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Fool Me Wise

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They'd made it almost to the reception area, but the actual place didn't match the floor plan. It was going to be impossible to get to the corridor Lyall wanted without walking past a desk with a security guard.

That didn't bother Lyall. There was plan A, and then there was what actually happened. He still had an exit, and the guard was peacefully occupied - one hand moving intermittently, paper rustling, maybe doing a crossword. But Krista’s hands were clenched, her fingers digging into her palms.

"Hey, cut that out," Lyall said, nodding at her hands.

"What are you going to do now?" she whispered. Silly. The guard couldn’t hear them from here.

"The same thing I was going to do before," Lyall said. "But I need you to distract her. Go out there and ask for directions or something."

Krista’s eyes narrowed. "Directions?" The warehouse was on its own little loop of tarmac in a complex in the middle of nowhere, and it wasn't as if she'd just pulled up in a car.

"Improvise," Lyall said, watching the guard. He only had to get around the corner, but he'd be exposed in the corridor for a couple of minutes while he worked to make an imprint of the old-fashioned lock that went along with the electronic one.

"I can't do this," Krista said.

"Bullshit," Lyall said, grinning at her. "You didn't just come here to watch me slide in and out."

She shook her head.

She really was about to run. They had all the time in the world, but if she talked herself into a panic, he wasn't sure he could coax her back. It galled. He decided to be cruel.

"Don't do this to me, sweetheart," he drawled.

"I'm not your sweetheart," Krista hissed.

"Aren't you? C'mon, you know I love you," he said, and he made that as sincere as possible, holding her gaze. Under the words was a knife: because you want me to, don't you?

Krista looked away first, then returned with a glare.

"Bullshit," she said. Apparently the chance to make a comeback was enough for her, because her chin went up. She walked out the way she’d come in without looking behind her, and he waited, perfectly secure, until he heard a faint click and swish from the warehouse’s front entrance. He counted to twenty, then entered the foyer himself. She had the guard's gaze angled away from his line of approach; he stepped quietly behind the woman and carried through without listening to the story Krista was spinning. He didn’t look up. If there were security cameras, then there were security cameras, and it would be better if they didn’t catch his face. If he did this right, it would never occur to anyone to check the tapes.

A few minutes, and then he had a mold for the key, and he snuck back out again.

A few minutes after that, and Krista followed, meeting him back up the road where they'd parked the car.

"She was nice to me," Krista said.

"What did you tell her?" Lyall asked, humoring her.

"Some story about a job application off Craigslist." He glanced appraisingly at her outfit - tight shirt, but in muted grays and purples, with some kind of complicated button arrangement, good pair of jeans - as if what she was wearing hadn’t registered before. She looked older than she was, maybe even nineteen.

"I made it sound like a scam I wasn't smart enough to see through. She said it was probably a good thing I'd got the wrong address."

"Pretty good work," Lyall said. Krista smiled, and then looked pissed off for smiling. "No, I mean it."

"You don't mean anything," Krista said.

"True," Lyall said. "Oh, wait, that's impossible..." Krista lifted her hand from the steering wheel and swiped the air next to his head. "Hey." Now they were both grinning.

He kept Krista around because she was smart and cynical and bored in a way he could tap. He kept Krista around because she was eager to please, as long as you never called her on it. Krista’s whole shtick was that she wasn't like all those other people - guys, girls, adults, children - who fell for his schemes. That made her the best sidekick he'd ever had.

"What do you want at that warehouse, anyway?" Krista said.

"Dunno," Lyall said.

"What, really?"

"Yeah, one of the mail drivers told me about the retro door and I wanted to take a crack at it."

"Fuck, you drag me all the way out here..."

"Yeah?" Lyall said. "What did you expect? Secret government documents? Drugs? You could have asked."

"And what would you have said if I'd asked?"

"I'd have said, sounds like you're not up to an adventure."

"That's it," Krista said. "I'm kicking you out here." She pulled over. There was nothing for ages - a scrubby field to their right and another line of warehouses to their left. The nearest had a rusty fence and rust streaks down from the windows. It might be fun to check out, some other day.

He looked back at her. "No, you're not," he said.

"I really like the idea," she said.

Lyall just watched her, pressing his gaze down until she squirmed to shake it off.

"Fine," she said.

"Like I said, I love you," Lyall said as they pulled out on to the road again.

She gave him a bright, mocking smile, all her walls up. "Oh, come on. That's one trick of yours I'll never fall for."

He didn't mind her being right sometimes. He didn't mind her pointing out his inconsistencies. He didn't mind her storming off, because she always came back. And in the meantime, there was always someone else to string along.

But somehow, that nettled him. Why did it matter to her? Why was that her line in the sand?

He bought candy hearts for her on Valentine’s Day. “Humor me,” he said. She shrugged, took one, and made faces while she chewed.

“Insubstantial, chalky, and with a sour aftertaste,” she said. “Just like your heart.”

“Just as long as you swallow.”

“Dick.”

“That.”

Then she asked an exchange student out to make a point. “The things I drive you to,” Lyall said.

“Ryuu is so none of your business,” Krista said.

He had other business, so it didn’t matter. Fixing their high school’s basketball games. Setting up a front for a cult. It didn’t exist, but by the time Lyall was bored with it, it sure could have, and he thought his premier ‘disciple’ might take things forward all by himself. In April, a grifter came through Pat’s motel with a loose scheme around pesticide recall, and even though Lyall had to ride herd on the man to make sure he got a cut of the profit, he was gratified by the novelty. He called in a tip-off on the con, but only when the man was two towns over.

Everything was too easy: if there was dirt on anyone in this town, Lyall had it. He almost had to drive the rumor mill on his own just to give himself something to work with. It used to thrill him to twist the way someone saw the world with just a few words. That rush had got him through adolescence, but it was starting to fade. The people here forgave too much and believed too much. There were too many sheep. He had to get out of here, go after bigger targets.

“I’d be long gone,” he told Krista, “but you never have time for me these days, and I think, how would I feel if we never got to say a real goodbye?”

“Fuck off,” said Krista.

“Yeah, okay,” he said.

The following winter, he pulled up outside her house in a pick-up truck with a bunch of roses in the passenger seat.

“Where did you get those?”

“New Jersey,” Lyall said. “Are they gonna make anyone jealous?”

“Right, because you care.” Krista said. She looked hard at him. “You don’t look as tired as you should.”

“Oh, Pat put me up,” Lyall said. He watched her mouth tighten with worry, and grinned. “Kidding. I’m staying with my mom. Gotta visit her sometimes, don’t I? I have a heart.”

“I thought I had your heart,” Krista drawled. She made a show of taking something invisible out of her pocket and looking at it. “Nope, still black.”

“Aw,” he said, humoring her. “Gotta water that thing.”

She grinned at him. She was radiantly pleased with herself and him. She’d gotten so soft without him around.

The blinds in the window twitched behind her; Lyall heard their rattle through the thin, single-glazed glass. Krista’s smile faded. “I’m gonna go,” she said. “I got Cathy here…”

“Yeah, well, I’m gonna go too,” Lyall said. He snapped his fingers.

“Yeah, um,” Krista said, but he didn’t let her finish, turning back to the pick-up with the next stop already on his mind. Glancing at the right mirror as he pulled out of Krista’s folks’ driveway, he was almost proud of her, because the yard was empty. Krista would never stand around gape-jawed, watching someone else take off. She was almost worth the roses.

Hey, he said to himself, passing the town’s You Are Leaving sign. Are you actually crushing on her? That would be priceless. You should do that. It would be fun.

What a game.

He was giddy. It had been a weird few months. He was freer, and tougher, and sharper, and he could never make himself fit inside this town again, but there was a burn high up on his arm that some shitty excuse for a human being had drawn on him, slowly, holding him down while he yelled, because he picked the wrong target. There was a storage box in Michigan that was empty of some very pricey stuff, and when a man named Jacob found out it was empty, there could be a problem, because Jacob had his number. Some of his numbers. Lyall liked to think of himself as a guy you needed the whole combination to crack.

So this - Krista - this was a whim born of waking up bored at 4am. Sometimes he was sick of lying to people who didn’t know they were hearing lies.

He sent her a phone number for Christmas, with a note: “Dial in case of boredom.”

The number actually belonged to Mr. Penn, who’d taught physics up until last year, and whom he was pretty sure Krista’d had a crush on when she was still in his class. Mr. Penn had gone through a phase of seeing Lyall as a lost soul, needing a more constant fatherly presence in his life and all that. Nothing creepy, but still, nothing doing.

He liked that note. It was a fine example of honesty in advertising.

Krista got in touch with him anyway through an old email address that he hadn’t realized still forwarded. “Call me.”

What the hell.

There was loud music and voices in the background. “You at a party?” Lyall said. “You drunk?”

“Nah,” Krista said. “I’m the last sober one here. Where are you?”

“Buffalo.”

“I need a ride. Can you come pick us up?”

“Who’s ‘we’?”

“‘We’ is Cathy,” Krista said. “Just do it, okay?”

“Jeez, Krista,” Lyall said. “You can’t work magic on anyone else to get you out of town?”

“Well, I don’t just wanna get out of town, loser,” Krista said. That was more like it.

He ran his mind over the highways. “Sunday, 5am.”

“I need you Friday,” Krista said. “I need you yesterday.”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Lyall said, feeling electric. “And anyway, that’s your problem.”

Cathy was indeed a ‘we’: Cathy was pregnant. Cathy acted scared of him.

They said Lexington. They weren’t even in Kentucky when he just gave up - left them in a diner with their bags out front. He jammed a wad of cash into Cathy’s duffle as an afterthought, and he hated himself for it later. Talk about sentimental.

“I’m gonna come after you with a shotgun,” Krista sent by email one week later.

There was a con to run in Maryland that took all the time Lyall might have had for her. A month later, he wrote back: “I’m not a babysitter.”

“I was trying to do something good. Thanks for fucking it up.”

“You were trying to get me to do something good. That’s where you ran into trouble.”

“Asshole,” she wrote, at the head of a long email about his failures as a human being that she'd probably been working on all week.

“Besides,” Lyall wrote, two weeks later, “you found her someone to look after her, right? Got her up on her feet? Story ends well? Was it fun?”

"Why do you care?"

"I just thought you might want someone to talk to about it."

"I guess I'll just ring Mr. Penn up again, then."

"How'd that go the first time?"

"He was worried about you."

By then it was March.

Krista called Lyall up eventually on the cheap disposable phone he kept around for his mom, mostly on the promise that she wouldn't actually call it. "Your mom said you visited in February," she said. "How come I didn't get a Valentine?"

"Oh yeah, that's right, I love you."

There was a sigh on the other end of the line. He waited her out.

"You know how you said I might want someone to talk to?" Krista said. "Guess what, I do. And I figure you owe me," - huh, she really was going soft; that was a mistake she'd never made before - "and so the least you can do is just shut up and listen for a bit."

He had a contact to meet in an hour and a half; it wasn't a bad time, really. He put the electric kettle on for some instant coffee. This was one of his more permanent bases, even if by anyone else's standards it was just a closet with another closet inside it. It had three power outlets. That was luxury.

"OK, good," Krista said to his silence, and started talking.

Stuff about her little sister, stuff about Cathy, stuff about why Lexington, stuff that had gone sour. Not nearly as much self-pity as he'd expected. She didn't seem to want him to reply. She certainly didn't expect him to.

"I feel like a diary," he said, testing her, after twenty minutes in which she didn't seem to be slowing down.

"You're my Tom Riddle," she agreed. "The thing is, you really don't have to care about any of this."

Lyall lost the next few sentences she said, because of how weird that made him feel. He liked the version of Krista who looked straight through him on most things and yet took him at his word about how much of an asshole he was. He liked the weird substitute for trust she had going on with him. But his lips opened on a token protest: well, what if he wanted to care?, and though he bit the words back, what he wanted to know was: where had they come from? Why did he feel aggrieved?

And when she got to the end of her venting and said, "Ok, you know what, I think that's all I had to say," and then hung up, the silence hurt, like the aftermath of a slap.

He sailed on through his old town a couple of weeks before school was out. "This is your pre-graduation internship offer," he said. "Wanna come with me?"

He'd timed it right. She was completely sick of everything. There was a long pause, then, "Come back in June," Krista said. "Some of us see the point to finishing school."

"What if I don't?"

"Then you don't," Krista said.

But he did.

And she wasn't quite as soft as she sounded, or as soft as she looked. He taught her how to look softer, how to get every last inch of mileage out of a shy look or a hopeful smile. He taught her what kinds of people could be fooled because they wanted to believe the world was kinder than it was, and what kinds of people could be fooled because they wanted to believe the world was worse. The Krista who watched from behind Krista’s smile grew harder and harder. He nodded, and she broke a man's finger. She slept as rough as he did, drove as far, in stolen cars, on as little sleep.

He put "Pearl" on one set of her fake IDs, the Maryland one, because what was happening to her was kind of the reverse. Layers of stone building up below the shining finish.

"It's not actually true, about the grain of sand," Krista told him. "Hardly any natural pearls get built up around a foreign object. More likely, it's a piece of the oyster's own shell or something like that."

"No grain of truth, huh?" Lyall said absently. "Good story. Spin it on someone."

"I think I just did," Krista said.

He grinned at her - gave her one of his best smiles, looking into her eyes just a little longer than he knew she would find comfortable. You want praise? Be careful what you ask for.

She flushed, and he grinned more. He still had it.

They made forty thousand untraceable dollars on one con, and while Krista saw the point in running for the first week after, she was frankly disbelieving when he didn't want to slow down. "Let's just sleep in a bed for a week," she said. "A whole bed each. One that's not scratchy from either fleas or disinfectant. God, that is not much to ask for."

"Fine," Lyall said. What he should have done was tell her no fucking way, because she'd already sent money to both Cathy and her mom. Charity or luxury, not both. "Choose your vacation spot. I'll pick you up in two weeks. Stay out of trouble."

And then he got into enough trouble for both of them.

He picked her up in a different car - actually, there had been another car in between, but he didn't tell her that - and drove pedal to the metal, straight across the state line. "What's up?" Krista said.

"Flubbed the timing on this drop," Lyall said, knowing how ridiculous it sounded. "Also, I missed you."

That didn't provoke so much as a smirk from her. It was kind of a pity. This girl used to inhale his praise as if it was better than air, and now for every quip she only heard him blowing smoke.

At exactly the moment Krista said, "And why do I have to be here for this, exactly," the calculations running in the back of Lyall's mind came to a jolting halt. The adrenalin faded. He was riding into a fucking trap.

"You know what," he said, thinking about the cards he still had to play against the very unfriendly folk he was suddenly sure were waiting for him, "you're right. Let me out at the turn-off."

Krista looked at him in disbelief. "You drag me all the way out here..."

"Yeah? I was wrong. I can get out and back with less fuss by myself, anyway."

He was proud of her, because instead of taking this as a blow to her pride, she just nodded; it served her wishes fine. "See you later," Krista said. "Georgia, maybe."

"Love you, baby."

She flipped him the bird.

Five minutes after she'd taken off, the car that had been tailing them screeched past him. Braked. Returned. Lyall grinned, a shit-eating grin, a grin that started somewhere in his chest and exploded upwards. Was he going to survive this? Maybe not.

He'd never before been quite so close to death. Instead of cursing himself, he was almost high again with the thought of it, as if the moment before he'd sent Krista on had been a freeze frame in the middle of a rave, clear for just a blink before the lights and the noise crashed around him again.

And Krista was away down the road with all the head start she needed, and it just so happened that she was wrong about him. He did love her. Fancy that. If those had been his last words, they’d been the right ones.

It made him laugh to think that for all her courage, her cleverness, her cynicism, he’d still fooled her. He felt invincible as he realized that however this went down, she'd never know it; however he said it, whatever words he used, she’d never believe it. It was the longest game they’d played against each other, and in this moment, he’d won. He'd fooled her forever, perfectly.