The television stations started getting pushier, calling the office at all hours to try to set up interviews. Richard's level of attention at that time of night could generally be found somewhere near the bottom of his beer can and the channels he'd smuggled onto the apartment's TV and then parental-locked the hell out of. He consented to the first couple of calls that came in because why not, but when they persisted he started letting them fall into the answering machine. He was probably busy. And even if he wasn't, he was busy trying to avoid unwanted work, which counted as busy if you squinted at it right.

Once she'd caught on to the fact that he'd be paid for his time and his list of reasons for avoiding the interviews included 'too drunk to commit', Rachel's disapproval slippery-sloped into outright nagging. She began leaving sticky notes on the handle of his toothbrush and the snooze button on his alarm clock, bestowing him with a confetti assortment of times and names and dates until he could have sworn a telephone book exploded in his office. She only gave up when Richard started balling up the notes and storing them as ammunition to bounce off the back of her head whenever she walked by. "It's just not like you, Dad," she sighed, resignedly peeling the rest off the countertops. "They all said they'd pay really good money to get you into their studios. You could always just choose one and have them pay extra for the exclusive rights, and that would make up for the rest. I just don't understand why you're ignoring them all. I thought you loved this kind of thing."

Maybe. Richard tried not to think about it and ended up marinating in it anyway. He laser-guided the realignment of his Zen with a bag of pretzels and a marathon run of Torrential Hearts season 2, bending his attention towards the very important question of whether Haruka was a better fit with Matsuo or with that chick from the deli.

By the end of episode six he'd determined that a) two racks were always better than one, so yes to the deli chick, but also b.) excuses only worked when he could convince himself they were legitimate. The fact was, once the mainstream hype died down, Richard still had to scrape up enough dough every week to feed Rachel's cavernous yawp. With another kid added to the load, the need for boring, low-profile work had doubled. Fame was nice, but having to wave off random passersby seeking signatures when he was trying to chase cheating spouses had already cost him two of that week's tails. Less money meant less beer, so as long as dying remained trendy in Beika, Richard was not only losing more than he was gaining, he was doing it sober.

In the meantime, he'd scared himself stupid getting out of bed that past week by accidentally stepping on Conan twice. The second time had produced a terrifying snapping sound that'd ended up just being the kid's joint popping, but after the kids had left for school, it'd taken three cigarettes before Richard's hands had quit shaking. Why, from where, and who the hell were really the main questions, but most of all, what am I supposed to do with this kid.

Case in point: Conan had come down with a cold the previous week. It'd passed quickly and Rachel had taken care of it, but the entire situation had left Richard too tense to shit. Just what was he supposed to do if the kid got really sick? Even if they brought him to a hospital, there was no medical history. No data on drug allergies, risk factors, blood type. Suppose the kid got a cavity? Needed a transfusion? Was he allergic to anything? Bee stings, peanuts?

Richard tended to handwave a lot in his life because too much thinking made him drink, but the sheer amount of missing information was maddening. There was no place to start. Really no place to end, either, because while he knew for a fact Conan's name was an alias, he knew better than to think he'd get a real answer if he put the screws to him.

So he pissed himself off the next time he did the bills, starting a rainy day fund for Conan's future expenses, and that really was the ultimate fucking surrender, wasn't it. This couldn't even be counted as fostering, because fostering included medical dossiers and government assistance and scheduled visits from social workers. At best this was absorbing. Conan was being absorbed, and his real parents couldn't be bothered to find out who and what was absorbing him.

He was too tired to drink. He lay on his bed that night, listening to Conan's soft breathing, turning it over and over. Call social services, have them pick the kid up and do whatever they wanted with him. It'd break Rachel's heart but she'd deal. Conan could be returned to his home, and if there was abuse there – if that's what had driven him out in the first place – too bad. Maybe social services would catch it. Maybe not. It was unfortunate but it wasn't Richard's problem. It wasn't his fault.

On the other side: not calling. The kid could camp here until he got bored enough to run back home. Rachel had stopped begging for a dog after Conan had showed up, so there was a plus. There'd be no nagging sensation in the back of his head that Richard had thrown him back to a place that didn't want him. And then, when the inevitable happened – the kid got hurt, the kid got sick, the kid broke something doing something stupid – Richard would be tossed in jail and Rachel would live with her mother and Eva would get her the dog and send him pictures of it in prison just to screw with him.

Do it. The phone was downstairs. He could end it right now. Conan would be gone by morning and the entire affair would blow over within the week.

On the floor, Conan shifted in his sleep. His hand slid from the blankets to relocate just under his chin, little fingers curling against his jaw. He said, with no particular inflection, "Rachel."

Do it.

He…

… he needed a vacation.


.

"This wasn't even remotely what I meant, you idiot," Meguire exploded. "How the hell does anyone set out on a two-day cruise and come back with this many dead bodies? What are you?"

"Inspector!" Richard beamed at him goofily. "When did you get here? Hey, have a seat. There's lots of room in this ambulance."

"I'm off-duty, it's dinnertime, I'm tired enough to see double, I get this cryptic goddamn call from the EMT to pick you up in a port city an hour away, and it's all because you're too cheap to spring for cab fare."

"Just think, three for the price of one! Two dead bodies delivered, plus the culprit, plus the case, all wrapped up and ready to go. I tell you, that Hannigan family's a piece of work. You might as well lock them all up just to be safe. Except Susanna. She's got nice legs."

"Shut up." Meguire's finger was in his face while his other hand dug in his pocket. A flash of his badge had the concerned EMT on Richard's left backing off as quickly as he'd walked up. "You're going to shut up right now."

"But then you won't hear my tale of—"

"Shut up." Meguire yanked out his phone with the same hand. "This," he snapped, shoving it in Richard's face. "This is what you were supposed to use. Before you ran roughshod over the crime scene. Not after. Not to ask me to pick up your dry cleaning. Not to scrape you off a barstool. You call me when there's a body and then you wait until I'm there to do something about it."

"But I was on a boat. You hate boats."

"You know what I hate more? You," Meguire said. "On a boat. You mind telling me why you felt the need to commemorate your cruise with two dead bodies? And not just any two dead bodies – two dead bodies from one of the most influential families in the country?"

"If it helps, they just got dead on the boat while I was on it," Richard said. "I don't actually collect them or anything."

"Richard, the crime scene's a mess. Missing murder weapon, a family who won't talk to anyone without a pedigree, a contaminated crime scene, and best of all? Your almighty evidence is a stale piece of bread. Do you do this to me on purpose? You're shivering." Meguire turned to the paramedic. "Why is he shivering?"

"We don't know," the paramedic said. "I thought he might be showing signs of shock earlier, but all his vitals are normal."

"Damn it." Meguire's grip slid around his wrist, steadying Richard's hand. "Easy. Just breathe a second."

"I'm fine." He wasn't cold but he couldn't get his body to sit still. The sun had set nearly an hour earlier, bending the breeze across the water and carrying in the chill. Police cars and ambulances were jammed up close to the docks, their lights bouncing off every surface until the entire harbor seemed to be pulsating. Meguire in contrast seemed to be unaffected by the chill, dressed down in slacks and a pullover, a stocking cap jammed over his head. Despite his attire he was the picture of authority – straight-backed and no-nonsense, with a thunderous expression that had already sent two paramedics scurrying. "It's over now."

Meguire's expression was peculiar. He looked tense and strangely frustrated, as though he were about to go off again, but when he spoke it was only to address the paramedic. "You taking him in?"

"We treated the Hannigan family for shock and we were going to transport him too as a precaution, but he's already RMA'd," the paramedic said.

"No you didn't," Meguire told Richard dangerously.

"I did, though!" Richard said. "That leaves us more time to grab dinner. You brought your wallet, right? As long as we're out this far, I know a great Italian place down the street that serves—"

"Shut up," Meguire said. "I'll make sure he gets home," he told the paramedic. "This is normal for him, god help me. Where's the form? I'll witness."

"Given that his signs are normal, I see no medical reason to retain him," the medic said, handing the RMA paperwork over. Meguire made short work of both the witness and the police signature before handing it back. "He's all set."

"Go find your kids," Meguire told Richard. "My car's outside this mess in Lot D, south of the docks. If you're not there in ten minutes, you can hop a ride on a dolphin and swim home."

Richard was feeling pretty philosophical as he peeled himself out of the thermal blanket. Barring the disorientation from the flashing lights, he actually felt rather good at the moment. A little cold, a little sleepy, but ultimately steadier than he'd been an hour ago. Nausea would be coming pretty soon, but hopefully after dinner and especially after spumoni. After nearly a decade of heavy drinking Richard was an expert on throwing up, and ice-cream was one of the few things in the world that tasted almost as decent on the way back up.

"Detective Moore?"

"Yeah," he yawned. His neck was itching.

The medic was grinning sheepishly, a pen and what looked to be the back of an old receipt in his hand. "This is unprofessional as hell, but I have to ask or my daughter will kill me," the medic said. "Would you mind signing this for her? She's a big fan of your work. She'd never forgive me if I let you go without getting your autograph."

"Your daughter, huh?" Richard brightened immediately, taking it with gusto. "Of course! The famous Richard Moore never overlooks a damsel in need. And what lovely lady should I make it out to?"

"Annie. She'll be so thrilled knowing you even touched the thing, let alone signed it."

"Single?"

The medic's smile didn't waver. "Eleven."

With slightly less enthusiasm, Richard nevertheless finished his signature with a flourish. The harbor was still a swarming mass of cops and reporters by the time he forged his way back onto the docks, leading to the necessity of elbowing a few heads before people figured out how not to be in his way. The intimidating presence of the Hannigan's ship loomed over them, throwing the flickering lights inside its shadow into sharp relief, and Richard found himself wondering what was going to happen to it. No doubt some powerful bribes in some interested ears would pave the way for most of the family, but good lawyers cost and the media would be out for blood. Once the crime scene was fully examined, the ship could very well be up for collateral. Richard had never had family members die on things he owned, so he wasn't quite sure how that sort of thing was supposed to play out emotionally. It was still a nice boat when it wasn't a floating morgue, so maybe the family could capitalize on that fact once the bloodstains were out of the carpet.

An empty stomach and general disassociation made tracking difficult, but Richard did his rounds, trying to suss out signs of his daughter amidst the chaos. By the time he found Rachel seated on one of the western-facing benches overlooking the water, the sun had set to a lazy eye, casting a dying glow over the surface of the waves.

Richard sidled up beside her, scratching his neck and squinting into the glare. Rachel was huddled in the blue windbreaker she'd thrown into her suitcase at the last minute before leaving home. Her arms were folded in close to her body, hair tangling in the roll of the wind. Their collective luggage from the ship sat in a neat pile on the bench next to her, hopefully sans bloodstains. "Inspector's here," Richard said. "I've given my statement. What do you say we blow this joint and pick up some chow before the restaurants close?"

Rachel didn't move. She looked off-color and exhausted under the dock's lamps.

"Hey." He tugged her ear. "C'mon. Let's beat it."

She reached up and pinched his hand away with expert and horrible force, but it was all distracted, her gaze still lingering out over the water. "Susanna and Theodore." Her voice was quiet enough that it was difficult to pick it out from the sounds of the waves. "Do you think they'll ever be happy again?"

"Who?" he yawned.

Rachel tilted her head just enough to give him a terrifying look. "Oh, right, them," Richard said, kicking himself. "I don't know. Why? Someone say something to you?"

She shook her head. "Look, hon, it's cold and this sucks," Richard said. "Can't this wait? Who cares?"

"Theodore joined their family just so he could sabotage them." Rachel didn't seem to hear him. The wind blew strands of hair into her mouth; she hooked her index finger and pulled them out, but her gaze remained distant. "Even if he grew to love her, would it even be the same for her? Knowing he was only interested at first because he wanted to hurt her family?"

The rocking of the boats behind them was doing strange things to him. Existentially bored and physically exhausted, Richard found himself swaying a little in tandem and forced himself to stop. "Look, either way you slice it, it's none of our business. I wouldn't lose any sleep over it."

"She was so happy, Dad." Rachel's voice dropped even further. She looked as exhausted and cold as he was, but a strange insistence pushed her on, kept her talking. "Her whole face just lit up when she saw him, you know? You should have seen her. Even if she forgives him, is everything ruined? Will anything be the same?"

Richard debated for a while, closing one eye and then the other. There were actually no words invented yet in modern language to describe how much he didn't care. The entire family was batshit and he'd had enough of them over the past twenty-four hours to last him a lifetime. Rachel was clearly hung up over it, though, so he figured he might as well give it a shot to help speed things along. "Listen, whether or not it's the same, it's up to them to patch it up. Susanna's got a good heart. Just because things are different doesn't mean they can never be happy again. I'm not saying Theodore didn't mess up, but they both took a vow to stay together, thick and thin, and I'm sure that's what they'll do."

Rachel finally looked at him. The smile on her face held a pale echo of its usual shine, but at least it was genuine. He hoped that meant he'd parented right at least once during the conversation. "Like you and Mom?"

Yeah. Great comparison. "Like me and Mom. C'mon, let's get out of here."

"Okay." She gathered her legs underneath her and stood. On the way up she wobbled, and he quickly moved to steady her. "Sorry," she whispered, propping her forehead against his shoulder.

Without thinking he dropped a kiss on the top of her head. "Today was really bad," she said, muffled in his jacket. "Today was really bad, Dad."

"Yeah. It happens."

"Can we go home?"

He counted to ten and made a heroic sacrifice of his hypothetical dinner. "Sure."

After a minute she pulled away. She pried her own luggage off the bench and propped the wheels on the ground, wiping her eyes with her spare hand and peering around the dock. "I'll find him," Richard said, guessing her intentions. "Go get your stuff packed in Meguire's car. He's parked out past the police cars in lot D."

She pulled the retractable handle out of the case and had the wherewithal to give him a suspicious look. "What, like I'm gonna try to lose him here?" Richard said. "A drunk cat could find its way home from this distance. If I'd really wanted to shake him, I would've just tossed him over the side of the ship."

"Don't joke about that, Dad," she snapped, but he was apparently convincing enough to reassure her. Leaving behind Richard and Conan's luggage, she angled her own south and stormed off, wheels thumping rhythmically over the planks of the dock.

Richard spent a blissful minute fantasizing about losing the kid here or throwing him over the side of the ship. The second one was probably murder, but there was very little to stop him from going through with the first one. He wouldn't have to worry about Conan spending the night out on the streets, because someone far smarter than him would call the police right away when they spotted an adult-less elementary school kid wandering around after dark. The sheer relief of finally unloading Conan would almost make up for Richard's disappointment over losing out on ice-cream that evening.

Except there was no way to hide from Rachel that he actually hadn't, in fact, loaded Conan into the car, and despite all of the unflattering things that defined Richard as a person in general, he could admit he wasn't in a hurry to see Rachel's tears again for a while.

Fed up with philanthropy and grumpy as hell, Richard remorselessly trespassed up the ratlines of someone else's ship to get a bird's eye view. He located Conan on the exact opposite end of the planet, parked on the other side of the Hannigan's ship, well away from the crush of officers and paramedics. His back was to the chaos, his hands jammed deep in his pockets.

Richard caught his foot in the last rung coming down and plunged to the deck, which he actually did sort of have coming. He soothed his damaged pride by lighting up as he worked his way through the crowd, dragging his luggage along behind him with his spare hand until he finally spotted Conan through the sea of legs.

He took a final drag on the cigarette, blew the plume of smoke through his nose, and flicked the butt into the water. "Get a move on, brat," he announced. "We're rolling out."

"Okay," Conan said absently. He didn't turn, bespectacled gaze on the Hannigan's ship. The last shimmer of the sun had almost vanished, plunging the docks into moody hues, but there was just enough light to glint off Conan's glasses, making the expression underneath impossible to read.

Without any reason, not quite knowing why, Richard paused to take him in. Conan was barely up to Richard's knee, but the posture he'd adopted as he studied the ship – angled back, shoulders thrown, hands in his pockets – suddenly looked strikingly familiar. Richard tried to remember if he'd ever seen that kind of poise in Rachel at that age, but everything he remembered from Rachel at seven was her inability to sit still for more than four seconds unless he parked her in front of the TV.

It was almost, Richard thought, and then thought, it's almost as if—

Someone jostled him from behind, apologizing as they passed, and just like that the thought was lost. Richard's skinned elbows stung from their impact with the deck, but he bravely soldiered through the pain in order to drill his fist directly atop Conan's fat head. Conan's shriek of pain bounced off the side of the ship and landed somewhere near Paris. "Listen the first time I tell you things," Richard said. "Hurry up. We don't have all night."

"We have to find Rachel," Conan said, massaging the spot and glaring up at him.

"I already found her." On second thought he dropped Conan's duffel atop his head, eliciting another yelp. "In case you've forgotten, one of us here is an ace detective. Now either hurry up and get in the car or wait for the next murder ship to haul your freeloading carcass home."


.

He slept the entire way back, not stirring until Meguire shook his shoulder. Rachel and Conan were piling out of the backseat on stiff limbs, yawning their complaints into the frigid air and traipsing around back to fetch their luggage from the trunk.

Richard vaguely remembered this feeling from when he'd misread the label on a bottle of 80-proof on his twenty-second birthday and had woken up naked on a golf course. The dashboard lights were swimming and it felt tricky to breathe, like someone had swapped out the oxygen in the air with honey.

Only about half in his head, it took him a long handful of seconds to realize it was Meguire holding him back rather than the seatbelt he'd already unlatched. "You need me to come up?" Meguire asked, quiet and serious, low enough so the kids didn't overhear.

It was indicative of how shitty he felt that he very nearly said yes. He had a feeling he'd make it up the stairs if he were trebuchet'd, but tackling it on foot was going to have middling results. Normally he'd faceplant on the couch in the office when he felt this wasted, but something told him he should probably be emotionally available for Rachel for at least twenty-four hours after exposing her to dead bodies. "I'm all right."

"You sure?' Meguire's gaze was sans bullshit. "Not too late to head to the hospital."

Richard blinked slowly at the dimmed lights of the coffee shop underneath his agency. He wished his neck would stop itching long enough to let him think. "Why don't I come up," Meguire said. "Scrape something up for your kids to eat for dinner. Give you a minute to yourself."

Richard didn't dare move for a long moment, terrified to feel his throat constrict in tandem with his chest. Bitching he could handle. Meguire's unselfish concern for him was far more damaging to his composure. "Thanks," he muttered, and had to swallow. "I'm all right. Just need to sleep."

"All right." But Meguire shook his head, reaching over to ease the heat dial down. Richard hadn't realized until that point that Meguire had cranked it up for him. "I got the day off tomorrow and I'll be in town with Midori. Give me a call if you need us to drop by."

The trek up the stairs to the apartment was just as hellish as Richard had predicted. He circumvented the need for a trebuchet by pretending to need something from his office, sending the kids up the next flight ahead of him. He let himself in and found a wall and promptly fell asleep against it until Rachel came back down to drag both his luggage and his ass up with her.

He'd had concrete plans to put her down and make himself some coffee while he waited for Eva's angry phone call, but Rachel was strangely prescient, steering him away from the kitchen and putting him to bed instead. He didn't have the energy to argue with her. He mashed his face against the corner of his mattress and forced his body to stay topside until he heard her settle Conan in the blankets down on his floor, then let the bottom drop out from under the world.

He slept forever or maybe an hour. When he woke it was to city-lit darkness, gasping from a vibrant dream he couldn't remember. The room swirled around him with bright pinpricks of random lights – his alarm clock, the light from his pager, the LED on the carbon monoxide detector.

He worked himself up against his pillows and felt his stomach lurch with the motion. He leaned over and massaged his face with both hands, breathing unsteadily, feeling the sweat cool unpleasantly on his skin. "Richard?" Conan had sat up on his bedroll on the floor next to him, face obscured in the gloom. "Are you okay?"

"Mind your business, you damn nosy brat," he said, but it came out "mmmrph" and he was stumbling out of bed to throw up in the bathroom.

Oddly enough, he felt himself relaxing as he ralphed. His neck still prickled and burned, his heartbeat rapid and fluttering in weird places on his body – fingertips, throat, stomach – but throwing up typically meant the beginning of the end of whatever it was that assaulted him after his cases. At least now he'd be able to sleep without feeling like something was chasing him.

When the retching tapered off, Richard spat a final time before reaching up and flushing the toilet. He still felt a little woozy, but the nausea was gone. He closed the lid and used it to climb to his feet, transferring his grip to the sink to make sure he stayed upright. Only then did he notice Conan standing in the doorway. "Are you all right?" Conan asked, tense but low. Apparently he'd picked up on the goal not to rouse Rachel.

Richard grunted. He retrieved his rinsing cup from the cupboard above the sink and filled it with water. He knocked some back, swishing it between his teeth, and spat. "Are you sick?" Conan's voice came from his periphery again.

"Nah." Richard debated brushing his teeth. You were supposed to, right? The acid. Whatever. He grabbed his toothbrush. "Happens after every case."

There was no response for a moment. Richard squirted some toothpaste on the brush and side-eyed him. Conan had gone very still, the bathroom lights throwing a sheen over his glasses. "You've been throwing up after every case?" Conan asked.

Richard jammed the toothbrush in his mouth. He was almost too tired to move it around. If it just sat there, kind of foamed up with spit, that still did something, right? "Every case?" Conan pressed. "This whole month?"

He made a vague noise in his throat. "Is it…" Conan stopped, seemed to gather himself. "Is it just after the ones where you do your… your meditation, or is it all of them?"

Richard ran his brush over his teeth perfunctorily, spit, and rinsed the brush. After another gulp of water, he replaced his supplies and shuffled toward the door, yawning. He was vaguely aware of Conan following him and didn't care. Let the kid haunt him. There were certainly enough other things in Richard's life that did. One more drop in the sea didn't bring it up any higher on the shore.

Richard crashed onto his bed with enough force to make the frame squeak, and on second thought pried himself upwards just enough to peel off his shirt and toss it to the side. It landed on the lamp. He fell face-down into his blankets and breathed in deeply, relishing being horizontal. "Richard?" Conan whispered, somewhere off to the side of the bed.

Already mostly asleep, Richard dragged one of the pillows off his pile and flung it at him without looking. Conan's muffled yelp was satisfying. "Go to sleep, brat," Richard mumbled. He turned his cheek over to a dry spot on his remaining pillow and for the second time that night traded one darkness for another.


.

He'd half-expected Rachel to stay home the next day, but by the time he woke up both kids were gone. Considering school started back up soon and their vacation thus far had mostly consisted of sightseeing corpses, Richard figured he'd cut them some slack and handwave whatever trouble they were getting into without him.

He shamelessly enjoyed a leisurely morning of coffee and newspaper and salivating over an aerobics program hosted by three women of varying bustiness, then turned his attention towards the possibility of visiting the racetrack. The responsible thing to do would be to sleep off the vestiges of his headache and maybe meet new clients, but on the other hand he'd solved crime yesterday and variety was the spice of life. No one could blame him for diversifying.

He changed his clothes and spent a hardworking quarter of an hour scraping up whatever spare cash he could find in the apartment. Rachel was pretty good about hiding the grocery money, but Richard was a famous detective and also the reigning champion of doing things the women in his life hated. He found most of the bills paperclipped inside the kitchen vent and the other half of the stash pinned to the underside of the couch. He didn't go quite so far as to steal from their mutual rainy day fund, but he did appropriate a few chocolates from her secret stash behind the microwave as a reward for his restraint. He made short work of them as he took public transportation to the tracks, sucking the last of the evidence off his thumb as he approached the gates.

The tracks ended up being packed, smelling gloriously of all the things Rachel hated to wash out of his clothes. The winter air was unseasonably mild compared to the weeks before, creating the sensation of spring that had the crowd roiling with excitement.

He bet outrageously at the window and spent the next several hours making a jackass of himself, jumping up and down and hollering at the top of his lungs under the thunder of passing hooves. It felt good. It was sunlight and relative warmth and people and risk that didn't involve anything important. He ended up finding two other brothers in arms that had bet on the same horse; they proceeded to spent the remainder of the time shelling out for beer and screaming obscenities at the track, pounding each other's backs, sloshing their drinks, making glorious chaos that nearly got them thrown out. They didn't care. He didn't care.

The horse ended up losing, costing all the rest of last week's paycheck and some of the next, but he was too flushed to care about that either. Once he let it slip that he was the famous Richard Moore, the two men fell over themselves inviting him out to drink afterwards. They holed up in a nearby dive, and Richard proceeded to regale them with mostly-true tales of his crime-solving exploits until the afternoon faded into evening, and real life began encroaching on the edges of his hedonism.

He was saved from having to excuse himself when the two men ended up begging off first, citing wives and obligations. Richard cheerfully waved them off before pushing his hands in his pockets and sauntering down the street in the opposite direction. By the time he'd reached the bus stop, he'd forgotten both of their names.

He didn't get home until the sun was starting to decline, at which point some guilt was beginning to surface past the mild inebriation. He covered it by whistling as he worked the key in the lock, glancing up casually towards the office. The lights were on and the shades were up, which meant Rachel had returned earlier and would have likely been crankier than a coked-up hornet to find the office unmanned during one of their busiest days.

Whatever. He'd just have to deal with the lecture and hope she ran out of steam before his evening programs came on. In the meantime the lock was sticking in the gummy pre-dusk humidity and his buzz was taking a hit, so he gave it a little more of his attention, trying again. The key jammed.

Swearing under his breath, Richard yanked it out again and bent over, squinting into the keyhole to check for obstructions. The hole seemed clear, but it was also getting dark and he didn't carry a penlight, so who the hell really knew.

Give me a break. Rapidly souring, Richard readied another attempt and was halfway considering climbing up the nearest light post and making a jump for the window when a sudden, piercing scream came from upstairs.

Badly startled, he fumbled the key and gouged the face of the lock. A second scream came almost immediately on the heels of the first, this one longer and more blood-curdling.

Rachel. His buzz dissipated under a deluge of fear. Cursing, Richard slammed the key in and jiggled it hard, gritting his teeth, and finally managed to slide the bolt aside. He ripped it out and took the stairs by two, skidding to a halt when he realized the door to the agency was cracked open, allowing light to spill onto the landing.

Rachel screamed again from within. Richard yanked the door open and propelled himself inside. Based on the timbre of her squalling, he'd expected to see a naval battle in an ocean of goddamn blood. He was met instead with the sight of an undisturbed office warmly lit by lamps, bookshelves neater than he'd left them, coasters spaced out evenly on the coffee table. Rachel was on the couch nearest the door, curled into a ball on her side, still in her street clothes.

Then she stirred to scream again, and Richard realized with a jolt, my seventeen year-old is having a nightmare. More specifically, his seventeen year-old was having a nightmare on his office couch that could be heard over in Beijing. He couldn't remember the last time she'd admitted to even having them anymore, let alone the last time she'd actually raised the dead with one.

Then she screamed again, and instincts exactly as old as his daughter jarred Richard from his stupor. He tripped over her bookbag as he ran forward, stumbling and skidding on his knees to shake her shoulder. She cringed away from his touch, weeping into the cushions.

His blood felt like mountain runoff down his spine. "Being a noise disturbance, kid," he muttered. Adrenaline made his hands shake as he gripped both of her shoulders, giving her a solid jostle. "Wake up. C'mon."

Rachel flinched away again with an inarticulate protest. "Shake it off, sweetheart." Richard worked a hand behind her head so she didn't wrench her stupid neck, then gave her shoulder another jostle. "Shake it off. C'mon."

He heard her inhale noisily, letting out a tear-choked gasp. A moment later her eyes flew open to focus on him wildly.

Richard had a half a second to think okay, now what the hell was so, when the world became a series of impacts. Stomach, ribs, solar plexus, and a blow to the side of the head that hurled him into the coffee table and sent it careening onto its side.

He'd barely hit the floor before Rachel was on him, frantically organizing him, trying to turn him over to see his face. "Dad!"

"Ma wah," he said coherently, ass vaguely where his head should be.

"Oh no oh no oh no." Rachel was a frenzy of movement, leaping up and changing her mind, thumping back down to her knees beside him and gathering him up against her. "Dad? Can you hear me? Oh god, don't move, I'm going to call an ambulance. Wait right here."

He swore as his head hit the floor again. He flailed out with a hand and grabbed her wrist as she tried to stand, and Rachel instantly dropped back to her knees to help him sit. "I'm so sorry," she said tearfully, pushing his hair aside, trying to find where she'd hit him. "I was taking a nap and I got startled, I didn't mean to hurt you, I was just—"

"What the hell were you dreaming about?" he got out, irritably batting her hand aside. "The Battle of Waterloo?"

"No, it wasn't – stop it, Dad, just let me look." She parted his hair and sucked in a breath. "I'm getting ice."

"I don't need—" This time Richard managed to catch himself in time to avoid a collision with the floor. A minute later Rachel was dashing back down the stairs with a comically overstuffed baggie of ice. "What's the big idea, anyway?" he asked her as she eased it up against the side of his head. "I thought you were supposed to be watching the office. I don't pay you to take naps, you know."

"You don't pay me at all," she said crossly. Her nostrils flared with irritation when he continued to try to pry her hand away. "Then you hold it, Dad. I'm serious. It needs to be on there for at least a few minutes."

He grumpily lifted his hand and held the ice pack in place for himself. Left without a task, Rachel got to work setting the coffee table back up, neurotically replacing the ashtray and the coasters back in the exact same spots. Her hands were shaking nearly as much as his own. "I was watching the office, but I was really tired, okay?" she said abruptly. "I just fell asleep. It's not like it's a crime."

"I don't know, I think a certain lawyer in the family could probably win at least a few allowances from you in court."

"This isn't funny, Dad."

It kind of was. He wasn't thrilled about being knocked onto his ass, but there was a certain satisfaction in knowing he raised a daughter who could clout a full-grown man's teeth out the other end of him from a dead sleep. "What were you even dreaming about?"

"I don't want to talk about it."

"Was it witches?"

She sighed. "No, it wasn't witches."

Well there went the full list of his ideas. He had no idea what else could scare a girl her age so thoroughly besides maybe 'chores' or 'cleaning your stupid hair out from the drain in the bathtub'. Knowing the gobs she routinely left behind, he'd wager that she'd been dreaming about the hair-goblins that had grown into malevolent colonies down in the pipes.

Well, whatever. Now that he was assured she was safe and there didn't seem to be lasting damage to anything, Richard was fine playing along for now. "We get any clients while I was away?"

"Huh? Oh. Um…" Rachel paused, smoothing both hands over her sleep-tousled hair. When she spoke again she was more composed. "There were some messages on the voice mail – I took those down on the notepad on your desk. I answered two more once I got here and got their numbers, so you should probably call them back soon. Oh, and there was one walk-in, but she said she'd only talk to you one on one. She didn't leave any information with me."

"Huh." Sounded like a night off to him. Written messages had a rich history of getting lost in the delivery. He knew his body well enough to know that he'd escaped any serious injury, so really, the day was still pretty much a win. Provided he could manage to not be sober when he hit his pillow, he could easily finish this day strong.

"Speaking of that, we're really low on groceries." Rachel had gone to retrieve the notepad. She now paused and looked up from it, giving him her full attention. "Do you still have that case money from last week? There are cobwebs growing in the refrigerator. I can go out tonight if you give it to me."

"Uh," he said.

Rachel straightened a bit. She searched his expression for a moment before her own changed from hassled to suspicious. "What do you mean, uh," she said.

"About that."

"About what, Dad?"

"I maybe," Richard said, and pondered his words. All his excuses sounded vaguely punishable by law. "It might have been… relocated."

"Relocated," she said.

"To other venues."

Rachel watched him. "To equine venues," Richard said, hoping he'd raised a sufficiently undereducated child.

He hadn't. "You gambled it away at the tracks?" Rachel hissed.

"I wouldn't go that far—"

"Then how far would you go?"

"Okay, I gambled it," Richard said, and winced when she made a strangled noise of fury. "Look, I can get it back. I just need to be brilliant again sometime in the next… couple days. Really. I do it all the time."

"Dad, this is totally unacceptable!"

"Just use the rainy day fund."

Rachel's eyes looked a little wild. "Do you see any rain?"

Richard wondered if there was some statute on daughter-on-father assault that should be excusing him from this lecture. He was pretty sure he should still have the high ground considering she'd just about knocked his brains out of his ear, but on the other hand he hadn't read any of the parenting manuals Eva had bought when she'd been pregnant. 'Losing momentum' was probably detailed in chapter two. "Look, I've got a few bucks. Let's just order out."

"All that take-out isn't good for Conan."

"You know what is good for him? Food," Richard said. "Versus not-food. Quit getting on my case. I'll make up the money. Just give me a little time."

"I can't do this." Rachel's hands were over her face. "I can't do this with you anymore, Dad."

The bag of ice was beginning to liquefy in his hand. Watching his daughter meltdown in a similar fashion, Richard suddenly didn't have a lot to say. He watched her scrub her eyes, run her hands down over her mouth and hold them there, blinking sightlessly at the ceiling for a while. "I'm going to go try to put together something," she muttered. "I'll get you when it's ready."

Richard watched her go. When he heard the door open and close to their apartment above them, he tossed the bag of ice on the coffee table and hauled himself up to get a beer. He retrieved the notepad of messages but didn't check it, holding it in one hand and opening the tab on the beer with the other.

The door downstairs opened, introducing thumps on the staircase. Out of breath, Conan appeared in the doorway, looking distracted and put-upon. He shrugged off his backpack as he came in the door, then stopped short when he saw Richard. "Who beat you up?" he asked blankly.

"I ran into a door," Richard said, and on second thought fished out two of the remaining ice-cubes from the bag to jam them into the can.