John McBain glanced down the street in time to see Evangeline’s Mercedes stopped at a light. “Damn!” he hissed, shoving a hand into an empty pocket. His car keys and cell phone were in his jacket in the office. Taking the stairs two at a time, he bounded into his office. Natalie was sitting on his green leather couch, head cocked, legs crossed, twirling a strand of flaming hair around her finger.
“I knew you’d be back,” she cooed with evident glee. “This was meant to be.”
John could feel himself shaking with rage. But Natalie seemed to take his trembling and the dark flush of blood that suffused his face as evidence of sexual passion. She leaped from the couch and reached for his waist.
“Enough!” he growled, grabbing her wrist and flinging her hand away from his body. Natalie yelped, more in pique than pain. He snatched his jacket and headed for the door. “Lewis, I’ll be on my cell,” he barked at an officer seated near the entrance of the squad room.
He resisted slapping a flashing light on the hood of his Mustang as he drove into rush hour traffic. He tried calling Evangeline’s cell as he made the turn to the avenue leading to her apartment. Her deep, sweetly musical voice came on: “Hi, this is Evangeline Williamson. I’m sorry to miss your call. Please leave your number so I can get back to you.”
He paused at the beep. What could he possibly say on the phone? He knew she had to be screening her calls – like him, she usually had her cell on and she usually picked up. He hung up and pulled into a spot across from her building.
Not bothering to check for her car, he breezed past her doorman and took the elevator up to the penthouse. He rang the doorbell, counted to six and started knocking. What if she refused to answer? “Evangeline?” he called softly. “Are you in there? Please baby, open the door.” He fingered the key she had given him the night the waitress was killed at the Angel Square Café. He and Evangeline were about to leave the café when he heard Natalie shrieking in the kitchen. She’d discovered the lifeless body of Nell Novak, the new waitress, slumped over the deep fat fryer. Nell was a student at Llanview University and from the back, she resembled Natalie – same height, black top and long persimmon hair. Before an officer escorted Evangeline home from the café, she’d pressed the key into John’s hand and told him to use it. He hadn’t wanted to leave her alone that night – hell – he never wanted to leave her alone at night – but he hadn’t been able to resist leaving her bed to revisit the crime scene.
John paced the hall, half lover, half detective. If Evangeline was in there, it was probably a bad idea to barge in on her right now. Besides, he didn’t hear anything. He pulled a little notebook out of his pocket and scribbled a few words: “Evangeline, please talk to me. John”. Stooping to slip the note under the door, he felt the bright, hot sting of tears in his eyes. Funny, but when it came to the two of them, he was the one more apt to cry – she called it his ‘wild, Irish soul’. She was the one who could only give herself permission to cry for other people, never herself. But standing in the doorway of his office not thirty minutes ago, she’d looked as if she was ready to wash away on a river of tears. And the way she ran from him as if he was a hound of hell on her heels. Listening to her voice mail message, slipping the note under the door, he kept imagining the world was splitting in two and her part was floating away without him.
He punched her speed dial code on his phone 614 – the date she’d kissed him on a dare in the Palace bar. There had been so many stages in their coming together: the night they shared wine and secrets and, finally, each other while locked in a client’s basement; their first actual date, their first fight, the day they decided to attach strings to the relationship, the day she accepted his mother’s pearls and they committed to a deeper relationship, the night she gave him her heart in a song at Rodi’s. But for him, everything really began with that kiss at the Palace. He could almost hear her singing the old Louis Armstrong song, “Give me a kiss to build a dream on….” Voice breaking, this time, he left a message: “Evangeline, please come back. I…please come back.”
On his way out of her building, he stopped to speak to Walter Bivens, the day doorman. “Hey Walt, have you seen Evangeline come in?”
Bivens, a black man in his seventies, resembled a tall, golden bear. He had worked in this apartment building off and on since he was a teenager and came North to make his career as a jazz bass player. He still played a few gigs a month in Philadelphia, but guarding this building was his bread and butter. He remembered a time when a fine black woman like Evangeline Williamson couldn’t enter the front door of a building on High Street, let alone rent the penthouse and entertain a white lover. He knew some blacks – and whites – might look askance at Evangeline and John, but his years in the jazz world and his long and happy marriage with Isabella, a tiny pianist from the Bronx by way of Sicily, had taught him there was no way to legislate the heart. Besides, he doted on Evangeline. He looked forward to her bright smile and glamorous plumage as she strode through the paneled lobby. She always had a warm greeting for him and she gave the most generous holiday tips of anyone in the building. And he and Lt. McBain, a serious jazz fan, had struck up an acquaintance when McBain recognized his name from an album cover: Bivens played sides for some of Eve McBain’s recording sessions before she had children. One night, when Bivens was playing a set in a small club in Philly, he was surprised to look up and see Evangeline and John at a table in the corner. At John’s urging, Evangeline got up and sang “Key Largo” with the combo. The sound of her lithe, controlled alto soprano was thrilling. If the girl hadn’t been so smart, Bivens was sure she could have made a good living as a singer.
Bivens raised his eyebrows at the younger man’s clearly anxious face. “No, John, I haven’t seen her since she left about 8 this morning. I know she was expecting a verdict on a custody case – she asked me to wish her luck.”
John’s stomach lurched. How had he forgotten? She must have come running to him with the news when she walked in on him and Natalie.
“Is something wrong?” Bivens asked cautiously, although the answer was clear from John’s face.
John liked the old man, but he didn’t know how to tell anyone that Evangeline was so hurt and angry she was running from him. “I just…I need to see her. I left her a message. I’ll stop back later.”
“I get off in a few minutes, but if I see her, I’ll tell her you asked after her,” Biven said, nodding goodbye.
Back in his car, John rang Antonio’s cell. “Hello,” a hoarse, tired voice answered. From the tone, John could tell the news wasn’t good.
John probed carefully. He didn’t want to alarm his friend. “Antonio, it’s John. So the verdict is in?”
Antonio Vega sighed deeply. “Yeah. I guess Van’s told you what went down. My involvement with the Santis, the fire at RJ’s, those things really hurt us. The look on RJ’s face…I could go over there right now and strangle him with his hair extensions.”
“Hey, man, you don’t want to do anything to make this worse for you and your daughter. Believe me, if it was legal, I’d hold RJ while you beat him. But we can’t go down his road. I’m sure Evangeline is going to help you work this out.”
“Yeah, yeah. We’re supposed to meet tomorrow morning to go over the visitation paperwork. Listen man, I know this case has taken a lot of her time. I just want you to know what an amazing woman you have there. I couldn’t have gotten through this without her.”
“Yeah, man. I know. She’s one of a kind. You hang in there.” John hung up and steered his car to Evangeline’s office. He couldn’t call Nora – yet.
Portia Lemmons, Evangeline’s assistant, was leaving the office when John arrived. The young woman, a second-year law student at Penn, told John she hadn’t heard from Evangeline since she called from the courthouse to give her the bad news and have her set up a morning meeting with Antonio Vega. John thanked her and got back in his car. Where could she be? He cruised by the museum, but it was closed. He rolled past Nora’s house, but no one seemed to be at home. He stopped in at Rodi’s, the Palace, the tennis club, he even checked the parking lot at the movie house. He drove through her favorite park but didn’t see her walking any of the paths bright with dogwood, flowering plum and cherry and crepe myrtle. Flowers in the springtime. A pained smile crossed his face. That was her signature scent. It wasn’t heavy, but he always knew when she was around – it was as if his nose had extra Evangeline receptors. And damn, his nose had been open for her since the day she walked into his jail cell to announce she was representing him in his case against the bureau. Darkness started to fall in Llanview and he realized that no matter how many doors he knocked on tonight, he wasn’t sure when he’d catch the scent of Flowers in the Springtime again.
John glanced at his watch. 7:20. If he was lucky, Natalie Vega would have left LPD for the evening. But when did he ever have any luck where that woman was concerned? Ever since that night she’d grabbed him and kissed him and told him she still wanted him, he’d been trying to keep his distance from her. But it was hard. Because that was the same night the Killing Club killer had strangled Natalie’s lookalike and dumped her in a vat of hot oil. John sometimes wondered if he was going to spend the rest of his life watching over Natalie. When he agreed to go along with Cristian Vega’s lie – that he was an imposter sent to kill Tico Santi – and let Natalie’s husband go to prison, he promised to look after Natalie. But that secret was eating a hole in John’s life: neither Natalie nor Evangeline really understood why he was so on edge whenever the redhead was in trouble or on the verge of connecting with another man. On the one hand, he felt it was partially his fault Cris wasn’t around to protect her himself. On the other, he was afraid of what might happen if she did fall for another guy, only to find out Cris was still alive. The night Natalie grabbed him in Vicki’s livingroom, that fear became manifest. On some deep level, he’d known there was something more to the looks Natalie gave him, but as long as she didn’t put it out there, he could pretend it – whatever “it” was -- didn’t exist.
This afternoon, Natalie had come into his office, wringing her hands and fretting about the Killing Club murders. Just two days earlier, Natalie’s brother, Rex Balsom, found Jen Rappaport dead in her car with a plastic bag over her head. At first, it looked like suicide, but the medical examiner’s report indicated a struggle, murder and a scene staged to look like a suicide.
“John! I can’t sleep. I can’t think straight with this killer out there,” Natalie wailed, her mouth twisting and her eyes darting around her face like a pair of green fish in a bowl of milk. “I’m so scared. What are you going to do?”
John sank wearily onto the edge of his desk. It wasn’t as if he was cooling his heels while this killer picked off the young adults of Llanview one by one. The Rappaport murder had been enough for him to convince the governor to replace the police detail on the Love Crew kids and he’d added Natalie to the list. Vicki Buchanan maintained the private security she hired last summer when the family thought Jessica was being stalked, but since he started to worry that Natalie was on the killer’s short list, he’d begun cruising past Llanfair late at night, just to make sure the guards were on duty.
“Natalie, I’ve got every possible body working overtime on this case. We are going to stop that son of a bitch if it’s the last thing I do.”
“The last thing you do? John don’t talk that way,” Natalie said, tears springing to her eyes. She pressed her hands to the sides of face, a move that increased the deep line of her cleavage. Ever since her “declaration”, she’d been displaying her breasts like a pair of grapefruits on a tray. She started to sob and fling her head from side to side, until he took her by the shoulders and held her still.
“Hey, Bo and I are on the case,” he said stroking her shoulder. “We aren’t going to let anything happen to you.” He pushed a strand of hair behind her ear and ran his thumb along her jaw. The gesture seemed to still her.
“Oh John, I knew you cared. You can’t hide it from me,” she said, glancing up at him with a strange look in her eyes. What happened to the frightened girl he’d been trying to comfort? Natalie grabbed him by the neck and pulled his mouth to hers. She was short, but strong and she held on, sucking at his lips like a Dyson vacuum. He had one hand on her waist and the other on her shoulder, trying to push her away when he heard the door open. He turned and there was Evangeline standing in a shaft of golden sun, looking like Eurydice about to descend into the underworld. He could see the shock and the tears in her huge brown eyes, but she didn’t say a word. Then, she was gone, fleet as a gazelle on those long, lightly muscled legs.
Roxie, Natalie’s foster mother, looked up from her magazine as he strode past the reception desk at the Angel Square Hotel. “Hey, hey Johnny Baby. I hear you and Natty con-NECK-ted this afternoon,” she said with a lewd smile. “I guess Evanjawhatever finally knows what time it is.”
John turned an acid glare on Roxie. “Go to hell, you stupid cow,” he growled. The ditzy woman was so startled she dropped her Cosmo and her Cosmopolitan. As he marched up the stairs to his apartment, he heard her talking to Natalie on the phone. He knew in a few minutes the redhead would be at his door. Afraid he would do her and her foster mother grievous bodily harm, he grabbed his laptop and dop kit and headed down the backstairs and around the block to his car.
Returning to Evangeline’s building, John flashed his badge at the night doorman and punched in the code for the penthouse elevator. When there was no answer to his knocking, he used the key. The chain was off – not a good sign. He turned on the lights and wandered from room to room – no briefcase by her desk, no strappy heels kicked off by the door, no water beading up on the shower curtain, no martini glass on the counter. He picked up a coral silk kimono she’d dropped on the chaise lounge the night before when they’d made love there. He pressed the cool silk to his face, inhaled deeply and wept – Flowers in the Springtime.