"Weird name," he said.
A young officer who was quietly filing some paperwork in the background, almost outside Conchita's notice, stopped what he was doing and said, "That's an inappropriate comment, Sarge."
The sergeant rolled his eyes and said, "Duly noted, Wu." Then he said confidingly to Conchita, "You can't say anything these days."
She smiled politely.
"Do you speak Spanish?" asked the sergeant, returning instantly to his gruff demeanour. "Or did someone just assume you do, with a name like that?"
"I do speak Spanish," said Conchita.
"Good. That's what we asked for. Didn't think they'd send a kid, though. I'll bet you're just out of college, aren't you?"
"Yes, actually. Which means I'm completely qualified to cover the position, Sergeant."
"Qualifications aren't experience," the sergeant said severely. "Are you sure you can handle this, girlie? You look like you'd cry at The Lion King."
Officer Wu closed the drawer of his filing cabinet loudly and said, "Sarge, you're being a dick."
The sergeant turned round to glare at him. Conchita laughed, then unconvincingly disguised it as a cough when the sergeant turned back to her with his stern expression. When she had quite recovered, she said, "I can't even watch The Lion King."
"Jesus," muttered the sergeant. Then, more loudly, "You done with that paperwork, Wu?"
"Good. You can take Ms Rivera to Debbie."
"Yes, Sarge." He looked at Conchita and said, in very professional tones, "Come with me, please."
He buzzed her past the front desk, then led her into the main body of the precinct. As soon as they were out of the old-school sergeant's hearing, Officer Wu relaxed his professional demeanour and said, "I can't watch The Lion King either. Doesn't mean you don't have what it takes to work here."
"Really?" said Conchita, smiling. "You can't watch The Lion King?"
"Well... I haven't really had the opportunity lately, but if anyone asked me, I don't think I could. But what I'm saying is, don't worry about Sergeant Hunt. It's nothing personal."
"Oh, he's probably just a big old teddy bear underneath."
"Well..." He made a face. "I don't know about that."
"You're obviously not scared of him," said Conchita.
"I'm not scared of him, no," Wu agreed, as he drew to a stop outside a door marked Victim Support. "Here's your base," and he opened the door. "Debbie, this is Conchita Rivera; she's here to cover for Neve. Ms Rivera, this is Debbie Green."
Debbie Green was a middle-aged woman with a firm handshake and an air of purpose about her. Judging by first appearances, she might have been a little severe, but she smiled at Conchita and said with genuine warmth, "It's nice to meet you, Ms Rivera."
"It's Miss," said Conchita, feeling that the "Ms" was starting to sound odd. "Or... Chita, actually. My friends call me Chita."
"Am I your friend?" asked Debbie, with a laugh in her voice.
"I'd like you to be," said Conchita.
At this, Debbie and Officer Wu exchanged a look that she recognised: Isn't she adorable?
"I'd like that too," said Debbie. Then, as Officer Wu began to slink off, she added, "Thank you, Dennis."
"Yes, thank you," said Conchita, and smiled at him. He smiled back, suddenly looking shy and awkward and fumbling with the door on his way out. Him too, she thought, making little of it at first, but then she remembered what he'd said about The Lion King and decided he was cute.
"Here's your desk," said Debbie, leading Conchita across the room. "You're on domestic violence. I handle every other type of crime, but you can tell me if you need any help."
"Okay, thanks," said Conchita, stowing her coat and bag under the desk before taking her seat.
"We need you to make some follow-up calls, if that's okay." Debbie slid a small sheaf of papers across the desk; it was filled with names, numbers and a few notes. "These people have all been safely relocated or their abusers locked up or issued with a restraining order or something, so hopefully they'll mostly tell you they're doing okay. But there's a good chance some of them won't be completely okay. Do you think you can handle that?"
"Of course," said Conchita.
Debbie smiled. "Yes, of course. I don't mean to cosset you; it's just that I remember my first time in a precinct. You're probably better at it than I was back then."
"I guess we'll find out."
"You'll be fine. But if at any point you're not, give me a holler."
It was two fifteen when Conchita started making her calls, most of which were quick, but a few people needed to talk for twenty minutes or more, sometimes in English and sometimes in Spanish. Once or twice, when she was counselling in English, Conchita caught Debbie watching but could not read her expression. This made her nervous, and she tried not to let it show.
Within an hour, somebody – Conchita wasn't told the nature of his trauma – was brought into the office and had to go into a separate room with Debbie, sound-proofed for privacy and glass-doored for safety. Conchita couldn't help taking the odd peek at Debbie through those doors as she spoke calmly to this man who was crying, shaking and in obvious turmoil, and she found herself thinking, Could I do that? I don't know if I could do that. I want to be able to do that!
At around four thirty, as Conchita put down the phone for at least the tenth time, Debbie said, "Time for a break. How do you like your coffee?"
"Black, two sugars," said Conchita.
"Same as me," said Debbie, smiling, and Conchita felt unduly pleased with the coincidence.
They drank their coffee and shared a large slice of cake over Debbie's desk, and Conchita found she was being led in easy and friendly conversation. Debbie asked her things about herself that were not too personal, such as how she liked counselling at the health centre, and what precisely she had studied to get her bachelor's and master's degrees. She also volunteered similar information about herself, with a few anecdotes from her long career, and Conchita listened avidly to these.
"It's Thursday, isn't it?" Debbie said at length. "I'll have to leave five minutes early to pick up my daughter from her music lesson."
"How many kids do you have?" Conchita asked eagerly.
"Three girls. Well, one's a woman now, really. She's halfway across the country training to be a pilot – I can't believe it."
"That she wants to be a pilot?"
"Well," said Debbie, "I never would've thought of that for her, but I think it's great. What I mean is, I can't believe how old we've all gotten. You enjoy being young while you can – it won't last."
"I'll try," said Conchita.
"Be sure you do," said Debbie. Then, suddenly, she was deadly serious. "And listen, don't ever let the job stop you. They talk about switching off, which sounds kind of cold, but... well, it's true. We're doing all we can inside of work hours. When I go pick up my girl later, I'm leaving what that poor man told me right here in the office. You get what I'm saying?"
"Yes, Debbie," said Conchita. "I understand." She was thinking: I want to be her!
Within an hour of the coffee break being over, a female officer appeared with a bruised and battered woman who was holding a bruised and battered little boy no more than one year of age. The officer seated them in the glass-doored room, then approached Conchita, who realised she was looking aghast and hastily tried not to.
"Whatever else you say or do," said the officer, "you have got to persuade her to let a medic look at that baby."
The significance of these words penetrated straight away; Conchita nodded efficiently and made for the glass doors, forestalling Debbie's inevitable do-you-want-me-to-take-this with a look as she passed her desk.
For weeks afterwards, she wondered why talking to this woman had not seemed more difficult at the time. Within three minutes, Conchita was able to signal through the doors to Debbie to bring a medic for the baby. Within an hour, she was able to give the mother back into the care of the officer who had brought her.
"You did good, kid," said Debbie, as Conchita resumed her seat at the desk, still feeling strangely okay. "Now, it's time you had something more substantial to eat, wouldn't you say?"
She went to the cafeteria in search of a decent meal, and found that her options were limited to a vegetarian pasta bake. She had that, then went back to the office and had an easy time of it filing some paperwork. At five minutes to eight, Debbie went to pick up her daughter from her music lesson. At one minute to eight, Conchita was filing her last document of the day. The very moment she closed the cabinet drawer, it seemed, Officer Dennis Wu came bursting into the office, took one look at Debbie's desk and then asked wildly, "Has Debbie left?"
"Yes," said Conchita, "she left five minutes ago."
"Shit." Dennis Wu calmed down instantly, fell heavily against the door frame and berated himself with a face-palm. "It's Thursday."
"Can I help?" said Conchita.
Dennis looked up. "Well, I don't know if... I mean... you can try, I guess."
He was giving her that look – she's too cute, she's not tough enough – but he was clearly trying not to, and Conchita appreciated that. She smiled and said, "We can all try, right? What's up?"
"We're interviewing a suspect," said Dennis. "I don't really know how much I'm allowed to tell you... but she doesn't look good. She's been searched, you know? And she's obviously been through something. I think she should talk to a counsellor. Sergeant Hunt doesn't agree, but..."
"Are you here against his orders?"
"Good," said Conchita, nodding stiffly and trying to look like Debbie. "Take me to them."
"What did I say to you, Wu?" he said.
"Sergeant Hunt," Conchita said reasonably, "it sounds like the woman you have in there needs counselling."
"She's not entitled to counselling," said Hunt.
"Of course she is," said Conchita. "Everyone's entitled to it."
Hunt looked at her distastefully. She looked steadily back at him.
"Listen, girlie –"
"Sarge..." said Dennis.
"Listen, Ms Rivera," said Hunt, in tones of forced patience. "You're new to this, so let me explain something to you. You do victim support. That woman in there is a suspect; she is not a victim."
"She could be," said Conchita.
"What do you mean, she could be?" Hunt glared at her some more, and then over her shoulder at Dennis. "What did you tell her, Wu?"
"Nothing," said Conchita, "except that this woman needs counselling. I don't know anything about what she's doing here. Why – do you agree that she could be a victim?"
"No," Hunt bristled.
"I do," said Dennis.
"It's past eight," said Hunt to Conchita. "You're supposed to go home now."
"I'm not going anywhere until I've seen that woman."
"Then you'll have a very uncomfortable night. Go home, honey, and get a good night's sleep in your Disney Princess castle bed."
"Sarge!" said Dennis, like a parent admonishing a particularly shocking child.
"I don't want to make trouble for you, Sergeant," said Conchita. "I really could now, couldn't I?"
Hunt's expression became wary. "Oh, sure, that's the way it's done now: sneaking around behind people's backs and climbing over their heads to tell tales on them. In my day, if you had a problem with somebody, you told them to their face."
"I prefer that too," said Conchita. "And it's what I'm trying to do here, Sergeant. I have a problem with you not letting me talk to that woman in there. After all, what harm could it do?"
"It might make her feel more like talking to us, Sarge," added Dennis.
Hunt sighed heavily. "All right, fine. Damn kids taking over with all their newfangled bullshit..." He opened the interview room door – because of the threat of trouble, Conchita was sure, rather than her and Dennis's reasoning – and gestured for her to go in. "You got ten minutes."
"It takes as long as it takes, Sergeant," she said coolly, as she walked past him thinking, I did not just do that!
The woman in the interview room volunteered what the police already knew and Conchita did not: that a small quantity of class A drugs had been found on her person. She wouldn't say anything else in that room so Conchita took her to victim support, away from any recording equipment, and gave her solemn promise that nothing said between them would be repeated. As their conversation progressed, she thought it sounded a lot like the woman was the victim of a higher power, and encouraged her to tell the police all about it. The woman did not trust the police. Conchita didn't press the matter, but instead talked through her experiences with her. It wasn't easy, but she did it well enough, she thought. Then afterwards, she found herself having to talk Hunt through some of the rules and regulations concerning confidentiality. By the time she was back in the office and putting on her coat to go home, it was just after nine o'clock.
"How are you getting home?" said a voice behind her, and she jumped out of her skin. When she turned round, she saw Dennis Wu standing in the doorway, also wearing his coat ready to leave. He smiled apologetically. "Sorry."
"Don't be sorry," said Conchita. "I... don't know why that startled me so much."
"Are you okay?" he asked.
"I'm fine." As she said this, she realised that she was fingering the silver conch shell pendant that hung at her heart: a nervous habit she had developed in the two-and-a-third years since she'd owned it. She hastily tucked the shell into the neck of her sweater and buttoned up her coat.
"Good," said Dennis. "That was great, the way you handled Hunt. I'm sorry for doubting you. I mean... I did," as she cocked an eyebrow at him. "But I would've doubted anyone who wasn't used to him. It's not because you have, like, a pink sweater and stuff."
She took "stuff" to mean the things he couldn't comment on without being personal: big eyes, upturned nose, round face and dimples. She remembered how her mother used to slather the same type of face in Goth make-up, and she saw some advantages to it that she never had before. Still, she did not consider doing anything of the kind herself; pink sweaters and an open countenance were part of who she was.
"It's okay," she said to Dennis. "You don't have to apologise for anything. I mean, you took me to him – that was the right thing to do."
"Okay," he said. "So, how are you getting home?"
"I'm walking." She had walked from the health centre, where she regularly worked, as the precinct was nearby; she supposed that Dennis would assume she lived somewhere in the vicinity.
"It's late," he said.
"Let me walk with you."
"I'd like that," Conchita said truthfully, "but I'm pretty sure it's out of your way."
"I can't let you walk home alone at this time," said Dennis. "I'm a cop. I know what can happen."
"That's exactly what my uncle says. Word for word, that's what he says."
"Well, he's right."
"He gave me pepper spray and a rape alarm as a moving-in present when I started renting from him. They're in my purse right now." She picked up her bag and waved it at him before looping it over her shoulder.
"Good." Dennis nodded approvingly. "But better if you don't have to use them, right?"
"You don't want to walk all the way over the Brooklyn Bridge, though, do you?" said Conchita.
"I absolutely do!" he said, with a little too much enthusiasm of the what-a-coincidence kind. "My parents live in Chinatown – I'm crashing with them tonight."
"Is that true?" She couldn't help feeling, and sounding, a little suspicious.
"Well... it is now," said Dennis, smiling sheepishly.
Conchita laughed. "Okay, so I guess your parents really do live in Chinatown, at least."
"Of course." He looked genuinely puzzled, just for a moment. "Who'd make that up just to walk home with... okay, sorry, stupid question. But I'm not..."
Yes, you are, thought Conchita, but that was just fine and, besides, she felt satisfied that it wasn't all he was doing. To stop him from digging himself into a hole, and because it seemed sensible, she said, "You'd better call your parents and let them know you're coming."
"Yeah," said Conchita. "It is nice, isn't it? Some people can't believe I walk two miles each way, but it's how I get my exercise. I guess you have to go on four-mile jogs and stuff, don't you?"
"Something like that. I enjoy it, though."
"That's good. I don't think I could stand all the running and stuff you cops have to do."
"You don't have to," said Dennis. "You have a calling. You did great today; you're a natural. Do you think you'll want to work full-time in a precinct when you have more experience?"
"Maybe," said Conchita. "I wrote my master's thesis on victims of crime – it's something I've always been interested in. This cop uncle of mine tells these total horror stories..."
"To discourage you from roaming the streets at night, I guess," said Dennis.
"I think so, yeah."
"But your first thought was that you wanted to heal the people these things happen to."
"Well... I don't know if it was my first thought; I was like, five when he started. Don't let strangers pick you up from school, and stuff like that."
"I'll tell my niece or nephew that too, if I ever have one. The things you hear about..."
Overprotective, thought Conchita, but that was entirely understandable. They had both seen some very unpleasant things that day, and she knew there was even worse out there.
"But that's not the thing to talk about, is it?" said Dennis. "Listen, I've just realised: we had to call and ask for you at the last minute, didn't we? Have you been working since nine this morning?"
"Yeah," said Conchita. "They told me to go in at twelve tomorrow."
"Make it after lunch," said Dennis. "I'll call and tell them you worked an extra hour."
"Oh, thanks. Do you have the number?"
"I'm sure I can find it."
"I'll text it to you."
She took out her phone and started a text message: SH med centre followed by the number. Then she handed her phone to Dennis and said, "Put your number in and send it to yourself."
He'd gone shy and awkward again, and fumbled a little with the phone. Conchita pretended not to notice. He managed to send himself the message without incident, then handed her phone back to her as his own buzzed in his pocket. She began saving his number, saying as she keyed in the letters, "Den... nis... Wu with a U or a double-O?"
"With a U," said Dennis. He hesitated a moment, then pulled out his own phone and opened the text message. "I think your name's gonna be a little too long."
"No, it's not," said Conchita. "My friends call me Chita, remember?"
"So they do." He saved her name and number, concentrating very hard on the screen. "So... can I call you?"
"I'd like that," she said, smiling.
"Okay." He stuffed his phone back into his pocket. "I... I will."
He seemed to have got over his talkativeness, so Conchita cast around for something to say that would not be at all awkward. She wasn't entirely sure she'd succeeded in this when she came out with, "So, what do you want to do when you have some more experience?"
"Well," said Dennis, "as it happens, I'm right in the mid-range of the one-to-two years' experience I need to apply for K9 officer training. I'm thinking of doing that, but I still need to finish weighing up the pros and cons."
"Are you a dog person?"
"I'm an animal person."
"Me too," said Conchita, thinking to herself: Dogs, cats, babies, police dogs, well, one police dog I guess, more babies, kids, teenagers, I-have-to-leave-early-my-daughter's-at-a-music-lesson, not allowed out at any other time in case she's murdered, climbs out her window to meet her drug-dealing boyfriend, but no because I'll do something about that... oh, stop it, you just met him!
"No," said Dennis. "It's time I visited my parents."
"At ten in the evening?"
"Sure, why not?"
He smiled at her. She smiled back, but the smile wavered as the door to the main house opened and she said, peering over Dennis's shoulder, "Uh-oh. That's my uncle."
"Why 'uh-oh'? It sounds to me like your uncle talks a lot of sense."
"He doesn't talk that much sense."
Carl Rivera came bustling up to them. He was in uniform, clearly on his way to work a night shift, his gold lieutenant's bar catching the light from the street lamps as Dennis turned towards him.
"Oh, good, you're back," said Carl to Conchita, over Dennis's head.
"I had to work late," said Conchita.
"You don't have to explain yourself to me."
"I was a little worried. But... you're an adult. You don't have to tell me anything."
This, Conchita knew, had been repeatedly drummed into him by her father and her aunt. Smiling, she said, "It's sweet of you to worry, Uncle Carl."
"Who the hell is this?" He seemed to notice Dennis for the first time.
"This is Dennis," said Conchita. "He walked me home because he thought I might get kidnapped or something. It's okay – he's a cop."
"Cops can be criminals too," said Carl, looking distrustfully at Dennis's youthful face. "What's your name, Officer?"
"A little outside your precinct, aren't you, Wu?"
"I'm on my way to visit my family, sir."
"Is that true?"
"Perfectly true, sir."
"Dennis," said Conchita. "Stop calling him 'sir'."
He looked over his shoulder at her, and said, "He's my superior!"
"You've seen the lady home now, Wu," said Carl. "And your family's waiting for you."
"Right," said Dennis. "I'll be going then, sir."
"Bye, Dennis," said Conchita, smiling at him rather desperately and hoping he hadn't been frightened off. "And thanks again."
"Bye... Chita." He almost whispered her name, surely thinking that Carl wouldn't like to hear him using it, and then scurried off.
"I'll see you through the door before I go," said Carl to Conchita.
"Oh, what's going to happen to me on the stairs?"
"You'd be surprised."
"Okay, well, g'night, Uncle Carl," and she gave him an affectionate peck on the cheek before turning and making her way up to the apartment.
She had a light snack and a quick trip to the bathroom, then went straight to sleep and stayed that way all night. At nine fifteen, her phone woke her up with a text message from her boss, confirming that he had spoken to Dennis and didn't expect her at work until well into the afternoon. It also said, Debbie Green called too. She <3ed you! Gr8 work.
Conchita smiled with satisfaction, then sank back into a deep, deep sleep for another two hours.
"Of course I'm here to see you too," Conchita would say unconvincingly, never taking an ounce of her attention away from Tom, at whatever stage of development he was in. Just now, he was a cherubic child whose eyes had stayed blue and whose head had lately sprouted an impressive crop of brown curls practically overnight. He and Conchita played on the living room floor while Jessica and Hayden disappeared into the kitchen, grateful to have a few minutes to themselves. Tom's toy of choice was the shape sorter; he had been having some trouble with the star, but he persevered and eventually managed to find the correct hole. Delighted with his success, he looked around for his parents, couldn't find them and so turned his proud smile onto Conchita.
"Clever boy!" she said, giving him a hug and breathing in his baby smell... and then suddenly, it all caught up with her. She saw in his place the bruised little boy whose mother she had talked to, and burst into tears.
Jessica and Hayden were unflappable. He came and lifted Tom off the floor, while she slipped quietly into the emptied space and held Conchita against her bosom, rocking her maternally and making comforting little noises. It didn't last very long, and within minutes Conchita was able to hiccup, "I'm sorry."
"Don't apologise," said Jessica.
"Anything we can do to help?" asked Hayden, pausing in the middle of flying Tom around the room like an aeroplane.
"Thank you, no," said Conchita, and sniffed. "It's not really my problem."
Jessica manoeuvred Conchita's head off her chest to cock an eyebrow at her. "You're crying about somebody else's problem?"
"I know you don't mean to, Chita, but you really can make the rest of us look like absolute jerks."
As Jessica said this, Hayden came over with a box of tissues in his child-free hand. When she had mopped herself up, Conchita told them about her day at the 84th precinct and the child she had seen. When she got to that part of the story, Jessica held her arms out for Tom, and Hayden passed him down to her.
"That's good, that you've cried about it," said Hayden. "There'd be something wrong if you didn't."
"I know you're supposed to care," said Conchita. "But I don't think you're really supposed to cry."
"The first time, you absolutely are," said Hayden. "You did very well not to cry in front of them. If it'd been me, when I was your age, I probably would've passed it on to this Debbie person."
"I wouldn't have even made it through the door," said Jessica. "I could never do that kind of work."
"Thanks, guys," said Conchita. "I feel better about it now."
"You need to get out and have some fun," Jessica said decisively. "I've been thinking of organising a girls' night – you can be the excuse I need."
"You don't need an excuse, Jess," said Hayden.
"Okay," said Jessica, "the motivation, then. I just haven't had time to think about it. Babies eat time. Don't you, my honey?" and she blew a raspberry on Tom's soft little neck, which made him hysterical with laughter. Then she said to Conchita, "I don't know when it'll be, but I'll definitely get on it now. Although I'm sure you have better people to socialise with while you wait."
"Not better, no," said Conchita. "I am going out tonight, though. With this cop I met." Dennis had wasted no time in calling and asking her out, and she liked that; he evidently wasn't a game-player.
"Ooh, a cop," said Jessica, with a mischievous grin. "Just what Daddy always wanted for you."
Conchita gave her a look that was half stern, half playful, and said, "Excuse me. My daddy just wants me to be happy."
"We all do," said Jessica. "You deserve it. I hope this cop can make you happy."
"Well, I don't know," Conchita said with a sigh. "They always turn out to be such dicks."
"Yeah, you sure can pick 'em," Jessica said sympathetically.
"Isn't that victim blaming, Jess?" said Hayden.
"I guess so," said Jessica, with a wry smile. "Sorry, Chita. It's not your fault men are disgusting."
"Not all of them," said Conchita.
"No, we are," Hayden said lightly. "To varying degrees."
Conchita looked up at him, with his affable smile and genteel London accent, and said, "You are not disgusting!"
"Oh yes I am," said Hayden. "But Jess is disgusting too, so that works out quite well."
"It's true, I am," Jessica said solemnly.
"Y'know," Hayden went on, "my daddy was a bit thrown by my choice at first, wasn't he, Jess? But he came round to you in the end."
"Your daddy was horrified," said Jessica. "Not because I was disgusting, though."
"No, he doesn't know about that."
"I'd love to see his face if you told him."
They were laughing now, as they inevitably would within an hour or so of meeting with them, and Conchita as always felt a few pangs of envy. She did not envy them the active and fulfilling sex life they were joking about because, quite honestly, that side of things felt very abstract to her; what she hoped to attain for herself were the friendship, the love and, not too long after that, the baby.
"Anyway, the point is," said Jessica, once she was over her hysterics. Then she furrowed her brow and looked up at Hayden. "What is the point, honey?"
"Your family will like whoever you like," said Hayden.
"Right!" said Jessica, returning her gaze to Conchita. "Even if he's a cop. Probably."
"I haven't even been out with him yet," said Conchita. "I only met him two days ago."
"Is he hot?" asked Jessica.
Conchita considered this for a moment, trying to recall accurately the few times she had seen Dennis throughout the day, then said, "He's more cute than hot."
"A lot of people would say the same thing about Hayden," said Jessica. "But trust me, he's hot."
"That's very sweet of you to say, my darling," said Hayden. "Thank you."
"Hi," she said. "Thanks for picking me up. I'm glad my uncle didn't put you off."
"I have a lot of respect for your uncle," said Dennis. "I've heard about police officers walking women home, or pulling over their cars on deserted streets, and then sexually assaulting them."
Conchita stared at him, not knowing what to say.
"I don't mean I'm going to do that," he added hastily.
"Oh, good!" She laughed, and he seemed to relax a little bit. "Well, let's see if we can walk past the house without him suddenly realising he has to come outside for something." She closed the door behind her and then started down the stairs.
"Does he do that often?" Dennis asked as he followed her.
"Since I moved in, I've been out with two people he didn't know. He did that one of those times."
"Okay, so, fifty percent record."
"That's about to change, either way," said Conchita, as she led him past the house, keeping an eye on the front door for as long as she could. When they were safely out of curtain-twitching range, she turned to Dennis and said, "Only thirty-three point three percent now."
He took her to a restaurant on the south-west edge of Chinatown, near where she lived and which, Dennis had told her on the phone, put the necessary effort into its vegetarian options. When they had been seated and given their order, they were still on the subject of violent attacks on New Yorkers in general and lone women in particular. It was evidently a subject often on Dennis's mind.
"Do you just worry all the time about this stuff?" asked Conchita. "That doesn't sound like a very nice way to live."
"I try not to worry all the time," said Dennis. "But it does seem to happen a lot."
"Y'know," said Conchita, "this reminds me of what I learned in college about victim blaming. It's actually more forgivable than we think because it's a psychological defence mechanism. It's like, there are so many terrible things that can happen, and if we thought all of them could really happen to us then we'd just be scared every minute of the day. So when we hear about something, we protect ourselves by thinking of all the things the victim could have done to avoid it."
"That's very interesting," said Dennis, and he looked and sounded like he meant it. "It actually makes a lot of sense."
"I thought so. But you and I can't ever do that, can we, in our lines of work."
"No. But I guess maybe there are other things we can do instead."
Conchita noticed then that he was looking not at her face, but at her chest. This very nearly raised a red flag, but within half a second she had realised she was fingering her seashell pendant again. She let go of it, gave a self-conscious little laugh and said, "Right. Like nervous habits. Sorry."
"Don't be sorry," said Dennis, raising his eyes to her face. "I'm sorry – I didn't mean to trigger your nervous habit. I really shouldn't talk about that stuff, should I? So... is there a story behind that?" and he nodded to the pendant.
"Not really," said Conchita. "It was a twenty-first birthday present from my dad."
"And you wear it all the time – that's really nice."
"Except in bed and the shower." But she instantly thought better of that, and went on hastily, "My sister got one the same year for turning eighteen, except hers is a rose. Her name's Rose."
"That makes sense," said Dennis.
"So does mine. Conchita means... well, it's a perfectly legitimate name, but it's also a word and the word means 'little seashell'."
"So there is a story behind it."
"If you want to call that a story," said Conchita. "Do you have any brothers or sisters? You must have, because you said you might have a niece or nephew someday."
"I have a little sister, like you," said Dennis. "Karen. She must be about your age, if you got your master's in the summer."
"I'm twenty-three. And a third."
"There's not much between you, then."
"And you're older," said Conchita. "Let's see... between one and two years on the force, police academy, bachelor's degree... you must be about... twenty-five?"
"I am exactly about twenty-five," said Dennis. "I'm twenty-four and two thirds."
"What was your college major?"
"Oh, that's very predictable. Criminal justice."
"Nothing wrong with predictable. You knew what you wanted to do – that's great."
"Just like you did. At least, I think that's what you told me on the bridge."
"I told you I had an area of interest, didn't I?" said Conchita. "I still don't know exactly what I'll end up doing with it. I mean, I don't know if I can work with trauma victims full-time... like, if I have what it takes, you know?"
"Of course you have what it takes!" Dennis looked genuinely horrified. "Look at what you did two days ago. Twenty-three years old, your first time doing anything like that, and you dealt with two highly sensitive situations every bit as well as Debbie would've done it."
"Really?" said Conchita, suddenly coming over all bashful.
It was at this point that a waiter brought their food, and Conchita thought about changing the subject; it would be very easy, for instance, to comment on her first taste of vegetarian hot and sour soup. But instead she found herself saying, "What happened with that baby... it hit me earlier today, in a friend's house, and I started crying all over her baby."
"Good," said Dennis.
She looked up from her soup. "Really? It's not just okay, but actually good?"
"Sure," said Dennis. "It couldn't have been easy for you... it's not supposed to be easy for you, and... well, better out than in, right? I've cried about things I've seen before now."
This made Conchita warm to him enormously, and she said, "I like when a man admits to crying."
"Well, I wouldn't want you to think it happens often, rightly or wrongly. But I'm not ashamed to admit that when I've seen something... oh no, there's that again." He smiled sheepishly at her, then said in deliberately casual tones, "My sister's in law school. Is yours studying too?"
"Yes," said Conchita, "she's an art student."
"Oh, art – cool!"
She warmed to him a little more. "You like art?"
"I think I do," said Dennis. "But I'm not really smart enough to get it."
"Yes, you are," said Conchita. "Everyone's interpretation is equally valid. Rose says it's fine to think anything about art, even if it's nothing like what the artist had in mind when they created it."
"Oh. Okay, good – I'll take her word on that."
"And your sister's going to be a lawyer. Does she want to put away criminals too?"
"That's exactly what she wants," said Dennis. "My dad keeps trying to drum into her that she won't get her dream job right away... I don't know if she really listens to him. She's very idealistic."
Conchita smiled at him, and he fumbled a wonton. "Must run in the family," she said. "Does your dad clean up the streets for a living too?"
"Actually, yes." He had already recovered his chopstick technique. "He's FBI. He has a desk job now; I think he feels like he doesn't clean up the streets as much as he used to, but he does a lot of good work."
"And your mom works in witness protection or something, probably." She felt pretty sure it was safe to mention his mother, as he had previously referred to his parents in the plural.
Dennis laughed good-naturedly. "Sorry, you're not right about that one. She has an antiques store... Chinese curios, mainly. That's what they're doing in Chinatown. They met through that store... I happen to think it's a really good story. Mind if I tell it?"
"Go ahead," said Conchita. She had noticed that he invited more talk about her than himself, and thought it right to return the courtesy.
"My mom and her father – he had the store back then – were being victimised by this protection racket," said Dennis, "and my dad was working undercover as one of them. He straight-up smashed the store to pieces with knuckle-dusters and stuff. And they tell me he and some heavy chased my mom all the way into a dead-end alley before he revealed who he really was. He pointed his gun at her and then suddenly turned it on this guy... they say. I don't know – that sounds a little extreme."
"Okay, that is a good story," said Conchita. In fact, a small corner of her brain thought it sounded vaguely familiar, but she didn't bother pursuing it. "Although it probably reminds you of the terrible things that can happen."
"Yeah, they come up all too often," said Dennis, almost dismissively, as though he had more to say. Conchita supposed he was about to add to the story of his parents' meeting, but then there was a sudden, very small shift in his demeanour and he said, "So, tell me more about your family."
"Oh, I can't follow that!" said Conchita, laughing. "My parents met in college." That was true, but it was only the beginning. The part that could potentially rival Dennis's story was when her father was very nearly seduced and diseased by a demon possessing her mother, but she didn't like to talk to people about that kind of thing until she was sure of their open-mindedness. Instead she went on, "They're still together, and I adore them. I didn't mention my mom to you yet, did I? She's amazing. I can't watch Bambi either."
Dennis made a face. "I can't even think about Bambi."
"Oops, sorry – change the subject." The conversation was flowing very easily, she realised, and she tried not to put pressure on herself as she cast around for something else to say. "You were right about the food here – this is very good. Are you a vegetarian?"
"Yes," said Dennis, and she warmed to him still further. "Don't tell Sergeant Hunt."
"I wouldn't dream of it."
"I'm sure you wouldn't. Not that I was being serious or anything, but I'm sure you're good at respecting people's confidences. And not just because it comes with the job. You're very..."
He stopped there, perhaps thinking it was a bit soon to start flattering her with adjectives, or perhaps struggling to find the one he wanted. To fill the silence, Conchita said, "Punctual."
Dennis laughed. "Aladdin, right?"
"Right. I'll tell you now, I haven't grown out of Disney and I don't think I ever will."
"There is absolutely no reason why you should."
It turned out he wasn't nearly so well-versed in the princess movies as she was, and quite honestly, she wasn't sorry about that. By the end of their dinner, she was excited about him and a little afraid, because she had felt that way before. Of course he walked her back to her apartment, and he was adorably shy when they stood at the bottom of the steps and he asked, "Can I see you again?"
"I'd like that," said Conchita, smiling.
He smiled back, then leaned in for a kiss, and waited until she had tilted her head before going on with it. It was gentle and lips-only and lasted no more than three seconds – all very appropriate for a first date – but there was something about it that was greater than the sum of its parts. As she waved him off afterwards with a parting smile, Conchita realised that this, whatever it was, she had not felt before.
Extreme Ghostbusters Created by Fil Barlow
Ghostbusters 202X Created by Fritz Baugh and OgreBBQ