Eileen waited until the howl of the reel had ended before thrusting me forward. “Bobby. Look who’s come.”

When Bobby saw me the smile died from his face. He looked at me with some combination of embarrassment and rigidness.

“You guys gotta excuse me,” he said abruptly to the group around him. “I need to see this young lady for a few minutes.”

He took me into the house, a slow procession through the jam of happy neighbors, fellow cops-I even saw Officer Neely looking flushed and relaxed in a bright fuchsia dress-and screaming grandchildren.

Inside the house two of Bobby’s daughters were constructing a giant cake. They squealed when they saw him. “Daddy! You know you’re not supposed to come in here.”

“It’s okay, girls-I ain’t seen nothin’. I’m just going down to the family room with Vicki for a few minutes. You keep everyone out, okay?”

“Sure, Daddy, but go on before you see something!” They shooed us down the steps.

Bobby had finished the basement himself, installing a bathroom, real floors and walls, building in bunk beds for his two sons when there’d been six children in seven rooms upstairs. Only two of their daughters were still at home, but he’d left the beds for his grandchildren to sleep in-he loved having them stay over.

He turned on a lamp and sat on the red plaid couch next to the bunk beds. I sat in the shabby armchair facing him, next to the fake fireplace. He moved his big hands uncomfortably, trying to think of something to say. I didn’t help him.

“I didn’t expect to see you here,” he said at last.

“I didn’t want to come. Eileen talked me into it.”

He looked at the floor and muttered, “I said a lot of things I shouldn’t have last week. I’m sorry.”

“You hurt my feelings, Bobby.” I couldn’t keep my voice from cracking. “Your golden boy damned near killed me and you talked to me like I was some kind of street scum.”

He rubbed his face. “I-Vicki, I talked to Eileen about it, she tried to make sense out of it for me. I don’t know why I did it, that’s God’s truth. Dr. Herschel called me. That’s how I knew you were in trouble. You know about that part, don’t you?”

I nodded without speaking.

“I knew by then it was Mickey. Well, you’d tried to tell me, but it wasn’t until she told me he’d shot the old man that I-don’t look at me like that, Vicki, you’re making it hard to say this and it’s hard enough to start with.”

I turned my head toward the cowboy coverlets on the bunk beds.

“I called John and the Finch. They weren’t as upset as I was-they knew Mickey’d been acting queer since the day before when you brought that damned bracelet of his in. And they’d wondered about some other things. Of course they’d never told me-I was the lieutenant and he was my fair-haired boy.” He gave a harsh laugh. “What was the story with the bracelet? Why did it send him into orbit?”

I explained. “I tried to tell you Wednesday. I didn’t know what it was-I don’t think he’d worn it around me more than once or twice. He thought-you know, as long as Elena was alive she could link it to him. Well, not just that. She could tie him to the fire at the Indiana Arms. He was the person, too, who knocked us both out and tried to burn us at the other place.” I started shivering as the memories hit me. I tried to push them aside but I couldn’t.

Bobby grunted and stood up to reach for one of the cowboy coverlets. He tossed it to me and I wrapped myself in it. After a bit my shivering stopped, but both of us sat lost in our own reveries.

At least my last visitor yesterday was benign-Zerlina, again taking three buses, wanted to know how her daughter came to die. She shared a Coke and more of Lotty’s chicken soup and wept with me. She shook her head in amazement when she learned Elena had saved my life: “Thought she’d pickled her brain too good years ago to come up with something like that, but the Lord provides when you least expect it.”

As if following my thoughts, Bobby asked abruptly about my aunt.

“It’s like it all never happened. I stopped by the Windsor Arms-the hotel where she’s living now-last night. She was out front with a bottle and a crowd of greasy old men, showing her little finger in a splint and bragging over her heroics. Some people even a whirlwind won’t change, I guess.” I laughed mirthlessly.

Bobby nodded a couple of times to himself. “I want you to understand something, Vicki. Try to, anyway. Tony, your daddy, took me under his wing when I joined the force. He must have been a good thirteen, fourteen years older than me. A lot of guys were coming back from the war then, they didn’t make it easy on us rookies. Tony looked out for me from day one.

“I thought I could do the same for Mickey and it hurts me, hurts my pride Eileen tells me it is, that I could be so wrong. I keep thinking to myself, what would Tony think, he saw me making such a colossal mistake?”

He didn’t seem to want an answer but I gave him one anyway. “You know what he’d say, Bobby, that anyone can make a mess but only a fool wallows in it.”

Bobby smiled painfully. “Yeah, well, maybe. Yeah, probably. But here’s what you gotta understand, Vicki. I thought the best thing I could do to pay Tony back for all he did for me was look out for you. I never could understand the way Tony and Gabriella brought you up, not making you mind the way my own girls did. And you just didn’t seem like a real girl to me, the things you wanted and wanted to do. I’m not even sure I like you all that well. I just thought I owed it to Tony to look after you,”

I thought he’d finished, but he only stopped to crack his knuckles, get himself over the hump. “So you’re not like other girls, Eileen-Eileen never minded a minute, she always loved you like you were her own daughter. But I just couldn’t deal with it. And then when you exposed Mickey-he was like my son and you were like an alien monster. But if he’d had your guts and your honesty, he’d never of gone along with those buddies of his to begin with. Never dug himself that kind of hole.

“So I’ve had to think about it. Think about you, I mean. Start from the beginning. I love my girls. I don’t want them any different from how they are. But you’re the daughter of the two people I loved best, next to Eileen, and you can’t do things different than you do, shouldn’t do them different, not with Gabriella and Tony bringing you up. Do you understand?”

The door at the top of the stairs opened and Bobby’s daughter Marianna called down. “Daddy! People are waiting for you!”

“Be up in a jiffy, sugar!” he yelled back. “Don’t let them start without me.”

He got up. “Okay? Is that enough?”

I stood up too. “Yeah, I think that’s enough.” I fished in my pocket and handed him a small parcel. “I brought that along for you. Just in case, you know-just in case I felt like giving you a present.”

He undid the paper and opened the little box. When he looked inside and saw Tony’s shield lying in the cotton, he didn’t say anything, but for the second time that week I saw him cry.

Sara Paretsky

***
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