Rating: FRM for graphic death
Pairing: Don Flack/OFC
Spoilers: S1 and S2
Disclaimer: All recognizable characters, places, and events are property of Anthony Zuiker, Jerry Bruckheimer, CBS, and Alliance-Atlantis. No infringement is intended, and no profit is being made. For entertainment only.
A/N: This story describes a dead infant. If that squicks you, read no further. Written for the second wave of the lyric_ficathon. X-posted to my LJ and csi_ny_fic.
Prompt: Yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run there's still time to change the road you're on.
He stared at the body lying on the cracked asphalt of the alley. It was covered by old newspapers and rotting takeout boxes, and he'd already seen evidence that the rats had been at it before it was discovered by a busboy on a smoke break. Said busboy was currently horking his guts onto the spit-polished shoes of a hapless uniformed officer who was enduring the onslaught of partially digested Chinese with queasy ill grace, and he suspected that Wong Hu's Panda Garden Palace would soon be short one employee. He doubted the kid would ever want to look at Chinese food again, much less set foot in this alley.
Not that he could blame the kid. He was a homicide detective with almost eleven years under his belt. He'd seen crime scenes without number and witnessed every permutation of human savagery. He'd seen robberies gone wrong, dead hookers stuffed into cheap hotel mattresses, domestic disputes that ended with the most emphatic of I don'ts and a second little band of promise, usually affixed around the big toe of the left foot. As a rookie, he had once seen a crazy homeless guy rooting around in the putrefying guts of a dead dog. He'd pulled out most of the guts and strung them around his neck like garlands, and according to one neighbor, who stood on the stoop of her building in her housecoat and smoked with cavalier disinterest, he'd even chewed on a few. Gory scenes hadn't moved him in a long time.
There was nothing exceptionally gruesome about this one. The smell permeating the alley was rank, but that had just as much to do with the mounds of garbage that had been left to roil and fester in the late summer heat as it did with the bloated corpse hidden beneath crumpled newspapers and greasy paper bags. There were maggots, and he thought he detected what the Nerd Squad called slippage from the skin around the skull, but there were no obvious signs of trauma-no bullet holes, no oozing brains or bulging guts, no caved-in head or gouged-out eyes. If it weren't for the cloud of flies that buzzed over the glazed, open eyes, he would have thought the victim was sleeping, indulging their dreams in a bower of garbage.
But infants didn't sleep in the garbage.
The moment he'd seen the body, he'd wished Scagnetti had been on call instead. He'd circled the body in sickened recognition, and his stomach had cramped with stifled outrage. He'd wanted to sit down and put his head between his knees until the wave of nausea passed, but he'd merely reached into the pocket of his suit for his handkerchief, placed it over nose and mouth, crouched over the body, and waved the horde of flies away with an impatient, furious flap of hand.
"Fuck," he'd sworn dismally, and the uniform, who'd been setting up a preliminary perimeter and radioing for the Nerd Squad, had spared him a bleak, sympathetic look before trudging toward the aforementioned busboy, who was clinging with drunken determination to the corner of the alley wall.
The baby looked about six weeks old, tiny feet peeking from beneath a crumpled page of sports section. It was wearing white bootie socks, and the taut, grey skin above them made bile rise to the back of his throat. A fat, black fly crawled across one foot with indolent arrogance, sure of its claim to this rotting piece of flesh, and he resisted the maddening urge to swat it away. He curled his free hand into a fist and stuffed it into the pocket of his pants.
Get offa him, you little bastard, he thought furiously.
He wasn't even sure it was a he. Bloat and decomp had distorted facial features, and the age of the baby made a visual assessment impossible. Babies were strangely sexless creatures the first few months of life, all pink cheeks and toothless gums and fisted, chubby hands. Their screams were equally shrill regardless of the equipment inside their Pampers, and they were equally helpless.
He closed his eyes and immediately opened them again because in the darkness behind his eyelids, he saw his own baby. His Junior had been nestled in the secure crook of his mother's arms when he'd left them to work this, suckling eagerly at one swollen breast. His little hands had been tucked against his body, and his feet had been twitching dreamily. In his mind's eye, he could still see the black stitching of the Y in the Yankees booties he'd been wearing, booties he'd bought for him a few days after he was born.
He looked so sweet, lyin' there in his ma's arms, nursin' like there wasn't gonna be a tomorrow. Rebecca'd wrapped him in a little blanket covered in different-colored giraffes, and she was bare-breasted and beautiful on the couch. She was rockin' gently back and forth and makin' nonsense noises, and every now and then, she'd pat his diapered bottom or stroke his black-fuzzed head.
Junior was makin' noises, too. Not the shrill, ear-piercin' shriek that announces a diaper change or a three-AM feedin', but small, soft snuffles and grunts of contentment. You love those noises because they're the sounds of a healthy, well-loved baby. They mean that he's been fed and cared for, and that he wants for nothin'. You know that when you leave for a shift, he's in capable, lovin' hands. You're not gonna come home and find him screamin' his lungs out in his crib 'cause his diaper is full of shit and his ma can't be assed to get up and check on him.
Sometimes, you lie in bed at night and listen to him murmur and burble in his secret, baby language, and you drift to sleep dreamin' of the moment when he learns to form words you can understand. You know you shouldn't rush it, that one day, his growin' up will take a quantum leap you can't follow, but you can't wait to join whatever conversation he's havin' with himself in his crib. You can't wait to hear his voice for the first time, hear him call you Daddy and ask you why the sky is blue and if turtle shit builds up inside their shells. You asked your old man the same questions when you were a kid, and you still remember him doin' his best to answer 'em, even if he was wrong. He never really had an answer for the turtle shit question, but that was okay. He was still fuckin' perfect back then.
You know it's too early to be thinkin' of that-he's only three weeks old. But you can't help it. The hard-nosed pragmatism that has served you so damn well as a hard-assed cop isn't worth shit when it comes to fatherhood. Logic went out the window when you saw him squirmin' on his mother's belly, screamin' furiously at his rude introduction to life. Right then, you wanted to stop the world and cordon it off so that you could blunt all its dangerous edges and cover all its pitfalls. You learned real quick that fatherhood isn't an act of the head or the prick, but of the heart. You'd rip your own heart out if it meant that his could go on beatin', and when you catch Rebecca's eye over his crib or carrier, you know she feels exactly the same. Parenthood is the forfeitin' of your own life for the sake of the one you made together.
Sometimes, it ain't enough to just listen to him, and you get up and shamble to his bassinet and watch him. You stand over him in your boxer shorts and watch his fingers open and close as he reaches for the dreams fashioned by the brand-new circuitry of his brain. You wonder what he dreams about. Boobs, maybe, or the simple pleasure of poopin' on your freshly-laundered pants. You can't resist reachin' into the bassinet to fuss over his blanket or stroke the soft spot on his head. You have to touch him, make sure he's real, because twenty-one days after he took his first breath, you're still convinced he's magic.
He's changed everything. Before him, you considered yourself invulnerable, a man of blue steel, but these days, you're acutely aware of every chink in that previously impervious armor, of every old wound that you never smoothed away. You're more eager to get the bad guys now, but you're also more aware of your own mortality. You hear your boy cryin' when you're chasin' down perps, and your vivid imagination supplies what'll happen if they've got a gun or a dirty, heroin-needle shank you don't see until it's too late.
Your old man wasn't around much after Diana died on your watch; in fact, he buried you right along with her, but for the first sixteen years of your life, he did the best he could. He wasn't around a lot, and when he was, there were things he just couldn't tell you, couldn't talk about, but he talked about baseball and box scores and the Rangers and shots on goal. He asked to see your report card, and he cared enough to put his foot up your ass if he sensed you were slackin'. You had long enough to make memories of him, like the smell of his squad car or the scent of his wool dress blues at Christmas Mass, sharp and warm and clean as cinnamon. If he died tomorrow, you'd at least have a sense of who he was, a lastin' image to hang on to long after he's faded to dust and bones inside his coffin.
You want more than that for your Junior. You want him to see you as more than a collection of angles to fill out a suit and wear a badge. You want him to know more about you than the fact that you smelled like Old Spice and Irish Spring soap and liked New York Rangers hockey. You wanna stick around in his life as long as you can. You wanna tell him the story of how you met his mother, and how beautiful she was when she was young. You wanna tell him about the aunt he's never gonna know, pass on the broken branch of the family tree so that it doesn't die with you.
What you don't wanna do is die while he's still in diapers and leave Rebecca to explain you to him like you were nothin' but a wistful fairy tale, a loomin' specter that haunts him rather than bringin' him comfort. Worse yet, you don't wanna die when he's just old enough to know somethin's missin. You don't want him to be a little boy in a big-boy suit, standin' by his ma and watchin' while the officer who usually slips him candy on the sly folds the flag draped over your casket and hands it to his mother.
'S funny how givin' life to another human bein' makes you painfully aware of how little time you got left. Even if your number never comes up and you make it to retirement, by the time he's thirty, you'll be in your sixties, and by the time your grandkids are old enough to appreciate you, you'll be test-drivin' your own pine box.
There ain't much you can do about it, but you've done what you can. You've started wearin' Kevlar under your clothes every shift just to be sure you don't take one in the back buyin' coffee. You bought more life insurance-probably more than you can afford-to be sure that he and Rebecca are taken care of, and two days after he was born, you opened a savin's account in his name and deposited the savin's bond Mac gave you as a gift for him. Every week, you put in a little more-fifty here, a C-note there, thirty last week. It's your little secret, your gift to him. You don't know if he's gonna wanna go to college and be like his ma, but you wanna give him every chance. Just in case.
That ain't to say that havin' him is all sunshine and roses. You haven't gotten a full night's sleep since he came home from the hospital, and there are days you're mainlinin' coffee just to stay vertical. You've got bags under your eyes, and catnappin' is better than sex. You caught an uninterrupted ninety in the rack room the day before last, and you thought you'd died and gone to heaven. Then you felt guilty 'cause you realized Rebecca wasn't that lucky. But that ninety gave you the energy to straggle home and watch him for a couple hours so she could crash, and she was so grateful that she cried.
There's plenty nobody ever told you about havin' a baby. Like how loudly or long they could scream, or that they'll puke at the drop of a hat. When Rebecca isn't feedin' him or changin' him, she's washin' your shirts and pants and takin' your suits and ties to the cleaners. Nobody ever told you that there would be fleetin' moments where you'd wish to God that he'd shut the fuck up, just stop fuckin' screamin. Moments when you'd wish life was like it was before, quiet and peaceful and organized, and without the smell of sour breast milk and baby powder hangin' over everything.
Nobody ever mentioned how much you'd miss your wife. You used to be the apple of her eye, but now she barely has time to kiss you good morning and goodnight. Your coffee used to be on the counter every morning without fail, perfectly flavored with sugar and cream. Now it's hit or miss. Sometimes it's waitin' for you, and sometimes it ain't, and even when it is, it's usually got too much cream and too little sugar. You drink it anyway because she tried, but you can't help a wistful grimace at that first sip.
You don't blame her; you know she's doin' the best she can, and on days like today, you realize how very good that is. You just wish you'd see her smile more. Sometimes you watch her with the baby, and your heart drops in your chest because she's so tired, haggard and drawn and too thin around the eyes and lips. It's almost like Junior is leachin' all her strength, sappin' her vitality to grow bigger and stronger.
She used to be so vibrant, your girl. Her hair was spun gold, and her eyes were bright and perpetually curious. She was always lookin' at the world around her, takin' in the people and the places that surrounded her. Now she looks no further than the crib or the changin' table. You can't remember the last time she worked on her mathematical equations. 'Course, that could be because you converted her office into the baby's room. There isn't a place for math or creativity in her life anymore. They were expelled with the afterbirth and placenta, and she'll never see them again.
You know she loves the baby. You've seen her cuddle him and play with his little fingers and toes, and the last time the two of you gave him a bath in the sink, she laughed and smiled and kissed the soles of his tiny feet. But you wonder if there isn't a tinge of regret mingled with her happiness, a quiet mourning for the person she has lost in becoming a mother. She wouldn't tell you if there was. She loves you too much to lay that at your feet, and even if she could be coaxed into confession, you're not sure there are words to explain the magnitude of that loss.
Still, no matter how much she might regret him, or you might resent him, neither one of you would ever dream of hurtin' him. It would be like spittin' on each other and into the face of God, and even when things are at their most rankled and sleep-deprived, love always shines through in the end. Yeah, Junior screams a lot and produces stenches a toxic waste dump would be held criminally liable for, but he's also warm and soft and sweet, and when you hold him, something settles in the pit of your stomach.
You'll never be able to wrap your head around this. Never. You remember what it took to get your Junior into the world, and yeah, it was hard, but you wouldn't trade it for anything. The nine months before baby made three gave you more sweet memories than the previous thirty years combined, and you still take 'em out from time to time and turn 'em over in your head.
When the paperwork on a perp gets too mind-numbin', you recall how amazin' it was to watch Rebecca's belly grow. At first, it was just a little bloat, but by the fourth month, it was an unmistakable hump, and by the end of the sixth, it was a rounded dome of taut skin. You'd rub lotion on the dry skin and talk to the baby inside, and Rebecca'd lie on the couch with her head on your lap, purrin' at the pleasure of your touch. He was movin' a lot by then, practically dancin' under your touch, and you'd unwind by imaginin' what he'd be when he grew up.
He stared at the pathetic bundle tucked so discreetly in the trash like a carefully-buried mistake and wondered if anyone had ever done the same for him. He didn't think so. No one who had felt their child move beneath their hands and planned endless futures for them could have left their baby for the maggots and the rats. It was inhuman, and the thought of a parent planning this future for their child made his skin crawl.
I would never, never do this to my boy. Never, he thought furiously. I gave part'a myself to make him, and his mother spent nine months carryin' him around in her body and another eighteen hours willin' him into the world. He's mine. My blood, and I would do anything to protect him, includin' dyin'. Especially that. What the fuck is wrong with people that they can just dump their kid like garbage?
You're getting ahead of yourself, son, his father grunted prosaically. Getting ahead of the evidence, and that's dangerous. There's no proof that the parents had anything to do with this. For all you know, the parents filed a missin' persons report, and now they're sittin' at home, waitin' for that knock at the door or that phone call. They could just be a pair'a poor bastards who turned their back at the grocery store at the wrong time.
Or, Gavin countered with grim practicality, they're a bunch'a nodders, just like you suspect. Crackheads and dope fiends ain't exactly discriminatin' 'bout who they fuck. You an' me have caved in enough crack den doors to know that. You still think about that time in Queens when we kicked in a door to find some nodder lyin' on a filthy mattress with her legs spread and her scrawny thighs covered in jizz. We hauled her in on prostitution and panderin' charges, and the labcoats found contributions from six different donors. Turns out she'd been puttin' out to her dealer and his boys to pay off her smack debt.
Social Services tracked down her kids to a fleabag housing project. The oldest was an eight-year-old girl who was tryin' to keep her little brother and sister alive by feedin' 'em stale Cheerios. June Cleaver hadn't done shit for 'em since they slipped outta her timeshare beaver, and it'd been a week since she'd turned the key in the lock and tottered off to earn her next bag. Mother of the Year earned a stretch in Rikers, and the kids got shipped off to foster care. God knows where they ended up, and even if they're still alive, you can't say for sure they're better off than this little tyke here. At least he died before he could become Ma's collateral for the next dimebag.
He couldn't stop staring at those tiny, stiffening feet. He kept picturing his own son's feet, shod in Yankee booties. They were pink and warm and flawless, and they always kneaded his forearm in the same spot when he fed him his nighttime and pre-dawn bottles. His skin tingled with sudden memory, and his throat constricted with unexpected fury and pity.
He'd check the missing persons reports for the last six weeks, run any possible names through the NCIC and Center for Missing and Exploited Children. If Baby Doe here matched any descriptions, he'd connect the dots and see where they took him. If the parents were involved, he would make it his mission in life to see them swing. If they weren't, he'd bring them the sorry cocksucker who was and do his damndest to deliver justice. Whichever way it went, this wouldn't go unpunished.
You can't promise yourself that, cautioned his father. You're settin' yourself up for disappointment if you do. Odds are, this one is gonna slip through the cracks like hundreds of others before it. It ain't a question of your skill or dedication, but a simple matter of time and evidence. Anything the Nerd Squad finds out here has been contaminated by garbage and rat turds, and the chances are against this kid poppin' up in any database. In all likelihood, he's the unwanted souvenir of a night between a dealer and a junkie, and people don't tend to mark unpleasant occasions. You'll spin your wheels for a week or two, and then it'll be buried by thirty fresh cases with better evidence and better-defined faces.
The voice was right, but the knowledge was bitter. He rocked back on his heels, the grit beneath his soles the grinding of powdered bone, and listened to the busboy dry-heave. His hand kept waving futilely at the cloud of flies looking to descend on the baby.
Not on my watch, he thought. Not on my watch.
He was still directing fly traffic when Stella and Hawkes stepped through the crime scene tape, field kits in hand. They were incongruously crisp in the wilting filth of the alley, and Hawkes' keen eyes were already taking in his surroundings.
"Hey, Flack, what do we got?" Stella asked briskly, and snapped on her latex gloves. Hawkes was crouched beside her, assembling the digital camera with efficient enthusiasm.
He lowered his handkerchief from his mouth. "Baby Doe," he answered dully, and gestured vaguely at the feet protruding from the shifting trash pile. "Our Linda Blair over there claims he found it on a routine smoke break." He jerked his head in the direction of the endlessly retching busboy, who was conducting his esophageal aria under the pained gaze of the uniform. The latter was trying unsuccessfully to scrape the puke from the toes of his shoes on the tires of his patrol car.
"Damn," Hawkes, murmured softly, camera poised in his delicate surgeon's hands. He scuttled forward for a better look at the baby, mouth open against the stink.
Stella moved no closer, but he knew she was seeing it all, every last sordid, stupid, ugly detail. It was in the hardness of her eyes and the set of her jaw. Anger had made her lovely, Athena astride the battlefield.
"Dammit," she swore quietly. "Goddammit, Don."
"I know, Stel. Believe me, I know."
She didn't look away from the baby, but her face softened infinitesimally. "You gonna be all right on this case, Flack?"
"Yeah," he assured her, and steadfastly ignored the sweet smell of his son's baby powder in his nose. "I'm good."
"You sure? It's okay if-,"
"I said I was good," he snapped. Then, more softly, "I'm good."
"How's he doing?" she asked.
It took him a moment to realize she was talking about Junior. "Oh. He's good. Real good. He's with his ma." Right where he should be. Where he's safe. Phantom feet kneaded his forearm, and he fought the urge to rub the sensation away.
"What'cha got, Hawkes?" Stella asked after a moment, and Flack was grateful for the change of subject.
Hawkes had cleared the debris covering the baby, and it looked smaller and more defenseless than ever without its blanket of rotten newspaper. He gingerly examined the body and probed the small corpse with his fingers. It was careful, almost reverent, but Flack struggled with the impulse to stay his hand. He turned his head and pretended to study the landscape beyond the flapping, yellow crime tape.
"It's an infant male," Hawkes said. "I'd estimate his age to be between six and eight weeks. No overt signs of trauma, no obvious fractures. He looks well-nourished." He bent and peered into the staring, opaque eyes. "It's hard to tell because of the decomp, but there could be petechial hemorrhaging in the eyes."
"Suffocation?" Stella ran her fingers through her hair.
"Hard to say at first blush. Infants this young sometimes suffer from sleep apnea and periodically stop breathing for a few seconds at a time. It's generally not fatal, and most babies grow out of it by five months."
"The window for SIDS," Stella mused.
"Mmhm," Hawkes agreed. "Unfortunately, it's almost impossible to diagnose, and I'm sure there have been parents falsely accused of killing their children."
"Or vice versa," Stella pointed out.
"Mm," Hawkes conceded. "It's a tragedy either way. Sid might be able to tell you more once we get him to post."
SIDS, Gavin muttered. There's a fuckin' nightmare you don't need. You're already paranoid enough as it is. The afternoon you brought him home from the hospital, you drove like a goddamned Creepin' Jesus 'cause you were afraid of some three-martini lawyer blowin' through a stoplight and killin' your wife and baby. Nobody with a sniffle is allowed within ten yards of your apartment, much less his bassinet. A whiff of diaper rash calls for a quart of ointment.
He thought of his own Junior then, cold and blue in his bassinet, a bundle of dreams never realized. He imagined what it would be like to be told that it happened just because, that God was an Indian-giving bastard who delighted in the taking away part of his agreements. He thought of the way the tiny coffin would look buried under an avalanche of white roses and the perversely ironic baby's breath. The way it would sound as it was lowered into the earth, the dull, scraping thud that signaled the stilling of his heart.
Rebecca would never forgive Him. She's already well-schooled in the Because I Said So doctrine of the Good Lord, has been its most apt pupil since she came outta the chute with a host'a bum parts. She tells you she's made her peace with it, and you believe her, but that doesn't mean she likes it, and she still thinks her Maker is a fickle bastard who'd kill you as soon as bless you. From some of the shit you've seen on this job, she's got a good goddamn point.
And hell, you wouldn't forgive Him, either. You already know what it's like to lose part of yourself while the rest of you goes on breathin', to bury it in the earth with nothin' for consolation but a handful of graveyard dirt, heavy and wet in your numb palm. You didn't make your little sister, but she was the flesh of your flesh, shaped from the same dirt, and you had dreams for her. You thought she'd be with you your whole life, your faithful shadow and mirror image, and when she was gone, you were torn in half. You've spent your life lookin' for her even though you know exactly where she is, and you can never let her go.
If God took Junior back while you were still upright, not only would you never forgive Him, but you'd spit in his smug, Almighty face. You'd have nothin' to lose by then, and why shouldn't you? Wouldn't takin' Junior expose Him as the biggest hypocrite ever? Thou shalt not covet is right there in black and white in His own damn book. You'd bury your Junior, and then you'd eat your gun in a final insult against the greedy, family-stealin' prick.
Or maybe you wouldn't. Maybe you'd follow Rebecca's example and go on livin' just to spite Him, to rob him of the satisfaction of seein' you break. You'd keep on eatin' and breathin' and fuckin', but you wouldn't feel any of it, and every time you saw bitterness and grief reach out an acid finger and etch another groove or line into Rebecca's face, you'd curse Him that much harder.
He had a sudden vision of himself crouching over two graves at the Mount Pleasant cemetery instead of one, splitting sorrow between the two headstones. He'd tell his sister how much he still missed her after fifteen years and trace his fingers over the inscription on her marker. He had done the same thing four times a year since her death, but now he would have something new to tell her. He would ask her to look after Junior until he could catch up on the other side of the gate, and then he'd leave the stuffed duck from his bassinet against the lifeless stone.
Oh, Christ. Oh, Jesus Christ. He had to escape from the alley and the sinking despair that surrounded it. "I'm gonna canvas the neighborhood, see if anybody saw or heard anything. Maybe somebody's missin' a baby. It's a longshot, I know, but-," He shrugged.
"Well, right now, everything about this case is a longshot," Stella answered ruefully. "I'm going to process the scene, see if whoever left Baby Doe here left anything else behind."
Oh, they did, Stel, he thought bitterly. They left their whole goddamned life, and they don't even know it yet.
He left the alley, but he could not leave the baby. It followed him home on the baby powder that coated his palms like gunshot residue, and by the time he slipped into his building that night, he was sure that the baby was his Junior, that someone had stolen him while Rebecca slept, and that when he opened the door to his apartment, he would find Junior's bassinet empty and Rebecca clutching his blanket in one bloodless, bony hand.
But when he opened the door, all he saw was Rebecca cuddling the baby in the middle of the living room, easing him toward sleep with soft coos. She looked up at the closing of the door.
"Daddy's home," she whispered to the baby. "You're safe now."
"How is he?" he demanded. It emerged more sharply than he'd intended, a gruff bark, and she jumped, startled. The baby began to scream.
"Well, he was fine," she retorted wryly. "Dammit."
He held out his arms and strode across the living room. "Give him to me." He'd meant it to be reassuring and conciliatory, but she bristled.
Her mouth worked, and she blinked at him in irritated consternation. "Fine." She thrust the baby at him. "Is there anything else I can do for you while I'm at it?"
He lifted the baby from her arms, hand cupped behind his small, soft head. "Oh, c'mere, buddy. Come to Daddy." He nestled the tiny body in the crook of his arms and began to sway back and forth in a soothing, rhythmic motion. The baby's screams were piercing, and he was sure that they would rapidly lose their novelty when it was four in the morning and he was groping his way to the refrigerator for a bottle, but for now, they were glorious. He was red-faced and squirming and blessedly alive, not blue and dead and wrapped in black plastic.
Cool fingers brushed his elbow. "Hey. You okay, babe?" Anger had softened to exhausted concern.
He closed his eyes and kept swaying. "I don't know," he answered truthfully. "I just had to see him, is all. Make sure he was okay."
"Bad day at work?" Her fingers traced lines over the sensitive skin of his elbow.
In his mind's eye, he saw a baby with flies crawling over his feet and no mother to fuss over his blanket. "You could say that."
He could sense her studying him, debating with herself whether or not to press the subject, and he knew that if he opened his eyes, she would be hunkered in her chair, misaligned hands floating dreamily over the edges of her armrests like a vision out of a Dalian painting. He could feel her gaze dancing over him, light and inquisitive and reverent. Her hand came up to cup his cheek, and he involuntarily pressed more firmly against her palm.
Finally, she said, "Is it a Jager night?" I won't ask, but you can tell me if you want to.
"Yeah, I think so." He backed up until his calves brushed the couch cushions, and sat, careful to tuck the baby to his chest.
"All right," she said, and hesitated. "I made some pasta in the feeble hope of eating while he slept, but I haven't gotten a chance to touch it yet. Or shower. Or brush my hair or teeth." She sighed. "Sorry. Long day. I was just trying to ask if you wanted some."
He opened his eyes and took a close look at his wife. She was slouched with exhaustion, and her hair hung in wisps and straggles around her pinched face, lank and oily. She was still in her nightshirt and house socks, and two of her nails had torn to the quick.
Before Junior she'd treated herself to a bi-weekly manicure and a monthly haircut, indulged in what she'd gleefully called "girlie pleasures", but starting from her seventh month on, there hadn't been the time or the money, and she was worn and battered by the overwhelming responsibilities of motherhood.
It was the only indulgence she had, Gavin observed. She never went on big spendin' sprees, never maxed out the credit cards on junk she'd never wear. Just those three appointments every month like clockwork. You could always tell when she'd gone to the manicurist or the hair salon because she had an extra snap to her roll, and her smile was just that much wider and brighter. She felt pretty, she said, sexy, and it showed.
You never begrudged that money, and you still wouldn't, but diapers aren't cheap, and for such a small baby, Junior produces a staggerin' amount of shit. You go through a pack or two a week, and it seems like you just bought one when she's tellin' you to go to the store to pick up more. If it ain't the diapers, it's the wipes or the powder or the ointment to cure ass rash and jock itch. You knew about the major expenses of a baby-the cribs, car seats, pre-natal and post-natal check-ups-but nobody ever told you you'd be nickel-and-dimed into bankruptcy. It's gonna be awfully lean the next few years, and pretty, painted fingernails just aren't in the cards.
This isn't what you had in mind when you met her at the altar of St. Patrick's and took her hand. You thought you'd have moved further up in the world by now, have been able to afford a bigger apartment. You thought you'd have a nest-egg by the time you started a family. But department budget cuts shelved the bump in pay grade you've been due for the past two years, and at this rate, you're worried about your pension. What little money you and Rebecca managed to squirrel away over the first three-and-a-half years of marriage went up in smoke one Sunday morning in May 2006.
Sure the department paid your medical bills and gave you a base salary while you tortured your mendin' guts into shape, but they didn't buy the groceries or pay the light bill or compensate Rebecca for all the hours of work she missed sittin' at your bedside or in the back of a cab with you for your first few post-discharge doctor's consults. It put a serious dent in your joint savin's, and it took almost a year to put it back.
And then she got pregnant that October in 2007 and spent the last four weeks of it in the hospital. Theoretically, her Medicare and the insurance from the department should have covered everything, but Medicare balked at the fact that the week before she delivered Junior and the week of recuperation after were spent in a private room at St. Vincent's Maternity Pavilion instead of a cramped, semi-private hole at Trinity or New York County General. Apparently, her bein' clean and comfortable and safe wasn't a priority for a government devoted to the protection of its citizens. They refused to pay, citin' lack of medical necessity.
Dr. Fiorello has written letters on your behalf and provided extensive documentation of her condition at the time of her admission, but they're still diggin' in their heels and claimin' it was an extravagance, that the end result would'a been the same had she been left in a stale room with an old woman dyin' in the bed next to her.
It's horseshit, and you know it. If you'd'a brought her back to Trinity, she'd never have come home, and you'd be a goddamned widower now with nothin' but old weddin' photos and ultrasound photos as proof that you ever had a family. But they won't listen, don't wanna accept the fact that medicine isn't just needles and scalpels and high-priced medicines. You'll never convince 'em that her successful delivery and subsequent recovery had just as much to do with the fact that she got to sleep beside you and feel your soothin' hands on her distended belly as it did with the skill of the obstetric nurses and Dr. Fiorello.
You've been at loggerheads with for two weeks, but you've got the sneakin' suspicion that you're gonna lose. If you do, that's a forty-percent co-pay between the two insurance companies and several grand outta your pocket that you can't afford. You could get a lawyer, but that'd be more expensive than payin' in the long run, and you'd rather be spendin' what little free time you got with your wife and baby instead of the lawyer's office.
So here you sit, still in your bachelor's apartment after five-and-a half years of marriage, wonderin' where you'll come up with the money to get Junior into manhood. Ragged as she is, there's no question of Rebecca not goin' back to work after her paid maternity leave is up. You wish you could let her stay home and raise your son like your ma raised you and Diana, but you need the money. Without it, you'll be in public housing, fightin' with the fuckin' roaches and the busted radiator.
God knows what you'll when she has to go back. You've been pokin' into daycare costs, and it makes you want to cry. The cheapest estimate is still approachin' ten grand, and that's not takin' into account the travel costs of getting him there and home again. What you do know is that there aren't going to be any dinners out or manicures for a long time.
Maybe he couldn't give her a French manicure or a day at the spa anymore, but there were still things he could do for her, and last he checked, they were absolutely free.
"You know what? Hold off on bringin' me that Jager, doll. Why don't you go have a soak in the tub? I'll fix us a plate and get Junior to bed."
"A bath?" It was disbelieving, as though he had offered her the Hope diamond on a silver platter.
"Yeah. You still got some of them bath beads I got you last Valentine's Day, don't you?"
She thought for a moment. "The jasmine and orange spice? Yes."
"Go drop and handful, mmm? I'll be in to make sure you got in okay in a minute."
She was staring at him with a rhapsodic expression, and then she lunged forward and kissed him, one splay-fingered hand on the couch for balance and her ass hovering precariously above her chair seat.
She's right, he thought. She could use some Scope. But his hand cupped the back of her head, and he relished the small sounds of satisfaction she made in the back of her throat as lips and tongues delicately met.
"I knew there was a reason I said yes," she murmured softly when they parted.
And I knew there was a reason I asked. "My pension?" He brushed a wisp of hair from her forehead.
"Oh, yeah. 'Cause the NYPD just doles out the cash." She rolled her eyes and flopped gracelessly into her chair again.
He stroked her cheek and jerked his head in the direction of the bathroom. "G'on."
She flashed him a grateful smile and whirled toward the bedroom and bath. "Check on me in ten?"
"Sure thing, doll."
He watched her disappear into the shadows of their bedroom, a flash of tarnished gold in the dark, and then he looked down at Junior, who was wriggling furiously on his lap. The shrill crying had tapered to watery snuffles and grunts of protest.
"What's with you, huh?" he asked the baby, and stroked one waving hand.
Junior obligingly gripped his finger and squinted somberly at him.
"Long day for your ma," he told him. "Bad day for you, too? Must be hard work, all the poopin' you do, and for God's sake, go easy on the diapers tonight. Your college fund's goin' up in a puff of Huggies."
The baby offered a defiant grunt.
He traced his fingers over the twitching limbs and rounded softness of his son, delighted in the warmth and strength in the little body tucked into the crook of his arm. Dr. Fiorello said he was a strong boy and getting stronger every day. His mother was doing a good job with him, infusing his little bones with enough calcium and nutrients to ensure that one day, he would play stickball in the street in front of the building and go to ballgames with his old man. He'd get a chance to believe in fairies and Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, and if he was lucky, he'd live long enough to find a love of his own.
That was how children should be, not dead and stiff and discarded like trash in filthy alleys. They should get the chance to grow up and feel the sunshine on their face. Baby Doe would never get the opportunity to play with his parents or even know they'd loved him, and the thought burned in his belly like vinegar.
"I'm gonna catch that son of a bitch," he vowed to no one in particular, and Junior burbled his affirmation.
He bent and kissed his son's wrinkled forehead and inhaled the caramel and talc of newborn baby. "Don't you go nowhere on me," he implored him. "You better live long enough to bury me."
The baby gazed sleepily up at him. He waited until he heard wet rumble of water splashing into the tub, and then he began to sing.
"Hush little baby, don't say a word. Daddy's gonna buy you a mockin'bird. And if that mockin'bird don't sing…"