what's happened. If they found family to take her or..."
"That way lies madness..." she said softly.. "Let it go. Have a little faith in the system."
"Faith!" he sniffed. "Yeah, well, sometimes the system needs a bit of help."
She regarded him for a long time before speaking. "So this favor included more than just gathering a little information...you want me to get involved."
"If you could see her..."
"Oh no - don't do this, Pete. Don't involve your friends in your folly."
"You're right," he looked out the window at the boats moored at the pier. "Just forget I asked."
"I'll see what I can find out," she agreed half-heartedly, after watching him fret. "I'm not making any promises. And if what I turn up isn't good, I'm not..."
"Maggie, I want to know - either way," he smiled, taking up her hand. "Thank you."
"I can't believe your nerve," she laughed lightly.
"Huh?" He hadn't seen that coming.
"After all this time," she laughed, throughly enjoying the joke. "You finally turn up and it's to ask me for help with one of your other women."
When Reed cleared them from code seven the next day, dispatch had a message for Pete to call Sgt. Baxter in Juvenile. As soon as he heard her voice on the other end of the phone saying that she had information, he yelled for Reed to get clearance from Mac for them to return to the station and meet her. All that was left was to explain the whole thing about the favor to Reed. By the time 1-Adam-12 pulled into the lot, Jim had convinced Pete to let him tag along.
"Well Pete - when you pick one - you sure pick a doozey!" Maggie Baxter sighed as she picked up the file from her desk.
"What does that mean?" Reed frowned.
"This file reads like a textbook example of how not to handle a case."
"Is she still at McLaren Hall?" Pete leaned against the file cabinet.
"Yeah. I spoke with Miss Davis this morning. She says your Caillie is the quietest little thing she's ever seen. A real polite, shy little girl. It's a shame..."
"Shy?" Pete gasped.
"It could be because she's in a new environment, or she may be missing her mother."
"Maggie, are you sure you have the right kid?" Pete's brows knit in confusion.
"Cailin Paterson...age 4. You took her to McLaren Hall on Christmas Eve. Right?
"That's right, but..."
"I wouldn't have described her as shy," Jim shook his head.
"She talks your ear off, Maggie. Can't be the same kid."
"Well - here's the file I had sent over from Child Protective Services. Mother: Grace Paterson. Father: unknown." At hearing that piece of information, Pete made a fist and banged it against his thigh. "I checked on the mother's status. She's confessed to the homicide..."
"There isn't any family then?" Pete was processing the news and working one step ahead of the conversation.
"Nobody's come forward and I'm assuming they've been unable to find anyone, since she's still at the Hall." Maggie's voice was sympathetic, but professional.
"Poor little thing," Jim said under his breath. He was tying to watch his partner surreptitiously, but Pete didn't miss the look of concern.
"What else did they say at McLaren Hall?" There was a tinge of annoyance to his voice.
"I didn't interrogate them, Pete. They said she was still there and I thought that's all..."
"Mags - if that kid isn't talking there's something wrong," Pete was moving now, like he couldn't stand still.
"Pete's right," Jim chimed in. "She might have been frightened that night, but she sure didn't clam up."
"Well, Miss Davis said they are having trouble getting her to eat...but again, that's a normal reaction during an adjustment period. She's been through a lot."
"Could you call her back?" Pete asked impatiently.
"What?" Maggie looked stunned by his query.
"I have a few questions..." he reasoned.
"Pete -" she shook her head.
"Maggie -" The look he turned toward her would have melted stone. She picked up the receiver and dialed the number for the Juvenile facility. Pete repaid her efforts with a grateful smile.
Hitched on the corner of her desk, Pete waited through the bureaucratic pleasantries for word of his little friend.
"One of the men who responded that night stopped in my office...and was wondering..." she was quiet, as the social worker apparently asked a question. "Officer Malloy...he was..." The voice on the other end interrupted her again. "Yes..." Maggie looked up at Pete as she listened to Miss Davis. "Really?"
"What?" Pete asked with concern. Maggie grimaced and shushed him.
"She did?" The corner of her mouth turned up in a half smile. "That's very interesting."
"Maggie!" Pete fidgeted, unable to contain his impatience.
"Well - can you hold a moment please?" she hit the hold button.
"Is she okay?" Pete insisted.
"Miss Davis was pleased to hear that you were concerned..."
"But how is Caillie?"
"Slow down, Pete," she chuckled. "She's there, but it seems she isn't interacting with any of the other children or the staff much. Miss Davis says about the only time the child talks at all is to the teddy bear she got Christmas morning."
"A bear?" Jim's brow furrowed.
"Seems she got in so late that night, there hadn't been anything set aside for her from the toys donated. But some staff member must have realized it in the night because the next morning there was a teddy bear with her name on it."
Jim looked at his partner, whose face was a blank. "Her name, huh?"
"Yeah. She won't let it out of her sight. Miss Davis says she's named the bear Malloy."
"Smart kid," Jim smiled.
Pete shrugged, hiding his surprise. "So she remembered my name." Both his friends were eyeing him suspiciously by now. "What's the big deal? I was kind to her."
"They gave her a pad of drawing paper and a box of crayons too. Miss Davis says they always have extras of those. She's been doing pictures of policemen and cars with red lights on top," Maggie smiled. "You seem to have made quite an impression, Officer Malloy."
"Why isn't she talking?" Pete was pacing now, changing the subject as much because he wanted to know as to keep the conjecture to a minimum between his friends.
"Miss Davis seems to think if you'd be willing, that a visit might help her adjust."
"A visit?" Pete scowled.
"You're the closest thing to stability she has right now," Maggie added.
"She named her teddy: Malloy." She could hardly keep the smile from her face.
The wave of pain that hit him was visible; a shudder and a darkening of his expression.
"Pete?" Maggie prompted when he didn't answer.
"I'm off tomorrow..." he offered in just above a whisper.
"Miss Davis..." Maggie spoke into the receiver, smiling at Pete who looked as though he'd lost his best friend. "Would tomorrow be all right?"
When Maggie had finished the arrangements and hung up the phone, she turned back to Pete. "She says she isn't going to tell the child...in case something comes up."
"I'll be there," he promised.
"She seemed to think it could help. That little girl's got a lot facing her in the next few weeks."
"Big problems for such a little kid," Pete mused.
"Not your problems," Maggie warned gently.
"Yeah..." He wasn't listening. "I know."
They left the office, Reed first; but his partner stopped, standing in the doorway, fiddling with his hat. The wheels were turning behind those gray eyes, but he still wasn't ready to share those thoughts. Not just yet. He smiled, though it was mostly an act.
"Hey, Maggie. Why don't you come with me tomorrow?" he suggested finally.
"Me?" her eyebrows raised.
"Yeah, you," Pete nodded. "If you saw her..."
"Now wait a minute -" she interrupted.
"Maggie. You know how many fall through the cracks...you could..."
"I'm not asking for the moon. Just go with me to see her."
"I know exactly what you're doing. You think I'm going to take one look and she'll hook me the same way she did you."
"I just want you to meet her...so she's a face...not just a file."
"Okay - I'll go. But not for the reasons you think. Somebody needs to keep an eye on that runaway heart of yours before it gets broken beyond repair."
It was a beautiful, sunny day when Pete drove up to McLaren Hall the next morning, but the weather didn't make the place look any more cheerful. It was what it was. A place where kids in crisis were housed, kids in trouble with the law, abused, uncared for, unwanted kids. Just the sight of it made Pete feel sad.
The professional cop knew that it was a haven of safety for children who had nobody to protect them, a warm bed and clean clothes and hot meals for those who hadn't been properly supervised for most of their short lives. And he knew the staff did all they could to see to the needs of their little charges, but there was something barren and heartless about the place. No kid should have to spend a moment in such an institution, so foreign to all that childhood ought to be.
Miss Davis met them in the same lobby where Pete had left Caillie almost a week before, and led them to her office down a long dim corridor. The walls were covered with childish paintings taped to the cement blocks and Pete found himself searching the tags that announced each artist's name and age for that of his little friend.
"There are a couple of Cailin's drawings on my desk, Officer Malloy," Miss Davis offered, noticing his interest in the artwork. She held the door as they proceeded into the brightly lit room. One whole wall of windows looked out on the parking lot and the tree-lined drive beyond. "She's out in the playground..." she began as Pete and Maggie took the seats indicated.
"If she's playing..." Pete didn't want to disturb her from interaction if she'd found friends at last. Truth was, he was having cold feet about this whole idea.
"She's on the swings the last I checked." Miss Davis shook her head. "With that bear of hers..."
"She's still not playing with the other kids?" Maggie asked, examining the pictures Miss Davis was showing her. They were highly colored and childish in design but the image of a patrol car with red lights on the roof and a man with blonde hair dressed in a blue police uniform were easily identifiable. Maggie noticed that the policeman was smiling and there were numbers on the yellow circle on his chest, probably with the help of one of the staff Caillie had written a seven followed by two fours.
"She's keeping to herself. I rather doubt she's ever had other children to play with, after reading her file. She's never been in a pre-school program and most of the addresses we have for the mother have been single rooms. From the locations, probably not the sort of neighborhoods where people would be raising kids.
"She was pretty determined about not leaving that apartment. Said she wasn't allowed to leave, so her mother must have made a rule about it. Maybe because those neighborhoods were so dangerous." At least she tried to protect her from the dangers outside, Pete mused. She sure hadn't done much to keep her from the horrors within.
"Well, this is fairly normal when a child is pulled out of a known environment - even if they've been in deplorable conditions - to them it was home. But Cailin is an extreme case. And since that bear came along..."
"What about the bear makes such a difference?" Maggie asked.
"Well - she talks to it. Constantly - incessantly. And the bond was immediate. When we noticed that she had named it after Officer Malloy..."
"We don't know that..." Pete interrupted, defensively.
Maggie looked at him quizzically. "Yeah...lots of bears are named Malloy...'
"It's a common name," he argued.
"In West Dublin, maybe, but not West Hollywood," she giggled. "At least not for bears."
"Officer Malloy. You're here because this is a unique situation," Miss Davis was having a hard time keeping the smile from her face. "You seem to have an unusual bond with this child and I need to get through to her. On top of the daily needs of caring for her, we have to prepare her for placement. And the detectives investigating her mother's case have been here asking to speak with her."
"What!" Pete looked stricken.
"Relax," Maggie shushed him. "Nobody is interrogating the child."
"Sergeant Baxter is correct. I've told them there is no way she could be of any help in the state she's in."
Pete stood, walking to the window as though he needed escape. He was frustrated and it was taking all
his training to keep him inside his own skin. He was letting it show. "You said placement...where will
she go?" He asked, staring out the window.
"Foster care, I suppose. Unless the mother can be convinced to sign consent for adoption...but even then, as adorable as she may be, she's an older child. Placement with a permanent family will be difficult. That's another reason we need to get her talking...to humans." Miss Davis smiled at the man who seemed to hold the key to Cailin's heart. Pete thought she must be a nice person under normal circumstances but at the moment he couldn't help casting her in the role of Mrs. Hannigan from Lil' Orphan Annie.
"Adoption?" he questioned.
"I wouldn't be surprised if the mother could be convinced. She's never showed much interest in the child," Miss Davis replied. "Of course with her history it's entirely possible that she would withhold her signature just for spite. She didn't even bother to name her when the baby was born."
"I found a note in her file this morning," the caseworker consulted the note as she continued. "When the infant was ready to be released from the hospital, it was noted that there was no name on the birth certificate. The record said simply: Girl Paterson. Father Joseph Reilly, chaplain of Our Lady of Mercy Hospital translated it and the certificate was made out as Cailin Paterson. Cailin is Gaelic for girl."
Pete felt like he needed to hit something. Maggie moved to intervene, but the phone did the trick. Miss Davis answered it, listened a moment and asked the secretary to tell the caller she would return their call in about an hour. Then she stood and led the two of them out to the playground where they found Caillie sitting alone on the swing. A familiar looking bear was clutched in her arms. Maggie stayed back with Miss Davis as Pete approached the swings.
"Hi, Caillie," Pete said with friendly caution. He wasn't sure what reaction seeing him would elicit.
"Pete!" the child's face bloomed.
"Yeah," he smiled, kneeling in front of her as she sat on the swing. "I wasn't sure you'd remember me... without my uniform."
"You not a cop no more?"
"Not today," he chuckled. "I'm off duty."
"It's my day off," he explained patiently. "I'm still a cop, just not today."
"Oh," she said in a voice that made him realize she didn't really understand, but didn't want to sound stupid. He was amazed at how mature she could seem one moment, how vulnerable the next.
"I came to see you," he smiled. "See how you were doing."
"Okay," she said without much conviction. "Where's your badge?"
"I don't wear it on my day off," he answered simply.
"You still have it?"
"Yep," he chuckled.
"That's good," she seemed relieved. "I got sumpin' from Santa," she announced proudly, showing him the bear. It still bore the tag he'd written hastily that night. "His name is Malloy," she fixed Pete with a paralyzing gaze.
"Same as mine?" he recovered from the impact of her words a moment later. "I wonder if we're related? Maybe he's a cousin." It made her giggle but more importantly, it successfully covered the prick to his heart.
"My other bear was named Buddy. I found him in the basement one day. Mama said he weren't really mine cause I found him..." her eyes misted over a bit with the memories she tried to keep at bay.
"Well, this one looks like he's yours all right. He's got your name on his tag."
"Uh huh," the child smiled broadly at his words. "He's mine for keeps!" Pete felt a lump the size of a baseball in his throat as he watched her grip the gift to her chest.
"He seems really happy to have you for a friend."
"Where's Reed?" she asked as though the word friend had prompted the thought.
"It's his day off too. He's spending it with his family." Pete answered.
"His lil' boy, Jimmy, huh?" she remembered. Pete wondered if there was a word they'd said that Caillie hadn't etched on her memory. It was a little disconcerting.
"Yep," Pete took up her line of thought. "Hey, I brought somebody who wants to meet you."
"Who?" she looked both excited and hesitant.
"A friend?" he chuckled. "Do you see that lady over there? The one in the blue sweater?"
"With the brown hair?"
"That's her," he explained.
"She's pretty!" Caillie decided after watching Maggie for a while.
"Yeah, she sure is beautiful, huh?" Pete said with a nostalgic smile. It had been a while since he'd let himself spend much time thinking about her that way, but the last couple of days he'd been taking notice again.
"Bu-ti-full!" the child repeated, looking purposely into his face. "She your girlfriend, Pete?"
"Nope," he smiled. "She's just a friend. Would you like to meet her?"
"Guess so." She seemed suddenly frightened, her eyes down as her tiny foot pawed the ground.
"She's really nice. I think you'll like her," he prompted, crooking two fingers to indicate he wanted Maggie to join them. When she approached, he introduced them with friendly formality. "Caillie Paterson, this is Maggie Baxter."
"Maggie Baxter?" the little girl questioned, the tiny face twisted in a frown.
"It's okay, Caillie. Maggie and I have been friends for a long time," he assured the child, a hand on her shoulder.
"This is my bear," she showed the toy cautiously to Maggie, who looked at the tag and then at Pete before Caillie continued. "His name is Malloy. Just like Pete's."
"We figure he's a distant cousin," he winked.
"Nice to meet you, Malloy," Maggie said with great ceremony.
"He says, 'Hi,'" the child answered with a wavering voice.
"And your name is Caillie?" the woman beside him took a seat on the other swing. "That's a very pretty name. So you're a friend of Pete's, huh?"
"We sure are," Malloy jumped in.
"Pete don't got his badge today, cause...cause..." she stopped, not recalling the excuse he'd given.
"Because I'm off duty," he chuckled.
"Yes, I know," Maggie smiled.
"And I get to spend time with two of my favorite girls," Pete added. "That's what I like about having a day off."
"Hmmm, I'll just bet," Maggie laughed lightly, glad to see him smiling again.
"Reed gotta be with his lil' boy today," Caillie informed Maggie, who she still eyed with skepticism. "D'ya know Reed? He's Pete's partner."
"Yes," she replied. "I know Officer Reed. He's very nice."
"Yep," the little girl hugged the bear closer.
"So, did you want to swing? I seem to recall Pete's really good at pushing little girls in swings." Pete caught the mischievous glint in her eyes.
"No, I just sit," the child's voice took on a sad tone, melancholy and fearful.
"Have you ever tried swinging?" Maggie asked gently. "I personally love swings." She noticed the amusement tugging at her friend's face, the twinkle in those gray eyes betrayed all his discipline to keep a sober expression.
"Oh, really?" he finally tumbled to the temptation to explore the possibilities, but a single raised brow cautioned him against further investigation. "Would you like me to push you, Caillie?"
"No," she replied after much serious consideration. "Not today."
"Well," he sighed, truly sorry that he couldn't convince either of these females to let him be of service. "Why don't I let you two ladies have some time to chat. I need to talk with Miss Davis a moment. Would that be okay?"
"Pete?" Cailin looked a bit concerned, reaching a hand out to him.
He leaned in close, taking the hand offered in his broad one made it seem that much smaller. "It's okay, Caillie. Maggie is a really nice lady. And I'll just be over there. You can see me from here." He then touched Maggie's hand on the chain that held the swing she was sitting on and their eyes met.
"Pete's nice," Caillie proclaimed after the few moments of silence that followed his departure.
"I think so, too," Maggie smiled, her eyes moist with the thought of what an impression her friend had made in so short a time with the frightened child. Maggie knew that power he had, to make you believe that everything would be okay. It was just harder to hold on to when you were older.
"He says you're nice, too," the child giggled.
"He does, does he?" Maggie acted like it was a big surprise.
"Pete said I'd like you," Caillie declared as though that had to make it true.
"He told me I'd like you, too," Maggie smiled. "And I do."
"I don't got pretty hair like you," Cailin had slipped off the swing and stepped in front of the woman, She looked longingly at Maggie's shining tresses, a chubby hand reaching for her curls.
"Sure you have," Maggie nodded. "All you need is a new do." She opened her purse and pulled out a small brush and mirror. "Here. I could brush it and see if we can fix it in a new style. What do you say? May I brush your hair?"
Cailin observed the brush skeptically for a few moments and the woman's kind eyes.
"You can watch in the mirror if you like," Maggie handed the girl the tiny compact. The child sat in the swing Maggie had vacated and allowed her hair to be brushed, relaxing a bit as she saw the effect in the mirror. Pete watched from a few yards away.
"There!" Maggie announced with a flourish when she'd burnished the uneven locks to their greatest glory ever. "You're beautiful!" Cailin did indeed look better, and it had as much to do with the huge smile on her face as her now neatly coifed hair. "How about a bit of perfume?"
"Can I?" Caillie looked as though she'd just been offered the moon as her own personal property.
"I think so," Maggie smiled, brushing a tear that the child missed, but Pete didn't. She fished in her handbag and found the tiny bottle of scent . She dabbed a small amount on the little girl's wrists. "Now, you smell as pretty as you look!"
"Do I smell like you?" she looked longingly up at the woman beside her.
"Yes," Maggie confirmed. "The very same."
"Good," Caillie smiled. "'Cause Pete thinks you are bu-ti-full."
"He does?" Maggie chuckled, her voice catching with emotion. It was something she'd never thought she'd hear from him, much as she knew he still cared for her. "Did he tell you that?"
"Uh huh," she insisted. "I wish I was pretty like you."
"But you are, Caillie," the woman assured her, thinking that just at that moment she was quite possibly the most tragically beautiful thing she'd ever seen.
"No I not," she shook her head, obviously enjoying the way her hair now moved. "I got freckles."
"Oh," Maggie could hardly keep from laughing.
"You don't got 'em," the little girl informed her.
"No," Maggie tried with all her might to sober. "I don't have any freckles."
"So I not pretty," the child shrugged, it was the matter-of-fact way she stated it that tore at Maggie's heart.
"Caillie," Maggie said conspiratorially. "I think your freckles are ..gorgeous!"
"That means very pretty!" she explained simplistically.
"You really think so?"
"Very chic!" Maggie put as much sincerity in the words as possible while trying not to laugh. "Did you notice that Pete's got freckles?"
Cailin squinted towards Pete, supposedly checking out this information, but then surprised Maggie as she put her hand to the woman's ear and whispered her answer, "A lot of them!"
Maggie slipped an arm around the child and finally gave in to the giggles. The sound caught Pete's attention. His brows raised, his eyes twinkled even from that distance. "Yes," Maggie finally managed through her fit of laughter. "He does have a lot of them, doesn't he?"
"A whole lot!" Caillie warmed to her subject with the encouragement of Maggie's laughs.
"But I think he's handsome, don't you?" his friend solicited. "Very good looking!"
"Uh huh," Caillie smiled and nodded. "Pete's gorgeous!"
As if on cue, Malloy made his way over to see what was so amusing, what had brought the sparkle back to Caillie's eyes and made her tinkling giggle return.
"What's so funny?" he asked, leaning against the tree trunk with an easy manner.
"Nothing," Maggie lied prettily.
"Freckles!" Caillie confessed loudly.
"Oh," Pete threw Maggie a playful scowl. "And what's so funny about freckles?"
"You got more n'me!" the child giggled.
"Just why were you discussing freckles?" Pete's pretense at annoyance wasn't fooling anyone.
"We were saying how handsome yours are, Pete," Maggie was still having trouble keeping a straight face.
"Oh, you were, huh?" he glared at them with mock angry, his arms folded across his chest, which made them both go off into even more fits of laughter.
"Are my freckles chic, Pete?" Caillie asked him in childish seriousness. He looked to Maggie for confirmation that freckles could be considered so, before answering.
"Absolutely! The chic-est!" he said, the laugh barely covered by the serious act he was attempting, trying its best to escape.
"Really?" she seemed pleased beyond endurance.
"Would I lie to you?" he knelt in front of her again. "Say, how would you and your gorgeous freckles like to go for a drive in my car?"
"The p'lice car?" she looked excited. "With the si'reen?"
"No," Pete chuckled. "It's my day off, remember? No police car or siren today."
"And no badge, huh?" She seemed awfully hung up on that badge, he thought.
"Nope," Pete chuckled. "But the car I have today is even better 'cause the roof comes off. It's called a convertible."
Caillie looked up at Maggie as if for confirmation.
"It really does," she nodded, smiling at both Caillie's fascination with such a contraption and Pete's obvious pride in his plaything. She watched as Cailin crooked her tiny finger, drawing Pete closer to whisper in his ear.
"Can Maggie come, too?" she requested, making him a willing accomplice as she sneaked a glance at the woman.
"Why don't we see if she'd like to join us?" Pete beamed. "I think she might come, if you asked her."
The child looked only a bit uncertain before she turned towards the woman waiting behind them. "Maggie you wanna come with Pete n' me in his car with no roof?"
"I'd love to," Maggie burst into laughter despite herself.
"Oh -" Cailin's face suddenly went slack. "I can't go!" she cried. "I got dirty."
"You look fine," Pete assured her, to no avail. She looked back at Maggie with distress.
"Maybe we could fix you up a bit, put on some clean clothes," Miss Davis offered from her vantage point beside the tree Pete had leaned against earlier. She'd been watching the exchange with interest and amusement. "You have that dress Mrs. Bradley brought you yesterday. I think that might be perfect."
Caillie's eyes sparkled with the prospect of not only a ride with the handsome Pete and the sweet and lovely Maggie in a car with no roof, but now she would be dressed in the plaid dress with the big lace collar that was new, only to the child. At that moment, even that knowledge probably wouldn't have diminished her bliss, but Miss Davis wasn't about to take that chance.
"Why don't we go in and get you spruced up for your drive?" Miss Davis took the child's eager hand and led her towards the facility.
"Can Maggie come?" Caillie requested, her little head twisted back towards her new friends as they stood close, Pete's arm about Maggie's shoulders. "She fixed my hair pretty."
"Well -?" the caseworker hesitated.
"If it's all right," Maggie offered. "Maybe I could help?"
They took her to the park nearby, for a couple of hours, fed the ducks and stopped in a little coffee shop for lunch. Caillie was enchanted with the babies in prams and a particularly large retriever who found her just as fascinating. Pete tried again to tempt her with yet another swing set, but her growing comfort with him didn't seem to include that adventure just yet. A black and white LAPD unit passed through on routine patrol and Cailin stood frozen, gazing at it with puzzlement.
"That your car, Pete?" she asked, her tiny hand firmly held in his.
"No," he chuckled.
"Because it's your day off," she reasoned. "And you spend time with Maggie."
"Thaaat's right," Malloy drawled. "It's my day off and I get to spend time with Maggie - and you."
"In the car with no roof," she continued, fitting the puzzle together in her little four-year-old brain.
"Yes, ma'am," he answered, winking at Maggie whose hand he also held.
"But..." Cailin thought a moment before continuing, her hands thrown in the air in a comic drama.
The adults found it impossible to resist the spasms of laughter that resulted. Pete's eyes danced as he took in the scene: Maggie caught up in uncontrollable mirth and little Caillie catching the infectious mood in a fit of giggles.
Somehow Pete found a way to say goodbye to Caillie for a second time, though before she'd let him go she made him promise to visit again, crossing his heart at her insistence. He was quiet as he began to drive Maggie home and from experience she didn't try to make him talk. But when they pulled onto Wilshire Blvd. Pete reached over and took her hand.
"Thanks," he said simply with feeling trembling in his voice.
"It's easy to see why you were so taken with her."
"She's a cutie, huh?" he smiled, not letting go of her hand. "You were terrific with her. I never knew you were so good with kids."
"Six years in juvenile, I'd think you would have figured that out by now." She was watching him. "Pete, you okay?"
"Yeah," he lied.
"This is me, remember?" She touched his shoulder. "What's bothering you?"
"A kid without a name," he answered after a long silence.
"I thought you took that kinda hard," she sighed.
"How could anybody do that to an innocent baby?"
"She was too messed up herself, Pete. She still is. Let it go."
"I can't," he admitted, banging his fist against the steering wheel.
She let him have a moment to concede the anger and get past it before she continued, "Pete. Cailin is a beautiful name. It suits her."
"Yeah," he said without commitment.
"Well, it may be spelled differently but I was thinking that Caillie sounds like the Gaelic word for celebration. That certainly fits her."
"Hmmm," Pete shrugged, unwilling to let her shake him from his bad humor just yet.
"I'm glad you asked me to come," she said with sincerity.
"Like I said," Pete squeezed her hand before letting it go. "Thanks." There was more he'd like to have said, but the time when their relationship would have permitted such intimacy was long past. Yet at that moment he was pleased their friendship had survived.
"And I think it helped her. She was talking to Miss Davis when we left."
"Yeah," he agreed, eyes never leaving the road.
"At least she had Malloy talking to her," Maggie chuckled. "She sure does love that bear."
"Uh huh," he replied, not tumbling to her ploy. Pete was too much of a fisherman to take such obvious bait. He didn't speak the rest of the trip and was silent as he walked her to her door.
"You want to come in for some coffee?" she invited as he locked the door and handed the keys back to her.
"I should probably go," he answered. "I'm supposed to meet Jim at the range."
"Well, don't sulk, huh," she encouraged. "You worry me."
Malloy and Reed met at the academy that afternoon to fulfill the first half of Mac's orders for four hours of simulation training exercises. He'd been quite clear that the time had to be served together, but he needn't have made the stipulation. Both partners were anxious to settle things with more than just a cursory apology. Running the range in tandem was just the ticket to work out the kinks, the sort of partnership maintenance that should have been routine. The officers of Adam-12 enjoyed such a close relationship, it often was taken for granted.
Pete knew that their recent problem had been his fault, and he felt badly that Jim was giving up part of his day off during the holidays to run the course. But he couldn't bring himself to talk about the reasons just yet, especially since he knew his partner would want details. Pete appreciated Jim's concern but there were some things he'd rather keep to himself. His growing obsession with a case they'd finished days ago was certainly high on that list.
"How about we get something to drink and take a break before we repeat the course," Jim suggested.
"Terrific idea, partner!" Pete gasped, still getting his breath. "I'm buying."
"Still feeling guilty, huh?" his friend laughed as Pete put the coins in the soda machine.
"I thought maybe by now you'd be ready to tell me what was bugging you the other day," Jim took a long drink of the orange soda while he waited for a reply.
"You mean I can't just buy you off with a bottle of pop?" Pete joked awkwardly.
"Not this time," Jim shook his head. "Come on, Pete. You haven't been yourself for days now. I figured it was your business and you'd find a way to work it out on your own. But if it's something I've done, we need to..."
"You?" Pete gulped, nearly choking on his lemon-lime. "Jim - you can't be serious!"
"Hey, I know being together day in and day out, we're bound to get on each other's nerves. But I think we should talk about it and not give it the chance to get in the way of the job."
"Partner, this doesn't have anything to do with you," Pete affirmed with all seriousness.
"Well, it felt pretty personal the other night," Jim replied.
"Yeah," the senior officer leaned against the railing, his eyes averted from his friend's gentle chiding. "I took it out on you. I...eh...I'm sorry, Jim."
"You already apologized," Jim met him at the railing, close but still giving his friend his privacy. "I just don't want you taking this on all alone, if I can help."
"Nope," Pete sighed. "This is something I have to figure out by myself. But I was wrong to let it get between us. Dead wrong."
"Not quite," Jim snorted, releasing the tension with a lighter tone. "But you cut it a little too close for comfort. That's why we're here, if you recall."
"Yeah," his friend laughed at his own unintentional joke. "And I guess we better get back at it. Those paper targets don't like to be kept waiting."
"Just remember, this is a team effort, huh?" Jim smiled in all seriousness as they replaced their bottles in the wooden crate and returned to the range.
"Thanks, partner," Pete replied sincerely.
When they returned to work the partners had rotated to day watch for two weeks. There was a small pink phone message tacked to the bulletin board when Pete Malloy reported for duty on the third morning. It had been taken the afternoon before, and instructed him to call the rectory at St. Swithins as soon as possible. About a dozen scenarios flitted though his head on the trip down the corridor to the phone, but as he dialed the number he still couldn't figure out why his old friend, Father Jack Furillo would be calling for him. They hadn't exactly been in close contact over the past several years.
Malloy revised the list of reasons as he waited for the call to connect, hoping that the ever-vigilant priest was just making a follow-up call after his Christmas Eve visit. Whatever the reason, Pete hoped it wasn't job related. It was rarely good news when people called for the police.
The secretary answered, putting Pete's call right through with a cheerful Father is expecting your call and Jack answered with an equally chipper tone. But the priest's cryptic I need to see you wasn't enough to prepare Pete for what he encountered when he arrived at the rectory at the appointed time.
"I hope you haven't eaten," Jack greeted, wearing jeans and a sweatshirt and looking even less like a priest than his guest remembered from the other night. "My housekeeper spoils me rotten, and when she learned I was having company, she outdid herself. Her fried chicken could be used to break international spies."
"I told you, you chose the wrong profession," Jack winked, leading Pete into the dining room, filled with delectable smells. "Clara takes very good care of me."
"I'm afraid there were sacrifices I wasn't willing to make," Pete chuckled.
"You may change your mind when you taste Clara's mince pie," Jack replied, offering him the platter of golden brown chicken. "Dating may have its perks, but this stuff is heavenly!"
The two men dove into the meal, chatting amicably about sports scores and current events. When Jack cut into the flaky mince pie, he smiled at Pete and stated the purpose of his summons.
"I met a friend of yours the other day," Jack began.
"A friend of mine?" Pete frowned, taking the proffered plate.
"Uh huh. We spent a fascinating hour, mostly discussing you..."
"Me? Who was it?" the officer asked, fork poised over the pastry.
"Of course, I had to resort to an interpreter for the majority of the conversation as I don't speak fluent bear."
"Caillie!" Pete gulped, taken totally by surprise.
"Actually, it was Malloy I was talking to, Caillie translated. He a relative?" Jack joked.
"How is she?" Pete ignored the friendly jibe.
"Miss Davis says she's doing better, but I didn't find her very talkative. Though Malloy talked for nearly the entire hour when he discovered you and I were old friends. He seemed intrigued that I knew you when you were a little boy."
"I have a feeling you're enjoying this too much," Pete quipped. "Hey, what were you doing at McLaren Hall?"
"Miss Davis called me. I'm on a rotating schedule for chaplains there, but we work with them on placements sometimes as well."
"Placement? Is she going to be adopted?"
"She's not eligible yet," Jack shook his head. "But we were discussing a move to St. Anne's School for Girls."
"Why St. Anne's?" Pete questioned, finally eating his dessert.
"It's either that or the foster system. There are a lot of good homes out there, but Miss Davis felt your little friend needed extra care."
"Why?" Pete's brow registered his worry.
"Well, for one thing, the communication situation. If she hadn't been so talkative with you, it might not have been a concern. They would just have assumed she was a shy kid. With all she's been through and what she's yet to face, these next few months will be critical to her future development. It's not impossible that she'd get the attention she needs in a private foster home, but at St. Anne's I know the sisters have dealt with such problems before."
"Do you think she will ever be adopted?" Pete asked, his pie forgotten for the moment. "Have a real home and family?"
"We're hoping for that. The move to St. Anne's would make that easier. We have an excellent record and can often match up kids with waiting parents easier than the normal system," the priest smiled proudly. "But until the mother signs the papers, she won't even be in the adoption system. I believe there's a juvenile officer working on that. It would seem your little friend is getting everyone's attention."
"Maggie -" Pete didn't realize he'd spoken aloud.
"Excuse me?" the priest scowled.
"Maggie Baxter?" Pete clarified. "Is that the name?"
"I believe so. Do you know her?"
"I took her to see Caillie last week."
"So you've been meddling a little yourself, eh?" Jack laughed. "At least at St. Anne's we can make the time she has to wait for a family a little bit easier. It's a good place, Pete."
"I guess it's the best that can be hoped for," the officer mused.
"You weren't thinking of...I had no idea. Pete. You do realize they'd never consider placing a young female with a bachelor," Jack's eyebrows raised.
"Of course I know that," he protested a little too strongly. "I'm just concerned for her, that's all."
"Oh, you've got that look again," Jack clucked.
"That Pete's-responsible-for-the-whole-world look," the priest sighed. "I'm reminded of an old stray pooch, what was its name? Champ or something?"
"Chance," Pete corrected. "And I fail to see what this has to do with that."
"I was there when you took off in the rain after that mangy ol' creature, fully convinced it would expire without your constant, vigilant care. You landed yourself in bed just shy of pneumonia."
"This is a kid, Jack," Pete argued.
"What was it Father Conners said to you back then?"
"I don't recall," he lied.
"Sure you do!" Jack slammed his fork to the table top. "He said you can't be responsible for everything. Sometimes you have to leave it in God's hands. Isn't that what he said?"
"I suppose it was something like that," Pete conceded. "But I'm not twelve years old and this isn't a stray mutt. She's a child who hasn't had many breaks in her life and deserves to have a family to care for her."
"Agreed," Jack nodded, leaning back in his chair. "But that's not something you can change."
"Why not!" Pete exploded, standing and pushing away from the table. He paced in short, restrained passes behind his chair. "If there's nobody else then why the hell not? Isn't one good parent better than two bad ones, or none at all?"
"Absolutely," the priest agreed, his eyes shiny with sympathy. "But a court isn't going to do that, despite the formidable bond you two seem to have forged. That's not why she came into your life, Pete."
"Then why?" he held the back of the chair for support.
"Maybe you've got the roles reversed," Jack mused. "Could be you're not the rescuer on this one."
"Meaning?" Pete threw his friend a totally confused stare.
"Can you deny she's had a profound impact on your life?"
Pete thought some time on that before he spoke again, this time there was a sincere quiet to his voice. "Thanks, Jack, for telling me."
"That's not why you're here," the priest smiled with a nod. "I need your help."
"When we spoke to Cailin about the move, she was less than enthusiastic. In fact, she was adamant that couldn't leave McLaren Hall. I was finally able to get her to tell me why. Seems she's waiting for a visit from her friend, Pete Malloy, and if she were to move, he wouldn't know how to find her."
"You want me to see her again?" he asked incredulously. "Haven't I done enough damage already?"
"You made a promise, I believe," Jack's brow raised.
"Yeah, I guess I did," Pete conceded. "I didn't have a lot of choice."
"She can be persuasive. She made me promise to get word to you."
"What do you want me to tell her?"
"Just assure that you'll know where she is, that it will be all right," Jack said quietly. "I think that would help her make the transition."
"Does she know about her mother?" Pete asked as they took the dishes into the kitchen later.
"We were hoping to wait until she's settled at St. Anne's. Then, that sad duty falls to me, I'm afraid."
"I don't envy you that," Pete said with compassion for his friend, grateful for whatever good it could do, that Jack was now in Caillie's corner too.
"Pete!" Maggie Baxter called as she sprinted down the hallway towards the roll call room two weeks later. The blonde officer smiled in answer to her summons. "I was hoping to catch you before you went out on patrol."
"You've got eight minutes," he chuckled. "What's up, Mags?"
"I thought you'd like to know. I went out to Sybil Brand yesterday, and saw Grace Paterson. We got her to sign the papers. Cailin is eligible for adoption."
"Thanks Maggie," he looked truly touched by her efforts and caring for the child that seemed to have become his personal project. "Hey, I was going to see her on my day off, take her to the zoo. Do you want to come along with us?"
"Pete -" Maggie's face fell. "What are you doing?"
"I'm trying to ask you to go to the zoo, and I was thinking maybe you and I could go to dinner afterwards for some adult fun."
"Oh, Pete!" she sighed. "I went to see her. I did what I could for her and I'm glad you got me involved. Every once in a while it's good to let one get through the defenses, to help you remember why we do this, and why we have to put up those defenses to be able to do it day in and day out. But I think maybe..." she closed her eyes a moment before continuing. "If I thought you were just re-kindling an old flame, I might not mind. In fact, I'd be flattered. But I get the feeling you have some misguided fantasy about solving all of little Cailin's problems that has to do with us and you know that won't work, Pete."
"I'm not -" he protested.
"Aren't you?" she smiled sadly. "You wouldn't be the guy I knew if it hadn't at least crossed your mind."
"You were just so good with her - you hit it off..."
"I work with these kids all the time and I'm not willing to get my heart broken twice a day...isn't that what you used to say?"
"Then I guess I'm halfway there today," he sighed.
"Flatterer!" she chuckled. "Call me sometime?"
"Count on it," he winked as he turned to find his partner.
Pete had fallen into a pattern of visiting Caillie at St. Anne's nearly once a week. She seemed to be flourishing, to the delight of the staff no more so than the officer who had become her friend. But a division-wide bout with the flu had kept him busy picking up the extra shifts left understaffed by the bug and he'd missed two of his usual visits. Pete had sent word the first time that he had to work and the second he'd even been able to speak with her for a few moments, assuring her that he wasn't staying away of his own will.
When he finally got the chance, he made his way to the children's home, having planned a fishing trip to a small stream nearby. But when he arrived, the woman at the reception desk seemed nervous and asked him to wait in an office down the corridor from the lobby where he usually met Cailin for their visits. She had said something cryptic about his not being able to see her today and assured him that someone would be with him shortly to explain.
When Jack appeared a few moments later Pete knew by the look on his face that something momentous had occurred. His mind reeled for a moment, trying to get a grip on the possibilities. Jack moved to the window, motioning for his friend to join him there.
Pete watched through the window of the administrator's office. Below him he saw the dark green station wagon, an attractive brunette was being squired into the passenger seat by a tall man wearing a gray suit and the kindest of smiles. Behind them two children, a boy and a girl, hurried laughing and jostling as they vied for the coveted seat behind the driver. The smaller of them Pete recognized: a dishwater blonde in pigtails, hugging an all-too-familiar stuffed teddy bear. It was Cailin.
"Where-?" the question trailed off, lost in the tight knot in his throat.
"The adoption won't be final for months, but the procedure has begun. She's going to be fine, Pete."
Jack smiled at his friend's confusion. It had happened pretty quickly, a perfect match that no one saw reason to delay. "She tells me they have a swingset in the back yard and a cocker spaniel named Ruffles. Her room is pink and white, and the bed has a roof over it. I'm assuming she means one of those canopy things like my sister had."
"Yeah," the cop chuckled absently, watching the picture of domestic tranquillity just beyond the treeline outside the windows. The tall man lifted Caillie in the air, setting off a fit of giggles. Pete eyes stung as he blinked in the light of a sunny Southern California afternoon.
"They're good people, Pete. His mother has been a member of the St. Swithins parish since long before I started there. Real salt of the earth stock."
"Uh huh." He wasn't even aware he'd spoken aloud, his eyes never leaving the small girl held securely in another man's arms. He watched intently as the tall man buckled her into the back seat, behind the driver's side, and closed the car door. He couldn't help noticing the man's gentle touch and easy manner with his tiny friend. Pete's keen gray eyes followed the wagon as it pulled from the curb and down the drive, until it disappeared beyond the trees. He closed his eyes against the glare, struggling with a dozen disparate emotions.
"They wanted me to make sure you got this," Jack slipped the silver pendant into Pete's palm. "St. Michael, huh?'
"Eh...yeah," he hefted the pendant in his hand, feeling the familiarity with a strange new awareness.
"To protect and to serve, 5/15/62. Did I get the inscription correct? That would be about the time you joined the force, isn't it?"
"The day I got my badge," Pete replied with a far-off look.
"One of your female admirers?" Jack smiled with a nod.
"Mary," he nodded. "You remember her...Mary Malloy."
"Your mother," Jack smiled. "Sergeant Rayburn figured it had been given to you by someone close. His came from his wife, the day he was sworn in."
That got Pete's attention. His head snapped up to meet Jack's smile. "He's...."
"A cop, yeah," the priest admitted. "Caillie was fascinated with his St. Michael's medal. I think it helped her get over her initial fear and mistrust."
Pete thought about that in silence, remembering the night he'd slipped it over her head. The impromptu prayer he'd silently offered towards heaven.
"Funny, you never impressed me as the kind to wear one."
"You're right," Pete replied, fiddling with the pendant between his fingers. "I don't put much stock in talismans, religious medals and good luck charms." He closed his eyes, seeing a day years ago when he'd first held the medal. "The inscription is the LAPD motto, to protect and to serve. She made me promise to wear it as a part of my uniform, said it was to remind me that someone was praying for my protection while I was on duty."
"St. Mike - the Archangel - pretty heavy back up."
"Yeah." Pete shrugged. "I've put him to the test a time or two I suppose."
"How did Cailin get it?"
"The night I dropped her off at McLaren Hall...she seemed so frightened...I left it with her."
"So you've probably missed it all this time."
"I stopped wearing it - a few years ago...after her funeral it just didn't seem to have the same meaning."
"You were wearing it the night you gave it to Cailin," the priest reminded.
"Christmas eve." Pete nodded. "I was getting ready...I was supposed to go to a party after work...so I was dressing up a little. I reached in the box for a tie tack and my hand fell on this. I felt a little guilty about the promise I'd made...I was already struggling with the usual holiday regrets, you know - so I ..."
"You wore it," his friend finished for him.
"And a few hours later I was giving it to a little girl who needed protection more than I ever would," he smiled wistfully. "I guess she doesn't need it anymore."
"The Rayburns wanted to return yours, figuring it had sentimental value - so they replaced it. A little gold one. I blessed it just this morning. Cailin picked it out herself. I don't think she knew much about the legend of the saint, but she was determined which one she wanted: St. Peter, the fisherman."
"Hmmm," Jack smiled, his own eyes misting, reflecting the emotions playing on his friends face.
"She should forget...that night...everything that happened before...me...especially me."
"A St. Peter's medal, a teddy named Malloy..." Jack teased gently. "That hardly seems likely."
Pete's brow furrowed.
"You showed her how to trust..." the priest assured him. "Who to trust."
"I'm glad it worked out, but..."
"A happy ending," Jack beamed.
Pete smiled wistfully, "Those are few and far between."
"You've been given quite a gift."
"We usually don't get to see the scope of our influence - we just do our little part and hope for the best. Put it in Someone Else's' hands. This time, you got to see it work out."
"The end of the story?" Pete sniffed, staring again at the silver disk in his palm.
"Oh, just..." he sighed, turning back towards his childhood friend. They hadn't kept in touch as much as they should. Maybe he'd see to changing that. "In my line of work we rarely get to see the end of the story. At least one that turns out this well. But it's not really the end, is it? She's only four."
"And they lived happily ever after..." Jack laughed heartily. "It's enough for fairytale princesses. What more do you want?"
"Peace on earth," Pete smiled broadly. "And beyond that...absolutely nothing."
Pete Malloy swung into the seat of his off duty convertible, tossing the package on the seat beside him. He turned the key and the motor roared to life beneath him, sounding powerful and ready for his command. He pulled into the traffic flow and headed for a tree-lined neighborhood full of neat little houses and happy families, and the home of James Reed, Jr. He couldn't wait to see the look of delight in his godson's eager eyes when he showed him the remote control cruiser. Truth was, Pete was looking forward even more to the look on his partner's face when he handed him the controls and, for once, let him drive.
Thanks to Cathy for asking the question "Are you working on anything for Christmas" which was just the twist this little ditty needed to come to life. And as always thanks for pointing me in the right direction and arguing the point 'till we get it right.
To all the men and women who open their homes and hearts to kids in crisis, temporarily or in permanent adoption. May the love always outweigh the sacrifice.
And to all the real life officers who must face human suffering head on and risk, as Peter J. would say, getting their hearts broken twice a day.