The customs assigned to this particular gate at the airport in the Twin Cities. where the first leg of what Francis Crozier had already determined to be a dire slog into the middle of nowhere had just concluded, was such a pull from a casting call for Minnesota Nice that he found himself half-expecting a cord to trail out of her pants leg and betray her for one of those ridiculous animatronics at Disney World. Surely no one actually spoke like this?
“Heavens to Betsy!” she said, glancing over his passport. “All the way from England. It sure is nice to have you in the States, Mr. Cro-zee-ay.”
“ Crozier ,” he corrected, with the hard R intact and fighting the urge to sigh. He knew his poor mood wasn’t the fault of the rosy-cheeked, plump woman in front of him, whose only real crime was trying to do her probably relentlessly dull job with a smile on her face, seeing as he had decided he was relieved by her failure to pick up on the discrepancy between his passport and his accent, but her cartoon moose-head pin was making it a hell of a trial.
“Is it now? Well, gosh, I’m sorry, I thought it was French, you know? Like our buddies up in Canada. We get a lot of those in here, you know.”
“Yeah, I imagine,” said Crozier, who wasn’t sure what else to say.
“Yeah,” said the customs agent.
Crozier smiled wanly. The customs agent faltered, though her smile didn’t, and pushed a stray bit of dry strawberry-blonde hair behind her ear. Her elbow bumped her moose-head pin and made the googly eyes judder.
“Well, anyway, what brings you to the states, Mr. Crozier?”
“Spending my full duty-free allowance on whiskey,” he said wearily.
“That- that was a joke,” he muttered, rubbing one of his tired and aching-as-usual eyes. “It’s business.”
“Oh, yeah, I see. Anything to declare?”
“My time of death, probably.”
“Oh, Mr. Crozier! The boys must just love you at the local watering hole back home.”
“...yeah,” he said vaguely.
“Yeah,” she said brightly. “Well, here you go, Mr. Crozier. You enjoy your trip now, okay?”
She passed him back his passport and the carbon from the back of his customs form (“Oop! Here you are, Mr. Crozier!”), and with that he was free to put his sunglasses back on and continue down the ramp toward the baggage claim. A sign posted between the steel-and-glass doors warned that this was the point of no return.
Crozier hated American airports and their commitment to being simultaneously federally ominous and aggressively locally friendly and inviting. Heathrow wasn’t much better, but at least Heathrow wasn’t full of moose.
As he reached the baggage claim, he reached into his pocket and switched airplane mode off on his phone. The phone searched for a signal and then, very abruptly, updated from GMT to central time and latched onto the American network he had arranged to cover him during this whole misadventure. A moment later, there was a soft ding, and a message appeared on the screen.
Thinking of you. Be safe.
Crozier smiled unhappily and dismissed it, then unlocked his phone and dialed.
“Hello, Tom. It’s Francis-“
“Sir! Have you landed yet?”
“I’m at the baggage claim.”
“Yes,” said Crozier, subconsciously frowning, though more in confusion at the need for a clarification than in irritation.
“Oh,” said Tom. “Well, that’s convenient. So am I.”
Crozier looked around, bewildered, until he laid eyes on a much younger man- his assistant, Thomas Jopson- excitedly waving from the other end of the carousel and promptly hung up his phone as he hurried over.
“When did you get here? We weren’t on the same flight, were we?”
“I think I landed about half an hour before you,” said Tom. “They still haven’t put out my luggage- lucky you got here too, I can help you get it to the cab-”
“Don’t worry about it, Tommy,” Crozier cut in. “You’ll be having your own luggage to worry about, and my back could use the stretch after that flight.”
“You’ve got to pay me for something, sir,” Tom protested.
“So you’ll call us an Uber,” said Crozier, with as close to a warm smile as he was able to give at a time like this. “Tommy, we both know you’ll be enjoying this whole affair far more than I will.”
“I hope you don’t hate it that much,” said Tom.
“It doesn’t matter if I do,” Crozier said with a shrug. “I know my duties, and I intend to do them. And if you’re worried about fulfilling yours, I trust you already took care of that request I made for the hotel room.”
He gave Tom a sidelong look. Tom pressed his lips together unhappily and moved to brush a fall of floppy dark hair out of his downcast gray-blue eyes.
“Of course, sir.”
“Good man,” said Crozier.
There was a sudden shrieking alarm noise, which startled them both, but it turned out to be nothing more than an alert that the luggage from both of their flights was now on its way up the ramp to the carousel, and as it began trundling heavily into view both men went looking for their suitcases.
It took about thirty minutes after their Uber arrived to reach the hotel in downtown Minneapolis. They passed what looked like some kind of vast warehouse just after leaving the airport, which the driver, who could not really be blamed for the effect this had on Crozier, explained was the Mall of America. Tom was thankfully enthusiastic and curious enough for the both of them.
As they pulled off into the city proper, Crozier pulled out his phone again and opened up the message from the airport.
Thinking of you. Be safe.
In the little circular portrait above the chain of messages was a blonde in sunglasses. Crozier had taken the picture himself last fall, on his last visit to the US. Sophia Cracroft had been caught unawares by a bird landing on her shoulder in the Central Park Zoo, and he had just barely reacted in time to capture her startled laugh and assign it as her contact photo.
He didn’t scroll up to read the others. He wasn’t sure if he was ready for that yet. He was very nearly angry at the newest one, for that matter, but on some level he had already decided that he had no right to feel anything at that intensity where Sophia was concerned now without treading on her in one way or another, so he simply texted back:
Will try .
“What are those things between the buildings?” Tom asked as he peered out the window. “Covered walkways?”
“That’s the Skyway,” said the driver. “It gets hot out here in the summer and dead cold in the winter. Keeps people comfortable walking around the downtown. I reckon it’s getting cold enough now that some people’re still using ‘em in the evenings, especially with that snow coming on this weekend.”
“Oh, yes,” said Tom. “We’ve been keeping a close eye on the reports. We’re actually going a bit further north tomorrow.”
“Further north? What business have you got up there?”
Tom looked at Crozier with shy, deferential pride, and Crozier realized he was being prompted to speak.
Tom was lucky he liked him, Crozier thought.
“It’s… a music festival,” he said haltingly, with a bit of a cringe. “John Franklin’s festival. He’s put it together; I’m just… coordinating things.”
Crozier could literally feel a new headache coming on.
“...everything but the talent,” he said finally.
“John Franklin?” the driver repeated.
“Yeah,” said Crozier. “Him.”
“Didn’t he try to do that charity thing a few years back-”
“Yeah,” Crozier said a little more firmly. “ Him .”
In the mirror, the driver’s eyes looked doubtful.
“Mmm,” he said. “Good luck with that, y’all.”
Crozier smiled. It was not particularly convincing.
At the hotel, Crozier was relieved to see that Tom had indeed handled things as promised and ensured a fully stocked minibar in his boss’s room, full of the best Breckenridge Crozier could afford. Even these tiny bottles had cost more than he was comfortable fully acknowledging outside of his bank register, but he would only have two nights in this hotel anyway and had already arranged for a decent supply of Firefly at the festival itself. If he had to come to America again, the least he could do was dull himself to it all on American whiskey.
The festival was going to be smaller than most, and fairly exclusive. The cold climate ensured that they would be hosting only some 550 guests, with the first 133 people- Crozier, Tom, John Franklin himself, and Franklin’s omnipresent lapdog James Fitzjames included- shipping off in buses the day after tomorrow to settle in. The VIP guests would be able to enjoy the ice camp that had already been mostly set up the previous week for a few days before the talent started arriving, the staff would have a chance to finish that setting-up, and aside from everyone presumably having to bumble along in parkas it seemed like a great time as long as your name wasn’t Francis Crozier.
Nobody back home ever called him Frank save his friend Jim Ross, and that was more Jim’s personal stubborn friendliness. Not even Sophia had done that. He was “sir” to Tom, though he had tried to break him of that habit, Mr. Crozier to most, and Francis to the handful of people whom he had given that okay, and another handful who felt they had the right to do so whether he liked it or not. He was in his early fifties, not old but decidedly- to himself, anyway- no longer young, a bit craggy in the face in a way that tended to incline more toward puffiness from the drinking, pale-eyed and sandy-haired and stocky. Most people didn’t notice him much unless he was wielding authority over them or was scowling at them, and those categories tended to intersect on a Venn diagram of Crozier Moods.
After a quick trip into the hallway to find the nearest ice machine, Crozier settled in to pour himself a highball of one of the mid-range Breckinridges from the minibar. Behind the wall of little whiskey bottles, the hotel had provided the more typical- and not yet paid for, unlike the whiskey- bar offerings, in what looked like the sample size version of the bar at a chain restaurant. Crozier grimaced- he could fall back on the Jack Daniels if he went through the Breckinridge before they bused up North, but the Stoli and Kahlua back there might as well have been piss for all they interested him. Crozier may have been a drunk, but he was a particular drunk, and he prided himself on not having touched a drop of anything else in years.
Crozier’s brain was still running on GMT and as far as that was concerned, it was already pushing 11 PM despite the bedside clock in his hotel room announcing 4:47 in fever-bright red letters. He found his iPad in his carryon and thumbed through the schedule for the upcoming week, sipping comfortably at the Breckinridge until he felt a little more at ease, and eventually set the glass aside on his nightstand and allowed himself to slip into a much-needed, booze-assisted sleep.
The penguins were smaller than Crozier had expected. He also hadn’t expected them to waddle as much as they did, but they had a uniquely steady gracelessness as they maneuvered over the rocks before diving into the pool, where they seemed to suddenly transform into little torpedoes and skim effortlessly through the water.
“I always thought that was a joke they made up for cartoons,” he said as he watched one of them waddle forward at such speed that it threatened to overbalance- but when it did, it simply toppled forward onto its belly and slid into the water.
“Why would they make that up?” Sophia asked, laughing a little and displaying a few bright teeth in the process.
“Oh, you know,” said Crozier. “Like Bugs Bunny eating carrots.”
“That was because in the second world war, the English wanted the Nazis to believe their pilots were using carrots to see in the dark, so they wouldn’t suspect they had radar.”
“All right,” Crozier conceded, “that part I did not know-“
“How about ‘what’s up, Doc’ being a Clark Gable joke?” Sophia said teasingly, pushing him in the sternum with her first and middle fingers.
“God Almighty, woman, how old do you think I am ?”
Crozier was laughing, but he could not quite conceal the genuine worry in his voice. Sophia was a perfectly respectable thirty-two, but to Crozier, who was fairly certain he had been forty since he was twelve, the gap between them sometimes seemed to suddenly expand into something rivaling the Grand Canyon.
“I learned it playing Trivial Pursuit,” Sophia protested. “Francis, you don’t need to be so sensitive.”
Her hand had paused in that same gentle prodding position, but in her concern over having offended him, it opened up and began gently caressing him instead. Crozier smiled unhappily and tried to relax his shoulders.
“You know I want you, don’t you?”
“I know,” said Crozier. “I know.”
Sophia affectionately lay her head on his shoulder and her hand on his thigh. The penguin house was deserted this time of day- just after noon on a Wednesday in November- which meant that unless a group of schoolchildren were to arrive, they had the upholstered bench at the back of the viewing room to themselves. Crozier pushed his fingers into Sophia’s hair and gently rubbed beneath it, and she turned her face up toward his.
Crozier leaned toward her, his lips parted, when there was a thumping sound from the penguin tank. He turned in annoyance.
A penguin bobbed in the water, smacking its chubby flippers against the glass and producing a far heavier and more wooden sound than he expected.
“Sir?” said the penguin, its voice oddly muffled by the glass. “It’s Tom-“
Crozier’s eyes popped open. The hotel nightstand clock said 7:37.
“Sir?” Tom Jopson called from the hallway. “Mr. Crozier?”
Crozier sat up, able to feel the frown tightening in his forehead as he tried to orient himself in the dim light coming from around the locked room door. He could make out two little shadows moving back and forth in the lowest crack of light- Tom’s feet, probably.
“What is it?” he called. “Hotel on fire or something?”
“Uh, I tried to call you to remind you, but you didn’t pick up,” said Tom.
“Remind me about what?”
“The VIP party, sir,” said Tom. “At eight-“
Crozier’s eyes widened in the dark.
“Oh, shit,” he said out loud. Despite the pounding in his head, he hurried over to the door- feeling not unlike a penguin himself- and flipped the light on to figure out how to undo the lock. Outside in the hallway, Tom stood there holding his phone and looking both worried and sheepish at the same time.
“Oh, good, you’re up-“
“I wouldn’t call it good,” said Crozier, “but I’m up.”
He gestured for Tom to come in. Crozier wasn’t proud of how often he had to rely on his assistant to find suitable clothes for these kinds of events, let alone how often Tom had to handle the buttons because Crozier’s hands were either disobediently slow from drink or trembling from having gone too long without it, but at times like these he was glad to have Tom’s help.
“God damn it,” he muttered. “I don’t understand why Franklin needs me at this thing anyway. My end’s all business.”
“So’s Fitzjames’s, sir,” Tom pointed out. “He’ll be there too.”
“Good God,” Crozier said. “Don’t remind me.”
“Sorry about that, sir. Do you need help shaving?”
“Don’t worry about it,” said Crozier. “Knowing this crowd, they’ll think it’s designer stubble.”
Tom laughed and pushed his own stubbornly floppy dark hair out of his eyes. “Wouldn’t put it past them, sir.”
“You really don’t have to call me sir.”
“Oh,” said Tom. “Sorry, sir.”
Crozier and Tom made it to the party at the rooftop atrium by a respectable 8:14 pm. For a few blessed minutes, Crozier believed his absence had gone unmissed in the flurry of noisy Americans and pop music, and he took advantage of this by ordering a glass of whiskey at the bar, leaning against it to watch the others in morose annoyance and trying not to be noticed.
“ Francis !” a decidedly un-American voice called over the thumping bass.
Crozier winced. So much for that. He looked around to see which direction he’d been addressed from until he laid eyes on John Franklin waving at him from a good six meters away, surrounded by the usual suspects and hangers-on. Crozier smiled thinly and went to join them.
“I was starting to fear you wouldn’t make it,” said Franklin, the producer behind the festival, as he reached out to thump Crozier between the shoulders with a big hand he probably intended to be affectionate. It made Crozier’s whiskey slosh. “Good to see you, old boy.”
“Hello, Francis,” said James Fitzjames, Franklin’s talent wrangler, smiling crookedly and obsequiously as ever from halfway behind what Crozier was fairly certain was a screwdriver, which hardly bore thinking about this time of the evening.
“James,” Crozier said vaguely.
“How was the flight?” Franklin asked, with his characteristically vapid, friendly smile.
“Long,” said Crozier.
Fitzjames lifted his eyebrows and glanced sideways at Franklin but said nothing.
“Ah,” said Franklin. “You must have come all the way-“
“From Heathrow, yes.”
“That would explain it. James had a stopover in New York for a few days, so Jane and I have been hosting him-“
“Well, and I personally made time for Hamilton ,” Fitzjames cut in, laughing. “Have you seen that one yet?”
“Er, no,” said Crozier.
“You know, I got to see it at the Public, before anyone knew what a thing it was going to be,” Fitzjames said eagerly, with an expressively haughty spread of the hand across his chest that also conveniently displayed a gold Swatch. “Comped, of course. It went through a pretty interesting series of changes.
“Of course,” Crozier groaned. He was beginning to wonder if he could push Fitzjames into the in-ground swimming pool a short distance away and successfully make it look like an accident. He looked a little helplessly at Franklin, but Franklin was nodding along with Fitzjames’s bragging like a pageant mother watching her daughter talk about her desire for world peace.
“I could ask after getting you a ticket-“
“That’s all right,” said Crozier, holding up a hand. “Is that a screwdriver -”
“Oh, no,” said Fitzjames. “It’s a Slow Comfortable Screw Against A Fuzzy Wall.”
He took a sip. Franklin’s eyes widened. Crozier felt appalled on some unidentifiable level. Fitzjames finished the glass, looked between them, and laughed sharply.
“It’s an orange juice , boys- my God, you look like owls.”
This was vaguely offensive in its own right. It certainly did nothing to endear Fitzjames to Crozier, whose face scrunched in dislike. Fitzjames probably knew about the drinking- hell, Franklin probably told him . Of course Fitzjames would want to rub it in Crozier’s face.
Crozier took an instinctive step back as James Fitzjames blithely tipped his glass back and finished it.
“We are going into the middle of nowhere,” Fitzjames said, glancing between Crozier and Franklin again.”The last thing any of us need is to fall ill.”
“James,” Franklin said, with an indulgent chuckle that made something harden in Crozier’s throat- something that Crozier had to swallow quickly.
“Anyway, about Hamilton -I find it deeply impressive that it maintained momentum into a larger venue,” Fitzjames pressed on. “Haven’t had a chance to see it in any of its secondary productions, personally, though I assume the production design adapts itself fairly well to different spaces.”
Crozier was this close to stomping on John Franklin’s foot to get his attention.
“I mean, I haven’t done much theater since college-”
“James,” said Crozier, “with all due respect, I would rather jump out of that window over there at full speed than listen to you talk about Hamilton right now.”
Franklin’s attention was momentarily torn from his star pupil to look at Crozier in offended shock.
“Francis,” he began. “Are you feeling quite all right?”
“No,” said Crozier. “I’m not.”
Fitzjames, too, was staring at him, eyes widened and chin lifted in a mixture of deep offense and wounded dignity. He was a good number of years Crozier’s junior, a little sallow, gray-eyed and almost ludicrously broad-jawed, with wavy dark hair in an elaborate overgrown haircut that Crozier suspected he had trimmed weekly to give a constant impression of not having cut it in three months. Even if the man had had any personality whatsoever beyond name-dropping and talking about his prior “adventures”, as he called them, that in itself- that and his ludicrous name, which had to be some kind of branding affectation- would probably have been enough for Crozier to dislike him immediately. Fitzjames held that look for a long moment, his mouth seeming to droop as a whole toward that jaw of his in a petulant tilted slash of disappointment, before he forced a smile again and lifted his empty glass.
“Fair enough,” he said. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
“I’m going to get another glass,” said Crozier, who nodded at Franklin in vague apology before turning away and sliding back through the crowd to the bar. The other two men watched him for a moment in silence- Franklin surprised, Fitzjames more than a little miffed.
“All right,” James Fitzjames said, watching Crozier retreat. “Can I be blunt?
“Of course,” said Franklin.
“What hole did you dig him out of?”
This was not the response Franklin had been expecting, and it showed. The smile dropped entirely from his weathered face and was swiftly replaced by a rather patronizing frown of concern. Insipid and patronizing were, in fact, John Franklin’s two chief ways of maneuvering through life. You got used to it- or, in Fitzjames’s case, overlooked it entirely.
“I mean it,” said Fitzjames. “Is he really a friend of yours, or did you just promise him this gig while he was dating your niece ?”
“I would trust Francis with my life,” Franklin said evenly.
“Yeah, well,” said Fitzjames. “I find it hard to trust anyone who willingly goes by Francis to begin with. Especially not with something like this. I swear to God, that man is where fun goes to die .“
“Don’t you think you’re being a little harsh?” Franklin asked. “He’s here because I asked him to come.”
“I just don’t understand,” Fitzjames said, glancing over toward the bar again and waiting for Crozier to walk away from it. “Sometimes I think he wants to be miserable- and that’s not even getting into the drinking. What’s the point of drinking like he does if he’s not even going to enjoy it?”
“All right.” Fitzjames held up a hand in surrender. “I’ll stop. I just- Christ. I don’t know. He gets under my skin.”
“I know Francis is… not easy to get along with,” Franklin said, “but I need you to give him a chance. He’s one of the best event organizers I’ve ever worked with, and none of us would be here without him.”
“I know,” Fitzjames conceded. “I know, I know.”
“It’s only for a few days,” Franklin reminded him. “Just… er. Be cool, be wild, and be groovy, as it were, and all will be well.”
Fitzjames laughed a little at this and looked out over the crowd. Their guests were clearly already having a good time- more than one person had already jumped into the pool fully clothed, and a number of them had been dancing from the time the doors had opened at 7:30. Once Crozier had walked away from the bar, Fitzjames made his way back toward it, with Franklin following in mild concern.
“Another orange juice, please-”
“Good God, James, what do you think is catching out there? Scurvy?”
“I think I’m vaccinated against that one-”
“You’re thinking of polio,” Franklin said, in the kind of gentle, informative voice a father might use to delicately correct the gifted child his bumper sticker bragged about.
“Ah, right,” Fitzjames said. He thanked the bartender as she placed another highball of juice in front of him and turned around to look out over the party again. “Even so- it’s not like people really get that anymore to begin with, is it? One of those old-fashioned diseases."
He made a face at the prospect, which mostly consisted of pressing his already rather small, thin mouth even tighter before he allowed himself another sip.
“I just figure it can’t hurt. Keeping one’s immune system up while one travels and all that.”
“I suppose not,” Franklin allowed, with a little acknowledging tilt of the hand.
Fitzjames grinned despite himself and nodded at the soon-to-be-late John Franklin, among the thumping bass and whooping guests. A small, pointy-faced young man and an even thinner, much taller specimen with a great deal of tightly curling blond hair had already quite definitively paired off, with the smaller man occasionally beaming up at his companion with a kind of startled, delighted affection entirely at odds with the raunchy club jam pounding over the speakers. They weren’t looking toward the bar, but Fitzjames was feeling sentimental enough to raise his glass.
This, he thought, was exactly the kind of thing you liked to see on the first night of an event like this.
What could possibly go wrong?