This story is set during the early part of season 6, immediately after episode 3 ("Lat 40˚47'N/Long 73˚58'W").
"Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind." (Henry James)
The dream was a good one. No doubt about it. There was the evil job-stealing blonde, tied to the railway tracks - and Adam was the only one who could save her. Strands of long hair fanned out around her head like a golden halo as she gazed up at him with those innocent eyes. So deceptive. "Help me," she cried. Her life in his hands...
The herd of rampaging elephants bore down on her...
Wait - elephants? Where was the train?
Adam's eyes flew open. The jolt of his sudden awakening made him shiver. Unexpected noises in the night were seldom friendly.
Listening to the heavy thumping sound that had forced its way into his dream, he frowned as he finally understood the source. For a split second, he cursed his generous nature and the simple promise that he had made in the kind light of day. "I'm coming," he mumbled reluctantly. Bed was nice; the apartment was cold - and his head was unbearably heavy. Peeking sideways at the clock on his nightstand, he realised why.
1:15 am. Which meant that he had been asleep for little more than an hour. Stumbling into his midnight-black apartment after a long shift, he had veered away from the kitchen in spite of his empty stomach, and dropped straight onto his bed, fully clothed, pausing only to release his bag and kick his shoes across the room with weary abandon. The moment that his cheek had brushed against the soothing coolness of his pillow, he had been lost.
Huffing with the effort, Adam dragged himself into a sitting position. The room swayed around him and he put out a steadying hand. Exhaustion had made him dizzy - and so, it seemed, had hunger. His stomach was no longer grumbling; it was downright angry. Adam sighed. When would he learn? Hot dogs may well be delicious, but their energy content, such as it was, could never be expected to last for - he counted in his head - eleven hours. Stupid, Adam. The last shift had been so intense that work had taken over his brain, to the exclusion of all else. A bad habit, and one that he really ought to try and break.
"I'm turning into Mac," he murmured, wrinkling his forehead.
Suddenly, the banging stopped. The silence which replaced it was even more alarming.
Adam pushed all thoughts of food from his mind. Rising to his feet, he padded across the room. One shoe, he rescued from the wastebasket. The other one had made it all the way up to his desk, landing neatly on a pile of notes like a strange kind of paperweight. He grabbed that one too, with a gentle oath. Hopping awkwardly through the apartment, he managed to wriggle into both shoes, one after the other. Then he snagged his keys from the hook where he had somehow remembered to hang them and slipped out through the front door, closing it softly behind him.
The corridor was silent. A weird yet familiar smell pervaded the air; mingled threads of different lives. Sniffing instinctively, Adam broke it down into its separate elements. Curry powder. Stale beer. Furniture polish - not mine, he thought, with a sheepish grin. And cinnamon...
Seeping from his neighbour's apartment, the spicy aroma was almost overpowering. As Adam turned the borrowed key in her lock, he held his breath, preparing himself. Elma Bryce had a fascination with potpourri that bordered on the obsessive. There were worse smells, of course - he could vouch for that, after spending only a short time in autopsy - but still... The door swung open and he was assaulted by the scent, so thick by now that he could have sliced clean through it with one of Sid's scalpels. Counting to three, he released his breath and tried to acclimatise.
"Mrs Bryce?" he called out warily. "Elma..? Are you okay? It's me, Adam. From next door..."
There was no reply; only the warm and fuzzy hum of her heating system, turned up full blast as usual. A niggling doubt crept into his mind. Had he dreamed the whole thing? Was he about to burst in upon her, only to find her sleeping? That would frighten her out of her wits.
"Adam?" said a shaky voice.
"Coming," he said, with relief.
Walking across the thick carpet was like treading on marshmallows. The softness, the warmth, the scent - they all closed in around him as he entered her world and left his own version of reality outside the door.
Despite the fact that he had been invited - no, summoned into Elma's private sanctuary, it was an unexpected struggle to ignore the rules of decency and step over the threshold into her bedroom. She was an old lady and she was undoubtedly in her nightgown. He was a young...ish man. Adam's smile was shy as he poked his head around the door and saw her sitting up in bed, clutching at the rim of her quilt with trembling fingers. Beside her, on the floor, lay her walking stick, abandoned. Large brown eyes stared back at him, full of hurt and confusion. That was all it took to dispel his reticence. Before he even knew it, he had reached the bed and was bending down to still her hands with his own. As he did so, he caught a whiff of talcum powder and that little-old-lady smell that always reminded him so sharply of his grandmother.
"It happened again?" he asked her solemnly.
She clutched at him with bony strength; the same strength that had dragged him from his dreams as she thumped on the wall with her stick.
"Yes," she whispered. Peering at his face, she shook her head. "You're tired. I'm so sorry to wake you, Adam. But you said..."
"I did." Adam's voice was resolute. "And you were right to call me. No one should be alone with their nightmares. 'Sides, it's not a problem, okay? I can catch some sleep later. I'm used to long nights. How about some tea? Then you can tell me all about it - if you want to. Or we can talk about something else." His shrug was accompanied by a charming grin, intended to reassure her.
Elma nodded. "Help me up."
He reached for the dressing gown that was draped on a nearby chair. Elma released the quilt and swung her sparrow-legs around stiffly, taking his other arm and using it as a prop. Once she was standing, and wrapped in the fleecy robe, he passed her the stick and moved out of the way. She shuffled towards the door. Already, the shreds of her dream were trailing behind her and her confidence was returning.
She was lonely, Adam realised, and knew that he had been right to come.
The kitchenette was a neater (and cleaner) version of his own space - a chintzy old world tea shop to his urban diner. Elma headed towards the cupboards but Adam shook his head and pulled out a chair. "Your order, ma'am?" he said.
She smiled, delighted by the game. Sitting down at the tiny table, which was hidden by a crisp white cloth, hand-embroidered napkins and a bowl of the ever-present potpourri, she raised her nose in the air and flicked her fingers at him. "Tea. With milk. No - lemon. And take one for yourself, Ross."
"Thank you, ma'am," he replied, with an atrocious attempt at an English accent.
"You sound like a chimney sweep," she told him archly.
He shrugged once more, observing how her cheeks were regaining their usual soft pink hue.
"Are you sure you know what you're doing?" Elma asked. She watched him as he moved around the little kitchen area, ferreting out the neatly labelled canister and filling the kettle with water.
"It's tea," he said innocently. "How hard can it be?"
Elma's laugh was a breathy, awkward sound but it made him feel happy. "Depends on the palate of 'she-who-is-about-to-imbibe'. Some people are very particular about the strength of their brew. Some people like me."
"I'm a scientist," Adam protested. Opening the canister, he was startled to see, instead of the usual bags, a dry mound of leaves. "Oh..."
"Making tea is an art form." She rose from her chair. "Here. Let me show you."
Propping herself up beside him, she led Adam through the whole process with a teaching style that was humorous but firm. He fell in love with the delicate tea-strainer, shaped like a blossom; and the pot, with its bright cosy, out of which the brown spout burst, steaming with importance. The milk for his own drink went into a tiny jug. The lemon zest was sharp, and made his nose twitch.
As Adam poured the golden liquid through the strainer into the elegant china cups, his stomach gave an unexpected growl. He jumped, and some of the tea splashed onto the counter. "Sorry," he murmured.
"Easily done. It's a dribblesome teapot, that one. Can't get rid of it, though. We're old friends..." Elma's soft eyes hardened as she frowned at him. "Hungry, Adam? When was the last time you ate, young man?"
He didn't really need to answer. The flush that crept up from the back of his neck said it all. Moments later, he found himself sitting at the table with a loaded plate in front of him. Homemade fruitcake and cookies. Impossible to resist. Feeling ravenous by now, he tried to control his manners and eat in measured bites, instead of cramming the food down his throat at top speed. Even so, it wasn't long before the plate had emptied itself. Very mysterious. Adam grinned, dabbing at the stray crumbs with his fingertips. His thoughts strayed to Detective Flack, who would have been in heaven, faced with such a feast.
Elma sipped her tea and watched in satisfaction.
"I could get used to this," Adam told her, by way of a thank you.
She nodded. Clearly, there was something on her mind.
"I'd cook you a wonderful meal if it wasn't so late." Pausing, she tilted her head. "Who looks after you, Adam?"
"Hey! I'm a grown man, you know, not a kid," he told her, still grinning in order to hide the fact that he felt strangely defensive. "I take care of myself. It's been a long day, that's all. I didn't have time to eat."
"Oh, I know that you're capable. That's not what I meant." Elma tried again. "Where do you go when you need comfort? A kind word?" She smiled. "A cup of tea?"
"I have friends..." Yes - but when was the last time he'd seen them? I'll fix that, he promised himself. Tomorrow. Or the next day... "And the guys at the lab - they're really great. We look out for each other..."
He stared at Elma, and she stared back. The expression on her face was... challenging. When did this start to become about him, anyway? The whole conversation had turned on its head. Time to turn it back.
"Tell me about your dream," he blurted, clutching at the first distraction he could think of. The wrong one, as it happened. Elma's colour faded once again and her eyes dropped down to study the dregs at the bottom of her cup. Adam's guilt was overwhelming. "Oh... it's okay. You don't want to..." He stumbled to his feet. "I should go now. Thanks for the cake. And the lesson..."
"Wait." Her bony hand reached out and circled his wrist. "Sit down."
Silently, Adam obeyed.
Elma rose from her seat and disappeared into the bedroom. When she returned, she was holding a photograph album. It was old and black, with battered corners that curled inwards. Some of the pages were warped, making it seem thicker than it really was. Adam raised his eyebrows. Was there a connection between Elma's photographs and her dream? Or was she, too, looking for a distraction? He waited patiently as she sank back into her seat.
"Do you know what's in here?" she asked him. Her voice was low and the tremor had returned.
"Memories?" he ventured.
"Ghosts," she said. "They haunt me..."
The cover creaked as she opened it and a musty smell mingled with the cinnamon; the past invading the present. Adam shuffled his chair around the table. Side by side, they bent their heads over the first page.
"That's you," he guessed, delighted. The little girl stared out at the world with defiance. She wore a knitted jersey over her school tunic and her dark hair was strained into two long braids. Around her, in the faded photograph, he could just make out a broad field of grass and, behind it, a high mountain, capped with streaks of white. "Where are you?"
"Wales," Elma told him. "Snowdonia. Home..." Passing a worn finger over the mountain, she sighed. "You know, it's true what they say. About getting old. Your memory seems to join up like a circle and the old times become the new. I don't know what I had for breakfast yesterday - but I can smell the rain in the air and hear the sheep bleating every time I see this. Do you understand, Adam?"
He nodded. "Yes. I think so. I... I used to visit my grandmother all the time, and there were days when she thought... she thought I was my dad. It was so real to her. She was there, right inside the memory, like it was happening to her... I just... I played along."
Elma turned the pages slowly. Images flashed by; like a movie reel in slow motion, telling the story of her life. Stone cottages. School photos, full of staring, wary children, still unused to having their soul captured. A stern-eyed mother. A hard-working father, clad in overalls most of the time. And later, as the girl became a young woman, there was a new face. A tall man, thoughtful and grave - yet his arm was around her shoulder in every picture.
"David," she whispered. And now she was utterly white, as though she herself were the ghost.
Adam's sharp mind put two and two together. "He's the one? That comes in your dream?"
"My husband. But not like this." Elma took a last look at the young man, then closed her eyes and turned to the very last page. Adam gasped. He couldn't help himself. The change was so sudden. Instead of the handsome, dark-haired man, he saw a weary figure in an armchair that seemed to have moulded itself around him. His face was bitter and there was a deep line between his brows. His mouth turned down at the corners. "Time leaves its mark on everyone, I suppose," Elma sighed, risking a glance at the picture. "David's enemy was worry. Money, health... fidelity... I tried to make him happy..."
So many words unsaid. Adam nodded slowly. "What happens in your dream?"
Elma shuddered. "Nothing happens. That's what's so alarming. He stands beside my bed, like a great crow, dressed in black with glittering eyes. And he watches me. Like he's waiting for something. Waiting for me... It's terrible..."
Once more, Adam took her hands in his. They were stone cold. Shaking his head, he got up and fetched the teapot, lifting off the cosy and wrapping her frozen palms around its chubby girth. The absurdity of his solution brought a tentative smile to her face.
"You're a kind man," Elma told him. "Odd - but kind."
"I'll be alright now," she continued. "If you need to get some sleep..." The wobble in her voice betrayed the lie in her words, but Adam pretended not to notice.
"Nah," he said, lying too. "I'm wide-awake. You?"
"Oh, certainly." She fixed him with her dark brown gaze. "Know any card games...?"
"Elma." Adam raised his eyebrow. "You are looking at the master. Any game you name. I'll beat you - hands down." He watched her reaction slyly.
Sure enough, his reckless challenge put a spark in her eye and a snap in her tone. "Bold words - but pride comes before a fall, young man. Fetch the pack, if you will. It's in my little bureau. I'll refill the pot..."
Cosy and warm in Elma's kitchen, they played together for several hours, pausing every now and then to make more tea. The lateness and the lack of sleep, mingled with the caffeine, left Adam's head buzzing, but he persisted valiantly. Besides, in a strange way, he was having fun. Elma was engaging company, and, just as she had hinted, very good at cards. His own luck was atrocious and her growing pile of gold-wrapped toffees dwarfed his own meagre winnings. He didn't care. Her rosy cheeks and gleaming eyes were the best reward that he could wish for. Leaning back in his chair as she hobbled off to boil the kettle yet again, he closed his eyes and bathed his face in the dawn rays that filtered through the kitchen window.
When he opened them again, the sunlight was achingly bright and his head felt fuzzy beyond belief. His tongue was glued to the roof of his mouth and drool, he suspected, was running down his chin. Embarrassing enough - until a worse thought occurred to him.
"Oh God - what time is it?" he murmured, looking around for a clock.
Elma was nowhere to be seen but he could hear the cheerful sound of water running from the bathroom and a warbling noise that may, or may not have been singing. The cards and the unclaimed sweets had all been cleared away, and there was a tempting breakfast - cereal, milk, orange juice, a little rack of toast and a range of preserves - set out on the table before him, ready and waiting to be eaten. The ever-present pot of tea presided over the whole affair, looking smug and self-important.
Shaking his head to clear it, Adam caught sight of a tiny carriage clock on a shelf behind him and gasped in horror.
Eleven o'clock. In the morning. Too long - he had slept for far too long.
And now he was late for work.