"Drive thy business, let not that drive thee." — Benjamin Franklin, 1758
"I'm surprised that MacLeod still doesn't want to be in it," Charlie DeSalvo said. He glanced up through the thick morning mist, buttoning his baseball jacket as he gauged the odds of rain. He opened the trunk of his car to get to a basket of the dojo's towels, warm from the laundromat, and a dry cleaner's garment bag of his own clothes — the latter an expense he was definitely submitting to MacLeod for reimbursement. Charlie hadn't had to have anything dry cleaned since he'd hung his last Navy uniform in the back of his closet and opened the business that now belonged to MacLeod. "This started while he was in Paris, but now that he's back, I'd think he'd want to drive the publicity. This is a real chance to stop bleeding red ink!"
"Yeah, well, maybe he's got stage fright." Richie picked up the basket when Charlie swung the bag over his shoulder. The kid grinned at Charlie's raised eyebrows. Lots of people got anxious speaking in front of an audience, but MacLeod was the kind of guy you could call 'a leader of men' without irony, and, more, he had shown himself a complete ham on the rare occasions that Charlie had caught him in a good mood. "All right, all right," Richie laughed. "But Mac's a bit, like, camera shy. Remember when those movie people filmed here? Besides, you're the real face of DeSalvo's Martial Arts."
"The face, right." Charlie ran a finger down the old scar over his right eye and shook his head. In any professional advertising campaign, MacLeod — handsome, unblemished, white — would be the poster boy, Charlie knew, not his own beat-up mixed-race mug, which told him just how casually the man was taking this opportunity. Membership had always been by invitation only, but while MacLeod had yet to turn down any of Charlie's recommendations, he'd shown precious little interest in building a clientele. Seacouver offered plenty of dojos, salles and clubs to beginners and athletes in an array of specialties, but DeSalvo's Martial Arts targeted advanced interdisciplinary practitioners; it deserved a bigger slice of that unique pie.
At least, that had been Charlie's conviction until insurance, maintenance and the mortgage had driven him into a strategic retreat. Staying on and managing the place for MacLeod had seemed like receiving reinforcements, at first, an air strike on all routine obstacles, but…
Charlie locked the trunk and started down the sidewalk after Richie. Traffic was light, and pedestrians few. Charlie had parked a block up; spaces by the dojo were already filled by members who had volunteered to show off for the camera, not to mention the reporter and her crew. Charlie didn't watch much television, so when the short blonde had first come to the dojo asking for MacLeod and waving her Eye on the Sound business card, he had earned a huge sigh by not knowing what that was.
"My producer insists that we're the 60 Minutes of the Pacific Northwest." Randi had leaned against the open office door, and then looked around to be sure no one else could hear her. "But I've got to admit, we spend a lot more airtime puffing uplifting human interest stories — like your dojo — than ferreting out malfeasance or cornering power elites."
"Yeah, well, two things." Charlie had smiled. "One, I don't know how 'uplifting' this business is. Two, it isn't my dojo anymore."
"Oh?" Randi had brightened, fingering a business card that still named him 'Owner and Instructor.' "Tell me more."
His special ops training would have made Charlie wary of reporters even if he had not grown up with a keen sense of the difference between the media's reality and his own. But running a small business on the ragged edge of profitability, he found a profile on a local news program just too good to refuse. For better or for worse, Randi turned out to be a real journalist, asking about his childhood in the Zone and service in the SEALs, and even about how MacLeod had bought the dojo with the money from his sale of Noel and MacLeod Antiques, following the unsolved murder of his fiancée, Tessa Noel. Charlie had tried to keep Randi on the subject of DeSalvo's Martial Arts itself — how membership functioned, athletes he had coached, police officers who worked out there — but she had insisted, cheerfully dogged, on learning why the dojo still went by his name, not MacLeod's.
Charlie had had to admit that he didn't know. As often as he'd wondered, he'd never asked. "If I don't come back, the dojo is yours," MacLeod had said as Charlie had lain in the hospital six months ago. And then MacLeod had come back.
The mist finally gathered itself into raindrops. Charlie saw Richie pick up his pace to get the towels inside before they'd have to pay to dry them again. At the same time, Charlie saw a man across the street quicken his own steps half a second after Richie, maintaining distance perfectly. Beige trenchcoat, brown hair, white, gripping something heavy inside his coat: all registered at once on Charlie as matching a figure just left at the laundromat, and the other night at the restaurant where he'd met MacLeod and Richie after MacLeod got back from his jaunt to Japan.
Twice might be coincidence; three times slit your throat.
Catching up, Charlie stopped Richie to lay his garment bag across the basket in Richie's arms, protecting the towels from the rain. Covered by that gesture, he pointed out the man opposite, who had now passed them. Under his breath, Charlie asked, "Know him?"
Richie shook his head and opened his mouth, but snapped it shut again without saying anything. His habitual grin vanished.
"When we reach the dojo, we'll both step inside. You watch for him from the front; I'll run around the back."
"But he's heading the other way."
"Yeah, exactly," Charlie agreed, buoyed by a wave of old, familiar energy. Life had been too quiet since he got out of the hospital. Of five standard observation scenarios, four suggested the same move for their mystery man, and Charlie would take those odds. "Grab MacLeod if you can without losing visual contact. Back-up is golden."
Richie pulled back his shoulders, shortened his strides and improved his balance. Even with the laundry basket in his arms, he was instinctively preparing to fight in a way he couldn't have imagined when Charlie had first met him. Most of the credit went to MacLeod, but Charlie took a share of teacher's pride in the kid, too.
Once the front door of the dojo swung shut behind them, Charlie gave Richie an encouraging slap on the shoulder and ran out the back. He circled the brick building in no time, hugging the wall of the neighboring warehouse in the narrow alley. Just as expected, Beige Trenchcoat had crossed the street and turned back toward the dojo. Charlie thought again about legitimate reasons that a stranger might have popped up like this — and about how very little he wanted to end up charged with assault — but the weight in the man's right hand inside his pocket skewed the odds.
Beige Trenchcoat glanced into the alley, but only at the wall of the dojo in front of him, not that of the warehouse he was passing.
Unseen, Charlie stepped onto the sidewalk behind his target. In front of him, MacLeod stepped out of the dojo, his long-sleeved blue shirt immediately splotched by the rain. Beige Trenchcoat hesitated, then turned around.
"New to the neighborhood?" Charlie asked.
"What?" Beige Trenchcoat's eyes widened. He released whatever he was holding and spread his arms to keep his balance, as he pulled up short on the newly slick sidewalk to avoid colliding with Charlie. MacLeod stepped in behind and seized him by the biceps, then transferred both of the man's arms into a single hold. "Let me go! What do you want?"
"You tell me!" Charlie jabbed a finger at the man's chest. "You've been following me all week, man, and it doesn't look like you're delivering flowers."
MacLeod slid his free hand into Beige Trenchcoat's right pocket. He pulled out a cellular phone, which he tossed to Charlie, and then reached in again. "Tape recorder?"
"That's right," Beige Trenchcoat snarled. "Must you go through all my pockets, or will you let me speak for myself?"
MacLeod raised his eyebrows. As Charlie nodded and offered the phone to its owner, MacLeod released his hold in such a way that his hand tugged up Beige Trenchcoat's sleeve, baring a little blue tattoo on the inside of his wrist. Beige Trenchcoat flushed.
"My name is Robert Tremain, and I work for Eye on the Sound." Beige Trenchcoat fished out a business card and handed it to Charlie. Raindrops made the ink run. "Investigative consultant. I can call my boss to vouch for me."
"Yeah, I think it would be a good idea to call both your bosses on this one." MacLeod handed back the recorder and crossed his arms. "Don't you?"
"The signal here is lousy."
"Well, by all means," Charlie gestured at the door. "Come inside and use the phone."
"Bobby!" Randi exclaimed as soon as they stepped from the foyer into the dojo. She wore a blue suit, with crazily high heels that Charlie supposed made it easier for the cameraman to frame her with taller people, but which he wasn't wild to have on his floor. "Where have you been? I wanted your report before we had to put in for approvals."
"I didn't find anything new," Beige Trenchcoat told her. Then he turned to Charlie. "Good enough?"
"You put a tail on me?" Charlie asked Randi.
"No! I mean, just Bobby, here. I had a little room in the budget, and — hey, wait. Bobby, you got spotted?"
Charlie looked up at the ceiling and snorted.
"Come on, 'Bobby.'" MacLeod took the man by the elbow and steered him to the office. "You've still got a call to make."
"Really, Charlie," Randi said, "I didn't mean any disrespect. It's just one of the things we do."
Charlie peeled off his damp jacket and looked around the dojo. Richie had just begun giving Randi's cameraman a tour of the equipment, currently in use by more guys than Charlie often saw in a week. The power of television. For what? He sighed.
"Charlie? Are we okay?"
"Do you even realize what could have happened?" He looked at her. "A guy that clumsy, stumbling after not just me, but pretty much anyone here? Randi, these are men who know what they're doing. Serious martial artists, more than a few veterans, people who have fought for their lives for real, not just — for TV. You convince them they're threatened, they will defend themselves."
"He came highly recommended for this job. Should I talk to MacLeod? Please don't pull out on me now!" Her eyes were huge and anxious. "Look, I, well, I had a job on a national broadcast last year, my big break, off to the future, you know? I cut my Seacouver ties and headed for the big time. Then my grandmother got sick, and I'm her only family, so — here I am, back where I started. But if I can do this right, keep our ratings up, I can stay in the game."
"Treading water?" Charlie nodded, understanding better than he cared to say. Although, it occurred to him, maybe she'd figured that out in the course of her investigation, and was using her own story to rope him. He couldn't blame her for wielding a weapon with which he'd armed her. "No, I'm not pulling out. Just let me go change, and we can get on with it."
Randi cocked her head. "I don't want you in a suit or anything; you remember we discussed looking like your regular self?"
"Just a shirt and slacks that aren't soaked." Charlie held up his damp jacket as an exhibit. She didn't need to know that they would be his best shirt and slacks, for whatever contribution that made in putting the dojo's best foot forward with the television viewers of western Washington. He started up the stairs to the locker room, where he supposed Richie would have hung his garment bag.
"Hey, wait!" Randi ran up to the wooden railing. "You said 'men who know what they're doing.' Does DeSalvo's Martial Arts have any female members?"
Charlie blinked. "We've had women guests…"
"I'll save it for when the camera's rolling," Randi beamed.
Charlie showered and changed, wishing he'd had the presence of mind to invite one of those guests back for this. One guy's wife was nationally ranked in judo, and somebody's daughter had been an alternate for the Olympic fencing team. But marketing had never been his strength; no doubt that's part of why he'd had to surrender the dojo in the first place. If MacLeod had taken this Eye on the Sound thing seriously, wouldn't that have been the kind of thing he would have foreseen? Charlie washed his face and headed back downstairs, stepping gingerly around the cameraman, Randi, and their director, who were checking angles from the landing.
MacLeod and his friend Joe stood by the doors to the foyer. MacLeod's arms were crossed. Joe leaned more heavily on his cane than usual, and his rain-speckled gray tweed jacket was darker than his hair and beard, which didn't match Charlie's memory of the last time he'd seen him, before his stay in the hospital. Charlie overheard Joe say, "He's off Richie, effective immediately, I promise."
"When you put people like that into the field, you endanger them as well as us. You know the kind of attention he would have drawn." MacLeod clearly had not meant this rebuke for ears beyond Joe's.
Charlie coughed as he stepped down from the stairs.
"All hail the big TV star," Joe cracked a smile. "Break a leg, as they say."
"Thanks. I've never been able to imagine why they say that, but thanks."
"Actors get off easy," MacLeod said. "Dancers say 'merde' to wish each other luck. Opera singers say 'toi toi toi' while spitting and knocking wood."
Charlie laughed. "Are you sure you won't reconsider going on a game show, MacLeod?"
"That, I'd like to see," Joe smirked. "So I don't know whether you've heard, but Juniper Books closed at the end of last month."
"I'm sorry." Charlie knew that Joe had managed the independent bookstore, though he had never been clear on the ownership. He had an impression that it was wrapped up in Joe's family somehow. The big box retailers must have been too much for them. Charlie's gaze slid to MacLeod, who had stepped in so opportunely when he'd passed the breaking point himself; with a shake of his head, Charlie snapped his eyes back to Joe. "Are you okay?"
"Man, that stinks!" Richie appeared at Charlie's shoulder. "I mean, you know, if I'd ever been in the market for a book, I would've shopped there."
MacLeod asked, "Do you have something lined up?"
"Yeah, I'm fine." Joe pursed his lips and shook his head. "Never better, in fact. 'Cause here's the good news: I'm opening a blues bar. Come to drink, come to talk, come to listen!" He retrieved business cards from his pocket and handed them out.
"'Joe's'?" MacLeod read from the card.
"Simple." Joe grinned. "Not to mention classy. Charlie knows where I'm coming from."
"I do indeed," said the manager of DeSalvo's Martial Arts. "Good luck, man. Or, you know, 'break a leg.' When do you open?"
"Not until next month, with all the inspections to get through. But, uh, a truly private party, say, a friendly get-together in which we just test out the space, well—" Joe raised his eyebrows and shrugged. "Come on by tonight after you all earn your Emmys here. The band will be practicing on site for the first time, and we'd be glad of an audience. Keeps the sound balance true, you know?"
"I think I can make that." Grinning, Richie stuck the card in his pocket, then headed up the stairs to the Eye on the Sound crew.
Mac watched Richie go. Charlie followed his gaze, and found Randi meeting MacLeod's eyes; she took a step toward them. MacLeod told Joe, "I'll be there," and then strode quickly across the dojo to take the elevator to his loft, his back to the camera.
"I guess it's all up to you, now." Joe said, nodding at Randi slowly descending the stairs in her weapons-grade heels.
Charlie reflected that it always had been up to him. He'd let himself forget, somehow, between selling the dojo and the mess with Xavier St. Cloud that had landed him in the hospital. The magnetic field of trouble that was MacLeod's vicinity had hidden it. While a mission lasted, you gave it everything you had. When a mission ended, you moved on to the next. The next mission was always where the action is, and where the action is was where Charlie belonged. "Do you think you might have some time to talk after your rehearsal tonight? I'd really like to hear about the move from bookshop to blues bar."
"Yeah, sure." Joe leaned his head back. "And not that my workaday world isn't a fascinating thrill ride, but — any reason in particular?"
"It's time to update my business cards." Charlie smiled.
— End —