Chapter: 21

The police arrived a few minutes later, to find us sitting in utter silence.

Jill was still sponging blood from Mendoza's severed fingers when Kevin Slyder burst in through the wooden door with several more officers in tow. After that, it was a mess of activity, all of which I remembered later as a blur. They cuffed Mendoza and brought him quickly out to a squad car, Jill was forced to answer a million questions about what had transpired that evening, and Kevin Slyder – grinning from ear to ear – demanded to know just what had happened that had finally helped me put the pieces together.

The following morning, I couldn't remember if I'd actually told him in full or not. Hell, I couldn't even remember how I'd gotten home, although it was safe to assume that I'd driven myself because the Anglia was parked on the curb in front of my house when I woke. Perhaps it was just weariness that caused my forgetfulness – after all, it had been some time around four in the morning that I vaguely remembered crawling back into bed, fully clothed. Perhaps I had just been overwhelmed by everything – pride at my success, anger at my failure, confusion, lack of sleep, and the post–adrenaline fatigue.

Maybe I was just in shock.

What I did remember was telling Jill not to come into the office until Monday – because she deserved a good, long rest and we'd both borne enough stress to last a lifetime. By the time I'd gotten a chance to speak, Mendoza had been taken away and the police were finally cleaning up to go. She barely heard me speak, though: she collapsed onto my chest and embraced me for a very long time. I remembered feeling her sob once or twice, but then she had calmed – almost as though she had fallen asleep. I remembered having no words to offer her, just a comforting embrace and a trench coat long enough to warm us both in Mendoza's cold basement.

And then the EMTs had taken her away from me. They wanted to run a trauma check on her – just to be safe – and to clean up the worst of her cuts and scrapes. The look in her eyes told me that she didn't want to go – that she was almost scared to leave the sanctuary of my arms – but I nodded once, firmly.

You should go, I told her with my eyes, giving her hand a gentle squeeze. I'll be here when you get back.

And then I was home – like it had all been nothing more than an uncommonly realistic dream or movie and brutal reality had suddenly kicked in. I woke and found myself lying in the bed, staring bleakly at the wall, still half–asleep – nearly comatose. It was late afternoon according to the clock on the nightstand (3:13 to be exact) and if I wasn't mistaken, I'd slept through all of the 8th. It was positively blinding in the bedroom as midday sunlight reflected off the white walls and ceiling, filling every inch of the room.

Nothing about the décor was any different than it had been the night previous. The bulletin board was naked, save for the eye–pierced photo of Robert Mendoza and the one of Rick and Sandy Miles. The other photos and papers were still stacked haphazardly on my desk. The bathrobe I'd shucked in haste still huddled like some boneless animal on the carpet.

My knee ached.

Wincing, I rolled over and sat up slowly. I wasn't sure quite why – it would have been the easiest thing in the world to just close my eyes and go back to sleep. In fact, my mind was begging my body to lie back down and sleep the rest of the day away. But instead, I got to my feet and stumbled drunkenly to the kitchen.

I stood in the doorway for a long moment, wondering why I was there, then dropped into the only chair at the tiny table, perhaps planning to make breakfast. Or lunch. Whichever one was closer to dinner, but not quite the noonday meal.

No thoughts presented themselves as I made and consumed a bologna sandwich. My mind was asleep, blank, serene – as though my ADD had left without a forwarding address. It was a welcome change but it felt alien, and without any distractions I noticed more acutely the dry taste of the staling rye.

I remained conscious for only about three hours on Thursday the ninth – from three to about six – and then I went back to bed, not waking until ten the next morning. Friday the tenth progressed much as that disorienting Thursday had, although I didn't sleep for nearly quite as long. To the contrary, I fed myself breakfast at a more regular time, read the day's paper, and showered sometime around one–thirty. I was just stepping out of the tub, dripping and naked, when the phone in the hallway rang.

Swearing, I quickly tied the towel around my waist and stepped out of the warm bathroom. The cold air in the hallway instantly puckered my skin into gooseflesh and I shivered as I padded down the carpet. When I answered the call, it was Kevin Slyder and he wanted me down at the station ASAP. He didn't specify as to what it was he wanted, but that was fine with me.

I love mysteries.

After dressing, I drove downtown to the police station and arrived there three minutes past two. The day was somewhat warmer than the previous few had been, but still remained chilly. I found a spot between a squad car and a snow mound in the tiny parking lot outside the station and headed quickly inside, eager to get out of the fine sleet that was falling and also curious to know what it was that Slyder wanted.

Obviously not a laugh, I thought wryly.

The receptionist at the entrance desk directed me down a narrow hall to the Chief's office, and I headed in that direction with somewhat of a spring in my step. The plaster walls were decorated with certificates, black and white framed portraits, and several oil paintings – a lot of history that I passed by without pausing to notice.

Kevin Slyder's office was tiny in my opinion, although I was probably just used to the spacious room that I called my OC and the expansive desk for which I'd done nothing to earn. Still, had I been Kevin's superior, I would have given the man a room with proportions greater than those of a closet. Granted, Swedesboro was an old town with a tiny police force, but Kevin was the Chief, for Christ's sake.

He had his back to me when I came to stand in his doorway. Oblivious to my presence, he was bent over a file cabinet behind his desk, thumbing through folders labeled with a complex series of colors and letters.

I rapped my knuckles on the metal doorframe to announce my entry, then quickly flopped down in the cushioned chair facing him and put my feet up on his desk. "You rang?" I asked jovially as he turned and spotted me.

"Off," he growled, pointing at my dirty boots and then sharply at the floor. When I had complied, he extended his hand to me over the desk as though nothing out of the ordinary had just happened. "We didn't get to really talk about everything, and you haven't given me a statement yet, so that's why you're here."

I shook his hand firmly, appreciating his bluntness as usual. "Aren't you going to offer me tea?"

He glared at me in anger that was both feigned and real. "Also, I didn't get a chance to properly congratulate you on the good work. I'm still shocked how quickly you figured everything out – I don't quite understand what tipped you off."

"Alright, the long version, then." I indicated the swivel chair behind him. "You might want to sit down – this could take a while."

Slyder looked distinctly miffed about being told to take a seat in his own office, but he dropped heavily into the chair without saying anything. He was too eager to hear the story.

Suddenly I felt like LeVar on the Reading Rainbow and found myself thinking: Kids, this is a story called What Not to Do When You're a Detective, written, illustrated, and ignored by Chance Stikup.

I swallowed the comment before I could say it out loud. "Alrighty," I said instead, beginning with a sigh. "Well, first of all, let me assure you that I have no clue whatsoever how I figured everything out. Mental power, I guess. Divine intervention. Don't ask me. Anyway, I went back to my house after Donnie's and started going over everything. I organized all the stuff you gave me so I could better muse over it all, you know? However, once I got the Feng Shui right, I got too frustrated and went to bed."

I chuckled. "And here's the embarrassing part. I, uh, had a nightmare, and when I woke up I was… so disoriented that when I tried to get out of bed, I slipped and fell and knocked all the paper evidence that we had everywhere. So, once I'd collected myself, I set about gathering it all back up again. As fate would have it, the last two papers I picked up were the note we found at Thawyer's and a note that Robert Mendoza had given me himself with his phone number on it, and he'd written "good luck" beneath it. And as I was looking at them, I realized that the handwriting was identical."

Slyder actually leaned forward in his seat as I said this and rested his elbows on the desk, genuinely intrigued and not a little amused.

I plowed on before he could say anything. "So, from there, when I realized that Mendoza had obviously written both notes – which would obviously indicate that he was behind everything – I started trying to piece together a motive. You know, something more than just circumstantial speculation. Sooo, as I was thinking about everything, I realized that – uh, do you remember that wall in the Miles household with all those pictures on it, right in the entrance hall? Well, I remembered seeing a picture of Robbie on their wall. Yeah, I know – crazy, right?"

He nodded, drone–like.

I cleared my throat. "Anyway, um, what with him robbing Miles, I tried to think of a credible reason why Mendoza would rob someone he was obviously friends with or related to – especially if he knew that Miles was suffering financially. Well, from there, things just sort of… developed. I started considering the possibility that it hadn't been a real robbery – which it kind of was, although the thieves themselves didn't know it…"

He looked confused, but I had planned on explaining anyway.

"Mendoza told me that he and Miles had hired the thieves to do a job, told them what it was, but not anything else. Seems that they wanted to tap into Miles' insurance to get some quick money since they both were having a hard time. Their plan was to have the thieves do the job and then either Mendoza or Miles would plant the license plate from Mendoza's car so that we would hunt the thieves down, arrest them for the theft of the vehicle – even though they didn't actually steal it. And then we would find and return Miles' money. Once all the hubbub had settled down, he and Mendoza would gradually begin quietly paying back the loan they'd gotten from homeowner's."

I grinned. "So, the thieves actually ended up being on the butt end of a bad joke: they were completely in the dark the whole time. But then they accidentally dropped the plate before Mendoza could plant it, which actually was to the thieves' advantage since it caught Mendoza and Miles unprepared. It was fortunate for us too: if that hadn't happened, we wouldn't have had all the questions and variables that clued us in to the fact that the whole thing was bigger than a simple robbery."

For a moment, I was silent, watching his shocked expression and wondering just how badly this was blowing his mind. "According to Mendoza, it was supposed to be an 'everybody wins' situation – they would get their money from homeowner's, the thieves got their pay up front, and SPD would, in turn, get the thieves. Now, granted, I didn't figure that all out by myself, you know – just the basics. Mendoza and I had actually kinda been… buddies before two nights ago, I guess. After I shot him, we talked things over and he confessed everything. That was only about fifteen minutes before you arrived."

I slapped my thighs. "So, end of story. D'ya think I'll get a Pulitzer if I publish it?"

He slumped back in his chair weakly. "Was there any way we could have figured it out if they hadn't knocked the plate off the car?"

"I doubt it." I shrugged. "We would have eventually hunted down the thieves, they probably wouldn't have said anything about a 'boss', and even if they did, there would have been no evidence, no nothing to connect anyone to anything, and the courts would have dismissed the case. But since the thieves dropped that license plate early, and since we caught Greg Sheldon and heard his story, we got a leg–up. Quite honestly, if I had thrown away that paper with Mendoza's phone number on it, we wouldn't have pulled the bust the other night, my secretary would possibly be dead, and we would probably be chasing Mendoza for the next couple of months, unless he was stupid enough to get caught sooner."

Slyder posted his chin on his fist. "Any idea why did he kidnapped Ms. Fereday, anyway?"

There were details pertaining to that factor that he didn't need to know, so I glossed over them. "I called Miles on the phone to give him an update that same evening, right after we found the note at Thawyer's place but before CSI checked it for prints. He got scared hearing we were so close, so he called his cousin, who, in turn, took it upon himself to do something about me."

I waved a hand vaguely in the air. "I guess Robbie thought he could blackmail me – using Jill as leverage. He probably was planning on calling me to tell me that he had her, and demand I forget everything I knew about the case. But at the same time he was kidnapping her, I was working things out in my head, so I was able to get there before he got a chance to even make the call."

"She's pretty, your secretary," Slyder said suddenly, catching me off–guard. "She single?"

"Hands off," I growled, only partly joking, and then changed the subject. "So, is that all you wanted me for? Can I go now?"

He raised his empty hands as though in worship and then let them fall back to the arms of his swivel chair. "Stikup, I can't stress enough how impressed I am with you. You have a cool head, a good rational mind, and you act quickly without second–guessing yourself. I must admit that – in the beginning – I wasn't so sure you were up to the job, but you really pulled your weight around." His black eyes were twinkling as he leaned forward, folding his hands on the desktop. "Would you like a job?"

I held up a hand in protest. "No thanks – just finished one."

"No, seriously." He glanced out the doorway through which I had entered, perhaps checking for eavesdroppers, and then lowered his voice conspiratorially. "Scarlotti's talking about retiring early. He's been doing this for twenty–five years, after all, and the bullet did more damage than the doctors initially thought. So what do you say? If he quits, do you want in?"

My heart was suddenly ticking faster. The offer had its pros and cons, and it both intrigued and excited me. On one hand, it would indeed be the break I had been looking for. Better pay, publicity, and responsibility, not to mention greater involvement in the majority of police activity in Gloucester County and the chance to work with a great CSI team and learn alongside them.

It was a dream job – my dream job. It was what I had lusted after for so long.

On the other hand, it would be a gigantic step backwards in terms of the direction I had been trying to take my life. The whole reason I'd set up the agency on the corner of Union and Crescent had been to get away from standard police work and yet still do what I loved. This would be the biggest, quickest promotion I would ever be offered and/or receive, but it would completely defeat the purpose of the last two years of my life.

If I accepted. It was tantalizing, frustratingly so.

I licked my lips. "How long do I have to decide?"

The look in his eyes told me Slyder was satisfied to see me tempted. "Well, like I said, it's not definite yet, but it's certainly looking that way. I'd say a week or two, no longer than that."

Well, that was plenty of time. I could discuss it all with Jill, my mom, and – most importantly – myself. I could relax in my old office for a couple weeks, bounce ideas off of my wall, and finally come to a decision the hard way. And what with this past case in the bag, I now had enough money to cover self–employment for a couple months.

Of course, if I accept the offer, I'll never have to worry about that ever again either.

I cleared my throat. "Well, thanks for thinking of me, Chief – I'm flattered, really. Uh, yeah – let me think about it and I'll get back to you."

"Absolutely." Smiling for real, he got to his feet. "Again, thanks for all your help, Stikup. By the way, you are aware that you're most likely going to be subpoenaed, right?"

"Thanks," I said sarcastically, shaking his hand and grimacing. "I was trying not to think about it."

Monday, December 20th
- - -

The trials were not all that bad, even though I dreaded them every hour of every day leading up to them. In fact, in the hearings of the three thieves – Thawyer, Harris, and Sheldon – each pleaded guilty and my testimony was not deemed necessary. The charges were hefty: breaking and entering, assault & battery and murder in the first degree, and the cumulative sentence was twenty–five–to–life for both Thawyer and Harris. It seemed as though the pair would spend the rest of their days behind bars.

Sheldon, on the other hand, was sentenced to a year and six months. I was a little surprised to see him being tried as a minor. I had paid little attention to his file during the investigation, as he had been safely behind bars since nearly the beginning, but if I had perused the records, I would have seen that he was only seventeen. Juvie would be a nice place for him – to teach him the ways of the world.

Robert Mendoza also pleaded guilty. He confessed everything voluntarily and was sentenced to only six years of low security on good behavior. He might even have gotten less if it hadn't been for the kidnapping charge, which was inexcusable.

Rick Miles' hearing was the one that was somewhat interesting. Of all five men that we had arrested, he was the only one who pleaded not guilty. It was pretty much obvious from the beginning that he had no case, and if I was reading his lawyer correctly, she hadn't wanted to pursue much of anything aside from a plea bargain, considering the evidence we had against him. After all, Robert Mendoza had confessed in full, which left Rick with very little credibility.

On the third day of deliberation, I was finally called upon to give my testimony. The prosecutor – a man named Clinton who, as Slyder warned me, was Sam Dempsey's poster boy – basically had me reiterate the little speech I'd given to Kevin Slyder in his office. For the benefit of the court, I focused mainly on Miles' part in the story, so as to keep from confusing the jury with inessential details. After hearing my piece, Miles' lawyer tried to play up the circumstantial evidence, arguing that Rick had been coerced into everything and Mendoza was just dragging Rick down with him. The jury, however, felt otherwise, and Rick was sentenced to four years for insurance fraud.

What would happen to all the criminals' families was something with which I refused to concern myself – not because I didn't care, but because I knew I wouldn't be satisfied with what sanctions the government would grant to them. While I wasn't close or even remotely friendly with any of the criminals' immediate families, I knew that if I were to do time for whatever reason, I would want my wife, mother, sister – whomever – to be cared for adequately. As it was, Sandy and Patricia would have a hard enough time just because of the separation.

After his sentencing, Robert Mendoza – flanked by two court officers and his lawyer – had approached me in the courtroom aisle, his grizzled face passive – even humble. He'd managed a thin–lipped smile and extended his manacled hand to me in what could only be interpreted as a gesture of respect for the prey that had bested him. I'd momentarily considered spitting on his hand, but gritted my teeth instead and grasped his hand firmly. We didn't exchange any words: there was nothing I could say that would have been ample consolation, and likewise, nothing he could offer would have been ample apology. Yet somehow, with that gesture, we managed to forgive each other anyway.

There had been a lot of press coverage at the trials as the public was dying for information on the biggest scam to hit Swedesboro in over two decades. True to my character, I offered them very little, despite their constant badgering. Usually Kevin Slyder was there to save me, but more often then not, the reporters cornered me in hallways, or – even once – in the bathroom of the city municipal building. Dempsey, on the other hand, had a whole lot to say about the affair, and I knew for a fact that my name had been on his lips a lot during the days of the trials and following. Sure, all the publicity was nice for a change, but it was also nerve–wracking for someone of my social stature, and when all was said and done, I was greatly relieved when the whole ordeal had been completed.

All things considered, I'd gotten a relatively happy ending.

Nearly two weeks had passed since the big arrest, and during that time, I'd seen very little of Jill. We had crossed paths in the office a couple times, but there had been relatively little work to do after officially closing the case, so I'd only entered the building when demanded by necessity. Also during those eleven days' time, Scarlotti Benson had indeed announced his plans for retirement, a story that had been exploited all over local newspapers and even in the Gloucester County Times, a big paper.

Unfortunately, I'd had very little time to think about taking up Benson's job, as I had been worrying about – when not attending – the trials. Now that it was official, I had received no less than three calls from Kevin Slyder – urging me to make up my mind quickly, because the district was already looking to fill Benson's post – and one from Sam Dempsey himself, asking me if Slyder had approached me about taking the position yet. Apparently all was forgiven between us, although that still didn't change my opinion of the man. Working directly under him would certainly take some getting used to, and I'd have to learn to control my tongue.

Interestingly enough, regardless of his position as the presiding Chief of Swedesboro police, Kevin Slyder had very little say in the appointing of a new sheriff, which meant that I would still have to appeal directly to Dempsey if I wanted the position. Publicity had everything to do with my nomination, obviously. A month ago, my name wouldn't have been a worthy candidate even as a joke. In fact, Dempsey might have fired anyone for even suggesting me because my reputation as a pretentious asshole tended to precede me. On top of that, a lowly sleuth being promoted to district sheriff would have been unheard of.

But now I'd done a trick, and for that, I deserved a treat.

There was a lot of pressure to take that offer – so much, in fact, that I was growing increasingly more anxious. I couldn't organize my pros and cons and I didn't have an accurate scale with which to weigh them – not with all the media attention, Dempsey's persistence, the rise of potential competitors for the slot, and Kevin Slyder's hopeful anticipation all crowding my mind with every waking moment. And so, needing a quiet place to think, I headed over to the office on Monday, the 20th of December, sometime after lunch, five days before Christmas.

The day was quiet and beautiful, sunny and bright, warm in comparison to the previous weeks. The snow had been in a state of gradual melting for the past few days, and I could almost see the cracked cement walkway leading up to the front door of the office. The temperature inside was chillier than usual, but I could immediately smell that the furnace had been running up until recently. The lights were all off, the doors shut, the coat hangers bare, spare boots pushed neatly up against the baseboard.

No Jill.

I headed down the hall to my office, wondering if she was going to come in at any point that day. I had explicitly ordered her to take a few days off in the light of our recent success, but knowing Jill – Ms. Overachiever – she would probably stop by to file papers or to do whatever other unnecessary task she'd forgotten to do.

I was sort of hoping she would. It felt like eons since I'd last seen her.

As I entered my office, I slapped the light switch without thinking and immediately felt stupid for forgetting again, but – miraculously – the bulb overhead instantly flared to life. Surprised, but not unpleasantly, I clicked the switch up and down a few times – just to make sure I wasn't imagining things – and then chuckled. Jill must have gotten fed up with me postponing a trip to the hardware store and gone herself.

Sweet of her.

It was at that moment, as I crossed the threshold and came to stand in the middle of the room, that I noticed that something else about the office was different – very different, and completely out of place.

The room was clean. I mean really, really clean. Almost spotless.

The big desk seemed almost naked without the numerous stacks of paper hiding it from view. The oak surface gleamed with cleanliness, completely dust–free. There were no more brown rings from coffee spills, no more crumbs, no more empty candy wrappers. The "out" tray was empty, and although the "in" tray was not, the contents were no longer stacked precariously, as the nonessential items had been weeded out. The old telephone somehow seemed like it belonged there now, gleaming, just as clean as everything else.

The dusted curtains on the big window behind the desk had been pulled wide, the blinds and glass had been scrubbed, allowing sunlight to flood the office as a result. The rug had clearly been vacuumed, as well as the couch, and the old coffee table actually looked fit to eat off of. The trashcan was empty, waiting quietly beside the desk to be filled again. The old cabinet by the fireplace had been dusted; the glass panels in the upper doors had been Windexed and were now sparkling. The numerous books visible behind the glass were neatly reorganized and the drawers below the shelves were all closed instead of hanging open precariously.

Well, that's different, I thought dazedly. My jaw had dropped, and all I could do was stare.

In a daze, I crossed to the cabinet and slid open the top drawer, only to find that the folders it contained were straightened and neatly alphabetized. I turned around again slowly, mouth still hanging open, taking in the fact that she had even dusted the old landscape that hung above the sofa – so much that the oil paint shone. As a matter of fact, the colors were much more vivid than they'd been when I'd purchased the landscape at a yard sale three years prior.

"Jill…" I breathed. When had she done all this? Recently – probably this morning.

I turned back to the desk and froze as I noticed that there was a single piece of paper still left on its surface, tucked neatly beneath the corner of the desktop calendar. Knowing that Jill hadn't missed it by mistake, I crossed the room quickly and snatched up the piece of stationery, heart beating in my throat.

My hand trembled as I began to read:


In a way, I'm glad you didn't come in while I was here, just because it's a lot easier for me to share my thoughts on paper than in person. You may argue, but I've never felt that I communicate well in conversation, so I'm leaving you this note as opposed to a visit or a telephone call. But at the same time, I'm sorry I won't get a chance to say good–bye in person.

Chance, I'm going away for a little while. I hope you won't be upset with me. My mother and I both need a very long vacation after recent events, and I've always wanted to visit Rome, so I think that's where we're heading. I'll be sure to send you loads of pictures and postcards! Oh, and don't worry – I'm not expecting paid vacation time! I just wanted you to know that it might be some time before I come home.

I'd like to thank you for the time that we've shared together. Almost two years have gone by – faster than either of us realized – and I can honestly say that I consider them time well–spent. You'll probably argue like you always do that I should have done something else with my time – like maybe actually making use of that business degree I slaved over for four years… Anyway, I am indeed grateful for the laughs, the experiences, and the friendship we've shared.

In all honesty, you have been my closest friend, Chance, ever since I took up the job as your secretary. You've always been kind to me, generous and sweet. You never asked more of me than I could handle, never got upset if I made a mistake, and – perhaps most importantly – never got annoyed with my little idiosyncrasies (I hope I spelled that correctly!).

I'd also like to thank you properly for saving my life. In all the confusion that night, I don't know if I ever told you just how scared I was that I wasn't going to see my mother or you ever again. I was petrified. I was so sure that I was going to be raped, murdered, tortured, I don't really know. And the entire time he had me captive, I kept thinking that it would take forever before someone finally noticed I was missing and called the police. But you noticed right away, Chance – your first thought was of me, and you raced in to save me, and for that, I can never thank you enough.

Okay, now the hard part (ha ha). I know you've wanted to get closer to me – closer than just friends – and I hope you've realized by now that I want the same. Unfortunately (for you), you've chosen a very immature lady to love – even though it may not seem like that to you now. This vacation to Rome is also for me to have some time to think things over between us. I just don't know if I'm quite ready yet for a serious relationship. I'm not sure I can handle the responsibility. But I want you to know that that is truly what I want.

So, to put it simply, if you're willing to wait for me, I can wait forever for you.

All that said, I hope you aren't upset with me, Chance. I just need some time to collect myself, perhaps mature a little, and then I'll be back to you as soon as I possibly can. So please don't give away my chair at the Stikup Agency – I'll be back for it! And please forgive me for being so silly.

I hope you understand.

For now, farewell, Chance Stikup. Please don't miss me.

Again, thank you for everything. Merry Christmas.

Jill Fereday

"'Please don't miss me'?" I read aloud. Well, it was already too late for that. The moment I had begun reading, a type of hollow ache had developed in my guts – a feeling of loss, what was almost grief. I was surprised to feel sudden warmth trailing slowly down my cheek.

So that was it. She was gone – or at least, as good as gone. For however long, she didn't even know. Months, perhaps? Years?

Too long.

And when she came back, would she be the same person? Would she find someone else overseas? Would she still want her job? Would she ever come back at all?

I stared hard at the note, specifically the seventh paragraph where it said, "I'll wait forever for you." A strangled emotion suddenly filled my chest and, in a rush, I seized the telephone and raised it to my ear, furiously punching in the numbers without conscious thought.

Kevin Slyder answered after the third ring. "Slyder."

"It's Stikup," I said thickly, trying to sound natural.

"Yeah?" His tone was conversational, but he sounded eager – like he was hoping I was finally going to say something important. Something he wanted to hear.

I stared hard at the note, still clutched in my unsteady left hand. It took several attempts to unstick my throat enough to speak. "If I… If I take this job, can I… can I bring my secretary along?"

He chuckled easily. "I'm sure we could make room for her here, Stikup. Are you definitely in, then? I'll give Wes your résumé for Dempsey to look over as soon as you fax it to me."

I dashed a tear from my cheek, tearing my eyes away from that seventh paragraph of Jill's farewell, and cleared my throat. "Alright. I'm in."

"Good." He sounded immensely pleased. "Good. Anything else?"

I cleared my throat again, more fervently. "Yeah, I want an office with a window."

He hung up on me, laughing for real for the first time since I'd met him, leaving me alone in the old office. I'd been the one to build it, but it had been Jill who'd held it together. And who was to say that it would survive without her there to keep it intact?

I dropped the phone onto the base miserably, once again studying her note as though there was something important there that I'd missed, hiding in the neat cursive. I wondered if she had left already. I wondered when she would return.

And then I let the paper slide from my numb fingers, into the empty waste bin. There was no sense in wasting time holding on to someone who simply wasn't there, because the future wouldn't wait for me. And now I had a real job to do: it would only help me to pass the time by keeping busy.

I'm gonna miss you, Jilly. I can't wait till you come home to me.

With a heavy sigh, I looked slowly around the room in which I had lived for so long, figuring that it was finally time to move on. It had been a good home, but it was time to leave Union and Crescent behind. Life is composed of stages, after all: you complete one, you move to the next. You never stop moving, you never stop adapting.

Change is good, hero.

I smiled in spite of the tears still rolling steadily down my cheeks and decided to make myself a cup of coffee before I started packing my things for the big move.

Then, I decided, it would be time to go home.