Part Five, Chapters 18-20
The uncanny resemblance to Jeremy faded as Ethan got closer and Simon got a better look at him. The basics were eerily similar but the details were all wrong: Ethan looked to be somewhere around sixty, his weathered face deeply lined and his wavy hair more gray than brown. Still, he was in good shape, for an old guy. Simon was all too willing to let him deal with the duffel.
Behind Simon, the driver of the car opened the door and let himself out. "Anything else you need before I go, Ethan?" he said. Simon wheeled halfway around, getting out of the way of the conversation.
"No, no, I believe that should be all," Ethan said. "Thanks ever so. You will be careful, won't you?"
"Absolutely," the other man said, touching his forehead in a half-assed salute. "Won't move from the gate until I make sure the street's empty."
Ethan nodded once, maybe almost smiling. "Good," he said. "I've enough to worry about without having to ransom you, as well."
The other man laughed and closed the car door, the slam echoing dully off the high, bare ceiling. "I'd like to see the bastard who could catch me, I would."
"I wouldn't," said Ethan. "Well, then. Come along, Simon, I'll show you about the place."
Simon blinked, then hurried to catch up. "Oh. Uh, yeah. Coming."
Simon followed Ethan out of the garage and into a kitchen so enormous that it struck him dumb. It was large enough to feed an army and everything about it screamed oh shit, money! loudly enough to make Simon uncomfortable. "In case it wasn't obvious," Ethan said, waving a hand, "this is the kitchen."
"Yeah," Simon said, clearing his throat. "Yeah, I think I noticed."
Ethan led the way out through an honest-to-Christ restaurant-style swinging door and into a long, narrow hallway, comparatively plain and normal. Simon breathed a sigh of relief. "And that," Ethan said, gesturing at the door opposite, "is the exercise room, which you are welcome to use, if you'd like."
"Yeah, uh, thanks, but"
"And up these stairs here are the bedrooms," Ethan said, mowing over Simon's protest so smoothly that Simon couldn't even collect his thoughts enough to protest. Ethan headed up the stairs, carrying Simon's duffel; Simon gaped after him for a moment, then followed. The staircase was narrow and curved in the middle, eventually opening out onto a hallway that was much wider and more ostentatious, plush like a grand hotel's. "Those are my rooms at the end of the hall," Ethan said, tilting his head, "and I've taken the liberty of putting you in these rooms here." He pushed through the door immediately to his left, leading Simon into what looked like a small library or office or something.
Simon followed him. "That's great, but"
Ethan held up a hand. "Please, Simon, let me finish." Simon subsided. Ethan nodded, then continued. "That's the bath, and that's the bedroom. I expect you'd like to clean up a bit and have something to eat before you sleep."
"Oh, Christ, yes, but"
"The suite between this one and mine is currently empty," Ethan said, trampling Simon's protest again. "As you are a guest in my house, you are perfectly welcome in any of the rooms that I've just shown youeven mine, although I would prefer it if you'd be so kind as to knock first. However, and I cannot stress this strongly enough, I recommend that you not attempt to go anywhere else in the house."
Simon paused, his protests momentarily stilled. "The, uh, defense mechanisms, right?"
"Oh, yes," Ethan said, with a tight little smile that didn't reach his eyes. "After what happened to poor Annabelle, I felt that perhaps I ought to take, ah, precautions. You have my personal assurance that as long as you stay to the inner rooms, you will be perfectly safe, both from stray Russians and from the house itself."
"Yeah. Ouch. I'll try and restrain my exploratory urges," Simon said. "So"
"You're welcome to anything in the kitchen, of course," Ethan said. "As you can see, I tend to keep odd hours, so please feel free to make yourself something to eat whenever you're hungry, although I do try to have dinner at seven every evening."
Simon's stomach twinged. He pressed his hand to it until it quieted. "Okay," he said. "So" He paused, waiting for Ethan to interrupt. Ethan only raised both eyebrows at him. Feeling like an idiot, Simon winced and plunged on. "I don't know what it'll take to convince you that I'm serious about wanting to help Jeremy"
"I know you are," Ethan said, almost kindly. "But right now isn't the time to talk about it, is it? You could probably do with a bath, a meal, and a good night's sleep before I put you on the spot."
"Yeah, but" Simon hesitated again for a split second, then plunged on when Ethan didn't interrupt "the longer I spend here, the longer Jeremy's out there on his own"
"Let me be honest with you, Simon," Ethan said. "Right now, at this very moment, I haven't the faintest idea where Jeremy's gotten to. He left his current billet a day or two ago and is on the movehe prefers not to stay in one place for too long, for obvious reasons. When he has a moment, he'll let me know where he is. Once he's done that, if you've managed to convince me that you'll be of some use, I'll send you to him. In the meantime, you might as well rest up. All right?"
Simon thought about it, then decided that he couldn't argue with that, especially not with the promise of a long, hot shower in the offing. "Okay," he said. "So, uh. Bath's in there?"
"Oh, yes," Ethan said, holding out his free hand. "If you'll just give me your jacket I'll put your things in the bedroom for you. Once you've finished up in there, come on down to the kitchen and I'll see if I can't feed you."
"You know what, I'm guessing you can," Simon said, handing over his jacket. His stomach knotted, right on cue.
Leaving his dirty things in a pile on the bathroom floor, Simon hit the shower as soon as the water was lukewarm. It had been a long time since he'd felt this filthy: he was caked with multiple layers of dried sweat and the grime of several continents. There was sand crusted on him in the strangest places, some of which Simon didn't want to think about.
He stood under the spray, head bowed, hands braced against the wall, until grains of sand stopped swirling down the drain. The water heated around him; by the time it ran clear, it had also lulled Simon into a stupor. He shook his head once, then again, slinging water against the wall. Finally, snapping out of it, he grabbed the soap.
By the time he poked his head out of the bathroom, he felt better and more awake than he had sincehe consideredsince about Mexico. There was no sign of Ethan, and the hallway door was closed. Clutching his towel about his waist just in case, Simon edged over and stuck his head into the bedroom: also empty. His duffel and jacket sat on the floor by a large chest of drawers, surrounded by a faint dusting of sand. "Whoops," Simon muttered, crouching in front of the duffel and unzipping it.
Simon dug out some clean (but incredibly wrinkled) underwear and put it on, then dumped the rest of his things into the empty dresser. The jacket he hung in the closet. A stray burst of self-consciousness prodded him back into the bathroom, where he first found a hamper to shove his filthy clothes and empty duffel bag intoleaving another scattering of desert sand behind on the tilesand then reclaimed his gun in its ankle holster, bringing it into the bedroom and 'hiding' it under the clothes in the dresser. Ethan would probably find it if he so much as sneezed in the general vicinity of the bedroom, but Simon was pretty sure he didn't care enough to look for a better hiding place right now. Instead he put on a clean shirt and jeans and picked his way out into the hall.
Somewhere off in the distance Ethan was clattering around in the kitchen, but after a single glance in the direction of the narrow stairway, Simon headed the other way. Feeling a bit like an intruder (but taking Ethan at his word) Simon stuck his head in the empty suite of rooms and found that they were just that: an empty suite of rooms, much like the one that Simon was staying in. Simon nosed around, just in case, and then headed for the far end of the hallway.
An enormous and lushly carpeted wooden stairway curved gently down and away between the empty suite and Ethan's own. Simon eyed it askance: it hadn't been part of the tour. It might be safe or it might not, but the entry hall at the bottom almost certainly wasn't; either way, Simon decided not to press his luck and moved on. The door that led into Ethan's suite was closed. Simon reached for it, then stopped with his hand a couple of inches from the doorknob, reconsidering. Ethan had said that he was welcome, but all the same, Simon's imagination was having a field day. "Maybe some other time," Simon said under his breath, then headed back the other way.
He went down the narrow and relatively plain back staircase and found himself back in the downstairs hallway. The kitchen sounds (and smells) were much clearer now, making Simon's stomach growl again. Kneading absently at his stomach, Simon glanced from the double doors leading into the kitchen to the door opposite them and back. Just a quick look...
The door opposite the kitchen opened onto echoing darkness. Simon couldn't see a thing but he could still sense space. Gingerly he patted the wall by the door and found the light switch. Fluorescent bulbs popped and hummed as they warmed up, leading off into the distancedespite himself, Simon flinched back. "Whoa," he said, when he recovered. The so-called 'exercise room' was more like an entire gym, bigger than a basketball court, with wooden floors that looked like they'd echo. There were enormous mirrors and what looked like a ballet barre, of all things, on the opposite wallthe ensuing mental images made Simon snickerand off at the far end of the room there was a large stack of exercise mats and a couple of complicated-looking pieces of exercise equipment
"It used to be the poolhouse before I bought the place," Ethan said, behind him. Through sheer willpower Simon managed not to jump, although he yelped a little before he could stop himself. Ethan pretended not to notice. "The pool's still there and should be clean, if you'd care to use it. You just have to retract the floor to expose it. The control panel is down there by the gymnasium."
"Retract the floor," Simon repeated, numbly. "Christ, and they say crime doesn't pay."
"Oh yes, so they say," Ethan said. "Shall we eat?"
The smell of something cooking assaulted Simon with nearly physical force the moment he pushed through the kitchen doors. Ethan went directly over to one of the ovensone of the ovens, Christand started fussing with it, leaving Simon to fend for himself. Uncomfortable all over again, Simon glanced around. One corner of the massive, frightening, industrial-sized kitchen proved to have a fairly nice little breakfast nook hidden in it, so Simon went over and sat down before he could break something.
Behind him, Ethan was still busy. Simon folded his hands together on the table and stared down at them, uncertain of what to do or say now. "I kind of brought half the Sahara with me," he finally said. "Seriously, I tracked in a lot of sand."
"Yes, I noticed," Ethan said. "You needn't worry about it. I'll take care of it tomorrow after you wake."
"Sorry about that," Simon said. He fell silent again, listening to the ongoing clatter from behind him. A minute or so later Ethan swept in, put a napkin-covered basket and a butter dish on the table, and then swept back out. Simon pulled the basket over and investigated it: bread. He fetched out a piece, buttered it, and ate it in four giant bites, barely pausing to taste it. "Guess that's what you get for sending me through Morocco," he said around his mouthful of food.
Ethan didn't quite laugh. "Yes, I suppose so," he said. "I'm afraid it was the best I could do on such short noticeI hope you weren't stranded in the desert for too long."
"Hour or so," Simon said, snitching another piece of bread. "Felt like forever, though."
"Mm," Ethan said.
His current store of conversational topics exhausted, Simon shut up and emptied the breadbasket instead. Whatever was cooking smelled wonderful, and Simon was debating the merits of saying so when Ethan reappeared, carrying two heavily-laden plates. Simon picked up his fork and studied the contents of his: chunks of fresh fruit and a large square of something that was mostly yellowit looked like some kind of egg casserole. "Is this quiche?" he asked, half curious and half suspicious.
"It's frittata, actually," Ethan said, taking the seat opposite Simon. "Quiche has a crust. Frittata is just an exceedingly puffy omelet."
"Oh, well, omelets I can deal with," Simon said, spearing a corner of the square and putting it in his mouth. His eyebrows flew up. "S'good," he mumbled. "S'in this?"
"Ham, asparagus, roasted potatoes, a bit of leftover onion, this and that," Ethan said, shrugging. "Frittata is an excellent way to get rid of things that are cluttering up the fridge."
Simon swallowed the first bite and sliced off another. His empty stomach set up a clamor that nearly hurt. "It's really good," Simon said.
"I'm glad you like it," Ethan said. "Cooking's become something of a hobby for me in my retirementI'm afraid I can be insufferable on the subject."
"Hey, as long as I get fed like this, I can't say that I mind too much," Simon said. Ethan just smiled in response and Simon abandoned the awkward conversation in favor of stuffing his face.
Two helpings and several pieces of bread later, Simon was finally beginning to feel like he'd plugged the howling hole in his stomach. Sighing, he slumped back in his chair. "Thanks," he said. "I needed that."
"It's no problem," Ethan said dismissively, pushing his own chair back and standing up. He brushed past Simon and headed back into the kitchen proper. "Would you care for tea?" he said. "There's fresh."
Simon went a little still. "Uh."
"You're allowed to refuse, you know. You needn't just sit there looking like I called your mother a terrible name." Ethan came back, carrying his steaming teacup in both hands. "I expect you're a coffee drinker in any case."
"Yeah," Simon said, looking away. "Yeah, pretty much. But not right now, Christ, I'm going to fall asleep in fifteen minutes whether I'm near a horizontal surface or not."
"In that case, I suppose I'd best let you get to it," Ethan said. He sat down and reached for the sugar bowl, barely glancing at Simon. "Good night, Simon. I'll see you in the morning, or whenever you wake."
"Uh, yeah," Simon said. "G'night." Embarrassed into something like good manners, he picked up his empty plate and carried it to the nearest sink, abandoning it there. It felt wrong to just leave, but he couldn't think of what else to do, since Ethan was no longer paying any attention to him at all. Simon paused by the sink, indecisive, then shook his head and headed for the doors, leaving Ethan to his tea.
Simon let himself back into his rooms and fell back against the door, heaving out a breath. His exhaustion was a bone-deep clamoring ache, a physical thing, but he was crazily, painfully wired to boot. Jet lag times a thousand, not mitigated at all by all the cat naps he'd stolen en route. If he went to bed right now, he'd either thrash around until dawn or sleep like the dead for two hours and then thrash around until dawn; neither option was appealing. Fortunately, he had a third option, one he'd come prepared to exercise.
Heading into the bathroom (and wincing at the grit of sand under his bare feet), Simon opened the little bottle of Advil that he'd brought along and shook the contents out into his palm. Mixed in with the big green capsules were a few tiny white pills: five fresh Ambien, begged from Sandra two days (or a lifetime) ago. Simon took one, washing it down with water cupped in his palm, then opened the medicine cabinet to put the bottle away... and hesitated, noticing for the first time the little brown scratches in the white paint.
Some previous guest had defiantly carved his initials into the back of the medicine cabinet, the spiky little letters hidden in one corner where they'd be invisible behind even something as small as the bottle in Simon's hand. Simon squinted at them, then opened the cabinet door wide enough to get some light on the letters:
"Huh," Simon said. He blinked. "Huh." Straightening up, he glanced around the bathroom, then bent down and opened the cabinet under the sink. It was empty. Simon went out into the main room and racketed around for a few minutes, opening and closing drawers and rooting through cabinets. Those that weren't empty were filled with ordinary, everyday things, mostly office supplies and the like. Simon studied the books on the shelvesunforthcomingthen headed into the bedroom and started yanking out drawers there.
It wasn't until he pulled open the closet and ran his hand along the top shelf that he had any luck. Something slid under his hand; Simon clapped his hand down on whatever it was and slid it forward, sending a couple of cheap Polaroids fluttering to the carpet. He crouched down and picked them up.
The color was already leaching out of the pictures, leaving them bleached a weird reddish-yellow, but the subjects were still clear: Ethan, about ten years younger, halfheartedly holding up a hand to ward off the photographerwho had carefully written Ethan on the white strip at the bottom of the picture, in case it wasn't already clearand a familiar-looking teenaged boy with longish hair and a sullen expression jabbing two upraised fingers at the camera. The second picture had been labeled Bran. Simon would have known that scowl anywhere.
Laughing a little, Simon plunked down on the rug in front of the open closet with the pictures. The handwriting was a lot messier than it would become in later years, but it was still familiar enough. Simon glanced over his shoulder at the bedroom: it was reasonably large and well-furnished, but now that he knew what to look for, he could see scuff marks on the walls and chipped varnish on the bedframe. Ethan hadn't just put him in a guest room.
Simon got back to his feet, put the old Polaroids on the dresser, and wriggled out of his jeans. He was starting to come up on the Ambien and his thoughts were getting a little fuzzy. Plodding back out into the main room, Simon killed the lights. He groped his way back towards the bedroom in the resulting darkness, getting fuzzier all the time.
He managed to crawl under the covers about half a second before his legs would have given out under him. His brain had been reduced to mush, giving off nothing but static; Simon gazed stupidly up at the ceiling and tried to figure out if there actually was a Jeremy-shaped dent in the mattress or if he was just imagining things. A couple of minutes later, still undecided, he fell asleep.
The clock on the bedside table was one of the old analog kind, with the round face and the hands and the two bells on top. The first time that Simon blearily blinked his eyes open to a grayish morning, it informed him that it was just before ten o'clock. Simon made a grumpy sound, yanked the covers up to his nose, and went back to sleep.
The next time he roused himself enough to look at the clock, it was eleven-thirty, and still gray. Simon shut his eyes and did his best to wring a little more sleep out of the day, but it wasn't happening; after ten minutes or so of listening to the clock tick, Simon was forced to accept that, for better or worse, he was awake.
His brain felt muddy and slow. His muscles felt like they were full of sand, like the carpet. Simon sat on the edge of the bed and took stock: he was pretty sure he'd live. Simon picked up the clock and fiddled with it while his brain fought to clear.
Okay, so: as far as he knew, he didn't have to go anywhere or do anything today, which made a nice change. So first off, he'd have a shower. It might clear some of the mud from his brain, and then he could go downstairs and find something to have for lunch. There probably wouldn't be coffee, unfortunately, but food would go a long way towards fixing what was wrong.
The lure of lunch was enough to propel Simon the rest of the way out of bed. Putting the clock back down on the bedside table, he headed for the bathroom, shedding clothes in his wake (and then going back and picking them all up again once he remembered that he wasn't at home). He stuffed his clothes in the hamper, wincing yet again at the sand on the bathroom floor. Maybe if he got really bored, he'd figure out where Ethan kept the broomit'd beat walking on sand every time he needed to use the bathroom. Simon grimaced, scraped his feet on the bathmat, and got into the shower.
He still felt slow by the time he got out, but it was a faster kind of slow. He'd settle for that.
Once he'd shaved and brushed his teeth, Simon headed back into the bedroom, tracking yet another ton of sand in with him. At least his clothes were clean and reasonably sand-free, although Simon ended up having to carry his sand-filled sneakers back into the bathroom and dump them out into the sink, which meant that he tracked through the sand in his socks. Simon was currently of the opinion that if he never saw sand again, it'd be too soon. He was also of the opinion that someone was going to clean all the sand out of here today, even if that someone ended up having to be him. Not right now, though. Now was for lunch.
Opening the hallway door, Simon stuck his head out. The house was still eerily quiet. Whatever Ethan was doing, he was doing it either quietly or elsewhere. That was fine with Simon. He headed for the back staircase, fighting down the absurd impulse to tiptoe.
The kitchen was empty. It was still ridiculously huge, and seemed even more so now that it was daylight, but Simon felt up to the challenge now that he'd had some rest. Wandering around, he poked through the cabinets, stuck his head in the vast, overstuffed fridgewhich was taller than he was and about as broad as his outstretched armsstudied the complicated control panel attached to the range, and generally got as used to the place as humanly possible. He still felt a little weird about eating someone else's food, but not weird enough to keep him from raiding that gigantic fridge and the matching walk-in pantry.
It was almost an embarrassment of riches. Fifteen minutes later Simon had produced two sandwiches, one of which involved last night's frittata on toast, which promised to be excellent. He added an orange and a can of something Italian that promised to involve caffeine to his hoard, then carried his prizes to the little breakfast nook and set to with a will.
He was polishing off the last of his second sandwich and vaguely considering making himself a thirdcold frittata on toast was excellentwhen he heard what sounded like a car in the driveway outside. Simon sat up and twisted around in his chair, peering out of the window behind him. There was a car idling out there, some kind of anonymous little silver thing. It didn't look like any of the cars he'd seen in the garage last night.
"Good morning, Simon," Ethan said, from behind him.
Simon jerked in his seat, nearly tipping his chair over backwards; he hadn't heard the hallway door open. "You know, I'd only just started to get used to Jeremy doing that," he said, once he recovered. "Anyway, morning. Or afternoon, I guess. Were you expecting someone?"
"Yes, I've just come down to let him in," Ethan said, heading for the door that led into the garage. "I see you found yourself something to eat."
"Uh, yeah," Simon said, discomfited. The man had told him he was welcome to anything in the kitchen, but it seemed rude to get caught taking him up on it.
"That's good." Ethan pushed one of the buttons on the wall and the garage door started to rumble up. The little silver car pulled in, vanishing from Simon's view.
Simon awkwardly gathered up his dishes and carried them to the sink. "Are the dishes in the dishwasher clean or dirty?" he asked, turning on the water and sticking the first plate underneath it.
Ethan glanced up at him, looking mildly startled, like he'd forgotten that Simon was there. "Mm?" he said. "Oh, you don't need to worry about those" Outside in the garage, the car's engine shut off. Ethan broke off in mid-sentence to close the garage door again. "You can just leave those in the sink, that's perfectly all right," he said, and then he vanished into the garage, his greeting echoing off the concrete. A car door slammed.
Simon rinsed the crud off his lunch dishes anyway, feeling mulish, then stacked them in one corner of the sink and eyed the dishwasher. Out in the garage Ethan and the new arrival were talking, although Simon couldn't make out what was being said; after a bit more thumping Ethan reappeared, his arms full of stuff. A little man with a mustache was bobbing along in Ethan's wake, carrying a huge black box. "You guys need help with that?" Simon asked, straightening up.
"No, I think we've got it," Ethan said, resting his chin on the topmost box. "However, if you could do me a favor..."
Ethan glanced at Simon, then nodded as best he could with his chin in the air. "Go back upstairs and fetch down a second shirt, please. We'll be setting up in the exercise room."
Simon looked down at himself. Okay, he was just wearing a t-shirt, but he thought it was a pretty decent one. "What's wrong with what I'm wearing?"
"Nothing's wrong with it," Ethan said. "You'll just need a change of clothes. Bring the other shirt to the exercise room when you've a moment." He backed out through the swinging doors, the little guy following.
Simon watched them go, confused, then shook his head. "Is everyone in this country allergic to explaining themselves?" he muttered, heading after them.
Rooting around in his dresser produced a wrinkled gray polo shirt. Simon flapped it around until the worst of the wrinkles fell out, decided that that was good enough, and carried it back downstairs, draped over his arm.
All the lights were on in the exercise room when he poked his head in. Ethan and the weedy little guy had their heads together, conferring while they worked together to set up some kind of frame against one wall. "What's up?" Simon said. "Will this do?"
Ethan glanced at him, took in the polo shirt, and nodded. "Oh, yes, that should be fine. You can just put that down over there" he nodded at the ballet barre against the other wall "and we'll use the t-shirt first."
Simon took a deep breath, shut his eyes, opened them again, reminded himself to be patient, and asked, "For what?"
"Pictures," Ethan said, which was no help at all. "Just a moment and I'll explain."
Simon gritted his teeth and tried not to say that'll be the day. Instead he dropped his shirt over the barre and settled in to watch while the two of them finished setting up the frame. Once it was up and reasonably stable, Ethan pulled out a fat roll of something and slung it over the top of the frame, while the other guy picked up a heavy-duty tripod and screwed it into the bottom of the big black box that he'd carried in. Five minutes later there was a monstrous professional-looking camera standing in the middle of the room, flanked by two huge lights and pointed at a backdrop of light blue matte fabricSimon was beginning to get the idea. He wasn't sure if he liked it or not, but he had it. "You're going to run me up some fake IDs?" he asked, testing this theory.
"Absolutely," Ethan said. He was kneeling by one side of the frame, pulling the fabric taut and tying it off. "I can't keep on stuffing you into the holds of ships whenever you want to go anywhere."
"You know what, I've got to agree with you there," Simon said.
"So we'll make you up a decent false identity and then you can run around to your heart's content," Ethan said, testing the knots. "Well, for a year or so, anyway."
"Yeah? What happens after a year?"
"Your driver's license will expire," Ethan said. "Teddy makes quite a good fake, but all the same, I don't recommend attempting to renew it."
"Uh, no. No. Good point. Yeah." Simon scratched the back of his head. "So... does this mean you will be sending me to wherever Jeremy is?"
Ethan stood up and dusted off his knees. "That's still up in the air, Simon," he said. "But even if not, the false identity will make it much easier for me to send you home again. Still, it will take Teddy a day or two to run you up a set, so either way, it's best to get this process started now."
The little guy with the mustacheTeddy, Simon supposedcleared his throat. "All right," he said in a nervous little voice, dry-washing his hands and not quite looking at Simon. "If you'd just come stand in front of the drape, pleasethank you..."
Simon tugged his t-shirt down and headed over. He still wasn't sure he liked this, but he knew that he liked the idea of traveling by pregnant whale again even less. "Here?" he said, coming to a halt in front of the drape.
"A step or two forward, please," Teddy said. The little man was already busy making adjustments to his massive, blocky camera: it hitched up an inch, then another, then a third. Simon took a step forward. "There you are, that's perfect," Teddy said. "Just wait there a tick."
The black glass square on the front of the camera twitched left, then right, until Simon could see a dim reflection of himself in it. "There we are," Teddy said, still distracted. "All right. You can smile if you like."
Simon twitched his face into the little rictus of a smile that always resulted from requests like those. Beside him, Ethan made a faint tch sound. "Oh, don't smile," Ethan said under his breath. "At least, not like that."
Startled, Simon glanced over at Ethan. "What?" he started to say, but Teddy interrupted: "Look at the camera, please," he said, vaguely irritated. Simon's head swiveled back. Too self-conscious to do anything, he just stared at the camera, aware of Ethan's eyes on him; a moment later the camera's flash fired, dazzling him.
"Oogh," Simon said, reaching up to rub his eyes. "Should I put my other shirt on now?"
"Let me get a couple more shots, just in case," Teddy said. "Look at the camera again, please."
Still seeing nothing but spots, Simon complied. The monster flash went off a second time, then a third, ensuring that Simon was thoroughly blinded. "There we are," Teddy said. "All right. Go put on the other shirt, then muss up your hair and smooth it down again."
"Wh," Simon started to say, and this time it was Ethan who interrupted him: "Teddy's a bit of a perfectionist," he said soothingly, catching Simon by the elbow and guiding him towards the mirrors. Simon, blind, couldn't find it in him to object too much. "He doesn't want your hair to look exactly the same in both pictures, just in case."
"Guess that makes sense," Simon said, groping for the barre. His hand collided with the soft mass of his shirt and he picked it up, shaking it out; by the time he pulled it over his head he could almost see again. He smoothed the polo down and buttoned it up, then scraped his fingers through his hair, rearranging how it fell over his forehead. "How's that?" he said, glancing at Ethan in the massive mirror. Behind them Teddy was shifting the huge lights around, rearranging the shadows.
"Oh, quite good," Ethan said, studying Simon. "You might also rub your cheeks a bit, bring up some flush. If you don't, he's bound to suggest it."
Simon studied himself in the mirror, then scrubbed his palms over his cheeks and bit his lower lip. "Like that?" he said. "Sheesh, I didn't know it was going to be this complicated."
"Well, Teddy is quite proud of his handiwork," Ethan said. "There. You look like you've been standing in line at the license bureau for hours and are about to snap."
"And that is a look that I specifically cultivate," said Simon, heading back towards the camera.
Five minutes and another severe temporary blinding later, Teddy was packing up his camera while Ethan took down the backdrop. Simon leaned against the wall and scrubbed his eyes. "Tomorrow afternoon," Teddy was saying. "I could have it for you by noon, but it would be a bit of a rush."
"Mm," Ethan said, rolling up the backdrop. "It shouldn't be necessary, I don't think. When you can is fine."
"By three, then, I expect," Teddy said.
Simon shrugged out of his polo shirt. "So what nationality am I going to be?" he asked, smoothing down his hair again.
"Oh, American," Ethan said. He and Teddy were breaking down the frame, working together like they'd done this a hundred times. They probably had. "I don't think I could possibly pass you off as anything else."
"You know, people keep saying that, and I can't tell if they're insulting me or not," Simon said.
"Really?" Ethan piled up the pipes, them picked them up. "How terrible for you."
Simon opened his mouth, then shut it again. "Ouch," he finally said.
"Mm." Ethan's little smile looked almost real.
"Well, I've been told," Simon said to no one in particular. "You guys need a hand getting that out to the car?"
"Oh, I think we've got it," Ethan said serenely, heading towards the door with Teddy bobbing in his wake. "You can go put your shirt away, if you'd like."
Simon put the polo shirt back in the top drawer and closed it. From up here, the sound of the garage door going up was faint, almost subliminal; he couldn't hear Teddy's car at all. The only way he could tell that Teddy had gone was by listening for the garage door to go down again.
Picking absently at his t-shirt, Simon leaned against the dresser and thought. His brain was still a bit sluggish; Ambien did that to him on occasion, particularly when he was using it to smooth out a couple of days of bad sleep, like he was now. Coffee would usually sharpen him up, but he hadn't found any on his initial safari through the kitchen. Just tea. Simon could not imagine a world in which he was so far gone that he'd willingly drink tea.
Still, coffee wasn't the only way. Simon dug out the sole pair of shorts he'd brought with him and changed into them, then trotted back downstairs, keeping one eye out for Ethan, who was, once again, nowhere to be seen. Simon let himself into the exercise room and headed for the far end, where the complicated machinery was. Up close, it proved to be a comprehensive rack of free weights, a lifting bench, and one of those all-in-one Nautilus things. Perfect. Simon set the pin at five weights down, tested the weight, moved the pin down two more weights, then settled in at the machine to do some reps.
It was simple, repetitive, mindless hard work. Simon stopped thinking about much after five minutes. The sand sifted out of his muscles and the mud leaked out of his brain as he worked up a sweata decent, honest sweat that had nothing to do with the weather outside. It wasn't coffee, but it would do. Once he'd exhausted the possibilities of the machine, he moved on to the free weights; there were weightlifting gloves at one end of the rack, and he put on a pair before setting up the bar for a bench press.
He was on his back on the lifting bench, with his hands on the bar, when Ethan said, "I'll spot you, if you'd like to add some more weight."
Simon twitched, then shut his eyes. "Jesus, I'm glad I hadn't picked that thing up yet," he said, swallowing. "I'd have dropped it on my chest just now and I need those ribs."
"Well, that's why I spoke up before you lifted it," Ethan said, moving past him to the racks. "More?"
"Yeah, give me another thirty pounds, would you?" Simon let his hands drop to his chest, staring up at the high ceiling and listening to Ethan clang around behind him. Eventually, mostly to fill the silence, Simon added, "At least I'm starting to get used to you popping up out of nowhere and scaring the shit out of me."
"And here I was having such fun, too." Ethan's hands flickered in Simon's peripheral vision, putting another weight on one end of the bar.
Simon shut his eyes and tried to laugh. "Now you sound like Jeremy."
Another clang announced the addition of a second weight to the other end of the bar. "In point of fact, I expect he sounds like me."
"Well, yeah, but I met him first, so... I guess you're just going to have to suffer. We set?"
"I believe so," Ethan said. "Give it a go."
Simon opened his eyes and put his hands back on the bar. Most of Ethan was a vague shape at the edge of Simon's vision; only his hands, clasped loosely around the center of the bar, were clearly in focus. Simon stared up at them as he took a deep breath, then another, focusing himself. Ethan's hands were squared-off and looked strong, even if his knuckles were turning into hard knots as he got olderSimon hissed out his last breath through his teeth and heaved, lifting the bar off the pins.
Ethan's hands rode loosely along as Simon lowered the bar almost to his chest. Simon sucked in a breath, blew it back out, and pushed the bar up and away from his chest until his arms were straight. Ethan's hands fell away as Simon brought the bar back down.
Ethan was courteous enough to wait until Simon was on his third rep to ask, "So, what made you decide that it was suddenly so important to drop everything and race to Jeremy's aid?"
"We going to do this now?" Simon gritted out, bringing the bar back down.
Ethan shrugged, somewhere at the very limit of Simon's field of vision. "Well, here we both are, and personally, I find that exercise focuses the mind quite nicely."
"Yeah," Simon said. "Okay." The bar lay hard across his chest and he paused long enough to blink and swallow. "See, what you've got to understand is" Simon heaved the bar up again "a lot of this is my fault."
Ethan's little "Oh?" was neutral.
"Yeah." Simon's elbows locked at the top of the rep and he flexed his fingers. "Not all of it. But a lot. See, once upon a hgh time, I had a teammate named Rich. There were two problems with Rich: one, he just hated Jeremy, which I knew, and two" the bar touched Simon's chest again, completing his fourth rep "he'd been compromised a couple of years before by haa Karpol's people, which I did not."
"I see," Ethan said.
"And then I brought Jeremy in on hgh the thing that turned out to be this Bran guy" Simon broke off there, belatedly remembering what Bran was, besides a pain in the ass. "Uh."
"Mm," Ethan said distantly. Simon paused with the bar against his chest, unsure of what to do now. "It's all right," Ethan finally said, although it didn't sound all right. "Let us leave Bran out of this for now, if possible."
"Fair enough," Simon said, gritting his teeth and getting the weights moving again. "Anyway, long and short of it is that hgh! Rich is the one who brought Jeremy to Karpol's attention in the first place. And he wouldn't have done that if haaaa I hadn't brought Jeremy in."
"So you feel responsible," Ethan said.
"I am responsible," Simon corrected him. Simon's locked arms were trembling a littleit had been a long time since he'd done any serious weight trainingbut he'd be damned if he was going to stop now.
"I see," Ethan said. Simon barked out a harsh breath and let the weight fall again, moving slowly to keep from moving too fast. Somewhere above him, Ethan's fingers flexed, reacting to the stumble in the rhythm. "So," Ethan said after a moment, "is that why?"
The bar lay across Simon's chest while Simon panted. "Part of it," he wheezed. "I mean, Jeremy thought he could stay ahead of Karpol thanks to his fake identities and stuff, and the Karpol expert from the CIA thought that Jeremy would only be in danger if he did something to call attention to himself, so haa!" Simon heaved the bar upwards. "So he must have used an old identity or something. Or maybe somebody gave him up. I don't know what happened there. Jeremy didn't say."
"Mm," Ethan said.
"The other thing is this thing with Annabelle," Simon said, then broke off abruptly as one of his elbows snapped out. Ethan grabbed the center of the bar before Simon could even yelp, and together they wrestled the weight back under control. "Christ," Simon said, straightening the bar out across his chest. "Thanks. Glad to see you don't want me dead yet."
"If nothing else, it'd be difficult to explain to the authorities," Ethan said. He almost sounded amused. "So... tell me what happened with Annabelle."
Simon shut his eyes, flexed his fingers, and ground the weight upwards again in short, hitching increments. "I called someone to confirm Jeremy's story," he gritted out, wincing against the burn in his muscles. "I like the guy, but he's like you: he doesn't ever want to explain anything" the weight trembled at the top of its arc "and he is somewhat non-law-abiding, and I didn't really..." Simon trailed off there.
"Didn't really?" Ethan prompted, grandly ignoring the backhanded insult.
Simon eased the weight back down. "I was going to say I didn't really want to lose my job over Jeremy, which is ironic for reasons I'll get into in a minute," he said. "Help me get this little bastard back on the pins?"
Ethan reached down and grabbed the bar around the middle, pulling it up as Simon heaved. The weight clanged back onto the pins and Simon let his hands fall, shaking the strain out of his arms. "You were saying?" Ethan prompted, again.
Simon flexed his fingers, wincing. "Anyway, it took me a little less than twenty-four hours to confirm Jeremy's story, and by then, it was too late. Karpol's people had taken Ms. Lamb out of Durango just a few hours before."
"Mm," Ethan said again, his mind obviously elsewhere. He sounded so much like Jeremy when he did that. It still had the power to make Simon shiver. Simon very firmly put that thought out of his mind and concentrated on pressing his elbows down to either side of the bench, stretching out his pectoral muscles. The little knot of scar tissue on his abdomen had seized up pretty badly, but with patient stretching, it started to loosen. Eventually, Ethan sighed, tapping his fingers on the bar. "Was that supposed to impress me, Simon?"
"Was whatoh." Simon couldn't help but grin up at him. "Well, no, but if you want to be impressed by my superior detective skills, I won't argue. Wanna know how I figured it out?"
Ethan's answering smile was small and wry. "Yes, actually, I believe I would."
"Well, see, it was those letters that Bran had been getting in prison," Simon said. "Signed by you, apparently, although I'd bet you five bucks that Jeremy actually composed them and Annabelle did the writing and mailing. I think they just signed your name to themprobably with your blessingto make sure that Bran would actually read them."
"Ah," Ethan said, still smiling. "Is that what you think?"
Simon tucked his hands behind his head and gazed up at the ceiling, waiting for his arms to stop quivering. "Something like that, anyway," he said. "Anyway, those little bastards were postmarked from all over the country, but the last onethe one with the red-alert code in it, the one that basically propelled Bran over the walls of McCreary like his ass was on firethat one had a Durango postmark. Since it was the only one that could have been considered time-sensitive..." Simon trailed off there and shrugged, not bothering to hide his own smile any more.
Ethan raised both eyebrows. "It's an impressive chain of logic, if nothing else."
"Yeah, yeah, I'm right and you know it," Simon said, reaching up to grab the bar again. "In fact, if I had to guess, I'd say that the actual red-alert code was referring to Bran by name in the last letter. I haven't actually seen these letters for myself, but given what Annabelle's red alert was..." Simon let the sentence trail off there and heaved the weight back off the pins. Ethan's hands leaped spooky-quick to the bar again, riding it back down. "And given that I'm such a stand-up guy," Simon wheezed, "I'm not even going to ask you how Bran got out of a maximum-security federal prison."
"I'm sure I wouldn't know in any case," Ethan said, but that smile of his was starting to look pretty persistent.
"Anyway" Simon braced himself, hissed out his breath, and pushed the bar up again. "yeah, I fucked up really good on the Annabelle thing, and then I found out she was a paraplegic, which didn't exactly make me feel better about it" he brought the weight back down with a grunt "and right about then is when everything else blew up in my face."
"Yes?" Ethan said, after a moment.
"Mind if I get in a couple more reps before I launch into this part?" Simon said.
"Stalling," Ethan said, nodding wisely. "Well, if you must."
Simon grinned a little. "You're damn right I'm stalling," he said. The bar went back up.
He did the next seven reps in increasing struggle and silence, watching nothing but his own hands on the bar and Ethan's hands, hovering just above. Finally, once he'd gotten to fifteen, he called it good enough and guided the bar back onto its pins about two seconds before he could drop it onto his windpipe and kill himself. "Christ, I need to start going to the gym again," he rasped, swiping the sweat off his forehead. "I'm not in bad shape but I could be in better."
"Mm," Ethan said, clearly refraining to comment out of sheer politeness. "Have you finished stalling, then, or should I bring you the dumbbells?"
Simon swung his arms around, loosening them. "Actually, give me another forty pounds on the bar, if you would," he said, hoping it wasn't just bravado. "And while you're working on that, I'll give you the next bit."
"Please do try not to kill yourself," Ethan said. "I'd have to pay a ridiculous amount of money to have your body smuggled back into America." He reached up and pulled the two smallest weights off one end of the bar, though, complying.
Simon folded his hands on his chest. "Okay, so... did Jeremy ever tell you about what happened with Farraday?"
The clanging behind him momentarily stilled. "Oh, yes," Ethan said grimly.
Simon winced. And they'd been doing so well, too"How much?"
"Enough, I believe," Ethan said.
"And of course you're not going to expand on that assertion," Simon said, mostly to himself. "Okay, so you know that I took the official heat for the shooting. It just made things easier for everyone, for me as well as for him. Okay?"
"Yes?" Ethan said, now firmly stuck back in neutral. He reappeared with a large weight in his hands and put it on the bar.
"Couple of days ago that finally came back and bit me in the ass," Simon said. It came out bitter, which shouldn't have surprised him as much as it did. "And seriously, I never thought it would. I thought it was over. I thought Jeremy was clear, I thought I was safe, and I knew Farraday was dead as hell, which meant that everything was right with the world. And then some... some clerk with a hard-on for my boss dug up Farraday's corpse..." Simon winced and flapped a hand, dismissing that disturbing mental image. "Uh. Not literally. But anyway, long story short, I've been suspended to get me out of the way while the, the politics rage overhead."
Ethan paused with his hands on the weights on the other end of the bar. "I see," he said.
Simon held up both hands like he was trying to ward Ethan off. "They still don't know about Jeremy's part in it," he said. "Before you ask. He's still clear. And that's only partially about him, but it is still about him. Okay?"
"I suppose changing your story now would leave your position precarious," Ethan said, still neutral. He pulled the two smallest weights off the other end of the bar and carried them away, vanishing from sight.
Simon sighed sharply. "Yeah, it would. I'm not gonna lie about that. But if you think that it's all only about meif you think that I'm only concerned with my own ass herethen fuck you, you need to learn how to listen."
Ethan was silent. Somewhere behind Simon the two weights clanged into the rack and another, larger weight clanged out of it. Simon flexed his fingers and stared resolutely up at them, even as Ethan drifted back into view and put the weight on the other end of the bar. "There you are," Ethan said. "And, for the record, I said nothing of the sort, and I don't feel that you're being fair about my position."
"Fair? Jesus." Simon grabbed the bar and gulped in a breath, bracing himself. "There's nothing fair about any of this. There's nothing fair about what's happening to Jeremy or to me, and you know what, all I can do right now is throw my weight around on Jeremy's behalf and hope that I can make something come out all right." He dragged the bar off the pins with a choked-off shout; Ethan grabbed for it at the same moment, and together they stabilized it about six inches away from Simon's chest. "I got it," Simon wheezed.
Ethan's fingers loosened, leaving his hands curled lightly about the bar. Weight settled on Simon like an avalanche. "If you say so," Ethan said.
"Yeah, I do," Simon said, letting the bar settle to his breastbone, already knowing that he'd overdone it. Still, if he could just lift it once... "Before you ask, I don't know what I would have done if I hadn't gotten suspended," he said, coughing out the words. "Probably just sat around and felt like shit, waiting for Jeremy to call again." The bar raised an inch, then another.
"Well, that's honest, at any rate," Ethan said.
Simon almost grinned, hitching the bar up another inch, his arms trembling. "Hey, I'm a crappy friend, but at least I'm honest," he said, his voice airless. The bar edged upwards at the speed of continental drift. "I just... believe me when I say that I've always done the best I can."
Ethan's hands uncurled, hovering over the bar like a magic trick. "I believe you," he said. "It's just that I remain unsure whether your best is going to be enough."
"Wanna find out?" Simon said, nearly whispering now. "'Cause you know what, I do." He shut his eyes, ground his teeth, and gave the bar a single almighty heave. His elbows straightened and locked and Simon's eyes flew open, leaving him gazing up in disbelief at the weight, and Ethan's hands still hovering over it, not touching it at all.
"Mm," Ethan said. Without consulting Simon he took hold of the bar and guided it back onto the pins, and Simon gladly let it go. The weight crashed back into the stand with a sound like a small car accident; Simon let his arms fall, boneless. His hands brushed against the cool wood of the floor and Simon spread his arms wide, gasping and crucified on the weightlifting bench. "Far be it from me to dictate terms," Ethan said, after a long, silent moment, "but I suspect that you're done. Or at least that you ought to be."
"Oh yeah," Simon said. His voice sounded like it was coming from a long way off. "I'm done. And as soon as I can move again, I'm going to go have four Advil and a very hot shower."
"In that case, you'll be glad to know that I've cleaned all the sand out of your suite," Ethan said.
Simon shut his eyes. "Yeah," he said, and coughed. "Gotta tell you, that makes my day."
By the time Simon managed to haul himself upright again, wheezing all the way, Ethan was gone. To where, Simon had no idea. Simon's chest ached like he'd just been kicked in it, and the little knot of gunshot-scar tissue had pulled so tight that Simon had to fight not to list to his left like a drunkard, but all the same, he felt pretty damned good. Like he'd won something. He didn't know if he'd actually won or not, but he was pretty sure he'd made a decent showing, and that was all he could ask for. Staggering upright, he headed for the door.
The floors in his rooms were sand-free, the rugs newly printed with vacuum-cleaner tracks. His bed had been made. The Polaroids on the dresser had been shifted a couple of inches to the left. Simon grinned at that, then peeled his t-shirt and shorts free of the sweat on his limbs and dropped them on the floor, only to swear at himself and bend arthritically in half to pick them up again. The hamper, he discovered, had been emptied; he dropped his sweaty things into it and got into the shower, turning up the hot water until steam filled the room.
It wasn't quite two by the time Simon was dressed again, his skin pink from the heat, like boiled shrimp. Simon had no idea what to do with himself now, but he had to admit that being free to be at loose ends was kind of great all by itself. He wandered over and twitched the curtains open, cupping his hands over his eyes and staring out the window.
It was lawn and landscaping pretty much as far as he could see. There was a curve of driveway half-hidden by the trees and what looked like the front walk directly beneath him, but almost everything else was some shade of green, except the sky, which was an unrelieved gray. In the distance Simon could just barely see what looked like a high wrought-iron fence with spikes on the top, and beyond that, what might have been a road.
It looked pretty peaceful, right now, but Simon was pretty damn sure he wouldn't want to go running around out there. The fence looked like pretty serious business, too. He couldn't tell how tall it was, but for it to still be visible from that far away... Simon looked for a nearby tree to compare it to and discovered that there weren't any trees anywhere near the fence, which made him go hmm.
There was a polite knock on his door. Simon twisted around and dropped the curtain, feeling oddly guilty, like he'd been caught at something. "Yeah?"
Ethan pushed the door open and offered Simon an opaque little smile. "I've just brought your laundered things back," he said, putting the basket down just inside the door. "Also, dinner's at seven."
"Oh, hey, thanks a lot," Simon said. "... can I ask you a question?"
Ethan paused, caught in the middle of his retreat. "Yes?"
"You don't always do the housekeeping stuff yourself, right?" It was a stupid question, but for some reason Simon wanted the answer.
"Oh, no," Ethan said. "But I thought it best to limit the amount of traffic in and out of the house for the time being, for everyone's safety. The outer perimeter can stand to get a bit dusty, and I can certainly handle the inner bits by myself until this fuss blows over."
"Yeah," Simon said, looking away. "That's what I thought. Uh. Sorry to bother you."
"It's no bother," Ethan said pleasantly, already closing the door behind himself.
Simon put his clean things away, including the duffel. He couldn't remember the last time that had been washed, actually. It might have just been his imagination, but he could have sworn that his duffel hadn't always been this pliable. He checked on the gun, still hidden under his clean clothes. It didn't look like it had been touched, but that didn't mean anything.
That little bit of excitement over with, Simon went looking for something to do. He hadn't actually seen a television in the housethere had to be one, but it was probably either in Ethan's room or somewhere in the outer rooms, and Simon didn't particularly want to explore either placeso he poked through the bookshelves in the main room of his suite instead.
Most of the books were of the technical or reference variety, including a row of what looked like actual textbooks on the bottom shelf, but there was a row of battered paperback fiction stashed on the bottom shelf. Simon took a leisurely poke through the books, reading the backs, then picked out three or four that didn't look too bad and carried them into the bedroom, dumping them in a pile by the analog clock. A quick troll through the other, empty suite turned up a few more decent prospects, which Simon added to his stack. Picking one at random, Simon got into bed and propped himself up on a pile of pillows to read.
He dozed off about half an hour later, the book open on his chest.
It was the smell of roasting meat that woke him a few hours later; Simon blinked his eyes open and gazed unseeing up at the ceiling, just contemplating that wonderful smell. He felt... well, he felt great, loose and rested and awake. He wasn't even sore. That might change when he actually roused himself enough to move, but somehow, he didn't think so.
The smell only got stronger. Simon decided that he was in favor of this and glanced at the clock: it was about six-forty-five. He rolled upright, stretched luxuriously, and went to clean up a little before dinner.
"Ah, there you are," Ethan said when Simon drifted into the kitchen, following his nose. "I was beginning to wonder if I was going to have to go knock you up."
Simon opened his mouth, shut it again, shook his head, and went to lean on the counter. "I'm just going to be nice and admit that I know what you meant," he said. "That smells really good."
"I think it's turned out well," Ethan said, eyeing the oven critically. "If you'd like to get yourself something to drink, I'll finish things up."
By the time Simon sat down, Ethan had pulled everything out of the various ovens and was, with great concentration, putting together a salad. "You really shouldn't keep feeding me like this," Simon said, watching the greens rise and fall with fascination. "I don't know if I can still digest real food, and also, I may never leave."
"If I may be honest with you, Simon, I'm rather enjoying having the opportunity to cook for someone, even if it is you," Ethan said absently, paying more attention to the salad than to Simon. "Most nights it's just me, save when Jeremy's about."
"So..." Simon twisted halfway around in his chair and slung an arm over its back. "Basically, you're enjoying getting to feed me, and I'm enjoying getting fed..."
"Match made in heaven," Ethan said, so primly that Simon couldn't help laughing.
"Aw, Christ, that was good," Simon said, slumping back in his chair and picking up his glass. He'd scraped his plate so clean that it looked like he'd licked it. "I don't want to alarm you or anything, but I'm in imminent danger of exploding over here, which might ruin some perfectly good wallpaper."
"I'm glad you enjoyed it," Ethan said, blatantly ignoring the rest of Simon's statement.
"What, the wallpaper? Yeah, it's great," Simon said. He tipped his head back and drained off the last of his water.
Ethan smiled, letting it go. He'd maintained a polite, distant silence throughout the meal, which might have been awkward if Simon hadn't been so busy stuffing himself. Now he folded his hands neatly in front of himself, his own drink dangling negligently from his fingersit was club soda with lime, which surprised Simon not at alland lost both the smile and the distance, studying Simon like he was an interesting specimen.
Simon very carefully did not sit up, although he mentally raised his shields. "What?" he said, clattering the ice cubes around in his glass. "Don't try to tell me 'nothing', either."
Ethan shook his head a little, like he was clearing it. "No, no," he said. "I was only thinking... I've entertained any number of truly odd people here over the years, but I think this is the first time I've ever knowingly had an FBI agent at my table."
"Huh," Simon said, slowly. "Yeah. I guess I keep forgetting..." He stopped, made a frustrated little gesture, and finished with "... who you used to be." They both winced even as he said it, and Simon hurried to patch things up. "Maybe if I'd pulled up your file I'd remember a little better."
"I wonder if my FBI file still exists," Ethan said. Like Simon he settled back in his chair, gazing thoughtfully off into the distance. "I must have had one, back in the day, but I certainly never had the opportunity to see it, and I'm long since clean."
"In the 'statute of limitations' sense, sure, but the only way you wouldn't have a file any more is if it got lost before someone put it into the computer systemwhich, I might add, could totally have happened." Simon paused and drank off a dribble of icemelt. "I could get someone to look," he said. "If you're interested."
"Mm," said Ethan. Like an echo he brought up his own glass, draining off most of his club soda. "I admit, I might find it interesting, but I'd hate to put you to any trouble"
"Why not?" Simon said. "I'm sure as hell putting you to some."
Ethan acknowledged the shot with a quick twitch of a smile. "In that case, I'd be interested."
"If it still exists, I know a guy who can find it," Simon said. "Seems like the least I can do."
"Well, then." Ethan inclined his head, accepting the offer.
Simon nodded back. "Course, I can't guarantee its accuracy. Aruh, Jeremy seems to think his file is hilarious, and his was active until about two years ago. Art Theft does the best it can, but, uh..."
"It's Art Theft?" Ethan supplied.
Simon pointed at him. "Bingo."
"Far be it from me to speak ill of your organization, of course."
"They aren't part of my organization, no matter what they say," Simon said. "They've been pissed at me for years, ever since I arranged to have Jeremy's file closed. It's like the constant, distant yapping of chihuahuas."
Ethan looked down to hide a smile. "In some ways, the incompetence of the various art-theft departments over the years has been the best friend I ever had."
"Makes sense," Simon said, shutting his eyes. "Can I ask you a question?"
Simon resisted the impulse to open his eyes, slumping down in his chair until his chin nearly touched his chest. "Are you going to send me to Jeremy or not?" he asked, trying not to sound truculent.
The fragile, friendly truce popped like a soap bubble. Ethan sighed sharply. "I still don't know," he said. "It goes against my better judgment, you understand."
"No, I don't understand," Simon said, cracking his eyes open. "Is this still about Annabelle? How many times am I going to have to apologize for that"
"I assure you, it isn't just about Annabelle," Ethan said.
"Then..." Simon made a little come on gesture. "What?"
Ethan shut his eyes, sighed, and opened them again, regarding Simon levelly. His little smile looked to be only polite. "In fact, it's about Jeremy."
Simon went a little still. "Is this about, uh..."
Ethan's smile quirked just a hair wider. "Your... relationship?" The word made Simon wince. "In some ways," Ethan said, politely ignoring Simon's reaction. "But I assure you that it is not for the reasons you think."
"Okay," Simon said, wary and patient. "So... why, then?"
"Jeremy is like a son to me," Ethan said, his voice pleasant, if cool. "Can we agree that that's fair?"
"Well, yeah," Simon said. "I mean, I get that."
"Good," Ethan said, still pleasant. "Neither he nor Bran are my biological children, it's true, but I still consider them to be my sons. Bran, at least, is legally so."
"Okay," Simon said, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
"So, all thanks be to you, one of my sons went to prison and the other has been shot, has killed a man, and is currently running for his life," Ethan said, and now his voice was so incongruously pleasant as to be grotesque.
Simon froze. Ethan inclined his head. "And as far as I can tell, this never occurred to you," Ethan said, putting his glass down. "All that you saw was a man in a position to give you what you wanted. I resent being treated like a useful tool."
Simon gritted his teeth and looked away. "Yeah, well, okay, maybe you have a point about that"
"Of course I have a point," Ethan said. Somehow he was still being pleasant about it. "Jeremy is free to live his life as he chooses, and I will admit that you can be charming when you put your mind to it, but I am not overly fond of you and I doubt that I will ever be."
"Yeah," Simon said, blowing out a breath and trying to sort out his whirling thoughts. "You know what? That's fair. You don't have to like me. And I'm sorry about... you know, the other thing. I guess I assumed you'd like me because Jeremy likes me."
Ethan shrugged. "That he does," he said. "I don't understand why, to be honest. As I said, you can be charming, and I'm led to believe that you're not unattractive, and I can only suppose you're good in bed" Simon choked and started coughing "but while you may not be a bad person, you seem to heap calamity on Jeremy's head on a fairly regular basis," Ethan finished, seemingly oblivious to the uproar he'd caused.
Simon coughed one last time, thumped his chest, and swallowed. "And yet," he said, his voice a little strained, "despite everything, you know what, he keeps coming back to me."
"Turning up like a bad penny?" Ethan asked, the corners of his mouth quirking upwards.
"Yeah, basically," Simon said. He had the beginnings of a headache now, and pinching the bridge of his nose only barely drove it back. "So... you done now?"
Ethan's answering smile was tight and mostly humorless. "I suppose so."
"Okay," Simon said, letting his hand drop. "Because you know what, I'm not going to take responsibility for what happened to Bran. I'll take responsibility for a lot, but not for that. He was killing people within the bounds of the United States, the FBI had already taken notice, and it only fell to me because I recognized Bran's style. I admit I asked Jeremy for his help on that, but the key word there is 'asked', okay?" Simon paused, sucked in a breath, and plunged on. "He could have turned me down. Hell, he could have taken me up on it and doublecrossed me nine ways to Sunday. He didn't do either."
"He wouldn't have doublecrossed you," Ethan said quietly.
"Yeah, I know," Simon said. "But let's take this from the beginning. Yeah, okay, Jeremy got shot on my watch. I'm willing to take some of the blame for that." Simon spread his hands out on the table. "But Jesus, it's so much more complicated than thatit's... I don't even know where to start. I didn't shoot him. I didn't want him to get shot. I did the best I could to make him, uh, not get shot. If I'd known back then what he was like, what he was going to do, I think maybe I could have done something to prevent it. But I didn't, and I couldn't, and..." Simon trailed off there and hissed out a frustrated breath. "He forgave me."
"All right," Ethan said, watching Simon with mild curiosity, like Simon was pulling rabbits out of a hat on the other side of the table.
"The thing with Bran" Simon took a deep breath "yeah, I asked. If I'd known who Bran was, I wouldn't have. But I didn't. I asked. He said yes. Didn't tell me anything else. The thing with Karpol went down in the big middle of that, and it would have been so easy for Jeremy to just... walk away and go to ground. Logical, even. And he didn't. Again, his choice."
Ethan was silent. Simon scrubbed the back of his hand across his mouth and plunged on. "Jeremy killing Farraday? Okay, you got me there. You're damned right he wouldn't have been there if it weren't for me. But you know what? He did it to save my life. So yeah, that one's my fault, but Christ, I'm so not sorry that he saved my life. I'm kind of attached to it."
"Mm," Ethan said, pursing his lips.
"And now we come to the Karpol thing, and I've admitted that that's my fault so many times that I can't imagine you want to hear it again. And you know what?" Simon pointed at himself with both hands. "Here I am, doing my damndest to fix what I broke."
Ethan shifted in his chair. "All right," he said, and sighed. "All right. You're correct: Jeremy made certain choices of his own free will. And I realize that you weren't actually trying to put Jeremy in danger." Simon let that one pass unremarked, striving for his best poker face. Ethan, not noticing, went on. "But... you don't seem to understand that 'taking responsibility' is no longer going to be enough."
"Best I can do," Simon said.
"Is it?" Ethan said, tight-lipped. "Don't get me wrong: I'm glad you're not trying to deny your culpability. But 'taking responsibility' is what a man does after things go seriously wrong. That's not a skill I'm anxious to make use of."
Simon threw up his hands. "All right," he said. "This isn't getting us anywhere. What do you want me to tell you? Do you want me to make empty promises about how I'll shoot anyone who tries to hurt Jeremy in the future? Is that it?"
"Please don't insult my intelligence," Ethan said, his voice finally going sharp. "I don't want anything from you. I brought you here because you seemed sincere about wanting to help Jeremy"
"I am," Simon gritted out.
"then do more than go on about how you want to fix your mistakes," Ethan said. "That's excellent, up to a point. I'm tired of hearing it. It's not the convincing argument you think it is."
Simon dropped his head into his hands, knotting his fingers in his hair in frustration. "What more do you want to hear? I don't have any idea what's happening to Jeremy, so I can't be any more specific"
"How about this?" Ethan said. "Let us pretend for a moment that the man on the spot is not Jeremy. Everything else about the situation is the same, including your precious culpability, but the personthe criminalthat you inadvertently sicced Viktor Karpol on is just that: just another person." Ethan paused, tapping his fingers on the table. "Would you still be here?"
Simon hesitated, opening his eyes so that he could stare blindly down at the table. He knew what was cominghe could see it looming in the distance like a tidal wavebut, like a tidal wave, there was nothing he could do to escape it. "No," he said, heaving a sigh. "Probably not."
"I'll not insult either of us by asking 'why not'," Ethan said. "The difference between the two thingsbetween your staying at home and feeling guilty, and your coming here to ask my helpis whatever Jeremy is to you. Agreed?"
"Yeah," Simon said, still staring at the table. His ears were starting to burn.
"Mm," Ethan said, and fell silent.
Simon, still fascinated by the table, waited for the other shoe to drop. Ethan picked up his glass, drank from it, and put it down, still not saying anything. Finally, after almost a minute of silence, Simon said, "Well? Go ahead. Say it."
Ethan sighed, not in frustration, but in acknowledgment. "Actually, Simon, I was thinking that I've just managed to convince myself to send you on."
"... what?" Simon said, glancing up, startled.
"When I put it that way, I find it a good deal more enlightening," Ethan said, staring resolutely out the kitchen window at the gathering dusk. "Isn't that embarrassing? I've just won the argument for you."
Still wary, Simon sat up, combing his fingers through his disheveled hair. "You're going to send me to Jeremy," he said, fishing for confirmation.
"I believe so," Ethan said. "Still, if you wanted to make absolutely certain of it, I suppose a bit of expanding on the topic wouldn't go amiss at this point."
"Oh, Christ," Simon said, dimly horrified. "You want me to... ?"
"I'd consider it a favor," Ethan said. He smiled, just a little. "And, I suppose, a mitigating factor in my ultimate decision."
"Right," Simon said, heaving himself up out of his chair and grabbing his glass. "If it's going to be like that, I need more water first."
Ethan picked up his own glass. "You know where it is, I'm certain."
The trek from the kitchen table to the refrigerator was a long one. The sun had set and the kitchen was dim, most of the vast expanse lost in gray; fortunately, Simon knew the way. Simon refilled his glass with ice and water and carried it back to the table, his face set. Ethan waited, expectantly.
"I like him," Simon said with no preamble, sitting back down. He drank some water, wiped his lips on the back of his hand, and put his glass back down. "He drives me insane and half the time I want to deck him, but I like him anyway. I just..." Simon hesitated, curled a hand over his eyes to give himself the illusion of privacy, and sorted through his thoughts. "He's good," Simon finally said. "Most criminals are so goddamned stupid"
"I know," Ethan said softly.
"and he's not," Simon said. "I guess I... respect him? Sort of? I don't trust him any further than I could throw him, but I trust him to... uh... be himself, I guess." Under the cover of his hand, Simon winced: could he be rambling any worse?
Across the table, Ethan waited; when it became clear that Simon had stumbled to a stop, Ethan laughed under his breath. "Oh, yes," he said. "You can always count on Jeremy to be himself."
"Yeah," Simon said. "But it's more than that. I mean... when Farraday had kidnapped him and I was mobilizing my team to go after them, one of my team members asked me: what if Archer doesn't get himself free in time? What then?" The words were coming slowly, Simon having to pull each one loose. "And I told them that I had faith that he would."
"Ah," Ethan said, very softly.
"There's more to it than that, but that's the gist of it," Simon said. "Can I please be done now? If I get any more sappy I'm either going to throw up or, uh, throw up."
"Your definition of 'sappy' is an unusual one," Ethan said. "Still, I take your point."
"Oh, good," Simon said, letting his hand drop. "Because seriously, I couldn't take much more of that. It's embarrassing."
Ethan smiled. "Here, give me some credit," he said. "I haven't yet used the word 'feelings'."
"Small favors," Simon said, shuddering.
"Since you're so desperate to be done, allow me to take a turn," Ethan said, settling back in his chair and folding his hands together. "Once, a year or so ago, I asked Jeremy much the same questionI'm sure he wouldn't mind my betraying a small confidenceand he told me that he liked you because you could handle just about anything he threw at you, and he never had to slow down or make allowances or even explain very much. Is it like that for you?"
"Really?" Simon said, blinking. "Huh. Yeah. I guess that's just about right."
"Someone like Jeremy really has very few peers in this world," Ethan said. "I suppose it's only natural for him to cling to the one he's found. Metaphorically speaking."
"Yeah, that makes sense, I guess." Simon scratched the back of his head, suddenly self-conscious. "He's definitely more of a challenge than most people."
Silence stretched between them for a moment before Ethan abruptly clapped his hands together and sat up. "Well, I believe that satisfies me," he said. "If you'll just help me get everything to the sink, I'll do the dishes."
"Yeah, okay," Simon said, drifting distractedly to his feet. "Sure."
Stifling a sigh, Simon let his half-read book fall to his chest and glanced at the clock. Just after three in the afternoon and he was now officially bored to death. Feeling better than he had in weeks, but bored. There was a lot to be said for regular sleep, regular meals, and regular exercise, but one of the things he couldn't say for them was that they crammed full all the hours of the day.
For lack of anything better to do, he'd read two of the books in his little pile. The one on his chest was the third. It might have been a decent book, but reading was really starting to lose its luster, not that it had had much in the first place. If there was a television anywhere in the rooms Simon was allowed to visit, he hadn't found it. He'd already done all the showering and exercising that he was going to do for the day, and he wasn't hungry yetthe real problem, Simon admitted to himself, was that he was developing a serious case of cabin fever. He needed to get out of here. Being confined indoors was bad enough without the nagging sensation that he was going to put a foot wrong on some innocent-looking bit of hallway and wake up naked in a cage in the basement or something.
Someone knocked on the door, interrupting that disturbing line of thought. Simon dropped the book onto the bed and sat up. "Yeah?"
Ethan pushed open the door and stuck his head in. "Your documents have arrived," he said, waggling a blue US passport folder.
"Oh, hey," Simon said. He swung his legs over the side of the bed and stood up. "You know, it takes closer to a month or two to get a real one? There's something very, very wrong with this picture."
"Mm," Ethan said. "At any rate, you've a passport, a driver's license, a library card, and a pair of credit cardswhich, I hasten to add, are not actually functional, but will make the contents of your wallet look more real."
Simon took the passport folder from Ethan and shook the loose cards out into his hand. Leafing through them, he said, "Man, nobody's going to believe this is a real driver's license, the picture is too goodwait, I'm from Iowa now?"
"Iowa," Ethan confirmed.
Simon frowned at the fake license. It really was a good picture. He kind of wished he could keep it; the picture on his DC license made him look like a crazy hobo. "Why Iowa?"
"Because it's unlikely that anyone who checks your passport will have been there, so you won't have to field any awkward questions," Ethan said. "Also, as a bonus, it doesn't require you to put on any sort of strong regional accent."
"Man, you've got an answer for everything," Simon said, flipping open the passport. "Seriously, though, I'm from Indiana originally, you could have just asked."
"I don't actually know if Teddy has the proper templates for Indiana, but I suppose if it ever becomes necessary, I can find out." Ethan paused, watching Simon page through his passport. "Well. You're a law-enforcement official. Do they pass muster?"
Simon glanced up and snorted. "Oh, yeah, because I'm a traffic cop and look at these things all day. Seriously, it looks good to me. What would happen if I tried to run it through the computer?"
"Oh, it's real, to a certain extent." Ethan shrugged. "It would take a fair amount of concerted digging to find out that the person on the license didn't exist a short time ago."
"Huh." Simon closed the passport folder and stuck the cards back in it. "So is this the same kind of stuff that Jeremy uses?"
Ethan's little smile confirmed it. "Although his are British, of course," he said. "You'll want to take a few minutes to memorize the name and address on those, and then put them in your wallet in place of the real ones. Put the real ones in your jacket pocket or somesuch."
"Right," Simon said, sticking the loaded passport in his front pocket. "Anything else I need to know?"
"If you're asking if I've heard from Jeremy, the answer is no, not yet," Ethan said. "If everything is all right, I expect to hear from him tomorrow or the day after."
"Actually, I was asking if there was anything else I needed to know," Simon said carefully. "But okay, that was going to be my next question."
"Well, then, I suppose that answers that." Ethan put his hand on the doorknob, preparing to go.
Simon cleared his throat. "Uh, actually..."
Ethan paused. "Yes?"
"Have you got a TV or something?" Simon asked, embarrassed just to be asking. He jammed his hands into his pockets. "I'm going a little stir-crazy over here."
Ethan's expression softened, surprising the hell out of Simon, who hadn't thought it was possible. "Of course, I can imagine you must be feeling a bit cooped up. Anyway, come along, I've one in my room."
"You sure?" Simon asked, still hanging back. "I mean, I don't want to intrude, it's just that I'm about to claw my face off or something. I'm not used to sitting around and doing nothing."
"I doubt Jeremy would ever forgive me if I let you claw your face off," Ethan said. "It won't be a botherI'll be in the workshop in any case."
"Workshop, huh," Simon said, following him out the door.
By the time Simon actually got around to sitting down with his new identity, dinner was long since over. Apparently, according to his new driver's license, his first name was still Simon (he suspected he was being babied a bit, but hey, it made things easier) but his last name was now Moorhead. Where that came from, he had no idea.
Simon Moorhead lived in some little town in Iowa that Simon Drake had never heard of, which meant that your average European border guard would have no clue. Excellent. Simon chewed on his lower lip and repeated his new address to himself a few times, then put the driver's license face-down on the bed, closed his eyes, and repeated it again.
That done, Simon turned his attention to the rest of the pile. The credit cards sure looked real, and were even a bit scratched up, to boot. In fact, nothing in the pile looked brand-new, which was a nice touch. Simon paused, recited his new address again, nodded, and picked up his library card. He couldn't remember the last time he'd had a library card. Apparently his alter ego was more well-read than he was. That was embarrassing.
Simon fished his wallet out of his back pocket and emptied it into his lap. There wasn't much there, really. His real driver's license with the crazy-hobo picture, his debit card, his credit card, his insurance card and voter's registration... the rest was a motley collection of stamp cards from every mediocre fast-food place in DC and one lonely Starbucks gift card that the team had given him for Christmas a couple of years ago. He didn't even have any pictures.
Simon put his empty wallet on the bed and picked up the pile of stuff in his lap. It made a completely unimpressive little stack. It got even less impressive when he pulled out the Starbucks card and tossed it onto the bed with the rest of his false identity. They had Starbucks in Nowhere, Iowa, right? Of course they did. It would add verisimilitude or whatever. Simon hopped down off the bed and went to put his real self in the drawer with the gun, pausing once in mid-step to recite his new address aloud again.
He dug the prepaid credit card and phone card out of the side pocket of his duffelthe trip through the washing machine hadn't done them any favors, but they were relatively intactand carried them back to the bed with him. Still muttering his new address under his breath Simon filled his wallet with the new things. It looked a little scanty, but there wasn't much to be done about that.
Putting his (thinner) wallet back in his pocket, Simon picked up his book and settled in. He'd barely had time to read a paragraph before someone knocked on the door. "Yeah?" Simon said, marking his place with one finger.
Ethan pushed open the door. "You'll be leaving tomorrow," he said.
"Whoa, really?" Simon said, sitting up. The book fell to the bed and slapped closed, losing his place. He barely noticed. "He called?"
"He's been in touch, yes," Ethan said. After a single glance in Simon's direction he swung away and looked around the room like he was cataloguing it. "I expect there'll be time to wash your things in the morningI'll go ahead and schedule your travel before I sleep. Do you have any preferences?"
"Actually, what I have is a gun," Simon said brightly.
Ethan paused, his shoulders straightening. He didn't look back at Simon. "Is that a threat?"
"Nah, it's more like a state-of-the-Simon report," Simon said. "I have a gun. I'd kind of like to keep it. I'm not totally fond of the idea of threatening Jeremy's enemies by pointing at them and saying 'bang'. So I'm guessing airline travel is out."
Ethan sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. "You realize that if you need a gun, Jeremy can probably lay hands on one? There's really no need to bring your own"
"So, you want me to depend on Jeremy to acquire a gun for me. Yeah. I'm sure that'll work out great. After all, Jeremy knows so much about gunsseriously, no, I'd rather bring my own. Asking Jeremy to get me a decent gun is like... it's like..." Stumped as to what it was like, Simon flailed for a minute before settling on, "It's like asking some guy to buy you underwear and telling him you like blue, okay? You'll get something that is recognizably blue underwear, but it won't be the brand you're used to, or the kind you like, and maybe it'll be the wrong shape, and it probably won't even fit, and why do you people keep letting me use metaphors?"
"I assure you I don't know," Ethan said, looking mildly horrified. "I suppose you've made your point. God knows I'll never forget it. But if you are bound and determined to carry your gun with you, you'll turn what could be a simple five-hour trip into an odyssey that's closer to twenty hours, and significantly less comfortable to boot?"
Simon shrugged, conceding the point. "See, I hate that. I totally, utterly hate that. And yet, goddammit, I need that gun. So, you're the famous retired criminal mastermind, you tell me: how do I get where I'm going in a timely manner and still keep the gun?"
"My God, you're a trial," Ethan said, throwing up his hands in surrender. "I'm surprised Jeremy doesn't gas you more often. Is the gun clean?"
"Clean as a whistle, and believe me, I ought to know. Legally, it doesn't exist at all. High-end law-enforcement agencies tend to leak guns like that."
The corner of Ethan's mouth twitched. "You shouldn't sound so proud of that, you know, I might insult us both and attempt to set up a supply routeall right, then. Is it absolutely necessary to your peace of mind that you have it with you at all times, including on the trip down?"
"Maybe," Simon said, watching Ethan closely. "Tell me what you're proposing. Let's see if I laugh at you."
"If you think you can live without it for twenty-four hours, I can have it, ah, shipped to you through alternate channels." Ethan ticked his tongue off his front teeth. "It'll be an annoyance, of course, but everything about you is an annoyance. In the grand scheme of things, what's one more?"
"Twenty-four hours, huh," Simon said. Somewhat to his surprise he was starting to enjoy himself. "Well, I guess it's better than nothing, but if Jeremy and I get shot full of holes in the meantime, it's your fault."
"There are so many flaws in your logic that I think I may have an aneurysm," Ethan said. "Fair enough. If you die in the first twenty-four hours, it will be my fault."
"You have to promise to forgive me for Annabelle, too," Simon said.
"I don't see what the two situations have to do with each other"
Simon held up a finger. "Sometimes twenty-four hours makes all the difference."
"ah." Ethan rubbed his temples. "Thank you, now I do have a headache. Very well. You're comparing oranges and horse's asses, and I'm sure you know that, but I concur: if you die, I'll not only feel terrible about it, I'll forgive you for leaving Annabelle in the lurch. Perhaps I'll even come to your funeral. There. Are you satisfied?"
"Hey, I couldn't ask for more," Simon said. He went over to the dresser and dug out the gun in its ankle holster, then added the box of shells and the cleaning kit to the pile. "The gun's unloaded, although it's always best to assume that that's a lie."
Ethan closed his eyes for a moment. "Yes, thank you, I'm aware. All right. I'll make arrangements for the gun's transportation, and for yourshave you had a moment to look over your new identification?"
"I think you mean the identification of one Simon Moorhead, 113 Titan Drive, Hinton, Iowa, 51024?"
Ethan nearly smiled again, although he controlled it into a faint twitch a moment later. "There's no need to be smug about it," he said.
"Sure there is," Simon said, beaming. "Admit it, you thought you were going to catch me out. Right?"
"You certainly do get cocky when you think you're going to get your way," Ethan said, still not quite smiling. "I've the undeniable urge to strand you in Romania."
"Yeah, but if you did that, Jeremy'd be wondering where the hell I got to," Simon said.
"Ah," said Ethan, tilting his head. "Right. About that."
Ethan clasped his hands in front of himself and actually smiled, immediately putting Simon on his guard. "I'm afraid Jeremy doesn't actually know that you're coming."
"What?" Simon said, unsure if he'd actually just heard that.
"I can't in good conscience just foist you off on him," Ethan said, still smiling. Bad sign. "So I'm washing my hands of the decision-making process entirely. I'll make arrangements for your paths to intersect. When that happens, you can make your case directly to him. If you can talk him into letting you stay, wonderful. If you can't, the identification that I provided you will allow you to safely make your way home, undetected."
"I guess that's fair, although you're still a weasel," Simon said. "All right, if I have to do that, I can do that. At least I've had some practice dealing with him."
"Wonderful," Ethan said, the amount of good cheer in his voice positively suspicious. "You may as well put your real driver's license and things in the pile with the gun. I can ship those to you as well, and that way you needn't worry about a customs agent finding them in your things."
Simon considered this, then dug the little pile of his real identity back out of the dresser. "See, that's the thing," he said, gesturing at Ethan with the thin stack of cards. "How much do I trust you?"
Ethan pursed his lips. "Enough to sleep under my roof, eat my cooking, and let me spot you when you try to lift entirely too much weight?"
"Good point," Simon said, tossing the cards onto the pile of things on top of the dresser. "I assume you'll take responsibility if the courier runs off with my stuff?"
"I don't believe you'll have to worry about that," Ethan said. He moved past Simon to pick up the little pile of things, handling the gun gingerly, like it was rabid. "Will there be anything else before I go? Would you care to insult me some more? I do so enjoy being mocked by a man half my age less than half an hour before I sit down to decide his immediate destiny."
Simon held up both hands to ward him off, laughing a little. "Hey, maybe it's just my way of coping with the unknown. Have a heart."
His hands full, Ethan headed for the door. "You really are extremely irritating," he said, glancing back over his shoulder, not quite smiling.
"Jeremy usually just calls me a prick," Simon volunteered.
"In that case, I bow to his superior judgement," Ethan said, letting himself out. "Get some sleep, if you can. I'll go make arrangements."
Even with the help of one of Simon's remaining Ambien, sleep was slow in coming. A faint, deep quiver of anticipationor perhaps just dread at the threat of yet more goddamned travelkept Simon just this side of conscious despite his best efforts. Midnight came and went before Simon managed to sink all the way through the fog of drugs to the other side.
It was close to ten in the morning by the time he woke. By eleven he was showered, mostly packed, and perched on the edge of the tub hammering as much sand out of his grimy sneakers as he could. Every time his palm smacked against the sole, another fine dusting of sand cascaded out to land on the porcelain. Dammit, these sneakers weren't more than a year old. Simon hit his left sneaker one last time, gave up, and put it on.
Ethan was leaning against one of the kitchen counters when Simon came loping downstairs, carrying his repacked duffel in one hand and his jacket in the other. "Good morning, Mr. Moorhead," Ethan said, most of his attention on the teacup in his hands.
"113 Titan Drive, Hinton, Iowa, 51024," Simon said in response, dropping his things by the back door. "Oh yeah, I'm awesome. Have I got time for lunch?"
Ethan waved an absent hand at the fridge in permission. "Your ride should be here in about an hour, more or less."
"Oh, good," Simon said. He dove into that massive fridge and laid claim to the rest of the roast beef from the night before. Assembling it into a pair of chunky sandwiches took him about five minutes. Simon carried his bounty to the kitchen table, edging past Ethan with a muttered apology.
Simon was about halfway through the second sandwich when Ethan put a small can down by his hand. Simon made an inquiring sound around his mouthful of food and picked it up, consulting the label: some kind of French canned espresso. "I'm afraid it's the best I can do," Ethan said over Simon's strangled noise of relief. "I haven't a coffee maker."
Simon swallowed, dropped his sandwich, and popped the top of the can. "You do love me," he said happily, then chugged off half the espresso at a gulp. The mild caffeine headache that he'd been carrying around for days receded.
"God forbid," Ethan said, shuddering. He carried his cup over to the other side of the table and sat down, waiting politely for Simon to finish eating.
It didn't take long. Simon popped the last bite of sandwich into his mouth, tipped up the empty can on the off-chance that a few stray drops of coffee were lurking in the bottom, and then got up and carried his dishes to the sink. "So," he said over the noise of the running water. "What's the plan?"
"I was just about to go over that with you," Ethan said, pulling a sheaf of folded papers from the inside pocket of his jacket. "Come have a seat."
Simon shut off the water and went back to the table, holding out a hand for the papers. Ethan glanced at Simon's outstretched hand, then went back to leafing through the papers. Simon grumpily reeled in his hand and waited. "Eddie will take you to the station and put you on the train for London," Ethan said, flicking a finger against the topmost page. "You'll change trains at Paddington" Simon couldn't help but grin a little "and take the train to Heathrow from there."
"Okay," Simon said. "Heh. Paddington."
"Mm-hmm," Ethan said. "In any case, you'll be flying to Milan." He paused. "Which is in Italy."
"Really? Well, shoot, and here I thought I was going to the one in Siberia," Simon said.
"Just making certain. I can never tell, with Americans," Ethan said pleasantly. "In any case, you'll want to get a taxi at the airport. Give the driver this sheet" he flicked the corner of a second piece of paper "and he'll take you into the city and drop you off in the proper place. Once you're there, the rest is up to you."
On a hunch, Simon stuck out his hand again. This time Ethan deigned to hand him the papers. Simon flicked through thembasic itinerary, tourist-y directions, a sheet of paper with a bunch of Italian written on it, that sort of thingand then folded them up and put them down on the table. "I'll look at it on the train," he said.
Ethan fetched an envelope out of his jacket and passed it across to Simon. "Twenty pounds for the Heathrow Express, and far more euros than you will need for the taxi in Italy, although I'm sure you'll have a use for them."
Simon opened the envelope and riffled the ridiculously colorful bills inside. There were a lot. They looked like something he could download from the internet and print out. "Wow, play money," Simon said, adding the envelope to his stack of papers. "Thanks!"
"Spends as well as the other sort," Ethan said. "In fact, these days it spends rather better than the American dollar. Aren't you lucky?"
"Ouch," Simon said, wincing. "Okay, so. Anything else I need to know?"
"I think everything you need is in that little pile there," Ethan said, nodding at Simon's hands, folded on top of the papers. "And you've my number, if you should find yourself, oh, I don't know, stranded in Romania?"
Simon snickered. "Now you're just trying to scare me," he said.
"Is it working?" Ethan asked, raising both eyebrows.
"Nah," Simon said, picking up the pile of papers and tapping it on the table. "I know you secretly like me. It's okay, you can admit it."
Ethan sighed, shaking his head slowly. "I won't say it hasn't been interesting, but all the same, I think I'll be relieved to make you into someone else's problem."
"Yeah, I'm always someone's problem," Simon said. He pushed his chair back and stood up, heading for the duffel that he'd dropped by the door. "Funny how that works."
The same man who had brought him hereEddie, Simon assumedcame to pick him up about half an hour later. Where he came from, Simon had no idea. How he got into the garage, Simon had no idea. It was as if he'd teleported in; the first hint Simon had that his ride had arrived was the pounding on the door. Simon jerked, reflexively grabbing for a gun that wasn't there before he recovered. "Christ," Simon said, thumping a fist against his chest, "how does he do that?"
"Eddie's always been good at getting into places unnoticed," Ethan said, far too serenely for Simon's peace of mind. He tapped on the other side of the door, letting Eddie know that he'd been heard. "Have you got everything? Are you ready?"
"Ready as I'll ever be," Simon said, picking up his things and checking to make sure that the papers were safely in the outside pocket of his duffel. About half of the money had been transferred into his wallet. "So... guess this is it, huh."
"I suppose so," Ethan said. For a moment they both stood there awkwardly, uncertain of how to proceed. "Well, then," Ethan finally said, with a quick smile. "Best of luck."
Simon nodded and shifted his duffel from one hand to the other. "Thanks," he said. "For, uh, for everything. Really. I know I'm kind of bad about saying so, but I really appreciate what you're doing for me."
For the barest second, Ethan's face softened into something like a real smile; then he caught himself and shifted back into the vaguely exasperated expression he usually wore. "Oh, goodness," he said. "Now I am going to feel badly about stranding you. Not badly enough to do anything about it, of course."
"Yeah, yeah," Simon said. "I'll send you a postcard from Romania. It'll just say HELP."
"Do that," said Ethan, pulling open the garage door. Eddie, who'd been leaning against the fender of the nearest car, straightened up and touched two fingers to his forehead, saluting them both. "Make sure he gets on the proper train, Eddie," Ethan said.
"Will do," Eddie said. "Come on, then, we'd best get a move on if you're to make your flight."
"Right," Simon said. "Which car?"
With a jerk of his head, Eddie indicated the car parked in the middle spot. Simon loped down the steps and let himself into the car, sinking into the plush upholstery of the back seat with a sigh and dropping his things on the seat next to him. Eddie got into the driver's seat a moment later. Simon resisted the urge to tell him that he was sitting on the wrong side of the car.
The garage door rumbled up and the car purred to life. Eddie put it in gear and sent it rolling sedately out of the driveway; Simon glanced back over his shoulder. For a moment Ethan was visible, standing in the doorway, framed by that massive, monstrous kitchenthen the wall of the garage slid by and hid him from sight.
"We'll be at the station in about ten minutes, traffic permitting," Eddie said, guiding the car around the curve in the driveway.
The expanse of Ethan's yard bloomed around them as they left. Simon craned his neck, finally getting a decent look at the house that he'd been in. "Sure," he said, distracted by the sudden view. "That's great."
Thirty minutes later he was making his way down the train's aisle, looking for a place to sit. Eddie had seen him on board with a great deal of dry courtesy, leaving Simon to wonder uneasily if he was supposed to tip the guy or if this was just how he was or what. Thorny questions aside, it had been way too easy in comparison with his last trip. Simon was still waiting for the other shoe to drop.
The back half of the car was nearly empty, so Simon made a beeline for the rearmost seats, 'claiming' the one in the aisle by tossing his bomber jacket into it. He bent down and shoved his duffel under the seat, then slid out of the way of passing traffic. Not that the train was particularly crowded at this time of afternoon, but people were still making their way up and down the aisles while the train wheezed and rumbled around them. Simon settled in, took a good look around, then bent down and groped for the outer pocket of his duffel.
The pile of papers that made up his itinerary was thin, covered in Ethan's small, angular handwriting. It took Simon less than ten minutes to read from front to back, although for all he knew, the sheet written in Italian told the cabby to take him to the docks and ensure that he slept with the fishes. Were there docks in Milan? Simon found that he had no idea.
Shaking his head in mixed respect and bewilderment, Simon read through his itinerary again. The last part still made him snort in disbelief. "Spy movie," he muttered under his breath, refolding the papers.
Simon was bent over, stuffing the papers back in the side pocket of his duffel, when the train huffed once, loudly, and heaved itself forward. He caught himself against the back of the seat in front of him and sat up, just in time to watch the station sliding past; he scanned the platform to see if Eddie was still there. If he was, Simon didn't spot him. Oh, well.
He had both seats in his row to himself. Simon shifted into the window seat, spread his legs out across the aisle seat, and settled in to watch England go by, in comfort.
The other shoe failed to drop at Paddington, even as overwhelming (and loud) as the massive station was. Simon followed the signs right to the Heathrow Express, negotiated for his ticket with a minimum of fusshooray for countries that spoke Englishand was on another train in less than five minutes, leaving the unnerving sky-high expanse of the arching ceiling behind him.
Heathrow, thoughHeathrow promised to be not only a shoe but a great big steel-toed boot. What he was about to do didn't feel real to Simon until he carried his duffel into Terminal Five and headed for the check-in counter noted in Ethan's itinerary. For all that it was British and brand spanking new, Heathrow's Terminal Five looked and felt just like every other airport terminal that Simon had ever been in, which meant two things: aggravation and security. Suddenly the fake ID in Simon's wallet weighed a thousand pounds against his hip. For a moment, Simon thought he could taste shame.
He got into line at the counter, shifting his duffel into his other hand. Gazing down at the floor, he silently repeated his new name and address to himself, trying not to move his lips. Airport security might not be the sharpest bag of tacks in the world, but a guy staring at the floor and mumbling to himself was probably pretty obviously Not RightSimon made himself look up and stare tiredly off into space, like everyone else in the line.
Years before he was ready, he made it to the front of the line. Simon shifted his duffel back and shuffled forward as the ticket agent beckoned, dropping his duffel between his feet. He dug out his wallet. "I'm supposed to pick up my ticket," Simon said, fishing out the fake driver's license and trying to convince himself he wasn't broadcasting nerves like a radio station. "My name's Simon Moorhead?"
Somewhat to his surprise he was neither struck by lightning nor immediately dogpiled by ten beefy security guards. The ticket agent looked at his driver's license, nodded, smiled, and turned her attention to her computer. After a few horrible minutes, she looked back up at him, still smiling. "2:40 flight to Malpensa in Milan, yes, sir..."
Simon dutifully passed over his equally fake passport when asked. It was getting harder and harder to hear or thinkhis head felt like it was filling with roaring airbut still he went through the motions. Five minutes later he walked away from the ticket counter with a ticket folder, his duffel and jacket, his fake identity, and an urgent need to go lock himself in a bathroom stall for a minute and put his head between his knees.
His plans changed abruptly when he caught sight of the security gates, and beyond them, miracle of miracles, a Starbucks. Ninety percent of his conscious mind was immediately entranced by the sight. Simon handed over his fake identification at the security checkpoint with barely a qualm, conquered the metal detector, stomped back into his only-slightly-sandy sneakers, and vanished into the Starbucks like they were reeling him in on a wire.
It seemed a little less like a miracle when he passed the second Starbucks in the terminal three minutes later, but Simon just clutched his to-go cup to his chest and floated on past, feeling, quite frankly, terrific.
Flopping out in a chair near his gate, Simon fished out his ticket to check his seat number. Something about it looked wrong. Simon considered it while he finished off his coffee. When he got up to throw his cup away, he took a detour, stopping by the gate and putting the empty cup down on the desk. "Scuse me," he said. "I just want to make sure that this is first class?"
The young woman at the gate gently took the ticket from him, checked the number on it, and smiled when she handed it back. "Yes, sir, that's correct. We'll be boarding first class here in about fifteen minutes or so, so I wouldn't go too far, if I were you."
"Great, thanks," Simon said, picking up his empty cup. "Just making sure."
All in all, it was one of the better flights Simon had ever endured. As an apology for the sky-blue pregnant whale, it was acceptable, and Simon made a mental note to call Ethan's 'service' some day and say so. In the meantime, he was just going to stretch out here and enjoy the novel sensation of having enough leg room.
Once the view out the window lost what little interest it held, Simon dug the book he'd been reading out of his duffel. Some day, he thought, he might feel bad about having stolen the pile of books from Ethan's house, but not right now. When the flight attendant came by, he asked for coffee, and then everything was just about as right as it could get.
By the time he finished his book, the plane was already starting to descend. Simon surrendered his long-empty coffee cup to the attendant and stuck his book back in his duffel, then turned his attention to the customs declaration card. He wrote his new name almost without thinking about it. It was a little unsettling, how naturally it was coming to him now.
The customs agents glanced at Simon's fake passport, then poked listlessly at his duffel bag before waving him through. Simon pocketed his passport and shouldered his bag, heading out into the airport proper. He could not deny that he was relieved that all the flying was over; no matter how many times Teddy's creations got him through identification checks, there was always the dim and nagging sensation that this was the time that Simon would be accosted by men in cheap suits and politely escorted off into a warren of glass-walled cubicles to be beaten to within an inch of his life, or, more frighteningly, asked questions.
Malpensa, much like Heathrow, was definitely an airport. Simon was hard-pressed to remember he wasn't at home, except for the part where he didn't understand the voices on the loudspeakers, and the part where English was the second language on the signs, under the Italian. He'd been expecting to wander around lost until he found someone who spoke English to point him to the taxi stand. Instead, he found himself shunted right there. He'd had a harder time getting around in Boston.
Throwing himself in the back seat of the first unoccupied taxi, Simon dug in the side pocket of his duffel until he found the sheet of directions written in Italian. He passed it to the driver with an embarrassed smile and a half-hearted shrug, the universal sign for 'oh, boy, I don't speak your language'; the driver took it willingly enough, read down the list of instructions, then returned an equally embarrassed look. "Espensive," he said, tapping the paper sheepishly.
"Okay," Simon said, giving him a thumb's up. "Expensive is okay."
"Okay," the driver dubiously repeated, putting the taxi in gear.
Recalling his absolutely terrifying taxi ride in France, Simon braced every available limb against the nearest surface, just in case. It turned out to be a prophetic decision.
Malpensa was out in the countryside a good hour's drive from Milan proper. It was a very pretty countryside, Simon supposed, but he rapidly got bored with it, especially now that he was almost to his destination; what replaced his somewhat-stunted sense of adventure was his much less stunted sense of anticipation. If Ethan was correct, Jeremy was somewhere in that city on the horizon, and Simon was on his way to meet him.
He still couldn't believe it was actually going to happen. He'd been believing this whole trip to be a fool's errand for so longnow that the end was in sight, Simon was unbearably anxious to get it over with. Three hours from now, more or less, he'd find Jeremy; until then, there was no sense in making plans. Simon felt disconnected. He hated that.
Hissing out a disgruntled noise, Simon shifted around, trying to get comfortable without sacrificing his braced state. It wasn't really possible.
Milan evolved around them like most cities do, a bit at a time. Simon, glancing out the windows, admitted that yes, maybe the city was very pretty, not that he cared. For one thing, he wasn't here for the sights, and for another, he wasn't sure he was going to survive another ten minutes in this careening taxi from hell.
Somehow, he did. He was so busy cringing at oncoming traffic that he kept forgetting to look out the windows and figure out where they were going, and he was really starting to get stiff, but he survived. With no warning whatsoever his little white taxi screeched to a halt in the exact middle of the street, setting off an explosion of squeaky honking. The driver held up Simon's paper, tapped it, and pointed at a street corner. "There," he said, with the usual embarrassed half-smile. "Seventy-five euro."
"Thanks," Simon said, gathering up his stuff. He picked through his wallet, selected a hundred-euro noteit was at least green, although an eye-searing grassy green instead of the dignified dark green of real moneyand poked it at the driver. "Keep the change," Simon said, getting out the taxi and narrowly avoiding getting creamed by a scooter. It beeped at him in irritation and hurtled on.
Simon fled for the sidewalk. Two more scooters tried and failed to kill him. Horns blared all around him, some of them undoubtedly blaring at him. He couldn't understand anything that was being yelled at him, but he thought he got the gist of it. Once he gained the sidewalk (and it was a narrow thing) he scooted up under the protective arm of the nearest building to catch his breath. "Jesus Christ," he muttered, wheezing.
Once he could reliably breathe again, Simon fished out the last page of his itinerary. There will be a small newsstand on the corner, Ethan had written. Simon looked over at the giant cascading heap of newspapers and magazines just barely held together by a white canvas awning, nodded, and looked back at the paper. Jeremy informs me that he will check with the owner for messages every evening around seven-thirty. If for some reason you should miss him, a reservation has been made in your name at the hotel across the street. You can then try again on the next day.
"Thinks of everything," Simon muttered, folding up the paper and sticking it back in his duffel. There was a large clock across the street that claimed it was just after six-forty. Simon ambled past the newsstand, looking for his hotel; what he found was a sidewalk cafe' with an espresso sign, right around the corner and out of sight. That, he thought, would do.
One shot of espresso laterSimon thought it might have been pretty good stuff, given how the waiter sneered at his pronunciation of 'espresso'Simon finally noticed the discreet sign on the building across the street. The sign proclaimed it to be the hotel in question. Simon's eyes traveled up. It looked pretty nice, with all that fancy old stonework and stuff. Simon hoped he could afford it. He had several more of those hundred-euro notes in his wallet, though, so he thought he probably could.
After a while, bored out of his mind and barely able to sit still from the anticipation, Simon went to the newsstand to see if there was anything in English. He quickly discovered that half the newspapers in the spinning rack were English-language papers, and treated himself to a ridiculously expensive Washington Post purely for the irony value. He retreated back to his table, ordered another espresso, rolled his eyes at the offended waiter's retreating back, and settled in with the paper.
Seven o'clock came and went. By seven-twenty Simon had given up on concentrating on the paper and instead just held it up like a shield, watching the street out of the corner of his eye and listening for the sound of English with all his might. By seven-forty, Simon was having trouble sitting still and was having to fight the urge to jump up and go look up and down the street to see if he could see Jeremy coming.
Every minute after thatand there were way too manyconvinced Simon that something was horribly wrong. His stomach clenched in dismay. Christ, he'd fucked up with Annabelle and now, after he'd gone to all this trouble, he was too late to help Jeremy, too
"Pleasant evening, isn't it?" The voice at the newsstand was English, affable, and painfully familiar. Simon's heart thudded hard, once. "I'll have a Times, please" Simon was already grabbing his duffel and moving "and are there any messages, by chance?"
Simon blew around the corner of the newsstand, grinning like a madman. The man in front of the newsstand jerked and fell back half a quick step, his shoulders snapping into a straight line, his hands rising defensively, and Simon grandly ignored every last familiar warning sign. "Fucking finally," he declared.
The other man seized up for a heartbeat of time before his hands fell again. "Simon," Jeremy Archer said, sounding not at all happy to see him.