Greg House knew the dame was trouble from the moment she sashayed her way past his young assistant, Allison Cameron, and into his dingy office. She was tall, blonde, and statuesque and wore heels so high that she must have been deeply uncomfortable, and House immediately recognized her perfume and the cut of her clothes as expensive, even if he couldn't quite place the brands. She was a woman who dressed to impress and had the means as well as motive and opportunity.
"Mr. Gregory House?" she asked in a low, melodious tone, holding out a perfectly manicured hand for him to brush against his lips. "Mrs. James Evan Wilson. But please, call me Julie. All of my friends do."
House sank back into his creaking chair, rubbing his sore right thigh for a moment, then deliberately picked up a cigarette paper, shook some tobacco into it, rolled it up, and sealed it with a lick. "What can I do for you, Mrs. Wilson?"
She took a seat on the corner of his desk and crossed her long legs, displaying them to best advantage. "It's my husband," she murmured, lowering her lashes. "I need someone to... how shall I put this?" Now she raised her eyes and looked directly, helplessly, at House. "I think that he's seeing someone else."
Everybody lied. Unfaithful spouses were the bread and butter of House's profession. "All right," he said agreeably, not bothering to feign sympathy. If he was any judge of human character at all, this cold, beautiful woman was no better than a mercenary, and about as helpless as a snake. But that didn't mean that they couldn't do business. "I charge ten dollars a day, plus expenses." When she nodded, sniffling theatrically, he continued, "I'll need his home and work addresses, and a photo if you've got one."
She snapped her pocketbook open, pulled out an envelope, and placed it in his hand. "An advance," she said serenely as he thumbed through $50 in crisp bills, tucked them into a corner of his desk drawer, and then fished out the photograph. James Wilson had a youthful face, with warm, dark eyes, heavy eyebrows, and cheekbones that could cut glass.
House didn't compliment Mrs. Wilson on her advance preparation. "And the addresses?"
She reached for the pen and notepad on his desk, glancing at him for permission, which he gave with a curt, wordless nod. He got a real good view of her cleavage while she wrote down two addresses in elegant longhand. Her bra was trimmed in soft-looking light blue lace.
She straightened up again all too soon and pushed the notepad towards him. House raised his eyebrows at the second address. "He works at Princeton Plainsboro Hospital?"
"Yes, he's a physician there." And then, without a hint of irony, "He specializes in female complaints."
House had no trouble recognizing James Wilson when he emerged from a well-maintained brownstone early the following morning, although for some reason he was surprised to see that he was so tall. He waited while the younger man slid gracefully into his car, noting the make, model, and license plate, and then eased away from the curb and followed Wilson at a discreet distance.
He needn't have bothered; Wilson drove directly to the hospital, diligently obeying every traffic sign. House hovered impatiently until he had parked and strode into the main building, then found himself a space in visitor's parking. Then he went in, limping a little, and checked the directory. He would not be able to pass himself off as one of Wilson's patients, obviously, but he hoped to establish a cover story that would allow him to linger in the hospital halls without attracting undue attention.
It wasn't difficult. House presented himself and his scarred right thigh to the head nurse in the trauma recovery ward on the same floor as Wilson's consulting office, making up a story about having fought in the same unit as the comatose veteran in the corner. With the nurse's permission, he pulled up a chair with a good view of the hallway and settled in. His silent supposed war buddy was the best kind of company while he waited, humming jazz tunes under his breath and occasionally massaging his thigh.
House's patience was rewarded around 11:30, when he spotted Wilson walking by, deep in conversation with a pretty young nurse. House got up, stretching against the stiffness, and hobbled out into the corridor after them. Once he had satisfied himself that they were heading for the cafeteria, as expected, he ducked out for a minute to purchase a newspaper.
House loaded up his tray with a bowl of stew made from some kind of unidentifiable meat, a couple of stale rolls, and a cup of coffee. Normally he would have balked at the price of that unappetizing swill, but today he would simply put it on his expense report. Anyway, he had come here for the view, not the food.
He spent most of the meal gazing over or around his newspaper at Wilson and his lunch companion, who talked in low, earnest voices, faces close together. At one point he watched Wilson pat her on the knee. The young woman was tall and slender, with brown curly hair, blue eyes, and a dimple that emerged towards the end of the meal when Wilson finally succeeded in making her laugh. House had to admit that the man had decent taste. He snapped a couple of surreptitious photos when they looked especially focused on each other, then tucked the camera back in his satchel.
House made sure to give Wilson and his woman a couple of minutes to clear their table and reach the doors before he folded his paper and followed them out.
The afternoon dragged on. House still had his paper, but he couldn't risk letting Wilson get by him while he was engrossed in it. He also had to avoid the attempts of the ward nurses to engage him in conversation once word spread that he was a devoted survivor of what's-his-name's platoon. But there was no further sign of Wilson, not even at the coffee hour.
Towards dinnertime, when he was informed sympathetically but firmly that the ward was now closed to visitors, House took a deliberate stroll down the hall and passed by Wilson's office. The younger man was at his desk, hunched over a pile of paperwork, scribbling notes diligently with his left hand. House made the mistake of pausing for an instant as he passed, taking in the scene, the framed pictures on Wilson's walls, the heavy bookcases groaning under intimidating tomes and gifts from grateful clients past.
Just then, Wilson chanced to look up, and their eyes met.
House cursed himself inwardly and assumed an expression of innocent confusion. "Oh, excuse me, Doc. I was looking for the trauma ward and got turned around." He rubbed his thigh, looking away from those penetrating eyes, the smooth forehead creasing in concern.
"It's down there, on your left," Wilson said helpfully, pointing back the way House had come. He had a pleasant, educated, upper middle class voice, although his faint accent placed his origins in New Jersey.
"Thanks," House replied, trying to hit just the right note of aw-shucks gratitude, and turned awkwardly, exaggerating his limp a little as he left.
He decided to wait for Wilson in his car after that, although the cramped conditions would play hell with his old injury. He picked up another serving of lousy coffee on his way, grimacing at the bitterness as he downed it too quickly, and then crumpled the cup and pitched it towards the nearest wastebasket. Nevertheless, he nearly dozed off less than five minutes into his vigil. The inside of his car was too warm and also smelled vaguely musty; House made a mental note to air it out at the earliest opportunity.
Fortunately, Wilson emerged from the hospital within half an hour. House ducked beneath the level of the dashboard as he passed, but the other man didn't so much as glance in his direction. Once again, House tailed him at a discreet distance, and once again Wilson drove prudently and directly between the two addresses that House had been given. House pulled over to the curb one block earlier and waited, engine grumbling, until he was sure that Wilson wouldn't be coming out again any time soon. Then he drove back to his own apartment, where he fixed himself a liverwurst and cream cheese sandwich and considered all that he had seen.
That was the first day.
The week passed without major incident. House dutifully tailed Wilson to and from work, keeping vigil at his supposed war buddy's bedside during the day. He forced down what passed for lunch at the hospital cafeteria so that he could document Wilson's heart-to-hearts with a series of nervous- or unhappy-looking young women, never the same dame twice. But he took care to sit far away from them and to pretend to be deeply interested in the ups and downs of the stock market. Now that he'd accidentally attracted Wilson's attention once, he couldn't risk being recognized again.
House was beginning to think that Wilson's wife was wrong, or at the very least, lying, about his supposed extracurricular activities, when the weekend arrived and Julie left town to visit her parents in New York. She alerted him with a note left at his office along with another advance, hinting that her absence would give James just the opportunity he needed to pursue his illicit activities.
He had to admit, the woman had brains, or at least a kind of shrewd common sense. He followed her advice, going home to pack a thermos of coffee and a couple of sandwiches. Then he eased his car to the curb just a couple of houses down and across the street from the Wilsons' and settled in to wait.
There was a fair amount of activity for a couple of hours as husbands returned from work and couples left together, impeccably dressed, for dinner parties or nights on the town. Wilson himself emerged briefly to walk their little white terrier, Hector, around the block. In fact, he passed right by House's jalopy, forcing him to duck down behind the dashboard again, but the younger man didn't give him a second glance, and neither did the dog.
Otherwise, there was no sign of life whatsoever in the Wilsons' well-lit brownstone until right around ten o'clock, when a woman in a knee-length dress, with reddened lips and bobbed blonde hair, climbed out of a cab and sauntered up the stairs.
House felt his pulse quicken. He pulled out a pair of binoculars and trained them on the doorway. Sure enough, Wilson had opened the door with an anxious smile. He glanced quickly up and down the street before gesturing for the young woman to enter.
Jackpot. House wouldn't be able to get a clear photo without a self-revealing flash, but he did jot down a brief description and cursory sketch of Wilson's visitor. Depending on how long she stayed, he figured that he might be able to get a better look later. He washed down one of his sandwiches with a helping of coffee and then leaned against the back of the seat, eyes slitted against the glare from the streetlights.
Only an overfull bladder and the harsh horizontal light forced him awake the following morning.
House swore, rubbed the sleep from his eyes, and squinted. It was still early. There was no knowing for sure whether the prostitute had left late in the night, but most likely he'd missed her. Wilson's car was still in its usual spot.
After a brief internal debate, House drove home. He threw the leftover sandwich away and poured out the cold coffee, then took a hot soak that eased the aches in his leg and back. Although his face was starting to itch, he decided not to shave; hopefully a week's worth of stubble would make it more difficult for Wilson to recognize him if they happened to run into each other again.
Once he'd dressed, House made himself another pot of coffee and fried a couple of eggs. He ate them with burnt toast and a frown as he considered his next move.
His reverie was interrupted by the telephone. "Hey, angel," he answered Cameron's chirpy greeting. "Yeah, I think I got something. A doll dropped by last night, short skirt, the works. What's next? Trash, I think. Although I got to be careful not to let him catch me. I should send that fella Bobby of yours instead."
House hung up and chewed the last tough chunk of toast, scowling, then washed his dishes and wandered over to the battered piano in the corner of his apartment, feeling in need of some serious cheering up. He cracked his knuckles and played "Sweet Georgia Brown" and "Carolina Moon" and "Way Down Yonder in New Orleans." When he caught his toes tapping in time to the music, he smirked at himself and closed the piano up again.
Julie had said that she would be back, bright and early, the following morning. So if Wilson had any evidence of which to dispose, he would probably do it, at the latest, tonight. House dropped by the office, but there had been no calls and no clients. He skipped lunch, spent the afternoon listening to music on his gramophone, then treated himself to a steak dinner at Mrs. Wilson's expense on his way back to the Wilsons' place.
Sure enough, their garbage can was sitting out on the curb when he arrived. And, as luck would have it, the man himself emerged a moment later, little white pooch in tow. Knowing that he would only have a few precious minutes, House waited until they had rounded the corner, then lurched out of the car and staggered across the street, cursing his gimp leg. He cast a quick glance up and down the block before lifting the lid and hauling up the sack of waste inside, then hightailing it back to his car.
When he got back to the office, House unfolded the white sheet he kept folded on the top shelf of his closet and spread it out on the floor, then untied the garbage bag and emptied its contents onto the sheet, poking through the layers of crumpled paper, orange rinds, coffee grounds, and fishbones with the tip of a pencil.
It didn't take him long to fish out several empty syringes and a length of rubbery tape that immediately suggested a tourniquet.
It was the straw that broke the camel's back. House let out a long, low, disbelieving whistle and rocked onto his heels as epiphany dawned. Something unfamiliar stirred, starting deep in his belly, then squeezing his chest, pushing its way through his tight throat and twisting his lips in an involuntary grimace. He sputtered for a second like a rusty engine that couldn't quite catch.
Then he threw his head back and laughed, a frank, loud, open guffaw full of rueful admiration at just how thoroughly he'd been had.
He was still sitting there on the floor, chuckling gently, knees weak from laughter, when Cameron rapped on the door and opened it, looking startled and a little scared. "Is... is everything all right?"
"Yeah," he managed to gasp out, wiping his eyes on his sleeve. "You can go home and get some sleep, angel. I'm heading back over to James Wilson's place."
Cameron frowned, cocking her head. "Didn't you just come from there?"
"I sure did," House agreed, and finally hauled himself back up, bracing his back against the wall for leverage. He dusted off the seat of his pants, reached for the trenchcoat that she was already holding out to him. "That manipulative bitch."
Wilson answered his door right away and didn't look at all surprised to see House looming there, scraping his muddy shoes on the mat. "We meet at last," he deadpanned. "Or should that be 'again'?"
House eyed him from beneath the brim of his fedora. Up close, Wilson was even more pleasantly boyish looking, with a twinkle of mischief in his brown eyes and incipient dimples in the corners of his mouth. At the same time, he radiated the kind of confidence natural to those who had never had to struggle for professional success.
"Gregory House, private dick," he offered finally.
Wilson nodded, a quick dip of the chin without taking his eyes from House's face. "James Wilson," he said. "But you already knew that. Come in and have a drink?"
House followed him, bemused, into the sitting room, where Wilson fetched a cut-glass decanter from an end table and poured generous measures of amber liquid into two tumblers. He handed one to House, the tips of their fingers just barely brushing, and lifted the other in a toast. "To divorce," he said.
"To divorce," House echoed, and let half of the Scotch slide down his throat to light a warm coal in his belly. He swirled the rest in his glass for a second, staring down into its smoky depths, before raising his head again and asking, "How long have you known?"
"That you were tailing me?" Wilson gifted him with a wide, slow smile. "I knew that Julie wanted a divorce, and I knew that she would hire somebody to dig up as much dirt on me as possible. I wasn't sure at first that it was you, but when I noticed you in my rear view mirror on Thursday, I remembered you from the hospital."
"Really?" House asked in spite of himself. He'd tried so damned hard to be inconspicuous.
"Oh, it wasn't anything you did," Wilson said quickly, as if reading his mind and wanting to reassure him. "It's just... you caught my eye the first time. Tall, lean, with those beautiful baby blues. So when I spotted you again, I recognized you immediately."
"Hmm," was all House would say to that. His heart was starting to thump in earnest, and his palms felt clammy. He wondered whether he might be coming down with something.
Wilson drained his own glass, then refilled it and topped House up without asking. "See, I want the divorce, too. I've wanted one for years."
"But you didn't want to be the bad guy," House finished for him. "You wanted Julie to think that it was all her idea."
Wilson shrugged, as if to say, what can you do? and took another sip of Scotch.
"So," House said, and cleared his suddenly thick throat. "Now what? Everything I thought I had on you was bunk. Mrs. Wilson isn't going to like it."
Wilson took a step closer and tilted his head, eyes twinkling with mischief. "Well... you could always tell Julie that you've learned that I'm involved with someone else."
"That would be a lie," House objected. Wilson was close enough that he could smell him, could see the crinkles at the corners of his shining eyes, could feel himself stirring in a damned unprofessional way.
"It doesn't have to be," Wilson murmured... and leaned in for a clumsy kiss.
House closed his eyes and opened his lips, leaning into Wilson, tasting the Scotch along with something darker and more complicated. He felt an almost painful pressure as Wilson grabbed him by the biceps, pulling him closer.
"Well," he managed to gasp out, heart pounding and skin tingling, as they separated at last, "you're not boring, I'll give you that."
"I'll take that as a compliment," Wilson said, struggling to keep a straight face.
House wagged his finger directly in front of Wilson's nose. "But you better watch your step, buddy. I'm not taking my eyes off of you for a second."
"Counting on it," Wilson said, and there was the dimple again.