His phone ringing late at night wasn't unusual. Detectives were called out to scenes at all hours of the day or night. He always turned the ringers off in the rest of the house before going to bed so it wouldn't wake up Lizzie if he got called to a scene late.
"Hello," he said gruffly. If this was another gang thing he wasn't going to be happy. There'd been an onslaught of them lately in their pretty gang-free town, until the past six months or so anyway.
"Uh, yeah, this is. Who's this?"
"It's Claire. Claire Standish," she added, as if he wouldn't know which Claire was calling him. There was pretty much only one Claire as far as John was concerned.
"Jesus. It's bad enough you show up at my house, now you're calling me in the middle of the night. What the hell is wrong with you?"
"Someone broke into my condo."
"Call the police," he said.
"I am. You," she said.
"The Chicago PD, Claire. There's nothing I can do for you unless in the last few weeks you moved to my neck of the woods, which I highly doubt."
"I think it might have been him," she said.
That got his attention.
"Give me your address," he said.
He flipped on his bedside lamp and grabbed the pen and notepad he kept there for just this reason. He jotted her address down. He knew the neighborhood. It was a nice one, of course. He'd expect no less from her, even before she went and got famous a few months ago. "I'll be there in about forty minutes, sooner if I can. Call the police. It'll probably take them that long to get to you anyway since no one's dead."
"I don't want them here."
"You're in Chicago, Claire. I'll come check it out, but they need to process the scene. I can't do that, all I can do is tell them about our case here and help you answer any questions they may have."
"Okay," she said.
"I'll be there in a while," he said, hanging up.
He dressed, getting himself a Coke from the fridge for the drive there. He preferred coffee, but he kept Coke for just these occasions. Coffee took too long to brew and try as he might he couldn't stomach the instant stuff. Who knew there were some things John Bender could be a snob about?
It was after two o'clock in the morning, so traffic was relatively light as he made his way downtown to her place. He got there in pretty good time. Finding parking was actually the most time consuming part of the trip. He didn't see any sign of CPD on the scene yet as he walked to the front of her building.
There was a security entrance. He had to be buzzed in in order to get through the door. Certainly better than no security, but obviously it hadn't stopped this guy from getting in tonight. He either used the "left his keys inside, hold the door" excuse or he called unit after unit until he found one who was willing to just buzz him in. There were ways around these types of things, obviously.
He rode the elevator up, taking a minute to run his fingers through his hair as he contemplated how exactly it was he was here. He honestly hadn't thought about her for years until the GRAMMY's happened. He'd been too busy trying to carve out a life for himself and Elizabeth to dwell on her.
He found her unit once he got off on her floor. She opened the door almost as soon as he rang the bell.
"Thank God," she said. He had to say he'd never seen Claire Standish ever look this disheveled in the entire time he'd known her. Despite the fact she hadn't seem to be aware of his existence before that March day of detention their senior year he'd been fully aware of who she was for years. She was just one of those people that got noticed.
"Did you call CPD?"
"Yes, they're on their way."
"Good," he said. "So, what makes you think it's the same guy that attacked you and Sophie back in June?"
"You think I'm making it up? Just guessing? See for yourself," she said, opening her door wide so he could cross the threshold. He didn't need to walk very far into the unit to see why she thought it might be the same guy.
He wasn't sure what he was expecting exactly, but the fresh paint job on her wall spelling out IT WILL BE GOOD FOR YOU TOO wasn't on his list. He remembered his reaction at seeing her laid up in her bed after having seen Sophie and the idea that he'd be the one standing trial if the same thing had happened to Claire. He had that overwhelming feeling again tonight.
"Did you touch anything?"
"No. I mean, my light switch," she said, gesturing to it by the entrance. "Um, I put my keys down on the table there but I don't think I touched it. My phone to call you and the police. The bathroom."
"You stopped to use the bathroom?" he asked incredulously.
"I had to throw up! Excuse me for not being able to stomach the idea of that guy being in my place!"
"What've you been doing since you called me?"
"Nothing! I sat with my back against the door," she said, gesturing to the area in question.
"Is this the first time?"
"Was there someone hitting on both of you that night?"
"No! I didn't talk to anyone except her, our waiter, and our bartenders."
"How'd he find you then?"
"I don't know!"
"Claire," he demanded. He could give pretty good cop.
"I have no idea."
The buzzer rang and John prepared to stand on the sideline while the authorities with jurisdiction in this incident investigated. He got his badge out for good measure, willing to share what information he could with them.
He learned, standing there listening that she'd gotten some creepy letters since the GRAMMY's in February. They had all gone to her office, though.
However, it wouldn't be too difficult for someone in town to find her. They could have even followed her home from her office to find out where she lived.
"Do you have somewhere to stay tonight?" Officer Rodriguez asked.
"I, uh, well, I could stay with my parents' out in Shermer," she said.
"I can drive her there, I know where it is," John offered.
"You don't have to do that," she said.
"I didn't have to drive here in the middle of the night either," he said. "You shouldn't be driving. You're upset and scared, probably tired, too. The adrenaline from coming home to this will wear off and you're likely to get into an accident."
"He's right," Officer Rodriguez said. John had to admit, she at least seemed to get competent patrol officers to her crime scene. He'd dealt with some Chicago cops who would've treated this like it was no big deal.
"Fine," she said.
"We'll have to process the scene, but Officer Ward can go with you to your room for some belongings to take with you."
"Thanks," she said.
Claire couldn't believe this was happening to her as she led Officer Ward to her bedroom. It was absolutely insane! She could smell the paint fumes even back here in her bedroom.
"Did you notice anything missing?" Officer Ward asked her while she was scrounging in her closet for her overnight bag. At least the officer was giving Claire a little privacy. She'd almost expected her to be standing right behind her, cataloging anything and everything she put in her bag.
"No. I mean, the big stuff like my TV, stereo, and computer are all here. All of my design equipment is here. There's nothing else important."
"We'll photograph and catalog everything as we process each room for evidence. If you find anything missing we'll have our inventories so let us know."
"Okay," Claire said, walking to her bathroom then for her toiletries. The officer did follow Claire there since she was actually out of sight.
"Ready?" Officer Ward asked.
"Yes, thank you," Claire said.
She had some things at her parents' house because she stayed the night there when she had dinner with them once every couple of weeks. She was also their designated house sitter when they traveled because her brother Craig couldn't be bothered with such things. He was too busy doing worthwhile things like defending criminals.
"Okay," Officer Ward said, following Claire out to the living room.
"John, really, I can drive. I feel fine."
"It's fine," he said.
He didn't look as if he'd moved from the spot he'd been standing in since he got there. She wondered what he thought about all of this, if he even cared enough to think about it at all. His words to her on the phone had cut pretty deep as much as she hated to admit it.
"All right," she said.
"Oh, Miss Standish," Officer Rodriguez said.
"Yes," she said, setting her bag down near her feet so she could get her purse.
"Where were you?"
"You said you called Detective Bender as soon as you got home and saw the message."
"I was at work," she said. "New York's Fashion Week is coming up in September and because of the popularity of my dresses at the GRAMMY's in February I'm trying to take advantage of the notoriety and get some designs in while my name is hot."
"Until two o'clock in the morning?"
"Inspiration doesn't punch a time clock, Officer Rodriguez. And I don't pay myself overtime."
"Just wondering. Why'd you call Detective Bender before calling us?"
"It was obvious, even being freaked out, that it was the same guy who raped my friend. It's his case so I called him."
"I notice you call him John. You just happened to know his phone number?"
"I'm sorry, you think I painted that on my own wall? I called 411 to get his number. I called John because I don't trust his partner. I've known John since we were kids."
"Thank you, Miss Standish," Officer Rodriguez said.
"Sure," she said.
"We'll let you know when we've cleared the scene."
"Thank you, Officers," John said. He grabbed her bag for her, which was nice of him. Not that it was a heavy bag. She knew how to pack light, and hoped she wouldn't be at her parents' house for more than a day or two.
She grabbed her purse from the table near the door, glancing at the wall one last time. She shuddered a little. He'd been in here. He'd gotten into not just the lobby but her place. What if she'd been home?
John placed a hand at the small of her back and she jumped a little at the contact not at all expecting it.
"Sorry," he said. "The sooner we leave, though, the sooner they can get on with their jobs. And, well, the sooner I can get back home to bed."
"I'm ready," she said. He didn't take his hand away from her back she noticed. Even wondering why he was doing it she couldn't help but think that his hand felt nice there.
"Wait here, I'll go get my car. I'm down the block a bit."
"I can go with you."
"Claire, this place is crawling with cops, he's not coming back here tonight."
"I don't know them."
"You don't really know me either."
"Yeah, like how you became a cop."
"It's a job," he shrugged.
"Yeah, but you."
"And yet you trust me."
"I shouldn't, I know. You're a cop, though, there's nothing emotional involved here. You go with what you're familiar with I guess. At least I know you won't hit on me."
He unlocked and opened the passenger door for her before doing the same on his side. He worked his seat back forward a bit to put her bag on the backseat behind him before getting in.
"Are your parents going to freak?"
"That's putting it mildly, yeah," she said.
"Why haven't you guys caught him yet?"
"There are no real suspects. At least none Wayne and I have uncovered. He did leave some evidence so if we catch him we'll be able to connect him to it, but I'm guessing you and Sophie weren't his first time."
"Well, he knows where I live, John. What am I supposed to do? Move?"
"About that. I noticed you have no alarm on your unit."
"No," she said.
"Claire, you're an attractive, successful woman who lives alone. You admitted to getting some not so flattering letters the past few months."
"There've just been a couple. It happens."
"Invest in an alarm and be sure you use it. Don't get complacent and think because you're going out for a thirty minute errand you don't need to set it. You need to get your living room repainted anyway, you may as well get both done while you're not staying there."
"I know, I hear you. I will," she said.
"I just," she said with a sigh, trying to put it into words and sound rational. It was late and she was beyond exhausted. She'd been ready for bed about two hours ago. "God, he was in my house, John. What if he went through my things?"
"Claire," he said.
"I can't stop thinking what he'd have done to me if I'd been home."
"Claire," he said again.
"No, really, I mean. Why come after me? Clearly, if I could identify him I would have by now. I haven't."
"Sicko's don't need a reason to do what they do."
"And my parents. I have no idea how they're going to react. Dad will be all right, I guess. Mom, though, she practically blew a gasket when I got beat up in June."
"As she should have, Claire."
"Just because you weren't raped doesn't make what you went through any better or less of a crime," he said, setting his hand over hers lightly. She was clenching her hands into fists, nervous and flustered. He knew that obviously. She jerked her hand away instinctively. She didn't need him feeling sorry for her.
"I just don't want them to think I'm doing something wrong."
"You aren't. You and Sophie got on his radar somehow. Maybe there are others we just don't know about yet."
"Thanks," she said, appreciating his efforts at trying to make her feel better. "My mom, though."
"She can't blame you."
"She will find a way, John. If I wasn't working late."
"You'd have been home when he got there!"
"If I didn't get my name splashed all over magazines," she said.
"Being successful is not bad."
"She thinks it is."
"Still hung up on you being a lawyer like Daddy and Craig?"
"Until I give in."
"Not a chance."
"Why do you care?"
"Because you have a gift, it'd be a shame for it to go to waste."
"I hope he cut himself or something."
"You know, left blood or something behind so you can connect him to this, too, when you catch him."
"I hope so, too, Claire. I don't like the idea of him singling you out."
He was quiet after that and so was she. He slid his hand away from her leg, which is where he'd let it rest after she pulled her hand away from his. He'd done it to settle her down she was sure. It was more than she thought he'd do for her. She hated calling him tonight, but it was her first instinct. How sad was that?
"Where are we going?" she asked when they passed the exit to Shermer.
"My house," he said.
"It's late, or early depending on how you want to look at it. You're upset, scared, and worried. Your parents are going to be those things, too. Honestly, he may be able to find you at their house if he knows your name and stuff which obviously he does. I mean, Sophie may have been random. You, he had to find. That means he knows you. At the very least he knows your name. Maybe he researched it and that's why it's taken him this long."
"John, that's too much. I can just stay at a hotel."
"With your credit card?"
"Yes," she said, reaching for her purse to be sure she had it along. She did.
"Not happening. They're traceable. Besides, at least I'm trained and capable to defend you and myself if he happens to connect us and find me."
"John, really. I can get some cash from an ATM then."
"I have the room. I'm off tomorrow anyway. It's not the Radisson, but it's done me fine."
"It looked nice," she said after a few minutes of quiet between them.
"Thanks," he said.
She let her head fall back against the headrest. She could sleep anywhere really she was that exhausted. Burning the candle at both ends her dad would accuse her of and he'd be right.
Distantly she heard him talking, not to her though she realized. He was having a car go to her parents' house. She smiled a little at that.
"Thank you," she murmured, not even sure she'd managed to actually say the words. She was just that tired.
"You'd feel bad if something happened to your parents."
"You wouldn't," she said.
"What? What on earth did I do to make you think that?"
She laughed softly, turning her head a little against the headrest to look at him. "Your parents."
"Oh, I wouldn't send a car to their house, no."
"So, thank you for thinking of mine."
"Yeah," he said.
He pulled into his garage, unlocking the door leading to the house. She took a minute to get her wits about her, glancing around the garage while the light was on. She couldn't help it. He owned a house. How crazy was that?
"See anything worthwhile?" he asked.
"Sorry," she said.
"Come on in," he said, pushing the door open.
"Thanks," she said, following him inside.
"The spare room is pretty small, sorry."
"They all are in these older houses. We're hoping to have the basement finished by the end of the year so we can have a bedroom down there."
"You're doing it yourself," she asked.
"When do you find the time?"
He shrugged and she couldn't help but notice how strong he was. He always had been, but it was more defined now. As if he spent a lot of time doing things requiring physical exertion.
Like finishing basements.
She was pretty sure she wouldn't know the first thing about doing something like that if her life depended on it. Her solution would be to hire someone.
"Anyway, it's clean and everything. My old partner used it once in a while instead of driving home after a beer turned into more than that, but the sheets were washed since he last stayed here."
"It doesn't matter, I'm so tired I'd be grateful for your couch at this point."
He smirked a little, setting her bag at the foot of the bed. He walked to the window, opening it a bit to let some air in.
"Clean towels are in the top dresser drawer. My linen closet is pretty small and this way, Pete always knew where his things were."
"The bathroom is there," he said, pointing to it from the doorway. "My room's at the end of the hall if you need anything. If you wake up before we do, help yourself to whatever's in the kitchen you want or need."
"Okay," she said. "Thanks again, John. You didn't have to do this."
"Don't mention it and try to get some rest."
"Sorry I woke you," she said, not liking the thought of the other part of the 'we' he spoke of getting woken up, too, by her phone call. God, what in the world was she jealous for? She was obviously tired to be worried about who John was or wasn't having sex with.
"Part of the job," he said, grabbing the doorknob to shut the door behind him. "Night, Claire."
"Yeah," she said. She used the bathroom and brushed her teeth before sliding into bed.
She was pretty sure she fell asleep before her head even hit the pillow when she woke later that morning. She laid in bed, processing everything that had happened the night before. She'd had an excellent day at work. She'd stayed at work so late because her ideas were not just working but they were good, too. Sometimes the two didn't always go hand and hand, working ideas weren't always good and good ideas didn't always work.
'Those are not ears,' she heard.
'They are, too,' John said. 'See.'
'You need help,' the other person said.
'I have all the help I need.'
The girl laughed.
'Shh,' she heard John say.
'Why are you shh'ing me?'
'Because while you were busy getting your beauty sleep or whatever you call it I was out being a cop and there's someone in the guest room.'
'Oh, I didn't know. Sorry.'
'It's all right.'
'Anyone I know.'
'You're letting random strangers stay at our house now?'
'I said you don't know them, I didn't say I didn't.'
'Oh,' she said.
'It's Claire Standish.'
'Really,' the person said.
'Yes. Now back to your hurtful words. Come on, it looks just like those Mickey Mouse pancakes you got when we went to Disney World.'
'They're not even close, John.'
'Fine, I'll eat them myself. You can make your own pancakes.'
'I didn't say I wouldn't eat them,' the person said.
'Ah ha, see.'
'I never said they weren't edible, just that the top two pancakes don't look anything like mouse ears.'
'Fine, I'll practice.'
Claire couldn't help but smile at the conversation. She felt a little bad for eavesdropping, but it was hard to miss the conversation since she was awake. She'd never heard a joking John. She never knew John knew how to cook let alone pancakes.
She changed and decided to join them in the kitchen. No sense putting it off. She wanted to meet the woman about as much as she wanted to go back to her condo and see those words on her wall again. God, it was crazy how much it hurt to hear him happy with someone. She'd kind of hoped when he broke up with her that he'd fall into a hole and never find his way out again. That had been one of the kinder ways she'd thought of his demise finding him. There'd been some not so pleasant ones when he showed up at prom.
Things better not to be dwelled on. It was years ago, but she'd be a liar if she said it didn't still hurt. She'd thought they were fine. She understood maybe making plans, thinking of things to do might have been foreign to him, but it wasn't as if she had been asking him to marry her or move in with her or anything. It was the summer before she was going to college, she'd wanted to have fun and do those fun things with her boyfriend.
"Ah, see, you woke her up," John said, obviously hearing the door from the bedroom open.
"No, no one woke me up but me," she said.
"You didn't get much rest."
"Neither did you," she said back.
"I was sleeping when you called me. You were just getting home for the night."
"I'm used to it."
"You still need more rest."
"I have to go back to work."
"I told you last night I was in the middle of something. My intention was to go home and get some sleep for a couple of hours and hit it again."
"Claire, it's Saturday."
"Is your staff around?"
"No," she said. "I don't have a whole lot of staff yet. Contrary to what everyone may think, I completely lucked into the GRAMMY thing. I was in the right place at the right time, a friend of a friend. You know? I can't just sit back and wait for another fifteen minutes to come my way."
"Claire. Ordinarily, I'd understand and agree with you, but you've got a maniac leaving you messages on your wall. He got into your locked condo. What's to stop him from getting to you at work?"
Her shoulders slumped a little. She'd hoped he wouldn't think of that. She just wanted to hole herself in her office and work in an attempt to forget all about everything.
"Do you want some pancakes?" the girl asked. Claire regarded her, realizing she had to be the same girl from the day she came to John's house last month. She looked a bit younger today. A lot younger.
"Before you jump to conclusions and call me a bad name again or call the police on me, let me just be clear. She's my sister."
"What?" she frowned. "You don't have a sister."
"Of course I do."
"Of course you do? I never met her."
"She was sleeping already I think the one or two times you ever came into the house."
The girl, his sister, seemed genuinely confused by their conversation and was waiting for an answer from Claire on the offer of pancakes.
"I'd love some pancakes," she said finally.
"I wondered why John made so much today. He fried up a whole package of bacon even. Usually he skimps on the bacon."
"Wow," she said. "Well, I'm glad he made extra today then."
"Orange juice? Coffee?" John asked.
"Yes, please," she said. "I can get it," she said when he started to stand. "If I have a problem finding anything I'll tell you."
"Okay," John said.
Claire went into the kitchen and poured herself a glass of orange juice. She found a plate and silverware, bringing them to the table before going back for the cup of coffee that she really wanted. She found some cream in the refrigerator and some sugar on the counter, mixing in enough to where she could drink it.
So what did she say to her ex-boyfriend's sister that she never knew existed? John was watching her, clearly amused.
"So, you have me at an advantage, John's sister, and since he seems to have forgotten his manners, maybe you can tell me your name."
"Elizabeth," she said.
"Wow, that's a pretty grown up name."
"John calls me Lizzie."
"What do your friends call you?"
"Liz, sometimes Lizzie. I don't like it so much anymore."
"I suppose," Claire said, understanding. She'd never had a nickname. There wasn't much you could do with Claire or her brother's name Craig. She remembered friends, though, who got out of grade school and suddenly being called Johnny or Susie or whatever wasn't what they wanted. "Well, I'll call you Liz if that's all right with you both."
"Sure," she said. John said nothing, so Claire could only take that as his acceptance.
"What grade are you going to be in this fall?"
"Oh, a new school, huh?"
"It's pretty scary."
"It is. Some of my friends are going to a different school."
"That happened to me, too. I'm sure it happened to John. I had friends I'd been with since Kindergarten and all of the sudden they lived in a part of Shermer that was too far from my junior high and they had to go to another one. You'll make new friends, though, and a lot of them you'll see back in high school. At least I did."
"Would you be able to do whatever you wanted to do at work at your parents' house? Or here?" John asked.
She frowned. "What?"
"I saw you had equipment at your condo, so clearly you work from home sometimes. Were you creating designs last night? Or were you actually creating the samples or whatever they're called?"
"Oh, just creating mostly."
"So, if you had your tools, your things, you could do that anywhere."
"Yes, I suppose. My office is obviously easier because I have the most space there."
"Yeah, well, the CPD would tell you the same thing I'm saying I'm sure. I could, however, drive you down there to get whatever you need."
"I can't not go to work!"
"It's a Saturday. We'll worry about Monday when it comes around. You've got to have a way to forward your phones."
"Well, sure, if I had somewhere to forward them to. I've worked from home before days I've been sick or whatever."
"Your parents wouldn't let you do that?"
"I doubt it."
"You had your own line."
"Yes, which they disconnected long ago."
"Oh," he said.
"They probably would. I just really hate involving them in all of this, especially if it means they wouldn't be safe. I mean, if he knows where they are and sees I didn't go there…"
"I can't pretend to understand how he thinks, but hopefully he'd just leave. You don't know, though. That's why I asked Shermer PD to do some drive bys of their house."
"I remember, and I thanked you. Thank you again, though."
"Not a problem."
"Lizzie, excuse me, Liz, was going to go swimming with her friends today. Mary's mom is picking you up, right?"
"Yes," she said.
"I could take you down to get your things. I could take you to pick up your car, too, though I almost think it might be better off if you left it there for him to wonder where you are if you aren't driving there."
"Like maybe he'd think I'm staying at a hotel in the city instead of in Shermer with my parents?"
"Something like that."
She sighed softly, taking a sip of her coffee. "All right. I'm sure Mom would let me use her car if I needed to."
"What time is Mary's mom coming to pick you up?"
"Um," Liz looked at the clock. "In about an hour."
"Okay, that should work. Be sure to bring your key and if I'm not back yet you lock the door behind you."
"I know the rules, John."
"How does she have friends here?"
"What?" John asked.
"It's a long drive from Shermer to here, so I assume Mary is a local friend."
Lizzie giggled softly and Claire wondered what joke she was missing. Had she asked a stupid question? She didn't think so. She spent weekends with her brother sometimes once he'd gone to college and moved out, but she never made any real friends while visiting him.
"She doesn't live in Shermer."
"I'm confused then because your parents still live there."
"You've seen our parents?"
"Well, no, but I'm sure Mom would've mentioned it if they'd moved. She remembers we were friends."
"Liz doesn't live with them, Claire."
"Oh," she said.
"She lives here," he added.
"All of the time?"
"Yes, every day."
"Since your dad helped me get custody of her actually."
"I didn't know any lawyers at the time and he was fair to us. He seemed to like the challenge of the case."
"That was her dad?"
"You remember him?" John asked, sounding surprised.
"A little. He always had those yellow candies on his desk."
Claire smiled a little. "The butterscotch disks?"
"Yes. I loved them."
"Me, too," Claire admitted. "I used to love going to my dad's office just to get one because he never kept them at home. He never said anything."
"Probably because I was his client," John said.
"Well, yeah, but," she shrugged. "Anyway, it's not important. I'm very glad you knew my dad then, and he was able to help you."
"Me, too," John said.
Too late to help John, though, really. She understood why he did it, though. John couldn't live with his parents forever and there was such a huge age difference between them that he'd have been living at home into his thirties otherwise. Her eyes fell instinctively to his arm, picturing the scar she knew was there. There were others. She'd never seen them, but she knew they were there.
God, she felt awful realizing that while she (and probably everyone else) thought he was stupid for staying and putting up with his parents' abuse he was doing it to protect his sister. Tears formed in her eyes at the idea of someone hurting her. She'd known her for less than an hour, but even Claire could tell she was smart and good, everything that had been taken from John long before that day of detention when she'd gotten to know him beyond the name and image that went with that name.
She thought for a while there he still had it in him, some goodness. Contrary to his claims of not believing in exclusive relationships he'd actually treated her very well. His breaking up with her had, literally, come out of nowhere. She hadn't seen it coming. It wasn't even that she was conceited enough to wonder why anyone would break up with her. She thought they were happy. Obviously, she'd been wrong.
"She's fine," he said.
"Good," she said.
"So, we can head downtown to get your stuff and go from there. If you don't want to involve your parents, or if you'd just feel safer here my spare room is available."
"It is, huh?"
"And even better, it's free. You do have to share a bathroom with Lizzie and she's a horrible slob."
"I saw that when I went in there," Claire said. "What a mess. I thought it was just that your maid had the day off."
"You could use the dining room table to work on."
"Why are you doing this?"
He shrugged. "Because I don't like the idea of you being in danger and something happening to you that I could have stopped. It's bad enough knowing you got beat up once already."
"Let me think about it," she said.
She wasn't sure it would be a good idea staying here. Her parents' house, though, the idea of endangering them really bothered her. She didn't like them most of the time, but they were her parents and she loved them at the end of the day. Unlike John's parents' they'd never actually hurt or harmed her, they just weren't very loving toward one another and that had made for some pretty miserable moments in the Standish household.
"Well, whatever, the offer stands even if you go there and change your mind."
"Okay. These pancakes are great, by the way."
"See," John said to Liz.
"I never said they weren't good."
"They don't look at all like Mickey Mouse ears, John," Claire said.
"I see how it is. You girls need to stick together and gang up on the cook. Make your own pancakes next time. See how close you can get to Mickey Mouse ears."
'When did you go to Disney World?" she asked.
"Right before John made detective," Liz said.
"When was that?"
"About eight months ago. I'd only been on the job as a detective about six months when I saw you."
"How long were you there?"
"A whole week," Liz said.
"Wow. I bet you had fun."
"I have a friend from college who lives down there, he let us stay with him so I didn't have to shell out hundreds on a hotel or even food other than what we ate out."
"That was nice."
"His house had a pool," Liz said.
"I think most of them have pools down there," Claire said.
"That's what John said, too."
"I think your brother's right."
"Thank you!" he said, standing to take his and Liz's plates from the table. "You want more coffee or juice?"
"I'd love some, but I can get it."
"I'll get it, eat," he said.
"Thank you," she said.
"If you hadn't agreed with me on the pool thing I'd throw the rest of it away."
"It'd serve you right."
"John won't let me drink coffee."
"Why do you want to?"
"It smells good."
"I never drank coffee until I was in college. My mom wouldn't let me have any either. Why Coke was okay and coffee wasn't I'm not sure."
"See, that's what I try and tell him, too."
Claire shrugged, nibbling at her lower lip. She tried to remember a sixth grade John. She could look in her yearbooks and see him, but she honestly couldn't bring up his face at this age. She wondered if Liz looked like him. She was pretty sure that she did. They had the same color hair and eyes. She also wondered how many times John got mistaken for a very, very young dad.
"What?" John asked when he returned with more coffee for her.
"Don't nothing me. I recognize that look, you're thinking something."
"She looks like you," she said.
"Well, yeah," he said.
"You must get mistaken for her dad sometimes."
"Sometimes," he shrugged. "I mean, theoretically I guess I could be."
His eyes widened a little as he regarded her. He seemed to know what she had been thinking.
"Not possible," he said. "I wouldn't be here, living and breathing with you two if someone showed up at our doorstep in that condition when I was fourteen. Trust me, that wouldn't have flown in my house."
"One of my friend's mom's totally likes him," Liz said apparently oblivious to their conversation.
"Lizzie," John said.
"What? It's true. She asks me about you all of the time."
"Yeah, and she's like thirty-five."
"That can't be the only one," Claire said.
"Yeah, well, I have my hands full with her, a house, a dog, and a job. No thanks to someone with three kids of her own."
"That's not nice," Claire said.
"I don't have to be nice in my own house. I'm nice to the friend's mom and everything and if she was here I'd be nice. I'm not a complete asshole, Claire, but that doesn't mean I have to go out with every woman who thinks because I'm good with Lizzie I'll be a good daddy to their kids, too."
"You said a bad word," Liz said.
"I wasn't implying you were."
"How did we get on this subject anyway?"
"I was just saying she looks like you. Does it make you feel old when they think that?"
"It makes me feel very weird," he said. "I mean, I don't think I look old enough, but I guess people see what they want to see. No other parental units in the picture so they assume."
The phone rang and Liz got up from the table to answer it.
"Hey," John said. "What do you say?"
"Excuse me," she said, running to answer the phone.
"I'd feel better if she meant it and wasn't just saying what I wanted to hear."
"And you didn't when you were that age?"
"Well, sure, but if I didn't say what was expected of me I didn't just get scolded."
She winced at that.
"Sorry," she said.
"No reason to be sorry. It is what it is. She's out of it, that's all that matters."
"Does she see them?"
"No," he said.
"They have nothing to do with her?"
"And she's okay with that?"
He shrugged. "I can't make them even if she wanted to, which she doesn't. For now. That may change."
"Does she know?"
"She knows what she remembers coming out at the hearings. Remember Mrs. Schultz?"
"Yeah," Claire said.
"She helped us a lot, too, testified on my behalf to all the things she treated on me over the course of high school."
"My dad, the school nurse. I didn't know."
"I didn't want you to know."
She winced at that. "I get it," she said, hating to be reminded that he obviously hadn't cared about her at all.
"You want more coffee?" he asked.
"No, I'll go get ready unless Liz needs the bathroom."
"No, she's been ready since before I woke up."
"Really? On a Saturday in the summer?"
"I don't get it either, but she was looking forward to swimming today."
"Good, I'm glad she has friends."
"Me, too. I was a little worried she wouldn't, you know? That she'd be thought of as weird because of our living situation, but she seems fine with it."
"She seems great, John, really. Whatever you're doing you're doing it right."
"You don't need me to tell you that."
"No, but it's nice to hear anyway."
"Yes, from a person who has no kids and is hardly ever around them."
"Well, actually, in a way, yes, you're probably more objective than others would be."
She finished her orange juice and stood from the table. "I'll go get ready," she said, grabbing her plate.
"I'll get it, I'm just going to put them in the dishwasher anyway."
"Okay," she said. "Thanks for breakfast. You do need to work on the ears."
He chuckled. "I'll get right on that."
Story ©Susan Falk/APCKRFAN/PhantomRoses.com