Jacob Phelps had done his homework on Elizabeth Scott, and it had been months since he’d first insinuated himself, as elementary school teacher Tom Keen, into her circle of friends and acquaintances. Through it all, he could not, for the life of him, see how she was anything more than just another pretty face. What was so special about her that Raymond Reddington, of all people, would show such interest? The only abnormality Jacob saw in the situation was that everything about the woman was perfectly normal.
“Come on Liz, where’s your sense of romance?” a woman about halfway down the picnic table from him prodded. It was the weekend, and the group had gotten together to spend the afternoon at a park.
“You do know who you’re talking to, right?” Scott joked. It was well known she had some struggles in that department. No one seemed to know many details about her latest fiasco, but apparently, she’d caught the guy cheating on her, and it hadn’t ended well. It had been only a little over a week since, but she’d already been on a date with someone else, some med student called Nik whom none of them really knew.
“Come on,” her friend insisted, “You can’t tell me somewhere, deep down in there, you don’t have a little girl who still believes in love at first sight.”
Liz snorted, “You really don’t want me to answer that.” Jacob, only half-aware at that point, was startled out of his boredom by her tone. While light on the surface, he could have sworn there’d been an edge of warning there.
“Oh, really? Now I’m interested,” a man joined in, “Why don’t you give us your official opinion, Dr. Scott?”
Something flashed in Liz’s eyes, too quickly to read, before she rolled them, answering, “All right, you asked for it. ‘Love at first sight,’ doesn’t exist in any real sense, only in the mind. It’s something people can convince themselves they feel. That’s it. Sorry to disappoint, Ellie.” Jacob blinked. Either he was so bored and tired of normal that his mind was playing tricks on him, or Scott had stopped herself from saying something very different. He could have sworn he’d seen a coldness in her eyes he’d never noticed before.
Her friends grumbled good-naturedly, and the moment passed, Liz reverting to the woman he thought he knew. She pulled out her phone, reading a text message, before tossing it across the table at her friend, whining, “Ugh, tell him to leave me alone.” She sounded more exasperating than anything else, and the display of childishness was actually sort of amusing, even endearing.
“Ronnie again?” Ellie asked sympathetically, handing Liz back her phone.
“Is there a more obnoxious man on the planet?”
“Don’t worry, Liz. If there is, I’m sure you’ll end up dating him next.”
“Thanks, Gary,” Scott answered dryly.
Everything was right in her little world for a few minutes after that, until a man arrived and approached the table. Liz stiffened when she caught sight of him, a dark look entering her eyes, as she practically growled, “Who told him we would be here?”
The change startled Jacob so much, he barely processed the response as one of her friends mentioned something about a careless post on Facebook. For the first time, he realized he’d never before seen Scott truly angry.
Liz glanced around at the audience before abruptly standing, saying, “I’ll be right back after I take care of this,” and stalking off behind a cluster of trees for some privacy, Ronnie in tow.
Jacob didn’t think Scott’s ex was about to murder her in the middle of a park in broad daylight, but figured he may as well follow, quietly excusing himself from the table as conversation picked back up to fill the awkward void.
As he neared the couple, staying out of sight and leaning casually against a tree so as to appear inconspicuous to passersby, he heard the man speaking.
“-care about you, Babe, really.”
“Really?” Scott’s voice was dry as desert and cold as ice, “So, you show me that you care about me by screwing-”
“Oh, come on Liz, It’s not like that. That was just a little fun. You’re the one I love.”
“You love me?” There was something guarded about her voice that set off ten kinds of warning bells in Jacob’s head.
“Alright, then,” Liz said calmly, as though remarking on the weather, “Prove it.”
Jacob shifted to see her open her purse, taking out a bottle of water and- was that a pill bottle? He hadn’t known Scott was on any sort of medication.
Unless she isn’t, the thought came unbidden to his mind. Oh, come on, this is Scott. Normal, boring Scott.
Normal, boring Scott, whose face was blank as any trained operative’s as she held Ronnie’s gaze, knocking back a mouthful of pills and washing them down with a few gulps of water.
It took Jacob a moment to regain the ability to form coherent thoughts, and once he did, all he could think was, That did not just happen.
The idiot who stood staring at Scott took a little longer to process, mouth hanging open, until he finally asked, “What did you just do?”
What does it look like? Jacob thought, rolling his eyes. His sarcasm was back; he must be recovering. He looked back at Scott’s still composed features, waiting for her to realize what she’d just done and freak out.
“You said you care about me. This is your chance to prove it. Do you care enough to save me from my suicide attempt?” Her tone was more suited to asking something like, Do you like cinnamon?
Jacob found it very hard for people to surprise him these days; he was just too good at reading them. Now, though, he was flabbergasted. Scott had just done the most insane thing he’d ever seen a “normal” person do, with – objectively – rather slight provocation, and rather than emotional or unbalanced, she seemed completely in control, looking as though she found her actions no more strange than stopping to smell the roses on a walk through the garden. He was perhaps the best operative the Major had ever trained. How had he pegged this girl so wrong?
“You’re insane!” Ronnie exclaimed.
Liz actually smiled, cold and predatory, “Yes. Now love me enough to deal with it, or get out of my life.”
Shaken, the man left, muttering as he went, “What the freak? Crazy little b-”
Jacob watched the woman as she released a long sigh, muttering dryly, “That went well.”
Cold and businesslike, she pulled out her cellphone and called 911, surprising him again by giving her location as a street corner at the opposite side of the park. What was she playing at? Did she-
“It’s Tom, right?” she asked, having just ended the call.
Jacob blinked. Had he just been made? He really shouldn’t have been surprised by that point.
Apparently, he’d taken too long to respond.
“I promise, I’m not a danger to others, just myself,” Scott joked, seeming as relaxed as she had with her friends, before her ex had shown up. “Well, unless you really piss me off.”
Jacob stumbled out into the open, stuttering, “No, right, sorry, I didn’t- I was just-” Breathe, Phelps. “Uh, yeah, right, that’s me. Tom Keen.” What was wrong with him? Yeah, his cover was supposed to be a little awkward, but it was supposed to be intentional. This was just…happening.
Scott actually looked amused, as if she found it cute or something. At least, she didn’t say anything. Small mercies: He wasn’t sure his pride could have handled it right then.
“So, like I’m sure you heard, I’ve got someplace I need to be.” Right, he thought at the flippant remark, because it’s not like your rendezvous with an ambulance is a big deal or anything.
“I was wondering if you could do me a favor.” She finally had the decency to look a little insecure. Honestly, after what he’d just witnessed, he could see this favor being anything from reminding her what day of the week it was to breaking into Fort Knox.
“Uh, sure, what do you need?”
“I was wondering if you could possibly just tell the guys I was wiped out after dealing with Ronnie and wanted to just go home and relax. I’d rather they not know about all…this.”
Finally, it clicked. That was why she’d wanted to meet the ambulance away from the group. Did she want to spare her friends the worry, or was she worried what they’d think of her? He saw her watching him and realized she was still waiting for an answer.
“Uh, yeah, sure. I can do that.”
“Thanks,” she smiled, before turning and walking towards her destination.
Jacob started after her, “Wait, Liz, can I walk you there? I’d feel really bad if something happened to you on the way.”
She waved away his concern, “I’ll be fine until I get there. I’ve still got about two and a half minutes before they should really start affecting me. Plenty of- I really shouldn’t have said that, should I?”
“Actually, it’s kind of reassuring.”
Jacob inwardly cheered as she paused to gape at him in surprise. About time she got a taste of her own medicine.
“You think it’s reassuring I know how long it takes before a suicidal overdose starts affecting someone?”
“Well, I mean, it means you knew what you were doing back there, so that stunt you pulled really wasn’t all that-”
“Crazy?” Scott smirked.
“I was going to say reckless,” he smiled.
“Wow, you’re really a glass-half-full kind of guy, aren’t you?”
He shrugged, “Anyway, if you’re up for the company, we can walk and talk. What do you say? It’d make me feel a little better.”
“Hanging out with the crazy chick who just poisoned herself to scare off her ex would make you feel better? I don’t even want to know what you teach those students of yours is socially acceptable behavior.”
Jacob shook his head, the smile on his face completely genuine for the first time in a long time. This woman had just knocked back a suicidal dose of pills to prove a point, and now she was strolling along, cracking jokes about his teaching. How had he missed this? He was struck by a sudden desire to know what else she had hidden beneath that boringly normal façade.
“You know, I originally came after you because I wanted to ask what you were really going to say back there.”
“That love at first sight thing. I’ve got a feeling whatever you really wanted to say would’ve been a lot less…nice.”
Scott chuckled, a glint of mischief in her eyes “I was about to give my personal opinion, before remembering Gary had asked for the professional.”
“Are the two very different?”
“More in tone than in substance.”
“I’d like to hear it.”
“I don’t think you would.” And, there was that hint of warning again.
“Come on,” he grinned, “You haven’t scared me off yet.”
Liz seemed to consider for a moment, before her gaze darkened and, speaking with a bitterness he’d never seen in her, said, “People believe in ‘love at first sight’ because it’s a fantasy they can latch onto in the hope it’ll be their escape from all life’s crap. It’s something people convince themselves they feel so they can pretend they’ve found something worthwhile until they get their hearts broken and realize what idiots they were.”
“Wow. Sounds like personal experience.” He’d tried to be delicate, but he could practically feel the walls slam up as she raised her guard, regarding him warily.
“I was a stupid teenager.”
Jacob decided to push his luck. “What was his name?”
“Frank.” Her tone carried the finality of a period at the end of a sentence, and he knew the conversation was over.
They walked in silence for a moment before he offered – because that’s what normal people did, right? – “You can do way better.”
She looked back at him, every trace of darkness gone from her expression. Was she really so mercurial, or was her mask just that good? Smiling, warm and inviting, she asked, “Was that a suggestion?”
The first thoughts to run through his mind were all curses. What was he supposed to say to that? Friend of a friend. In all honesty, he was probably already closer than he should be after today. Do something like what she’d suggested, and his mission would be so screwed.
Just as he opened his mouth to stutter out some sort of response, Liz started laughing, the fullest, most free laugh he’d heard from her that day.
“Oh my gosh,” she choked out between guffaws, “The look on your face! I was just kidding,” she reassured. “I’ll be seeing if it works out with Nick before I go looking for anyone else, anyway, but I just couldn’t resist. Honestly, did you think I’d really expect that to be an offer after the crazy-show you just saw?”
Laughing half because he had no clue how to respond to something like that and half because – miracle of miracles! – he’d actually found it funny, Jacob replied, “Liz, your crazy has nothing on a room full of sugar-hyped fourth graders.”
It took them both a moment to register that he’d sounded completely serious, and that set them off all over again. Jacob couldn’t remember the last time he’d genuinely laughed that hard, not for a cover or just playing a part, and that’s when he realized that it was genuine. Good thing he’d officially become immune to shock over the course of the day.
Watching over Elizabeth Scott might be a lot more interesting than he’d thought up to that point. She really was normal in a lot of ways – normal friends, normal job, normal goals. He’d seen so many different sides of her, though. A dark and fearless streak wide enough to warrant the interest of the Concierge of Crime, for instance. An ability to keep it hidden under amiability and humor that reminded him of an onion. Someone had once compared him to one – well, one of his covers, anyway. Jacob had always been…hesitant to apply the analogy to himself, unsure of what he may find beneath the layers of masks and training and sarcasm, unsure if there was anything to find under it all. Scott, though…He couldn’t wait to start peeling away the outer skin of normalcy to expose the layers he hadn’t known existed until today.