She was both appalled and amused that this was the invitation she was accepting. Artie would simply be appalled; the invitation hadn't come from him. The invitations came from Claudia as everything else did - the announcements, the photos, the gossipy little items. Helena had never responded to any of them before; almost ten years' worth of news of the Warehouse and its agents and she had never sent so much as a thank you in response. Someone else might have taken her silence as disinterest, but not Claudia. The last time Helena had spoken with an agent was a brief phone call she had with Myka, after Nate and Giselle but before Patrick and Catherine and all the rest. Myka was in an airport waiting for a flight, so she had said. She had laughed nervously and apologized for calling so late - it was midnight in London - but she had wanted Helena to hear it from her first. Helena had said the right things, the things a friend should say, ending the call by wishing her and Pete all the best. That was the one invitation she hadn't received; Myka hadn't sent her one, and Claudia would have known better than to try to correct what was, only on the surface, an oversight. But Helena had received the announcement less than two years later of Andrew Bering Lattimer's arrival in the world, and Claudia hadn't stinted on sending pictures. A doting godmother, she found every act of young Drew Lattimer worthy of saving for posterity, although just possibly, because it was Claudia, she took impish glee in imagining Helena's sigh every time she received an e-mail with a new photo. Her text message about the divorce, when it occurred, had been so terse that Helena couldn't help but imagine Claudia transmitting it via Western Union, seeing a freeze frame of the rumpled yellow telegram - Pyka over. Stop.
She hadn't responded to it either.
But this, this, Artie's retirement was enough to have her lean forward in her chair and send back her electronic RSVP. Then, in another first, she sent a message of her own: I look forward to seeing all of you.
It was called the "campus" now, the entirely artificial greenspace on which the B&B had been built, dry prairie on the edge of the Badlands that had been sodded, irrigated, and manicured to resemble nothing remotely approaching its original form. Acres similarly cosmeticized had been added to encompass the growth in housing. The two-story Victorian B&B still stood, albeit significantly enlarged by additions on both the main and second floors, but single family homes also shared the property, shaded walks and a few lanes just big enough for a golf cart or a hybrid-energy compact connecting them. It was all so self-consciously designed to balance privacy and a sense of community, middle-class comfort and the desire to reduce one's carbon footprint that Helena smiled and shook her head. Surely there had to be a fitness center and a community garden to complete the picture.
In the middle of the campus, there was a large white tent, the kind usually reserved for graduation parties and family reunions, and although the invitation had said only that the reception was to be held from 2:00 to 4:00, and not where, the number of people milling around the outside of the tent suggested that the reception was being held there. The dress code appeared to be khakis and polo shirts for the men and sundresses of varying colors and lengths for the women. Feeling a little overdressed in her tailored slacks and silk blouse, she walked across the grass toward the tent. She didn't recognize any of the men and women standing outside the tent drinking from paper cups and eating appetizers from paper plates (it was hard to miss the containers at the corners with the recycling symbol). But the man emerging from under the canopy, avidly attacking a kebab and crinkling his eyes against the sun as he looked at her was all too familiar. His mouth stretching wide in a welcoming grin, he flung down his plate and jogged to intercept her, waving his arm in a come-along gesture at a small boy engaged in a slouching, scuffling patrol of the tent, boredom plain on his face.
"H.G.!" Pete yelled in her ear as he wrapped her in a bear hug and lifted her off the ground. He gave her another squeeze before releasing her and stepping back to take her in. "Claud said you were coming, but we didn't believe it. God, you look great. Love the white streak, by the way." He raised a hand as if to touch her hair but thought better of it. "Very Lily Munster."
Ten years ago she wouldn't have caught the reference, but she had spent too many nights in too many hotel rooms flipping channels to counteract her insomnia not to have at least a passing acquaintance with American sitcoms. "As I believe you and Herman are brothers under the skin."
"Ouch, I don't think that's a compliment," he said to the boy who had come to stand beside him, ill at ease and clearly dreading the incipient introduction. With a gentle shove, Pete propelled the boy forward. "This is Drew." The boy started to sketch a wave, but Helena reached out and pulled his hand into a handshake. One second, two, then Drew dropped the contact and let his eyes fly away. "Drew, this is the lady who wrote all those stories your mom read you."
She had recognized him, even before Pete had motioned to the boy to join him. She had opened every one of the pictures Claudia had sent her, the baby in the bathtub shots, in which he mimicked in miniature his father's squinting grimace; the birthday pictures, in which he raised a face full of frosting toward the camera; and the ones Helena had sourly called to herself the "God, doesn't he look like Myka?" pictures, which Claudia must have especially enjoyed sending. But none of them - and she fervently believed that Claudia had not let a moment of his eight years escape without being digitally recorded - had prepared her for meeting Myka's son. Pete and Myka's son, she reminded herself. Because he did look like Pete more than he did his mother. His coloring was different, the hair a lighter brown and the eyes hazel instead of dark brown, but the shape of his face, his nose, his mouth - they were Pete's. Drew's smile, not in evidence today, but in the pictures, at times goofy, at times cocky, sometimes both at once, but always engaging, that was Pete's too.
Myka was more in his expressions, not the sulky shyness besetting him now, but in the lip-biting concentration Claudia had captured as he constructed a Lego racer and the pensiveness with which he viewed a department store Santa besieged by other children. She was in his gait as he had joined his father; even with hunched shoulders and a foot-dragging reluctance to meet yet another adult, he walked with an easy grace that was hers, and which, with the characteristic seriousness that frequently mistook a compliment for an observation needing explanation, she had attributed to her years of fencing. And then, as the shyness that had gripped Drew seemed to give way to curiosity, she was in the directness with which he met Helena's eyes, an open, inquiring look that, when his mother turned it on her, had always left Helena feeling not so much exposed as called upon to respond, as if Myka were asking a question only she could answer.
"Hmmm?" She was dimly aware that Pete was saying. . . something.
"The rest of the crew's in the tent, well, most of them, anyway, and they're anxious to see you."
"Ah, yes. I'm sure Arthur's celebration won't be complete without my congratulations," she said dryly.
Drew led the way, happier, at least, to be moving, the reddish tint to the waves of his hair more pronounced in the sunlight, and Helena blinked, remembering how Myka's hair could shine with a profusion of colors - red, orange, gold - so different from the unrelieved blackness of her own. Not so unrelieved any longer. She cast a sideways glance at Pete; he was graying as well, but he looked fit, he could easily button the blazer he was wearing over his stomach. If Myka was, what, forty-three, Pete would be approaching fifty.
Pete must have been conducting a similar evaluation of her, because he said with a teasing but appreciative smile, "You don't look a day over 140. Still doing the, um, kempo?"
"It's all rounding after you reach 100," Helena said. "More tai chi than kempo these days."
"Myka's dying to see you. She's around somewhere. I think one of the newbies dragged her off for a consultation."
Helena very much doubted that Myka was 'dying' to see her, but there was nothing in Pete's voice or expression that suggested he was being anything less than sincere. Yet Myka had typically kept her feelings close, and Helena didn't think seven years of marriage and whatever type of relationship she and Pete now had would have changed that. Especially where she was concerned. "It'll be good to see her," Helena said, feeling that the words had come out awkwardly, stiffly.
But Pete didn't seem to notice, coming to a stop just inside the tent and saying, "Guess who I've got with me."
Helena had taken no more than a step forward when she was enveloped by a blur of arms and legs in a rib-cracking hug. "Ten years," Claudia said quietly but fiercely. "Ten years it took me, but you're finally here." She stood back, crying unashamedly, and though Helena had promised herself that she wouldn't cry no matter who she saw or what someone said, and, truthfully, had not once felt close to crying since she had arrived, she felt the burn of tears now. Claudia shimmered in front of her, wearing a rumpled linen pantsuit that seemed more Mrs. Frederic or a corporate executive attending Artie's retirement party than Claudia. "I know," she said, pointing to herself. "You'd think I was COO of Facebook or Yahoo or something." She pulled Helena into another hug. "You felt it, didn't you? The Warehouse." She whispered, intending to be heard only by Helena. "It's glad you're back, too."
When Helena had first been an agent, when the 20th century, little more than a decade away, seemed to herald all the promise that had eluded the century she had been born in, and the 21st was nearly mystical with portent, she thought that everyone associated with the Warehouse felt what she did, its . . . hum, a deep, constant reverberation that sounded as much like a cat's purr as it did the ceaseless revolving of an engine. However, she learned that the sounds - and the smells - of the Warehouse were present only to a few, and had things turned out differently, she could have been then what Claudia was now, its caretaker. Given how poorly she had managed to look after her daughter, in the end, it was just as well that the Warehouse's welfare hadn't been left in her hands. But the connection had never really been broken, not when she had been immured in bronze or marshalling artefacts to end the world or, much more prosaically, burying herself in Boone or London or on Capri, and she had felt it today, even before she had arrived at the campus. She had felt it in Univille as soon as her foot touched the hotel's parking lot, that thrum, which had become only the more insistent the closer she came to the Warehouse.
But she couldn't acknowledge it to Claudia, how her heart seemed to beat in rhythm with the vibrations, saying only, "You need to get out more, darling."
Claudia seemed to recognize the remark for the deflection it was, shrugging, willing to let it go for the moment. "Have you seen Myka yet?"
Pete answered for her from the buffet, piling a plate high with kebabs and puffs. "I think she's with one of the newbies."
Claudia frowned. "She was supposed to be squiring around Congressman Jaffee. Giving him the rundown on artefact retrieval and storage."
Helena quirked an eyebrow. "Since when are members of Congress introduced to the Warehouse?"
"Since Congress decided that, like any government agency, we're subject to their oversight." Claudia raised her own eyebrows. "A lot's changed since you've been gone." Leading Helena toward the center of the tent, she said over her shoulder, "By the way, your white streak, very -"
"Lily Munster, yes, I've been told."
"I was going to say Susan Sontag. I'm not Pete, you know." Claudia grinned.
Standing next to the support pole for the top of the tent were Artie and Vanessa. They were shaking hands with and talking to a group of well-wishers. Helena couldn't remember whether they had married in the intervening years. She supposed it didn't matter; although Vanessa had only ever managed to blunt the edges of his temper and even out his fits of moroseness, she was also the only one who had been able to do that much. The wiry hair had turned white, but his voice was still caustic. Seeing Helena, he announced, "The prodigal has returned. Kill the fatted calf! Sorry, Pete's already eaten it." Pete, hearing Artie's shout, shrugged and held up a kebab.
For a moment, Helena thought he was wearing a muumuu, but as Artie completed his turn toward her, she realized that it was an oversized Hawaiian shirt that someone must have given him as a gag gift. He poked his glasses up the bridge of his nose and held out his arms, a mocking smile playing at his mouth. Moving into the hug, she noticed that he had cocked his head, trying to view her out of the corners of his eyes. Macular degeneration. One of the reasons for his retirement, Claudia had explained in the e-mail with the invitation. Another one, of course, was standing next to him. Long since retired from the CDC but still on call for the Warehouse staff, Vanessa, Claudia confided, had finally issued an ultimatum. She was moving to her home on Maui, with or without him. Apparently with him, if his shirt was any indication.
He held her more tightly to him than she was anticipating; she was off-balance, practically leaning over him - she wasn't a tall woman by any means but she had forgotten how short Artie was - and only belatedly realized that he was trying to whisper something in her ear. Inclining her head toward his lips, she heard him say, "You came back. Don't tell me this means that I'm finally forgiven."
He had said it with a wryness that was belied by the intensity of his hug. "Forgiven you for what, Arthur?" She murmured, temporizing, though she already knew.
"Forgiven me for resetting the time line, bringing you back from the dead." He drew back and shook his head, his hair wagging to its own beat. "That's all right. Somedays I wish I hadn't either." He took his glasses off and passed his hand over his eyes, but whether it was from emotion or the fatigue of the day, Helena couldn't tell. "She should have been here."
Claudia ducked in between them, slinging her arms around their waists. "Hey, what's with the serious faces?"
"Nothing," Helena said quickly. With a meaningful look at Artie, she added, "Admittedly, we have a checkered history, Arthur, but I have wished, and will always continue to wish, the very best for you."
"That was gnomic and Spock-like and potentially very scary," Claudia said, removing an arm and flashing the Vulcan split-fingered benediction at no one in particular. "Have you just sacrificed your life to save the party from a cosmic catastrophe? Because we've already gone through this once before."
"I'm officially through with trying to save the Warehouse or you," Artie said, pointing a stubby finger at Claudia, "from disaster. But, unofficially, you know, if Myka needs some more mentoring in the job. . . ." He shrugged, turning his head to see if Vanessa had overheard him.
"Myka's our new Artie. Didn't I tell you that?" Claudia frowned, clearly going through in her mind the past several e-mails she had sent to Helena. "But she's cuter and sweeter, and she's got that whole eidetic memory thing going for her." She gave Artie a fond glance. "You'll hardly be missed."
Artie sent Claudia a bilious look in exchange, but ten years hadn't made Helena more patient with their lovingly fractious - but constant - teasing of one another. Vanessa, having disposed of a well- wisher with a "You'll have to come see us on Maui," was already reaching for Helena. She and Vanessa lightly hugged, exchanging air kisses. After saying something bland but congratulatory, Helena was almost beyond the circle of people crowding around them, when Vanessa asked, "Have you seen Myka yet?"
Was everyone going to ask her this? "Not yet. I hope to meet up with her later." That was more or less true. Vanessa seemed satisfied with her response, but Artie was watching her, his head still tilted, although Helena wasn't sure whether it owed anything to his impaired vision or was simply an indication that he didn't believe her. She searched for Claudia, wanting some excuse to ease herself away, but Claudia had been pulled aside by a self-important stripling in his twenties wearing a suit and tie. She had a look of suffering on her face, which he was ignorant of or indifferent to, but she was listening politely to him. A member of Congressman Jaffee's staff? Helena slid behind a pair of men close to Artie's age, exchanging Warehouse stories. Former agents. There couldn't be that many here, she must be one of the few. Strange to think of herself in any context to which "former" might apply though it was one of the most fundamentally true things about her. She had outlived so many people, so many eras, and "former" was ghostly, pointing toward someone or some time that once existed but was no longer, yet she was no ghost. She was here, unmistakably, undeniably, solidly here. But she was also only a former, former agent (twice), former author, former inventor (well, occasionally she still tinkered), former - no, always and forever a mother. Even if she were to outlive her only child by more than a thousand years. Former lover, countless times over, practically a "former" before the relationship even started, one foot out of the bed, on the floor, seeking the easy exit.
She was nearing the edge of the tent. She would walk around the campus, make some half-hearted attempt to find Myka, and then revisit the tent one more time, repeat her congratulations to Vanessa and Artie, say good-bye to Pete and Claudia. Maybe try to catch one last glimpse of Drew. It would be easier to see Myka that way, blurred and refracted in her son.
"Hello, Helena." It came from beside her. The shadows were thicker on this side, or just possibly Mrs. Frederic had summoned the shadows to her. Helena wouldn't put it past her. She was sitting on a wooden folding chair, hands clasped in her lap. She was dressed in a suit, as she always had been the times Helena had seen her, its boxy cut, Helena had learned only later, long after there was little likelihood that she could expect to see Mrs. Frederic suddenly appear in the same room with her, in the style of women's suits from the 1950s, as if Mrs. Frederic were routinely dressed by Edith Head. Which Helena also wouldn't put past her. The hairstyle hadn't changed either, still an intricate woven structure that resembled, when it reached certain heights, the Tower of Babel. But even in the shadows, Helena could discern how much white was intermixed now with the brown and how the suit was, just perhaps, a little too square, Mrs. Frederic's always generous proportions having shrunk over the years. "Walk with me."
The habit of issuing invitations as commands hadn't changed. Or maybe there had never been invitations, only commands. She pushed herself up from the chair with difficulty, Helena trying to hold it steady for her. After a grave wobble, the chair righted itself, and Mrs. Frederic stood, one hand balanced on Helena's arm, the other adjusting the hem of her skirt. She leaned on Helena's arm as Helena led her across the grass to a sidewalk. Once on the concrete Helena half-expected Mrs. Frederic to release her arm, but though her grip lightened, becoming no more than a touch, the hand remained. As they walked, Mrs. Frederic proceeding at a slow pace with no visible stiffness or difficulty, Helena was reminded of Sunday afternoons in London, when she was a young woman escorting her grandmother on a stroll. There was a similar imperiousness to the two women, Helena mused, but whereas Mrs. Frederic carried the burden of the Warehouse and its artefacts, her grandmother had treated of great moment the quality of the day's dinner, complaining to Helena with an outrage suggesting that sacrilege had been committed if the lamb was overcooked.
Mrs. Frederic was silent for so long that Helena began to believe she had only been seeking someone to walk with her and Helena had happened to be the first person passing by. Having rarely if ever engaged in casual conversations with Mrs. Frederic, Helena was unsure how to start one, but she inclined her head toward the housing. "Claudia said the Warehouse was under congressional oversight now. Is this whole compound, for lack of a better term, related to it?"
"Nominally we're under the aegis of the Department of Homeland Security," Mrs. Frederic said with an irritable wave of her hand. "And, yes, now we have bureaucrats conducting audits and teams of scientists wanting to subject the Warehouse and its artefacts to various experiments, but who we are and what our mission is remain unchanged. This, this," the sweep of her hand was more expansive but no less irritable, "is simply the clutter we have to work around."
"Is having to dance attendance on Congressman Jaffee and his staff also mere clutter?" Helena asked, her eyebrow skeptically arched.
The look Mrs. Frederic gave her would have struck terror into most agents and even quieted Artie, but Helena didn't answer to this woman anymore. So she reminded herself. "Unfortunately, much of Claudia's, and the regents', time is spent advocating for the Warehouse's independence from any government's interference, including that of its host. Of course, the more we advocate, the more the government resists, and visits by Congressman Jaffee and his colleagues are not infrequent. But I didn't ask you to walk with me to discuss what has happened to the Warehouse since you've been gone. I asked you to walk with me because I need to know much you've changed."
"Need to know?" Helena repeated with doubting emphasis. There was nothing the Warehouse or those connected with it "needed" to know about her. They were nearing a wrought-iron bench placed thoughtfully under some shade trees, which in fifteen years would actually provide some welcome shade. But the trees were too small to do more against the sun than cast fragmentary shadows. Mrs. Frederic, however, seemed not to mind, settling herself on the bench. "My father was a preacher, did I ever tell you that?" Helena shook her head, keeping her wonder at the non sequitur to herself. "The older I get the less uncomfortable I am using his language. I asked you to walk with me because I want to assess the state of your soul, Helena."
"What does the state of my soul, supposing I have one, have to do with anything?" Helena sat down beside her.
"It has to do with your fitness," Mrs. Frederic said enigmatically. For the first time since she had spoken to Helena under the tent, Mrs. Frederic smiled at her, although Helena didn't feel more comforted by its appearance.
"My father was a kind and generous man, willing to give the shirt off his back to anyone in need, although my mother joked that someone should explain to him that it was only a metaphor. But his sermons were full of hellfire and brimstone. The devil was as real to him as his children were, and he was often called upon to cast Satan out of some poor soul. I loved my father very much, but I lived in constant fear that the devil might take up residence in me." She paused for a beat, glancing out of the side of her eyes at Helena. "I'm not boring you, am I? Because I do have a point." Helena noticed that she had been gently swinging one of her legs. She stopped.
"One day my brother Howard aggravated me beyond the limits of my patience, I threw an iron at him, and it hit him on the head. He clutched his head and screamed as the blood poured down his face. I ran and hid under the porch of our house convinced that I had killed him." Mrs. Frederic sighed, eyes cloudy with memories. "Howard was a horrible, mean-spirited little boy who became a horrible, mean-spirited little man, but that isn't the point of my story." She shifted, turning toward Helena, their knees almost touching. "I stayed under the porch for hours, praying for forgiveness, and when my father finally found me, I wouldn't come out since I was certain I was one of the damned, and a member of the damned couldn't live in Pastor Vaughn's house. But he crawled under the porch to join me - and he wasn't a small man so I can't imagine how miserable that must have been for him - and reassured me that God would forgive me if I was truly repentant. There was only one sin that God couldn't forgive, and it was not murdering your brother. Why if that were true, he said, half the people in the Bible couldn't have been forgiven."
She was looking expectantly at Helena, and Helena, pleased with herself that she wasn't rolling her eyes, asked obediently, if somewhat sarcastically, "What's the sin God can't forgive? You'll have to excuse me, my family was observant in the well-bred Anglican way that assumed hell was something only the lower classes had to fear."
Her voice soft, Mrs. Frederic said, "My father closed his hand in a fist and said that when your heart became too small and hard to ask for forgiveness that was the sin God wouldn't forgive."
"Do you think my soul has shriveled to the size of a walnut?" Helena was undecided whether she should be amused or insulted. She would never have believed Mrs. Frederic a candidate for dementia, but this wandering tale about irons and souls and forgiveness was so unlike what Helena remembered as Mrs. Frederic's usual mode of speech, decisive, brief, and, at times, maddeningly cryptic, that she had to entertain the possibility.
"I was less worried about your soul when you were planning to end the world," Mrs. Frederic said, and Helena was surprised to feel herself flushing. "At least then you still felt the world was worth taking on."
"Is this all because I left the Warehouse for good?"
"It's because of what you left the Warehouse for," Mrs. Frederic said. "You've become, what, an appraiser of Victorian-era antiques and memorabilia? I assume you must be able to do that in your sleep. A woman of your talents ought to ask more of herself."
Helena felt the flush intensify, but she kept her voice even. "Considering how I used to employ my talents, you ought to be grateful that I live so quietly. And as for asking for forgiveness, I would ask for it every day for what I've done, but there is no one out there to hear my pleas."
"Is it that you think there's no one to hear your pleas, or that he - or she - won't listen to them? Forgiveness is just that, a gift. It's not assured and can't be expected. That's the one thing my father wasn't willing to tell his seven-year-old daughter. It's enough to make anyone stop asking, especially if her sins are, let us say, significant."
Helena repressed the desire to rub her temples. She wasn't surprised that Mrs. Frederic knew what she had been doing to make a living for the past several years, but she was surprised that Mrs. Frederic cared. After Boone, when she had turned over every last thing that had tied her to the Warehouse, practically given the regents the lint from her pockets to ensure there would no longer be an association, no one had asked her where she was going to go or what she was going to do. And had the regents asked, she wouldn't have been able to tell them. Yet here, today, Mrs. Frederic had the gall to disapprove. Helena didn't owe her anything. She didn't owe Artie forgiveness, and she didn't owe Claudia an apology for her silence. Possibly, maybe, she had owed Myka the truth. But that had been a long time ago, and the truth had a way of looking different each time you held it up to the light.
She had done enough today. She had come to South Dakota, to Univille, to this campus, and she had seen Pete and Claudia and Vanessa and Artie and spoken with them and pretended that her coming back was of no great import, as if she had been just an agent who had briefly lived and worked with them. She had met Drew, and if that was all of Myka she would take away with her that was enough. She stood up, holding out her hand to Mrs. Frederic. "If you're ready, I thought we could return to the reception. I have an early morning flight out, and, while I hate to admit it, it's been a long day for me."
Helena bit back a smile at the annoyance that flashed across Mrs. Frederic's face. The old woman didn't like surrendering control. "Despite what you may think, this hasn't been the wool-gathering of a woman approaching senility, Helena. Every agent, every caretaker has done things that do not rest easy on her conscience; the measure of her is in how willing she is to carry that burden. Ten years ago, you cut yourself off from us and you disappeared. To end up charging exorbitant fees for verifying the authenticity of a sideboard that could very well have been in your family home."
Helena felt ridiculous holding out a hand that Mrs. Frederic was in no hurry to take, but she wouldn't give her the satisfaction of sitting down. Childish, yes, Helena acknowledged, but she wasn't above it. "The things that burden my conscience aren't things I did for the sake of the Warehouse or 'our mission,' as you put it. I was in service only to my own needs and obsessions, as you well know."
Mrs. Frederic nestled her chin deeper into the scarf that lined the neck of her suit. The tucking of her chin could possibly be taken for a nod of agreement or even concession, but her next words undercut such an assumption. "You may have severed your connection to the Warehouse, but it hasn't severed its connection to you. And that it hasn't chosen to do so, I have to take on trust. God may not play dice with the universe, but that doesn't mean that He – or She – won't let it have its crotchets."
"Meaning?" Helena said impatiently. The mini-bar in her hotel room would not be enough to put this day to rest. She would have to order some horrendous bottle of wine from the room service menu, a vintage from Nebraska, no doubt, that she would shudder her way through.
"Meaning that while I don't understand why, the Warehouse still believes we can use you, Helena. I'm not sure I like the idea very much, but I don't know that we have any alternative."
"Mrs. F., Irene, we don't want to be scaring off H.G. just as she's arrived." Claudia was miraculously at Helena's elbow, staring hard at her mentor. Apparently the ability to be "magicked" from one place to another was a transferable power as well. But Claudia's appearance carried with it the air of a harried commuter rather than the unruffledness, which her predecessor had never failed to convey, of someone who, just moments before, had been helped from a chauffeured limousine. Claudia's linen suit was even more rumpled and her hair was mussed, as though she had been constantly running her fingers through it. "I thought we were going to give her a little time to get reacclimated. You know, get all of the 'Hey, how have you been?' 'We've missed you,' 'What was all that going on between you and Myka back then?' out of the way before we sprang it on her."
"If by 'it' you mean my helping the Warehouse, there would be no easing of me into that," Helena said. She stepped around Claudia, leaving Mrs. Frederic to her. "I think I'll continue my self-guided tour of the campus, but I'll try to drop by the tent again before I leave."
Claudia touched her arm. "Seriously, H.G., if you have plans to leave tomorrow, cancel them. We need to talk to you." It landed somewhere between a request and an order, and though Claudia was trying to wear an ingratiating smile, she was too tired to wear it well. While she might be at the beck and call of congressmen and their staff, she was also accustomed to having people do what she said. She was comfortable with her authority, something the Claudia of old wouldn't have hesitated to mock. And envy.
Helena responded with her best noncommittal smile. She hadn't put more than a few feet of grass the color of the plastic grass in Easter baskets between them, when she heard Mrs. Frederic say warningly behind her, "Time's running out on you, Helena." She didn't stop walking, although she was fairly certain that Mrs. Frederic and Claudia had seen her back stiffen. As she passed the tent, she nodded to a few people who raised their hands in acknowledging waves. She didn't know them. They probably would realize as they exchanged glances and a "Was that?" with each other that they didn't know her either. She wasn't sure where she was headed, other than away. But her path was unerringly taking her closer to the B&B.
The garden at the back of B&B had been enlarged, with gravel paths and benches for sitting added. The old unkempt shrubbery, with its spiky, bristly growth, like a vegetative five o'clock shadow, had been removed, and smaller, more visitor-friendly bushes had been planted in its place. There were metal plates stuck in the soil next to all the flowers and plants, identifying whether they were native to the region or introduced. The gravel was a virginal white and showed signs of having been recently raked, and the benches were so freshly stained that Helena was leery of sitting down on one. But she wasn't yet ready to enter the B&B. The sun room, which had doubled as a breakfast room, was still where it used to be, with its French doors opening out onto the garden, but she couldn't locate the kitchen, and when she shaded her eyes with her hand to look up at the second floor, nothing about it looked familiar. She hadn't thought she was sentimental about the B&B; it had always uncomfortably reminded her that they were contemporaries. The creak of its floorboards, the groaning of its walls during a South Dakota winter, every affliction of its old age had underscored to her what a fraud she was. She didn't belong there, or if she did, it should have been in some sepia-tinted photograph of the home's original owners. But it was disorienting to look at something so familiar and yet, on some level, not be able to recognize it. She had no idea where to look for her old bedroom; she couldn't tell whether she was on the wrong or right side of the building.
She heard voices coming from around the corner, a man's and a woman's. He was thanking her for her time, but he sounded less appreciative than vaguely peevish, as if he were asking himself why he should be thanking her. Helena caught a glimpse of a blue suit, carefully groomed salt and pepper hair. The congressman. Then her voice, Myka's voice, and it wasn't so much its timbre that caught at Helena as its edge, so blunted by politeness and patience and studied good humor that someone who didn't know her, like the congressman, might mistake it for a bit of overearnestness. Helena had heard it too many times when someone was attempting to dodge their questions about an artefact; while she had gone in for sarcasm, Myka had simply continued probing, never letting her temper get the best of her, but at the same time signaling to her partner in her very deliberateness that she recognized what a pain in the ass they were dealing with. The congressman, responding to what he thought was sincere gratitude for having monopolized her time, reassured Myka that there was no aspect of the Warehouse's operations that he wouldn't want to thoroughly investigate. Another voice, another man's, cut in, reminding the congressman that he had a meeting in Rapid City to attend, and then the congressman was moving, feet crunching on gravel, Myka already forgotten. A flash of black, and Helena wanted to turn her head away, a reflex as stupid as it was self-protective since it would only draw attention to her not wanting to draw attention.
"Helena?" Myka was there, in front of her.
She was wearing a cocktail dress and her hair up, a double rarity as far as Helena could recall. In combination with the lines around her mouth and at her eyes that Helena didn't remember, couldn't remember, because they hadn't been there ten years ago, the formality of her appearance made Myka seem not older so much as at a remove, as if Helena were seeing her through glass. Or, Helena ruefully acknowledged, given how lovely Myka still was, as if she were relegated, like the star-struck at a premiere, to staring at her from the cordoned-off margins of the red carpet. But without realizing that she was moving, Helena was standing, the distance receding, as the both of them leaned into an awkward embrace. Their hands fluttered briefly at each other's waist and then they were leaning away, their smiles hesitant, peeping, as though newly hatched, at the corners of their lips.
Helena struggled to say something, anything, that would attempt to disguise how nakedly she was cataloging every part of Myka, comparing her to the image she had carried in her mind. The hair, the deep, rich brown she remembered, smoothed but not tamed into a twist, curls in active rebellion against the restraint, suggesting that the twist was only a firm tug from being undone. The eyes, more green than hazel, always seeming to be on the verge of widening with surprise or delight. The skeptical angle of her mouth at war with the open curiosity of her eyes. "I met Drew," Helena finally said. A necessary clearing of her throat, then stronger, "He looks like you."
"No, he doesn't," Myka said chidingly, the way she used to when she caught Helena in a lie or one of her more theatrical exaggerations.
"He reminds me of you, then," Helena said, slipping without thought into the mock exasperated tone she would adopt to parry Myka's chiding.
Myka's smile became a grin. "That I'll accept." Her grin didn't fade, but she uneasily lifted a shoulder. "I don't know what to say to you that wouldn't be trite or clichéd."
Helena became aware that she had fixed on Myka's shoulders, their breadth, the sweep of muscle from neck to bone. Myka was taller than average, but not tall, her shoulders broad, but not exceptionally so, yet Helena's memory of Myka pinning her to the wall with casual force was one of her strongest. All the subsequent memories she had formed of her, no matter that they were memories of Myka's more impressive or endearing qualities, had never lessened the power of that early one. When it struck her as funny and not pitiable, Helena would ask herself how the great H.G. Wells could have enshrined a memory that might as well have been a scene from a bodice-ripper, in which the hapless heroine (not really hapless just momentarily at a disadvantage) is manhandled by her antagonist-and-future-lover. The antagonist part had been true to life, if temporary, the future lover had remained imaginary.
"I'd offer you a tour of the B&B, but there's little you would remember of it and what's new is pretty forgettable. It's a conference center, except for the second floor and Claudia's wing."
Grateful for something to look at that wasn't Myka, Helena twisted her head to take in as much of the B&B as she could. "Claudia has a wing?"
Myka pointed to the extension on the B&B's far side. "She lives here, more or less. And that's where the old B&B is, if you want to see it. She swears there was no 'artefacting' involved in the recreation, but you half-expect Leena to pop out from the kitchen."
Helena was reminded of Artie's quiet "She should have been here" and his admission about not forgiving himself. Shaking her head to banish the thought, she said, "And the second floor?"
"Apartments for some of the agents. One of the few changes most of us approved of, no more trying to squeeze an adult-sized life into a teenager's bedroom." With an off-handedness that wasn't quite successful, Myka said, "Pete lives in one of them."
There was no deft avoidance of the subject of their divorce, although Helena assumed that Myka didn't want to talk about it any more than she did. Which left silence and staring. Because Helena was still staring. It wasn't just Myka's shoulders, it was all of her in that tight black sheath. Myka had always referred to herself as a nerd and a bookworm, and though she had laughingly declined Helena's offers to teach her kempo, she had had her own ways of keeping in shape. Running primarily. Helena would see her leave the B&B at an absurdly early hour, the two of them up long before anyone else. Myka was getting her daily mile and a half in, while she, she was up because she never slept well or for long. Dressed in shorts and tanks in the summer, pants and hoodies when it was cooler, Myka would have her hair pulled back in a rubber band and her face would be stern with concentration.
"Do you still run?" Helena asked softly.
Myka nodded, surprised. "Every morning." She took a deep breath. "Did Claudia speak to you?"
Helena didn't have to ask Myka what she meant. "Mrs. Frederic did." She bent to her side and pretended to read the name plate of a plant growing next to the bench. "The wonders may be endless, but my capacity to experience them is not. Whatever it is they want to ask of me I can't do."
"I guess that's an end to solving puzzles and saving the day."
Helena straightened. Myka's eyes had narrowed to a squint, although the sun wasn't directly shining on them. "Not for another team," Helena attempted lightly. She had never found Myka's expressions difficult to read, but she couldn't tell what Myka was thinking now. She was out of practice. Or Myka's reserve had hardened into armor over the years.
"If you change your mind, there's a meeting tomorrow morning. Here, in Claudia's wing." Myka's face relaxed into a smile, albeit a half-hearted one. "I don't know if you're still a night owl, but the meeting won't be until ten. I can’t come in until I drop Drew off at math camp."
Silly of Helena to think that a child of Myka Bering could be left to enjoy his summer vacation. "Math camp?"
"He likes it," Myka said defensively. "All right," she conceded with a sigh, "I had to bribe him to do it with the promise of soccer camp."
"Ah, he takes after his father." Another silence, but this time Helena was staring at the gravel under her feet. Raising her eyes to Myka's, she said, "I won't be able to make it, I'm leaving early tomorrow."
Myka had said it quickly, but Helena thought she could hear an unspoken yet sarcastic "you are." Of course you are. Fleeing, running, abandoning. But perhaps it was only her inner voice sneering at her. It did that with annoying frequency. Myka's eyes told her nothing, the green irises with their hazel flecks, or maybe, after all, they were hazel irises with green flecks, were empty of derision, empty of any emotion. They were the eyes of a woman she had last spoken to ten years ago. There were no hidden emotions to parse.
Myka began to teeter away from her, anxious to leave. "I haven't been down to Artie's reception yet. I hope to see you before you go."
Helena watched her exit the garden, not with the swinging graceful strides she remembered but with more measured, more careful steps. She wasn't used to the heels. Helena's path was to the parking lot, which was past the B&B in the opposite direction. But instead she found herself heading in the direction of the tent. She wouldn't go in, she promised herself, she would just take one last look.
The distance seemed shorter this time, the commons was smaller or the tent was closer to the B&B than she had thought. She stood outside the tent. She spied Claudia's rumpled pantsuit in passing, and she was sure Mrs. Frederic was under the canopy, sitting in the shadows and brooding over the parlous condition of Helena's soul. About to turn away, she was again arrested by Myka's voice. Myka and Drew and Pete were standing in the middle of one of the tent’s entrances. Pete was ruffling his son's hair and Myka was fondly looking at the both of them. It seemed right, somehow, the three of them until Myka, sensing someone was staring at her, spun to face Helena, and then everything suddenly seemed out of balance, as if what could have been, what had been, and what was were commingling. It wasn't new to her, this dizzying feeling of occupying multiple worlds, but it had been a very long time since Myka had been in all of the worlds with her.
Myka looked at her questioningly, and Drew, noticing that his mother's attention had been drawn away, turned to look at Helena, too, and he looked at her with the same directness, the same inquiry written on his face.
She had had no answer then, and she had no answer now. She didn't run exactly, but she pushed herself back toward the B&B, toward the parking lot with great speed. Finally locating her unremarkable rental car in the midst of all the other sensible, four door sedans in the lot, she slid in behind the steering wheel and sank against the back of the seat. She would drive back to her hotel, lock herself in her room, drain the mini bar dry and, after a sleepless night, catch her flight out to Boston, no, Philadelphia. No, back to New York, home, now, of all places.
Yes, that's exactly what she would do, she told herself as she retrieved her phone and checked her flight. She was still telling herself it was exactly what she would do when she cancelled her reservation.