"Sir, I'll have to ask you to please not touch the car."
Scotty had to chuckle at Gil McGreavy's fluttery nervousness around his precious Betty Sue, especially since this time, Scotty wasn't the target. That honor belonged to none other than James Fleming, who'd only barely touched the hood ornament when Gil admonished him.
"Sir," Gil repeated. "The car."
"Oh, don't worry," Fleming replied, in the tone of voice of one who was only devoting a few atoms of brain matter to the conversation at hand. "She's one of mine."
"One of yours?" Gil drew himself to his full, less-than-impressive height. "Sir, I'll thank you to—"
"Hey. Relax." Fleming finally deigned to enter the universe beyond the sleek crimson hood of Gil's Juggernaut and extended a hand to the flustered owner. "James Fleming."
Gil's bushy white brows shot up over the rims of his glasses. "Fleming? As in…?"
"As in my grandfather founded Fleming Motors, and my father designed that car you're so protective of." Fleming's blue eyes crinkled at the corners at the slackening in Gil's jaw. "Trust me. I know what I'm doing."
Lilly came around the corner of the car. "You recognize this hood ornament, James?"
"Of course, Detective." Fleming smiled. "I'd know it anywhere."
"Detective?" Gil's round eyes bounced from Fleming to Scotty to Lilly and back again. "What am I missing?"
Lilly pulled her badge from her hip pocket. "Detectives Rush and Valens, Philly Homicide."
"We're lookin' into the possible murder of this girl. Ellie King. 1962." Scotty extended the photo of Ellie for Gil to examine.
"Hey, I was five years old in 1962." Gil raised his hands in self-defense. "I—I've never seen that girl before in my life."
"Hey, man, it's okay. You're not in any trouble." Scotty flashed a reassuring smile, and Gil seemed to relax, at least to a small degree. "We know you had nothin' to do with it. It's just that this hood ornament looks exactly like the one on Ellie's '62 Eagle."
Brow furrowed, Gil studied the photo Scotty held out to him. "Well, I know it's rare, but there's still a…one in eight hundred forty-six chance that this is the same exact one, right, Mr. Fleming?"
Looking impressed, Fleming nodded. "This hood ornament was part of the redesign when we rolled out the special-edition '62 Eagles." His voice grew quiet and faraway. "It was inspired by Ellie."
Scotty glanced down at the winsome blonde in the photograph, then back up at the winged female figurine adorning Gil's hood. Sure enough, there was a striking resemblance.
"Any way to know if this one's hers?" Scotty slipped Ellie's photo back into the file.
"Absolutely. For Ellie, we did something special." Turning toward the car, Fleming grasped the base of the hood ornament and gently wiggled it loose.
Gil gasped. "Careful!"
Fleming responded with a withering glance as the hood ornament popped free and he bent down to take a peek. After a long moment of silence, he let out a breath. "I'll be damned."
"That Ellie's?" Scotty asked, knowing from the man's reaction what the answer would be.
Fleming nodded and stepped back so the detectives could take a look. Leaning over the silvery winged figure, Scotty saw the words "Mrs. James" engraved across the bottom in flowing script.
"Ellie thought it was odd that she was about to become 'Mrs. James Fleming' rather than 'Mrs. Ellie Fleming," the older man explained. "She always said she'd happily take my last name, but she'd let me keep my first. That was an ongoing joke between us; I used to call her Mrs. James, and she'd call me Mr. Ellie." With a quiet chuckle, Fleming ran a fingertip over the ridges of the hood ornament, then gently wedged it back into place. "It's as beautiful as the day it was made."
"Thanks," Gil chirped, his mood no doubt lightened by the fact that, for the moment anyway, everyone had stopped trying to handle Betty Sue.
"So you're here all the way from Baltimore, and this hood ornament from Ellie's car is here, too?" Lilly's eyes narrowed." That's a funny coincidence."
Fleming raised slender hands in self-defense. "Detectives, I swear to God I haven't seen this thing in forty-five years." He frowned over at Gil. "How'd you come to have it?"
"Bought it up at Al's Obsolete Auto Parts," Gil replied. "It's a little place in Allentown; unbelievable selection."
"Yeah, I've been there," Scotty added, then grinned over at Lilly. "Al's an encyclopedia. Knows everything there is to know about cars."
Lilly's lips flickered in a mischievous smile. "Even more than you?"
Scotty was reluctant to admit it, but yes. Sadly, it was true.
Her eyes twinkled ever-so-slightly before she returned her attention to Gil, pen poised over her notebook. "Any idea when you bought it?"
Gil removed his cap and ran a hand over his thinning white hair. "Oh, jeez…probably about ten years, give or take?"
Scotty stifled a sigh. 'Give or take' wasn't much to go on, but it was at least a start. And that was more than they'd had when they walked in. Even though he'd long ago outgrown his wish to be out on the line, sprinting down sidewalks and breaking down doors his whole shift, the snail's pace of some of their investigations still got to him sometimes.
He glanced up at his partner to find her looking back at him, blue eyes shimmering with understanding. It was as though she'd just read his thoughts.
"Al open on Sundays?" she asked.
"Think so, yeah." Pulling his phone from his pocket, Scotty turned toward Gil. "You mind if we take some pictures of the hood ornament? Talk to Al, see if he remembers it?"
Gill nodded. "Sure. Sure. Just…" he winced as Scotty approached the car. "Be careful."
Scotty grinned. "Don't worry, man. I got your back."
With a sigh, Lilly reached up and absently rubbed the back of her neck, the dusty purchase records from Al's Obsolete Auto Parts taunting her from her desk. In the soft golden light from her desk lamp, the yellowed slips of paper really did look like the proverbial haystack. That needle was in there somewhere, and despite the fatigue crowding her consciousness and the dull throbbing in her head, she was determined to find it.
She and Scotty had driven up to Allentown that afternoon to talk to Al, who remembered the hood ornament, but not the person attached to it. They were welcome to look through his records, he'd told them, waving a meaty hand at a filing cabinet with boxes stacked next to it, but it might take a while, because he did everything by hand. Didn't trust computers.
With his permission, they'd brought the relevant records back to Philly, where, over hastily-eaten takeout Chinese, they'd started the arduous process of digging through the paperwork. She had to hand it to her partner; he'd made a couple wisecracks about the project they had in front of them, but no true complaints.
"Well, that's 1996," Scotty said from behind the large, water-stained cardboard box standing guard on his desk. Tossing the last of the files into the box, he lidded it and slid it to the floor. "Think I oughta go '95 or '99?"
Lilly flashed a sympathetic smile. "Which year would you rather relive?"
A corner of his mouth quirked. "'95 it is." Bending down, he grabbed the box and hoisted it up onto the surface of his desk.
"I'll go make us some coffee." Lilly rose from her chair and headed for the kitchen.
Her mind still turning over the pieces of the puzzle, she went through the familiar motions of scooping the ground coffee into the basket, pouring in the water, and pushing the button. The ancient machine spluttered and hissed to life, soon filling the small room with the rich, roasted aroma of the detectives' lifeblood.
That fragrance alone was enough to perk her up a bit, and she reached up to grab a pair of mugs from the shelf. As she slid her favorite deep blue mug from its wooden resting place, a piece of white typing paper fell onto the counter; it had apparently been wedged beneath the mug.
Frowning, Lilly unfolded it.
You seemed to like the idea of me leaving you secret letters, so here you go. Hope this finds you well.
Everything about that note made her smile, from Saccardo's bold scrawl to the fact that he'd thought ahead, that he'd been creative enough to leave a little reminder of himself for her in his absence. She gazed down at the note for a moment, toying absently with her necklace. It was things like this that made her not miss him as much as she'd feared she would.
"What, Saccardo's leavin' you notes now?"
Her partner's voice made her jump slightly; Lilly hadn't even been aware that he'd come into the kitchen.
Quickly, she re-folded the note. "Yeah. So what?"
"Kinda sweet." Scotty reached for the pair of mugs and started to fill them with coffee. "If you're in the sixth grade."
Irritation flared. She'd thought last night on the roof meant they were past all this pettiness, but apparently they weren't.
Lilly slammed the note down on the counter and turned to face her partner. "What is your problem?"
Scotty glanced up from where he was pouring creamer into his coffee. "I don't got a problem."
"So you crappin' all over every nice thing Eddie does for me is, what, just for fun? You got somethin' you wanna say to me about him, just say it."
With infuriating calmness, Scotty tossed the empty vial of creamer into a nearby trash can and grabbed a stirrer. "Look, Lil. I don't got anything personal against the guy. I barely even know him."
"Then why the hell can't you just be happy for me?"
"Because I don't like seein' you get hurt."
"So, what, you're just gonna act like a pouty twelve-year-old? Dammit, Scotty, I'm an adult. I don't need you to protect me from anything. My choices are mine." She laced her arms tightly across her chest and added, almost as an afterthought, "Besides. Eddie didn't hurt me."
"No?" Scotty's brows arched. "Then what was that last night at the Blue Ball?"
Even his use of the irreverent nickname failed to bring a smile. "I was sad, Scotty. Not hurt. I was sad because he had to go under, and I don't know when I'll see him again. That's all it was."
"Okay," he replied, in that skeptical way she thought she'd cornered the market on.
"You know different?" She met his gaze. Challenging him.
The spark in his eyes told her he was more than game. "He like Narcotics? Bein' undercover all the time?"
"Yeah. So what?"
"So this is what your relationship's gonna look like, then? He's in, then he's out, and you got no idea when you're gonna see him again, or what he's doin' when he's gone, or who he's with…the kinda compromises he's makin'…"
Lilly studied her partner through the angry slits of her eyes. "Just what are you insinuating?"
He held up a hand. "Nothin'. It's just that…I know firsthand how blurry the lines can get when you're in deep like that. You—you can't be who you really are. That's the whole point. And bein' with someone who's only givin' you part of his time, part of who he is…"
Scotty looked up at her, his gaze sharp as a sword. "Y'know, maybe that's enough for you. Maybe that's all you want. But…" he paused, as though deciding whether to say what was really on his mind. Finally, he sighed and turned back to his coffee mug. "It ain't what you deserve."
Her breath caught in her throat. "What do you mean?"
"Ever since I've known you, Lil, I've stood by and watched the people you care about turn their backs on you and walk away, one by one." Scotty gave a nervous laugh. "Guess that's part of why I'm so damn…stubborn. 'Cause I don't wanna do that to you, too."
Lilly's anger melted away in the warmth of his words. He looked like he was bracing himself for a verbal barrage, one that, truth be told, she'd probably normally give anyone who managed to unwrap the bandages and expose her wounds. But he wasn't doing it to gawk, like some had, or to use it against her, like some others. He looked at it as a trauma surgeon would look at a bullet wound: to assess the damage and set about trying to heal it.
Scotty seemed to take her silence as leave to continue, because he abandoned his coffee and took a couple steps toward her. "Look, Lil. I want you to find someone you love. Not just someone you like, or someone you have fun with…but someone you love. Someone who you won't let walk away from you, because you just…can't. And someone who loves you, like you deserve to be loved."
She stood there, wide-eyed, simultaneously floored and touched by his words.
"And that includes bein' there for you. Not just on a part-time basis, but…y'know, there. In your life." He took another step toward her, his eyes coffee-rich and shimmering with emotion. "You deserve someone who's so damn crazy about you that…" he chuckled. "…that he can't even imagine bein' away from you for a day. An hour. Let alone weeks. Months. Someone who—who can't breathe without you."
Stunned into momentary silence, Lilly just stared at him. No one had ever dared to say something like that to her before. No one had ever given her such a beautifully gentle ass-kicking in all her life. He'd sliced through her defenses, found her deepest pain, and brought it out into the light. Yet he'd done it so sweetly, so tenderly, that she couldn't even be angry with him.
Unexpected light and laughter spilled into the kitchen just then, the former courtesy of a bank of bright fluorescents Lilly hadn't bothered to switch on when she went in to make the coffee. Blinking to adjust, she became suddenly and acutely aware of just how close she stood to Scotty. He seemed to realize it, too, because he quickly took a giant step back, cleared his throat, and grabbed yet another coffee stirrer.
"Whoa." The gravelly voice of Nick Vera punctuated the sudden cessation of two pairs of footsteps. "Didn't think anyone would still be here at this hour."
"C'mon, Nick. You know me better than that." Lilly lifted her coffee mug to her lips, hoping her pounding heart and shaky limbs didn't come through in her voice. "We're still…tryin' to track down that hood ornament."
"What are you two doin' back here?" Scotty asked, tinkering with his coffee once more.
Nick and Kat exchanged a decidedly unusual glance. "Well, Miller forgot her, uh…"
"Coat," Kat filled in quickly. "I forgot my coat, and there's a cold front comin' through tonight, and I didn't wanna freeze my ass off takin' V to school tomorrow." Her eyes sparked with defensiveness, challenging Lilly to poke a hole in her story.
"And she had a flat," Vera supplied, "so she called me, and I had to get my ass off the couch and come get her."
Scotty frowned at the pair. "So what are you, her driver now?"
Kat flung a triumphant glance at Vera, who muttered something Lilly couldn't quite catch, then turned to Scotty and shrugged. "Guess so," Nick said.
"Well, I got what I came for." Miller lifted her right arm, which was indeed draped with her usual black overcoat. "So we're outie."
Scotty grinned. "Outie?"
Miller flashed her usual scathing glare. "Whatever, jackass. See you guys in the morning."
"Yeah," Vera echoed. "Later."
"I think I might head out, too. Those purchase records are makin' me cross-eyed, and I don't think coffee's gonna help." Scotty tossed an apologetic glance toward Lilly. "You all right here?"
"Fine. Thanks, Scotty." She hoped that simple expression of gratitude conveyed just how much his words meant to her.
So much, in fact, that after all three of her colleagues had called their farewells and headed out of the office, she grabbed Saccardo's note and a cup of coffee and sat down at her desk. She read it several times. Turned the words over in her mind. Scraped the pad of her thumb across the surface of her diamond pendant again and again.
But as much as she tried to concentrate on Eddie, the look in Scotty's eyes kept surfacing. His words kept echoing through her consciousness.
He'd said she deserved to find someone she loved. Someone who loved her in return.
Did Eddie…love her? She didn't know. He'd never said, and besides, it was way too soon for something like that.
Did she love him? Again, she didn't know. And before tonight, before Scotty's beautiful words, she wouldn't have cared. She was happy, wasn't she?
Well, she was when Eddie was around. Which wasn't as much as she would've liked.
Dammit. As much as she didn't want to think about it, maybe Scotty was right.
Maybe she did deserve more.