FIRST IMPRESSIONS

This two-part story grew from the Challenge set by 2NYwLove. To avoid any 'spoilers' for the plot, I'll list the prompts at the end of this chapter.

Let's go back to the very beginning, shall we...?

-xx-

Part One

"I don't know if you've ever noticed this, but first impressions are often entirely wrong." (Lemony Snicket, 'The Bad Beginning')

Mabel Augusta Bellamy rode the high speed elevator, humming 'America the Beautiful' as she did every morning. She was on her way to work, and work was a privilege. How many people could say they spent their day in one of the most famous buildings in the world? "You sell tacky souvenirs," her husband chided her, whenever he felt that her swollen ego took up far too much room in their relationship. "Like those guys on the street."

Mabel sniffed. Her sense of pride was impregnable. "Yes - but eighty floors up," she would always reply, folding her arms beneath her ample bosom, as though that fact alone was enough to justify, not only her career, but her whole existence.

The floors slid by. At 60, she had reached the end of the song. From 61 to 77, as always, she indulged in some hefty breathing, puffing (so Walter had once informed her) like a walrus with a head cold. Mabel paid not the slightest bit of attention to her husband's derogatory remark. The exercise raised the colour in her round cheeks, making her feel so healthy and invigorated that she spent the last few floors in a state of serene satisfaction - the perfect way to start the day.

When the door slid open, she stepped out, her shiny black stilettoes pounding on the floor like a military tattoo. Left, right, left, right... Lights on. Left, right, left, right... Cast a loving eye around her domain.

The gift store was a model of perfection; no, an extension of her soul, with its neatly ranged shelves, its pristine stacking, its proud commercialism and, above all, its glorious mock-Deco ceiling. Mabel Augusta looked up and sighed in delight - as she did every morning.

Then she looked down and squealed in dismay, as she saw the nasty, blood-stained corpse that was all set to ruin her well-ordered day.

-xx-

Danny Messer stood beside his Harley in the parking lot, staring at the ominous building in front of him and chewing his bottom lip. Most days, he liked to think that nerves were not his enemy, but today he was making an exception.

Today was - how did it go, now? Today was the first day of the rest of his life.

"Tell me what you were thinkin', Messer, you jerk," he accused himself; and not for the first time, either. "You're a cop, okay, and a good one, not some lab geek solvin' crimes with a test tube..."

There was still time to turn around, of course. O'Donnell had told him so. Had promised to welcome him back with open arms the moment this deal went bad. His faith in Danny wasn't exactly inspiring, come to think of it. "See you tomorrow," he had joked, and Danny had laughed at the time - but he wasn't laughing now.

It was still a source of great amazement that they had offered him the position in the first place. The head guy - Taylor - he had been a quiet one, keeping his opinion to himself at every interview, as the hopefuls around Danny dwindled, blown away by Taylor's stern gaze and the daunting trials that he put them through, until only two remained... and then one. What did he see in me? the young detective wondered, and stared at the building again.

I want to know, he decided, suddenly. Know if I can do it - and why he thinks I can.

Danny squared his shoulders, took a deep breath and walked up to the front door. Assertiveness - that was his best line of defence. Or should that be attack? "Act like you belong," he whispered to himself, as he stepped inside the converted warehouse that was the grim and slightly eccentric home of the New York Crime Lab.

-xx-

"I think you made a mistake, Mac," Stella Bonasera informed her colleague. Pressing her palms on his desk, she leaned forwards. Even if she hadn't been speaking, her body language would have informed him of her confidence, and her absolute belief in her current opinion. He admired her passion and, although he would never admit it, he also enjoyed their fights.

"I disagree. Get to know him, Stella; then you'll see what I saw. There's potential, I'm sure of it. He may act like a clown but we all have our defences. Look beyond the jokes - that's all I'm asking."

"You think I won't be fair to him?" She pulled back and stood up straight. Her tone was indignant.

"I know you will," he reassured her. "That's why I'm sending him out with you this morning."

Stella opened her mouth to speak again, but Mac held up a hand in caution as his well-trained eye had already caught sight of the man in question striding across the main floor towards his glass-panelled office, with all the focus of a gunslinger heading for a duel. "Play nice," he warned his colleague quietly.

"I'm always nice," she smirked. The flash of her green eyes dared him to refute the claim.

Reaching Mac's office at last, Messer jogged up the steps and knocked on the glass door. His expression was wary and he rocked on his feet - a nervous habit, Mac guessed, having noted it several times during the interview process. Still, he had to admire the man's cheerful grin, and the tilt of his jaw. A brave mask, worn to conceal his first-day jitters.

"Come in," Mac nodded. Stella stood off to one side, boldly studying Messer's every move, like some Ancient Greek goddess examining her latest hero. Mac began to feel a little guilty about his new colleague's first assignment - but the decision had already been made, and it was a logical one. In order to work well, a team had to work together. The Crime Lab was no place for dancing around people's feelings.

"Detective Messer, reportin' for duty," the young man said.

Mac kept things simple. Time enough for small talk later. There was a murder to solve and crime never waited on pleasantries. "This is Detective Stella Bonasera. You'll be shadowing her today."

"Okay." Messer nodded, his pale eyes sharp behind his glasses, taking in everything around him as he turned to give Stella a friendly nod. The smile that she offered in response was wary. "So," he asked her, "what's up first? A tour of the lab? Introductions? Find my locker, dump my gear...?"

The question had been aimed at Stella, but it was Mac who answered, relishing the quiet humour inherent in his reply.

"350 Fifth Avenue. Empire State Building. Eightieth floor."

Silence.

"That's a joke, right?"

"Not in the slightest." Somehow, he kept his face straight.

"Oh. Okay," Messer said hoarsely. "I get it. Start small..."

-xx-

Mabel Augusta was having a breakdown. A very loud, very public breakdown, right in the middle of Empire: The Store, between the crystal glassware and the 3D jigsaws. Two female officers tried to console her, exchanging nervous glances as her wails dissolved into hiccupping sobs. Her plump shoulders heaved up and down with every spasm. It was quite a scene. From beneath her sodden lashes, she could just make out Mr. Patreides, watching her. Her handsome boss was a kind soul, and her hopes were high for some tea and sympathy later. Or (if she was lucky) a stiff pick-me-up in his office - for purely medicinal reasons, of course.

The parquet floor was hard. Even with her generous padding, Mabel was starting to feel uncomfortable. Maybe it was time to rein in the tears and show a little dignity. Raising her blue eyes heavenwards, she drew strength from the bright ceiling that she loved. "Help me up," she demanded, and the officers obeyed. As her head rose above the shelves, like a breaching whale, she saw two more figures enter the already crowded store. A keen-eyed woman with expressive hair and, behind her, like a puppy at her heels, a scruffy young man with an air of excitement that was quite out of place.

Tourists, no doubt.

She frowned in confusion. Didn't they know that someone had just been murdered? Here, in her store?

Dabbing gingerly at her mascara, she was just about to launch across the room when she saw that the two intruders had already been accosted by another young man - the detective on the case. Now there was a good-looking fellow. A little rough around the edges, maybe, but those eyes - well, they certainly made up for his lack of refinement.

Mabel Augusta watched eagerly, waiting for the fireworks, her tantrum forgotten...

-xx-

There was something oddly familiar about the lanky, dark-haired cop who strode towards them. No time to follow the thought to its end, though. Stella had already forged ahead to greet him, and Danny leapt to keep up.

"Bonasera, right?" The man had a lazy, likeable grin. "Fallon murder, two months ago, yeah - can't forget that one. Quickest turnaround I ever had. The guys at the one-two were spittin' with envy. Who's your friend?"

"Danny Messer," Stella said, "meet Detective Flack.

We've met.

Ash and debris rained in his head, and suddenly Danny was elsewhere - running, focussed. Two red flashes and the world had turned to grey. He was trying to get there... to help somehow, but the beat cop that stepped right out of the dust cloud - he wouldn't let him. Grabbed hold of him; told him the truth. They're all gone...

The memory shocked him and, for a moment, he couldn't speak. He wondered if the other man remembered. Probably not, he decided. That day still left Danny hollow. It was wrong to forget, but if he could - oh God, then he would in a heartbeat.

"Cat got your tongue?" Flack said jovially, interrupting his train of thought.

"Hey - no. How you doin'?" Danny held out his hand and then faltered. Was that even proper crime scene procedure for a CSI? Stella was watching him with a curious smile, but it was too late to pull back and his hand still hovered in mid-air. Sensing his confusion, Flack reached out in turn and shook it.

"First day on the job, right, Messer?" he muttered in an aside, before moving on with the briefing so swiftly that Danny was left to wonder if he had only imagined the comment. Maybe the altitude was making him crazy. That, or his nerves.

Get a grip, he told himself. This Stella Bonasera was no fool, and she seemed pretty tight with Mac. If he didn't make a good impression, Danny guessed that he could be out on his ear before the ink on his contract was dry.

He tuned back in to Flack's rundown of the situation. "Body's over there," the detective said, waving in the general direction of a stand full of tiny ESB snowglobes, pencils, pads and other kiddie items - bright lures to wheedle pocket money out of sticky little fists. "We're guessing it was some kinda robbery gone bad. Details are a little fuzzy, though."

A thief with a souvenir fetish? Danny wondered, wisely keeping the smart remark to himself. So far, Stella's sense of humour was a big unknown. Though Flack, now - he looked like a man who could stand a good joke. Or a bad one, come to that.

Stella looked around her in surprise. "How exactly do you break in to the eightieth floor of the Empire State Building?"

"And why?" Danny added. "I mean - you know, why not the bank in the lobby or somethin', if you're gonna break in anywhere at all? This has gotta be a first. What kind of dumbass robs a gift shop?"

"Maybe she's got a baseball cap collection and she just needed that one special item - you know?" Flack shrugged and Stella gave a quiet laugh.

Noted, Danny thought. Sense of humour - check. Then he frowned. "I'm sorry - she?"

"Oh, yeah," Flack told them both. "One more thing. Our dead thief is a woman."

-xx-

"No ID," said the man from OCME. He knelt beside the body, glancing up at Stella with a serious face. Clearly, he knew her well.

"No kidding," Danny muttered. Three pairs of eyes swivelled towards him, and he hastened to explain himself. Nice goin', Messer, you idiot. "Well, look at her. That's gotta be a disguise, right? I mean, she's dressed like some kinda gothic cat burglar. Black all-in-one, lace-up boots, purple streak in her hair... I'm surprised she doesn't have a mask with little pointy ears. What is this, Hallowe'en?"

"Not for another three weeks," Flack said solemnly. OCME-guy didn't even crack a smile.

"The skin-tight suit is made from a fairly unusual fabric," he informed them in an educational tone. "And the boots have excellent grip underneath - look."

"Well, I'm guessin' she didn't get all this from her local costume store," Danny persisted.

Stella nodded slowly. "Custom made..."

"My thought exactly." They stared at each other in silence for a moment, re-assessing. "So," he continued at last. "Where d'you want me?"

"Fingerprints," she told him. "Start with reference samples."

Flack ticked them off on his fingers. "Building manager - that's him, standin' by the counter lookin' like the milk was sour in his coffee this mornin'. Name of Patreides. Night shift security guard for this level - he's waitin' in the manager's office. And see that tear-stained treat over there? She opened up the store and found the body. Good luck with her," he added emphatically, under his breath.

-xx-

Mabel Augusta watched as the young man sidled towards her. The lack of conflict between those two interlopers and that nice young detective had been a source of great disappointment, but here came a new chance for drama, with her as the star. She studied his pale blue eyes and his energetic frame with growing interest, and composed her features into a suitably woeful expression. Sympathy. Mabel would take it wherever she could get it.

"Danny Messer," he told her, reaching her side. "Detec... um, CSI." The letters stumbled on his tongue, as though they were new to him. Mabel didn't miss a trick.

"Oh, honey," she told him. "I'm so glad you're here. Such a truly horrible day - I'm quite overwhelmed." One hand fluttered at her forehead. "But, you know, anything I can do to help..."

Still got it, Mabel, she thought smugly, as he flushed and cleared his throat.

"Um, ma'am - I just need your name and your fingerprints."

"Then you shall have them." She told him her name and then held out her hand to him, like a debutante claiming her escort.

He was smitten, she could tell. As he worked, he kept up the conversation. He seemed nervous but determined. Poor little puppy, she thought.

"Did you lock up last night?" he asked.

"You mean this morning? Store closes at 2am. Honey, by then I was tucked up in my bed, all cosy and warm. Lorelei Francis - she's a slip of a girl, no meat on her bones but sensible, if you know what I mean - she locks up, just as I taught her." Mabel winked. "I'm strict, but fair - always fair. Anyway, she won't be back in today, or tomorrow. She's off to visit her parents for the weekend. Rhode Island. Classy folks. You don't think..." She paused for effect, and her eyes grew wide. "No, I'm sure she couldn't have had anything to do with it. She's just not the type, poor dear. Far too..."

"Sensible?" the blue-eyed fellow offered, dropping her left hand and reaching for its partner. Mabel offered it daintily and nodded.

"Precisely."

"Anyone actin' suspicious yesterday when you were here? You know, like they were casin' the joint?"

"Isn't that rather an archaic term to use?" She smiled at him prettily, dazzling him with her stylish vocabulary.

"It's the one I'm usin'," he told her, flummoxed. "Think you could answer the question, ma'am?"

Mabel bristled. "No need to be short with me."

"Sorry..." He let go of her right hand. Was that relief on his face?

"I was doing my job," she said, in a cold voice, stepping backwards. "I'm employed to sell high class merchandise to my customers, not to suspect them of harbouring larceny in their souls. That's why we have security cameras."

"Right," he said hastily. "Thanks. Um - we're done now, I think."

"Good," Mabel said, and turned her back on him completely. What a waste of effort.

Now, where was that handsome detective?

-xx-

"She's a modern day gorgon," the manager said with feeling, risking a sideways glance at Mabel Augusta. Did he think that she could hear him? "Two more minutes in her company and you'd have been turned to stone. I try to keep my distance."

Danny held his tongue. It wasn't his place to comment - but all the same he listened, full of interest, as he prepared to take Patreides' fingerprints.

"Dreadful business, this," the man continued. "What do you make of it?"

"Oh, you know - too early to tell," was Danny's cagey reply. "Were you here last night - I mean, early this morning? When the building closed to the public?"

"I'm always here these days," Patreides sighed. "Got a pull-out bed in my office. This place is a millstone round my neck. So many problems - you've no idea, detective."

"I'm sure." Right hand - tanned, with a heavy signet ring and manicured nails. Oh yes, life was a terrible burden for Theo Patreides.

"Income, expenditure; the bottom line. Vandalism. Sexual harrassment charges..." He stared at Mabel again. "Security, publicity. If it's not one thing, it's another."

"Anyone break in before? I mean, in the last few months?" Left hand - just as plump, with a solid band of gold around the pinky.

"We've prevented several attempts this year. Two were caught in the lobby; one in a suite of offices down on the fortieth floor - corporate espionage, apparently - and one tried to make it all the way up to the observation deck, so he could... well, you know. Sad business, that. Anyway, they all failed, thank goodness." Patreides narrowed his dark eyes. "So then, you do think this was a robbery?"

Danny shrugged. "We're exploring all possibilities." That sounded non-committal, right?

Stella came up behind him as he was finishing. In fluent Greek, she spoke to the manager - thanking him for his co-operation, Danny guessed. The language was elegant; beautiful, even.

They walked away together. Lost in thought, Danny fell silent. "You have a theory" Stella said. It wasn't a question.

"Yeah, I got one. It's a little crazy, though, and probably wrong, so I'm not quite ready to share it," he admitted. "Besides, we CSIs are all about evidence, right? Not hunches."

"So Mac tells us, every day. Doesn't mean you can't go with your gut sometimes." Stella smiled at him. "Okay, Danny. Just remember we're a team. And you know, when you're ready - no matter how crazy it is, I promise not to laugh. At the crime lab, we like people who can think outside the box."

"Oh, that's me, alright," he grinned over his shoulder, as he set off in search of the manager's office.

-xx-

Jack McPharlane, the security guard, was a burly man of few words and even fewer facial expressions. He sat in a miserable heap on Patreides' couch (which had been folded up in haste, leaving a sheet corner still hanging out at the side). "Look," McPharlane said when the CSI entered, "I don' know nuffin, okay?"

"Okay." Danny smiled at him pleasantly. "Then this should be short and painless."

Like wet concrete rolling through a trough, misery slid into suspicion. The two were very similar, but Danny could just make out a fresh glint in McPharlane's eye.

"Painless? Wha' choo mean?"

"No one ever got hurt givin' fingerprints." Oh, this guy was unreal. Danny struggled to keep his own face straight as he pulled out the final tencard in his set of three.

"Wha' choo be wantin' my prints for?"

"To prove that you're innocent. We call them reference prints."

"Okay." The concrete slid back again. "I seen that on TV. Just so long as you ain't espectin' me."

"To do what?" Danny's brain was beginning to hurt. "Oh - you mean suspecting you. No. Why - should we?"

Now it was McPharlane's turn to look pained, as he struggled with the question.

"I dun nuffin' wrong."

"Okay - nuffin' wrong... But you did - what, somethin'?" Suddenly, Danny was very aware that McPharlane had a holster at his waist, peeking out from beneath his jacket. When the CSI looked even more closely, however, he saw that it was empty - a fact that filled him with a mixture of relief and doubt. "Where's your gun?"

"I don' know," the guard said stubbornly.

"You don't know."

"Well, I frew it away, didn't I?"

This man was seriously challenged in the common sense department, Danny decided. Whoever employed him and gave him a gun in the first place also needed their head examining.

"An' why did you do that?" he continued, as evenly as he could.

To his horror, the concrete slid downwards this time, dragging McPharlane's features into utter wretchedness. Everything drooped - his eyes, his chin, his bottom lip...

"'Cause I did it," he moaned. "I shot 'er. That girlie. The catwoman."

And he dissolved into floods of tears.

-xx-

End of Part One

-xx-

A/N: So, here are the four prompts that came with 2NYwLove's challenge:

The crime scene had to be the Empire State Building. Mac's Office also had to feature. Danny Messer had to be the star of the story and there had to be an element of assertiveness.

As I've never been to the Empire State Building, I owe a debt of gratitude to Google, the crime writer's best friend, and I hope that I didn't make any glaringly awful mistakes. If you've been there, and I did, could you please overlook them and hopefully just enjoy the story? Thank you!

The 9/11 moment with Flack that Danny remembers comes from Indelible. In case there was any doubt.

Hope you enjoyed Part One. This was going to be a one-shot, but it grew and grew, so I decided to split it. Part Two should be up in a couple of days. Thanks for reading!