The Washington DC central courthouse was crowded, as usual, and Dr. Sarah Donner, a senior coroner for the local jurisdiction, was too busy seething from a bad session in court to notice any obstacles until she slammed directly into somebody standing in her path. Sarah and the unidentified speed-bump managed to stay upright, but an armload of file folders under the otherís arm tumbled down and disgorged loose papers across the linoleum floor where, true to form, all passers by trampled upon them.
"Thatís all I need!" Sarah burst out, then remembered her manners. "Oh hell, Iím sorry." she added quickly. Without even looking at whom she was apologizing, she crouched down and started picking up papers.
"Oh, itís all right." a flustered male voice answered. His English accent caused Sarah to look at him, finally, as he also bent to retreive the scattered documents. Hello, she thought, whoís this?
A quick assessing glance told her that he was about her age, possibly a little younger, with fair skin and blonde hair just long enough to fall into his face and pale blue eyes. He wasnít quite handsome, but Sarah saw smile lines on his face and approved of them.
"No itís not." Sarah apologized, dredging up a smile for a face that had been scowling for the past hour. "I should have looked where I was going." she admitted.
He glanced at her, smiled briefly. "Thatís true. But thereís no harm done." he insisted.
His papers were rescued. Say something, Sarah... "Youíre English?" she asked brightly, while wincing inside. That was just brilliant, woman.
He nodded, obviously used to the question. "Yes. Iím from London. I moved here two years ago and I work for the Smithsonian." he replied quickly, by rote. He stood up, tucking the reassembled files under his arm. "Well, everything turned out all right. Thanks for the help." he was turning to leave and Sarah was seized with the need to keep his attention. She didnít meet pleasant men very often.
"Wait." she said, a little more urgently than she intended. He stopped and looked at her inquiringly. Sarah gestured over her shoulder across the street. "At least let me buy you a late lunch for running you down. You just got out of court, right?"
He gave a small start of surprise, and nodded. "Thatís right. How could you tell?"
"Years of experience." Sarah replied glibly, not wanting to admit that she had just guessed.
"I see." he smiled. "Iíll take that." his tone suggested that he believed otherwise. "And you can buy me a sandwich."
"Great." Sarah led the way out of stuffy building.
His name was Leo Ashcroft, he told her over their sandwiches, and he was a documentarian at the Smithsonian. Sarah wondered at how a person got into such an esoteric line of work, and couldnít shake the sense that she had met him before. Political function? No. Law school? God, no. Heís English. Maybe when I was in the UK...She brought herself back to their conversation.
"I spend most of my time spotting forged Guttenburg bibles and patching up the genuine article." he said matter-of-factly. "Itís not very interesting work if youíre not a masochistic bibliophile."
Sarah smiled at that. "I think I could understand the masochistic part."
"Could you?" Leo countered. Most of their conversation had been friendly back and forth questioning. "How can I know that? You wonít even tell me what you do. I thought you were a lawyer, but you canít be that." he stated.
"Howís that?" Sarah asked, suppressing a smile. She was enjoying his company, and hoped it was mutual.
"You havenít threatened to litigate me once, not at all. No, really," Simon protested at Sarahís smiling response. "As far as I can tell, American lawyers live to sue."
Sarah pulled a face. "Fortunately, I donít encounter civil lawyers very much. If you can consider criminal law a pleasant alternative."
"So you are a lawyer?" Leo persisted.
Sarah shook his head. "No, not quite." she glanced down at the table and noticed that he had since finished his sandwich. "Since youíre done, Iíll you now."
"Oh no, you do something horrible." Leo shied back in mock fear.
"Fairly horrible." Sarah admitted. "Iím a coroner." she waited for him to pull a face or to end the conversation, as most men did when she said that.
Leo said nothing, but he nodded thoughtfully, something that cheered Sarah no end. "Alright, I concede that you must understand the masochistic element of a chosen career." he told her. "Good lord, a coroner." he mused. "That must be...." he searched for the right word.
"If you say Ďinterestingí, Iíll strangle you with your own tie." Sarah threatened. Interesting was a cop-out word that desperate conversationalists reached for when talking to her.
"Ah." Leo looked about for non-existant rescue. "Um, alright. That must be very...tiring." he landed on the last word with relief. "Yes, thatís what I was going to say. Tiring."
Sarah smiled, nodded and let silence fill in the next few seconds, only to have it shoved aside by a sudden remembrance.
"Wait!" her outburst startled Leo. "Leo Ashcroft, right? Dr. Ashcroft? British Museum?" she asked quickly.
Leoís eyes widened. a disarming expression. "My past has caught up with me. If youíre going to complain about their exhibition on the history of the printing-"
"No, no, no." Sarah interrupted. "Last year, Ď94, you gave a talk about authenticating modern documents in the electronic age, at the British Museum, didnít you?"
"My god!" this time the surprise was genuine. "Donít tell me you attended that?"
"Yes, I did." Sarah confirmed. "I was in London for a business trip - well, a school reunion, too-"
"You went to school in the UK? Donít tell me youíre younger than you look-"
Sarah stopped that with another mock-threatening glare. "Medical school." she clarified. "I went to St. Georgeís, graduated in eighty-six. Anyway, I saw your talk at the British Museum. Damn, it had been bugging me all through lunch - you looked familiar."
"Iím glad you remembered me, then." he said lightly. "I hope you enjoyed the symposium."
"Oh yeah, it was pretty interesting." Sarah replied, only vaguely remembering the presentation that had occured during the dual haze of jet lag and a hangover.
"If I canít use that word, you canít." he warned.
Sarah was confused for a moment, then blushed. "Well, to be honest, I canít recall it too clearly, but I remember you."
There was a momentís pause at that, which they both ignored.
"Well, then." Leo said, a tad overbright. "You should refresh your memory. An associate of mine and I have updated the presentation, and weíre giving it in a fortnight, at the Smithsonian."
"Really?" I can see you again, if nothing else, Sarah thought. "Youíre right." she smiled and then sighed theatrically. "Itís one of the burdens of my profession to keep up with the latest forensic techniques. Iím sure I can justify a trip to the Smithsonian in those terms."
"Use whatever terms you like." Leo replied glibly. Oh really? Sarah didnít pursue that. "But come to the talk." he urged.
Sarah nodded. "Sure. Would you like to grab a bite to eat beforehand?" she asked quickly.
Leo frowned, and Sarah wondered if his answer was an entirely honest one. "I donít think Iíll have time, I have to help Robert - my associate - set things up and that could take most of the afternoon."
Sarah had an inspired idea. "Fine, how about letting me play mother hen and bring you over some sandwiches beforehand?" Thatís a lot less intimidating than dinner, she realized. "How many of you will need feeding?"
Leo was surprised by that, but apparently pleased. "Three of us, Robert, myself and Jean, his intern."
"Alright, then." Sarahís smile, momentarily absent, returned. "You just tell me when and where, and I shall arrive with caloric fortification..."
Leo and his associate, Robert Berain, had had the good sense and good fortune to give their talk in the midst of the Smithsonianís rare book collection - a pleasantly snug exhibition hall - rather than a bland conference room. Sarah liked the subdued light, the faint smell of dust and glue that permeated the air, and the overjoyed reception she received when she arrived with enough food for six - all of which was quickly devoured. Sarah had gently chided all of them for obviously skipping lunch, which had been met with protestations of devotion to duty.
Sarah had enjoyed the lecture, given primarly by Berain, a middle aged man who might as well have carried a sign stating "Eccentric genius" with his rumpled hair, mismatched clothes and obvious intelligence. But Sarah had devoted most of her attention towards Leo.
Heís a nice guy, she told herself. I hope we can be friends. Maybe we can- she stopped that thought dead in its tracks. It was too early to be thinking of anything beyond friendship. Sarah had built up her hopes too many times, only to be burned by reality. The fact that he hadnít made run screaming - or made an off color joke - upon learning her profession was encouraging, though.
The talk had ended with only a few questions, and now the small crowd of attendees - some two dozen - had left. Sarah had insisted that she help clean up and Leo, Robert and their assistant, Jean, worn out from their long day, were happy for the help.
At one point, while Sarah was behind a heavy desk, trying to unplug a projector, Jean, a nineteen year-old student at Georgetown, nudged Leo and smirked at him. "New girlfriend, huh, Leo?" she asked broadly, not noticing a warning glance from Robert.
Leo flushed a little and mumbled "No. Just a friend."
"Oh yeah." Jean winked. "I get you." This time, she caught the glare that Robert was directing at her, and Leoís rising color. "Hey." she raised a hand in protest. "Iím just teasing." Jean insisted quietly as Sarah reappeared, triumphantly clutching a power cord.
Sarah pushed her hair out of her eyes and wrapped the cord about the desktop projector. "Hey, Leo." she called out, a touch too casually.
Leo perceived and understood that tone and closed the distance between them, pretending to assist Sarah with her task. "Yes?"
"When are you going to give me your phone number?" Sarah asked quietly.
"What? Oh..." Leo flushed, which Sarah pretended not to see. "Of course." Leo reached for an abandoned program and looked about for a pen. "Here." he scribbled a number down, trying to match Sarahís nonchalance. "There you go."
"Thanks." Sarah smiled, holding out her business card. "Hereís mine. Donít the job description intimidate you."
Leo cast an eye over it. "Medical Examiner? I thought you said you were a coroner?"
"I am, but ME - medical examiner - is nicer in polite conversation." Sarah replied flippantly.
"Ah, alright." Leo smiled, carelessly shoving the card into his shirt pocket. "Iím sure itís past your bedtime." he mock-scoleded. "Shoo."
Sarah laughed. "Shoo?" Leo tried to look cross. "Ok! Iím going, Iím going!" she protested, gathering up her bag. Not much point in lingering, she thought brightly, waving a brief goodbye to the others. Still, he better call me soon.
Another fine day in the morgue. Sarah thought grimly to herself as she stretched against an incipient backache. As usual, they were shorthanded, and Sarah had to perform an autopsy when she had promised herself she would demolish the increasingly large pile of paperwork on her desk. Her mood had been shaky all day and had deteriorated noticeably as the afternoon crept by, piling more frustrations upon her.
A loud knocking upon the labís door caused Sarah to look upwards. Fortunately, since Sarah was near the end of the autopsy, rather than the beginning, she did not object to the disturbance "Come in!" she called out.
Denise Macintosh, the front desk receptionist for the Washington DC Medical Examinerís office, beloved by all those she protected from hysterical press and worse, tentatively stepped in. That surprised Sarah. Denise was more than used to the grisly sights of the morgue, such as the overweight white male that Sarah and her assistant, Katie, were stitching closed. So it must be something else upsetting her, Sarah decided. Great, the president finally decided to drop by and Iím up to my elbows in gore. She ignored the echo of an oft-repeated office-pun.
"Dr. Donner?" Denise sounded trepidatious, her eyes above her hastily donned surgical mask were quizzical. "Thereís...someone here to see you."
Maybe it is the president. Sarah thought. Not too many people can fluster Denise.
"Do you know who he is?" Sarah asked, wincing inwardly. Her tone was sharper than she intended.
"No." Denise replied, puzzled, then realizing what Sarah meant. "Oh! I mean, he did give me his name."
"Did he? Oh, good." Sarah bit down on her growing irritation. Itís not her fault, itís not the corpseís fault, itís yours, she reminded herself, carefully. "And it is?"
Denise glanced at the notepad she perpetually carried. "Leo Ashcroft. He said something about getting an early dinner." Denise said carefully, her tone slightly disbelieving.
"What?" Now it was Sarahís turn to be startled.
No wonder Denise is surprised. My social life is known far and wide to be as sterile as the surface of the moon.
Even Katie was looking surprised - and itís hard to surprise a morgue worker. This is going to be gossiped about for days, Sarah realized. This was promptly followed by another thought that such a thing wasnít so bad.
"His name is Leo," Denise repeated patiently. "And he said-"
"Okay, okay, Iíve got it." Sarah interrupted. Sarah looked about the lab, as if for the first time. "You didnít tell him what I was doing, did you?" she asked anxiously.
Denise suppressed a smile. "No. But it canít be too hard for him to guess, can it?" she suggested.
Sarah realized that Denise was right, and that she was on the verge of looking foolish. "Yes, good point." she agreed. "Alright, could you tell him to wait for...." Sarah glanced at the body before her, and at Katie.
Katie made a brushing-off motion. "Get out of here. I can finish and wrap." She, too, was smiling like the proverbial cat.
Sarah sighed inwardly. Not days, weeks... But she managed an outward smile of thanks for Katie. "Great. Tell him Iíll meet him in about half an hour, alright?"
Denise turned to leave, but stopped when Katie asked lightly, "So, who is he?"
Sarah tried for a joking tone, and almost made it. "What is this? Canít I go out with a friend?" she asked.
Denise attacked from the other flank. "Sure, Sarah, but when do you? Your last date was, when? Last year? And he turned out to be a sicko, didnít he?"
"It was a year and a half." Sarah said defensively, but managing to smile this time. "And who said it was a date?"
"Who says?" Denise teased. "Kate, you should come see this guy." she urged. "Heís got Ďfirst-dateí stamped all over him."
Katie, thoroughly into the spirit of this, was not giving Sarah any quarter. "Is he dreamy?" she asked, hands clasped before her chest in a pose of teenage adoration, and ignoring the blood this smudged upon her apron.
Denise shrugged. "A bit thin and pale for me." she admitted.
"Thatís enough!" Sarah finally laughed, crankiness banished. "Heís English, not malnourished - donít say it, guys - and heís also waiting for you to tell him that Iíll be out in a half hour."
Denise quickly exited, giggling only slightly.
"Half an hour?" Katie asked. "I told you Iíd close this guy." she repeated.
"You think Iím going to meet my little English dreamboat." Katie stifled another laugh. "Without taking a shower?"
"Good point. Morgue smell isnít terribly sexy, is it?"
"Did I say this was a date?" Sarah protested, peeling off her gloves and throwing them into a waste container..
"You havenít denied it, either." Katie countered.
"When did you start learning rhetoric...?"
The next day, Denise arrived at her usual time of 8:30am to find Sarah noisily searching through the officeís tiny kitchen. From her rumpled clothing and dark eyes, Denise realized that Sarah had already been there for some time.
"Good morning, Doctor Donner," she greeted in the bright voice of a morning person. "If youíre looking for the creamer, itís in the second drawer beneath the toaster oven."
Sarah slammed a cabined door shut and held herself very still for a moment, a gesture that Denise recognized as an attempt by Sarah to keep her temper.
"Actually, Iím looking for the stirrers." she replied tightly. Another momentís stillness, a deep breath. "Morning, Denise. Iím sorry," she apologised. "I shouldnít snap at you."
Denise, eternally good-natured, accepted the thin apology. "Itís okay. The stirrers are in the same drawer," she added.
Sarah followed Deniseís directions and found a half-empty box of plastic stirring sticks. "Thanks." she said, sagging into a chair with her mug of black, but heavily sugared, coffee. "Oh god, Iím tired."
Denise finally noticed that Sarahís rumpled outfit was the same she had worn last night. "Did you have to come in after your dinner with...?" she had forgotten his name.
"Leo." Sarah answered shortly. "During, actually. Some maniac emptied a gun in a movie theater last night, about when I was walking into Romanoís. I got pulled away about three bites into the entree."
"Oh, no." Denise commiserated, with both Sarah and the situation. "But..." she thought for a moment. "Where are the newsies? We should be covered in them." she commented.
"Theyíre over at the DAís office, howling for more blood." Sarah replied. "And thank god for small mercies. I hate coping with those jackals after a long night."
"You canít go home, yet?" Denise asked.
"No!" Sarah snapped. "Iím waiting for Doctor-bloody-Franklin who assured me that he would be here as early as possible. Which will no doubt be around the same time he usually comes in, regardless." Sarah had publicly complained about Dr. Franklinís lax attitude about sharing the workload before. "And until he gets here, I might as well get some work done."
"Youíve been up since last night?" Sarah nodded. "Youíre useless, then." Denise pronounced briskly. "And if you keep trying to work, all youíll do is make those same silly mistakes you chew the juniors out for making."
Sarah considered this, and finally nodded, sighing. "Yeah, I guess youíre right."
"I know Iím right." Denise said emphatically. "As soon as Franklin or Kate show up, youíre going home." Denise insisted.
"Fine, fine." Sarah capitulated, smiling wanly. "Who am I to resist the self-appointed den-mother of the office?"
"You canít and you know it." Denise said gently. "Have you eaten?" she asked.
"Well, I had about three bites of chicken marsala last night...."
The following weeks were busy for Sarah - dealing with the aftermath of the theater slaughter, punctuated by an ongoing game of phone-tag with Leo. When she finally had a free night, a week after the shooting, he was busy preparing for a new exhibition. When Leo called her a few days after that, she was in and out of court. Both of them were getting frustrated ,but each was enheartened by the effort of the other.
Leo hung up the phone, after leaving his daily message on Sarahís voice-mail, and slumped back in his chair, eyes closed. It was a stiflingly warm afternoon, and the thick humidity reminded Leo of why DC was once a considered a hazardous post.
"Itís probably none of my business, but arenít you spending a bit too much time with Sarah?" a voice came from the doorway.
Leo opened his eyes to see Robert Berain leaning in the doorframe, his face concerned.
"Youíre right." Leo agreed, pushing his untidy hair back with one hand. "Itís none of your business. And, for the record, Iíve not been spending any time with her, lately."
Robert frowned. "But youíve been trying to." he observed.
"What, is my phone tapped?" Leo snapped.
"No, but the walls are thin." Robert returned.
Leo stared dully at the thin plaster. "True enough, I suppose," he agreed. "That the walls are thin." he added hastily. "Robert, I know you, as a sex-obsessed Yank, might have a hard time believing it, but weíre friends."
"Uh-huh." Robert ignored the slight. "If youíre sure."
"Iím sure." Leo replied firmly.
"But is she?" Robert countered. Before Leo could reply, he had continued on his way down the hall.
"Of course she is." Leo muttered. "Isnít she?" Am I? Leo shied away from that train of thought. He had been trying very hard for the past month not to think about that. He knew he would have to face up to a few things, sometime, but, like most, he was not one to rush to face something potentially unpleasant.