Stalking Serena

Author: DocCarter

Rating: PG-13
Category: Drama

Spoilers: "Loss"

Timeline: This begins during Serena's second year with L&O (season 13) and the fourth season of SVU

Disclaimer: These characters belong to Dick Wolf and NBC. No infringement is intended.




I moved into this building in Upper Manhattan just a week ago, after I transferred from Portland. All the factories out there are shutting down and moving to the east coast, and I go where I'm told. The money's better here, anyway; I got a nice little bachelor pad with a decent view and real moulding on the ceilings. Good security. Doorman doesn't give me any lip.

I was trying to unstick my window one day when I happened to glance up and I saw her and promptly wrenched my back and fell howling on the floor. After my next-door neighbor came by and helped me out, I got around to watching the woman in the building across the street, wondering why I'd never noticed her before.

She was dancing through her apartment, matching some unheard rhythm. She was still in her work clothes--a plain black suit, red blouse underneath that dipped just a little low for a professional. Why not? She was certainly beautiful enough from a distance. Probably gave her male coworkers just enough to tantalize without making any open declarations.

She sashayed through the living area, dipping in and out of other rooms, occasionally missing a step but really just enjoying herself. She went into her bedroom and at that point I felt an eager little tug in the back of my mind. I didn't turn away, even though I'm sure a slight red flush must have crept its way onto my cheeks, and sure enough, she started to pull off her clothes. The blouse came over her head, leaving her in her red bra and pants. At that point she grabbed the curtains and yanked them shut; I ducked down so fast I almost wrenched my back again. When I finally dared to peek over the windowsill, she was done changing.

She walked into the kitchen, poured herself a glass of wine, and went into the living room again. I lost interest after that. She just sat on her couch and looked at a bunch of paper. For hours. I know, because when I checked after watching a movie on TV, she was still there, though there was a wine bottle that I hadn't seen before sitting on the coffee table. When I was getting ready for bed a little before midnight, she was there, and the coffee table was covered with stacks of paper and legal pads. I wondered what she did for a living. Maybe a businesswoman. Ad agency; I don't know. What else is she going to be, with that pretty face?

****

She likes wine. Whenever she runs out, she goes out and gets more. Two or three days out of the week, she'll start the evening off with a glass of red or white before settling down and doing more boring paperwork. She probably reads the equivalent of a Dostoyevsky novel every few days.

Sometimes she dances through the apartment. One weekend she was cleaning and she really got grooving. I watched her disappear into the bathroom afterwards for, I presume, a shower, and I almost forgot about the pan of chicken on my stove until I smelled something acrid and had to dash for the kitchen. Good thing there was a stack of microwavable dinners in the freezer just waiting for my inevitable little mishap.

One night, she came home, tossed her briefcase onto a chair next to the door, shrugged out of her overcoat, and collapsed onto her couch. She didn't move for what seemed like hours and I wondered if she had passed out when she sat upright, ran her hands through her blonde hair, and proceeded into the bedroom in her usual manner. She shed her shoes and jacket, then sat on the edge of her bed with her head in her hands. I couldn't see her face very clearly, but I could tell she'd had a rough day. She even looked like she might cry.

Instead, she just stripped down to her bra and underwear, at which point I think I began to literally drool. Black panties. Black. Then she went into the bathroom and shut the door. She didn't come out for about an hour. When she did come out, it was in a soft-looking robe and her hair was hanging wetly around her face. She looked better, like she'd gotten whatever it was out of her system. For once, she went to bed before I did.

****

I'm scanning through the paper a few months later, fixing my tie with one hand and balancing a mug of coffee with the other when I nearly spit coffee all over myself. There she is. A black-and-white photo of her and a few other people, standing on the steps of a large stone building. I read the caption: Executive Assistant District Attorney Jack McCoy announced on Monday that he will be seeking the death penalty against Allen McBride, the alleged murderer of Dr. Sherman Toussaint.

She's standing a little behind and to the right of this McCoy fellow, looking grave. I search frantically through the article for her name, and come up with a few likely candidates. There's a few that I dismiss right away: Mrs. Emily Toussaint (she's obviously not married) and Hannah McBride (McBride's teenaged daughter). I'm left with two: Katherine Roche, another woman who was supposedly having an affair with Mr. Toussaint, and Serena Southerlyn, an Assistant District Attorney.

I glance at her apartment reflexively, but she's already gone, having left for work when the sun was just barely starting to penetrate the dense gloom of a winter morning.

Who are you? Some man-eating secretary, or a lawyer for the city of New York? I secretly hope for the latter, because I don't want to have spent all my time on a homewrecker. Nothing but trouble, they are.

Reluctantly, I toss the paper on my bed and leave for work, intent on finding out who she is.

At the office, I use my lunch break to get online and Google both women. Neither search turns up anything in the way of pictures, but I do get several hits on Southerlyn, ranging from information on the extensive and extensively wealthy family, to several articles mentioning Serena. I also get the address of the District Attorney's office in Manhattan. I scribble it down on a post-it before I can stop to think about what I'm doing. Am I really just going to walk over there and look up Serena Southerlyn? That's when I get the brilliant idea to look in the phone book.

There are no S. Southerlyn's or K. Roche's listed. I nearly slam the phone book back into my desk drawer in frustration. I suppose she didn't want any wacko to be able to look her up and find out where she lives, especially considering one option prosecutes criminals for a living and the other is a member of the semi-elite.

It looks like I only have one option left. I leave work half an hour early and take a cab over to One Hogan Place. It's a fairly large building in Lower Manhattan and there are cops all over the place. That makes me slightly nervous, though I don't know why. I just want to see if she works here; it's not like I'm going to firebomb the place or anything.

So I kind of square my shoulders and walk up to the building. I have to go through some metal detectors, but I eventually make it into the building proper. I dig a scrap of paper from my pocket and scan it again; I must have glanced at it a dozen times during the ride from my office and it's slightly tattered already.

Serena works in one of the Trial Bureaus; she prosecutes homicides, mostly, working with Jack McCoy. He seems to be some kind of bigwig here at the District Attorney's, so I'm working on the assumption that finding him will be easier than finding Serena outright. I glance at a list of names and offices and find J. McCoy quickly enough.

I stab at the button to call the elevator and wait as patiently as I can, which is when I hear the click of high heels and a woman steps up right next to me. My breath catches a little and I freeze in place even as my mind starts to list all the random elements that just fell in place to generate this precise coincidence. I don't dare look to my left. It's her.

The elevator arrives, gives off its patented little ding!, and the doors open. Serena steps into the elevator readily, but I'm still frozen. A few other people dodge past me and get on the elevator too, but I just stand there. I get a few odd looks--not from Serena though; she looks fairly preoccupied, thank God--and the doors close.

I finally manage to quit gaping and make my way to the nearest subway station so I can get home.

****

The law says that you're entitled to a speedy, public trial. That means that I can slip into the back of the courtroom and watch Serena's arraignments. Once I found out about the court letting people watch I spent hours hopping from courtroom to courtroom, hoping to see her in action. I finally found her right before lunch. She was standing at a podium in the front, quickly thumbing through a sheaf of paper. The judge came in, we rose, we sat, and she did her thing.

Serena's a hardliner, it would seem. She went for remand, which I took from context to mean that no amount of bail in the world will get you out of jail. She got it, too, and I appreciated the hard-edged smirk she sent after the prisoner as he was escorted from the room. I ducked out before she could spot me. I know we've never actually met, but it would be embarrassing if she recognized me as the man who lives in the apartment directly across from her. I don't want to make her nervous.

I'm just drawn to her. She's a smart, beautiful, professional woman. My last relationship didn't end very well. Neither did the one before that. And there was this one time in high school when I asked out a cheerleader and her jock boyfriend beat the shit out of me. I don't think Serena's like that, though. She'd give a guy a fair shake.

There's just no good reason for her not to be able to bring home a different man every night of the week, not that she would. Maybe she's married to her job, which is a shame.

She looks about five or six years younger than me, which puts her in her late twenties. The Manhattan DA's office isn't in the habit of publishing its workers' biographies online. I suppose that would make everything far too easy.

****

It's Allen McBride's trial. He's a thirtiesh, pale-looking corporate type. He sits at the defendant's table on my left and Serena sits at the far right, at Jack McCoy's right hand. She doesn't say anything at the trial, just sits and takes notes. I can't see her face, but I imagine her features are impassive, a study in neutrality.

Katherine Roche is on the stand, testifying that she was indeed sleeping with the esteemed Dr. Toussaint. I can see Toussaint's widow sitting up front on the prosecution's side. One hand is covering her mouth and her shoulders are hunched. I feel kind of sorry for her. I know what that's like, to be the one cheated on. No one likes being cuckolded.

So it goes like this: Roche and McBride were engaged. He'd never really loved anyone before, and he thought Katherine was The One, and then she cheated on him. He was just too bland for her, and looking at him, I believe her even if I don't like her. Hair neatly combed, with a part so straight I could use it as a ruler. Neatly pressed, off-the-rack suit. In one word, neat.

Roche meets Sherman Toussaint, who promises her the world. Apparently, he meant it, because he put a divorce in motion and opened a joint account with Katherine.

She starts to tear up as she talks about Sherman and how wonderful he was, and how she found his body in the parking garage where he works. She drops the prosecution's bomb, that she saw Allen burning rubber on his way out of the garage in his very conspicuous red Miata.

The defense tries to poke a few holes in her story, but she sticks to her guns.

After the court recesses for the day, I'm surprised when Roche calmly walks over to Mrs. Toussaint and hugs her. Mrs. Toussaint doesn't cringe or slap her, just hugs her back. I suppose they both lost the man they loved. I would've thought that Mrs. Toussaint would resent Roche for taking her husband away from her in the first place, but evidently she's a bigger person than I am.

It looks like Serena's packing up. I leave with the departing crowd with only a backward glance for my quasi-neighbor.

****

I keep going back to the trial even though Serena is really there as McCoy's assistant. She takes notes and his orders.

It's finally Allen McBride's chance to explain himself. Haltingly, he explains that he went to Toussaint's office to confront him, but that he heard gunfire on his way to his car, so he hightailed it out of there. He didn't think that Toussaint had been the victim. Then he sheds a few manly tears and sniffs that he would never do anything to hurt Katherine. If Sherman made her happy, then killing him would be the last thing Allen would do.

McCoy goes into some evidence that proves Allen was at the crime scene, like his fingerprints all over Sherman's body, Sherman's blood on one of his suits. He reminds Sherman about his oath to tell the truth and the guy starts to look a little sick. McCoy presses a little harder, and Allen confesses all.

"I was there," he sobs. "I saw him die."

The courtroom generates a low-level buzz of surprise.

Allen continues. "I was telling him that if he ever hurt Katherine, I would make sure he'd regret it. He just laughed at me, and then his body made these...horrible jerking motions, and blood sprayed all over me. I was scared. I ran." He looks at Katherine and Mrs. Toussaint. "I'm sorry," he whispers.

Serena and McCoy are head to head, conversing in low tones. Neither looks very surprised, and I wonder if they intentionally smoked Allen out into the open.

Court is in recess so both sides can deal with this new information. As usual, I leave before Serena, no matter how much I want to linger and watch her wrap things up in the courtroom.

****

As I watch the local news, Toussaint's trial comes up. I start the VCR, hoping to catch a glimpse of Serena on the courthouse steps. It's been a fairly high-profile case; Toussaint is in with several mid-level city officials and his wife comes from money.

And there she is, once again walking by McCoy's side as he brushes off the reporters with a few vague comments. Serena looks good, her blonde hair standing out sharply against her black overcoat. She's been letting it grow out and she looks a little older now, more experienced.

I trudge into the kitchen and scrape my reheated dinner into the overflowing trash. With a sigh, I gather up the grimy plastic bag, grab my jacket, and haul the lot outside. I glance down the darkened street as I step out of my building. As winter sets in, the sun sets earlier and earlier. It's dark before five now and I almost miss seeing Serena walking to her building, slipping in and out of the lamplight. She's got groceries in her hands, the plastic bags twisting in the chill breeze that springs up every few seconds. She stops to adjust her leather satchel, a grimace on her face as the wind catches her hair. She looks exquisite.

An idea strikes me and I jog down my side of the block, then cross the street. "Here, let me help you," I say, walking up behind her. She starts a little and glances at me, once up and once down. I'm a little nervous.

"Thanks," she says finally, and hands me one of her bags.

I try to give her my most reassuring smile. Her lips twitch into something like a smile and she dips her head once as if to say, "That's all right."

It's only about a dozen yards to her building, where the doorman helps her in. "Thanks," she says to me again, and smiles for real this time. Something seems to splash into my stomach and I think I manage to say "You're welcome," before stumbling back to my building in a haze.

****

It's Christmas Eve, and predictably, I'm alone. Trying not to gaze longingly through the frosted window, I glance over at Serena's. There's a pathetic little waist-high Christmas tree twinkling with lights in her living room, which seems to be her only concession to the holiday. She went out shopping on a few weekends and came back with several bags each time, presumably for her friends. I saw her hanging out with them a few times. They were watching a Knicks game on her TV and throwing popcorn around. Another time, a couple of women pulled up in front of her building in an SUV and she came out with a duffel bag. She was wearing jeans, a plain white tee, and a denim jacket, and I remember thinking it was a pity she didn't dress down more often. Formal clothing makes me uncomfortable, though I have to admit, I do look good in a tux.

She left her building at about six tonight, dressed in black, hair twisted up. The doorman got her a cab, and gave her a onceover, I noticed.

It's past midnight when Serena comes back. She trips up to the door, some handsome young thing on her arm. Did she finally tire of sleeping in the middle of her queen-sized bed? Why him, and why all of a sudden? My interest is piqued, and I quickly slap the light switch before scooting over to the window.

The light in Serena's apartment comes on a minute later. Serena pulls the young man in with her by hooking a finger in his cummerbund and tugging. She reaches up, wraps her hands around his neck. He places eager arms around her trim waist. They kiss, and I try to sort through a sudden barrage of emotions. I've been watching her for months now and I know her well enough that I can't see her bringing home a total stranger. Did she meet him at her little soiree? Is he a coworker? He must be some kind of political entity to have been there. I wouldn't know; I'm just an engineer.

They finally break apart. Serena seems to come to herself a little; she looks somewhat abashed, smooths over her dress, tucks hair behind her ears. She starts rummaging around in the kitchen, but her companion slips up behind her, pulls her to him. They kiss again, slowly, gently. Serena takes his hand, leads him to the bedroom without looking back. She does not turn on the light. But despite the fact that I can't see, something keeps me glued to the window until I fall asleep in my chair.

****

Mr. Mysterious hasn't been back since that first night with Serena, and I wonder if it was a one-night thing by mutual agreement, or if something he did or said made her push him away. I don't see why he wouldn't want to see her otherwise.

Admittedly, she can be cold. I've been to more of her arraignments and she always goes for remand. She doesn't give quarter and her high-mindedness sometimes gets her in trouble. She's not na´ve, but her tendency to expect the best of people is telling. But the lingering memory of that smile makes me believe that there's more to her than ambition.

I've done a little digging on her family, and they're not old money. The Southerlyn fortune was recently amassed, perhaps only a few decades ago. Someone a few generations back must have immigrated, probably from Scotland, and changed the original spelling of the name from Sutherlin or Southerland to its current incarnation. Then somewhere down the line, a Southerlyn vowed to escape the poverty of his forefathers, put his brand-new college education to good use, and bam--one powerful national corporation, coming right up.

Serena herself is ivy-league educated. I found her on an alumni registry, and from the date of her graduation, I'm guessing she's not quite thirty. I also found records of her time at the DA's office. She's had a pretty good career so far, and some interesting cases. What I was really looking for, though, were clues to her personality. Did she play sports in high school or college? Has she ever been in trouble? My fascination with her grows with every piece of her past that I uncover. And the more I watch her, the easier it is for me to figure out what motivates her to slave away, day after day, prosecuting the dregs of society.

****

Summer is rapidly approaching. Serena's schedule changes with the seasons. During the winter, the wind chill easily drops temperatures below zero, and she can't go out as often as she'd like. She rides her bike through Central Park when the weather permits, and sometimes when it doesn't. I thought about going jogging as a way to catch a glimpse of her, but the few times I tried I ended up with my hands on my knees after about ten minutes. The same thing happened during P.E. in high school, when I was diagnosed with sports asthma. I never heard the end of it from the jocks. Hell, even that little A/V weasel could outrun me.

As temperatures start spiking, Serena's social life picks up. She goes out on weekends a lot. I saw her at the grocer's market a few blocks away once. She bought organic products and fresh flowers, which she arranged in her living room and put in the window. She likes tulips, and I toy with the idea of leaving a fresh bouquet on her doorstep, though there's no way I can get into the building without her knowing about it. I think.

****

The little pad of paper I used to use to jot down notes about Serena is completely full, so I get a small spiral-bound notebook to replace it. I take a weekend and laboriously collect and copy all the scraps of information I've gathered, organizing it into some semblance of order. The engineer in me wants to be able to look at the many facts and assemble a single working product, but I still don't have a handle on Serena's character yet. She's changing; growing up, kind of.

I've rearranged my schedule to match hers so that I don't miss any discrepancies. She gets up early, readies herself for work, and doesn't get back until evening, usually well after five. At the DA's office, she usually has morning arraignments. In the afternoons, she's either in court with McCoy or working in her office. About half the time she leaves the building for lunch with McCoy or a friend. Sometimes she goes out to eat with McCoy and the district attorney himself, Arthur Branch. He looks like a good ol' boy, and I've watched Serena get into arguments with him more than once. No surprise there.

My boss has noticed that I seem distracted of late, and for a while I throw myself into my work, if only to get him off my back. But I still spend all my spare time researching Serena, following her court cases, trying to get closer to her. I probably know more about her now than her own parents.

****

The days are hot, and the nights are just as hot. I can feel the heat radiating from the sidewalks during the short walk from my car to the door of my building. Serena often sits in her apartment with the windows open, dressed in a tank top and shorts. She likes to sit next to the window, legal pad in hand, cold drink nearby. She smiles as she watches the family in 3A going out for the day. The father grabs his little girl and swings her up onto his shoulders, then twirls around until they're both dizzy and the wife has to steady them in between bursts of laughter. The image is so perfect that I take a few pictures of Serena with my digital camera. It's a fairly new model, and the zoom is more than powerful enough to cover the distance between our buildings.

She's so photogenic that the camera's internal memory is soon full. I'm reminded that I need to buy some memory cards and extra rechargeable batteries. I should also pick up glossy photo paper and the latest edition of Photoshop. I don't just want some intangible digital album; I want real photos that will last for quite a while because they're not biodegradable. I can put everything into my scrapbook, where I collect articles on cases that she works.

Now, if only she would start dancing again.

****

One sunny day, disaster strikes. I'm standing in line at Starbucks trying to figure out if I want a tall or a grande when I hear a familiar voice. I'm so shocked that I immediately turn around without thinking about how I'll look, and it's her. She's at the back of the line, standing next to one of her friends, another ADA. I know that she frequents this shop because it's close to the DA's office, but she's supposed to be in court right now. I wouldn't have come here otherwise.

Embarrassed at my lack of self-control, I face forward again and lock my eyes on the menu. When it's my turn to order, I tell the barrista in a slightly squeaky voice that I'd like an espresso. I tap my fingers nervously on the counter. The barrista doesn't pay me much attention; she's probably used to wired coffee-drinkers.

I take my coffee and start to walk out, half-hoping she won't notice me, and half-hoping she will. I'm so wrapped up in getting past Serena without looking like an idiot that I, of course, trip. My hand reflexively squeezes the coffee cup, the lid pops off, and hot espresso splashes everywhere, including Serena's favorite grey pants. Meanwhile, I'm tumbling over my own feet. My head strikes a table, I bounce, and end up on the ground in a pool of my own coffee. The horror, the horror.

Serena gasps as she's sprayed with coffee, but then I see her face hovering over mine, concern plain on her face. She says something, but my ears are ringing.

"Huh?" I manage. I try to get up, slip, and sit down heavily. Serena's friend gives me a hand and I finally manage to get into a chair. The barrista has come around the counter to make sure that I'm not going to sue Starbucks and put her out of a job. A pimply boy hurries out of the back room with a mop and bucket. The handful of customers forms a small circle around us.

"Are you okay?" Serena asks me again.

I put a hand to my head and laugh weakly. "Yeah. Any survivors?"

She smirks at that, and I'm suddenly very glad that I'm a total klutz. She obviously doesn't recognize me from our first meeting months ago.

"Sir, are you all right?" asks the barrista, bustling up and neatly displacing Serena. I try to glare up at her, but end up wincing instead. I can feel a headache coalescing right behind my forehead as the adrenaline wears off.

"I'm fine," I tell her.

"If there's anything I can do for you--"

I wave her off. "I just want to make it out of here with what's left of my dignity."

She hesitates, so I add, "Really. Go away."

Looking slightly put out, she goes back behind the counter, which seems to signal to the crowd that there's nothing left to see. They go back to their own overpriced coffee, leaving me with Serena and her friend. Diane, if I remember correctly.

I glance at Serena and let out a groan. "Oh, shit, I'm sorry. Look at...there's coffee everywhere...your suit..."

She looks down at herself and sighs. There's no mistaking the dark splatter pattern. "That's all right. I've got a spare back at the office," she says, and I resolve to get her more tulips than she'll ever know what to do with. I can just have them delivered to her door. But I still feel bad. Serena loves those pants. And she looks damned good in them.

"No, I'm really sorry. There's just no...I mean, uh, let me make it up to you. Buy you some coffee?" I offer with a hopeful smile. Diane raises an eyebrow and I will her to go away, but she doesn't.

"I think you should get your head checked out first," says Serena, staring intently into my eyes. I've never been this close to her, and her eyes are brilliantly blue. My mouth opens and closes a few times. Serena frowns a little. "Are you sure you're okay?"

"Yeah, yeah, I'm fine," I say, and stand just to prove it. The room slants a little to the left, I go right, and Serena and Diane both grab me and set me straight before I can topple over again. I thank them sheepishly.

"Look, why don't you just sit here for a while. Diane, would you get me a tall caramel latte?" asks Serena. She gently maneuvers me into a chair. "Wait right here." She leaves and comes back a minute later with a wet paper towel, which she hands to me. "Here. Put that on your head."

I take it from her gratefully. Diane comes back with drinks, sits down next to Serena, and looks at me dubiously. I ignore her and keep my eyes on Serena. "Are you sure I can't get you anything besides coffee? If I'd been paying attention to where I was going..." My voice trails off, as I'm unsure of where to go from there.

"You don't have to do that," says Serena, sounding slightly distracted. She glances at Diane, who taps her watch. "Look, it was nice meeting you, under the circumstances, but we really have to get going." She gives me an apologetic look and stands.

I try to hide my disappointment. "No, that's--that's okay. Thanks for all your help." Before she can step away, I impulsively call out. She turns and I hand her my business card. "If you change your mind, send your dry cleaning bill to me."

She takes the card, smiles, and walks away. Be still my heart.

****

A few days have gone by, and Serena hasn't called. She's had the suit dry-cleaned, I know that. I guess I didn't really expect her to call, anyway. She's too independent for that.

But on the fourth day after the incident, my phone rings while I'm at work. I answer, expecting it to be a coworker or my boss, but instead I get a throaty voice asking if this is Brian.

"Uh, yes, this is he," I manage to stammer out. I know it's her instantly, but I don't let on.

"Hi, Brian. We met at Starbucks a few days ago."

I feign surprise. "Oh, hi. How are you?"

"I was actually going to ask you the same thing. I just wanted to make sure you were all right."

"I'm great. Thanks for asking. That's really--that's considerate of you. Usually when I bash my head in in front of a woman, she doesn't even call." I can envision her smiling on the other end of the line.

"Good. I'm glad you weren't badly hurt. Did you see a doctor or anything? A friend of mine had a concussion once and it really took a toll on her."

"Uh, no. I just took some Tylenol."

"Well, if you start to feel strange, you should probably go to the hospital."

"I will," I reassure her. A pause, and then I'm suddenly feeling bold. "So, have you gotten your suit cleaned yet?"

She chuckles. "Why do you ask?"

"Playing hardball, I see. Look, I still feel horribly guilty. I interrupted your day and ruined your suit. You've got to let me do something to make me feel better about myself," I tell her, hoping she'll catch the humorous note in my words.

Evidently she does, because she relents. "How about coffee. Same time, same place."

"Sure." I hope I don't sound too eager.

"Then I'll see you there in a few hours. Bye." And she's gone.

My coworkers are startled when I explode into a victory dance.

****

It's noon and I'm waiting at Starbucks again, only this time I'm looking forward to the company of one Serena Southerlyn. She walks in only a few minutes late and spots me. She's wearing a creamy skirt and matching top today. I walk up and shake her hand. "Hi."

"Hi, Brian. I'm sorry, but I don't think I've introduced myself."

"That's okay. We met under pretty strange circumstances." We step into line and I marvel at how easy it is to just fall into conversation with her. I'm still nervous about saying the wrong thing, but her soft smile puts me at ease.

"I'm Serena." We shake hands again.

"Hi, Serena. What'll you have?"

We give our orders to the barrista, who recognizes me and gives me an odd look before assembling our drinks. Serena has another latte, and I get a decaf, figuring that I don't need to put myself further on edge. We sit next to the window in sun-warmed seats and talk. She tells me a little about herself, but it's all impersonal stuff that I already know. I'm still riveted, and don't have to feign interest. She asks me a few questions about my work, where I'm from, that sort of thing. The hour flies by and before I know it, she has to go.

"It was really nice to meet you, Brian. Thanks for the coffee."

I rise out of my chair, trying not to let my disappointment show. "Any time."

She smiles at that, and I wonder if now's the time to ask her to dinner. But I never get the chance because she tells me to try and stay out of trouble and walks away.

****

She never called me again. I wanted so badly to pick up the phone and ask her out, but for some reason never did. I had to satisfy myself with my growing collection of photos, which I'd been diligently collecting for over a month. I got a digital video camera with an infrared function so that I could watch her while she slept. I documented whole days, from the buzz of her alarm clock at 6am to the time when she'd sink into bed.

One day, when I retrieved the paper, a page-sized photo stared up at me, and a huge caption read, "No Leads On Slain ADA." It wasn't Serena, but another woman I had glimpsed once when I was at the courthouse. The entire city was in a mild uproar. The funeral was televised. Lots of people from the DA's office were there, and I wanted to be there to make sure Serena was all right.

Instead, I ordered flowers for her. It was a nice arrangement of orchids, and it only cost me about sixty bucks. I watched her puzzle over the blank card, then shrug and put the flowers on her coffee table. At least she didn't throw them out.

Encouraged, I sent her flowers again two weeks later, when the orchids had died. This time it was a little more posh, and I eagerly awaited her reaction. This time, after carefully setting down the arrangement of lilies and orchids, she picked up her phone and made a few calls, trying to figure out who was behind the deliveries.

After the second batch of flowers, I decided to stop teasing her and called her from work. I didn't want my home number showing up on her caller ID; it would probably freak her out a little to know that I lived right across the street.

"Southerlyn," she said when she answered the phone.

"Did you like the flowers?" I asked.

"Who is this?" she asked.

"It's Brian. From Starbucks."

A long pause. "Hi, Brian. Yes, I liked them very much. Thank you."

"I'm so glad. I, uh, was too shy to let you know they were from me."

"Well, that's okay." She sounds kind of unsure about where I'm going and I kick myself for just leaving her hanging.

"Listen, I was wondering, if you're not busy this weekend--" I know she's not. "--would you maybe want to grab a bite to eat somewhere?"

A longer pause. "I'm sorry, Brian. As much as I'd love to, I have a lot of work to do. Criminals are kind of inconsiderate that way."

My shoulders slump. I was sure she'd say yes; she agreed so readily last time. "Oh. Well. Okay. Maybe another time."

"Take it easy, Brian." She hangs up without any further ado. I sit with the phone in my hand for a few more minutes, wondering what I did wrong.

****

"Hi, it's Serena. Leave a message."

beep

"Serena, it's Brian again. I know you're busy, but even McGruff the crime dog has to take a break. Let me know if you're interested in doing something. Nothing too fancy; we could just hit a bar and eat some greasy food. Um...bye."

beep

****

"Sir, you can't go in there. Sir, I'm sorry, but that area is restricted--"

The guard's about to have a heart attack. "No, it's okay. I'm a friend of Miss Southerlyn's."

"Sir, I must insist that you--"

"Just back off, okay? I'm here to see my friend." I continue to make my way to Serena's office and actually get to the door before a burly guard blocks my way. "Serena!" I call out. "It's Brian! Will you tell these guys I'm not a psycho?"

She comes out of her office, looking a little wan, probably from dealing with the fallout from that other ADA's death. "It's okay, officers. You can let him go."

They do so reluctantly, and I step forward, expecting a hug, or at least a handshake. Instead, she takes me by the arm and leads me a little ways down the hallway. "Brian, you can't come here like this. You have to stop calling me. I'm sorry if I gave you the wrong idea, but I'm not looking for a relationship."

"But..." I stare at her. She was so nice to me.

"Please, just leave me alone," she says in a tired voice.

****

Okay. I botched it up. But I know I can win her back if I just play my cards right. It's a matter of time. If I wait for her to cool down a little, she'll see I just mean to do well by her. I've been laying low these past few weeks, trying to a get a read on where we stand. I figure the best thing to do is get a fresh start, so I opened new credit card accounts and moved into a new apartment. My boss has been fed up with me for weeks now, so I did him a favor and quit. I've got enough of a nest egg that being unemployed won't be a problem for a while.

I'm glad to see that she goes about her daily routine as if nothing's changed. I'd hate to have disrupted her schedule.

A month after she told me to leave the DA's office, I figure it's been long enough, and confront her on her way home from the grocer's. She slowly backed away from me as I got out of my car, and I couldn't figure out why she looked so afraid. She knew me, for god's sake.

"Serena," I said, "Hi."

"Hi, Brian," she said in a low voice. She looked about ready to rabbit, so I showed her my hands, palms out; a generally friendly motion.

"I just want to talk."

"Okay. Why don't we walk back to my place, and we'll talk," she said.

I grinned at her. "You and I both know your doorman's far too nosy for his own good. Let's go somewhere nice. Tavern on the Green. You pick."

"I...uh...now's not a good time, Brian."

I frown. "When will be a good time, Serena? You're always working." I took a softer tone. "We don't have to go anywhere fancy, then. How about a drink? I'll get you a bottle of your favorite wine."

She continued to back away and I got a little frustrated.

"Why don't you get in my car and we'll talk about it on the way there?" I suggested, trying to sound reasonable.

"I don't think that's such a good idea..." She glanced around, but the street was dark. We were around the corner from her block and no one was in sight.

"Just get in the car, huh? Is it so hard to sit down and talk?" I started to walk towards her when she threw her bags in my face and made a break for it. I knew if she got away she'd make trouble, so I started after her. She was in low heels and I was in tennis shoes, but I still couldn't catch up to her and I damned myself for not forcing myself to run more. Luckily, she tripped on an uneven spot in the sidewalk and I snagged her wrist just as she was getting up. I covered her mouth with my hand to keep her from screaming. I just didn't want her to make so much noise that people noticed and interfered with our private conversation.

She bit down on my hand hard enough to draw blood. Instinctively, I cried out. She tried to get away again, but I had a pretty firm grip on her wrist and I yanked her back. She opened her mouth to scream, and seeing as how I didn't particularly feel like stuffing my bloody hand back in her mouth, I cuffed her on the side of the head. Not really hard, just enough to stun her. I couldn't understand why she was being so unreasonable.

She was stunned, but not out, and she started to scream again, so I hit her again, this time catching her squarely on the temple. She collapsed onto the cold pavement and I half-carried, half-dragged her into the shadows of the nearest alley. "Jesus, you'd think we could talk like two civilized adults," I muttered to myself.

I propped her against a brick wall and patter her cheek. Her eyes flickered open and I beamed at her. "Hey, sweetie. I'm sorry to have been so rough."

She gave me a dazed look and tried to stand up, but I pushed her back down.

"You're going to be okay, Serena." I kissed her softly on the spot where I'd hit her. I pulled away and saw the fear in her eyes and immediately felt sorry. I touched her lips with my gloved hands, wanting to make her feel better. Leaning in slowly, I gave her a kiss. She didn't respond, so I kissed her again, more forcefully, trying to get her to reciprocate the way she should. When she didn't, I grabbed her roughly. She struggled and I grabbed her throat until she was still.

When I finally looked in her eyes again, she was crying, and I felt so bad for having upset her that I smoothed her hair down and apologized and told her I'd make it up to her. I got in my car and left so that she could have some time to think it over.


Saving Southerlyn, Part 1
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