* * *
Kimberly’s head popped out over a partition. She saw Caroline in Tupper’s arms, starting to move. Caroline’s eyes fluttered open, and immediately she winced in pain. Kimberly walked cautiously over, her eyes darting from one FBI agent to the next.
“Did you do this?” Tupper demanded of Kimberly. He scowled when he felt Caroline sag.
Kimberly rolled her eyes. “You must know how much I cherish activating an alarm system.”
Caroline’s shoulders lazily lifted, and sagged, followed by a wince. Her good hand came around to cup her injured wrist. “We needed a distraction…” she started, before her remaining words were swallowed by the cacophony of alarms that still blared.
The sound of an ambulance siren was barely able to penetrate the din. “Can’t you do something about this neural thunder?” Tupper shouted, waving his free hand toward the ceiling.
“Please, Kimberly,” Caroline babbled.
“Of course,” Kimberly shrieked, throwing her hands in the air. “Turn on the alarms, turn off the alarms.” She still muttered when she disappeared around a corner.
Moments later, the group emitted a collective sigh of relief as the gallery fell silent.
Caroline’s eyes focused on the floor, and Tupper looked over his shoulder to see Agent Braxton had pulled “Lady by the Window” away from the wall and rummaged behind it.
“Found it,” Braxton declared as he lifted up a plastic baggie with an SD card inside. He beamed like a toddler who had just pooped in the potty.
“You’d better not give Hicks a deal,” Tupper complained, but couldn’t help but match Braxton’s grin.
“Deal?” Braxton scoffed, as he stepped toward Tupper and Caroline. “Why would I offer that damned piece of…” Braxton’s voice trailed off as he realized the gallery was teeming with agents. His eyes returned to Tupper. “No deal,” he said emphatically. When his eyes met Caroline’s, he tensed. “Collins…” his mouth formed several words, but they were all apparitions. After a few moments of severe jaw wrangling, Braxton knelt beside Caroline and thrust out his hand.
Without any hesitation, Caroline made a fist and held it up. The corners of Braxton’s lips tweaked up, and he formed his outstretched hand into a matching fist. They bumped knuckles, and Caroline wiggled her fingers, making an explosion sound. Braxton muttered something about letters, cleared his throat, and stalked out of the gallery.
They watched Braxton exit, and then Caroline said to Tupper, “I’d like to sit up now.”
“Sure, sure,” Tupper replied, lifting her up gently. Her eyes were locked on something over his shoulder. Tupper glanced over to verify what he knew had to be there. He knew that her pale skin, the dark tangle of brush strokes that formed her hair, as if blown by Boreas herself, and the diagonal slices of rain were too painful to look at for long periods, but he also knew that Caroline could stare at her for hours.
“Well then,” Tupper declared, and shifted his body to block Caroline’s view of the neglected canvas. “Donaldson had it hidden here the whole time.”
“Then, along came a Caroline,” Caroline quipped, and glanced at Tupper to see if he got the obvious James Patterson reference. Tupper was relieved that Caroline didn’t try to strain her neck to look past him.
“I’m pretty sure this is broken,” she brandished her wrist with a wince, “and this suit is ruined.”
“Yeah,” Tupper replied, a smile creeping across his lips, “but we caught the bad guy.”
“It’s finally over,” Caroline said quietly.
I really wish it were, Tupper thought when he saw Caroline crane her neck to look at the painting, but I’m not so sure.
* * *
A hand closed on her ankle and shook. Before she could respond; before her limbs could react defensively, she heard a low grumble, “Don’t try to throw any haymakers, Rocky.”
Caroline rubbed the knuckles of her uninjured hand on her eyes and blinked. The darkness that she saw made her breath catch in her throat, but a click sounded out, and pale light materialized near her feet. The darkness subsumed into the ghostly outline of Tupper Jones’ living room.
“It’s time,” Tupper declared. Caroline groaned but didn’t sit up on the sofa. In the darkness where the coffee table used to be, something shifted, and she felt something wet on her shoulder.
“Stubby!” Tupper hissed. The shape and the wetness retreated into the darkness. “I swear sometimes, that dog…”
The ice pack Tiffany had given her was a warm, impotent weight on her injured wrist. Caroline had guessed incorrectly; the wrist wasn’t broken, only sprained. In addition to the numbness she felt in her fingers, now her elbow screamed out at the slightest movement.
Caloline sighed and looked toward Tupper. “I could’ve recovered in my own apartment, you know.”
“Yeah,” Tupper responded, “like I want to wake you up every four hours to dose you again.”
Caroline scoffed. “The doctors said it wasn’t that serious.” She reached up and felt her wound. “Only three stitches.”
“You made your deal,” Tupper retorted, “supervision, and regular pain meds in exchange for not staying at the hospital.” Caroline could only see his silhouette, but she knew he was grinning. “Sounds like the hospital got the better end of that negotiation.”
Tupper gently lifted the tepid ice pack from her wrist and walked into the kitchen. Caroline took the new ice pack from him when he returned. The biting cold stung at first, but it mellowed into a dull numbness on her wrist.
“You shouldn’t be alone right now,” Tupper insisted, returning to the easy chair at her feet.
“I’m fine,” she muttered with a sigh.
She heard him shifting in the recliner.
“Do you mind not staring at me in judgment?” Caroline snapped.
“Sorry,” Tupper mumbled.
“It’s fine. I’m fine.” She paused, and silence answered her. “It’s just. Right now, I…”
“Yeah,” Tupper responded.
“Nothing happened,” she insisted.
“Mmm hmm,” Tupper replied, without commitment.
“Tupper,” Caroline’s voice held a tinge of exasperation, “nothing happened, it was only staged to look like it did.”
“That doesn’t make how you feel right now any less important,” Tupper replied in a low voice, full of compassion and understanding. Well, as much as an older gentleman of the Caucasian persuasion could understand…
Caroline wished he would stop trying to console her. “This,” she started, and Tupper’s chair creaked. “This will blow over.”
“Definitely,” Tupper agreed.
Caroline sighed again. “Shouldn’t you be asking me questions to make sure I’m not brain dead or something?”
“Okay,” Tupper started slowly. “Why were you at the gallery that night?”
“Next question, please,” Caroline retorted.
Tupper cleared his throat. The silence between them lingered.
“I don’t think you pestering me is what the doctors had in mind,” Caroline said in a quiet voice.
“Don’t care,” Tupper responded, a familiar growl returning to his voice.
“What do you want me to say?” Caroline replied.
“Caroline,” he sighed, “I saw her.”
“Who?” Caroline replied with faux innocence.
“Lady by the Window,” Tupper insisted, he wasn’t going to allow her to dodge it this time.
“She’s dead, Tupper,” Caroline returned another sigh.
Tupper didn’t respond right away, and then she felt his hand on her ankle. He gave it a reassuring squeeze. “We’ve been trying to tell you how sorry we are, but you weren’t ready to hear it.”
Tupper’s hand on her ankle was reassuring. Damn that man, she thought.
“I went there,” Caroline sighed, “to remember her.”
“No one ever thought you would forget her,” Tupper reassured her.
“That’s up to you,” Tupper whispered.
The compassion in Tupper’s voice eased the tension in Caroline’s shoulders. She felt the lump in the back of her throat dissolve. “We never were the white picket fence sort,” Caroline announced in a small voice, “but there were times when I could see that possibility in her eyes.” She draped her good arm across her eyes. “I wanted to remember that.”
“I wish you’d told me this,” Tupper replied. He squeezed her ankle again. “That day, I wish your invitation was for real. I would’ve gone with you.”
Caroline knew that he would’ve. Maybe that’s why she made it into a joke five days ago. “Maybe you’re right,” she said. “If you’d been there, I probably wouldn’t’ve gotten mixed up with Donaldson.”
Her ankle was suddenly cold, and she heard the telltale sounds of a latch releasing as Tupper lowered his footrest. The sofa shifted, as he leaned on the arm. She couldn’t see it, but she knew he wore a scowl.
“Don’t you ever, ever, blame yourself for that,” he insisted. “That wasn’t your fault. And neither is what you’re feeling right now.” Stubby stood, and shook, his big floppy ears hitting the side of the sofa. Tupper continued. “It might not have happened, but they made you think it could have, and that’s just as bad.”
The beam of light not blocked by Tupper’s wide shoulders illuminated her nod.
“Uh huh,” Tupper responded, his voice dubious. “Are you listening?”
“Trying,” Caroline replied in a huff.
Tupper settled back into his chair.
“I do listen to you, ya know,” Caroline offered.
“Yeah,” Tupper retorted. “The problem lies in how you interpret what you hear.” He punctuated the sentence, with the clicking of the footrest, and a loud pop of the stopper.
“But at least I listen,” Caroline said, forcing her lips up at the corners.
“Go back to sleep,” Tupper commanded.
“I thought you had to ask me questions,” Caroline quipped with a yawn.
Tupper shook out the newspaper before he replied, “You could tell me about Kimberly’s latest caper.”
Caroline snorted. “Trying to sleep here.” The banter felt almost normal.
“Mmm hmm,” Tupper mumbled.
She wanted to tell him to go upstairs to his wife, but she knew he would only grumble about doctor’s orders.
“You’ll be all right, Caroline,” Tupper murmured from his easy chair. “You can go to sleep now.”
Caroline let her eyes slide shut. She could hear Stubby snoring on the floor next to the sofa. She smiled and allowed her arms and legs to relax. The buzz of breathing around her was oddly reassuring. The ice pack on her wrist was cool. The blanket covering her was soft and warm.
For the first time in as long as she could remember, Caroline knew that she was safe.