FIRST IMPRESSIONS

Part Two

"But the truth is, it's not the idea, it's never the idea, it's always what you do with it." (Neil Gaiman)

Mabel Augusta Bellamy stood outside Empire: The Store and watched the body bag roll away, with a mild sense of regret that the drama was over and a silent observation that life, for some, was ill-lived and fleeting. Respectfully, she moulded her round face into a mask of compassion. That dark-haired detective was still around here somewhere, after all. Then she saw the uniformed officer with his roll of black and yellow tape.

"Excuse me," she said in a loud voice. "Where precisely are you going to stick that?"

The question hung in the air between them, making everyone lift their heads and pause. Mabel began to regret her choice of words. The officer opened his mouth to reply, with a look in his eye that suggested he had a highly unsuitable comment in mind. Luckily for Mabel, he never got the chance to speak, as Detective Flack interposed himself neatly between them.

"The store's a crime scene, I'm afraid," he said. "Closed until further notice. But hey, that's a day off for you, right? Look on the bright side."

"Of murder?" she demanded, trying to rattle him and thereby recover the moral high ground. "I don't believe there is one."

The detective frowned. Even with that pout on his face, she thought, he was a handsome young man - though he could certainly do with a haircut. Mabel had never been a fan of that long-haired, casual look; or those black leather jackets that seemed to say, 'Hey, I'm at work - but I'm cool, okay?' Ridiculous.

"I'm a cop," he said at last, "and the son of a cop. I spend my whole life studyin' the dark side of this city. So trust me when I say you always gotta find the bright side too. It's a question of sanity."

Which made her heart melt, of course. Clasping her hands together in a gesture of repentance, Mabel Augusta did the unthinkable. She apologised.

"I'm so sorry. How little I know of the real world and its brave knights, up here in my tower," she simpered.

Detective Flack appeared to be stunned into silence by her noble words as Mabel continued relentlessly.

"Well then - I seem to be available for the rest of the day. If there's anything else I can do for you... any details I remember... Why don't you leave me your card?"

Maybe it was her imagination but she could have sworn that, for a split second, there was a look of panic in his eyes. When he replied, however, his voice was steady and his smile was polite.

"I'm sorry, Mrs Bellamy - I don't have any on me right now. If you need to contact me, you'll have to call the precinct."

"Very well, Detective," she said coyly. "I might just do that..."

-xx-

"So, Jack the Night Guard shot a robber." Stella folded her arms and studied Danny Messer carefully.

"That's what he says." Danny shrugged, and tried not to think too hard about the quivering wreck that he had just left in the less-than-tender care of two officers from the twelfth.

"End of story?"

"No," he said boldly. "Not by a long shot." This was a test, right? Okay then - just let her see if she could catch him out...

Stella nodded. "Go on."

"Fact One. It was dark - but the guard had a torch. Was the girl armed?"

By way of a reply, Stella held up a see-through evidence bag. Inside was a plastic model of the very building that they were standing in. A gun-sized model...

"You're kiddin' me..."

"No," Stella told him, "I'm not. I found this inches away from the body. And, as you said, it was dark."

"Oh, I get that maybe the guard mistook it for a gun. I found his piece, by the way, in the nearest men's room. Dropped in the cistern - can you say 'original'?" Danny chuckled, warming to his subject. "No, I'm just wonderin' why she picked up the model in the first place. And why she broke into a buildin' like this with no means of defendin' herself - leadin' us neatly into Fact Two. Somethin' hinky's goin' on here."

"That's not a fact." Stella shook her head, making her curls dance. It was strangely hypnotic. Blinking, Danny persisted.

"Tell my gut," he said pointedly, taking her back to their earlier conversation. 'Cause it's screamin' 'inside job'. That's my theory, okay?"

She winced. "What - the lovely Mabel?"

"Or her boss. Or anyone else that works here. It's a big buildin', Detective Bonasera." His pale eyes gleamed behind his glasses.

"Call me Stella, okay? And yes; thank you, Danny - I'd already noticed that." Her tone was brisk, but friendly.

"Got you thinkin', right?" he grinned.

"I'm always thinking," she retorted, cutting off any reply with a wave of her hand, as the building manager sidled up to them.

"Case over, then," he commented, with visible relief. "Business as usual?" Just like Mabel Augusta, he eyed the yellow tape that had now been stretched across the entrance to Empire: The Store. His greedy expression was irksome and highly inappropriate.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Patreides. Not just yet. Not until we've answered every question," Stella explained. The manager stiffened.

"Pardon me for misunderstanding, Detective Bonasera. I certainly didn't mean to imply that the financial well-being of New York's most famous landmark was more important than proving what we already know - that McPharlane did his job."

Of course you did, Danny thought. If this was a cartoon, the manager's eyes would have turned into dollar signs by now. 'Famous store becomes crime scene overnight.' Talk about publicity value...

But was that a motive? Much as he wanted to suspect Patreides, it didn't seem likely.

Danny narrowed his own eyes and tried to psych the man out with a hard stare. To his great disappointment, Patreides didn't even look his way but kept his gaze focussed entirely on Stella, who was completely unfazed by his clumsy attempt at sarcasm.

"The Statue of Liberty," she offered smoothly. In this battle of false politeness, there could only be one champion.

"Excuse me?"

"Surely the Statue of Liberty is New York's most famous landmark."

"Or Central Park," Danny added helpfully. I think I like this woman...

Stella nodded, clearly relishing the greedy manager's discomfort. "Exactly. Now then, Mr. Patreides. We still have a lot of work to do - if you don't mind...?"

And she ducked beneath the tape, heading back inside the store. With a grin, Danny followed, leaving the manager standing in the corridor alone, his mouth flapping open and shut like a guppy.

-xx-

It was mid-afternoon before they returned to the crime lab. The young man bounded through the door ahead of her and then, remembering his manners, reached back suddenly to hold it open and let her pass. The gentlemanly act was unexpected, and she smiled. "Thank you, Danny. Good to know that chivalry isn't dead."

"Nope - but Catwoman is," he quipped. "I mean... sorry, that was disrespectful, right? I should call her 'the vic'."

"You should call her 'the victim'," Stella said primly. She counted a couple of beats, enjoying the look of dismay on his face. Then she gave a merry laugh. "So - you want to take Catwoman's catsuit? The M.E. should have removed it by now. I'll make a start on the evidence from the store as soon as it's been logged in."

Danny stopped in his tracks and stared at her. That's right, she thought. If you're going to make assumptions, don't be surprised when people challenge them.

"M.E.?" she prompted. "That way. Just follow the signs."

"Okay. Thanks," he breathed, and scooted off in the general direction indicated by her nod.

"Well?" said a calm voice behind her. Instead of turning, Stella raised her eyebrows.

"Next time you sneak up on someone, Mac," she said, "you should do it to the new guy."

"Noted. How did it go on the eightieth floor?"

"He's good," Stella had to admit. "Far more disciplined than I expected."

If you're going to make assumptions...

She blushed, and turned to face her colleague. To his credit, Mac didn't push any further, content to seek the rest of his answer in her expression. "You sent him to Autopsy," he said, as they both watched the flustered young detective pause, change direction and disappear round a corner.

"I did."

They shared a look of amusement.

"Well," Mac commented, "nothing like throwing him in at the deep end."

"Says the man who sent him to the Empire State Building for his very first crime scene." Stella tried - and failed - to deflect her guilt since Mac was unmoved by her accusation. A wicked little smile hovered on his lips as she continued. "The question is, will he sink or swim?"

-xx-

Unlike the bull-pen, which was vast and full of light, the M.E.'s domain was tucked away at the far end of a series of ugly, functional corridors. Pipes ran overhead, bearing goodness-knows-what to goodness-knows-where. Danny followed them hopefully, passing strange, old-fashioned rooms that looked more like sets from a '60s spy movie. These were science labs, of all things; worn-out spaces gifted with a new lease of life, their cracks concealed by shadows and technology. If this warehouse was an old dog, it had certainly learned some new tricks, as the signs attested. 'DNA', 'Toxicology'... Danny peered through each window in turn, trying hard not to stare but eager to discover what kind of looking-glass world he had really entered. What he saw were people hard at work - a blond-haired woman bending over a microscope; a sandy-haired man sitting calmly behind his desk, making notes.. Okay, so maybe the building was old and weird, but the people inside - well, they were his kind of people, Danny began to realise. It was in their body language, clear as day. Dedication. The only way to approach this job.

Maybe that was what Mac Taylor saw in him...

The very last corridor brought him to the morgue itself. Plaster walls gave way to ivory tiles, outlined in black. "Cosy," Danny muttered, pushing through the door. "Real cosy." Cold air wrapped itself around him, chilling his bones, as if to emphasise the irony of his statement.

"Thank you," said a friendly voice. "I try."

Now he really had stepped back in time. The room was practically Gothic, with its pillars and its claustrophobic arches. A vault of the macabre, off-set by the cold, hard gleam of metal - tables, instruments, lockers... He chose not to think about what was in those.

"First time in Autopsy?" the voice continued.

To his chagrin, Danny was forced to nod. He stepped a little further into the room, weighing up the man who stood before him.

"You were at the scene," he observed.

"That's me. Sheldon Hawkes." The M.E. grinned. "And you must be the new guy. I'd offer to shake your hand, but..." The shrug was unnecessary. Right now, Hawkes was up to his elbows in some poor young woman's chest. Disconcerting, and oddly compelling. Danny stepped forwards again.

"Hey, no problem. My name's Messer, by the way. Danny Messer. That our vic?"

Hawkes nodded. He was a neat man. Every movement was well-defined; a characteristic that made his compact frame seem larger. His face was solemn but there was a spark in his eye that appealed to Danny. Not humour, but rather a dry appreciation of the absurd.

Probably just as well, he thought, given Hawkes' occupation.

It wasn't until the M.E. spoke again that Danny realised his mouth was hanging open. He shut it with a snap. Stop catchin' flies, Messer. You look like a rookie. Get on with the job.

"Here for the clothes?" Hawkes prompted, pointing with his elbow.

"Oh - yeah, thanks."

"You'll find fingerprints there too, and DNA. That last one goes to Jane, down the hall."

"Blond lady?" Danny said, juggling with the pile of evidence. "Yeah, I saw her."

Heading back towards the door, he paused in grim fascination as Hawkes reached for a giant pair of cutters and started to crack his way through the victim's ribs.

"Hunting for the bullet. Tell Stella to swing by in an hour for my initial report," the M.E. said, glancing up from his task with a tiny, knowing grin at Danny's expense.

"Oh. Um, sure."

"Good to meet you," Sheldon hinted. A diplomatic way to stress that the visit was over.

"You too." Danny hooked the door-handle with his little finger and used his foot as a wedge until he had passed through safely with his burden. The soft 'thud' of the door swinging shut behind him, cutting off the chill of the morgue, was a huge relief.

-xx-

"Multitasking?"

Stella appeared at his shoulder, making Danny jump. Was that how it went here? People sneaking up behind you to check on your work when you least expected it? Or was he just so focussed that he hadn't heard her footsteps? Sneaking a look at her feet, which were clad in smart black high-heeled shoes, he had to admit that it was probably the latter.

"Oh, you know," he said, turning to grin at her. "First day. Gotta make a good impression..."

"It's quality we strive for here," she informed him. "Not quantity."

"But speed helps, right?" He gestured to the nearby computer screen. "Fingerprints are running so I thought, you know, while I wait, I'd get on with processing the catsuit and the boots."

"Okay." To his great relief, Stella nodded, apparently satisfied with his halting explanation. Folding her arms, she went on. "I just heard from Flack. He seems to think there's something missing from your friend Jack's story."

"Not my friend," Danny said with feeling. "What kinda somethin'?"

"He's not sure. Says the guy gets shifty when it comes to the part about hiding the gun. Nothing specific, but he can't help feeling that the whole thing is..."

"Hinky?" Danny suggested slyly.

Pretending to ignore the word, Stella leaned forwards and studied the suit. "So - what have you got for me?"

Down to business. I can do that, Danny thought. "Neoprene," he said. "I kid you not. Also known as polychloroprene. This chick was strollin' around in the middle of the night wearing nothin' more than a wetsuit."

"They make clothes from it too, Danny. Neoprene's no stranger to the catwalk."

"Yeah, well, I wouldn't know about that." He shook his head. "When I look at supermodels, it ain't the clothes I'm focussin' on, if you know what I mean?" Stella's gaze was withering and his voice tailed off. Okay - wrong person for that particular conversation. Clearing his throat, he tried again. "It's thin, but it's flexible and highly resistant to all kinds of dangerous stuff - not countin' bullets, of course, but still - a regular super-suit. Which reminds me; I also found this..."

Enjoying the tiny moment of suspense, he picked up a hand-held UV light and ran it over the costume, revealing a single glowing letter just above the chest. "M," Stella said. "Like James Bond?"

"Or Marvel," Danny smirked. "Beats me. This case just keeps gettin' weirder and weirder."

"No other hidden marks?" she asked, as the nearby computer let out a cheerful beep.

"Not one." Together, they crossed the room and studied the timely fingerprint match.

"Madeleine Harrington-Lane," Stella read out loud.

"M." The comment was unnecessary, but he couldn't help himself. "Coincidence? Maybe we just found our superhero's alter-ego."

His colleague regarded him levelly. "Danny. You do know there's no such thing as super-heroes, right?"

"Are you bustin' my bubble, here, Stella?" Matching the twinkle in her eye with one of his own, he continued. "I do think I'd like to know more about this 'Madeleine', though. Wouldn't you?"

Stella reached out and rattled her fingers on the keyboard for a moment. Images flashed across the scene, overlaid, all at once, by a small rectangular box containing two little words. 'Records sealed.'

"Oh, now, that's just not fair," Danny sighed.

"And very suspicious." Frowning, Stella stared at the screen for a moment and then straightened up, her whole frame tight with determination. "Finish up with the catsuit, okay, Danny? This one's on me. I've got an idea..."

-xx-

"I know I'm an ex-Marine, Stella," Mac said, standing beside her on the high metal walkway and gazing out over the bull-pen. "But that doesn't give me an all-access pass to our nation's secrets."

"I thought there was no such thing as an ex-Marine," she countered swiftly. "Besides, you're also the head of the New York Crime Lab. This woman is dead and we need to know why. Her past may have something to do with it."

Mac kept his voice calm. "I know that. And I'll see what I can do. But I can't promise miracles."

"So you say." She paused, watching Danny's foreshortened figure as it passed below them. "He thinks it's an inside job."

"Is he right?"

"It's a strong possibility." Once again, she paused and then made an admission. "My gut's telling me the same thing, Mac."

"But the gift shop?"

"I know. That's the strangest part. Why risk so much to break into a place that sells trinkets and T-shirts?" Stella shook her head.

"Keep searching," Mac said. "I'll do the same. If I find anything, I'll let you know."

Thanking him, she turned and headed back down to pore over the evidence from Empire: The Store. As she worked, one greedy face stayed uppermost in her mind. She was right; she knew it. But how to make it all fit together...?

-xx-

Theo Patreides sat at the table alone. His dark eyes shifted round the room, but there was nothing much for them to settle on. Just four grimy walls, a door, a mirror - two-way, of course - and a chair, directly opposite. Nothing to take his mind off his nerves, which were probably screaming inside him by now. The room was designed that way, and the psychology behind the setting worked wonders when it came to loosening reluctant tongues. Theo managed to keep his face straight, but a single line of sweat ran down from his temple, tracking the line of his jaw and coming to rest on his highly starched collar, before spreading out through the fibres of his shirt.

Flack watched him through the window, studying him carefully. "Guy thinks he can hold it together," the detective remarked to Danny and Stella. "But there's a guilty conscience in there. Guilty of somethin', anyway. You sure about this?"

"Oh yes," Stella nodded. "We're sure." She shared a smile with Danny. Flack was pleased to see it. Look at that, he thought. The two of them, actin' like a team already. Mac sure knew how to pick 'em.

"Join me?" he offered. Stella shook her head.

"Let Danny. It's his first case, after all." She turned to her colleague and handed him the file that she was holding in her hands. "You've done this before, right?"

"Oh, yeah," the young man grinned, his eyes flashing with glee at the unexpected opportunity. Flack felt himself being lifted by Messer's enthusiasm and he rubbed his hands.

"Okay, then. Here we go."

-xx-

And just like that, they were inside. Danny hadn't been lying - he had done this before; but never as a CSI, with his hands full of evidence gathered together by him and his brand new team. Seeing the whole thing through from beginning to end... it was exhilerating.

Careful now, he told himself. Stay cool. No place for hot-heads here. This was a good day's work, and the pay off was just around the corner.

All that lay between them and the truth was Theo Patreides. Danny almost felt sorry for him. Almost - but not quite.

"Madeleine Harrington-Lane," Flack began, sitting down as Danny laid a picture of the dead intruder out on the table in front of their suspect.

Patreides nodded.

"I saw her this morning. Why am I here?"

"Patience, Mr Patreides," Danny advised in a genial tone that did not match the sharp look in his eyes. He set down another piece of paper - Madeleine's background, released from its virtual vault by some neat manoeuvring and calling-in-of-favours on Mac Taylor's behalf. Once more, Danny adjusted his opinion of his new boss. The man was unstoppable.

"Turns out our girl has quite the active past. From Girl Scout to Navy SEAL in ten years - and then she gets kicked out for..." Flack peered down at the sheet. "'Questionable moral conduct'. That's a fancy way of sayin' 'light fingered', in case you were wonderin'."

"I wasn't," Theo Patreides muttered sullenly, twisting his signet ring and pouting. "I'll ask again, gentlemen - what am I doing here? I don't know this woman. I'm not an ex-Navy SEAL, for heaven's sake, or a thief. And I certainly wasn't a Girl Scout. What makes you think that our paths ever crossed before today?"

"Just this." Danny laid down a tiny piece of evidence. "We found it in your desk drawer."

"You searched my office?" Patreides' voice rose into an horrified shriek as he stared at the business card in front of him.

"Well - not me personally. But my colleague did. Your secretary, Glenys; she was keen to oblige when she saw the warrant in Detective Bonasera's hand."

Flack reached out and picked up the card. With a nonchalant air, he read it aloud.

"'MaHaLa Enterprises'. That's a bland kinda business statement, don't you think? Covers a multitude of sins. So we kept on diggin'. You know, 'cause that's what we do." His smile was lethal. "Turns out you hired this woman yourself, to break into your building. The Empire State Building. Even set it down in your list of expenses. Madeleine Harrington-Lane. That's quite some fee she commanded."

"Okay. Okay, that's true." Patreides' face was bright red and the sweat was pouring from his forehead by now. He clenched his fingers tightly; a physical manifestation of his internal state. "But I didn't hire her to steal anything. That's not what she does; not now. She's more of a... well..." He faltered. "A consultant."

"All those break-ins." Danny leaned towards him. "They were eatin' away at you. Bad publicity, threats to your precious profit margins. So, when you heard of this woman - how did that happen, by the way?"

"Friend of a friend," Patreides whispered sullenly, resigned to his fate.

"When you heard of Madeleine Harrington-Lane and her unique 'enterprises', you hatched a crazy plan and hired her to break into the Empire State Building. On purpose. Legit or not, no thief worth her salt would ever be able to resist a challenge like that. I'm thinkin' she had to bring you some kinda souvenir?" Like a conjurer, he produced a photograph of the plastic model.

"So what? Surely it's no crime to run a security test? Madeleine was supposed to find the flaws and help me fix them. Make the place impregnable. My God, she made it all the way up to the eightieth floor..." He stared at the two detectives, pleading with his eyes.

"You're right - that's no crime. But covering the whole thing up..." Flack slammed his hand on the table, making Patreides jump. "Dammit, you were prepared to let your own guy take the fall for an accident that was entirely your fault."

"You should have warned 'em, man. The security guards." Danny frowned.

Patreides squirmed in his seat and mumbled something about a 'fair test'.

"Oh yeah," Flack scoffed, "that's all very well. But along comes poor Jack McPharlane in the dead of night, just doin' his job, when he sees what he thinks is a perp with a gun - so he fires."

"And when he comes runnin' to you... you swear him to silence and tell him to hide the gun. Even ditch it for him. We found your fingerprints inside the cistern. Don't tell me cleanin' toilets is part of your job description." Danny shook his head. "Worse than that - you bribe McPharlane to keep your good name out of it completely if he's discovered by the cops."

"Not what I'd call money well spent, since he started singin' like a birdie when he heard we'd brought you in," Flack confided.

Patreides looked sick.

"Test over," Danny told him, folding his arms, all the cards on the table at last.

"You lose," Flack added.

-xx-

Standing in Mac's office for the second time that day, Danny felt a sudden sense of cheerful belonging.

"Good day?" his boss asked quietly.

"I'd say it ranks right up there in my top ten," the young man admitted.

Mac tilted his head and observed him thoughtfully. "They're not all like that, you know. The cases we take. Some of them - well, they linger." His fingertips brushed lightly across a pile of folders in his in-tray.

"Then you're sayin' I got lucky?"

"With your case. Not with your work." Mac's smile was enigmatic. "Seems you managed to convince Stella. She was quite impressed." He held out his hand. "Welcome to the team, Detective Messer. Oh - and one more thing. Tomorrow you're working with me..."

Bring it on, Danny told him silently, grinning with irrepressible delight.

-xx-

Mabel Augusta Bellamy stood in the high-speed elevator, humming 'America the Beautiful'. She was slightly off-key today and that bothered her - but after all, yesterday had been so stressful. She was bound to feel the after-effects for a while; just as she had informed Walter when he brought her supper to her on a tray last night. But the tales - oh, the tales she could weave for her customers, now that Empire: The Store was open again and things were back to normal.

The loss of Mr. Patreides was a blow, of course. Such a handsome face to look at every day. But she still had the memory of that nice young detective, and the telephone number of the twelfth precinct tucked neatly inside her handbag.

Day-dreaming took the place of her breathing exercises, just this once. But a happy mind is a healthy mind, she told herself firmly, inverting the proverb to suit her own infallible opinion. Stepping out of the elevator, she marched up to the tape and yanked it down with a vigorous display of contempt. Then she turned on the lights and surveyed her domain. The Crime Scene Clean-up team had worked their magic, it seemed, and the whole place looked as good as new. Better, even.

Mabel folded her arms beneath her ample bosom and gave the benevolent smile of a queen on her throne.

Open for business.

-xx-

A/N: Thanks for the lovely reviews for part one of this challenge fic (especially your response to Mabel Augusta)! I hope you enjoyed the conclusion. Setting my story pre-season one was far more fun than I could ever have anticipated. Maybe I'll do it again some time...

Oh - and Mahala? Debt paid...
(For an explanation, any interested parties should seek out "Sid Hammerback and the Curious Case of the Dormouse and the Hat!" by the aforenamed writer. Let's just say we had a little side-challenge going on...)