Part Eleven, Chapters 48-50
Washington Dulles International Airport looked like the concrete armpit of hell in the late afternoon sunlight. Simon had never been so glad to see it in all his life.
Customs was exactly as much of an empty formality as Ethan had predicted. A customs agent boarded the plane to diffidently collect their declaration forms and passports, looked over the documents, declared everything in order, and welcomed them home. Sandra escaped without paying so much as a penny on her shiny new Armani things. On any other day Simon and Mike would have teamed up to torment her half to death about that, but this wasn't any other day, and a boggled Mike just slouched in his seat and let the opportunity go by.
Simon accepted his fake passport from the customs agent, picked up his duffel and his bomber jacket, and led the way down the stairs to the tarmac, where the DC summer smacked him in the face like a hot and dirty sponge. The others followed him, one by one, subdued and thoughtful. Simon took a deep breath of air flavored with exhaust and rubbergood old American airthen swung to face them. "I'll catch up with you guys later," Simon said. "Get some rest. Enjoy the rest of your vacation."
For a moment they were all quiet, five pairs of nominally-shellshocked eyes locked onto him, then Sandra broke formation and nodded. "Later, Templar," she said, provoking a generalized and automatic murmur of farewell from the rest of them.
Simon hitched up his duffel. "Don't let the jetlag bite," he said, and with that, he walked away.
Five minutes after Simon let himself into his apartment, the entire trip to Italy seemed like nothing more than a weird, extended dream. What his apartment lacked in Italianate grandeur, it more than made up for by being familiar and real, if a bit shabby; nothing that had happened in Italy felt like it had any grounding in reality at all.
Simon turned the air conditioner back down to a liveable level, then wandered aimlessly around the apartment, postponing his unpacking until he felt like he'd reclaimed his nest. Eventually he dumped his duffel bag out on the bed and shuffled around, putting everything away. His duffel bag he slung back into its place on the closet shelf; his bomber jacket he hung in the hall closet. His sense of unreality deepened as he settled back into his everyday life, to the point where that sense of unreality, itself, felt almost unreal.
Eventually Simon took a deep breath, sucking in a lungful of stale machine-cooled air, and mentally conceded that everything was just as he'd left it. Only a few small things still needed doing. Plunking into one of the kitchen chairs, Simon hitched up the leg of his jeans and ripped off the ankle holster, dropping it onto the table with a heavy thump. He wouldn't be needing it any more.
Fishing his wallet out of his back pocket, Simon methodically emptied it onto the table. The 'Simon Moorhead' and 'Trent Darcy' identities went into one pile and the 'Simon Drake' identity into another; Simon sorted out the handful of American dollars from the Euros and dropped the dollars onto the 'Simon Drake' pile. Simon dropped the Euros onto the table, then frowned, picked them up again, and shuffled through them. He'd gotten into the habit of grabbing a random assortment of bills from Jeremy's bottomless supply whenever he even suspected he might need morehe'd accumulated about twelve hundred Euros without really noticing. It was all funny money to him, but hey, it'd spend. Simon put the Euros in a pile all their own.
Simon refilled his wallet with his own, real, legal identity and the dollars that went with it. The other two sets of ID went into a plastic sandwich bag; they'd go in with the gun. Now Simon really needed a better hiding place for his contraband. He resolved to think of one, then pulled the gun out of its holster and took it apart.
Half an hour later he popped open a black garbage bag and dumped the clean gun, the ankle holster, the prepaid phone, and the bag with the two sets of ID into it. Folding the top of the bag over, he taped it shut, creating a fat and bulky envelope. He carried the envelope into his office and dropped onto the floor in front of his computer desk, pulling out the topmost drawer and putting it on his computer chair. He taped the packet back into place, then put the drawer back on its runners and slammed it shut. He left the room without looking back.
On Thursday afternoon, well rested, well fed, and bored to tears, Simon flopped out on the couch and pulled out his phone.
He'd spent most of the last three days recuperating from his jet lag and experiencing cabin fever in all its forms. Three days was long enough to drive him stark staring mad; he could only hope that it was long enough for a few other things. He dialed a number from memory, then put the phone to his ear and shut his eyes.
The phone clicked instead of ringing. Seven, eight, nine, ten timesSimon had almost given up by the time the clicking stopped and the ringing started. Two rings later someone picked up the phone, making Simon's heart jump oddly in his chest.
"Answering service," said Annabelle, as if nothing at all had happened.
Simon sagged in relief. "Hello, pretty lady whose name I know better than to say out loud," he said. "I'm calling to leave a message for Jeremy Archer? My name is Simon Drake?"
Annabelle's voice warmed on the instant. "Well, now, big guy, I'd been wondering when you were going to call," she said, laughing. "The line's been live for over ten hours. I was beginning to think you didn't like me any more."
"Really? In that case, I'm sorry to have kept you waiting," Simon said. "How's things with you?"
"Oh, I'm absolutely fine," said Annabelle. "Exhausted, but fine, all set up in a brand-new city and raring to go. You should see this house! It's in one of those snooty gated communities where they have security twenty-four hours a day. Say what you will about my employer, but he really knows how to take care of you when you need it."
Simon slung a leg up over the back of the couch, getting comfortable. "Good for you," he said. "Good for him. Because if he didn't, I'd go punch him in the teeth for you, since I'm such a gentleman and all."
"Aren't you sweet," Annabelle cooed, still laughing a little. "But alas, big guy, I'm not getting paid to gab. Can I take that message for you?"
"Yeah," Simon said. "Just... ask him to call me at the usual number whenever he gets a moment."
"That's easy enough. Anything else?"
"Yeah," Simon said again, shutting his eyes and taking a deep breath. "Yeah, there's more. Tell him I said that I'm so fucking glad he's still alive, even if it took me way too long to tell him so."
Annabelle said nothing for a long moment, not even laughing any more. "Well then, Simon," she said, hushed and pleased. "I'll definitely pass that along just as quick as I can."
"You're the best," Simon said. "Could you maybe wait about fifteen minutes before trying to find him, though? I've got another phone call I need to make first."
"Tell you what: I'll go make some coffee before I call and pass on the message. How's that?"
"That'd be perfect." Simon cracked his eyes open and gazed blindly up at the rough plaster of the ceiling. "Thanks, No-Name-Lady. If I've ever in whatever neck of the woods you call home now, I'll buy you that coffee."
"You are so very welcome, Simon!" Simon could almost hear the smile as Annabelle broke the connection.
Simon hit the CALL CANCEL button, then pulled up a second number from his phone's address book. Upstairs had an all-hands staff meeting every Thursday from three until four, so he wouldn't be anywhere near his office"Simon!" Danielle said, the coolness in her voice only imperfectly camouflaging her surprise. "I'd say 'what a shock', but really, I'm more surprised that you haven't driven me crazy before now."
"Well, hell, Danielle, you and I both know that I am naturally shy and retiring," Simon said. A muscle in his neck twinged and he dug the fingers of his free hand into it, trying to force it to loosen. "So, I'm assuming I'm still in the doghouse with the OPR?"
"That's what I hear." Danielle's voice warmed a degree or two. "If it's any consolation, I don't think you're actively in trouble any more. I think the boss is playing a waiting game by this point."
Leaving his free hand cupped about the back of his neck, Simon settled deeper into the couch cushions. "Danielle, I need a favor," he said with no further ado. "A big one. And it'll get you in a little trouble. But seriously, I will owe you so huge, you have no idea."
Five minutes later he finished apologizing to the now-thoroughly-grumpy Danielle and hung up, then dropped his phone on his chest. It was barely three-thirty and the complex was quiet. Everybody else was at work. It made Simon feel like a slug.
The evening stretched out in front of him like a barren wasteland. Simon considered his options: getting off his ass to investigate the complex's exercise room, calling around to see if anyone wanted to go catch a movie and maybe ask him all kinds of horrible prying questions, or maybe just working through half a six-pack in front of the television. None of these things sounded particularly appealing. In fact, what sounded best at the moment was a quiet nap
The phone rang, startling him upright and knocking the phone off his chest. He grabbed the phone as it fell and flicked it open. "Yeah?" he said, somewhat out of breath. "Simon Drake."
"Well, Simon," Jeremy said, laughing. "Fancy hearing from you so soon!"
The little knot of tension in Simon's neck unraveled on the spot. His shoulders dropped. "Jesus, I wasn't actually sure if you were going to call me back," he said, all in a rush, cringing and laughing in embarrassment at the same time.
"Mm," said Jeremy. Simon could almost see the corners of Jeremy's eyes crinkling in amusement. Wherever he was, there was some kind of exuberant music playing in the background, of the kind that Simon gingerly thought of as 'island music' to avoid thinking of it as 'goofy'; it was rendered faint by distance and tinny by the phone, but all the same it made Simon smile, a little. "Honestly, Simon," Jeremy said, the music fading further as he moved away from it. "What on earth gave you that idea?"
"Gosh, I don't know," Simon said. "Maybe because you were being all weird the last time we spoke? Or, uh, maybe because I was kind of being an asshole?"
That earned him a little startled pause, followed by a burst of laughter that sounded absolutely real. "I wouldn't have made you go that far," Jeremy said. A door shut behind him, cutting off the music. "A bit of a prick, certainly, but under normal circumstances I rather enjoy that about you."
"Good," said Simon, "because I'm probably not going to change at this late date. Where the hell are you, anyway? That doesn't sound like Italian music to me."
"On a little island in the West Indies, actually." Upholstery sighed faintly under Jeremy as he sat down. "I doubt you'd have heard of it. It's really quite tiny."
"Vacationing? Or hiding?"
"Oh, a bit of both," Jeremy said dismissively. "So... you're back home, then? Everything go all right?"
"Yeah, fine, we're good over here, everything's fine," said Simon. He lay back down on the couch and settled in, getting comfortable. "So... listen, have you got a minute? Because we need to talk. Or, you know, I need to talk and you need to listen and say the right things."
"Oh, dear, that sounds serious," said Jeremy. "If it's a serious conversation you're after, pardon me, I think I'll need a drink." The upholstered chair whuffed faintly as he stood back up.
"Yeah, go get yourself some liquid courage," Simon said. He shut his eyes and smiled. "Coward."
"Prick," Jeremy said, but he nearly purred it, his tongue ticking off the roof of his mouth as he enunciated the 'k'.
At three-fifteen the following afternoon, Simon pulled his Jeep up to the security gate outside headquarters and leaned out of the window to hand his ID to the guard on duty. The guard ran it under a handheld scanner, then checked it against a list, then handed it back to Simon. The gate arm hitched, then started to rise. "Coming to work a little late," the security guard said, straight-faced.
"Yeah, I overslept," Simon said, stuffing his ID back into his shirt pocket. "Think anyone's going to notice?"
The security guard gave that exactly the perfunctory grin-and-'heh' that it deserved, then stepped back into the hut and waved Simon in. Simon drove over the retracted SEVERE TIRE DAMAGE, STUPID spikes and into the parking lot. Most of the spots were full. It might have been Friday afternoon, but an agent would have to be seriously out of love with his job to try and sneak out before four. Fortunately, there were always spots back around behind the Ops wing, and Simon found one in short order.
He was early. Patting at the steering wheel absently, Simon took a deep breath. His ID obviously hadn't been flagged or suspended; if it had, either he wouldn't have gotten through the gate so easily, or he wouldn't have gotten through at all. It made sense, now that he thought about ithe was only suspended pending investigation, not suspended with prejudice, and Upstairs was marginally sympathetic to his situationbut still, Simon had to admit that he'd been wholly relieved when the gate arm rose.
The black Jeep was already starting to get uncomfortably warm in the July sun, so Simon let himself out and headed towards the building. Swiping his ID through the card reader did, in fact, open the door, proving that getting past the gate hadn't just been a fluke. Simon let himself into the building, pausing to bask in the refrigerated air for a moment before checking his watch. 3:23. Plenty of time.
Simon detoured and made a pit stop. He checked himself out in the mirror while washing his hands: no missing buttons on his shirt, no giant pit stains, no surprises hanging out of his nose. Simon met his own eyes in the mirror and grinned at himself for no reason at all.
The saferoom's door was still locked when Simon eased it down with one finger. No one home. Simon gave up on the stealth approach and unlocked the door, letting himself in. The room stank of cleaning fluid and disuse; the tables were bare, the chairs tucked neatly underneath. If it hadn't been for the eclectic jumble of Dave's hooded computers in the corner, the room would have looked uninhabited. It had never bothered Simon before, but it sort of bothered him now.
His office was equally clean, bare, and spartan, at least from the doorway. Moving around behind his desk exposed the gapped, dented faces of the drawers (courtesy of Sandra and a crowbar) but somehow, in the not-quite-a-month he'd been gone, the janitor had even managed to scrub most of the coffee rings off the surface of Simon's desk. The one tangible sign of Simon's residence was gone. The drawers were Sandra's mark, and the missing door, that was Nate's.
Simon plopped into his desk chairthat, at least, felt perfectly familiarand kicked it around in a circle, taking in the bare walls. They weren't much to look at. The industrial off-white paint was chipped in several places, but that and the burn marks by the door were about the only thing that distinguished Simon's office from an untenanted one. Most of the team leaders on this floor had family pictures, framed certificates, awards, pictures of themselves shaking hands with some politico or another; Simon's awards and certificates sat in a box in the bottom drawer of his file cabinet, where they belonged, and he'd never been much for pictures before. Now, though, the place looked disturbingly anonymous. Simon vowed to get a movie poster or something. His team would deface it in seconds. He thought he might like that.
After the events of this past week, though, Simon thought he could probably look forward to having his office decorated for him in the near future. Gay porn pinups on the walls, sex toys in the drawers, maybe a rainbow flag on his deskoh, well, he'd set himself up for that, and he could stand it for a week or two before he started kicking ass.
Of course, if he fucked up today, there might not be a 'near future' at all. Simon considered this possibility for a moment, then dismissed it. It barely gave him a qualm. Indeed, he was so calm that he was looking forward to the next hour, in a weird quasi-masochistic way.
Simon checked his watch, then heaved himself up and out of his chair. Time to get moving.
The vast main lobby was sparsely populated, which kept the echoes down to a dull roar. No one spared Simon a glance at all: he looked like he belonged here. Hell, he did belong here. Simon went to loiter by the elevators while he waited, out of the way.
Elevators came and went. It was getting on towards four, so people with nothing better to do were starting to leave for the weekend, piling off the elevators in little herds. Most of them barely glanced in Simon's direction. Simon leaned against the wall and gazed peacefully off into the middle distance, waiting.
Finally, a couple of minutes before four, his phone rang. Simon answered it. "Yeah?"
"Elevator doors just closed behind him," Danielle said, her voice terse. "He's on the way now."
Simon stabbed the closest elevator call button. "Owe you so big, Danielle."
"You have no idea how big," Danielle agreed. "We'll discuss terms later." She hung up on him without another word.
Simon put his phone away. One of the elevators answered his call ten seconds later, which he judged to be ample time; Simon waited patiently for the car to empty, then got in and held down the DOOR OPEN button for another five seconds, just to make certain. He let go of the button. The doors slid closed. Simon hit the button for the seventh floor.
The reception area for the Office of Professional Responsibility was empty, save for the receptionist. She was frowning at him like she was trying to figure out why he looked familiar; Simon flicked open his ID as he approached her desk, flashing her a grin. "Mr. Carstairs come through yet?"
"Just now," she said, relaxing imperceptibly.
"Thank God, I'm not late," Simon said, blowing on past her desk without stopping and dismissing her with a wave. "I know the way." The receptionist called after him as he strode off, but Simon didn't stop and she didn't bother to actually chase him down. Simon threaded his way through the hallways, heading towards the back of the floor.
Baker Hart's secretary looked up as Simon arrived, automatically smiling in welcome. "Hi, what can I"
Simon put his finger to his lips. She obediently shushed, startled. "I've got it," Simon said softly, crossing to the closed door to Baker Hart's office and putting an ear next to it. He could hear the mutter of voices clearly from a few feet away, and as he got closer, he could make out the individual words.
"Sir?" Baker Hart's secretary said, a little disturbed. Simon shushed her again and she subsided, although she was starting to look upset about it. Inside Baker Hart's office, the unmistakable basso rumble that was Upstairs said, "I assure you I didn't call this meeting, Baker"
"That's my cue," Simon said, giving the secretary the benefit of his third-best grin. She smiled back through sheer reflexSimon was pretty irresistible when he wanted to beand then Simon pushed open the door to Baker Hart's office and barged right in. "Actually, I'm the one who called this meeting," he said, suddenly flying on a wing and a prayer, but flying nonetheless. "I'm sorry for the deception, but I assure you, I had a reason."
All three of them blinked at him like startled moles, Norton Fowles frozen in the middle of lowering himself into a chair. Upstairs was the first to recover. "Simon?" he said, unsettled. "What on earth"
Simon held up his hand for silence, and Upstairs was so rattled that he allowed it. Later on, Simon decided, he would have to savor that little victory. "Please, give me a moment," Simon said, crossing to the desk and pulling himself up a chair. "I promise that I'll explain."
"Hmph." Upstairs folded both hands over the head of his cane and glowered at Simon. "See that you do."
"I'd love to know how you pulled that one off," Baker Hart said, a good deal more mildly.
Simon shrugged, spreading his hands as if to show they were empty. "Called in a few favors," he said. "Sure hope I can tapdance fast enough to make it up to you."
Baker Hart considered Simon for a long moment, then chuckled and settled back in his chair. "You've got balls, anyway," he said.
"Oh yes," Upstairs said darkly. "Whatever else he's short on, he has never lacked for guts."
"Balls, Carstairs," Baker Hart said, folding both hands over his belly. "Surely you're familiar with the term."
"Those, too." Upstairs' lips thinned.
Simon cleared his throat. Like magic, they both looked at him expectantly, Baker Hart raising one gray-furred eyebrow. "Okay, first off," Simon said. "How long have you two worked together at the Bureau?"
Upstairs and Baker Hart shared a glance. "Twenty-five, thirty years?" Baker finally said, looking back at Simon.
"So you know him pretty well," Simon said, gesturing at Upstairs.
"I'd say so."
"Thensolely in your opinion, of course, Mr. Hartwould you say that his confusion was genuine when I came through that door?"
Baker Hart glanced at the door in question, then at Upstairs, then back at Simon. "I'd say so," he said again, now openly curious. "Tapdance faster, please."
"Sorry." Simon wasn't. "My point is that UpMr. Carstairs had not been informed I was coming here today, or indeed, at all. What I'm about to tell you? It's as new to him as it is to you. Before I say another word, I need you to understand that. Whatever you end up thinking about me ten minutes from now, it has nothing to do with him." He glanced at Norton Fowles, then back at Baker. "Nothing."
Baker Hart also looked at Norton for a moment. "I take your point," he finally said, pleasantly enough.
"Simon," Upstairs said in warning. His voice was pained.
"Sorry, boss," Simon said. "I know you don't like getting caught unawares, but I didn't want anybody" Simon leaned on that 'anybody', just a little "to think we'd been conspiring beforehand. I guess you're just going to have to deal with the surprise."
Upstairs rumbled out a sigh and sat back. "All right, Simon," he said heavily. "Let's hear this new information, since you're so determined to have it out."
"That's right, I am." Simon had to stop himself from grinning like a loon. Whatever else came of this day, this time he was running the meeting instead of the meeting running over him. It already felt like winning. Simon twisted around in his chair and snapped his fingers at Norton Fowles, light-headed with glee. "Norton!" he said cheerfully. "Let's see that big map of the warehouse that you made the OPR pay out the wazoo for!"
"I assume you mean the, hm, the diagram of the crime scene?" Norton Fowles' voice was very thin, not least because Baker Hart was so transparently amused by Simon's antics.
"Well, I don't know. Do I?" Simon's eyes went wide. Christ, he was having fun. "As far as I know, no one's actually been tried or convicted of anything related to the kidnappingwhat crime would that be, Norton?"
Norton Fowles' eyes narrowed behind his glasses, but he didn't respond to that, probably wary of Simon's sudden attack of confidence. "Hm," he said instead, putting his everpresent folder down on the edge of Baker Hart's desk and flicking it open. A minute later he unfurled the massive overhead diagram and flicked it out, covering a good portion of the desk with it.
Simon stood up and smoothed both hands over the paper, spreading it out. "So. Let's recap. As Norton here has pointed out, when the shooting occurred, I was here." Simon's finger stabbed down onto the little black splotch of his own blood. "And Ballistics concluded that Farraday was here." Simon put a second finger down next to the first, putting the ghost of Farraday in the proper spot. "Of course, what this diagram could not tell you is that I was prone on the ground at the time, in a great deal of pain."
"You said as much in your official statement," Baker Hart said. He was still lounging casually in his chair, but his eyes were intent.
Simon exhaled long and hard, steadying his heart. "My statement is flawed," he said. "In short, as Norton Fowles surmised, I was lying at several critical junctures."
Upstairs made a strangling sound before he could rein himself in. Baker glanced at him, not quite smiling, then back at Simon. "Well, now," he said, doing a very good job at aping joviality. "If everyone were as willing to admit to their cover-ups as you seem to be, I daresay I'd be out of a job."
"Somehow, sir, I doubt that." Simon didn't quite smile back at Baker Hartfor a moment, there they were, two men of the world not quite smiling at each other. Eventually, Simon shook his head and got himself back on track. "But that's beside the point, I'm afraid. I've come here today prepared to tell you all what really happened that night. That is, if you're still interested."
"Still interested," Baker repeated. Now he did smile, shaking his head in wonderment. "I believe you've got a captive audience."
"Quite," Upstairs intoned. Norton Fowles harrumphed and shifted in his chair; no one so much as glanced in his direction, and he subsided, piqued.
"To a point, everything in the official statements is true," Simon said. "Farraday did get the drop on me and force me to kick my gun away. We did argue for several minutes while he had the gun on me. He did have one of his little spasms then, which made him pull the gun off me for a fraction of a secondat that time I charged him, as I said. However, he did not drop the gun at that time, as I originally claimed. I was doing my damndest to make him drop it, but he wouldn't let go." He paused.
They were all watching him now. "Hm," Baker said. He didn't say anything else.
After a moment Simon went on. "It was while we were fighting over the gun that he jabbed his fingers into the bullet wound on my chest." Simon touched the scar with two fingers. "I'm not ashamed to admit that the pain floored me. I don't think I've ever felt anything like it, and I hope to God I never feel anything like it again. Now, picture this in your minds: here I am, on the floor, unarmed and momentarily helpless." Simon tapped the black splotch. "Here is Farraday, right above me, still holding his gun." Simon tapped the spot next to him, then hesitated. "I thought I was dead," he said, a bit subdued. "I can remember him bringing up the gun and pointing it at my face, and when I heard the shot... well, I thought it was his gun. I thought he'd shot me."
The room was silent. Simon took a deep breath. "Jeremy Archer did pick up my gun once I'd kicked it away, as both testimonies reflect," he said. "He was standing here." Simon completed the triangle, tapping the small dotted circle that Recreations had drawn to place Jeremy at the scene. "When I went down and Farraday pointed the gun at me, Archer immediately shot him to save my life."
Baker Hart and Upstairs exhaled in unison. Quickly, before they could start peppering him with questions, Simon plunged on. "I freely admit that I covered for him on the shooting. Moreover, I admit that I coached him before letting him give his statement. I did these things because I have absolutely no doubt that an unbiased panel would exonerate him from any wrongdoing in the shooting, and because I owed himstill owe himmy life. He shot to save my life, and only after Farraday kidnapped him, attacked me, held me at gunpoint, and had the gun pointed at my face." Simon touched his fingers to the skin under his right eye. Baker Hart's eyes flicked up to follow the little movement, Simon noted with satisfaction. "However, given Archer's somewhat-dubious legal status and his lengthy record, I didn't want to take the risk of having him come up before a panel that was less than perfectly unbiased. The clusterfuck that would have resulted would have been a tremendous waste of everyone's time, and ran the risk of leaving me personally responsible for sending him to jail for the one crime he should have been exonerated from."
"Somewhat dubious," Norton Fowles repeated, like the phrase left a bad taste in his mouth.
"Somewhat dubious," Simon said in general agreement. "Jeremy Archer was not then and is not now currently wanted by any American law-enforcement agency. His file has been officially suspended until such time as he is caught breaking the law within the borders of the country again, as you'd know, Norton, if you'd done your homework."
The little choking sound that Norton Fowles made then went a long way towards restoring Simon's mad good humor. Baker Hart pressed his lips together to stifle a laugh, covering his eyes for a moment; once he had himself under control, he looked over at Upstairs, who might as well have been carved of stone. "Well, Carstairs," Baker said. "You've never heard any of this before?"
"Never," Upstairs declared, like he was delivering a verdict from on high. He cleared his throat with an ominous rumble and shifted in his chair.
"Well, isn't that interesting." Baker also resettled himself in his chair. "That does give me a lot to think about. Norton?"
"Yes?" Norton Fowles said. His nostrils were flared and his lips were pursedhe sounded downright prissy.
"You made it very clear that Simon's original statement contradicted the facts. Does this new information fit the facts more neatly?"
"Hm. Well." Norton flicked through the papers in his folder, stalling. "You understand I can't say for certain until I have had, hm, ample time to look over the documents in light of this new story"
"Given that you've spent a good five weeks of this department's time concentrating solely on this matter to the exclusion of others, Norton, I expect that you ought to be familiar enough with the documents in question to at least make an educated guess." Baker Hart's voice remained mild and his posture remained relaxed, but a whip cracked under his voice.
Norton Fowles subsided, slightly, his eyes two chips of stone. "I wouldn't like to be held to it, but... it does not seem to contradict the facts, at least on the surface," he said.
"Well, isn't that nice." Baker Hart looked back at Simon. "Are you willing to amend your statement to include this new information?"
"I am," said Simon. "Immediately. The sooner we put a spike through Diana Fontaine's wrongful-death suit, the better. Let her sue Archer, if she wants. Assuming she can find him, anyway, because by God, if she succeeds where half the world's police forces have failed, then she deserves to win that suit."
Baker raised both eyebrows, faking surprise, as if that hadn't occurred to him. "I see," he said. "So it's finally occurred to you that by offering to hamstring Diana Fontaine's lawsuit for us, you'll have one hell of a bargaining chip to use in getting off the hook for lying in your earlier statement?"
"Yes and no, sir," Simon said. "I mean, it occurred to me, but that's not why I'm here. Sure, I'm glad to do anything that'll piss off Diana Fontaine, but mostly? I fucked up, and I intend to take responsibility for it."
"Pity you couldn't have taken responsibility for it a bit sooner," Norton Fowles said, his voice thin.
Upstairs cleared his throat like a landslide. "Far be it from me to agree with Norton, but... I find myself forced to agree with Norton."
"Yeah," Simon said. He held up both hands. "Frankly, I agree with you both myself. But it wasn't just me who'd be affected by this decision, and it took me a while to think everything through."
"This is all beside the point," Baker said placidly. "What currently matters is having Simon make an updated statement, so that we can go ahead and get it into the hands of Diana Fontaine's lawyers."
Simon inclined his head. "Any time you like," he said.
Baker Hart turned his faint smile on Simon. "Of course, they'll demand to know what disciplinary action we've taken against you, and you've certainly earned some."
"I was thinking along the lines of a month's suspension and a tremendous black mark on my record," Simon said.
"Really." Baker's expression didn't change. "Oddly, that sounds like the suspension you've already served."
"Isn't that odd," Simon said. "Of course, if you think that's insufficient, you could also throw in the fact that I was yanked off active duty immediately following the Farraday debacle and have been on limited duty in the eight months since, driving a desk while the Bureau thoroughly investigated the matter. Due to a little matter of Farraday putting a bullet in my chest, but I leave it up to you whether to mention that part."
Baker considered Simon for a long moment, still ever so faintly entertained. "That might be workable," he finally said. "With the correct amount of spin."
"Spin isn't my department, I'm afraid," Simon said.
"For better or for worse, it's mine," said Baker Hart, faking a sigh. "I can work with thisassuming that you're telling me the unimpeachable truth." Above his little smile his eyes were cool and assessing. "Have I got the whole truth from you this time?"
Simon paused to collect himself for his next leap, his heart nearly singing in his chest with completely inappropriate anticipation. "No, sir, not yet," he said.
Baker raised both eyebrows. "No?"
"You should also be aware that Jeremy Archer and I have had an ongoing sexual relationship for just over two years now," Simon said.
The sudden silence was total. Simon was pretty sure he was the only person in the room still breathing, and he was definitely the only person in the room still smilingthen Baker Hart clapped a hand over his eyes and cracked up, startling Upstairs into a single, disapproving harrumph. "Oh, God," Baker said, still laughing. "What did I tell you, Carstairs? Balls."
Upstairs shook his head slightly, like he was dismissing a disturbing thought, and said, "I'm so glad you approve, Baker."
"Excuse me?" Norton Fowles' voice spiraled upwards past 'thin', almost to 'squeaky'. "He admits taking sexual favors from a wanted criminala wanted, male criminaland you think that's funny?"
"Really?" Simon asked, turning his bright gaze on Norton. "A wanted criminal? That's odd, the Bureau's own records would beg to disagree with you there, Norton. Jeremy Archer hasn't been a wanted man within the borders of the United States for well over two years now. I've neveroh, how did you put it'taken sexual favors' from a criminal in my life. Go ahead. Look up his file. I'll wait."
"That arrangement was your doing in the first place!" Norton Fowles pointed an accusatory finger at Simon. It was shaking, just a little. "For all we know, you and your paramour conspired to remove his file just so that he could continue his life of crime with impunity" He snapped his jaw shut, a moment too late.
Simon gleefully sucked in a breath, his eyes going wide in a mimicry of shock. "That is one hell of a baseless accusation there, Norton," he said. "I sure hope you've got some evidence to back it up, because you're treading awfully close to slander."
Norton Fowles sank in on himself like a turtle pulling into his shell. "'For all we know', I said." That prissy, pedantic tone was back in his voice. "Of course I'm not actually accusing you of anything at the moment, Mr. Drake."
"Good," said Simon. "Because I have about ten pounds' worth of documents and the testimony of five unimpeachable agents that can prove that Mr. Archer did indeed do good, honest work for the Bureau, earning himself that exemption." He paused, studying Norton's slumped figure. "In point of fact, I made it a stipulation of my ongoing relationship with Mr. Archer that he would no longer break the law within the boundaries of the United States. If you'd care to consult with Art Theft, they'd tell you that he hasn't done so. I may have purchased his good behavior with my own body" Christ, how Norton winced at that, it was great "but purchase it I did. In a very real sense, Norton, it's because of me that Jeremy Archer no longer practices his trade in this country. Maybe you ought to try thinking about it that way."
"Pedantry," Norton Fowles spluttered, but he subsided.
"Pedantry indeed," Baker Hart echoed, still laughing a little. "Are you trying to sabotage your career, Simon?"
"Absolutely not," said Simon, gathering himself for the final leap. "You asked for the whole truth, sir, and I for one am now prepared to give it to you. Really, though, I can't see that last fact ever making it beyond the walls of this room. Imagine if Diana Fontaine's lawyers got a whiff of that. Nothing concentrates the American mind like a sex scandal, particularly one with the whiff of criminality about itthe media would be baying at us for months."
"I thought you just finished telling Norton there was nothing wrong with it," Baker pointed out, mildly enough.
Simon couldn't help but smile. "There isn't," he said. "Absolutely nothing. I'll stand by that. But it still smells like scandal from the outside, doesn't it? The fact that I've managed to keep this a secret for well over two years speaks well for my ability to keep it under wrapsand for Jeremy's, actuallybut Christ, one slip on anybody's part..." He trailed off there and waited, expectantly.
The little half-smile finally faded off Baker Hart's face, leaving his expression wary. "Is that a threat, Simon?" he asked, his voice perfectly even.
"Of course not," said Simon. "What is there to threaten? I love my job. I believe in law enforcementI believe in the Bureau. And I look forward to doing my job for years and years to come."
Another, longer, more thoughtful silence fell. Upstairs was a stone statue to Simon's left, Norton Fowles a gargoyle to his right. Baker Hart drummed his steepled fingers together, then abruptly sighed and sat up. "Nicely played, Simon," he said, still neutral.
"I was thinking that I'd come back to work on Monday," Simon said.
Baker raised a finger in warning. "A week from Monday," he said. "That will officially put your suspension over a month and ensure that you are still officially suspended while we deal with Diana Fontaine's lawyers."
"It's a deal," said Simon. "I'll assume you don't want to shake on it."
"You'd be correct." Baker flopped back into his chair and tented a hand over his eyes. "Sometimes I hate my job," he said.
Upstairs shifted, then began the painful process of getting to his feet. "Nonsense, Baker. You live for that sort of sleazy bargaining."
"Well, yes, but you didn't have to say that in front of our subordinates, Carstairs." Baker rubbed his temples for a moment, then looked over at Norton Fowles. "Norton, I'll need every last scrap of paper that you've got, as we'll need them to support the revised version of the facts in our presentation to Diana Fontaine's lawyers. Go back to your office and get me the rest. And send in my secretary on the waywe might as well have Simon dictate his new statement while he's here."
Norton didn't budge, too flabbergasted to move. Baker eyed him for a moment, then sighed. "Norton. Go."
"This is insupportable"
"it's also done," Baker Hart said, his voice flat. "You've wasted enough of the Office's time trying to give Carstairs a black eye. Go."
"If it makes you feel any better, I do feel like I have some egg on my face," Upstairs said heavily. He limped over to the far wall and made a great show of studying the framed photographs there, while Norton Fowles heaved himself out of his chair and stalked towards the door. The door shut behind Norton Fowles with a thud. The little nervous flutter under Simon's breastbone finally evened out.
Upstairs didn't say a word to Simon until they were both in the elevator, heading back towards the second floor. "Well, Simon," he finally said. "I must admit that I found that unpleasantly edifying."
"Yes, sir," Simon said. It had taken him less than twenty minutes to dictate his new, revised, truthful statement into the digital recorder of Baker Hart's secretary, and then the OPR head had chased them both out, claiming a headache with that false good humor of his. Simon still felt like he was flying. More: he felt clean.
"I cannot say that I'm pleased with you at the moment, Simon." Upstairs cleared his throat, still staring resolutely at the changing numbers. The throat-clearing said it all: he'd had twenty minutes to digest this new information, and now he was going to impart his wisdom.
It was so Upstairs of him that Simon could have hugged him, except that that would probably horrify them both. "No, sir."
Upstairs chewed on his next pronouncement until the elevator was almost at the second floor. "However, as little as I'd like to admit it, if I had been in possession of all the facts directly after Farraday's shooting, I might well have advised you to do just as you did," he said, heavily. His face closed in what looked like pain. "So I suppose I cannot reasonably hold it against you."
"No, sir." Simon fought down the impulse to grin and add, Learned it from you, sir!
"I definitely cannot approve of this... liaison of yours, however," Upstairs said, wincing. "It seems tailor-made to sling mud onto the Bureau's image."
"Sir," Simon said. The elevator came to a stop at the second floor. The doors slid open.
"Still, I don't wish to set the unfortunate precedent of meddling in my subordinates' personal lives," Upstairs decreed, limping out of the elevator, his cane ticking along. "As long as Jeremy Archer never works for the Bureau again, in any capacity, I have no real right to interfere."
"That's fair," Simon said, following Upstairs out of the elevator.
Upstairs limped to a halt, halfway between his office and the elevator, and eyed Simon narrowly. "That does not mean that I like it," he said. "In fact, I strongly encourage you to put an end to this folly, although I'll go no further than encouragement."
"No one said you had to like it, sir," Simon said.
"Hmph." Upstairs got himself moving again. "Try not to get cocky with me, Simon."
Danielle's eyes widened as the two of them came around the corner. She dove for her computer screen a moment too late. "I assume Danielle was instrumental in setting up that little ambush meeting of yours?" Upstairs asked Simon, coming to a rolling halt in front of his secretary's desk while Danielle rather desperately pretended to be innocent.
"Don't blame her, sir," Simon said. "That involved trading on a lot of favors." Which direction the favors had gone, Simon purposefully left unclear.
Upstairs harrumphed again, then led the way into his office. Simon followed him in, closing the door behind him and watching Upstairs navigate the distance between the door and his desk. "Well, Simon," Upstairs said, settling in like a landslide. "In the end, was he worth all that trouble?"
"Him? Maybe, maybe not," said Simon. "Doing what I think is right in regards to him? Absolutely."
"Pedantry," Upstairs declared, with what was possibly the ghost of a smile.
"With all due respect, bullshit, sir," Simon said. He was on the verge of uncontrollable hilarity; all he wanted to do was get off somewhere and laugh until he cried. "I was only doing my duty as an agent of the FBI, after all."
Upstairs ruminated on this for a moment, studying Simon's face. "All right, Simon, I'll bite," he finally said, his voice weary. "What about covering up for the actions of a known felon falls under 'your duty'?"
"Most basic duty of all, sir." Upstairs was just the sort of stodgy career man that would have the FBI's official seal displayed prominently on the wall behind him; Simon pointed at it. "'Fidelity, Bravery, Integrity', sir."
Upstairs swung around in his chair and studied the seal for close to a minute before heaving a great, tired, put-upon sigh. "Go home, Simon," he said, turning back around. "Before I succumb to the urge to beat you with my cane."
Simon didn't bother fighting down that lunatic grin any more. "Yessir," he said, heading for the door. "See you next Monday."
"God help us all," said Upstairs, and then Simon was on the opposite side of the door.
It was after five by the time Simon got back out to his Jeep, and the great Friday-afternoon exodus was well underway. His initial near-hysteria had passed, thanks to a ten-minute sojourn locked away in the team's saferoom giving in to his need to utterly lose it, complete with flailing his arms and sputtering 'oh, Jesus' a lot; even now he kept laughing to himself on occasion, but he thought he was probably safe to drive. He joined the long line of cars waiting to leave the parking lot. Not even the horrendous DC Friday-afternoon traffic could put too much of a dent in his amazed good mood, not right now. Simon poked the radio and found something he could sing along to.
Instead of taking the exit that led back to his apartment, Simon suffered through an extra forty-five minutes on the parking lot that was 495, heading for Dulles. The traffic lightened once he hit the toll road and Simon coasted the rest of the way in, humming under his breath and still, occasionally, cracking up.
He parked the Jeep in one of the outlying parking lots and fetched his duffel out of the back, still humming under his breath. He got to the nearest shuttle stop just ten seconds too late: one of the airport shuttles was trundling away from him. Simon barely hesitated before running after it, despite the oppressive heat. He was sweaty and sticky by the time he caught up to it at the next stop, but the burst of activity had exorcised the worst of his lingering hysteria, and Simon rode into the terminal in a generally excellent mood.
Dulles was a zoo. Between the people trying desperately to get out of DC now that their business here was done, and the people who were relieved to get back now that their business elsewhere was done, there was barely a square foot of floor that wasn't occupied by someone in a bad mood. Simon consulted the wall of television screens for a minute, then fought his way down to join the winding snake-like line in front of Delta.
Half an hour later he made it up to the front and plunked his duffel down on the floor between his feet. "Hey," he told the mildly-frazzled lady behind the ticket counter. "I need a ticket on the 7:40 flight to San Juan, please."
Something about the very simplicity of this request seemed to confuse her, but she shook it off after a moment and entered into a consultation with her computer. A moment later, she winced, anticipating shouting in her future. "I'm afraid that flight is very nearly full, sir. The only seats I have left are in first class"
"Fine with me," Simon said, handing over his driver's license. She looked like she could use a smile, so he gave her one. "Don't sweat the small stuff, huh?"
She offered him the ghost of a relieved smile and negotiated with her computer for a few minutes. "Will you be checking any bags this evening?"
"Nope." Simon tapped the loaded prepaid Visa on the counter, waiting for her to ask for it.
Eventually, after the usual rigmarole, he was about nine hundred dollars poorer, which would have hurt if it had actually been his money he was spending. The ticket agent handed him his boarding pass and gave him back his license. "You're all set, Mr. Moorhead. Have a good trip!"
"Thanks," Simon said, stuffing 'Simon Moorhead's license back into his wallet. "You know what, I think I'm gonna."
Most of the crowds fell away once Simon got through security and into the international terminal. He had about twenty minutes before his flight started boarding, so he drifted through one of the omnipresent Starbucks storefronts and got himself some coffee. By the time he found his gate, his cup was about half empty. Simon found himself a place to sit and finished his coffee, his duffel in his lap.
Five minutes after he threw the cup away, the flight started boarding its first-class passengers. Simon got on the plane (after another round of ID checks) and stashed his duffel, then dropped into his seat. The flight attendant pounced while Simon was still groping for his seatbelt. "Would you like anything to drink while you wait, sir? Or a magazine?"
"Nah, I'm good," Simon said, distracted. The other end of the seatbelt was being elusive.
"Okay! Just push the call button if you need anything at all!" She moved on, trapping the next first-class passenger that she spotted.
Finally Simon got his seat belt sorted out and finished settling in. He could really get used to flying first class, not that he ought to; he wriggled his shoulders back against the padded seat and turned his attention out the window, watching the baggage carts go zipping back and forth. Even the hassles of air travel had barely dented his good mood, although his mood had mellowed as the immediacy of the scene in Baker Hart's office finally faded. Simon could contemplate it now without having to fight down the urge to laugh in horror.
After a while, though, his thoughts moved on. A stream of humanity flowed along the aisle, filling in the seats behind him, but Simon barely paid attention. Watching the planes take off in the distance, Simon let his mind drift where it would; by the time that everyone was seated and the plane was taxiing towards the runway, Simon found himself thinking about things that he'd barely thought about in years.
The plane roared down the runway and dragged itself airborne. Simon sat there in the darkness and ran through memories that were old enough to have lost much of their emotional impact, and through a few that would never lose an iota, no matter how old they got.
Let's just say that I feel ever so bad and wish to return what I've stolen, Jeremy purred in his mind, for the first time in years. Smiling to himself Simon watched the clouds fall away below the plane and listened to the mental recording, as if for the very first time.
Six hours later, Simon disembarked in Puerto Rico, ambling down the jetway at the head of a herd of exhausted passengers. San Juan was only an hour ahead of DC, but that still made it five in the morning on what promised to be a steamingly-hot Saturday. Simon wasn't as tired as he felt like he ought to be. Air travel was a lot easier to deal with when he was able to just pick up and go. Napping in the spacious first-class seating hadn't hurt, either.
At this hour of the morning, on a Saturday, the airport was a ghost town. Simon found his way into the main terminal, checked the wall of television screens again, and eventually found what he was looking for.
There was only one man behind the American Airlines ticket counter, his eyes puffy with sleep. He incuriously watched Simon approach, only straightening up once he realized that Simon wasn't veering off. "Yes, sir?" he said cautiously. "Can I help you?"
"I sure hope so," said Simon, dropping his bag at his feet. "I need a ticket on the 7:20 flight to Nevis, please."
Most of the caution fell off the ticket agent's face on the instant. "Ah, vacationing," he said, reaching for his keyboard. "Odd time of year for the Caribbean, isn't it?"
"Just needed to get away for a while," Simon said. He dug out the 'Simon Moorhead' passport and driver's license. "And hey, cheapest during the summer, right?"
"That is true. Any baggage to check?"
"Nope, just this," Simon said, nudging the duffel with his toe.
"And do you want to purchase your return ticket now, as well?"
Simon thought for a moment. "Might as well," he decided. "What have you got on Thursday?"
Boarding pass in hand, Simon went back through the security checkpoint and set off in search of breakfast. The selection available to him was underwhelming, to say the least. After ten minutes of fruitless wandering around, Simon went back out into the main terminal again. There was a Wendy's. That would do.
Fedif not wellSimon went back through security again and wandered down the concourse until he found his gate. Like the rest of the airport, it was deserted. Simon picked a seat in one corner, dragged up a second chair to prop his feet on, and dozed off with his duffel in his lap.
He didn't wake until they announced the general boarding, an hour and a half later. There were exactly five people waiting for his flight, including Simon; 'boarding' took about two minutes, and claiming their territory once onboard took another five. Simon wound up with an entire row of seats to himself just behind the bulkhead. He stuck his duffel underneath his seat and spread out, like a blob of jelly, to encompass his domain.
The plane sat at the gate for another half an hour, waiting for its scheduled departure time. Simon dozed a little more, but by that point he was actually feeling fairly well-rested, unable to drum up much interest in sleep. He watched the sleepy early-morning hustle out on the tarmac, squinting against the newly-risen sun.
One more person boarded the plane before it pulled back from the gate and taxiied out to the runway. Simon's domain remained unchallenged. No sooner were they airborne than the flight attendants came around, hustling a littlethe flight from San Juan to Nevis was only a little over an hour longand Simon got himself some more coffee to wash the taste of fast food out of his mouth.
The island of Nevis was little more than a mountain rising up out of the sea. Small and almost perfectly round, it was also vibrantly green and only sparsely settled, the peak in the center ringed with little white puffs of cloud like something out of a brochure. The nearby island of St. Kitts stretched away from Nevis; the two of them together looked like a floating exclamation point. The rest of the world outside the airplane window was the hallucinatory blue-green of the Caribbean.
The airport was tiny, if reassuringly modern-looking. Simon breezed through customs on the strength of the 'Simon Moorhead' passport, then stopped off to use the bathroom. He locked himself in a stall and spent five minutes switching the identity in his wallet from 'Simon Moorhead' to 'Trent Darcy', producing the second set of identity papers from his back pocket to make the switch.
'Trent Darcy' produced his identification at the currency exchange and traded his twelve hundred Euros for a serious bankroll of madly colorful East Caribbean dollars. The most surreal of the bills had fish and turtles swimming around Queen Elizabeth's smiling face, way too cute to seem like actual currency. Wedging the bills into his wallet, Simon headed off to find himself a taxi.
When he'd bothered to think about it at all, Simon had been expecting the Tower Hill Plantation Inn to be just another expensive hotel. Instead, he found himself halfway up the island's dormant volcano, looking up at a parcel of lightly-forested land that sloped up away from him into the clouds. The palm trees that ringed the outer fringe of the island were nowhere in evidence, this far up the side of the mountain; instead the vast clearing was dotted with the occasional fancy bungalow, each one carefully screened from its neighbors by clusters of trees and tumbles of native vegetation.
The taxi dropped him off in front of a tiny rental office that was nearly drowning in flowering vines and took off, heading back to Newcastle. Simon diffidently poked his head in, spotted 'Tower Hill Plantation Inn' written on the plaque on the front desk, and decided that maybe he was in the right place after all. "Hello?" he called.
"I'm a-come!" a woman called from somewhere in the interior of the office. A moment later she bustled out, her smile the most brilliant thing Simon had seen all day. "Yes, yes, I can help you?"
"I really hope so," Simon said, automatically smiling in response. "My name's Simon Moorhead?"
"Yes!" she cried immediately, pouncing on her desk and yanking one of the drawers open. "I an' I were a-expect you, Mr. Moorheadif I can see your identification?"
Simon obligingly produced 'Simon Moorhead's driver's license. She glanced at it, then glanced up at Simon's face, then nodded enthusiastically and pressed a keyring into Simon's hands. The heavy brass keyring had three keys on it, as well as a large round brass tag engraved with the word 'Lily'. The innkeeperor whatever she waspressed her hands together and essayed some kind of shimmying bow. "I an' I welcome you to Nevis, Mr. Moorhead," she lilted, beaming. "Please, enjoy your stay! I will call Joseph nowif you wait out front, he will ride you up to Lily."
"Thanks," Simon said, bemused. He closed his fingers on the heavy keyring, bobbed his head awkwardly, and stepped back outside to wait.
It was both hot and humid, as befitted an island in the Caribbean in July, but there was a constant breeze eddying around the sides of Nevis Peak which kept the air fresh and the clouds moving. As long as Simon stayed under the overhanging vines, out of the sun, it was more than bearable. It was almost pleasant.
He'd been sitting there for about five minutes before he heard the faint burr of a small engine, which shortly proved itself to be a battered golf cart with a beaming man at the wheel. "Come in, sir!" the man said, gesturing Simon over. "Lily is not so far, but Lily is high!"
Simon let his eyes stray up the mountainside. Acres of mountainside separated each bungalow from its nearest neighbors, and the road that ran between them looped in a wide and lazy circle, in some places switching back on itself to avoid getting too steep"Looks high," Simon agreed, climbing into the cart.
Close to ten minutes later Joseph stopped the golf cart in front of the very last bungalow, so high up the side of the mountain that the treeline nearly closed around it. It had been a long trip and a long climb. Simon imagined he could hear the tiny blender-sized motor wheezing, but if Joseph noticed, he gave no sign. "Lily," he announced, still beaming. "If there is anything else you need"
"I think I'm good," Simon said, hopping out. "Thanks for the ride."
"You are very welcome!" Joseph put the gasping golf cart back into gear and buzzed cheerfully off.
Thumping his duffel absently against his leg, Simon tilted his head back to take in the bungalow named Lily. The mountainside here was so steep that the front half of the bungalow stood on stilts; a narrow staircase led up to the wide, curving balcony and presumably to the front door. The bungalow itself was a strange confection of windows and whitewashed wood: whoever had built Lily had made a whole bunch of individual room-shaped boxes and jumbled them all together, then thrown on roofs more or less at random. The resulting building was a confusion of angles and shapes, like abandoned children's blocks, all of it just barely damming the verdant tidal wave of trees and plants that brimmed over behind it and spilled downhill on either side.
The clouds were so close overhead that Simon felt like he could touch them. The sunlight poured through Lily's four thousand open windows, turning the wood into white gold. "Doesn't look like a lily to me," Simon finally said. He hefted his bag and headed for the staircase.
Two stories later he hit the porch, breathing a little fast thanks to the altitude. Lily at eye level was even bigger and stranger than it had looked from the ground, but there was no mistaking the front door. Tucked between two of the building blocks, it stood invitingly open. Simon paused long enough to get his bearingsthere were flowering vines doing their damnedest to overrun the porch to either side, and from here he could see into one untenanted bedroom and one small den/library, both as gleamingly white and golden as the outside of the housethen headed for that open door.
After a short entrance hallway Lily unfolded itself around him. The main room was two stories high at the short end and three stories high at the tall end, with a sloping ceiling in between; the walls were whitewashed plaster, the floor was an ancient muddy-gold hardwood, and the furniture was simple and expensively shabby. "Goddammit, why do obnoxious rich assholes get all the good stuff?" Simon asked no one in particular, pausing on the edge of the threadbare Oriental rug and taking it all in.
"Odd, isn't it, how you need money to have the expensive things in life?" Jeremy lounged in one of the other doorways, just barely smiling. He couldn't have been on Nevis for more than about four days but he had already baked himself a rich and glowing bronze in the sun. In a concession to the heat, he wore only a pair of loose white drawstring pants; the pinkish splat of his old bullet scar just barely peeked above the waistband of his pants, like the sun rising. "And I feel as if I ought to take offense."
"Yeah, well, I totally did mean you, so there, hi." Simon tossed his duffel onto the nearest couch and closed the distance between them in three long stridesJeremy's crooked little welcoming smile faded to a quizzical expression in the two seconds it took Simon to close the gap, and then Simon scooped Jeremy bodily off the floor and threw him over his shoulder without stopping. "We'll talk later."
Jeremy yelped, the unguarded little sound warming Simon's heart. Automatically he grabbed Simon around the waist, catching Simon's belt in both hands. "Well, that was unexpected," Jeremy said from somewhere around Simon's butt, sounding both amused and faintly breathlessit couldn't be easy to talk with Simon's shoulder in his gut. "Where are we going?"
Simon rocked to a halt in the middle of the next room. "I don't know, where are we going? Where's the bedroom?"
One of Jeremy's hands freed itself from Simon's midsection and pointed to the left. "That way."
"Great!" Simon glanced down at the pointing hand, then set off in that direction, putting one hand on Jeremy's ass to make sure he didn't fall off Simon's shoulder. Not that there seemed to be much chance of that.
Jeremy tucked his bare feet neatly against the backs of his thighs to avoid losing a leg on the doorframe. "So, how"
"I was only"
Simon kicked open the bedroom door. "Later."
'Later' turned out to be 'much later', much to no one's surprise. Outside the sun was directly overheadthe sunwashed view out the windows was brilliant to the point of retinal damage, but the open windows had awnings and the sun couldn't find its way in. It wasn't dim, precisely, but the shadows were heavy, and would be until the sun set enough to come slanting in through the western windows and brush them away.
A ceiling fan spun lazily in the center of the ridiculous tall conical ceiling, helping the breeze along. Still sweating they sprawled on their sides in the mess of the sheets, facing each other, and Simon jammed one arm under his head and put his other hand on Jeremy's hip and finally, finally got around to his story.
The story took longer to tell than he'd been expecting. Jeremy on his best behavior was a good listener and an avid audience, but he was nothing but a mass of distractions even when he was doing nothing but lying there quietly and favoring Simon with that faint little smile. The last time Simon had seen Jeremy, Jeremy had been a filthy, battered, distant wreck; now, a week, a neat haircut, and a whole lot of island sun had gone a long way towards patching up the damage. A few faint pink patches and vague yellowed spots were all that remained of his myriad bruises and abrasions, nearly invisible under the glow of his tan. A divot of new, pink flesh shone in the center of Jeremy's lower lipall that remained of that ugly, bloody splitand the flicker of it was a constant attention-grabbing lure. Simon hadn't managed to resist the lure yet: every time Jeremy laughed or said anything the little pink wedge caught Simon's eye, and then he had to lunge for it, and then there he was, postponing the rest of his story yet again.
Still, despite the copious distractions, Simon eventually got through his story. He concluded by squeezing Jeremy's hip and declaring, "... and then I prudently fled the country before my boss could kill me, the end."
Still laughing a little (and teasing Simon with the flicker of his lower lip again) Jeremy reached out to put a hand on Simon's chest. "Well," said Jeremy. "I, for one, am deeply impressed, not least because you seem to be on the verge of actually getting away with it." He paused. "Well, apparently, anyway. Obviously they can't fire you without being quite careful, but isn't this essentially career suicide for you? Your so-impressive track record, all up in smoke?"
"Ah, Christ," said Simon, stroking his thumb back and forth across the spot on Jeremy's hip where his tan line ought to be. He hadn't been able to find a single tan line on Jeremy anywhere, and he'd looked for some time; his own hand seemed almost as white as the sheets in comparison. "I don't know what kind of crazy ideas you've got about me, but right now I'm two levels above rank-and-file, okay? Maybe three. And okay, yes, as of now I'm probably not going any higher. Ever." He paused long enough to jam a pillow under his head. "But that's fine. You know why that's fine? Because even one rank higher than I am is management. I'd never actually come in contact with a criminal again, unless it was one of my own bosses on the take, you get me?"
Jeremy's eyes widened, his pupils dilating. "Ahh," he said. "I see."
"Yeah, I thought you might," Simon said, stifling a yawn. His hours of travel and the excitement of the hours before and after were starting to catch up to him now that he was prone and comfortable. "It's not about climbing some corporate ladder. It's about doing the damn job. That's all."
"And your team?" Jeremy prompted. "How did they take it?"
Simon shut his eyes and groaned, flopping over onto his back. "Oh, they took it pretty well," he said. "And by 'well' I mean that they're going to make my life absolute hell for weeks once they get over the initial shock. Seriously, I predict hazing on a nuclear scale. On the bright side, I should then own all the horrible gay porn magazines I'll ever need."
"But... that's later." Simon yawned for real and reeled Jeremy in. "Jesus, I'm tired. I've got time for a nap, right?"
Jeremy settled in with a minimum of drama, one arm stealing about Simon's waist. "Of course," he said. "You're hardly on any sort of schedule here. I suspect it might be illegal."
"Great." Simon curled a hand around the back of Jeremy's head. "You're staying, by the way."
"Am I," said Jeremy, laughing a little. "So nice of you to let me know."
"Shut up. This point is not open to negotiation." Simon let his hand fall to Jeremy's shoulder and cracked his eyes open. Despite his exhaustion, he didn't drop off right away, just lay there and watched the fan blades turn and cultivated a vague appreciation for the searing sun-baked warmth of Jeremy curled against his side; the mountain breeze dried the sweat on his skin, and Simon drifted off to sleep listening to the sound of the waves below.
Late, late that night, they found themselves out on the balcony, listening to the faint sound of island music drifting up from the plantation's restaurant at the base of the mountain. Jeremy had put his white pants back on, still not bothering with anything like a shirt; after one semi-disgusted look at his jeans, Simon had dug out a pair of pajama pants and joined the trend.
From where they stood, high up the side of the mountain, they could see Nevis spread out in front of them in an endless dark panorama. The lights of the other bungalows winked faintly from behind their screens of vegetation, and in the distance there were both the lights of Newcastle and the lights from St. Kitts, just barely visible on the horizon. Simon could hear the ocean, and when the breeze shifted, he could smell it, as well. Lily was mostly dark behind them, only a single lamp still burning, waiting for them.
Jeremy flicked ash off his cigarette and leaned on the balcony rail, lifting his face into the breeze. "It does get so pleasant here at night."
"Yeah," Simon said. "And Jesus, who's going to look for you all the way out here?"
Jeremy smiled, just a little. "No one," he said. "And even if someone figured out I was still alive and managed to find me... there are exactly two ways to get on or off this island, and exactly one way to get up and into this house, with its superb vantage point. Good luck to them, for they'll need it." He raised his cigarette to the horizon in something like a toast.
Simon caught Jeremy's wrist before it could drop and reeled it in, stealing a drag on the cigarette. "So what'll you do now?" he asked, sighing out smoke. "Well, not now now, but... now."
"Lie low for a year or so," said Jeremy, shrugging. "After that? We'll see. Frankly, it's the smaller-scale work that pays the bills, not the large splashy thefts, so I suppose I could go the rest of my life filching ordinary gemstones and staying under everyone's radar."
"Huh," said Simon. "Makes sense, I guess. Or, you know, you could just retire and enjoy your ill-gotten gains. Hell, in ten years you wouldn't even be wanted for anything any more."
"But then what will I do for fun, Simon? Honestly." Jeremy's little grin flashed in the moonlight.
Simon shook his head sadly. "Your definition of 'fun' is just not normal," he said.
"Really? I'm surprised you think so." Jeremy turned his smile out over the mountainside, tapping ash off his cigarette again. "I thought you of all people might understand that nothing is more fun than doing that at which you excel."
Simon snorted and dropped the subject. For a while neither of them said anything. Jeremy eventually ground out his cigarette and didn't bother to light another. Somewhere above the house, something that sounded like a monkey screeched in the forest.
"Hey, I've got a dumb question," Simon finally said, shifting.
"Oh, dear. With a qualifier like that, from you, I'm rather afraid to hear it." Jeremy tilted his head to the side. "What is it?"
Simon hesitated, then temporized. "Remember way back when, when we were all in Ohio setting up the sting at Annadale? ... Jesus, that was forever ago."
"Yes?" Jeremy said, after a startled hesitation of his own.
"Okay, so, like I said, stupid, but I was thinking about it on the plane, and..." Simon trailed off there and scratched the back of his head. "There was one point, right before everything went to hell, when you were getting all pissy at me because you thought I didn't trust you or something, and I asked you what you wanted from me. You know, rhetorically. I wasn't actually asking, but then you had to... to be all you and ask me if I really wanted to know the answer to that question"
"and you said that you didn't want to know just then, but some day, when it was all over, I should tell you," Jeremy finished, the light dawning.
"Yeah," Simon said. "So... you want to tell me? Because Christ, it may not all be over, but right now it kind of feels like it."
Jeremy considered for a long moment, crooking a finger over his lips as he thought. "All right," he said. "Why not? But do indulge me, Simon, and let's do this up right: ask, and I'll answer."
"Jesus, you are always such a drama queen, I don't know why I bother," Simon said. "All right, fine." He paused and looked out over the island below: there were a million stars in the sky, and a tiny pair of shadowed figures broke away from the restaurant and headed for one of the lower bungalows, holding hands. Their laughter carried ever so faintly up the hillside. Simon watched them go, suddenly unsure whether he really did want to know, then he damned himself for a coward and glanced at Jeremy and asked before he could talk himself out of it. "So... what do you want from me, anyway, Archer?"
Jeremy's smile was small and crooked, but it looked real enough for all that. Lifting his hand he made a lazy gesture, which took in all the island, and the Caribbean beyond, and the million and one stars in the sky above; "What do I want from you?" he repeated, plainly amused, like he always was. "I'm afraid my answer is the same that it's always been: everything that you're willing to give me, and then everything more that I can take."
Simon found himself with nothing to say to that. His ears were burning, slightly. "Huh," he finally said. "Okay."
"Okay?" said Jeremy, now laughing for real. "Is that all you have to say?"
"Okay," Simon repeated, and then, helpless not to, he added, "Because Jesus, that is just like you."
"I know," said Jeremy. He put his hand on Simon's, where it rested on the rail. "Believe me, I know."