She’s tired and growing melancholy, standing out in the corridor, behind the blue striped tape. The anger of this indignity, the maddening helplessness sends drips of adrenaline through her and keeps her back straight, her eyes sharp, her lips tight. She watches from a distance as her things are touched, brushed, catalogued, bagged, taken from her. Thinks of the journal and the bitter billet-doux that sullies it.
Stella’s hands feel itchy. Her eyes roam what little of the room she can see, searching. Inaction is not good for her.
What if they had gone up to her room, the anxious echo of narrowly-averted crisis in her head asks, dancing in the corners of her mind. He would have been there if they-
But they didn’t. Stop it, she scorns herself. No point in this. She clenches one fist, digging crescent-shaped grooves into the soft skin of her palm. Not so sharp anymore, but it will do. She focuses on this small grounding pain until her mind slows down, not-quite-clears.
Her phone rings in her pocket. Weary, she prepares herself for Jim Burns’s concerned chivalry, already annoyed at the idea that he has been called about this. But it isn’t Jim; instead, Reed’s name flashes on the small screen.
Taken by surprise at the unexpected call, she waits until the end of the second ring to compose herself, and then swipes across the glass to answer. “Gibson.”
Reed’s voice filters in through a cacophony of street sounds; traffic, voices, wind. “Do you know that there are police and CSIs at your hotel?”
Stella sighs. “Yes, I do.”
Reed waits for a beat of silence before speaking again, as if she had expected a longer response. “Is everything okay?”
Stella turns away from her room, from the tape, from prying ears, and leans against the wall. “Seems my room was invaded while I was gone from it, earlier in the evening.” While I was with you, she doesn’t say.
“Oh my god,” Reed says, shocked. “Are you hurt?”
“No,” she reassures, “I didn’t actually encounter him.”
“Our killer, most likely. He appeared on the CCTV. Left a written message.”
She thinks she can hear Reed exhale heavily. “Are you at the hotel? Or have you gone to the station?”
“I’m at the hotel.”
“Can I come up?”
Stella sighs again, bows her head and closes her eyes at a sudden pressure between them.
“I’m sorry, this probably isn’t a good time.”
“No,” Stella says, realising she has taken too long to reply. “I’m sorry, it’s fine. Please. Room two-oh-three.”
She banishes the rolling echo that reverberates in her mind after she hangs up, of those same words that she spoke the last time she had invited someone to her hotel room. How that had ended.
Inaction isn’t good for her. Rueful thoughts and self-pity are not good for her. She will not permit herself to indulge for too long.
Minutes later, Reed arrives beside her, grim-faced, concerned, her eyes on Stella and then on the room beyond the cordon. “Do you want me to go in there? See how I can help?”
“Please, no,” Stella says, shaking her head, but touched at what Reed readily offers for her at this late hour. She motions for the adjacent corridor, and they round the corner, just out of sight of the crime scene. “Why did you come back? Did someone call you?” she asks, settling against the wall.
Reed leans against the wall beside Stella, shoulder to shoulder. “No, I, um. I came back for you,” she says.
Stella, momentarily surprised, looks at Reed, whose eyes are fixed at the carpet beneath their feet. She clears her throat, searches the colourful woven fibres under her as well. “What made you come back?”
“I’m not sure,” Reed says, “I just couldn’t stand that I’d left you that way.”
Stella shakes her head. “Under the circumstances, I’d say it’s entirely fine you did.”
Reed looks at her. “What do you mean?”
Stella sighs. “We’ve examined the CCTV. Seems he was still there while I was in the room. He slipped away while I was in the bathroom.” She wrestles with herself for a moment, deciding whether or not to mention Jim, and then doesn’t. He is unimportant and she is tired.
Stella shakes her head, and feels Reed’s cool fingers take her palm between them. She squeezes them in return.
“Do you have to stay here?” Reed asks after a few seconds of silence pass.
“I need to stay until the sweep of the room is finished. Not sure how long that could be. Your girls?”
“With their father.”
“I’m sorry I can’t be better company at the moment.”
“Don’t be silly.”
A few more seconds pass in silence, maybe half a minute, before Reed speaks again, slow and hesitant.
“I came back because I’d started thinking about all the other times we’ve spoken since you’ve been here. And I realised that you’d been looking at me that way all along.”
Stella looks at Reed again, the way a rosy tinge touches her complexion, staggered by the observation. “How?”
Reed returns her gaze, their noses not far apart. “You know how. The way you looked at me when you thought I wasn’t looking back.”
Stella is reserved, private, her feelings and attractions are not for others to discern without permission, and it disturbs her momentarily that Reed has delved beneath her surface, but then she is further struck by the realisation that she does not mind this. Pulse quickened, she looks away from Reed and leans into her shoulder. “I didn’t think I was so transparent.”
Reed laughs. “You weren’t, I just…”
Stella smiles for the first time in hours, understanding. She lifts Reed’s hand, still clasped in her own, to her sternum.
“Have you secured another hotel room? Do you know what you’ll do after they’re finished?” Reed asks, motioning towards the tainted room they’re left behind the next wall.
“Not yet. I may search for a different hotel. Tomorrow.”
“I have a spare room, while you search.”
Reed’s eyes are so solemn on hers that Stella lifts her other hand to cradle their joined fingers, glances around the vacant corridor, and then softly kisses her on the corner of her mouth.