Alpha ducked into Widener Library to check his email, ironically enough, because he was trying to buy an affordable used laptop so he wouldn't have to check his email in the library. His old one had gone into some kind of death spiral and even though Livingston had offered him a used one in a roundabout kind of way, Alpha had refused him very directly. Now he was scrounging around Craigslist, but he had a good lead and emailed the seller to say he could come by that evening, if convenient.
He had some funds stashed from working two jobs over the summer and his mother had actually coughed up a wad of cash from somewhere and thrust it at him when he'd been on his way out the door.
He glanced up at the Sargent murals facing the main stairs on his way out of the library. They were so fucking depressing with their World War I theme. He was in a good mood and even war murals were not going to bug him. Just before he'd hit the library, he'd just met with Professor Sheehan about doing some research, which would not only pay him a pittance, but would also look good on his CV. That was the only reason why he was over in the Yard and not down at Quincy house, not that there was anyone really there yet either. Most students weren't arriving until the next day. The freshmen were already in residence since they come earlier than everyone else for orientation and he wasn't above ogling a few freshmen. They were distributed in clumps all over the crisscrossed paths (they don't meet up properly, but that's what happens when you let cows do your landscaping) and patchy sections of turf and dear God they all looked so young and fresh faced. Two very cute blondes smiled at him as they walked into the library. It was good to be back. His summer at home had been hot, cramped, and best forgotten. He was never doing that again. Manhattan in August, twelve hour days, no life—never again.
He stood uncertainly at the top of the large sweep of stone steps. Unstructured time was not his favorite thing. In fact, he'd go out on a limb and say it made him antsy. He watched some German tourists posing for photos below him. It kind of tickled him to think of himself haunting people's vacation photos even if he was no more than a blur in the background. At least he was in someone's damn vacation photos.
He wouldn't have glanced twice at the large stone pedestal flanking the steps to the right if he hadn't noticed the girl sitting there was wearing long, dark sleeves. It was about a million percent humidity and above ninety in the shade, but then such is August in Cambridge. He couldn't see her face. Didn't matter. He recognized her immediately—whether from the shape or her head, or her posture, or some ineffable essence that was Frankie Landau-Banks. He just knew. He'd no idea she'd been accepted or was planning to attend. He probably should have checked the alumni magazine to see where she was headed. Just in case. He'd really tried not to think about her at all for the past two years. He'd failed pretty miserably, but he'd tried. It was way too provoking. It still bothered him that she'd never responded to his last drunken email.
Really, he should amble down the steps and go find a cold drink, but instead he crept up behind her. She was sitting cross-legged with a cup of froyo smothered in fresh strawberries beside her, half eaten. No surprise there. She was studying the Q guide and didn't notice him looming behind her.
"You gonna eat that?"
She turned and peered up at him and her expression was almost comical—part surprise, part defiance and one hundred percent Frankie. Her brows furrowed and she didn't say a thing. Just picked up her froyo and took a huge bite and went back to her Q Guide. She even licked the bowl of the yellow plastic spoon. Slowly. Guh.
Alpha sighed and flopped down next to her. At least she had enough sense to sit in the shade when overdressed for the weather. He leaned close to read over her shoulder. "Science A-35. I took that. It's pretty entertaining."
She blinked slowly, but didn't respond in any other way. Not cool. He should be the one ignoring her, but that hadn't ever been a choice. He didn't want to even contemplate the number of times he'd remembered her holding that stupid frozen custard on the beach, shivering half to death and pretty much as close to naked as you can get in public without being arrested. Her arms had been covered in gooseflesh and well, her nipples. He'd have to have been blind not to have noticed. And he definitely wasn't blind.
She looked older, just a little, but mostly she looked the same. Her hair was a little longer and he thought a touch lighter. It was odd to see her right in front of him, close enough to touch. He knew it made her uncomfortable, or set her on edge when he did, so he bumped his shoulder against hers and blatantly leaned against her. Though that set him on edge just as much, so maybe it wasn’t the most brilliant plan.
It was obvious that she wasn't reading the Q guide so much as staring at it and holding still until he got bored and went away. Not good. Not OK. He refused to be ignored. He snatched up her yogurt and shoveled in a huge bite.
That earned him a glare, and then a resigned look that said you might as well finish it.
"What? It's not like I have Ebola or something." He offered the cup back to her, but she shook her head. "Beside you were just letting it melt. I thought you always wanted whatever delicious thing was right in front of you."
Without looking up, she said, "What do you want, Alpha?"
"What? Old friends can't say hello? Chew the fat? Catch up on old times?"
"I wouldn't say we're friends." She tugged on her sleeve, drawing her right hand part of the way into the cuff.
The scar--he'd forgotten that she'd burned the holy hell out of herself that night in the tunnels. Livingston had told him, but he'd also seen her after he'd met with the disciplinary committee. He's seen the bandages on her arm. He had no idea why, but he was generally compelled to notice all of her details. It was sort of 'know thine enemy' and sort of something else. Something else he wasn’t going to poke at.
"So what are we exactly?" Not that he didn't have ideas, but he was curious how she'd phrase it.
"Maybe. Hell if I know. Come get a coffee." He stood and held out his hand to help her up.
"Yeah. It grows on bushes. They pick it and roast the berries and then grind it up—"
"No. Why would you want to get coffee with me?" She narrowed her eyes at him.
"Because it's a nice day. Because there's no one around but freshmen and I'm bored out of my gourd. I know a good place. It's a couple of blocks away. Best espresso in the city." He motioned for her to take his hand and to his surprise she did. She let him help her to her feet, but tugged her hand away and stowed her Q guide in her bag. She looked up at him expectantly and waited for him to lead the way.
It wasn't exactly that he'd forgotten, so much as he'd suppressed the memory of her eyes. They were large, wide set and a strange combination of dark blue with gold starbursts around her irises. He quickly turned away and hurried down the steps and did not check to see if she was following. He had three cigarettes left, but he was damn well going to smoke one of them. He needed something to occupy his hands and his mouth, something else anyway. She wrinkled her nose when he lit one, but didn't complain.
They headed for the gate by Lamont and Alpha said, "Where're you living?"
Jesus. If he couldn't get more than one word out of her at a time this whole next hour of his life was going to take forever and a day.
"Nice. My girlfriend lived there freshman year." He dragged on the cigarette. Maybe he should have said ex-girlfriend?
"Do you still call her the she-wolf?"
He thought he saw the hint of a smile. He threw his hands up in mock horror. "Oh God. You know all my skeletons. What kind of hush money are we taking here?"
There. That earned him an actual smile. He peppered her with questions about her summer and how dear old Alabaster had been when she'd left it. By the time they reached the little coffee shop on Mass Ave and Dana Street she was almost speaking in full sentences. She'd spent the summer in the city doing an internship with a small literary agency in NoHo. He kind of wished he'd known she was kicking around nearby, but at the same time he was glad he hadn't. He'd been way too lonely all summer.
At the counter, he almost offered to pay for her iced coffee, though he could ill afford it. At the last second he decided it might send the wrong message. Maybe there was no right message in this situation. What the hell was he even doing?
They talked for an hour and forty-five minutes about everything from Plato's Republic to which bands were doing reunion tours, but they did not talk about the Bassets or Matthew Livingston, or anything that had happened between them ever. Once she got past her extreme wariness she was chatty and funny. He liked the mobility of her features when she was interested in something and the way she narrowed her eyes slightly when she was listening.
She'd changed and she hadn't. He had a feeling her brain was every bit as sharp and calculating as it had ever been. He'd never underestimate her brain, but she seemed to hide it more skillfully. It wasn't as apparent she was weighing every word before said it; her responses sounded more spontaneous. His gut told him that her conversations with him were different than the ones she used to have with Livingston, because Alpha actually saw her, but he didn't kid himself. This was Frankie and he should probably walk away from her right this minute. He just didn't feel like it. She was like smoking. He could probably quit. Tomorrow.
She excused herself to use the bathroom and Alpha was startled out of watching the sway of her hips as she crossed the room when his phone buzzed in the pocket of his fraying chino shorts.
He prayed that it wasn't his mother. He'd been ignoring her calls for two days. Nope. It was Livingston and he decided that this was going to be an interesting conversation.
"Where are you? I came early because you whined my ear off. And you're not even here."
"Hello to you too. Yes. I'm fine. Thanks for asking. By the way I'm having coffee with an old friend of yours."
"A Miss Landau-Banks. I'm sure you remember her." Alpha really had no idea what direction that was going to send Livingston in. Livingston never mentioned her name. He referred to what had happened as 'that ungodly mess.'
Livingston was silent for a moment. "Where? I'll come meet you."
"Nah. We've been here for ages. I'm going to walk her back to her dorm. It's on the way. She's in Apley. I'll see you in fifteen."
"She's living across the street?" Livingston's voice shot way up the register.
"Don't be such an old lady. It's around the corner and after I broke up with Rose I never saw her and she lived in Apley."
"Uh-huh. But she also never left her room."
Frankie was headed back to the table and Alpha said, "Gotta go." And hung up. "We should head out. That was Livingston. The bastard showed up a day early. I have to go meet him." He was having way too much fun tossing these conversational grenades right and left.
Frankie paled and then flags of color appeared high on her cheekbones. Every bit of ground he'd gained with her in the last two hours vanished. She hefted her bag onto her shoulder and tugged her cuff down over her scar.
He told himself it was just as well that Matthew has interrupted. He shoved his hands in his pockets before he did something moronic, like touch her face to see how hot those feverish red patches felt.
It was like the walk there in reverse. Frankie became more and more monosyllabic as they approached her dorm. When they were part way down Holyoke Street she stiffened and stopped dead in the middle of the sidewalk. Alpha followed her gaze. Livingston was lounging right outside the entrance, lurking like a big creeper. There were several reasons he might be there and Alpha didn't particularly care for any of them. He could be there to protect Alpha from Frankie's evil machinations, which was just plain insulting. He might be there because he wanted to see Frankie, which Alpha didn't like at all. Or he might be there because he just hadn't been able to wait to see Alpha, which was hopefully the reason, but the most unlikely.
Alpha set his hand on the small of her back and said, "It's OK. He's had all his shots."
Frankie gave him a rueful smile, straightened her shoulders, and walked forwards until the three of them were standing there in the most awkward of awkward silences. Frankie and Livingston were staring at each other, but neither one seemed to know how to break the silence. He looked tense and liable to crack and she looked wary and slightly wistful. It was both interesting and intolerable.
He kicked Livingston in the shin, not hard, but enough to jolt him back into politeness.
"Hello, Frankie." It was the coldest he'd ever heard Livingston sound. It must be all that blue blood, but the bastard really knew how to pull of hauteur.
Frankie murmured hello back, but she didn't quail or drop her gaze. High marks for chutzpah. Alpha squeezed her shoulder and said, "It was good to see you, Frankie. I'm sure we'll cross paths again soon."
Livingston glared at Alpha's hand like he wanted to chop it off, so Alpha gave Frankie's shoulder another little squeeze just to be perverse. He was tempted to offer her his cell number or give her a chaste kiss on the cheek just to see if Livingston's head would explode, but only tempted.
Frankie picked up on the tension between them and Alpha let his hand drop away. He herded Livingston down the street.
When they turned the corner onto Mount Auburn Street Livingston exploded. "What was that? What the hell is going on? Why are you hanging out with her?"
"I bumped into her. I had no idea she was matriculating. Did you?" Alpha was pretty sure he knew the answer already.
Livingston jabbed the button to change the crosswalk signal repeatedly, which was something he complained about when he saw someone else doing it. "It was in the alumni bulletin."
"No one reads that thing, except you," said Alpha.
"I don't know. You're a man of mystery."
Livingston shot him a look that plainly said 'answer my question before I push you into traffic.'
"I was curious. Just wanted to see if she'd changed or not. Don't read too much into it."
"Uh-huh. Right." Livingston quickened his pace with those long stupid legs of his. Alpha really hated when he did that. Damn non-smoking soccer playing freak.
"Spit it out, Livingston. If you keep that shit in you'll probably get cancer or something."
Livingston stopped on the sidewalk outside Quincy House. "I don't think you should be hanging out with her."
Alpha gave him a please continue wave.
Livingston took off his glasses and cleaned them on the hem of his t-shirt. "I really shouldn't have to explain this to you. She lied to us. She manipulated us. She almost got you expelled—"
"Yeah. I was there. I remember."
"So how could you… Oh. You still like her." Livingston's voice went toneless.
Alpha hitched one shoulder in a non-committal little shrug. Yes. He liked her. And no. He wasn't about to admit that and expose his soft underbelly for Livingston to savage. Alpha was also pretty sure the whole thing was a very bad idea and Livingston was right, but he wasn't about to admit that either. Also he wasn't going to push for clarification of the word 'still.' They both knew it was true. Livingston had never said he suspected, but the guy wasn't stupid and Alpha was really shitty at hiding his emotions. He could deflect, distract, and often lie, but Matthew Livingston knew him too well.
And thank fucking God they were waylaid by three different acquaintances at just that second and then ran into their housemaster. Alpha managed to avoid being alone with Livingston for the rest of the evening thanks to an emergency call from The Crimson editor.
Alpha kept busy unpacking, getting organized, doing some preliminary research for his new job. After dinner, he hopped the T to Porter to pick up his new-to-him laptop. But his thoughts never strayed very far from Frankie. He smoked his last cigarette outside near two am and did not go over to University Market to buy a new pack. He needed to cut down. He thought he might also need to have his head examined because Livingston was right. Frankie was dangerous. Unfortunately that wasn't enough of a deterrent.
The first week of classes was always extra busy, even though Alpha wasn't doing much in the way of course shopping. He knew what he wanted to take and turned in his paperwork early. It was pure serendipity that he was leaving the registrar's office on Garden Street when she was headed in. She was wearing dark sunglasses and rifling through her bag so she didn't spot him. He stepped right into her path and she walked right into him, which he probably enjoyed more than he should have. He steadied her and held onto her arms a moment too long. She didn't pull away, but she did bite her lip and stand very still.
"Nice to run into you. How are you settling in?" He turned and walked back into the building with her. She didn't object, but he could tell she was uncertain about his presence. That made him more determined to stick to her like white on rice. It might be a problem later, but he was having too much fun to care. Much.
He glanced at her course selection sheet just before she passed it across the counter. She'd taken his advice and registered for Science A-35. It met on Tuesdays and Thursdays in the Science Center from 11:30am until 1pm. He filed that useful information away.
They walked back across the Cambridge Common, cutting across the scruffy field, and they chatted about what groups Frankie was thinking of joining. He'd known she was a dancer and a vegetarian so those groups weren't surprising. But the political groups? That was interesting. He sometimes attended the 'Institute of Politics' meetings and teas—a no brainer for someone concentrating in Government.
"Did you know there is a Lowell House Society of Russian Bell Ringers?" she asked.
"Is there? That's oddly specific." He glanced at her and saw her quickly shift her eyes back in front. She'd been peering out the side of her sunglasses at him and for some reason that tickled him.
He said good-bye to her at Johnson Gate, not because he had anywhere he had to be, but because he needed to think about what he was planning to do. He wasn't above lying to other people when necessary, but he tried not to lie to himself. This girl had gotten under his skin and would not get out. He had a fair amount of experience with women and he'd never had trouble leaving them, or avoiding them if they were bad news, or bored him. And he knew why it was different with Frankie. It wasn't just that he wanted to get her into bed, though there was that. They understood each other. She understood him in a way Matthew Livingston never could, which is exactly the reason Livingston hadn't understood her, hadn't been able to forgive her, and couldn't forget her.
Oh, yeah. This wasn't going to blow up in his face at all. He could handle Livingston; Livingston wasn't the problem. He was a factor, sure. The problem was Frankie, well, more specifically the way she made Alpha feel. Not that he was going to turn into a sappy ball of mush the way Livingston used to around her, but he couldn't deny life would be a lot more interesting with Frankie around.
After careful consideration he set up his research assistant schedule so that he'd be meeting with his professor on Tuesdays at noon at Sheehan's office on Kirkland Street, which just happened to be across the street from the Science Center. The Science Center is supposed to look like a big Polaroid camera and it kind of does, if you squint. After meeting with Sheehan, Alpha dropped in just before one pm the following Tuesday and checked his email at one of the public terminals in the atrium. Her classroom door remained closed after one pm, but that class had a tendency to run a bit over, so he wasn't surprised. When the door finally opened at ten past he waited until he spotted her and then made a bee line for the main doors, but with more than two hundred students flooding out of the lecture hall he had to wait. It was a tactically perfect maneuver and brought him right up behind her.
She was wearing a black cardigan, a black skirt, and black flats. Her hair was in a messy knot at the nape of her slender neck. She was laughing at something the guy walking next to her had said. He'd seen that look before. Guys who didn't know her, didn't have a clue what she was underneath the pretty wrapper, looked at her like that. Amateurs. Alpha bumped into her arm, as if by accident.
"Sorry—oh, hey. We have to stop running into each other like this." Alpha circled her upper arm with his fingers and didn't let go. He gave her classmate a pointed look.
"Well, see you Thursday. Text me if you get stuck on the problem set." The guy smiled at Frankie and walked off.
Frankie looked down at his fingers around her bicep and then back up at him. She was not pleased that he'd dismissed her acquaintance like that. She was also too suspicious for her own good and looked ready to bolt.
"Come on." He tugged her toward the café inside the Science Center. "Let's get a soda."
When she didn't say anything he added, "Do you have something better to do?"
"No. I just don't understand what you're up to." She let him tow her to the counter.
He paid this time and when they sat she repeated herself. "What are you up to, Alpha?"
"What? Don't you trust me?" He smiled. He silently corrected himself. The problem wasn't her. It was that he didn't trust himself.
"Not so much."
"Frankie. You wound me." He placed a hand over his heart.
"You're not answering me. What are you up to?"
"Do I need to draw you a diagram? I'm not very good at drawing the human form, but I'm sure you'll get the general idea."
She almost choked on her soda and she blushed, but still looked incredibly wary. What she didn't do was leave. Now he just had to convince her this wasn't some twisted revenge scenario he'd cooked up with or without Livingston. He knew that was what she suspected, because in her shoes? That's totally what he'd suspect.
"Does Matthew know?" It was eerie how often her thoughts overlapped with his.
"Is there anything for him to know? We're just drinking soda. Why would he care?" Of course Livingston would care if he knew, but they had carefully avoided talking about her since the day Livingston had arrived. Alpha couldn't keep himself from adding, "You're not still hung up on him? Are you?"
She didn't answer right away and that didn't sit right with him.
Finally she shook her head and said, "No. Not exactly."
She stared back at him, but didn't answer. It was clear she wasn't going to explain. He had a credible theory. Frankie and Matthew had had some dewy-eyed first love/infatuation thing two years ago. He didn't like it now anymore than he had at the time. He'd never seen Livingston so bent out of shape as the night they discovered Frankie was behind everything that had happened that fall semester of their senior year.
At the time Alpha had been too wrapped up in his own problems to delve into Livingston's heartbreak, but he'd been unable to stop himself from noticing the way Frankie and Livingston watched one another surreptitiously in the caf when they thought no one was looking. He disliked the mixed longing and upset on Livingston's face, but not as much as his loathed the disappointed expression on Frankie's face when she looked at Livingston. He knew Livingston had never understood her, never really tried to, and that in the end he hadn't even deserved her. It felt somewhat disloyal to have thoughts like that about his best friend, but it was what it was.
"What are you doing here anyway?" She asked.
"I'm a research assistant for Sheehan, he studies Russian-Chechen political relations. He's got me digging up all kinds of economic statistics about paramilitary organizations in the North Caucuses right now. We just had a meeting over on Kirkland and I stopped in for a soda—then I ran into you."
"Like rebel factions? The ones who want independence for Chechnya?"
Alpha nodded and told her about the data and quantitative analysis. He explained how he'd fallen into a deep fascination for the regions history his sophomore year when taking Sheehan's course. She followed along and asked perceptive questions. It was always such a pleasure to talk to her. She grasped concepts easily and always asked probing questions. Questions that made him think more rigorously, consider alternative perspectives. And fine. Sue him. He liked to look at her. She wasn't classically beautiful, but there was something so arresting about her that he didn't want to look away.
They talked for an hour until she jumped up, noting the time on her phone. "I have to run. Class at three and I have to print out some homework."
"I'm sure I'll run into you again soon."
She nodded, still uncertain about him, but she smiled a little bit. Alpha had never had to lull a girl's fears like this, had never had to chase one down either. It was novel. It was fun. It was refreshing, but only because it was her. With anyone else he wouldn't bother.
He found himself smiling back even though he knew he was so utterly screwed.
He managed to 'bump into her' fairly often on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but not every single one. Too obvious. Eventually she started looking for him as soon as she was out the door of the lecture hall. The Tuesday in November that he simply nodded at her and turned back to the public computer to finish the email he was typing marked a small victory. She crossed the atrium and waited for him to finish and then poked him in the arm.
She said, "Fancy meeting you here."
"As always, I'm delighted to see you. I want to ask you something." He turned and grabbed two sodas while she went and sat at the same table they always seemed to end up sitting at.
He passed her a root beer and a napkin and watched her wipe the area around the flip top clean. It was such a funny tick of hers. Maybe it was because he'd grown up in the city, but he figured what didn't kill him made him stronger and a few germs were not going to kill anyone. They'd just bolster one's immune system.
"You know what Finals Clubs are, right?"
She nodded and the wary look snapped back into her eyes for the first time in weeks. He was a complete idiot. It hadn't even occurred to him that an all male fraternity would stir up old shit that they pointedly never talked about.
So he pressed on before she could say anything. "There's a shindig next Saturday. I want to take you. It's black tie."
She frowned and tilted her head slightly to the side, but she didn't answer. There was a very real possibility that she'd say no. He waited patiently as if it was no big thing.
"Eight?" she said.
He breathed in and then out. "Yes. I'll pick you up at seven forty-five and we'll walk over."
He watched her finger trailing around the edge of her soda can.
"He'll be fine," Alpha told her, but he honestly didn't know if that was true, for any value of fine.
Matthew Livingston was not fine with it. As soon as the elevator doors closed on just the two of them he said, "What are you doing? You can't trust her."
"Isn't that up to me? You can't decide that shit for me."
"Why her? Why can't you leave her alone and find some other girl?" Livingston really didn't understand this? Alpha really thought he wouldn't have to explain it to Livingston of all people.
"Uh, have you seen her?" Alpha was deliberately provoking his friend, but he was irritated.
"She's not like that." Livingston stood up straighter. He didn't use his height to try to cow Alpha very often, but he was doing it now.
"Not like what, exactly?"
"She's not like the girls you usually hook up with. She's not casual. She's not easy. If you just want to get laid there are a lot of other girls who'd be happy to do the deed."
"Are you worried about me or her? I can't keep up here." Alpha stepped a little closer to Livingston, refusing to be physically intimidated by him. Livingston might have a few extra inches, but they weighed practically the same and Alpha fought dirty. The elevator doors opened and Livingston exited first. He ran his hands through his hair, tugging it to stand on end. "I don't know. Both."
"What is it with you two? You're still all hung up on each other. It's unhealthy." Alpha regretted his words immediately.
Matthew paused at the door to their suite. "What are you talking about?"
Maybe it was best to lance this blister, but he waited until they were in Livingston's room with the door closed. "You're obviously still bent out of shape about her and she has some weird lingering thing for you. And you both need to let it go." He'd wanted to say it for years. It was a relief.
"She's still… Did she say that?" Livingston looked oddly hopeful and that was bad. Very bad.
"No. She didn't have to." Alpha was not going to step aside this time. He needed to make that absolutely clear. "But you can't honestly think it would work out between you two, right? You said you'd never forgive her."
"I know. But I was kind of in love with her. I just—"
"You were not in love with her." Alpha was about a hair's breadth away from decking Livingston.
Livingston sounded rueful rather than belligerent. "How would you know?"
"Because you didn't know her. You had no clue who she really was then, or who she is now. You just wanted to get in her pants."
"Even if that were true, how, exactly, is that different from you?"
"I know exactly who she is and I accept her for who she is. I like who she is. She's the most interesting and fucking smart woman I have ever met and if you think I'm going to walk away from that this time you are in for a rude awakening, my friend."
"This time? I knew it. I knew you had a thing for her back at Alabaster. You never wanted me to be alone with her. And I didn't like the way you looked at her sometimes. This is so utterly fucked up."
Alpha nodded, but didn't have anything to add. It was, indeed, fucked up.
"Are you in love with her?" Livingston demanded.
Livingston and his goddamned feelings. "Please don't bring up that bullshit. I don't want to talk about my emotions and sing Kumbaya with you and then hug like fucking pussies." Shit. He'd pushed back too hard.
"You are," Livingston said, coolly. His mouth twisted into something between a grimace and smile.
"Probably." Alpha went outside for a smoke and didn't even remember he was out of cigarettes until he was standing outside Quincy House in the dark patting down his pockets. He stalked toward University Market. Whatever Matthew Livingston's concept of love was, it sure as hell wasn't his and he kind of envied Matthew that softness. Alpha could never let himself be that vulnerable. He'd had the rug pulled out from under him one too many times before. Thanks mom, he thought.
He'd left too early to pick her up the night of the dinner and had to make a full circuit of the Yard before walking back to Apley. He wasn't nervous exactly, but he was jittery, like he'd just had a big fat rush of adrenaline. If everything went according to plan they'd go to the party, stay for as long as they needed to and then he'd bring her back to her room and peel her dress off. He'd wanted to get his hands on her for more than two years and he was very close to losing it. He told himself to calm down. He told himself she might only like him as a friend, but he was pretty certain that wasn't the case. Even if she did have an interest in him, that didn't mean she'd necessarily want to hop in bed with him at the drop of the hat. But his hormones didn't care, they were hopeful little bastards.
He knocked on her door and she opened it and smiled at him. Fuck. He was in such trouble here, so out of his depth. She looked gorgeous. Her dress was simple, black, long sleeved—not low cut or anything. It clung to her softly, but he was kind of relieved. It was very nearly modest.
"One sec. I need to put on my shoes." She turned and slipped her feet into a pair of black heels. He actually had to grab the door frame. Her dress had almost no fucking back. His eyes trailed hungrily down the camber of her spine and he had to grit his teeth and stop himself from marching in, slamming the door and pushing her up against the nearest flat surface.
"OK. I'm ready." She grabbed a small black purse off her bed and walked towards him.
"Are you trying to kill me?"
In her heels she was nearly as tall as he was. She smiled a satisfied little smile and the answer was yes. Yes, she was trying to kill him. And then he had to know.
"Is that dress for me or for Livingston?"
She smiled even more smugly. "Neither. It's for me."
He knew she meant that and that somehow made everything worse—it made her more irresistible, but at least she wasn't dressing up for Livingston. Oh, God. Livingston's face. He could not wait to see it and that probably made him a terrible person. Livingston hadn't been too thrilled when Alpha mentioned he'd being bring Frankie to the dinner.
It was a fairly warm evening and she wasn't wearing a coat, which meant a lot of guys were blatantly eye-fucking her as they crossed Harvard Square. He wrapped his arm around her waist, which was satisfying because he was touching her, because it made it clear she was taken, and because his jacket sleeve covered the small of her back. He'd never cared about something like this before. In fact, he'd always been pleased if other guys envied him and looked longingly at the girl he was with.
With Frankie it wasn't like that. Everything was different and he didn’t want other guys panting after her. Well, that was going to be a losing battle.
Like the friendships he'd made in the Bassets—his Finals Club cronies would help him along his future path. They were going to become important people. They would know important people. They were already related to important people in many cases, but they were also a bunch of college-aged guys with pulses. It's not like having Frankie on his arm was going to hurt him so long as he didn't do anything stupid, well any stupider.
They arrived during the cocktail hour and it was almost comical how his friends smiled politely, even admiringly when Frankie was facing them, but how their expressions changed, jaws dropped, and there were blatant hungry stares when she turned around. He'd raised an eyebrow or two at some of the worst offenders. Tyler Henderson's date actually had to jab him in the stomach to get him to look away.
Frankie had her hair up, but with tendrils hanging down, teasingly, as if she'd gotten good and mussed after getting dressed. It was kind of evil. Alpha found his fingers drifting over the back of her neck every so often as if they had a mind of their own. There was something fundamentally distracting about her neck. She leaned very, very slightly into his hand each time, like a cat who wanted scritching.
Livingston arrived late. He'd brought Marnie, who was a friend of his from The Crimson. Alpha liked her. She was funny and she made Livingston lighten up a little. He was pretty sure she was interested and he had no clue why Livingston hadn't noticed, or done something about it. Well, maybe he had some thoughts on the subject, but not thoughts he wanted to entertain for long.
Marnie spotted them and dragged Livingston over. The man looked like he was marching to his own execution. Alpha introduced Frankie to Marnie, who told her she looked lovely and waited for Livingston to say something. He didn't and Marnie smoothly filled the awkward gap. Livingston was politely listening to Marnie, but he kept darting sideways glances at Frankie, who'd said nothing to him, merely nodded hello.
The signal for the start of dinner sounded and Frankie turned towards the dining room. Matthew Livingston's face was every bit as devastated as Alpha had imagined it would be. He actually saw a tremor run through the hinge of Livingston's jaw. If Alpha got through this evening without maiming his oldest friend it was probably going to be some sort of miracle. Att he same time he was also experiencing heights of schadenfreude he hadn't known were possible.
He cleared his throat pointedly, but Livingston didn't look away. Alpha almost rolled his yes, but he slid his arm around Frankie's waist again and steered her towards the dining room. He glanced back and Livingston was still starring, but now he was frowning at Alpha's hand splayed against Frankie's skin. He'd better get used to it. Alpha glanced at Marnie. She'd noticed and murmured something to Livingston that distracted him.
Because Marnie and Livingston came in right behind them, Livingston ended up sitting to Frankie's left. Alpha chatted with everyone around him, but he talked mostly to Frankie. Livingston barely said two words to her, but when his hands weren't occupied he kept them balled in his lap. He refilled Frankie's wine glass several times, which seemed innocuous enough, but Alpha kept a watch Livingston's hands. He half expected to see one sliding up Frankie's leg under the table.
After dinner Alpha needed to have a conversation with Hinckley, whose father was rumored to be some muckety-muck in a particular Government agency, one that goes unnamed, but everyone knows about it. In theory. He thought wis not to bring Frankie with him because Hinckley was a letch and wouldn't hear a word he said.
He cornered Marnie and asked her bluntly to keep an eye on Frankie and under no uncertain terms to leave her alone with Livingston. Marnie understood and gave him a long-suffering nod. He knew Frankie could take care of herself, he just didn't want her to have to fend off a very confused, and lethally handsome in formal wear, Matthew Livingston while his back was turned.
Hinckley was a bit drunk, but not so gone that he was incapable of coherent conversation. He did tend to yammer on about himself though, about his time as Captain of the Exeter Lacrosse team. Hickley asked several pointed questions about Frankie, questions that irritated Alpha further because he couldn't answer them. Yet. Not that he would ever share that kind of information with Hinckley.
Alpha finally managed to herd Hinckley toward the topic he'd wanted to discuss. He knew he was on the verge of getting Hinckley to talk about his father, could almost taste the introduction he would eventually claim—when Marnie tapped him on the shoulder.
"Trouble," she said.
Alpha darted a glance around the room. Livingston had his arm around Frankie's back with his hand right where Alpha's had been earlier. Frankie seemed to be leaning on him slightly. Alpha exchanged glances with Marnie.
Marnie leaned in and said softly, "He brought a flask of something. He goaded her into drinking half of it. You need to get her home."
"Hinckley. We should have coffee soon. I want to hear more, but I have to go disembowel Livingston before he drags my girlfriend into the bushes."
"Can't say I blame him." Hinckley raised his wine glass in salute. To what? Alpha couldn't say.
He pulled Frankie away from Livingston quietly and Livingston let her go. The shithead looked guilty and they'd have words, but Frankie was none too steady on her feet.
"I'm taking her home. We'll talk about this later."
Livingston nodded, but kept his head down. At least he knew he'd royally fucked up.
When they reached the stairs it was apparent that she was too drunk to navigate them. It felt ridiculous, but he swept her up into his arms and carried her. She smelled like a distillery. He'd bet dollars to doughnuts she'd never drunk much in the way of hard liquor before and she didn't weigh much. It wouldn't be hard to get her wasted. He was sort of shocked that Matthew Livingston, generally decent human being, would do something like this.
He carried her all the way back to her dorm, fetched her water and practically sat on her until she drank it. He took off his coat, tie, and shoes because he wasn't going to leave her alone when she was this drunk. He wanted to make sure she didn't choke to death on her own vomit. He wasn't going to lay a finger on her, not when she was incapacitated and couldn't consent or participate. There was also a teeny part of him that worried Livingston would come by if he weren't here. So he was staying.
She murmured something that sounded like thank you and then passed out. Alpha pulled the chair away from her desk and watched the rise and fall of her chest, but mostly he was thinking through what he was going to say to Livingston.
About one a.m. she tried to climb out of bed and Alpha caught her before she face planted. He realized she was going to be sick and hurried her into the girls' john, glad no one else was in there. This wasn't his first time at the rodeo so he didn't think twice about pulling her hair away from her face and stroking her back while she was violently ill. When she was done he made her rinse out her mouth and brush her teeth. He had to brace her against his chest while she did it. She could barely keep her eyes open.
Back in her room he couldn't decide if he should help her undress or leave her as is. She'd be more comfortable out of her dress, but he sure as hell wouldn't be. The choice was taken out of his hands when Frankie simply shimmied out of the dress leaving it in a puddle on the floor.
She wasn't wearing anything underneath. His mouth went completely dry and he yanked his white button-down shirt over his head and put it on her. He removed the pins from her hair and he climbed into her bed and let her pass out again, but he kept her pulled up against his chest. He almost never slept with women after he'd had sex with them and he'd never just held someone like this. It was excruciating and he was pretty sure his balls would drop off before morning. But it was nice. It was more than nice. Still he was thankful when he fell asleep.
He woke up to find Frankie's legs tangled with his and her head tucked under his chin. His hand rested on her naked hip. She was still asleep and someone was banging on the door. Repeatedly. It was morning. Alpha blinked at the bright sunshine slanting in through the blinds. The knocking got louder and Frankie's eyes fluttered open. She looked adorably surprised and then pleased to see him. She glanced at the door.
"I'll get it," he said, since he was pretty sure he knew who it was anyway.
It was such an obvious line, he'd never once used it, but he couldn't resist this one time because he knew it would bother the shit out of Livingston. He opened the door and said, "Livingston, I presume."
He looked a little surprised to see Alpha standing there in his sleeveless undershirt and wrinkled pants clearly having just gotten out of bed. But he recovered and said, "How is she?"
"She's fine. I took care of her."
"I was a dick. I'm sorry. I brought coffee."
He had brought two cups of coffee and a white bakery bag. Before he could say another word Frankie opened the door wider, reached out and took the coffee and the bag, and set them down on her bookshelf. Alpha's shirt covered her better than her dress had, but there was something ridiculously provocative about it. The naked longing on Livingston's face was almost too much, but before he could say anything she tugged Alpha back into her room and said, "Matthew, go away." And slammed the door in his face. It was six different kinds of awesome.
"How are you feeling?" He searched her face for signs of a hangover, but she just looked a little tired.
"I'm fine. No headache." She let go of his hand and turned to pick up the coffee.
He stopped her. "The coffee can wait. I can't."
He backed her up against the door and just stared down at her for a moment, stared at her bowed pink mouth. She looked expectant, excited—heat limning her eyes. He slid his hands into her mussed hair and kissed her. He wanted to crush himself against her, but he held back and just gently brushed his lips over hers. She sighed and opened beneath him, but when she yanked him up against her he lost the reins entirely. He mashed her up against the door and devoured her. It was even better than he'd imagined and he'd imagined it often and in great detail. If he didn't take a breath he was going to end up fucking her against the wall. Was that OK? She didn't seem to mind. At all. But maybe it wasn't the right way to start this off.
He walked backwards and pulled her along, still kissing her until the back of his knees banged up against her bed. She plucked his undershirt over his head while he fumbled with the buttons of his shirt, trying to get it off of her. He never stopped kissing her. In a fit of pique he grabbed his shirt and ripped it open, buttons popped in all directions and Frankie giggled into his mouth.
He pulled the shirt open and it dropped to the floor. Finally. Finally! He could touch all of her. He almost didn't know where to start. Then he remembered they hadn't talked at all. Shit.
He gripped both her arms and held her a few inches away and said, "Birth control?"
She flattened her mouth for a moment and then nodded. "Yeah. I've got one of those rings, but…" She flushed and looked away.
"Oh, shit. Please don't tell me you've got the clap or something."
She looked horrified, but she shook her head. "No. It's just… "
"Just what?" Then the other shoe dropped. "Oh, God. You've never?"
She shook her head and her flush deepened.
He dropped his forehead onto her shoulder. "Oh, Christ." He'd never had sex with a virgin, not even when he was one. "Never? Are you sure?"
She snorted. "I think I'd remember."
He laughed into her shoulder and wrapped his arms around her. "It's OK. We'll go slowly. And you can tell me to stop if you need to. I'll probably drop dead if you do, but seriously." He cupped her face in his hands and looked her directly in the eye. "You say stop. I'll stop. And by the way I don't have the clap or anything else. Tested clean this summer and I haven’t been with anyone since."
"I'm pretty sure I won't want you to stop," she said. "But thank you."
He had her flat on her back a second later. He had to remind himself more than once to slow down. He couldn't just tear his pants off and pound into her. He wasn't going to get all flowery and shit, but he wanted her to like this enough to do it again. And he could tell she was nervous. Hell, it might hurt her at first.
Before he could figure out how to best approach the situation he needed more information. He needed a plan.
He lay back on his side and and took her in because he hadn't really looked at her until now. He thought he'd remembered her body from that day on the beach, but she was different now. Riper, was the word that came to mind.
He'd been staring. He was lucky he wasn’t drooling.
"Fuck. Exactly how inexperienced are you?" He gave her a wry smile and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear.
"Well, not totally." She bit her lip. God, she didn’t even know how to talk about this.
He pressed up against her side, instead of looming over her. "OK, I know you know how to kiss." He nibbled her neck and dragged his thumb across her lips. Her breath caught and her eyes fluttered closed.
"Has any guy seen you naked?"
She shook her head.
"Lucky me." He dragged his index finger across her collarbone, dipped into the hollow of her throat and let his fingers drift slowly down her sternum. Her nipples tightened. Another good sign. He scraped his fingernails lightly over her stomach. She shivered. Her breathing was growing erratic and she shifted bowing her back slightly. All right. He could take a hint.
Slowly, oh so slowly he let his hand travel back up her abdomen. She opened her eyes and looked so impatient that he laughed. "I've waited a long time for this. Don't rush me."
"A long time? It hasn't been that long. Maybe a month or two."
"It's been two years, two months, and twenty three days." He cupped her breast and she arched into his hand.
"Since then? Really?" She was deliciously out of breath.
"I thought it was obvious." He pinched her nipple gently and she gasped. "You've done this part before?"
"And this?" He leaned across her and sucked her nipple into his mouth.
"No," she said, followed by a sharp inhale.
He froze and lifted his head. "No you haven't done this? Or no you want me to stop."
"Oh God. Don't stop." She tugged his head back down. He did not need to be asked twice, but thank God, Buddha and every one else that she wanted this too.
He skimmed his hand down to her hip and she didn’t stiffen or say anything. Everything about her was warm and welcoming. He traced the curve or her hip and slowly, so she'd have time to stop him if it was too much, he slipped his hand between her legs.
"Have you done this before?" Mother of God. She was indescribably hot and wet.
Alpha bit back a laugh. "No, I mean with someone else. But you can tell me about doing it to yourself if you want to."
"No. Not with someone else." She smiled a secret little smile. "And what do you want to know?"
He stroked her gently, watching her response. Her head tilted slightly back. He kissed her throat and whispered into the shell of her ear, "Did you ever think about me when you were touching yourself?"
She whispered back, "Yes."
It took him a second to get his tongue to wrap properly around the English language agin. "Good. Because I thought about you. A lot. I can't tell you how many times that encounter on the beach ended differently."
She was moving with his hand and her breathing was all over the map. She liked hearing about how much he wanted her, so he told her about the different ways he'd imagined getting her alone and yanking open the strings on that almost non-existent bikini.
"Is the living up to your expectations?" she asked, her words breaking in odd places.
She's getting close, he thought. He hoped.
"No," he said and her eyes flew open. "It's so much better. You are a complete revelation."
She came apart in his hands, her face flushed, her lips kiss swollen and rosy. He left his hand splayed across her stomach and watched her float back down into her body. She stretched like a cat in a patch of sunshine, before pulling him into a kiss. She reached for the button on his pants, but it was a metal hook on the inside and he could only take so much of her fumbling around in that region. He unfastened and shucked his pants and boxers into the bottom of the bed. He half crawled was half tugged between her legs.
"I really hope this doesn't hurt, but it might." He kept his weight off her as much as possible.
"I'm a rip the band off fast kind of girl. Do it." She meant it. He was pretty sure it wasn't bravado.
Without breaking eye contact he thrust in half way, pulled out slightly and went deep. Her eyes fluttered closed and he couldn't tell what the hell she was feeling. She went very still and her expression was uncertain. He stilled and waited for her to get used to it, used to him. He knew he wasn't small and she was very tight, but he hadn't felt any resistance, hadn't felt anything break and that was a relief.
He brushed his thumb over the apple of her cheek. "Hey. You OK?"
She nodded and hooked her ankles behind his knees. Her eyes opened and she didn't look like she was in pain at all. He tried to go slowly, but it was difficult, especially once she started moving with him, driving him to speed up, tilting her hips so that he went deeper. He got close to the edge and backed off.
"What?" she said.
"Just hold still for a second."
"What? Is something wrong?"
"No. I'm just not ready for this to be over yet."
"Oh." She held still, but looked gratifyingly impatient.
He kissed her and then eased slowly out and smoothly back in. "Do you like this?"
"I think 'like' is an inadequate word."
He agreed, but words were starting to fail him. He wanted her to come again, hoped she could. He brought her right hand to his mouth and sucked on her index finger. "I want to feel you come when I'm inside you. Touch yourself."
She didn't even hesitate. Alpha was completely distracted by the tiny circles her hand moved in, but she started to buck against him and he snapped his hips into motion again. When the edge started to rush toward him again he slowed, but she grabbed his ass and pulled him roughly against her.
"Don't stop. Please don't slow down." She was breathing in gasps and he could tell she was trying not to moan, but it was impossible not to.
Once she clenched and spasmed around him, he let go and tumbled over the edge. Pleasure crashed through him, starting in his feet and roaring through him like a wildfire in a drought.
He tried to roll off her, but she tightened her arms around his waist. He rested his head in the crook of her neck. She smelled like sweat, and sex, and also something slightly flowery—soap or maybe shampoo.
He rose up on his arms and looked at her. She had a slightly dreamy expression he'd never seen on her face before. He suspected it might be new.
"What's the verdict?" he asked.
She blinked. "When can we do it again?"
He laughed and dropped a kiss on her nose. He was still half hard inside her and his cock stirred with interest. "Soon."
"Good. There are so many things I want to try."
Between kisses he said, "Tell me."
He could see the uncertainty on her face. "We'll being doing it again a lot sooner if you tell me what you want."
She thought about that for a minute. "I guess that makes sense. When you told me all those things you'd been imagining about me it did kind of tip the scales. "
He took his time, caressing her breasts and everywhere else he could reach without pulling out. Not only did she look and feel amazing, she was also incredibly responsive.
"I want to climb on top of you and ride you," she said, not shyly, but waiting for his reaction.
"Feel free," he said and nipped the soft skin behind her ear.
"I want to do it with you behind me."
He gave an experimental thrust. Pretty amazing recovery time, even for him.
"Oh, and I want to do that thing where we go down on each other, and—"
"Good God, woman. Are you trying to kill me?"
A shadow crossed her face. "What? Is it not OK that I want to try things?"
"'OK' is an inadequate word." He started to move again. "It's amazing that you want to try all that. I'm certainly game."
She beamed and then gasped when he thrust quickly. He was in so much trouble. Livingston was right. He was in love with her. Now he just had to keep from doing something stupid, like telling her.
Later they split the coffee Livingston had brought and ate all the pastries in the bag, which got Frankie's bed full of crumbs.
"It's OK. I think I need to change the sheets anyway." She'd put his shirt back on, but only two of the buttons were left and he'd climbed back into his boxers. She frowned into the empty white paper bag and tilted so he could see. There was a roll of strawberry Mentos coated in croissant shards.
"Do you like those?" he asked.
"I used to." She looked unfathomably sad. "It's just weird that he remembered."
"He'll be fine. You know he had a girlfriend last year, right? He's had a couple since you. None of them took, but don't kid yourself. He hasn't been sitting around pining for you all this time." Unlike me, he thought.
"I know that. I didn't think that. Actually I thought he hated me." She looked like she might cry. It was easier to soothe her with his hands than with words. He cradled her against his chest and combed his fingers through her tangled hair until he felt her sigh and relax.
He really didn't want to leave, but he had work to do and she probably did too, plus he didn't want to come off clingy, or overstay his welcome. He was shaking the crumbs off his pants, when he said, "I'm going to need my shirt back, even if it does look better on you."
She knelt on the crumb-covered bed and unbuttoned the top button. "Oh. I just thought of another one. Can we do it in the stacks? Isn't that a tradition?"
He dropped his pants and didn't leave for quite a while.
Alpha was terribly amused by all the knowing looks he received, even from strangers, but it was kind of obvious what he'd been up to. He was headed back to his room at six in the evening in a rumpled tuxedo, wearing an unbuttonable shirt, with his bowtie in his pocket. He needed a shower and a shave and something to eat like you would not believe.
But of course life is never that simple and the first person he bumped into on was Livingston. He gave one opaque look at Alpha's outfit and said, "We need to talk."
"Yes. We do, but I need to take a shower and eat first."
Livingston followed Alpha into his room and asked, "What happened to your shirt?"
"You do not want to know." He turned and looked at Livingston, who'd flopped on his bed. "Or maybe you do. Maybe that's the problem."
"I don't want to hear a play by play if that's what you mean."
"No. I meant you wish it were you. You wish you were the one who'd spent the day in bed with her."
Livingston covered his face with his hands and groaned. "Pretty much. I'm a jerk."
"No. You're not. Well, not entirely. And that sucks. You need to find someone else." Alpha hung up his jacket and tossed his shirt into the pile of laundry in his closet. Frankie'd said she'd collect the missing buttons for him later. He stripped off his undershirt and Livingston made a strangled noise. Seriously. It sounded like someone was choking a goose.
"Your back is covered in pastry crumbs. And there are scratches." Livingston leaned forward and looked closely at Alpha's shoulder, grimly fascinated. "Are those teeth marks?"
Alpha glanced at his shoulder and nodded.
"I think I kind of hate you right now."
"I'm sure you do. Look, I'm gonna take a shower and then we're going to talk. There are some things you don't know and I need to set the record straight."
"Just tell me now. I need to head in to the paper."
"You really want to have this conversation while I reek of sex from nailing the girl you're pining after?" Alpha had mixed feelings about bashing Livingston over the head with the truth, but he was pretty sure it was the best course of action.
"Point." Livingston looked pained, but headed for the door. "I'll be in my room."
Alpha showered and decided to skip shaving until the next morning. He stopped by the vending machines because he had no idea how long it was going to take to explain things. There was no obvious way to explain things, but he'd muddle his way through.
He passed Livingston a coke and watched him roll the can between his hands. Alpha opened a bag of chips and sighed. "I swear these bags get smaller all the time. Pretty soon there will be a tiny bag with a single chip in it and it will cost five bucks."
"What do you want to tell me?" Livingston turned his chair so that he was directly facing Alpha, who plopped down on the end of Livingston's neatly made bed.
"There are some things about Frankie that I never told you."
"I'm not going to like this am I?" Livingston popped open his soda. "Like what?"
"I met Frankie a few weeks before you did. " And he told Livingston all about the Jersey Shore, and the frozen custard, and the tiny bikini. That he knew Frankie was an Alabaster student. He'd thought the element of surprise when he saw her again would work in his favor. "But then I saw you with her. It was pretty obvious you were smitten and that she had a serious crush on you. So I pretended I didn't know her."
"Wait. Are you saying that you let me have her?" Livingston looked like he'd been hit on the back of the head with the flat of a shovel.
"Yes and no. I mean I didn't interfere, but she'd also clearly made a choice and I had to respect that. I didn't like it, but I knew you'd be decent to her. I knew you wouldn't take advantage of her, or push her into doing things she wasn't ready for. Mostly I knew I couldn't be that guy, that I wouldn't be good for her, so it was all for the best.
"I almost fell off the edge of the boardwalk when she told me she was only fifteen and it was crystal clear that she was a young fifteen. Totally innocent. So I left her alone, mostly. I slipped a couple of times, was too complimentary and sometimes I couldn't keep from touching her. Nothing creepy or over the line.
"And you were so sappy with her it made me ill. But what really drove me up a tree was that you didn't get her, not really. You never really knew how smart or funny she was."
"I knew that she was smart and funny, but she pretty much said the same thing to me the night we broke up—that I hadn't tried to get to know her."
"She was right. You never had the full picture. Maybe now you do."
"All right. Fine. Basically you waited two years to get her into bed and you have."
"Get to the point. What are you trying to ask me, Matthew?"
"You got it out of your system. So you're done with her, right?"
Alpha ran his tongue over his teeth before saying, "Not by a long shot."
"She was that good?" Livingston ran his fingers through the condensation on his soda. He still hadn’t taken a sip.
"My dear Matthew, she was better than you can possibly imagine, but that's not the point. There is nothing casual about this. This is different. Got it?"
Livingston nodded like he had a mouth full of ash. He didn't look thrilled, but he understood.
They fell into a pretty regular routine very quickly. Alpha met her after class on Tuesdays and Thursdays, spent most evenings in the library studying with her. He ate with her and he definitely spent almost every night with her. Perhaps he should have held back a bit, but she encouraged him. She wanted him around and wasn't that just a kick in the head?
Livingston didn't speak to him much and they almost never hung out anymore. Alpha felt bad about that. He thought about making plans to do something with Livingston over Thanksgiving break, but he ended up taking Frankie to all his favorite places in the city. He took her to see the peacocks and hideous sculptures outside St. John the Divine, to his favorite pizza joint down on Bleecker where she let him bitch to his heart's content about how they don't know how to make pizza in the entire state of Massachusetts. He took her to the Frick to see the painting of the De Medici page with the astonishing codpiece, which she decided looked like Draco Malfoy in period dress. He even offered to come out to Jersey to meet her family, but Frankie said that she'd spare him that ordeal. He could understand that. He wasn't exactly anxious to expose her to his mother.
On Saturday he put her back on the PATH train and walked about fifty blocks just letting everything settle. He didn't think he'd ever been so happy and that pretty much scared the ever-living hell out of him.
Avoiding his mother the rest of the day wasn't terribly difficult. She was very excited about some guy she'd met at the dry cleaners on 7th who was picking up half a dozen custom made suits. He absolutely didn't want to know.
He arrived back on campus at the earliest possible moment and found ways to keep himself busy, adamantly not checking his phone, or listening for it. He was completely Zen about his phone's refusal to ring. He'd waited too long to buy his ticket back and her train was sold out.
He was actually folding his laundry, folding, not wadding it, when his phone finally rang. He held it out and looked at Frankie's picture on the screen, let it ring twice more, before answering and then ruined it by saying. "Where are you? Are you back?"
She laughed. "I'm right outside. May I come up?"
"Of course. Get your ass up here. I haven't seen you in forever."
"It's been fewer than twenty-four hours. You're on the third floor, right?"
She'd been to his room only once before.
He suppressed the urge to wait by the elevator, but he couldn't do a damn thing except stand by his door and listen for the ding. He'd left his door ajar, but she knocked anyway. He yanked her inside and slammed it closed. She was pink cheeked and smiling. Something in his chest clamped down hard. Fucking hell. She smelled like cold air, like approaching snow and like something he'd associate with happiness for the rest of his life.
He kissed her chilled mouth. She ran her cold fingers under his shirt and over his stomach and while he was shivering and laughing she tried to remove his clothes, but without his cooperation she wasn't successful.
He held her hands away and said, "Why Miss Landau-Banks. I do believe you only want me for my body."
Oh, her smile—it sent all the blood in his body south and she noticed. Looking down, she said, "Is that a problem?"
He dropped her hands and flung himself dramatically back on his bed, with one distressed arm raised to his forehead. "I suppose I'll have to just let you ravish me. I'll just lie back and think of England."
She ravished him, but he did not think of England, not even once.
Close to midnight they agreed she should return to her room, because they both had reading to do and they knew that it wasn't going to get done if they stayed in the same room. Thanks to the laundry he'd done earlier it was easy to find a pair of clean flannel pajama bottoms and pull them on before walking her to the door.
He leaned against the door frame and said, "See you tomorrow."
She nodded. He pulled her in for a goodnight kiss and when he broke away, still cupping her face in both his hands, he realized someone was watching them. Shit.
Frankie noticed the look on Alpha's distraction and turned. Saw Livingston, murmured that she'd see him tomorrow and fled.
Alpha scrubbed a hand over his face and groaned. "Shit. I'm sorry."
Livingston scratched behind his ear. "That was kind of… startling. But it's all right. You both look happy. I don't begrudge you that."
"Yeah. I can't speak for her, but I don't think I've ever been so disgustingly cheerful. I must be making you and everyone else ill. But seriously I've tried to keep her out of here so you didn't have to see."
"I noticed. You're never here." It was hard to miss the forlorn note.
"Hey. We should hang out—just you and me. What are you doing Thursday?"
"Actually I have a date." Livingston shifted his weight from foot to foot.
Alpha fell to his knees and raised his hands in thanks. "Thank you, Jesus."
Livingston laughed and some of the stiffness dropped from his shoulders. "I'm free Wednesday or Friday."
Alpha picked himself up. "Friday. Friday's good."
It had taken longer than he'd hoped for Livingston to come around, but fucking finally.
The next morning he texted Frankie: I have to take Livingston out on a date on Friday.
She texted back: OK. But no open mouth kissing.
He texted: BRB. Bleaching my phone and my brain.
She shot back: Oh. And you never think about two girls together?
His response: Livingston is like my brother, Frances.
Her: OK, Alessandro.
Him: You are in trouble.
Her: I'm not afraid of you.
Him: (no response)
Her ten minutes later: Alpha? What are you up to?
One minute and forty-two seconds later he knocked on her door. She opened it and jumped back when she saw that he was standing there slowly, menacingly shaking a large bottle of root beer.
She took another step back, warding him off with her hands. "You wouldn't."
"What's wrong? I brought you some root beer." He stepped into the room and shut the door, still tilting the bottle back and forth. She was wearing a white tank top and pink pajama pants. Strategically, she was well positioned on the bare floor and not too close to her bed or any books.
"Don't you dare." She knew him well enough to know it wasn't a bluff.
"Not only did you call me by my given name, which is an affront to all that is good and decent in the world, but you made a truly horrifying suggestion about me making out with Matthew Livingston."
"Oh, and it's cool when guys rant on about two women making out? I'm sure you wouldn't mind if I kissed some girl."
"You wound me," he said. She made a dismissive noise and he gestured using the soda bottle. "I'd really prefer it if you didn't kiss anyone who isn't me."
"I wasn’t planning to." She flicked another worried glance at the root beer. "Now could you please put that down? Carefully."
"If you repent I might show mercy."
"Never. I'll never—"
He untwisted the cap and it sprayed everywhere. She shrieked. He cracked up, but that meant he'd let his guard down and she managed to wrench the bottle away. It was amazing how threatening a girl drenched in root beer could seem, while shaking said bottle with her thumb jammed into it.
He backed toward the door with his hands up, palms out. "Hey. Can't we talk about this?"
Her response was to take her thumb out of the bottle. He got root beer up his nose, but he was laughing too hard to care. He'd kiss her, but he was still laughing. She kissed him instead. She tasted sweet and sharp, or maybe he did. It was impossible to tell.
"Normally I'm not a big fan of root beer, but I kind of like it mixed with you." He licked a drip off her shoulder.
"I need a shower," she looked down at her splotched, clingy tank top.
"Later," he said.
She tried to wriggle away. "You are not getting me anywhere near the bed—"
"Who said anything about the bed?" He backed her against her closet door and they got around to the shower eventually.
Alpha was actually nervous before meeting up with Livingston and it really did feel almost like they were going on a date. A totally platonic date. He'd needed Frankie's help to prepare everything and she couldn't stop quipping about what they might get up to. She did promise she would bail them out of jail if need be, which was good to know. He thanked her and didn't bother to mention that it was highly unlikely they'd need her to spring them from the hoosegow.
She zipped a small suitcase closed and asked, "Have you ever been arrested?"
He glanced at her. OK. She wasn't kidding. She was standing there holding a lint roller, waiting for him to answer.
He was standing in the middle of his room in a blue dress shirt, dark socks, and no pants, which made him feel like someone's grandfather. Frankie began lint rolling his pants and he'd asked that if she was determined to do that, she do it while said pants were not on his person. Jail? No, he'd never been arrested. "What do you think?" he said.
"I think that you'd like people to wonder, but that you haven't been. I'm pretty sure that rumor about you running cock fights on the lower east side wasn't true either." She handed him his pants.
"I can neither confirm nor deny any of your suppositions."
She tilted up one side of her mouth. "I'm surprised you're not planning to go to law school."
He let that pass. They didn't talk about their future much, except in the haziest and most abstract of terms because it was an elephant in the room. Neither of them could be sure that they'd still be together when Frankie graduated in three years and neither of them wanted to discuss that. Yet. She hadn't declared a concentration, hadn't quite settled on one, but she knew he'd thrown in his lot with the Government department, focusing on the political climate in present day Chechnya and it's issues with Russia. His research assistantship tied in nicely with that since it was a quantitative analysis of the way rebel groups in that region operate and are funded. He hadn't planned to go in quite this direction, but Sheehan's course had nailed down the subject matter in his mind and kept it there. He just couldn't help feeling interested and sympathetic to people who'd been fighting for independence since 1785.
"You're still not going to tell me what you're planning are you?" She pouted, even though she knew that never worked on him, or at least he never let her know that it did.
"I'll see you tomorrow. Remember neither of us will have our phones with us tonight." He kissed her and left her at the elevator before heading back down the hall to grab Livingston.
He'd told Livingston the dress code—coat, no tie, and no cell phone but refused to divulge any other details. He really preferred being a man of mystery when he could get away with it.
They took the red line downtown and stopped for dinner at a fancy steak place not too far from the Public Garden. They argued over the bill and finally agreed to split it. The damage wasn't too bad since neither of them could legally drink.
Once they were paid up and stupidly full of red meat they walked out into the frigid night. Neither of them had worn an overcoat. Alpha knew he'd overlook some detail and he had, a really idiotic one at that.
"Why do kids refuse to wear coats when it's cold out? Like they walk around in t-shirts like it's fucking summer. Are they all trying to die of pneumonia?"
"We're not wearing coats," Livingston pointed out.
"Thank you, Captain Obvious. But we should be. We're smarter than that. Also we're not fourteen."
Livingston strode along beside him looking like a kid on Christmas morning, all bright eyed and pink cheeked. It was like the old days when Livingston had always looked to Alpha to come up with a good plan, or even a crappy one. Livingston liked rules and order. He liked grammar. He wasn't a creative thinker, but he was happy enough to go along with anything that sounded like fun. Really, he was a good guy—that whole getting Frankie drunk thing aside. Sometimes good people fuck up. It happens.
"What now?" Livingston had a goddamn bounce in his step.
"Just follow me," Alpha said. They walked towards Beacon Hill and through some of the narrow cobblestoned streets between quaint brick buildings decked out in empty flower boxes until they reached a dead end. Alpha rapped five times on the door of the last building, then three times, then six.
The door swung open, but only the top half; it was a hunter green Dutch door. There was the vague shape, just a suggestion of a man standing in the shadows. Livingston exchanged questioning glances with Alpha.
"Password?" The man in the shadows asked. He sounded like a three pack a day smoker.
"Sesquiplicate." Alpha hoped he was saying it correctly.
"What does that mean?" Livingston asked quietly.
"In a ratio of three to two."
The bottom half of the door swung open with a wrenching squeal and Alpha nudged his head in the direction of the dark hall and entered with Livingston right behind him. The doorman had vanished and the only light in the hall was seeping out from under a closed door. They shut the front door behind them, which wrapped them in darkness. The house smelled stale and specifically of the hot scent of baking dust on a light bulb.
Alpha felt his way along the rough surface of the wall until they reached the closed door. Livingston walked right into his back and let out a high-pitched giggle. Seriously. He'd never heard Livingston make a noise like that--hadn't even suspected he could. Alpha fumbled for the knob and opened it. He blinked and looked over his shoulder at Livingston, whose pupils shrank in the sudden bright light. The room was empty except for a small brown leather suitcase dead in the middle of the room. The bare bulb had one of those cheap metal pull chains made out of little silver balls.
"Wait, is that mine?" Livingston approached the suitcase and reached for the zipper. They were both squatting in front of it.
"Don't." Alpha swatted at Livingston's hands.
"It might be rigged."
"Really?" Livingston looked at his suitcase with new respect and he didn't ask stupid questions, he just threw himself into the spirit of the game. "What do we do?"
"Examine it carefully for trip wires or booby traps." Alpha squinted at the zipper and all around the bottom edge where the piping met the floor. Livingston followed his lead.
"I don't see anything. Do you think it's safe?" Livingston was so easy to please in some ways—it was one of the things Alpha liked best about him. He was so earnest that it was refreshing.
"Try the zipper, but go nice and slow."
Livingston reached for the zipper, darted a glance at Alpha before he touched it and then moved slowly like he was diffusing an unexploded bomb. When the zipper was half way round the case something twanged and they both flinched at the loud crack, followed by a puff of acrid smoke. Alpha was more than a little startled and he'd been expecting something like that. Livingston had his hand over his heart, like he was a delicate old lady about to succumb to the vapors. He nearly made a crack about smelling salts, but refrained since he was trying to mend fences.
"Go on," he said when Livingston didn't try the zipper again.
Livingston steeled himself and opened the zipper completely. He flipped the case open, but jumped back just in case. Nothing happened.
"Are those my clothes?" Livingston pulled out a pair of his pants and then looked underneath. "Wait? Are these your clothes? Hey. There's an envelope."
"Go on. Open it." Alpha had to give Timothy and Minh credit. They'd done an excellent job with this setup. He'd helped them here and there—given them ideas and made suggestions for improvement. They'd offered him this trial run through their game as recompense.
Livingston perused and then handed Alpha the note, which was typed (like on an actual typewriter) on blue airmail paper.
Change your clothes. There is a van passing by at the end of the street. Catch it. Do not attempt to speak to the driver. Await further instructions.
The quickly changed into to dark shirts and pants, things that could withstand mess better than what they'd worn to dinner. Livingston was practically dancing as Alpha tied his other sneaker.
"Come on. It said we needed to hurry." Honest to God, it looked like Livingston needed to pee.
"It didn't say to hurry." Alpha knew it was fine to leave their discarded clothes in the suitcase and followed Livingston back out onto the dead end street.
"It said a van was passing by. Not that it was waiting. We could miss it." Livingston picked up his pace, nearly jogging. Alpha would have rolled his eyes at another time, but he was too damn happy that Livingston was enjoying himself.
When they reached the corner a plain white van slowed down, but didn't stop. The side door was wide open and Alpha jumped in, quickly followed by Livingston. They slammed the door shut and the van sped off.
Livingston periodically asked Alpha in a whisper where they were going. Alpha shrugged. He actually had no idea where they were headed or what the parameters of the game were. There were no seats in the back of the van so they were both leaning against the sidewall. The carpet smelled like boiled artichokes, which seemed like an unlikely smell to find in a van.
"I don't know anymore than you do." Which wasn't exactly true, but true enough. "Is it just me, or does it smell like artichokes in here?"
"Now that you mention it…" Livingston sniffed and then nodded.
They both snuck looks at the driver who wore a baseball cap, pulled low. It was difficult to see his face and he didn't say a word to them. He drove them to a side street in East Boston, somewhere out near the airport. He stopped the van and opened the cargo door, waving for them to get out. He kept his head down and they couldn't see his expression or any of his features.
Livingston climbed out and Alpha followed. The van sped off as soon as they slid the door closed. They looked around for some sign of where the hell they were or what they were supposed to do next.
"Do you think we're supposed to go in?" Livingston pointed at the Dunkin Donuts in front of them.
"I sincerely hope not. Their coffee is a crime against nature. It's sour. Good coffee shouldn't be sour." Alpha peered down the street, trying to spot a clue or at least a direction to head in. He shoved his hands in his pockets to keep them from completely freezing.
The only person out and about was a homeless guy in a shapeless brown coat. He was rattling a stained paper coffee cup full of change—his eyes were flat and empty. He didn't even seem to see Alpha or Livingston standing in front of him at all.
"Give him a buck." Alpha nudged Livingston with his elbow.
Livingston complied and the man's absent stare came into focus. He smiled a gap-toothed, brown smile and said, "God bless."
Because he'd had politeness drilled into him as a child, Livingston smiled back, but before he could step back next to Alpha the man tapped his arm and said, "God helps those who help themselves."
Which was kind of weird thing for a homeless panhandler to say. It must be a clue. They could head right or left. Alpha plucked at Livingston's sleeve and said, "Come on."
He explained his theory and within a block they stumbled across a small Catholic church: St. Eugene's. The large wooden doors were unlocked and groaned when Alpha pulled one open. They stepped into the very dimly lit entryway. The church appeared to be empty and Alpha shivered. There was something about empty dark churches that disconcerts.
Footsteps echoed in the nave—Alpha and Livingston were quick enough to catch sight of the back of someone dressed in black diving into the priest's side of the confessional.
"I'll follow your lead since this is your bailiwick. I don't even know what to do in a Presbyterian Church, never mind here."
Alpha opened the red curtain and both guys managed to squeeze into the booth though he was practically sitting on Livingston's lap, which would delight Frankie to no end.
The screen in between booths shushed open and the person on the other side said, "May the Lord be in our hearts to help you make a good confession."
It was too dark to see who the man was, or if he was really priest. Alpha wasn't thrilled that he might truly be making confession while seated on Matthew's Livingston's knees.
He took a deep breath. He'd only ever done this twice before and only because his grandmother insisted he make his confirmation. She was convinced he'd be going to hell otherwise. He was going to have words with Timothy and Minh for making this part of the game. "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been about six years since my last Confession. I've taken the Lord's name in vain, sworn, been angry, and been envious. I've lied. Um…"
"Those are heavy sins, indeed. Ten Hail Mary's, four Acts of Contrition, and one hundred and twenty-five Our Father's."
Alpha and the priest repeated the Act of Contrition together and the priest said, "Your sins are forgiven. Go in peace."
"Thanks be to God," Alpha muttered. He heard the person on the other side of the screen actually running away. As far as he knew priests didn't run. It took Alpha and Livingston a few moments to extricate themselves and before Alpha could say a word there was a resounding click and the few lights went out, plunging them into darkness.
"OK, now what?" Livingston asked. His voice was steady, but Alpha could tell he was just as unhappy out about being in a dark church late at night. You could almost feel things creeping out of the corners, waiting to wrap themselves around your ankles and drag you down.
Alpha's eyes adjusted somewhat and he saw a vague flickering in the distance. There were lit votive candles on the same side of the aisle they were standing on. He told Livingston to follow him and they felt their way along the stone wall until they reached the black iron stand, which was caked and spattered with candle drippings in a kind of Jackson Pollock spatter pattern. Alpha grabbed three of the new, unlit votives and lit them. Livingston followed suit. Their small bubble of yellow light barely pierced the gloom of the church, but it was better than nothing.
"Was what he said a clue? The prayers you're supposed to say? Or do you think you actually have to say all those prayers?"
"Yeah. It's got to be a clue. I can't imagine having to say a hundred and twenty-five Our Father's." Alpha scratched his chin. "Ten Hail Marys. Four Acts of Contrition. A hundred twenty-five Our Fathers. I think they're directions, like feet or footsteps, or stones in the floor. Maybe we should go back to the confessional and count our steps?"
They tried it, but they ended up in the middle of the central aisle, where there was nothing.
"What if the ten, means ten pews?" Livingston offered.
"Good call." They started at the front, counted ten pews back and moved into the seat about where a fourth person from the aisle would sit. There was a hymnal in the pocket in front of them. Alpha nodded at it. Livingston set his candles down on the scuffed wooden pew and opened the book to page one twenty-five, but there was nothing there—no note, nothing written on the page. The hymn "I am the Bread of Life" did not offer any clues either. Alpha sincerely hoped the next clue wasn’t coded in the music notes. Neither he nor Livingston could carry a tune, or read music. The examined all the hymnals in the pew, but they were all unhelpful.
"Maybe we need to count from the back?" Livingston suggested.
It was worth a try. They carried their cache of flickering candles to the bottom of the aisle and counted forwards and tried the fourth hymnal. There was nothing in the book, but Livingston spotted words scrawled in faint pencil in the right margin.
"On the altar there is a large Bible. Remove what's in it. Follow the instructions."
They grabbed their candles and hurried up to the altar, where there was a large gilt edged Bible on a podium. Livingston opened it to find the pages had been cut away so that the book was essentially a box. Livingston gasped because there were two black revolvers inside and another note on airmail paper. The guns had heft. They did not feel like fakes. Jeez. What kind of reality were they going for here? And where the hell were they supposed to put guns? It's not like walking around with a gun makes you inconspicuous.
The note said:
Hope you don't have hydrophobia. Warehouse 45. Do not be seen
Livingston made Alpha return the votives to the stand before they left the church. Alpha insisted the guns were not real, or didn't contain live ammunition and convinced Livingston to tuck his in waistband. He hoped he was right. Timothy could be a nutball, but he was smart enough to avoid liabilities like people shooting their junk off. He might be an MIT dropout, but he had gotten into MIT. So.
"Hope you don't have hydrophobia?" Livingston repeated.
"I guess they want us to head for the water, but in which direction? There's a lot of shoreline around here."
They decided to walk in the same direction as the church and when they hit the inlet just north of where the Charles River empties into the Atlantic Ocean, they found a skiff tied up. The water was a calm black, dotted with balls of light. It wasn't a great distance to the far shore. Logan Airport was at their backs, which must mean they were heading towards Charlestown. Alpha knew two things about Charlestown—it was where the Battle of Bunker Hill was fought so there was a big phallic monument there, and it was a good bet your car might be stolen there and taken on an oxycontin run if you parked it there.
"Don't be seen," Livingston repeated thoughtfully.
Both of them were wearing black and the skiff was dark gray, but the oars had reflective stripes on them, which was odd. They were too far down near the blades to cover them with their hands when rowing.
"How careful do you think we need to be about being seen?" Livingston whispered, looking around nervously for some sign that they were being watched.
"Not sure. We should probably be careful about it though."
"We should cover up the reflective strips then." Livingston knelt and felt the sand. It was hard packed and not muddy. "Give me your knife."
Alpha slipped his Buck knife out of his front right pocket and watched Livingston use it to cut the cuffs off his long sleeved shirt, tying the fabric strips tightly over the reflective stripes on the oar handles. Nice.
"I'll row," Livingston said and held out his hands for the oars. He seated himself and Alpha pushed the small boat off the shore and sighed before stepping into the frigid water and climbing into the boat. He probably should have taken his shoes and socks off first. Tactical error and he had a feeling it might be one of many.
Livingston rowed them quietly across the dark water to the far shore, basically across the water that separates East Boston from Boston proper and Charlestown to the north. Alpha offered to take a turn at the oars, but Livingston seemed to enjoy rowing. Masochist. They found an unlit spot to tie up the boat.
They had to climb up some pilings and found themselves in a large, brightly lit parking lot. The buildings that might be warehouses were about two hundred yards away.
"We should dodge behind cars, yeah?" Livingston bounced on the balls of his feet again. He was totally jazzed. Alpha would be if his feet weren't so squelchy. He was going to leave a trail of footprints, but there wasn't much he could do about that. He was not going barefoot.
They crouched down and ducked from shadow to shadow between cars. Alpha almost ran out into the lit space between the last of the cars and the first warehouse, but Livingston hauled him back just in time.
"Someone's coming. And besides we need intel. We don't know if that's even the right warehouse."
Intel? They were starting to sound like a bad spy film. It was awesome. Livingston located the warehouse number—it was forty-three. They continued to use the cars to shield them from sight and made their way to the left, stopping every couple of cars to look around and listen for people, crouching down to hide from two separate passers by. Then their luck ran out. The warehouses went straight back and not to the sides. They'd have to leave the protection of the shadows and cross about thirty feet of well-lit asphalt.
They waited for the area to be empty as far as they could see and sprinted up the left side of the building.
"OK. Is it just me? Or is it really starting to feel like someone is following us?"
"It's not just you," Livingston said, darting a glance over his shoulder. Livingston looked tense, ready to spring. What a fucking maniac.
They reached warehouse forty-five and entered through an unmarked red door that squealed loudly when the pushed it open, making both of them cringe.
The hall was dimly lit and they were startled to see a woman in a black suit and crisp white shirt waiting for them, holding a clipboard. She was making notes and didn't look up. Alpha and Livingston exchanged amused looks because the woman was tall, blond, and gorgeous. Alpha might be in love with Frankie, but he wasn't dead.
The woman peered at them through a pair of rectangular framed glasses and said, "You're late. Follow me. We don't have much time."
They scurried after her down a maze of corridors and went through a non-descript door, which she opened. She hurried them inside and closed the door behind her.
There was a harried looking man sitting at a rickety folding table. He gestured for them to be seated in the two beat-up brown folding chairs across from him.
"I'm Burdock. What do you have to report?" He tapped some manila file folders into line. His gray mustache was trimmed a little too far above his upper lip and have him the look of a bored rabbit.
"Where's Fielding?" Livingston asked.
"You never report to Fielding. You report to me. Come now. Have you forgotten your training already?"
Livingston glanced at Alpha with big round eyes. Making stuff up on the fly was not his forte and Alpha knew it was up to him.
"No, of course we haven't forgotten. Everything is fine. We rendezvoused with the priest at St. Eugene's and then made our way here by rowboat. No one saw us."
"Good work." The man didn’t smile, or look anything other than blank. He pushed the stack of folders toward them. "This is everything we know. You have fifteen minutes to digest the material and come up with a plan."
The man set two bottles of water on the table and both he and the blonde woman left them alone under the fluorescent lights, one of which was buzzing and dimming periodically. Very atmospheric.
Livingston opened the top folder and placed it between them so that Alpha could see its contents too. Inside was a kind of dossier, Alpha guessed, never having really seen one outside of movies and TV shows.
It described a man suspected of running a crime syndicate, that in turn funded a guerilla faction in the region of a country that neither Alpha nor Livingston had ever heard of. The heads of the organization were meeting tonight and Alpha and Livingston were expected to infiltrate the ring and find out enough to bring them down.
"How the hell do we do that?" Livingston furrowed his brows.
For a moment Alpha wished he had his phone. Frankie would probably have some stoke of genius about how to approach the problem, but pointing that out to Livingston was probably unwise for several reasons. Her craftiness was likely still a sore spot for the guy and it was moot since they couldn't call her anyway. Besides they were two relatively intelligent people. They could figure this out. Right?
He drew a blank. What had Frankie done? She'd tailed Matthew, eavesdropped on secret Basset meetings, and then come up with an ingenuous way to take them over without anyone cottoning on. How hard could that be?
Two hours later they had their answer. Hard. They'd failed to successfully infiltrate and find enough evidence to break up the syndicate. It had taken them forty-five minutes just to find the meeting in the maze of hallways. When they realized all hope was gone, Livingston had suggested they shoot their way out of the room and just make a run for it. He aimed and fired. The gun was rigged so that it jerked like it was actual recoiling and emitted a loudly convincing gunshot, but all it actually "shot" was a green laser. If you hit someone, a spot on their clothing lit up and they crumpled to the floor or slumped over.
Livingston had shot the interpreter, but Alpha had a feeling his shot had gone wide and he'd missed whomever he'd been aiming at—probably the head, the capo, the boss, whatever they called them in the made up country.
Alpha was too busy cracking up, bent double after Livingston's girlish shriek when the gunshot rang out to say anything. Livingston had dropped the gun like it was on fire and for a split second it was clear that he actually thought he'd shot someone, which made Alpha laugh harder. Hysterical laughter kind of ruined the feeling of being immersed in the game, especially when someone was fake shot and pretending to be dead at their feet.
A buzzer sounded and all the bad guys broke into chatter. The dead guy got up off the floor. Timothy and Minh came into the room and patted Alpha on the back, both grinning like mad. Timothy looked exhausted, dark circles under his eyes and several days of stubble on his face. Minh, on the other hand, looked as neat and dapper as ever.
Alpha wiped the tears from his eyes and introduced his friends to Livingston and then let them take over explaining the game concept and aspects of the dress rehearsal.
Several of the "criminals" returned carrying a cooler full of cold beer and everyone took one and sat down to run a game post-mortem.
"So was that a normal game?" Alpha twisted the cap off an IPA.
"Well…" Minh looked at Timothy.
"Not entirely. We sort of tried all the bells and whistles out on you to see what would happen. Also we'd normally have players fill out forms and answer questions, not to mention sign waivers. We'd tailor their game to their responses." Timothy took a swig of the beer he'd been using to gesture with.
"Oh, and there are different levels of game play. There are easier, shorter packages available and more complex, longer packages too. The longer packages include more locations, harder puzzles, and more difficult assignments."
"So what did you just put us through? What level?" Livingston still hadn't picked up his fake gun. Alpha thought he was pretending the shriek had never happened.
"Kind of a mid-level. Not too hard, not too easy. It included just about as many locations as the full package, but we didn't give you’re the hardest puzzles since we knew you were going into this blind. That was Alpha's idea. He thought you'd get a bang out of it."
Livingston laughed. "I did. It was excellent. I had no idea what the hell was going on at first. I thought we were going to buy drugs and that seemed kind of weird and out of character for Alpha, but then you never know what madness he's going to get up to."
Alpha didn't deserve such praise, but he wasn't about to point that out. Ignore the man behind the curtain was a fine motto.
"What was up with the Catholic Church? Is that going to be standard, because it was pretty strange? What about all the non-Catholics who are going to be totally confused and kind of weirded out by fake confession? And was that really a priest?"
"No." Timothy shook his head.
Minh talked over him. "I've totally been on the fence about the church since the beginning, but it's atmospheric, right?"
"Absolutely," Livingston said. "It made my skin crawl, especially when the lights went out. Very Da Vinci Code."
"We got an excellent deal on the rent. It's not a real church anymore. And the guy who took your confession isn't a priest. He's an actor. I think he might be Jewish, or maybe a Buddhist." Timothy looked over his shoulder and called, "Hey, Larry? Are you Jewish?"
"Not practicing," Larry said. "I'm about as Jewish as a ham and cheese sandwich on white bread."
Timothy scratched his stubble. "We'll have to think about it. Bringing the Catholic factor into the game is interesting and the church is totally unnerving in the dark, but I think some people might be offended or too uncomfortable to get into the spirit of the game, you know? But not everyone who loves Dan Brown is Catholic, or even Christian, so there's that."
Alpha wasn't offended. He didn't give a rat's ass about the Catholic Church. As far as he was concerned they were done with each other. He'd never have gone if his grandmother hadn't guilted him into it, but old Italian ladies can be super manipulative and very bossy. Also they can bribe you with delicious food.
The group mulled over how to ease people into their assignments, which was a rough spot in the game and had obviously been a problem for Alpha and Livingston. Timothy geeked out about all the high tech equipment they could hand out to players like infrared heat signature scanners. Minh argued about keeping costs down and being realistic. They bickered like an old married couple.
"Whose responsible for theses guns?" Alpha took his from the waistband of his pants and looked at it. It looked like a real gun. He'd seen a few in his day, but not that many. The Manhattan he'd grown up in was pretty damn sheltered and privileged, but it was still New York City and rich kids there are just as stupid as anyone else.
"Minh. He took some used Glock nine millimeters and tinkered with them. They can't fire ammunition anymore, but Minh figured how to get them to recoil mechanically, and give a convincing report. The lasers were the easy part." Timothy flapped his hand at Minh, who looked slightly abashed. He'd always been a little shy, likely to laugh off praise or credit.
It was four am by the time they finished shooting the shit and everyone was ready to drop where they sat. Timothy had a car standing by to ferry Alpha and Livingston back to their dorm, which was also not part of their usual service, but they were really grateful for all the feedback and for their willing guinea pigs. The driver handed them the items they'd left at house in Beacon Hill when he dropped them off.
Livingston looked tired, but happy. He stopped outside Alpha's door and said, "Thanks, man. That was truly amazing. I'm really glad we're hanging out again."
"Me too." Alpha playfully swatted Livingston in the ass and told him to get to bed already.
Alpha slept until noon and awoke to his phone vibrating itself nearly off the edge of his desk. It was kind of weird to wake up alone. He didn't do that much anymore.
He grabbed his phone and texted Frankie back that he was awake and he needed coffee and a shower and then he'd come find her and where the hell was she anyway.
He agreed to meet her in her room. She was pacing when he arrived and that set his teeth on edge. She was not a pacer.
"What's up?" He leaned in the doorway, not sure if it was safe to enter.
"My father." And that was all she said.
"Is he all right? Did he have a heart attack or something?"
"No. He wants to have dinner on Thursday." Frankie looked at him apologetically. "I'm sorry. Zada told him all about you and he wants to meet you."
"It's weird. Isn't it weird? Has your mom ever met any of your girlfriends?" She stopped pacing.
"Not on purpose, but she bumped into one or two accidentally. Thanks to the joys of boarding school she never knew most of them existed."
Frankie flopped on her bed and made a disgusted noise. "I don't know how to explain. My relationship with my father is superficial at best. I don't really know him and I severely doubt he gets me. Since your senior year he's been very distant with me. He was a Basset too. I actually knew where to find the Disreputable History because of things he and his friends said at dinner when they were kind of drunk."
"You know I've wondered about that. It's bugged me for years. I just thought you were a criminal genius, which granted, you kind of are, but you also cheated." Alpha sat down next to her and patted her leg. "I still don't see what the big deal is. We'll have dinner with your father and I'll be charming. He'll love me."
"That's not what I'm worried about. It's me. I don't think he really likes me. He's never known how to talk to me. He's always wished I was a boy." She covered her face with her hands.
"Well, I can definitively state that I am very glad you are not a dude and if your father can't see how stupidly amazing you are—then he's an idiot." Alpha pried her hands off her face. It was unusual to see her so flustered, and kind of endearing. "Hey. Aren't you glad to see me?"
"Oh, sorry." She wrapped her arms around his neck and drew him down for a kiss. "Yes. I am glad to see you. Tell me all about your man date."
Alpha sat up, leaned his back against the wall, and recounted the whole adventure for her in great detail, which she soaked right up.
"That sounds like so much fun. I want to go."
"I'll take you the next time they need guinea pigs, which should be soon. They're retooling the whole thing."
"You'll really come to dinner with my father? It's bound to be boring as hell."
"Frankie, I'll go with you. It will be fine. From everything you've told me about him I know his type. WASP. Harvard legacy, but smart. He's an old boy—what do you call it? The Kyriarchy?"
She laughed and said, "I'll make a feminist of you yet."
He gave a long-suffering sigh that seemed to travel up from his knees by way of Hoboken, NJ. "Look, you can call me that in private, but if you do it in public? Remember, I know where you sleep."
The night of the dreaded dinner Frankie tried on four outfits, two pairs of shoes, and three different hairstyles. And then Alpha got fed up and threatened to carry her across Harvard Square in her underwear. She never acted like this and he didn't like it, but he wasn't going to tell her she didn't have the right to be emotionally complicated and occasionally insecure. He also knew that it meant something, that she let him see it, that she trusted him that much.
She glared at him, but climbed back into the first outfit and the second pair of shoes. Alpha tugged her out the door. In the elevator he drew her into his arms and said, "You look beautiful. You always look beautiful."
She looked oddly perplexed by his compliment, but she didn't explain. OK, so he was super careful about what he said to her, cautious not to slip up and say too much, but maybe he was erring on the side of caution a little too heavily if she looked gob smacked by a compliment.
Tension came off her in waves as they walked to the restaurant on Brattle Street. He held her hand and tried to distract her. When that didn't help, he gave her a pep talk worthy of Knute Rockne. She still looked freaked, so he held her hand tight and let her be freaked. Sometimes there's just no fixing something and you have to let someone you care about suffer. But it sucks.
They found her father was waiting at the bar nursing a scotch. He was exactly what Alpha had expected—a trim, nice looking, middle-aged guy in an expensive jacket. Paul Stuart if he had to guess.
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Dr. Banks." He returned the man's firm handshake after Frankie had introduced them—stumbling over his actual name and then hurriedly explaining that no one ever used it.
"Very pleased to meet you, Alpha. Our table is ready. Shall we?" He gestured for Frankie to go first and when she walked by him with her gaze averted, Alpha saw the pained look on her father's face. He wasn't sure what it meant, but their relationship was a mess. It's not like Alpha had grown up with a father, so hell if he knew how that bond was supposed to work. His mother's boyfriend had been little more than a bank account to him and she'd never told him much about his father. Alpha had never even met the man. His father hadn't been interested, which was fine. You can't miss someone you've never met.
They sat and chatted about the menu, the weather, and everyone's health. Alpha was ready to let his head thunk against the bread plate for a change of topic.
"Frankie tells me you were a Basset too." He knew it was a risky gambit, but he didn't really think anything could make the conversation more stilted.
Dr. Banks blinked at him, glanced quickly at his daughter, and nodded. "I was. Some of the happiest days of my life. I hear you were tapped to be King, but you ended up sharing the honor?"
Alpha explained his year away from Alabaster without going into too much detail and then what happened when he returned.
"But you were dating then? Dating Frankie?" Dr. Banks finished off his scotch, the ice clinking in the glass.
"No. That was Matthew Livingston, uh, he was the other Basset King. I was the one she almost got expelled for impersonating."
Dr. Banks looked at his daughter as if he'd never seen her before and she was a peculiar breed of tree frog. Interesting, but possibly poisonous. "Why?"
Alpha was pretty sure the question had slipped out of the man's mouth without his consent. Frankie stiffened next to him and Alpha reached for her hand.
"I don't know why she did it," Alpha said, purposely misunderstanding.
"No. I meant why are you dating my daughter?" He motioned at the waiter for another scotch.
Frankie looked so miserable that Alpha's gut twisted up and he felt like punching her father for putting that look on her face.
"Are you serious? With all due respect, sir. Frankie is the smartest, funniest, most gorgeous woman I have ever known. She's sometimes a little too clever for her own good, but I think she's learned some hard lessons over the last few years. Right after the Basset stuff happened she wasn't exactly my favorite person in the world, but I got over it." Alpha took a sip of water and looked Dr. Banks dead in the eye and added, "And I'm in love with her."
Frankie flailed and knocked her knife to the floor with a clatter when she shifted violently in her seat. She only remained in her seat when she dove under the table to retrieve it because Alpha anchored her in place.
When she surfaced she gaped at him and said, "Pardon. I don't think—"
"No. You heard me correctly." He looked back at her father.
Dr. Banks cleared his throat. "Yes. Well. I've always known she was special. Very bright." He was still wary of his daughter and he'd probably dismissed Frankie as a sweet girl, though rather bright. From what she'd said everyone else had too before his senior year at Alabaster. The reality of her mind and her proclivities had no doubt come as a shock to everyone who'd known her. Well, not to him. Alpha had suspected. He'd been the only one who had, but he'd strongly suspected her. Livingston had been so certain it wasn't possible.
"It's too bad the Bassets were a casualty of the whole affair, but I'm very glad you weren't expelled." Dr. Banks took a long sip of his fresh scotch. He was grasping at straws to keep the conversation cool.
"I've heard that the students started a new secret society. One allows both men and women. I sometimes think that if we'd just let Frankie join the damn Bassets in the first place we wouldn't have had any problem. She'd have been a great asset to us. Her ideas were brilliant. At least we went out in a blaze of glory."
Frankie's father nodded, but he clearly didn't see any benefit to the new club, which had no long-standing tradition. Alpha felt slightly drunk from admitting so much out loud. He'd just told Frankie's father, and by extension Frankie, that he loved her. He'd actually said it. It hadn't crushed the life out of him. He felt good about it, like a pressure release valve had been opened.
He wasn't sure what Frankie was thinking or feeling. She still looked rigidly uncomfortable, gripping her hands together in her lap as tightly as if she were trying to keep water from leaking out through the cracks. He placed his hand palm up on her knee and was relieved when she slipped one of her cold hands into his grasp.
"I wish you'd let Dr. Fenster take a look at your scar, Bun… " Her father shook his head as if to clear it. "Frankie."
"I've explained that already. I'm not interested in removing the scar." She looked at the man defiantly and Alpha felt kind of bad for the guy. His daughters were so far beyond his comprehension it was almost comical.
Her father turned the conversation to their course work, a subject got them through their entrees. Thank God the man was actually interested in what courses his daughter was taking and what clubs she was joining. He paid attention and asked her questions. They were a bit easier now. Maybe the bull in the china shop approach had been the right move, but it could have backfired horribly. If Frankie were furious with him later, he'd understand.
Over dessert, Alpha asked about Dr. Banks' work and was relieved to see he didn't order anymore scotch. Scotch made some people assholes when they drank too much of it. It tended to make Alpha belligerent and he avoided it. He also thought it tasted a lot like perfume.
At the entrance of the restaurant, Dr. Banks shook Alpha's hand again and embraced Frankie, kissing her temple. Alpha caught his murmured words to her. "I'm always around if you need anything, Bunny Rabbit."
She looked startled by that but managed to say, "Thanks, dad."
They thanked him for dinner and walked back out into the Cambridge evening, buttoning up their coats as they went. They stopped in front of The Brattle Theatre, which is this revival theatre that shows old movies, and independent films. They used real actual butter on their popcorn, and that had earned Alpha's undying love.
Frankie read through the upcoming movies on the schedule posted outside and after a minute or two she turned to him and just stared at him, waiting.
"Look. I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable. I was just so indignant on your behalf." He was still holding her hand and she didn't try to pull away, but she didn't say anything.
"Have I really rendered you speechless? I think I need to Tweet this." He took his phone out of his pocket.
She almost smiled and what she said was unexpected. "I'm sorry."
He waited and just let her process whatever she needed to say.
"I—I think I'm supposed to say it back, but I can't. Not because I don't, but just because I don't know for certain. How do you know?" She sounded anguished.
"It's OK and strangely enough, Livingston told me I was and the morning after he got your drunk at the Finals Club dinner—I knew it was true."
"Am I supposed to just know?" She was trembling, her mouth unsure what to do with itself.
He took her face in both her hands and kissed her. "I have no fucking clue. I doubt it's the same for everyone. I didn't say it to make you say it back. I said it to shut your father up, which might be kind of a terrible reason, but I couldn't help myself."
"He liked you for it," she said. "You managed to beat the emotional crap out of him and charm him at the same time." She shook her head in disbelief.
"What can I say? I'm a man of many talents."
She glanced up at him. She was carefully weighing her words before saying them, but he thought it was because she was afraid of saying something hurtful, and not because she wanted to sound clever, which was her usual MO. She'd make an excellent politician, or a really good master criminal, or maybe, possibly a deadly spy. She said, "I do care. I do feel something. A lot of something. I just don't know what to call it yet."
"That's good enough for me. There's no rush." He slipped his arms around her and drew her close right in the middle of Brattle Street and didn't give a fuck who saw them. He was still one hundred percent certain he wasn't a mushball. Well, almost a hundred percent.
She gave a strangled sob, or maybe a laugh against his chest. "My father hugged me. He even kissed me. He was nice to me for the first time in ages."
"Bunny Rabbit?" Even though she winced--he had to ask.
Arms linked, they fell into step again and headed toward her dorm, by way of JFK Street. She continued, "When I was little that was my family nickname. Go ahead. You can laugh. That's how my family saw me—as a harmless, fluffy, brainless creature who needed to be protected, sheltered from everything. It got even worse after my parents divorced because my mom is a worry-wort. Though right before I met you she was at her most insufferable. I went from flat chested to," she gestured at her torso, "this in a summer. It kind of changed the way most of the male species looked at me. Though honestly it was more like I suddenly became visible. The day I met you my mother freaked out because I wanted to walk into town and was sure I'd be attacked or something. So I walked up the boardwalk instead."
"And met me." He swung her hand in his. "I know you're not going to like this, but if you were my kid I wouldn't have let you out of the house dressed like that."
"I'm not your kid." She smirked.
"And I thank God for that, even though it would be some kind of miracle—fathering a child at the age of two. But as your boyfriend I can't say I minded your lack of clothing at all."
"Why are you being so sweet to me? I'm not sure I deserve it."
He'd never been able to see it before, but Frankie was a little like her father. She had a poised wry surface that she presented to the world, but underneath she was just like everyone else. OK, maybe she wasn't like everyone else, but she had fears and insecurities.
"I don't do it because you deserve it, which you do. I do it because it makes you happy and that makes me happy. Oh, shit." He groaned and stopped dead in the middle of the sidewalk, forcing the group walking behind them to step into the street.
"What? Did you forget something? Do we need to go back to the--" Frankie turned to head back to the restaurant.
"No. It's finally happened. You've ruined me. I'm being mushy." He was half joking and half truly disgusted.
"Sorry?" Her expression edged closer to a real smile.
"It's my fault. I should have seen it coming. Maybe there's a support group I can join."
"That's a terrible idea." She pulled his face down and kissed him. "I like you the way are."
"Can we please go up to your room and have really loud, acrobatic sex so I can forget what I've been reduced to? I'm but a shell of my former magnificence."
She was able to laugh again and the spark was back in her eyes. He'd told her he loved her and no one had died. It's not like he was going to make a habit of saying it all the damn time.
Over winter break they saw each other as often as they could, several times a week at the very least. It was easy enough for Frankie to escape into the city. And several times Alpha braved the PATH train into Jersey. He'd sold his old Volvo years ago. They both chaffed at parental restrictions and were annoyed that they were forced to say goodnight each night and sleep separately.
Frankie's mother had been uncertain about Alpha when they'd first met, but she warmed to him over the break and even hugged him goodbye on the last day before they returned to Cambridge. Zada had only come home for a few days. She was fine with him, but did take him aside at one point and to warn him that if he broke Frankie's heart he'd have lots of loud angry Jewish women on his case.
"You know I couldn't imagine you two together when Frankie first told me about it, but I see it now. You're kind of perfect for each other."
Alpha just nodded and there was nothing he could say without sounding ridiculous.
Spring semester progressed rapidly and Alpha began to worry about how he was going to spend his summer break. Sheehan had indicated during the fall semester that he might have the grant money to take Alpha with him on a research trip for the whole summer, but Sheehan emailed Alpha in early March to say that he hadn't gotten the grant and therefore could not pay Alpha for the summer or take him along to Chechnya and Moscow.
Frankie had scored a coveted spot as a summer intern (unpaid) at a prestigious, but tiny non-profit law firm, which specialized in environmental law. If anyone had told him he was going to fall in love with a devious, tree-hugging, vegetarian, who'd almost ruined his life he would have told them that they were barking.
And then everything in his life changed very suddenly as if he'd walked off a cliff he hadn't seen until it was too late and he was plummeting towards certain death, unable to do anything about it, but wait for the sickening splat.
It started with an email from Hinckley's father, asking Alpha to call when he had the time and privacy to talk about an opportunity. He'd met Hinckley Senior at the Finals Club mixer held over parents' weekend, but they'd had only a few minutes to talk before Hinckley Sr. was whisked away by fellow alumni.
He decided it was best not to tell Frankie about the email, or his hopes, until he knew if there really was an opportunity. He also wasn't sure this opportunity would be the kind of thing he could tell anyone about. He disliked keeping secrets from Frankie, but he'd do it if he had too. He'd be a liar if he denied that he got a kick out of the prospect of working for the most elite and secretive intelligence branch, so secret it didn't even have an official name. People referred to it as the "Organization."
Alpha had to call three times before he managed to get through to Hinckley's assistant and was finally transferred to the man's office phone.
"Alessandro, how are you? Though everyone calls you Alpha, don't they?"
"Yes, sir. I'm fine. And you?"
"Busy as sin. I'd like to see you in person. I can send you a plane ticket for the day after your semester ends. We'll put you up in a hotel. You just need to show up. I can't tell you any more unless I do it in person."
He did not need to think about it. His heart was racing like mad, but he managed to keep his voice cool. "All right. I'll be there."
"Good. My assistant will take your pertinent information and handle the arrangements. She'll give you all the details. And please don't tell anyone you're meeting with me. I'm sure you understand why."
"I do. Thank you, sir."
"I'm looking forward to speaking with you, Alpha. See you in a few months." Hinckley rang off.
Alpha stared at his cell phone for a while and didn't know what to think, or what to feel, or quite what to do. Partially because he had no idea what Hinckley was going to propose. It could be something for after he graduated, which would not help him at all this summer. He needed to work and make some money, but he wanted to do something important—something that pushed him further along his future path. He'd been hoping, secretly, praying for this call. If all went well they would offer him something to do starting this summer, but he had no idea what he'd tell Frankie.
They both elected to remain in Cambridge over spring break. Alpha had work to do and could not face two weeks at home with his mother and he did not want to crash with Livingston again. He knew Frankie stayed because of him, but he couldn't say he minded. It would have been nice to go somewhere, but neither of them could afford it. Though he did borrow a friend's car to drag her out to Walden Pond for a walk one day. Everything smelled clean and new—like the very cusp of spring. It wasn't really a smell you got to experience in the city so it always seemed a bit novel.
Half way around the pond they had a fight. Not just a fight. A blow out. They'd never argued like that before. It wasn't even about something important, but Frankie seemed to know instinctually that Alpha was keeping something from her, and was being oddly vague about his summer plans.
But the argument was over whether some vegetables have an advanced enough nervous system to feel pain or not and really who the fuck cares. Apparently Frankie thought it was possible and he told her she was being ridiculous. He said every single thing he could to rile her up, punched every button. She stormed ahead on the path and he stood there for some time just looking out at the pond and wondering if he'd just sabotaged his relationship to make whatever was coming easier, to put himself in a position from which he wouldn't have to lie to her.
She was leaning against the car staring at her sneakers when he caught up. He could tell that one tiny spark would send her up in flames so he approached her carefully from the side and apologized. "I'm sorry. I don't even know why I was arguing with you. I was out of line."
She nodded. He thought she might have been crying, or near crying. Something inside him snapped and ached. He could really have used a fucking cigarette, but he'd given them up.
"Alpha, what's going on?" she looked at him and waited.
"I just have a lot on my mind. It's nothing to do with you."
She winced. "So what is it to do with?"
He couldn't tell her. So he lied. "Sheehan told me this morning that he got an unexpected grant. I'm not supposed to say anything yet, but I'll probably be traveling with him this summer—meeting with the groups we've been researching. I'll just be observing and taking notes."
"Oh." She kicked a pebble and it bounced off the rear tire of the car parked next to them.
The worst meal he'd ever had the displeasure to eat had been at a dive in Korea Town, where there was excellent food to be had, but the place they'd gone? Not so much. It had closed down for health code violations a week later and Alpha was not at all surprised. The soup had tasted suspiciously soapy, almost dingy. He'd never actually tasted anything dingy before, but it was immediately identifiable. That same filmy, greasy, soapy misery seemed to coat his mouth, leeching down into his throat. It was guilt and there was nothing he could do about it without sacrificing something he wanted badly. He had considered telling Franking everything and swearing her to silence, but that seemed too risky and he didn’t want to put her in that position.
He was going to have to choose between this possible job, a potentially new way of life—and Frankie. Though maybe not forever. He had to add that caveat so he could walk and breathe at the same time.
They put the fight behind them pretty quickly though things were awkward for nearly a full day. Alpha broke down and did something he'd never ever done before. He showed up at her door with both chocolate and flowers and she couldn't, or at least didn't, say no to him. They were guilt flowers, but she didn't know what he was truly apologizing for. Does it count if the person accepting your apology doesn't know what you're really apologizing for? Very fuzzy logic.
They were both so busy after that, that it was easy to forget he was keeping things from her and maybe with another girl he wouldn't have worried too much about it, but with Frankie it was dangerous. If she found out he was keeping secrets, especially secrets of this magnitude, she would hit the roof and that would be like a knife in his gut. He again considered telling her, swearing her to secrecy, but decided that if this was the path he was embarking on, he better get used to keeping things from people he loved.
In April he received an email from Hinckley's assistant with his flight and hotel information. She told him there would be a packet waiting there for him with further instructions. He saved and archived the email and put it out of his mind. The trip was still over a month away.
Occasionally when they were studying together, Alpha would look up to find Frankie inspecting him. She looked suspicious. That or he was becoming paranoid.
He found himself watching her more and more, trying to figure out if she suspected anything. Everything that she said or did seemed like it might be a clue, especially if he thought about it too much, for too long.
He was sitting at his desk reading through some data that Sheehan had sent him, trying to create some semblance of order out of them, when Frankie texted him that she was on her way up to his room. He hadn’t seen her since the morning before and it suddenly seemed like years. He went to meet her, leaning against the wall right next to the elevator doors and when they slid open he nearly fell on the floor.
Matthew Livingston was touching her. They were facing each other. He had her face in his hands, tilting it up towards his, as if for all the world he were about to kiss her, or maybe just had. Frankie looked flushed and teary.
"Stop," she said and pushed at Livingston's hands. Alpha stood there frozen and unable to speak for a moment.
"Frankie. Hold still. Just let me…"
Alpha reached into the elevator and hauled Frankie away, pushed her out into the hall. Then he drove his fist into Livingston's chiseled jaw.
"No. Alpha. Stop." Frankie tried to pull him away. She was blocking the doors so they couldn’t close, trapping both guys in the elevator.
"I wasn't…" Livingston was gingerly working his jaw back and forth. He was going to have a hell of a bruise.
Frankie grabbed Alpha by the arm. "I have something in my eye. I still do you idiot."
Alpha turned and looked at her. She had one hand over her right eye, which was tearing profusely. Oh, Jesus Fucking Christ on a Popsicle stick.
She made a disgusted noise and stomped off toward the bathroom.
Alpha stepped out of the elevator and rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly. "I'm sorry, Matthew. I am a moron. I shouldn't have snapped like that."
Livingston looked almost amused at Alpha's discomfort.
"I have never heard you apologize for anything before. What has she done to you?"
"You're hilarious. I'm going down to the dining hall to get you some ice in penance."
"You're such a Catholic." Livingston was experimentally moving his lower jaw from side to side.
Frankie reappeared and both her eyes seemed to be working, though glassy. She put her hand on Livingston's arm and Alpha shoved his hands in his pockets.
"Matthew, are you all right? Let me see." She tilted Livingston's face away so that she could see the patch of skin that was rapidly growing redder and darker.
"I'm going to get some ice." Alpha couldn't stand there another minute. He took the stairs so he wouldn't have to wait for the elevator. He'd been so jealous of Livingston two years ago, but it hadn't been anything like this. It was the difference between a house fire and the burning of Atlanta.
Livingston would forgive him, and Frankie would probably calm down sooner or later, but Alpha wasn't sure he could let himself off the hook. He'd overreacted, but he wasn’t sure why. Why was he so jealous, so instantly sure that Livingston had been manhandling Frankie? Sure, it hadn't looked great when the elevator doors had opened, but if he'd taken a moment—asked what was going on? It would have been easily cleared up. Did he trust them so little? Since the bourbon incident at the Finals Club dinner the previous semester Livingston hadn't done a single thing to make Alpha worry or second-guess his motives. He and Frankie seemed to have reached some sort of détente. They could eat dinner together, chat about inconsequential things, and it had all seemed fine.
Alpha filled several tumblers with ice in and took the stairs back because he was still vibrating with residual adrenaline and he had to burn it off somehow. When he reached the third floor he didn't have a clearer picture of what had set him off, but he knew he needed to figure it out quickly.
Frankie was leaning against the doorframe of Livingston's room, chatting about her summer internship. Livingston was planning to split his time between Boston and New York, working in various newsrooms, but as little more than a lackey. They would probably see each other in New York and wasn't that the happiest of thoughts. He brushed past Frankie and handed Livingston the ice.
"You should take some Advil."
"He already did." Frankie turned and left. He edged out into the hallway thinking she was leaving the building, but she went into his room and he realized she was giving him a moment with Livingston.
Livingston wrapped some ice in a towel and held it to his jaw. "You know I'd never do anything—"
"Don't." Alpha held up a hand. "I know. I'm sorry. I trust you."
"So you don't trust her?" Livingston adjusted the towel and the ice clicked inside of it.
"No. I do." Alpha took a moment. Did he trust her? Of course he did. Except a sneaky little voice in the back of his mind added: Now, but not always.
"I really am sorry. I'm an asshole."
"Not sorry?" Alpha smirked.
"I changed my mind. You are an asshole." Livingston was joking and it was far more comfortable than standing around spilling their guts.
"I better go do damage control." Alpha paused before he walked out the door and added, "You know where I am if you need more ice."
Frankie was curled up on his bed reading his copy of "The Crying of Lot 49."
When he paused at the foot of the bed, she didn’t look up, but at least she hadn't stormed out of the building. He decided to leave her be for a while and sat back down at his desk. He hit the spacebar to wake his laptop and noticed the cursor wasn't where he'd left it, which might be a weird thing to notice if he wasn't in the habit of always parking the little arrow in the upper right corner of his screen because it was shortcut to put the thing to sleep.
"Were you using my laptop?" The words just popped out. Way to calm things down, Tesorieri. He tugged on his hair. "I mean it's fine if you did."
"Yes," she said without looking up from the book. "I wanted to check your horoscope to see if it said you were going to lose your mind today."
"What did it say?"
"It said you should try to be open to new possibilities, or something. So, good job there."
"How's your eye?"
Still not looking up she said, "I'm blind now, but it's cool. I've always wanted a dog."
He shoved the chair away from the desk and curled up on his side next to her, wrapping his arms around her. "I'm sorry. I overreacted."
"Don't apologize to me. You didn't try to put me on a liquid diet."
"No, but I still feel like I owe you an apology." He felt that way all the time lately and it was eating away at him. Maybe that was what set him off? No. The complete picture snapped into focus. He knew where he was headed if everything worked out and he knew that meant he was going to lose her. He'd have no choice and that was no one's fault but his own. It was like knowing he was going to have to cut off his own arm at some point in the future without anesthesia and possibly with something ineffective like a butter knife. He was choosing this.
He pried the book from her hands. She let him. It was probably safer not to use words after that, so he didn't.
The last few weeks of spring semester are always a bit of runaway train, a blur. They passed all too quickly. Alpha was all packed; most of his things went into storage for the summer.
Frankie had asked a couple of questions about where he'd be and when he'd be in contact and he said he honestly didn't know, which wasn't a lie, but certainly wasn't the full truth. She didn't press him. He was relieved she seemed to understand, or believe the story he'd thrown together about traveling with Sheehan in Russia.
The last day and night snuck up on him and then it was done. It was time to go and he wondered repeatedly if he wasn't making a terrible mistake, but he was certain if he was that it was too late to do anything about it. He kissed her good bye and said he'd be in touch as soon as he was able and would let her know his plans when and if he could. If there was time he promised that he'd come home to see her.
She was subdued, but calm. All she said was, "I'll miss you."
He took the T to the airport and for the duration of the subway ride and the connecting Silver Line bus her words bounced around in his head. It wasn't what she's said, but the way she'd said it. It had sounded oddly terminal, as if she knew he might be headed somewhere she couldn't follow.
The seat next to him on the shuttle to DC was unoccupied, leaving him and his stupid romantic notions all alone to feel sorry for themselves. He loved her, but so what? He was just shy of twenty-one years old and even if he wasn't about to embark on a career that somehow involved incredible secrecy—it's not like he was going to marry her and go live in the suburbs. For one thing she was only eighteen and had three more years of college to complete and for another he was not interested in getting married ever, or at least not for decades. It wasn't the thought of limiting himself to her for the rest of his life; it was everything that came with that kind of commitment. Besides those things never lasted. They'd break up eventually—likely when he graduated, if not sooner. He should accustom himself to the idea, get used to it. That would be the sensible thing to do, but Lord knows he wasn't terribly good at doing the sensible thing.
Seriously. He was considering a career in an incredibly secretive, invisible branch of the US government, basically either as an analyst or a spy—all because he'd read all of John Le Carre's novels when he came down with a miserable case of the chicken pox and had to stay in bed for three weeks when he was twelve. Those books were the only thing his mom's boyfriend had ever given him for no other reason than to be nice. The tuition payments and everything else he coughed up? Were at his mother's wheedling. The Le Carre books had nothing to do with that, which had made them extra special, untainted.
He'd had a stupid childish daydream since he was twelve and it could now become reality, his future. He knew there'd be trade offs; he just had no idea before now what they'd be or if he'd mind.
The hotel in DC was nondescript and very beige. The woman at the reception desk handed him his key and a large thick brown envelope, which he tucked into his bag. He rode the elevator to the fifth floor alone and slipped into his extremely silent room. There were two Queen sized beds with identical beige blankets and piles of plump gray pillows. He was so used to being in a noisy dorm in a noisy city that the quiet was bizarre, unsettling.
It was close to six p.m. and he chose the bed nearest the window, kicked off his shoes and settled down to open the brown envelope. He'd have been lying if he said he wasn't feeling a little thrill as he tore through the sealed flap. Anything could be in the envelope. When he'd been tapped to join the Bassets and then again to be King, he felt something similar, though this was a bit more potent and real.
The envelope contained a matte gray folder. He opened it. In the left pocket was a schedule for the next day. It told him where to be and when and how to get there. Sort of. It didn't give him an address of any sort. It simply said a driver would pick him up at eight a.m. in front of the hotel and would bring him to Hinckley's office. It instructed him not to bring anything electronic with him—no cell phone, no computer, not even a digital watch. He didn't wear a watch so that wasn't a problem. He could do without his phone and the Internet for a morning, or however long the meeting took.
The right folder pocket was full of forms, basically it was homework and none of it was informative. They wanted to know everything about him from his social security number to the history of his drug use, his health history, his family history, and his education. He signed forms to release medical records and school records. He carefully read and signed a non-disclosure agreement, but not the last item, which was a waiver. The legalese was pretty thick, but he gathered that if he signed it he'd be signing away his right to counsel should he fall afoul of the agency he was meeting with tomorrow. Yeah, no. He wouldn't sign something like that without knowing exactly why he needed to do so and what the penalties would be if he didn't.
It was almost nine when he finished up the paperwork and tucked it all back in the folder. He wasn't hungry, probably too keyed up, but he knew he should eat and then force himself to go to bed. He rode the elevator back down to the lobby and compared his activities on the cusp of possibly becoming a real spy to the things that he and Livingston had gone through during the dress rehearsal for Timothy and Minh's game. There weren't any secret passwords now, or coded knocks—just paperwork and an anonymous hotel room. Reality had a way of mocking expectations, especially if they were at all fanciful or romanticized. This career was not going to be like anything in a movie or a book, but he had no idea what it would be like, or what to expect. Those blanks were dangerous because he knew his imagination could get quite ridiculous if he let it. Better not to have expectations that could never be fulfilled.
Outside the hotel he stumbled across various chain restaurants, which he ignored, several pizza places, which would only lead to terrible disappointment, and finally an Indian place that looked OK. His expectations were low and the food turned out to be pretty good.
The air was much warmer, balmier in DC, which as far as he understood was basically one enormous swamp. It felt good to return to the AC in the hotel. It was almost ten p.m., but he called Frankie, who should have arrived at her sister's apartment in Brooklyn hours ago. She'd be living with Zada for the summer and Alpha was relieved she'd be under Zada's eye and not all on her own. He knew she could handle herself, but still, he worried. A small part of him wished he'd said no to Hinckley and that he'd gone home, that he'd be able to see her every day.
"Hey, I wasn't sure I'd hear from you tonight. Hang on." There was a fair amount of noise in the background, people talking—music. Then the sound shifted, hollowed out. He heard a horn blast and a distant siren. She'd gone outside.
"Sorry, it was loud in there," she said.
"Where are you?"
"A Mexican place Zada's boyfriend likes. It's in the West Village. The margaritas are pretty good. Not too sweet. They didn't card me."
"How was the train ride?"" She told him and he could imagine her standing outside on a gray city sidewalk, people slipping past in all directions. He knew exactly what the air would smell like, the noises in the background, the color of the sky, and could imagine being there with her so easily. OK, that was a bad road to head down, but maybe he'd be there in a few days. He really had no idea.
"How are you? Any news yet?" she asked.
"I'm fine. It's quiet here. I have to meet with various people tomorrow, fill out a million forms, and hope everything works out."
"What, like forms for visas and things?"
"Pretty much." He wondered if he should be disturbed by how easy it was to lie to her. "You'll probably have a similar day on Monday. Lot's of paperwork and getting lost on the way to the can."
"The office is only three rooms. I think getting lost there would require some very serious drug use."
"Well, that's not likely."
"No," she agreed.
"I should let you get back to Zada. I just wanted to hear your voice."
"I'm glad you called," she said. Again that weird note in her voice, as if she hadn't expected to hear from him at all.
He didn't say he loved her. He didn't say he missed her. He simply said, "I'll talk to you tomorrow, Frankie. Good night."
But if he'd known—he would have said all those things. He regretted that later.
The morning was overcast and muggy, the sky like a gray suffocating blanket over the city. Alpha waited just outside the hotel's main doors, expecting a town car of some sort, or a taxi.
Normally he'd wear a suit to an interview, but the paperwork had said not to. It had specified that he dress casually, which was way more comfortable in the strangling humidity. He had no idea how people lived here. It was like living in the Canal Street subway station in August.
It was nearly quarter past according to the clock in the lobby and no one had arrived to pick him up, he'd even checked at the front desk for messages twice. He didn't have his phone. If no one had arrived by half past he'd go back up to his room and call Hinckley's office.
At almost twenty after eight a taxi pulled up and right behind it a dented maroon minivan. He headed for the taxi, but the minivan honked at him and the driver waved him over. She was a frazzled looking soccer mom with a sticky looking toddler in a car seat. Maybe she needed directions.
He nodded, caught off guard.
"Sorry I'm late. My third grader had to bring a project into school and part of it broke, we had to stop for glue… Oh, never mind. Come on. Get in."
"Because I'm going to drive you over to the office. You're supposed to meet with the boss at nine, right?"
He blinked. She knew his real name and she honestly didn't seem all that threatening. He wondered if this was some kind of spy test. "How do I know you're my ride? You're not exactly what I was expecting."
"Aw, sweetie. You're so fresh faced—it's adorable. Nothing about this is going to be like you expected. Get used to it and get a move on. I've got lots of other things I need to do today."
Alpha wasn't sure what other option he had so he walked around and got into the passenger seat. The car smelled like crayons and apple juice.
"It'll only take about ten minutes to get there, unless we run into traffic." She smiled, but didn't offer her name. Alpha didn't inquire. She turned on the radio and they listened to the news. He didn't know this town at all so he had no idea where they were headed, but he couldn't shake the feeling that he should be making mental notes and memorizing routes in case it was on some kind of test. Perhaps he should ask the woman her name, try to find out something from her.
"I'm sorry. I didn't catch your name, " he said.
"Oh, baby. No. Don't even try it." It took him a second to realize she was looking at her kid in the rearview mirror and warning him not to unbuckle the safety harness on his car seat. "I'm telling you. This kid must be Houdini reincarnated. He never stays anywhere you put him. No matter how high up I put the deadbolt and chain he can get out of the house in the mornings before I'm up. I find him at my neighbor's house happily eating Rice Krispies because they're both early birds." She chattered on about her kid and never answered his question. He didn't ask again.
She pulled into a shopping mall parking lot
and shifted the car into park. "Well, here you are." She smiled brightly and shooed him off towards the automatic doors.
He glanced at the mall and then back at her. "Are you joking?"
"Nope. Remember what I said. Nothing is going to be like you expect it. Just do your best." She patted his hand in a motherly sort of way, at least he guessed it was motherly. His mother was about as maternal as a floor wax. He'd always been the adult in their relationship.
He thanked the woman for the ride and stepped back out into the sauna. He waited a few minutes after the woman drove away to see if another car came to pick him up. Not a soul came by. It was still early and the mall was fairly deserted. Malls were pretty much a suburban thing and so he hadn't been in many of them, but instinctively he disliked them. They seemed like a fire hazard with recycled air and bad food to boot.
He walked through the shushing automatic doors and shifted his bag on his shoulder. It felt way too light without his laptop inside; it only contained the gray folder and a journal article he wanted to read that Sheehan had co-authored.
Most of the stores weren't open yet, but he kept a sharp eye out for Hinckley or anyone who might be watching him, or looking for him. But all he saw were a couple of sleepy eyed people stumbling about clutching enormous cups of coffee. It wasn't a very large building and he made a full circuit before coming back to the entrance. He'd seen nothing and no one helpful. Perhaps there was something on his schedule he'd failed to note. He took it out and reread it, but all it said was what time he was supposed to be meeting with Hinckley: nine. It was three of according to the clock on the information kiosk.
Maybe the kiosk would give him some direction. He studied the floor plan, but saw nothing unusual there. He scanned the names of all the businesses, most were unremarkable, but suddenly his name jumped out at him. It merely said "Alpha – D9" He checked the map. D9 was on the second floor down at the end of the food court. He hurried up there.
Between an arcade and a taco stand he found a recessed door and he was pretty sure it was the entry to D9, but the door was locked and required an electronic access card to be opened. Maybe he'd have to wait for someone else to come along and let him through. There wasn't a buzzer or any kind of intercom. The door was heavy, solid metal. There didn't seem to be any point in knocking and it would probably look strange. He glanced around, but the mall was a ghost town.
"Hey, kid. You dropped this." A grizzled old janitor with very dark skin appeared from nowhere and handed him a plain white card with a black strip on the back.
Alpha almost denied dropping it, but it was exactly what he needed so he thanked the man and tapped the card against the sensor mounted to the side of the door. A small light turned from red to green and he went through it as if he knew where he was going.
He found himself in a plain white corridor about fifty feet long with a linoleum floor and fluorescent lights. The weird thing was that the corridor went nowhere and there were no other doors other than the one he'd come through. He was beginning to feel like a rat in a maze and he sincerely hopped they weren’t going to electroshock him. He knew he could sink into frustration, or he could see this as a challenge and figure it out. He picked door number two, so to speak, because obviously there was no actual fucking door except number one.
He retraced his steps back to the door and walked back down the hall trailing his fingers the length of the wall, searching for any kind of seam or crack. There was nothing, just solid eggshell colored wall. He made two full circuits around the small corridor before giving up on the walls. The floor proved similarly unremarkable. His only other option was up. The ceiling was tiled in those white plaster-like drop tiles that you see everywhere. He'd be able to push one out of the way easily, but they were about three feet above his reach. There wasn't a pipe or a ledge he could use to climb up, just flat walls. They were too far apart for him to try bracing himself between them. He'd have to be some kind of Russian ballet dancer for that, also taller.
He shifted his bag on his shoulder. Well, he could use that to knock one of the tiles aside maybe. It was worth a try and proved a little more difficult than expected. The tiles were wedged into their frames and it the task required more than just knocking one aside. He hoped this was what he was supposed to be doing and he wasn't going to get dinged for destruction of public property, but he had the feeling that even he could afford to pay for a replacement ceiling tile. He hauled off and swung his bag as hard as he could, breaking one of the tiles into pieces. Dust and debris rained down on him and he closed his eyes just in time to avoid getting them full of grit.
The hole in the ceiling was just a hole, an empty black space in the otherwise white ceiling. No one came and bitched at him for smashing up the joint so he figured he better proceed like a good lab rat. He tossed his bag up into the ceiling and took a moment to calculate the jump and whether or not the metal frame would be able to bear his weight. He had no idea.
He was usually at peace with not being a super tall guy. He wasn't short, but he was used to people like Livingston flitting around above him. Right at that moment he really could have used the extra height. It felt ridiculous, but he leaped up and missed the metal frame the first time. He put more power into the jump and grabbed it on his second try, but it immediately started to give under his weight and he dropped back down. OK. There were three other sides of the frame he could try. After that he'd be kind of SOL since he'd thrown his bag up already. He could probably take off his shoes and try to knock open other tiles if he had to. Lucky for him, the third side of the frame held. It was thicker than the others, reinforced.
It was no easy feat to pull himself up into the ceiling, but he did it. Thank God he hadn't smoked in ages or this whole exercise would have been impossible. The space above the ceiling was shallow, maybe two feet high and dark. He was balanced precariously on the reinforced frame, but he couldn’t put much weight on any of the tiles, or he'd crash through back into the hallway to nowhere. He found his bag and slipped it across his chest so he wouldn’t lose it. Then he felt along the ground, or the ceiling depending on how you looked at it. Over to the far right there was a narrow wooden plank that seemed to extend backward and forward. It didn't make sense to head back towards the door, which lead back out into the mall proper. The ceiling out there was much higher. There was nowhere to go. So he went toward the far end of the hallway slowly on his hands and knees.
It was a good thing that they'd warned him not to wear a suit. He probably should have taken that as a clue that something like this was on the agenda.
The wooden plank seemed to stretch on forever in the dark, but he crawled on and wondered more than once what the hell he was getting himself into. After he'd gone what he felt must be about ten miles he found a trap door in the floor/ceiling. He opened it to find the reception area of an office. There didn't appear to be anyone there and it was silent. He dropped down into it and looked around. There was a desk with a phone and neat piles of paper, a computer—all the normal stuff you'd expect to find on any desk in any office. The medium sized ficus behind the desk was covered in drooping yellowing leaves.
There was a connecting door behind the desk and what the hell did he have to lose? He knocked on it.
"Enter," a voice said.
Hinckley was seated behind the desk laying cards face down for a game of Solitaire. He didn't look up, or offer Alpha a seat, but Alpha sat down anyway on the opposite side of Hinckley's immaculate desk. The only item on it was an oxblood leather desk blotter and the red backed cards.
He gathered that this was another test and waited patiently while Hinckley dealt all his cards and began to play. He paused at one point, his hand hovering over a Queen of diamonds.
"If you move that two of spades onto the ace pile, you'll have more options."
Hinckley moved the two to the ace and flipped over the next card. He played quietly, never looking up at Alpha, until he got stuck and could go no further in the game. He gathered the cards and began to shuffle them. It was rapidly becoming obvious that Alpha would be forced to watch endless games of solitaire if he didn't find a way to shift Hinckley's attention. It had to be savvy though, not heavy handed, or shrill. He was not in a position to make demands and he wanted the job. So he'd play along.
Alpha held his hand out for the deck. "Have you ever played Spite and Malice?"
Hinckley looked steadily at Alpha and shook his head.
"Do you have another deck?"
Hinckley reached into a drawer on his right and pulled out another deck of cards. Alpha shuffled them together and laid out the cards. "It's two player Solitaire. We can play off each other's cards and our own. If I win I would like you to tell me why I'm here."
Hinckley nodded and they played through until Alpha was out of cards and had won the game. He looked up and waited for Hinckley to explain what was going on.
"You've been very good natured about jumping through all these hoops." Hinckley began separating the cards back into two separate decks.
"It's been kind of fun." Not a total lie.
Hinckley nodded and put the cards back in his desk. He took out a folder similar to the one Alpha still had in his bag. Hinckley set it on the blotter in front of him, resting his fingertips on it. His hands looked older than the rest of him did, wrinkled and age spotted.
"You've performed adequately so far. We've reviewed as much information about you as we could prior to today." Hinckley pushed the folder to Alpha. "There is some additional paperwork we need you to fill out."
"Should I give you the forms I already filled out? I didn't sign one of them. I'm not quite sure what the scope of the agreement is."
"No matter. Take those forms into the other room and fill them out as fully as possible. Use the desk. Pens are in the drawer." Hinckley waved Alpha back through the door and out into the room, which was still empty. Alpha sat down at the desk and opened the middle drawer looking for a pen. There were no pens in the drawer, there was however an irate dark green snake. Alpha hadn’t had a ton of experience with snakes, but he assumed better safe than sorry and remained utterly still, even though every instinct he had was shrieking at him to run.
He sat, almost without blinking, and waited. The snake didn't spring at him, nor did it curl up in the desk and go to sleep. It was watching him, hissing gently, waiting to see what Alpha might do. Slowly and carefully Alpha got his leg into position without moving his upper body much at all and then he slammed the drawer closed with his foot trapping the snake inside.
He rifled through his bag for a pen and found one, why hadn't he looked there first? Merely because Hinckley had put the idea into his head? It seemed like these tests were not merely meant to pin down his IQ, or his ability to write a coherent essay on a topic he knew very little about, but would also provide indicators of Alpha's demeanor and mind-set when facing obstacles. It wasn't good enough to not get bitten by a snake, Alpha needed to be on his guard for more surprises like that. He obviously couldn't trust Hinckley's suggestions, without some sort of proof that he wasn't being setup.
The forms in the folder asked increasingly bizarre and intrusive questions. Did he remember his first wet dream? Seriously? He filled in every blank as completely as he could. It took more than two hours. His hand was cramped and his pen was running out of ink.
He stood and stretched. Hinckley opened the door just then. He must have been monitoring Alpha who hadn't even thought to look for surveillance cameras. Everything about this appointment was making him feel slow and a bit stupid.
"All finished?" Hinckley held out his hand for the paperwork. He flipped through it quickly and then went back into his office. He left the door ajar so Alpha followed him in only to find Hinckley cheerfully shredding all of the forms Alpha had just painstakingly filled out. He clenched his teeth together and did not say a thing.
Hinckley sat back when he was finished with the shredder and looked at Alpha steadily for a good two minutes. Two minutes may not seem like a long time, but it can seem like forever if someone is just staring at you quietly.
"Right." Hinckley slapped his hand down on his desk. "If you want to work for me you'll need to start today. Can you do that?"
"Yes." All the maddening moments of the morning melted away like sugar in hot water.
"Wonderful." Hinckley pointed to the door behind him. "Sarah will sort you out."
That was it. Alpha had a job with The Organization. He wanted to ask a million questions, but it was clear that Hinckley had dismissed him.
"Thank you, sir." Alpha got up to leave.
Hinckley raised one hand to stop him. "You know what you're doing?"
"Not a clue." Alpha figured there was no point in being dishonest.
"Good man." Hinckley waved him towards the door behind his desk, which was not the one he'd come through.
Alpha opened the door cautiously and waited for something to explode in his face or run at him. Nothing happened. There was a busy office on the other side of the door, people on phones and computers, all talking at once. It reminded him a little of the chaos on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, which he'd visited once on a school fieldtrip.
Alpha tried not to cringe, turned around and nodded at a smartly dressed older woman. She stuck out her hand and offered him a firm handshake. "Hello. I'm Sarah. I'll get you settled in. We have a lot to do and better get going."
He nodded and followed her through a series of hallways and out to a parking garage. She used the remote on her key chain to unlock her car—a black C class Mercedes. No toddlers or apple juice in sight.
Sarah drove out of the mall parking lot and onto a highway. Rush hour traffic had thinned and they were able to move along at a good clip.
"I don't know about you, but I need some coffee." Sarah darted a glance at him.
"That would be great." Alpha's stomach rumbled and he realized that he'd eaten a very meager breakfast about six hours before.
"We'll stop in Alexandria to grab some coffee and some lunch. It's about two hundred miles after that so make sure to use the restroom and get extra snacks if you'll need them. It's been a while since I had a kid your age around, but I remember that you guys eat like you've got a tapeworm."
"Two hundred miles? Where are we going? And I haven't checked out of my hotel—"
"Don't worry about it. It will be taken care of. Your things will be forwarded to you on base." Sarah flicked on her blinker to change lanes for the upcoming exit.
"Base? What base?" Alpha had a feeling he wasn't going to like any of the answers he was about to receive.
"Hinckley didn't tell you anything, did he?" Sarah shook her head—fondly amused.
"Right." Sarah pulled into the parking lot of a diner and got out of the car. She didn't speak to him much while they ordered sandwiches and coffee to go. When they were back in the car Sarah said, "I know that place doesn’t look like much, but they do have really great coffee."
Alpha sipped his. She was right. It was perfect coffee—it didn't need any sugar or milk to combat bitterness.
"OK. So here's the deal. I'm taking you to Langley-Eustis, which is a joint military base shared by the Air Force and the Army. You will be spending the rest of your summer there. Training. Think of it as summer camp for baby spies.
"You'll be doing training exercises and boot camp with various brigades in the mornings and specialized training on your own in the afternoons. You'll be busy every second that you're awake and you won't get enough sleep. Before I start the car again and drive you all the way down there—are you sure you want to do this? It's going to change you in ways you can't possibly imagine."
"I'm sure." He sounded so certain. If only he felt that way all the way through, but he couldn't give up over minor qualms and nerves. He'd wanted it for too long.
"OK." Sarah started her car and they listened to Terry Gross interview a novelist that Alpha had never heard of on Fresh Air, then the BBC World Service, followed by a Virginia talk show discussing local matters. He ran his fingertips back and forth along the rubber gasket along the base of the window watching the scenery fly by—stands of pines mostly. At long last, stiff limbed and gritty eyed, they pulled up to a security checkpoint. Sarah flashed a badge and the soldier on duty waved her through. She seemed to know exactly where she was going and parked the car outside of a squat concrete building.
She checked her tidy gray hair in the rearview mirror and winked at Alpha. "You're going to be on your own from here. I can't stay. I'll be back periodically to check on you, and of course I'll receive daily reports on your progress so I'll know how you're doing.
"The only advice I have for you is that you should do exactly as you're told. You're not joining the army. What you'll be doing is harder, more rigorous, but you'll be expected to follow the rules while you're here. You'll probably find the soldiers you interact with will have more freedoms than you will. Your liaison here will explain everything to you.
"This is the last chance you'll have to ask me anything for quite a while. So any questions?"
Alpha was completely at a loss and opened his mouth, but no words formed. He knew he'd kick himself later, but he couldn't come up with one coherent thought.
"Not what you expected to happen today?" Sarah raised an eyebrow. "Don't worry. You'll get used to it. Or you'll burn out and we'll know you weren’t a good match, but if Hinckley picked you out and passed you on all the preliminaries—you've definitely got potential."
"Any other advice?" Alpha asked.
"Yeah. Don’t fuck it up." Sarah's eyes twinkled with amusement. "Come along. We've got to get you checked in. And by the way no one here is to know your real name. If you have to give a name—you'll be known as Eli Jones."
Alpha followed along like a lost duckling and Sarah spoke to a series of people in fatigues, handing them paperwork and introducing Eli Jones to a series of people whose names he knew he wouldn't be able to recall.
"Great. Here's Major Winston. She'll be your liaison here and will oversee your training. If she says jump—don't ask how high. Just jump."
Major Winston was about thirty, dark skinned, and flinty looking. He knew immediately that she was not someone Alpha ever wanted to cross. Her posture was impressively straight and she was the same height as Alpha. Her boots were perfectly shined and her fatigues were crisp.
She shook his hand and got right down to business. "After I speak to Sarah, I'll show you to your new quarters. You'll have fifteen minutes to change into your uniform and settle in. Then we'll meet to go over your daily schedule. We'll tour the base. You'll have dinner in the mess and you should get to sleep as early as possible. You'll be up at five tomorrow and every morning until August twenty-ninth."
The Major drew Sarah aside and they conferred with their heads bent close together, each of them glancing over at Alpha several times as they spoke. He still couldn't quite wrap his brain around the reality unfolding around him. It just didn't seem entirely real. He wasn't at all sure what he'd tell his mother, or Frankie, but it wouldn't be the truth. He'd signed a non-disclosure agreement.
Sarah gave him a friendly pat on the shoulder and left him. A tiny bit of him longed to run after her and make her take him back to DC, where he could get on a plane and go home. He'd be back in New York and he could have Frankie in his arms before sunset. But he had to stay. He had to see this through.
"Follow me." Major Winston took off at a fast clip and Alpha scrambled to catch up. "Ground rules. We're not friends. You will hate me before the summer is out and I am A-OK with that. You won't have friends here. You're not to speak unless spoken to by a superior officer, or unless you are granted permission to speak. This is not going to be a day at the beach. Got it?"
Alpha nodded once when she glanced over at him. "The appropriate response is, 'Yes, ma'am'." She led him across a courtyard and down a side path to a long squat cinderblock building. "These are the officers' quarters. This is your room."
She opened the third door on the left and ushered him into a small airless room with one small window, a metal case desk, a beat up wooden chair, a dented set of metal shelves, a metal storage locker, and against one wall was a bare, hard looking cot. The walls were made of painted off-white cinder block. It was about a hundred and ten degrees inside. There was no AC, not even a fan.
"You'll get used to the heat. Hopefully. Make sure to drink plenty of water. There's a sink in the common area at the end of the hall and when you're in classes or in the mess there is always bottled water available.
"You'll be known to the other soldiers as Captain Eli Jones. They know nothing about your special training and you are not allowed to tell anyone anything about it. Tell whatever lies you need to, to hide the truth. I'm one of four people on base who'll know why you're really here. The other three will be handling your specialized training.
"Sarah said my things from the hotel were going to be shipped here and I need to call my mother and my girlfriend to let them know that I won't be coming home."
"Your mother has been notified that you'll be away and out of contact. As part of your training you're forbidden to have contact with anyone off base, except for Sarah when she visits. Is that clear?"
Alpha knew he could say no. Knew he could leave, but that was quitting. He wasn't going to quit even if it meant the end of his relationship with Frankie. It cost him a great deal to stay there and agree, but he reminded himself that the relationship wouldn't have lasted forever anyway. This was just speeding things up. Still he felt kind of like vomiting and he did the only thing he could do under the circumstances—he repressed like mad. He shoved his thoughts aside and tamped down on his anxiety. He would not survive the summer if he thought about what he was doing, what he was giving up.
"Is that clear, Jones?" Winston repeated.
"Yes, ma'am," Winston prompted.
"Yes, ma'am," he parroted.
"You have fifteen minutes to change into your uniform and make your bed. You'll need a haircut after that. You must be clean shaven every morning and that's an order."
"Yes, ma'am." Alpha wasn’t sure if he was supposed to salute or stand a special way, but they'd no doubt drill it into him sooner or later.
Winston nodded and said, "I'll be back for you in a quarter hour." And turned on her heel and left.
Alpha sank onto the mattress and dropped his head into his hands. He'd accidentally joined the army as a fake solider. For the summer. And he wasn't allowed to speak to Frankie. She was going to be livid and really hurt, but he reminded himself that he wasn’t thinking about that. He forced himself to his feet and stripped off his sweat soaked clothing. He wasn't sure what to do with it, but he had a feeling that throwing it on the floor in a heap would be frowned upon. He swung open the metal cupboard and shoved his clothes in there. At the foot of the bed he found an olive drab uniform, socks, boxers, an undershirt, a set of dog tags stamped with his fake name, his real blood type (O Neg) and that he was supposedly Catholic.
He slipped the chain over his head and the warm metal bounced oddly against his chest. He'd never worn any sort of jewelry so the chain felt peculiar, but he knew he'd get used to it. He was certain that it would be the least of his worries. He pulled on the rest of his new uniform with difficulty as everything stuck to his sweaty skin. He was just doing up his stiff new boots when a rap sounded on his door.
"Yes," he called.
Winston walked in and inspected his appearance. She handed him a small box with a hinged lid. It contained two silver pins—parallel lines. "These are your Captain's bars. You wear them on your shoulder." She pinned them on for him. OK. Who knew the army was all about jewelry? Necklaces and pins. The absurdity made him want to laugh, but he had a feeling that would go over like a lead balloon.
"You didn't make your bed," Winston nodded at the cot. "I know you're a spoiled, rich kid. I know you've always had everything easy. That’s going to make this harder for you, but I'm not going to let you fail, Jones."
Alpha had forgotten his bed. Damn.
"When I speak to you, you will respond with either a 'yes, ma'am' or a 'no, ma'am'. Is that understood?"
"I'll let it slide since this is your first day, but from now on I expect my orders to be followed to the letter and in a timely manner." She looked expectant.
Oh, right. "Yes, ma'am."
"Good. Let's go get that mop on your head taken care of."
Alpha marched along behind Major Winston. It was impossible not to march in combat boots. He'd never spent a great deal of time thinking about his hair. He often went too long between haircuts, but slightly scruffy seemed to suit him.
The base was humming with activity. Men and women in uniforms headed in every direction, busy doing a hundred different things. Along the way to wherever they were headed, he realized he had not been paying attention. He'd never be able to find his way back to his room by himself. He didn't even know what the building was called, or if it had a number.
Winston pushed open a door and led Alpha into a long narrow room that reeked of sweat. "Hey, Mackie. See what you can do with this." She pushed Alpha into a barber's chair, where he was inspected by an older bald man, who clucked his tongue and picked up a set of clippers.
"We'll have you cleaned up in no time, Captain." He tucked a towel into the edge of Alpha's shirt and it did only take about six seconds for the man to buzz off all of Alpha's hair. He brushed all the stray hairs away and shook out the towel.
In the scratched mirror in front of him Alpha stared at the strange person he knew had to be him. The uniform and the super short hair were disconcerting at best. He ruffled the remains of his hair, feeling the velvet nap of it as he pushed it against the grain. At least it would be marginally cooler.
"Thank you," Alpha said. The barber nodded and waved him out of the chair.
Winston was off on a tear again before Alpha had stood up completely, forcing him to race after her.
They returned to the building where Sarah had dropped him off, at least he thought it was the same one. He followed Winston to a door with her name beside it on a small plastic plaque slotted into a holder to the left of the door.
Her office was nicer than his room; the furniture was a little nicer, and certainly less worn out.
She told him to sit across the desk from her in one of the two chairs and handed him paper after paper and a plain green folder to keep them in. His schedule, several maps of the base, some basic information about the training he was going to undergo. Before he could read any of it she whisked him into a jeep and gave him a quick and dirty tour of the base, which was overwhelming. They made it into dinner with only seconds to spare. The food wasn't anything to write home about, but then he wasn't allowed to write home. Winston had reminded him twice not to make conversation with the other officers, to be polite and give vague, brief answers if spoken to. Alpha tried to avoid eye contact with the other soldiers so that they wouldn't speak to him, but that didn't stop everyone from trying to grill the new guy.
A captain whom he thought was named Gutierrez asked him lots of questions about where he was from and what college he'd gone to and if he had a girlfriend, and if he played kickball, because they had a team that was going to wipe the floor with those flyboys.
Winston gave Gutierrez several pointed looks, but they seemed to sail by him unheeded. So she said, "Captain, kindly cease and desist."
"Yes, ma'am." Gutierrez didn't seem at all phased by the rebuke and turned to the woman sitting next to him to ask about something Alpha couldn't quite catch the gist of.
In an undertone, Winston said to him, "Gutierrez is your computer guy. You'll be spending a lot of time with him, but he knows why you're really here. He's a chatterbox. Just let it wash over you."
Winston dumped Alpha off in his new room after dinner, pointed out the showers and told him to hit the sack since he'd be up at five.
Alpha took a cool shower and felt sticky again about five minutes later. He made his bed and opened the window, but it made no difference and just let in bugs. He lay down on his bed and tried to sleep, but his brain wouldn't shut off. What was Frankie doing? She wouldn't get too fussed about not hearing from him today, but pretty soon she'd start to worry. Maybe she'd call his mom. Though he had no clue what his mother had been told about his situation.
It was stupid, but he missed Frankie already. He missed stupid little things like watching her read, her eyes flying over the words. He missed her walking beside him. This bed didn't smell like her and that was probably the most depressing thing of all. The cot was also hard as a concrete. He shifted and turned over.
Next thing he knew he was being blasted awake by an alarm. It was deafening and wherever it was coming from—it was outside his room and not something on which he could hit snooze.
He stumbled out of bed and pulled on his sweats, which he'd been told to don at this ungodly hour. He wasn't sure how much time he had before Winston descended on him and he didn't want to be caught bare-assed so he skipped a shower. He'd probably need to take one after whatever torture they were going to inflict upon him.
Winston didn't show. A surly looking corporal dragged him outside and stuck him in a line of sleepy looking soldiers standing at attention. He spent the next three hours doing pushups in the mud and running in boots with no arch support. When he finally got to breakfast he was treated to rubbery eggs and weak, sour coffee. He really was spoiled. He told himself that this training would be good for him. Or it would kill him, but he wanted to succeed so badly he could practically taste it, which was blessing considering the coffee's aftertaste. He sat at the officer's table at one end by himself and no one spoke to him.
Winston whisked him away as soon as he was showered and freshly dressed in his uniform. She delivered him to a room that looked like an interrogation chamber and sat down behind him.
"I'll be shadowing you for a few days, making sure you transition properly." She took out a tablet with a wireless keyboard and propped it on her lap.
A woman in a uniform, wearing captain's bars, entered the room and sat across the table from Alpha. She was very young, maybe not much older than he was. Her face was covered in freckles, not small round ones like his, but big patchy ones. Her hair was incredibly red and she looked at him through a pair of incredibly sharp blue eyes.
"Captain Wendell. I'll be teaching you basic reconnaissance methods. This will include the practical application of other skills you'll learn from other tutors." She opened a laptop and scanned something on the screen. "I see you'll be getting everything we can throw at you. I know you can't talk about what you'll be doing with all this training—"
Winston cleared her throat. Alpha had never heard so much, so clearly communicated with a mere 'ahem.'
"I know. I know, Major. I won't pry." She turned back to Alpha. "All right. Today we'll just review what we'll be covering in the near future. I have a manual for you to read. And you'll need to read it before we meet again tomorrow."
She pulled a thick book out of her bag and slapped it in front of him. He blinked at it. It was a plastic spiral bound manual—not a published hardback. "Reconnaissance Basics and Their Practical Application."
"Don't worry. It has a lot of pictures." She smirked.
There was a retort begging to escape his mouth, but Alpha bit down on it. Winston wouldn't approve. And everything in his life was about pleasing Winston now. Sad, but true. It chaffed to be so subservient, but this was the job. He'd signed up for this.
Wendell pushed stacks of papers and worksheets at him every five minutes. They all needed to be read and if possible memorized. His head was spinning after the first hour.
"OK. That's enough homework for today." Wendell pulled a small box out of her bag and took many two–inch cardboard squares and laid them all on the table. "One of the most important aspects of your training is sharpening your memory. We know you have a good one, but there's always room for improvement."
The cards were a children's memory game. You flipped a card over and tried to match it with its mate. The trick was remembering where all the mates were. They played five rounds and by the last game Alpha was tearing through the cards, pairing them up quickly.
"Good." Wendell made some notes on her laptop. "Your memory must be highly eidetic. That will help you in the long run, but you need to exercise it to keep it sharp. Try to pay attention to where you are, where you go, the routes you take, landmarks—all the details around you as much as you can. You'll be periodically tested without warning."
Wendell packed up her papers and laptop and left the room. Winston took him to lunch and while they were waiting in line she quizzed him on the route they'd taken to the mess. He was able to provide a number of details and Winston seemed satisfied.
After lunch they returned to the room, classroom, Alpha guessed he should call it. Winston handed him an olive drab bag to keep books and papers in. She also provided a couple of pencils and pens and two notebooks.
"You won't be allowed a computer of your own this summer."
Alpha didn't need to ask why. They were keeping him incommunicado for whatever reason. They wanted him to have zero contact with the outside world. He supposed that should bother him more than it did, but he was too focused on the work to be done, and patently ignoring what this might be doing to Frankie.
The man who entered the classroom was not in uniform. He looked like a grandfatherly professor.
"Hello, Captain Jones. I'm Dzhokhar Umarov, I'm here to teach you Chechen and as much Russian as we can cram into you. We're not expecting you to be a fluent speaker by the end of the summer, but you'll know enough to get by. I'm to concentrate on your reading comprehension, but we'll be conducting our meeting only in Chechen starting now."
Umarov ran him through the Cyrillic alphabet and thankfully the small amount of Russian that Alpha had already learned helped. Then Umarov rattled off a bunch of Chechen that Alpha could not understand, apparently goodbye was somewhere in there, because Umarov got up and left.
Alpha stowed his new language textbooks and dictionary in his nearly full bag.
"We'll take a short break now. You can grab some coffee if you need to, take a short walk, and then meet me back here in ten minutes to meet with your last instructor for today."
Alpha choked down another cup of terrible coffee and walked twice around the classrooms to stretch his legs. Running all morning and then sitting all afternoon was going to be a real treat. No conversation, no cigarettes, no alcohol, no decent coffee or food, and no Frankie. He missed her in ways he hadn't even known you could miss a person. Every once in a while he couldn't stomp down on his feelings. He missed the feel of her under his fingertips, the sound of her breathing, the excited look she got when she was following an idea though, all her funny little quirks like the way she often said goodbye by nipping his earlobe and place a kiss just behind his ear. He reached up and rubbed the spot as if he could find some trace of her there. He even missed the space she occupied, the way she was herself. Everything felt a bit wrong without her around, as if the dimensions of the world had subtly shifted and nothing as quite the same shape anymore.
Gutierrez was waiting for him when he returned to the classroom. He had placed two laptops on the heavily nicked table. The one closest to Gutierrez was small and sleek. The one in front of Alpha was enormous—a battered dinosaur.
"Jones. Nice to see you again. I have no idea what you know about computers, but we'll figure that out today so I know what we're going to need to cover. By the end of the summer you'll be able to hack into the Pentagon, or you know, something really hard like Amazon."
Winston snorted behind him. Alpha hadn’t heard her come in. "Gutierrez, I know your sense of humor is a bit twisted, but try not to corrupt the newbie on the first day."
"I'll do my best, ma'am."
Major Winston sounded far friendlier with Gutierrez today than she had last night, though Alpha gathered her patience and tolerance for this instructor was somewhat limited.
"So, you know how to turn on a computer?"
It took Alpha a second to realize that Gutierrez was serious. Alpha flipped open the lid and hit the power button and waited for the turning on note to sound. Nothing happened. Alpha hit the power button again. No dice. He hit the spacebar for good measure, just in case it was merely sleeping.
He glanced up at Gutierrez, who was easy to read. Smug was written all over his mug. This was a trick.
Alpha picked up the laptop and flipped it over. It felt unnaturally light. He opened the compartment for the battery and found it empty.
Gutierrez nodded and passed him a battery, which Alpha slotted into place. He tried turning the machine on again and nada. He checked the power cord and it seemed functional, then flipped the computer back over and looked at the bottom of the machine. He wasn't familiar with this model, but the thing still felt too light. It must be missing some of its innards. He figured out how to remove the keyboard and the inside was mostly empty.
Gutierrez was watching him intently, but didn’t pass him any more components.
"OK, where's the hard drive and the processor and all the other stuff?" Alpha checked the machine again. "Uh, the memory cards?"
Gutierrez handed him a Ziploc bag full of circuit boards and other things Alpha couldn't identify to save his life. It looked like someone had axe-murdered R2D2 and kept some of his more choice parts as a sick sort of trophy.
There was nothing for it. Alpha laid the pieces out and studied them. He'd just have to pretend it was a jigsaw puzzle. He spotted two memory cards and slipped them in place. He stared at the rest of the computer's guts for several minutes and then looked up at his instructor.
"I'm lost. Can you give me a hint?"
"Sure. Always ask if you don't know something. I'm here to teach you. Ask or you won't learn."
Alpha nodded. Gutierrez took away half the pieces and tossed them back in the Ziploc baggie. "You won't need those." He ran through the order of installation—CPU first. He nudged a printed circuit board at Alpha and ran through the rest of his instructions at top speed and then sat back to watch Alpha flounder. Gutierrez merely shook his head when Alpha asked him to repeat himself more slowly.
Alpha managed to get what he hoped was the motherboard assembled though it had taken quite a while and some trial and error to fit the pieces together. This was not exactly Legos. He lined it up and fit it into the belly of the laptop. The whole exercise was oddly satisfying.
"Now the processor. This machine is too old to have a microprocessor, we'll look at those later one." Gutierrez nodded his head at the rest of the components on the table." Again he shot rapid-fire directions at Alpha and then waited for him to assemble the unit.
"This can't be right," Alpha said when he was unable to get some of the pieces to connect.
"So how does this work? Do I need to solder something together? Are there wires?"
"Have you ever soldered before?" Gutierrez took out a small blue plastic box.
"No." Alpha had to fight the groan trying to get out, but clearing his throat.
Gutierrez once again rattled off a series of instructions double time and sat back to see what would happen.
What happened was that Alpha soldered the circuit board more or less to the table. He raised an eyebrow at the captain.
"You used too much solder. Try again."
"How? Isn't this one toast?"
"Most joints can be desoldered and occasionally resoldered, but not all solder will take a second time."
Alpha carefully removed the blob of melted metal and tried again. This time the circuit board connected properly. With Gutierrez's assistance, such as it was, Alpha got all the parts assembled and into the right places.
"So, turn it on now?" Alpha's finger hovered over the power button. He really wanted to hear that l major c chord.
"Nope. We're out of time. We'll try it tomorrow."
"You've got to be fucking kidding me."
"Captain Jones," Winston warned. "You will not speak unless prompted. You will not complain."
Alpha got up and walked out before he said anything else verboten. He read as much of Wendell's homework during dinner as he could wade through. Winston left him at his door after making sure he had plenty of water to drink. He spent the rest of the evening cramming as much information as he could into his brain, until it felt like a swollen river overrunning its banks. He was not going to fail on the second day.
Close to midnight Winston rapped on his door and ordered him to bed even if he wasn't finished with his work.
Alpha fell asleep hot, hungry, and with the sound of Frankie's laughter ringing in his ears like a taunt. She would totally laugh at him if she could see him now. Everything about this situation was ridiculous, but he'd chosen it.
He stumbled through the morning slog half awake—jogging two miles at the end of which it felt like someone had taken sandpaper to his lungs, doing pushups, lunges, sit-ups. Some of the other soldiers side eyed him a few times, but everyone was too busy running, climbing, and squatting to pay him much attention. After a shower and breakfast he waded through Wendell's session, tried very hard to hear the individual words that Umarov was saying—and could understand exactly none of them. He fared a little better when they started looking at vocabulary words. He could at least sound them out and rewrite them with some accuracy. Winston brought him some lunch on a tray while he read in the classroom and then forced him take a short jog around the compound to get his blood flowing again and work out any stiffness in his limbs before eating.
Gutierrez brought the behemoth laptop back and set it on the table in front of Alpha, with another of his obnoxious little smirks.
"Let's see if you did it right."
Alpha opened the lid and pressed the power button, and… nothing. He pushed it again, holding it down a few seconds longer. He swore under his breath, but either no one heard this time, or no one cared. He flipped over the machine, startled to feel that it was once again much too light. He flicked a glance at Gutierrez who was beaming like he'd invented motherfucking penicillin or something.
"Again?" Alpha asked even though he knew.
"By the time I'm through with you, Jones. You'll be able to build a working computer out of almost anything in the dark." Alpha wasn't sure what to call a grin that was beyond shit eating, but Gutierrez had one. "And no hints today."
Alpha sighed and got to work sorting through the Ziploc bag of carnage. At least it wasn't so goddamned hot in the classroom, unlike his sauna of a room. They had AC in there. He figured the lack of AC in his room was meant to build character. Thrilling.
He did his damnedest to remember how everything went together. Once all the pieces were in place he flipped the laptop over and hit the power button. Nothing happened. He felt like banging his head on the table until he was unconscious.
And so it went for the first week. He muddled his way through as best he could and fell into bed exhausted every night, never early enough. There was always more work than he could manage. He refused to feel like a failure. They would not break him.
On Friday he had high hopes that the stupid laptop would finally turn on. But it didn't. He went to bed early that night—too exhausted to read another word or memorize another Chechen vocabulary word. If he dreamed he didn't remember. It had been that way all week, but perhaps that was a blessing in disguise. His dreams were bound to be intense and unsettling at this juncture, or worse about Frankie.
Saturday played out like all the previous days.
"No rest for the wicked," Winston said while shoving him out the door to join the training exercises. Alpha hadn't played team sports much, but he assumed the drill sergeant barking orders was not unlike a really hyped up coach yelling at his team.
There were no classes on Sundays, but that didn't mean Alpha could sleep in or be lazy. He was starting to wake up just before the alarm, which was better than it scaring the bejeesus out of him every morning in the dark. No one likes to wake up with heart palpitations.
He might be used to functioning on little sleep, but not at this pace and not with so much intense physical exercise thrown into the mix. Alpha wasn't sure what he'd expected—certainly not swanning around exotic locals drinking martinis and flirting with scantily clad women—but not this mind meltingly strange state of affairs.
He walked back and forth to the mess and spent the rest of the day in his room reading, studying, memorizing. Winston advised him to take a break around four and go for a run to keep limber otherwise he'd be miserable in the morning.
Alpha was not a natural runner and the boots were a problem, but his blisters were almost gone and he was getting used to the movement, learning how to roll into each spring in a less jarring fashion.
Livingston would probably roll on the ground laughing if he could see this, once he got over his shock. He wondered if Frankie and Livingston were hanging out, if Frankie had contacted his mother, if Livingston had contacted his mother. Were they all furious with him? Hurt? Furious he could deal with—hurt feelings were not his forte. It felt like he was burning bridges, because he was actually burning them, but no one had held a gun to his head and made them light the tinder—it was simply the price he had to pay. It would have chaffed if he'd let it, but he refused to let that happen and he focused on the feel of each of his feet smacking the ground and nothing else.
Finally, finally—the laptop turned on. It had only taken ten days to get it right. Then there was the new hurdle of there being nothing loaded on the machine, no operating system and no software. It proved far easier to install those things than to build the internal components. Gutierrez had him install Linux and then proceeded taught him the basics of various computer languages, and a few UNIX commands, as well as how to install and navigate Linux. Though he warned that if he had to build his own computer he probably wouldn't have the luxury of software just lying around nearby.
It felt like Alpha looked up one day from reading about advanced safe cracking and it was inexplicably the end of July. He could now manage basic cryptography, filch someone's wallet out of their purse or pocket without them knowing, pick various kinds of locks, strip and assemble various guns and rifles quickly, hit moving targets (though he still needed practice there), run five miles without too much effort while wearing a sixty pound pack, read more than just rudimentary Chechen, and hack a middling firewall. His memory was sharper than it had ever been.
He still thought about Frankie when he couldn’t fall asleep at night. He didn't let himself think about what would happen when he returned to school in a month. The thoughts were there, ready to rise the surface, but he thrust them back down and hoped they'd drown. Still worry was with him every moment—like a ghost he couldn't exorcise.
He returned to Cambridge a very different person and he was sure everyone who knew him would notice how much he'd changed, but there wasn't much he could about that. He and Winston had agreed that he'd tell people he'd been doing working with rebel factions all summer in Chechnya—which had been the price of staying with them and interviewing them, which would account for his sudden physical transformation—only if and when he had to explain. Alpha could keep his shirt on to hide those changes, but he couldn't change the way his cheeks had hollowed, or the change in his walk. It felt very strange to put on regular shoes after having worn boots the entire summer. He marched instead of ambled. He'd have to relearn that. He couldn't march around Harvard all summer. His hair was still short, but he didn't look like a recruit quite so much. He tried to relax his posture too.
He'd had a single night at his mom's apartment in the city before he'd hopped the train to Boston. His mother had wanted to know all about his summer in Europe, which was made up as he went along and then faked jetlag to get away from her.
He wasn't sure where Frankie was—if she was still in the city or if she was in Jersey, or even if she'd already headed north. He brought up her number on his cell too many times to count, but couldn't bring himself to call her. He knew she'd be hurt and furious. It was hopeless. He'd sacrificed their relationship on the altar of his ambition and there was no going back. That didn't mean it didn't hurt like a son of a bitch though. To add insult to injury, finding himself twiddling his thumbs after months of constant activity was almost physically painful.
As expected, the first person he ran into on campus was Livingston who stopped and crossed his arms, a surly twist to his mouth.
"I'm sorry," Alpha said. He knew it was inadequate, but it was all he had to offer.
Livingston grabbed him and dragged him into his room and slammed the door. "Do you have any idea how worried we were? Do you have any clue what you put her through this summer? Until I called your mom, she thought you were dead. I thought you were dead. Frankie knew that you'd have to be dead to have cut off all contact like that without warning."
Alpha tried to brace himself for this, but really he couldn't have emotionally prepared for the absolute and overwhelming misery. He kept his eyes trained on the stacks of brown cardboard boxes that Livingston hadn't unpacked yet.
And he couldn't tell Livingston or Frankie what was really going on. He'd signed an NDA and it would put them at risk to tell them anyway. He'd been drilled to keep secrets. He'd been taught how to lie convincingly, to change his body language, the direction his eyes darted, everything. He probably couldn't be a good friend to anyone anymore. And until that moment he hadn't realized that this career was dooming him to a life without other people, without close friends. He was an idiot not to have realized the reality of that sooner. He kept his expression carefully neutral even though he was dying inside.
"That's it? You don't have anything to say? No explanation?" Livingston's hands were trembling and Alpha wouldn't have blamed him if Livingston took a swing at him. He kind of hoped he would.
"I just needed some time alone." He was going to play the asshole card for all it was worth. What other choice did he have?
"You what?" Livingston tugged on his hair so that it stood on end. He really needed a trim. He kind of always did. "Look. I can forgive you not getting in touch with me. I didn't like it, but you wrecked her."
Livingston shook his head and furled his hands into fists so tight that his knuckles cracked. He closed his eyes and Alpha swore he was counting to ten. Livingston opened his eyes and let out a breath.
"She kept herself together, went to work and everything. She's tough as nails, but she wasn't sleeping or eating enough. She stopped laughing and unless I went to Zada's and physically dragged her out the door she wouldn't go anywhere besides work."
"Did you…" Alpha really didn't have the right to ask. And it would serve him right.
Livingston looked disappointed in him. "No. Of course not."
"Should I see her or leave her alone?"
"That's up to you. She was finally starting to bounce back in August though."
Alpha nodded and got up. He paused at the door and without turning said, "I really am sorry."
He wasn't sure, but he swore that Livingston muttered, "Too little. Too late."
Alpha unpacked his room and kept his thoughts only on the task at hand. He needed to meet with Sheehan as soon as possible. His first assignment and the entire reason he'd begun his training before graduating was that someone wanted to know all the details of Sheehan's research. It was believed he had a cache of information about a particularly paramilitary group he'd met with on numerous occasions, but he wasn't sharing his findings with anyone even though he'd been approached by various agencies.
His second day back, Alpha decided he better go see her, rather than run into her in a public place. He didn't want ambush her like that, but he wanted it to be her choice. He wasn’t going to just descend on her without warning. Sending a text felt too casual and the phone seemed impossible. So he sent her an email.
I owe you such an enormous apology that no amount of apologizing will ever be enough, but I am sorry I dropped off the face of the earth. I'd like to see you, but I understand if you don't want to see me. I will do whatever you want me to—just let me know.
He agonized over adding 'I love you' and decided it was unfair to add that. He let his cursor hover over the send button for five minutes, before clicking the mouse. It was done.
It took her a full day to reply:
"I honestly don't know. I guess I can't avoid you forever. Meet me at six outside Lamont."
She didn't want to meet in private, which was probably both good and bad. Good because it meant she'd probably remain relatively calm, but bad because they wouldn't really be able to talk. He reminded himself that he couldn't "really talk" anyway. He had too much to hide. So asshole card it was.
He arrived early, but she was already there. She was too thin and she'd cut her hair to just above shoulder length, which he wasn't wild about. She still knocked him on his ass. The moment she spotted him she went rigid, her arms folded tightly across her chest. She didn't say a word, just stared at him steadily. She looked ready to feel.
"Hey," he said.
Alpha stared over her shoulder at the dark modern sculpture that had never made any sense to him. It didn't look like anything at all, just rounded shapes. Maybe that was the point?
"If that's all you have to say, then this is pointless." She started to walk away.
Without thinking he grabbed her arm and she wrenched it away.
"I am sorry. Frankie—"
"Where were you? Why didn't you call or email? Were you in jail? I can't think of any other reason why you'd cut off all communication without warning, but if you were in jail your mom would have known."
He'd rehearsed his story, but he was loath to tell it. "Sheehan made me promise not to contact anyone at all over the summer. I had to comply or give up the assignment." God, that was feeble and unlikely.
"And you couldn't warn me? Couldn't send me a message? I thought you…" She shook her head. She was clenching her teeth to keep her emotions in check. She was doing her damnedest not to cry. Her misery gouged his heart right out of his chest using a grapefruit spoon.
"I'm sorry," he said.
"So am I." She turned and walked away and even though it went against every instinct he had, he let her go.
He stood in front of Lamont for a couple of minutes and then walked to the liquor store on Mass Ave that always took his fake id. He bought a fifth of Jim Beam and a carton of Marlboro reds and locked himself in his room. The next few days passed in a haze of bourbon (which he had to replenish twice) and cigarette smoke. He was on his last pack and wondering if he was sober enough to get dressed and go out, when Livingston came barging in. He thought he'd locked the door. Ah, well. No matter.
Alpha was lying on his mattress, which had somehow ended up on the floor. "My dear boy. Old chum of mine. What can I do for you?"
"Spare me. I came to see if you'd died in here. You haven't been to any classes. Sheehan is looking for you. And I don't think you've been down to the dining hall once."
"Shit." Alpha rubbed his bleary eyes and lay slumped on the bare mattress of his bed. "What day is it?"
"So you saw her." Livingston was looking down at him as if he was the result of a science experiment.
"Yep," Alpha said and closed his eyes.
"I'm sorry," Livingston said and then the door opened and closed and Livingston was gone.
Alpha knew he couldn't go on like this much longer, but pulled on some crumpled clothes and went out for another fifth and another carton of cigarettes. As he was rounding the aisle from the hard liquor section in the store he caught sight of himself in the round wide angled mirror. His face was distorted on the curved glass, but even so he looked like hell. He hadn't shaved or bathed since… well, it had been a while. His face was puffy and he could barely open his eyes.
He paid for his bourbon and cigarettes and headed back to his room where he got so drunk that he passed out on the floor with one shoe on.
It was too bright. Why wouldn't they just let him die in peace?
"Alpha," someone was shaking him and calling his name. He swatted feebly at the hands gripping his arms and then tried to turn over.
Splash. He was drenched in cold water, choking and spluttering in it. Someone had poured Lake Eerie over his head.
He opened his eyes and blinked through wet lashes. Frankie was sitting on her knees next to him on the floor.
"Are you dead?" she demanded.
"I feel too awful to be dead," he said. His head was woozy, but he didn't feel very drunk, something between drunk and hung over. "What do you want?"
"I want you to stop," she said.
"Did I contact you? I'm sorry." He was bewildered. Had he been so drunk he'd been texting her?
"No. That's not what I meant. I want you to stop this self-destruct mission you're on."
"Don't worry about me," he said. He rolled his head back and forth against the wooden floor as an experiment. It did not make him feel better, or like he could sit up without puking. His eyelids were too heavy to keep open.
"Well, I do worry and apparently I can stop." She sounded less than thrilled.
"I'm really, really sorry. I just… I wish… Aw, fuck it. I can't explain. But I'm really sorry. I didn't do it to hurt you, you know." His mouth was getting away from him and if he didn't shut up he'd probably say something he shouldn't. She was too sharp and anything that veered near the truth might give her enough to put together more than she should know.
"You have to get up now," she said.
"I don't think I can," Alpha said, reasoning that if blinking was too hard—standing would be impossible.
"You have to," she said.
"What does it matter?"
"To you?" he asked.
"Would I be here otherwise?" She placed her hand on his bicep and said, "Alpha, will you do something for me?"
"Of course," he reached to touch her face and then realized he probably wasn't allowed anymore and dropped his hand on his stomach. "What may I do for you, Frankie old pal?"
"Pour the rest of the bourbon down the drain. Take a shower. Eat something. Go to class." She sounded just as bossy as Winston.
"What does it matter?" He was being petulant and childish and he knew it.
"Look. You hurt me. You lied to me, at least by omission. And I don't know if I can forgive you for that, but I won't be able to forgive myself if you die in a puddle of your own vomit, or worse fail out of school."
"Livingston?" he asked.
"Yeah. He talked to me yesterday, but it took a while for him to convince me that you were this bad. And actually he soft-soaped it. This place is a sty that pigs wouldn't even live in." She got up and opened the window wide.
"Pigs are actually very clean—"
"Not the point." She reached down and tugged on his arms and made him get to his feet. They stood awkwardly in a not quite hug until she gave him a little push toward the door. "Shower."
Alpha nodded and scrounged up clean clothes and a towel. "Will you stay?"
"For now. Toss these." She handed him the half empty fifth and the remaining cigarettes. He complied, because she'd asked, because she was there, because she cared. He'd practically have walked over broken glass and then swallowed it if she'd asked.
He did feel much improved after a shower and a shave. Not quite human, but at least sentient. Though sentience was not great. He stared at himself in the mirror and wondered how he was going to live with himself for the rest of his life if it was going to be like this.
Back in his room he found that she'd made his bed with clean sheets—they smelled smoky, but everything in his room had been steeped in smoke. Technically it was frowned upon to smoke heavily in their house, but he'd put a towel at the bottom of his door and disabled his smoke detector. The room had aired out a bit while he was in the shower and the haze had dissipated.
Frankie was emptying all the mugs and cups and things he'd filled with cigarette butts.
"You don't have to do that," he said.
"No. I don't, but I did it anyway." She was still stiff around him, pissed. He didn't blame her one bit, but oh he wished she'd relax and step into his arms. All summer he'd craved the feel of her in his arms, the smell of her surrounding him. He didn't even care if it was sappy. It was real. It was right.
"Now you need to eat." She pulled a pale pink cardigan on.
"Is the dining hall still open?" He looked around for his phone.
"What?" He stopped rifling through a pile of unopened mail and papers.
"It's two-thirty in the morning," she said, amused.
"Oh." He scrubbed at his face. He was sobering by the second.
"Come on," she pulled at his sleeve.
"Oh, God. No." He knew where they were going. There was only one place open this late. Everything here closed so damn early.
"It can't be helped."
Of course he would've gone anywhere with her so he marched along beside her, his lungs aching from all the abuse they'd taken in the last week. The fresh air was actually kind of nice, even though they walked though clouds of stench periodically. Cambridge sewers are elderly and don't take kindly to warm weather.
Neither of them said a word until the turned onto Eliot Street when Frankie said, "Why are you walking like that?"
"Like what?" He hated to play dumb, but his brain wasn't completely unpickled and he wasn't quick witted enough. "Oh, you mean the marching? I wore boots all summer."
"When you were hanging out with soldiers?"
"Of a kind," he said. Better to tell lies that weren't wholly lies.
She opened the door to the IHOP and he sighed feeling a bit like a cow being lead into an abattoir. He hated this place. The coffee was terrible. The service was terrible. The food—unspeakable. And just don't get him started on their pancakes. They were a crime against everything good and decent in the world, but maybe they'd be OK after army food.
They sat in a booth and stared at their menus until an extremely perky waitress came to take their order. Her lipstick was an unflattering shade of hot pink.
"Just tea, please," Frankie said.
Alpha ordered an omelet with about six things on the side. On the walk over he'd realized he was starving near unto death. Once the waitress had left he leaned forward over the table and said, "You should eat something. Livingston said you haven't been and you're too thin."
"OK. Let me set some ground rules here. I am here to make sure you don't kill yourself. We're not going to discuss me, how I feel, or my general health. Besides you didn't care all summer. Why now?"
"I did care. I still do—very much. Don't think I don't." He tried to put every ounce of sincerity into his words and into his stare, hoping she'd just know it was true and believe him.
'I don't want to talk about it. Not here. Not yet. Maybe not ever." She glanced around the restaurant. The place was pretty dead, but there were a few other students scattered around. None of them were paying Frankie or any mind. Still if she didn't want to talk about it, he wasn't going to push her.
"OK. What do you want to talk about?" he asked and took a sip of his coffee wondering if IHOP and the army got their beans from the same place: Hell.
"Who's Eli Jones? Because I found a set of dog tags on the floor in the corner with his name on them."
"Friend who died earlier this summer," Alpha said casually, while stirring cream and sugar into the coffee so he could choke it down.
"What happened to him?" Frankie sipped her tea, took the teabag out, and placed it on a napkin. He watched the brown stain seep into the white paper.
"He was in the army. Got blown up by an IED." He was making it up as he went along.
"Where?" she asked.
"Near Kandahar, I think."
"That's horrible. Why do you have them?"
"He was a very good friend of mine when we were kids." Alpha shrugged. Again he wondered if he should worry that the lies came so easily.
The food came and while he ate he asked Frankie to tell him about her summer, about her internship. "I know you said you don't want to talk about you, but I'd love to hear about what you did."
She told him about the law firm, her co-workers, about Zada and her budding career as an assistant to the sportswear buyer at Bloomingdale's, which was meant to tide her over until she made up her mind about grad school. Many of Frankie's stories included Livingston. Apparently they really had hung out all summer and although Alpha had absolutely no right to be jealous, he was. He didn't have the gall to say so, at least. The burn in his belly was deserved. He'd earned it.
Alpha paid and then walked back towards their dorm. She was in Quincy House now, which was a little strange. He'd known she'd requested it in the lottery, but hadn't heard anymore about it. God. How much had he missed?
He stopped her outside the main door and asked, "Is it impossible?"
She thought about that for a full minute before saying, "I don't know. I want to say no, but I can't."
It was clear that it cost her something to admit that much. He wasn't sure if it was the right thing to do, but he was weary of avoiding his instincts. He pulled her gently into his arms and was relieved beyond the telling when she didn't pull away. He kissed the top of her head.
"Why?" he asked. "Why can't you say no?"
Her words were muffled against his chest, but he heard them. "Because I love you, you idiot."
The words ripped him in half and then glued him back together and he tightened his arms around her, pulling her closer. He knew that no matter what he did, he was going to hurt her. Maybe it was best to leave things as they were and let her get over him sooner rather than later. The terrible thing was that he couldn't explain the circumstances to her and let he decide. He'd have to decide and then make the best of it. The only thing that kept him from total self-hatred was that he wasn't considering his own feelings very much. He was focused on what this would do to her. Now. However he was the one who'd put them in these circumstances, so he still hated himself for that.
"Maybe we should just leave things as they are," he said.
She pushed back from his chest, all the rigidity returned to her body. "Is that what you want?"
"No, but it might be for the best. I can't talk about my plans—with anyone, Frankie. It's not just you. I signed contracts and non-disclosure agreements. I have no idea what's going to happen, or when I might have to disappear again with no warning."
"What are you? A spy?" She laughed a completely humorless laugh.
He said nothing. No. Technically he wasn't a spy. No one in The Organization called themselves anything at all. They had work to do. That was all. The Organization really had a thing about names and titles. "I told you. I can't talk about it."
She took another step back. "Oh. My. God. You are."
He shook his head. "No. I'm not."
"Don't lie to me. I know you met with Hinckley, or at least that he contacted you last spring."
Damn. "I knew it. I knew you'd been snooping."
"Well, I don't regret it."
"No. You wouldn't." Ouch. That was a low blow and the look on her face was one he never wanted to see there, never mind put there. "Sorry. I didn’t' mean that."
"Yes. You did. Stop lying to me." She turned toward the doors, stopped and turned back. "I've changed my mind. This is impossible."
Instead of watching her walk away again he ran after her and ducked into the elevator with her. "Please," he said. He didn't even know what he was asking for specifically.
"How can you expect me to be in a relationship with you when you're lying to me and you could disappear at any time without warning. I won't know where you are. I won't know if you're even alive. I can't live that way. You can't ask me to."
"I know, but I am." What the hell? He had to throw everything he had at the wall at this point in hopes that something might stick. Every shred of worry and fear that he'd repressed over the summer had returned and brought along friends.
She shook her head, but said, "OK. Come to my room."
Did that mean what he thought it meant? He'd spent the whole summer waking up in the dark hard as petrified wood, thinking only of her. He'd given up any hope that those fantasies would become real. But hope came roaring back, his knees almost buckled under the weight of his accrued lust. He tried to rein himself in, told himself that she might only want to talk.
She unlocked her door and said, "Sit. I have some conditions."
He sat on her rumpled bed.
"You may not like this and if you don't you can go upstairs and we'll just forget about it." She took off her cardigan and the sight of her bare arms was almost too much, which was pretty damn pathetic. He pressed the heels of his hands into his eye sockets until he saw shifting back and white diamonds.
"We'll hang out, but only when I say so. If I want you to sleep here, you will. If I don't want you to, you won't. And if you disappear again with out finding a way to let me know—I will hunt you down and castrate you."
"Fine." He started to stand up, but held up her hands to fend him off.
"Wait. Fine? That's all you have to say?" She'd expected way more of an argument.
"I'm not proud. I'd agree to just about anything right now to be with you. I know it probably doesn't make any sense after what I did. But it's is truth."
She put her hands down and he was on her, probably a bit too enthusiastically, but she didn't seem to mind at all. She had her hands inside his clothes within seconds. It was all the sweeter for being so unexpected.
They wrestled each other to get clothing off. She laughed and it was the loveliest sound he'd ever heard. If she could laugh—he hadn't completely broken her. Maybe the right thing, the noble thing to do would be to walk away and leave her alone, but God help him. He couldn't.
She pulled his shirt over his head and then froze, frowning at him. He looked down at his abdomen and swore. He'd been so distracted by his dick that he'd forgotten how much his body had changed.
"Um. Wow," she said, but she sounded more disturbed than happy.
"What the hell have you been doing?" She let her fingertips drift down the cut of his hipbones until her fingers hooked into the waistband of his pants.
"A lot of exercise," he said. "Manual labor. Hiking mountains."
She gave him an unreadable look and then he was flat on his back. She'd tackled him. Apparently the changes met with her approval.
They had a lot of lost time to make up for, but after the third round he started to fall asleep. She shook him gently. "Alpha. Don't fall asleep here."
"Why," he said and yawned.
"Because you have to go back to your room. You agreed to my rules."
"Come on. Don't make me go. I want to stay here with you." He said into her shoulder.
"Maybe another night. I'm not ready yet."
He got dressed and kissed her goodnight, wondering if he could do this without cracking. He'd spent the entire summer following orders. He was still following their orders. And now he'd be following orders from Frankie too. But he had agreed even though he normally wasn't big on following rules and orders. It wasn't her fault if he hadn't been thinking with the right head when he agreed. He'd agreed.
Once he was back in his room he didn't feel like sleeping. He turned on his laptop and phone and waded into a sea of increasingly pissed off messages from well, everyone, but mostly from Winston.
The most recent had been sent an hour before and said, "If you do not return this message ASAP I will send a whole damn battalion to your dorm to haul you out of there so you can explain yourself."
He replied, 'No. You wouldn't. That would attract too much attention. Apologies. I'm fine, or at least I'm fine now."
An IM window popped up.
Winston: So she took you back?
Alpha: Yeah. How'd you know?
Winston: Lucky guess.
Alpha: Do you miss me?
Winston: Right. I barely know how to go on without you.
Alpha: Sorry I've been out of contact. The last week has been rough.
Winston: Yeah. It always is for you guys. When do you meet with him? I want updates. I want copies of everything.
Alpha: Aye Aye, Captain
Winston: You may be 569 miles away, but don't think I can't find you and make your life hell.
Alpha: Awwww. I miss you too. <3
Alpha: Yes, ma'am
Winston went offline and Alpha deleted the chat transcript. They'd planned very carefully how to communicate while Alpha was back at Harvard. They both needed to be careful about what was said online, or even on the phone. There were very few truly secure ways for them to exchange information. When he needed to send anything to Winston he had a very fancy, powerful laptop (that he had not personally assembled) with it's own wireless connection so that nothing sensitive went over the Harvard servers, secure shell access to the directories where he could upload images and documents. If and when it came time to hack into Sheehan's files, Alpha would use that computer and not his own battered mac. He'd built a false bottom into one of his desk drawers and lined hiding the space with thin metal plates. It was locked and alarmed and held his laptop, a few books, and a Beretta M9 with ammunition. Someone skilled could break into it, but not without a lot of trouble and noise. He'd also upgraded the lock on his door, but invisibly so.
Like it or not, Alpha always on duty He'd made his bed so to speak—well, actually Frankie had made his bed, but still.
Alpha emailed Sheehan to set up a time to meet. He emailed his mother so she'd get off his case. He wrote up a schedule and a to do list for the following day and then he crawled into bed for a few hours of sleep. The sheets smelled like smoke, but at least she'd touched them.
He managed to get his courses registered for the semester, meet with Sheehan, get all the textbooks he needed, eat lunch with Livingston, who was at least acting lukewarm towards him now. As they were walking out of the dining hall, Livingston said, "I don't know why she took you back, but you better treat her like gold."
"Don't worry about me." Even though he trusted both of them and believed that nothing had happened all summer, Livingston's tone set his teeth on edge.
"I'm definitely not worried about you." Livingston hurried off and Alpha almost shivered in the chill left behind. Maybe there was more damage on that front than he'd thought. He'd taken Livingston at his word when he'd said it wasn't a big deal that he hadn't heard from Alpha all summer. Though Livingston was a sensitive guy. Of course he was upset. And he was friends with Frankie. So yeah—it made sense. He'd have to work on repairing what he could, but maybe it was all for naught. He expected to completely disappear off everyone's radar next summer, but that was months away. He had to live in the here and now.
Sheehan was an odd duck. Maybe it was Alpha's imagination, but he'd never realized how secretive Sheehan was. He projected the air of an absentminded professor, looked lost in thought when he walked. He had a white noise machine in his office and had explained that he couldn't concentrate with out it, too many distractions.
When he left Alpha alone in his office for more than a minute, Alpha examined Sheehan's laptop, wearing thin gloves so as not to leave prints or even smudges behind. Sheehan had multiple alphanumeric passwords on his laptop and files. It didn't connect to the Internet and when Alpha checked inside—he saw that the wireless card had been removed, which meant he'd need the actual machine to hack it. That was going to be a pain because Sheehan did not leave it in his office terribly often and certainly not overnight. He was going to have to manufacture a situation to make that possible. He'd come up with a few schemes and run them by Winston.
Many of Sheehan's files were written in Chechen, but Alpha could understand enough to get the gist of them, and data was data. He made a mental note to find out if Sheehan was keeping any statistics back. Alpha figured he probably was, but the information he really needed to suss out was likely to be names, locations, places, and where funding was coming from.
He heard Sheehan returning and shut everything down and logged out, stripped off his gloves and went back to typing on his own laptop as if he'd been doing that the entire time.
He manipulated data, ran reports and at the same time ran through scenarios to get Sheehan away from his laptop. They all seemed kind of extreme though. A big enough fire to empty the building—he could request a small respirator so that he could remain inside. A bomb threat? He didn't like that idea and he knew it would be easier to clear the building and that the police would check every room. That was standard operating procedure for code black. Wendell had run through the operating procedures in place at Harvard for emergency situations for just this reason.
As much as he hated the idea of a fire and worried that it might injure someone, he wasn't sure what other options he had—other than stealing Sheehan's laptop, which presented other problems. Sheehan would be suspicious that his security had been compromised if the laptop went missing and he might lockdown tighter on his security after that.
Winston agreed to his plan and they ran through all the details and fail-safes three times. Alpha was still concerned that the fire could get out of hand, could hurt someone, would damage property. But he was doing what he was doing to save lives—at least he hoped he was.
Alpha had located an unused corner office on the third floor above a file room. It belonged to a professor on sabbatical. He calculated that most people would be out of the building at 12:30pm and when on a day he knew that Sheehan had run out for lunch and left his laptop locked in his office, Alpha slipped up to the third floor without being seen. There were no security cameras in the building and he'd checked that the sprinkler system was operational. He waited for a day when the entire third floor was empty and stood in the office for a moment, regretting that he'd probably be destroying personal mementoes and who knows what else by doing this. Guilt was fast becoming an emotion he couldn't afford so he roughly shouldered it aside and sparked an electrical fire (as Wendell had taught him to) so that no one would suspect it was arson. The fire wouldn't spread as quickly as an arsonist would want, but Alpha aimed to destroy as little as possible. He just needed the building emptied.
He crept back down into the second floor bathroom and waited for the alarms to sound, waited for people to exit the building, before monitoring the corridor to make sure he was alone. He locked himself in Sheehan's office and put on the small respirator, which would give him thirty minutes breathing time. He really needed to be out of the building quicker than that. His hands were shaking as he plugged in the cables to transfer everything on Sheehan's hard drive to his spy laptop.
It took almost six minutes to transfer all the contents using software that Gutierrez had designed for that purpose. Alpha made sure Sheehan's laptop was exactly where and how he had left it, then he packed up his things, left Sheehan's office and went back to the rest room. The fire was spreading at approximately the speed he had calculated it would. Winston had had someone research the composition of the building's structure, building materials, the carpets, furniture, and insulation to come up with a highly accurate plan.
The bathroom was already foggy with acrid smoke. Alpha flushed the respirator down the toilet, went over to the sinks with his laptop bag strapped across his chest and put on a small pair of noise cancelling headphones plugged into some loud music on his phone. He needed some excuse as to why he'd remained in the building despite the alarms. He waited for the smoke to knock him out, coughing his lungs out, which it did very quickly.
The firemen must have found him and had carried him outside before he regained consciousness because he was being loaded him into an ambulance. Alpha was relieved that his bag was being transported with him—it was at his feet. He must have hit his head when he'd gone down because they'd put a cervical collar on him and had strapped him to a backboard. He'd been intubated and the tube down his throat was uncomfortable. He had a thundering pain above his right ear and around the back of his head. His throat was raw—he began coughing, which made the tube doubly uncomfortable.
"Welcome back," a female paramedic said. "You've been unconscious for at least fifteen minutes. My name is Rita. We're taking you to Mt. Auburn Hospital to get you checked out. I intubated you and I have to leave the tube in your throat. Sorry, I know it's uncomfortable, but you have significant swelling in your trachea and I can't take a chance that it might swell closed. I've put an IV in your hand and given you a mild sedative. You might feel a little groggy because of that."
Alpha would have nodded to show that he understood, but he couldn't strapped down as he was, so he gave her the thumbs up. The ambulance was speeding along with the siren on, which meant they were trying to get him to the hospital as quickly as possible. Part of him couldn't believe that he'd done it. He'd succeeded on his first mission (touch wood.) Mostly he felt like crap though.
At the ER, a brisk blonde doctor with ice cold hands ordered a CT scan of his head, X-Rays of cervical spine, and used a bronchoscope to examine his smoke ravaged trachea and bronchial tubes, which were swollen and badly irritated, but not burned.
A nurse asked if he wanted to contact anyone and found his phone for him and called Frankie to explain where he was.
"She's on her way over." The nurse put his phone back in his bag. The orderly who came to wheel him to Radiology was very friendly and had a big hello for everyone they passed in the hall.
Frankie was waiting for him, white faced and tense around the mouth when he was wheeled back into his bay in the ER.
A single tear tracked down her right cheek and that was all she let out. She wrapped her hands around his and kissed his forehead. "The nurse won't tell me what's going on because I'm not a family member."
They'd taken the collar off him once they'd ruled out any spinal trauma so he was able to nod, but he couldn't speak with the tube. He squeezed her hands.
The doctor returned and asked if Frankie was going to be the one to keep an eye on him once he was released. Frankie said that she was and Alpha nodded gently in agreement and grabbed her hand to give it a little thank you squeeze.
The doctor explained that his trachea and bronchial tubes were swollen and irritated, but there was no sign that they'd be burned. He was very lucky that he didn't have carbon monoxide poisoning, which was strange considering how long he'd been in the building. Of course, they didn't know and he couldn't explain about the respirator.
He'd need to stay overnight for observation so that they could make sure the swelling didn't become life threatening, but they'd probably release him tomorrow afternoon. The CT scan was all clear—he had a mild concussion. She said they were going to give some pain medicine for his head and his throat that would probably help him sleep. What he needed most right now was rest and fluids.
"They'll take you up to your room in a few minutes and I'll come by and check on you before the end of my shift this evening, Alessandro." She smiled sympathetically and hurried on to her next patient. A nurse injected something in to
"I called Matthew. He wants to know if he can come by and see you once you're settled?" Frankie was scrolling through something on her phone and then glanced up at him.
He nodded as well as he could with a tube down his throat and closed his eyes, drifting off on a cloud of drugs.
The doctor woke him and said she was going to take a look at his throat again. He began to wonder if she was in there measuring for drapes when she finally removed the scope and said, "The swelling seems to be slowing, which is a good sign. If things continue to improve by morning we'll take out the breathing tube. In a few hours the nurse will give you something to help ease the pain and help you sleep.
"Visiting hours are over, but I won't tell if you won't." The doctor nodded her head at Frankie who was asleep in the reclining chair next to his bed.
Alpha was groggy, but awake, well, sort of awake. He watched Frankie sleep for a while until she was awoken by a code being called over the intercom. She sat, stretched, and wiped the sleep from her eyes.
"Hi," she said, trying to suppress a yawn. "Matthew came by, but he didn't want to wake you. He brought you some clean clothes and your toothbrush and stuff. We put it in your locker with your laptop bag."
Alpha had to fight to keep his eyes from straying to the cupboard, like he was interested or worried. If he remained cool and detached, her curiosity would not be piqued, but God how he wanted to hide the laptop, or get the files off of it ASAP.
"Whose laptop is that? Did you get a new one?" she asked casually.
Of course she'd looked. Damn it. He closed his eyes tight.
"Sorry. I was trying to find some paper and a pen in case you wanted to write anything down. I left campus in such a rush I didn't even grab my bag, just my wallet."
He motioned for her to hand him the pad and pen and lied. "Laptop is Sheehan's."
"Before you went to the bathroom? Before the alarm went off?" Her face was so funny and in less serious circumstances he might have laughed, or at least wanted to. One really shouldn't laugh with a tube in one's throat.
He wrote, "No. We had a meeting and I was supposed to bring it over in Littauer with someone in Economics who's been working on some new software for quantitative analysis."
She nodded. "Do you need me to take it to him? I can drop it off in the morning?
Alpha gripped the pen hard and did not write, "NO!" But it was a close call.
He shook his head and scrawled, "He's off tomorrow with his kid, getting him ready for some intensive sleep away SAT prep program. His wife will thank me for keeping his laptop away from him for a day."
Alpha waved his hand to stop her and shook his head. She raised her eyebrows and shook her head, but capitulated.
"I should go. It's late and the nurses will probably kick me out soon."
He shook his head and wrote, "Please stay. At least until they kick you out?"
She nodded and pulled the clunky chair up to the side of his bed and curled her legs under her.
He wrote, "Did anyone else get hurt? Did they put out the fire? What happened?"
"One fireman had to be treated for smoke exhalation, but he was fine with a little oxygen. They did put out the fire. It pretty much gutted one office and a file room, but they put it out before it spread too far. The Crimson says they suspect it was an electrical fire. But I don't understand why you didn't hear the alarms. Why didn't you get out?"
His handwriting was worse than usual. "Headphones. I've been wearing headphones when I work in Sheehan's office. The hallway is noisy, but he won't let me work anywhere else sometimes."
There. Let her think Sheehan was weird and slightly paranoid, which was actually true.
"Yeah, but those alarms are loud. You should have been able to hear it."
He wrote, "Noise cancelling. A bomb could go off and I wouldn't hear it."
"I didn't know you had noise cancelling headphones. When did you get those?"
"Over the summer," he wrote. "Lot's of plane rides. Lots of noise places to work. They helped me stay focused. Sheehan gave them to me."
She shook her head. "But, Alpha. Weren't there flashing lights with the alarm too?"
"Not in the can."
"Oh." She let the topic drop, but my God she was tenacious. Normally he liked that about her, but right now it was annoying.
The nurse came in and ejected Frankie, who kissed Alpha on the corner of his mouth and left saying she'd be back in the morning.
Whatever the nurse injected into his IV had him nodding off in a snap.
They released him late the next afternoon into Frankie's care with instructions for bed rest for at least a day. They gave him in an inhaler, advised soft, bland foods for a week, and told him to return immediately if he had difficulty breathing.
Frankie bundled him into a cab and fussed over him until he was tucked up in his bed like a burrito, with cool water and his inhaler and half the books in his room within reach.
She settled down to work at his desk and ninety-nine percent of the time he wouldn't have minded, he really wanted to upload the files and report to Winston. Under the guise of texting his mother, he texted Winston to let her know the basics and that he couldn't finish the task right now.
She texted back, "Get well first."
Frankie decided to sleep in her room so that he'd sleep better and he wanted to ask her to stay, tell her than he'd sleep better her with her there, but he'd promised to abide by her decisions and rules. So he let her go.
She stopped in the doorway. "Oh. Hey. I can take Sheehan's laptop over to his office in the morning." She headed for his bag and he sprang out of bed and grabbed her wrist before she could open the bag. He mentally reviewed the contents. There wasn't anything suspicious in there.
She yanked her wrist away. "What are you doing? Get back in bed."
Alpha had been told not to talk at all, if possible, but he said in a hoarse whisper, "Leave it."
"Fine. Get back into bed, you lunatic." She herded him across the room and wrapped him up tightly again. He hated to be constrained that way and he'd loosen the sheets and blankets as soon as she left, but he let her do it.
She shot one suspicious look at his bag, said good night, and left. He kicked free of his blanket prison. Both his head and his throat ached so he popped a pain pill and drank as much water as he could. He sent an email to his professors explaining where he was and why he'd be missing class and turning in two late assignments. He bolted his door and the secondary lock and switched on the motion sensor.
He opened up his stealth laptop and connected to the Internet through the government's restricted version of the 4G wireless network. He ran an encryption program on the files, not once, but twice—as instructed and uploaded them to the appropriate directory. The pain pill was making him kind of muzzy headed, but he was able to keep himself alert until the files were transferred. He logged out of the machine and powered it down. He'd need to make sure that Frankie didn't see him with it again. He locked in its hiding place, double checked everything, and turned off the motion sensor near his door.
He woke up parched and stiff, glad Frankie had left half a dozen bottles of spring water near his bed.
He dragged himself to his desk and tried to catch up on his classwork. His brain was sluggish and he kept getting lost in his thoughts. Residual effects of all the pain meds, his figured.
Winston IMed: Feeling better?
Alpha: Yes, ma'am
Winston: Good work. High marks all around. Your Aunt Sarah will be stopping up to see you next week. You'll be alerted to the time and place and how to proceed soon.
Alpha: duly noted
Winston: Get to bed. Your work can wait.
Alpha: OK, mom
Winston said nothing else. Alpha worked for another hour, but it was a Pyrrhic victory since he took in approximately none of what he was reading. He wondered if he should have told Winston about Frankie's curiosity, but decided he was glad he hadn't. Better to keep her out of it as much as possible.
After a couple of days he was up and about, if a little tired. His voice was still rough and whispery, but his throat was healing quickly.
Frankie and Matthew had both been checking on him or sitting with him as much as they could without missing classes and practicums. Alpha had to almost literally push Frankie out the door to go to dance class, but she went.
He ran into Sheehan when he was on his way to a senior seminar on the current political climate in Russia.
"Alpha. How are you feeling?"
"Better," Alpha rasped.
"I was shocked when I heard you had to be carried out. I'm glad they found you in time." Sheehan gripped Alpha's shoulder in an avuncular way and squeezed. He wasn't a bad guy and Alpha had no real big picture of what was going on, why Sheehan was keeping his findings a secret. So he was withholding judgment.
Frankie spotted them and came over. Alpha had already introduced them.
"Hello, Professor Sheehan. I hope your office survived the fire."
"Just a little smoke damage. I was very lucky." Sheehan nodded and smiled grimly.
"Did you manage to get your son off to his SAT prep course?" Frankie asked and although she looked completely innocent he couldn't help but suspect that she was checking the veracity of his statements.
"Sorry?" Sheehan frowned. "I think you must have me confused with someone else. My son is only five. I don't think he'll be taking the SATs for a few years."
Alpha grabbed Frankie's hand squeezed it hard and shook his head very slightly.
"Let me know when you're back up to speed," Sheehan said.
"I'm better. I can meet you tomorrow."
"If you're sure? OK. I've got a temporary office in Knafel. 309. See you tomorrow."
Once Sheehan was gone, Frankie faced him and waited for an explanation.
"You know I can't explain. Please just leave it."
She shook her head and dropped his hand. "This isn't going to work if you keep lying to me." She hurried across the path in front of Memorial Hall, making a beeline for Harvard Yard.
He jogged to catch up and the effort burned his throat and lungs and he was gasping a bit by the time he reached for her arm. He didn't have the breath to ask her to wait, so he held on.
"You knew," he managed to say. "You know there were things I wasn’t going to be able to talk about. I told you that night after we went to IHOP."
"You did. But I said you'd abide by my rules. And right now I don't want to talk to you." She removed her arm from his grasp and headed for Widener.
A couple of people stopped and asked how he was doing. News of the fire had spread and he knew that The Crimson had named him when they'd reported a student had been carried out of the building and treated at Mt. Auburn Hospital.
His wrecked voice kept everyone from asking him too many questions and he was able to head back to his room and take a much-needed nap.
He didn't hear from Frankie at all over the next couple of days. He typed up dozens of texts and emails and then deleted them before he could send them. Everywhere he walked—he kept an eye out for her, hoping to run across her. Which finally happened on Thursday afternoon outside Johnson Gate. She was talking to Hinckley Jr. of all people and it did not look like a friendly conversation. Frankie was glaring at Hinckley's oily smirk. Alpha paused and watched, too far away to hear what they were saying. They were definitely arguing, or at least Hinckley was. Frankie turned to walk away and Hinckley grabbed her and pulled her back. Alpha was at her side in seconds.
"What exactly is going on here?"
"Nothing." Hinckley let go and held his hands up innocently.
"It's fine." Frankie tugged Alpha away and they walked into the heart of the Yard. When the rounded the side of University Hall, Alpha drew her aside and asked what the hell was going on.
"Nothing. He just didn't want to take no for an answer." Frankie was frowning at the asphalt path.
"I'll kill him." Alpha started off back toward the gate.
"No. Not like that. He wanted me to join a charity auction thing your Finals Club is having, you know, one of those stupid things where the auction off women like cattle to raise money. It's demeaning and I won't do it."
"I didn't know we were having one." Alpha hadn't been paying attention to much besides his mission and his classwork and his research and Frankie. There wasn't time leftover for anything else.
"You may not be. My feminist group is lodging a formal complaint with the Dean. I've offered to help find another way to raise money, but Hinckley is really set on the stupid auction. He keeps telling me it will be fun and to ease up."
"He probably just wants a chance to bid on you."
He was gratified to see Frankie shiver at that thought. He knew she had more sense and better taste than to ever have anything to do with Hinckley Jr., but the extra evidence pleased his lizard brain.
"It's pretty odd how different he is from his father," Alpha said. For the millionth time he wished he had a retract button for words that had left his mouth.
"You met with him right? Did he help you get into Chechnya?"
"Something like that." He knew he had to give her some sort of answer.
"But you can't talk about it."
He nodded. She sighed.
"I don't know, Alpha. I don't know how to do this. I feel like a doormat if I let you lie to me like this, no matter what you signed or what good reasons you might have. I can't stand not knowing. It's eating away at me—bringing out aspects of my personality I don't particularly like and have tried to divert into other activities and causes."
He knew she'd been the driving force behind a few protests and petitions—one to encourage the administration to raise wages for the maintenance and dining hall workers—that had been a big success. As far as he knew she hadn't been behind any campus pranks, but with Frankie you just never knew.
"So, what do you want me to do?" He braced himself for the answer.
"I'll let you know. I'm heading back to Quincy. Are you?"
He nodded and fell into step beside her. She kissed him, almost absent-mindedly before she stepped off the elevator on her floor. He got the unspoken message—don't call me, I'll call you.
He buried himself in his work and tried not to think about it, not to worry, but it was a little like trying to stop an arterial bleed with a cotton ball.
He was asleep and the rattling of his door handle woke him. It was almost four. He wondered if he should grab his gun out of the desk, but he heard Frankie call his name softly.
He opened the door. She was in her pajamas and her eyes were red rimmed. He had no idea what was wrong, but he opened his arms and gathered her up.
"I had a nightmare. You were…" She snuffled into his bare chest. "It seemed so real. I had to come up and check on you."
"It's OK. I'm fine." He smoothed her hair.
"Can I stay with you?" She tipped her head up to look at him through glassy eyes.
It was so odd for her to ask. She'd been ordering him around like Winston for months, seldom letting him sleep in her room, and never sleeping in his.
"Sure." He closed the door and ferried her under his duvet, letting her press her cold toes against his calves without complaint.
"Better?" he asked, but she was already asleep.
The next assignment Winston gave him was to translate the files he copied from Sheehan's laptop, or at least to translate them to the best of his ability. He suspected they were merely trying to keep his newly acquired Chechen from evaporating. It was easy enough to work on it in his spare time, which he seemed to have in abundance—at least compared to the total lack of it he'd had over the summer.
Things with Frankie weren't like they'd been the year before, but they were better than he'd expected or felt he deserved. She seemed to ease up on her need to command his presence and often just assumed he'd stay in her room, or she in his.
On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, Alpha was crossing Kirkland Street when someone called his name. He turned and saw Sarah walking toward him.
"Let's get a coffee," she said.
Had she known he was done with classes for the day? Probably. "How are you?"
"Well enough. You've been doing a solid job with the translations, but we have a new assignment for you. It should be simple enough, basically a courier run, but we can't send just anyone. We need someone who will make sure the materials are kept safe and completely hidden."
"OK." What else could he say?
"Your flight is tomorrow at five. I have all the details for you. I'll give it to you before I go—"
"Tomorrow?" Alpha said, startled. He was supposed to spend Thanksgiving with Frankie and her family. Their train left the next morning.
"Is that a problem?" Sarah knew it was, but she was testing him.
"No. Just short notice." He cleared his throat and wondered what the hell he was going to tell Frankie. It couldn't hurt to ask for help. "Any idea what I can tell my girlfriend?"
Sarah smiled. "Anything but the truth."
She couldn't hang about so they got their coffee to go and she made distracting small talk the entire time. She handed Alpha a thick manila envelope and climbed into a taxi outside Holyoke Center.
Alpha hurried back to his room and with the door locked and the sensor on he opened the envelope. Inside was an itinerary. He was taking a commercial flight to Moscow the next day, arriving in Moscow on Thursday. He'd be spending the night at a hotel near the airport and flying back home. Someone was going to meet him in the airport in Brussels for the handoff. Wendell had covered basic handoffs with him. There was no information about what he'd be picking up, which worried him. With his luck he'd get there to find a live tiger out of his cage.
So he had to make up a plausible story to explain to his mother and to Frankie why he wasn't going home. Blaming it on Sheehan seemed like the obvious choice and for that reason it bothered him, but he also didn't want to end up in another awkward situation with Frankie questioning Sheehan about one of his lies. Though he could blame Sheehan when explaining to his mother. There wasn't much of a chance she and Frankie would talk to each other. He'd tell Frankie as much of the truth as he could, that he couldn't tell her anything and that he was sorry.
He told her in his room so that she could leave if she wanted to. She sat down on his bed, frowning. "They don't give you much warning do they?"
He looked steadily at her, but said nothing.
"You know what's weird? You're following a lot of orders for someone named Alpha."
"That's a little over simplistic, isn't it? We all have to follow rules and instructions all the time."
She sighed. "OK. There isn't much I can do about this, but I don't like it. I don't like that you'll so easily stand me up when they tell you to." She stood up. "Are you sure you know what you're doing?"
"No. I'm not sure, but I have to try."
She took one last look at him and went down to her room to grab a few things.
She was right—being so subservient chafed sometimes, but these were the hoops he had to jump through to get where he wanted to go. He wished he could explain to her about the chicken pox and those novels and how the idea had taken root deep in his brain. It wasn't just that he wanted to be James Bond or Jason Bourne or George Smiley; he wanted to do something to effect change in the world, to make things better—and maybe that was naïve when working for a secret Government organization. Maybe he wouldn't do anyone any good, but it seemed more likely that he would do something as a spy than as say, a stockbroker. Additionally—though he was given commands and put in difficult situations—much of the how was left up to him and that freedom would probably increase in the future.
He walked Frankie and Livingston to the T and said goodbye there. Livingston clearly didn't buy Alpha's explanation that Sheehan needed him to help him prepare a last minute grant application, but he just shrugged and looked sour faced. He was taking the train as far as Providence, where his sister would pick him up and drive them both to Woods Hole and the ferry out to the vineyard.
"I'm sorry," he whispered to Frankie when he kissed her goodbye.
She nodded stoically. There wasn't anything to say about it. It was what it was. He was choosing this new life again and again over her and he was surprised she was putting up with it at all, but he knew why. She loved him, but that didn't make him feel warm and fuzzy. It made him feel like a creep.
Their other suitemates had left, except for De Vargas, whose family lived super close by in Wellesley.
"What crawled up Livingston's ass?" DeVargas asked.
"No idea. Maybe it's his time of the month?" Alpha said, knowing DeVargas would laugh.
He triple checked all his papers, the books he was bringing, and made sure he had his passport Sarah had delivered to him with the Russian visa inside it.
The first flight was a short trip to Montreal. He changed planes and managed to sleep a little on the overnight flight to Brussels, where he stumbled into the airport stiff limbed and groggy. He had to run to make the flight to Moscow and they were about to close the door, but let him through. His schedule really wouldn't allow for delayed flights. Missing a flight would probably mean an extra day of travel.
He wrote half an essay exploring infighting between Chechen rebels, snuck in a short nap, and ate a tasteless sandwich and some coffee that wasn't the absolute worst he'd ever had.
He'd memorized his assignment since he wasn't supposed to carry any indication of what he was doing on him and went to the gate where a flight from Tbilisi was arriving shortly. Domodevodo was a large, clean modern airport and looked a lot like many of the European airports that Alpha had been through, though of course those trips had dried up when Bill had dumped his mother. As he'd known she would, she had been shrill on the phone with him when he'd called to tell her he wasn’t coming home for Thanksgiving, He'd listened to her vent her feelings for an hour and then his flight had been called so he'd had to go.
Passengers began filing off the flight from Georgia and Alpha waited in the seating area, reading, and staying inconspicuous. A tall, blonde woman stopped in front of him and asked him, in Russian, for the time.
He answered, as he'd been instructed, "I'm sorry. I've lost my phone. Perhaps you could ask at the counter."
She nodded and instead of handing him an envelope or package she had a woman sit next to him and she walked off without another word.
Alpha looked expectantly at the woman, more of a girl really, maybe his age—hard to tell. She was wearing big pink headphones that leaked loud pop music. She was pretty in an overly made up way—too much mascara, too much eyeliner and an eye-popping shade of lipstick. Her jeans were super tight and her sweater too small and she had on enough perfume for like six people.
Without taking off her headphones she said in Chechen, "Are we going to sit here all day?"
Why didn't he ever see these things coming? He ended up at a hotel near the airport, sharing a room with a bad tempered Chechen brat who was the daughter of some fairly well connected mafia type. Alpha wasn't even sure which Bratva her father was with. They really never told him enough and he didn't know if it was because they were so secretive, or if it was because they wanted to make things as challenging as possible for him.
Olga wouldn't tell him her last name and she refused to get off her phone unless he agreed to drink vodka with her. It was like a scene from a bad movie, because what the hell kind of spy ends up in an airport hotel with spoiled mob teenager drinking vodka and watching her text people?
The whole night was kind of a blur, but he was afraid she'd disappear if he went to sleep. He followed her to a vending machine twice, once for snacks and once so she could buy some sort of energy drink. At some point she stripped down to her underwear and stood on her bed singing something that took Alpha two minutes to realize was Beyoncé. She took a lot of pictures of herself with her phone too. This was probably what babysitting was like if you were allowed to get wasted with your charge.
He was pretty sure he was still drunk the next day when they sat down on their flight back to Brussels. He'd showered, but he swore he could smell vodka oozing out his pores.
She slept on the flight while listening to loud music. The handoff was spectacularly fast and low key. He passed Olga off to a middle aged American man and slept on his flight back to Montreal. When they landed he texted Winston as he'd been instructed to and said he'd be home at six, which was code for the mission being successful.
He was still asleep on Sunday afternoon when Frankie knocked on his door. He let her in and climbed back into bed.
"You look terrible, but at least no one shot you." She sat on the end of his bed and smoothed his hair back from his forehead. "Don't mind me. Go back to sleep if you need to. I bought a book."
He surfaced from the murky depths of jetlagged sleep to find her sitting in his desk chair staring at him, eyes narrowed and lips flat.
"So," she said.
"I'm too tired for games. What?" He sat up and twisted until his back cracked.
Frankie held out his phone. "It kept ringing and I was worried it was going to wake you up. I was trying to turn the ringer off."
Alpha took his phone, looked at it, and nearly threw it against the wall. He had no memory of Olga taking pictures with his phone, but she had. A whole slew of them—both of them. Drinking vodka and Olga in her hot pink underwear. There was no way to explain.
Frankie raised an eyebrow.
"I'm not going to insult you by saying, 'it's not what it looks like' but it wasn't. It was like babysitting a spoiled teenager."
"In her underwear with vodka?" Frankie got up and left. And it was only after she'd shut the door that he remembered about Porter Welch cheating on her all those years ago. Damn.
He figured the kindest thing he could do was leave her alone. So he did. He would have gnawed off his own fingers if he hadn't been slammed with work because Frankie didn't come to see him and didn't call him, text, or email. He saw her at meals sometimes when she was perfectly polite, but distant.
Two nights before the start of winter break she found him in Widener and she dropped a slip of paper in front of him and wandered off. The only thing written there was a Library of Congress call number. He stood up quickly and made his way to the chart to figure out where in the stacks she was headed. They'd never met up in the stacks like she'd said she wanted to. Apparently she wanted to right now.
He fought the urge to run because he'd been craving this, craving her and once again he found himself willing to take whatever he could get. A few years ago he would have punched someone if they'd told him would be like this, but everything was different now. He was different.
She was facing the bookshelf in a dimly lit section deep in the Russian section. No irony there. She'd taken off her winter coat and draped over some books to her right. She didn't turn around and since conversation would probably just much everything up, he slipped up behind her and pulled her flush against him gripping her hips. He'd been hard since he'd realized what the call number meant.
For the first few minutes he was so lost in touching her that he didn’t think anything about her facing away from him, until he tried to turn her around so that he could kiss her properly.
"No," she said.
"I can't kiss you?"
"You were just kissing me."
"You know what I mean. I want to really kiss you. Turn around." He tried to spin her by the shoulders but she wriggled away.
"You'll stay behind me or I will leave." She reached into the pocket of her coat and handed him a condom. "You'll need this since we're not exclusive anymore."
For a moment he thought she meant that she'd been with someone else, but then it rocked him. She really thought he'd fucked Olga. Olga. You couldn't have paid him to sleep with Olga. She was an affront to anyone with a sense of smell.
He took a breath to tell her that he hadn't slept with Olga or anyone else, but she raised her hand to stop him.
"Look. I don't want to know. Either do this or don't." She was trying to sound more blasé than she actually could and he wouldn’t call her on that. He'd put her in an impossibly shitty situation.
He rolled on the condom and choked a little when she pulled her skirt up. She wasn't wearing anything underneath. He hated himself a little bit more for being so weak, for being such a guy, but given the chance between fucking her and not fucking her? Well, one would probably always win. She bent at the waist and hooked her fingers under the metal edge of the shelf in front of her. Entering was easy because she was practically dripping.
As glorious as it felt physically he felt like shit when they were done. She put her coat back on and left without word. The expression on her face—a mix of sadness and disappointment. He went to the restroom to wash up and stared at himself in the mirror, not quite sure whom he was looking at.
They made no plans to meet up over winter break and the few times he texted she didn't respond.
He heard from Livingston twice and that was about it. He'd heard nothing from Winston or Sarah at all.
The day his last semester began was gray and cold—pretty much like most of January and February. He'd taken up running again in the mornings because Winston has hinted that if he didn't he'd be really unhappy come summer time. The first week passed and he saw here in the distance, but she didn't acknowledge him, or maybe didn't see him—he reassured himself.
He was heading out on Friday morning just after six to run down by the river. She was coming in, with heavily smudged eye makeup. He knew a 'walk of shame' when he saw one, but he really wanted to put his fist through a wall. He'd settle for a name and room number so he could go and pulverize whomever had messed up her hair and bruised her lips.
She shrugged one shoulder at him and said, "You started it."
He didn't lose his cool. He didn't shout. He didn’t demand to know where she'd been or with whom. She went for blood and told him anyway.
"Against your advice—I did that auction Hinckley wanted me to. You were right." She went in and got into the elevator.
She'd been with fucking skeevey ass Hinckley? It took every last milligram of his self-control, but he walked down to the Charles and started running. He ran all the way around MIT and up into Charlestown, before he could entertain a coherent thought. He told himself he had no right to be feeling any of the things he was feeling, but that didn't help at all.
He walked back to his dorm and instead of attacking his homework, he sat at his desk with his legs stuck out in front of him and stared at nothing until it grew dark. Then it was done. He was done. He disliked this whole situation between them, but he wasn't going to be the force that drove her toward bad decisions like Hinckley. He'd have to tell her, but decided to wait and see if she approached him again, otherwise there was no point.
What he didn’t expect was for Hinckley to come find him in his suite Saturday night. Alpha had been about to see if Livingston or anyone else wanted to go to a movie. He could've used some senseless violence.
"I need to talk to you," Hinckley said after barging in and closing the door behind him.
"Please. Come right in."
"Be as sarcastic as you like. I just wanted to tell you that I didn't touch her." Hinckley looked nervous and ready to block Alpha.
"That's not what she said." Alpha tried to wipe a black smudge off the edge of his desk.
"I imagine not. She's pretty upset. She asked me if I wanted to have a drink. We had a lot of them and then she invited herself back to my room and then yammered on and on about you. I know you so well now I could be your brother—and yeah, I know you don't have one."
"She asked you to have a drink? What about the auction?"
Hinckley shook his head slowly. "Auction?"
"Yeah. Never mind." Fine. If she was telling such pathetically transparent lies, she obviously wanted to get caught.
"I think she really cares about you. I have no idea what's going on between you two, but I swear to God I won't lay a finger on her. Not that I think she'd let me."
"Why are you telling me this?" Alpha asked leaning back in his chair.
"Because I know you're connected with my father now and I am not stupid enough to try and get on the bad side of someone connected with his work."
Alpha nodded because there was nothing else to say. Frankie knew that the merest whiff of her with Hinckley would push his buttons so she'd opted to key smash them. He reminded himself for the millionth time that it was his fault, that he'd brought this him on himself, but that excuse was starting to wear pretty thin. Just a few more months became his new mantra.
Weeks eddied by and he had no contact with her really. He figured that if she were doing anything crazy—Livingston would let him know. Livingston had long since stopped asking Alpha to hang out and Alpha set himself a feverish pace for finishing his work, his research, and the study he needed to before the summer—before he went back to complete his training.
His mother and grandmother came up for graduation. His mother hadn't booked a room in advance and had been so lucky that she'd waltzed in thirty seconds after a cancellation at the Charles Hotel, but it was a suite and cost more than most people's monthly rents to stay for four days. He just rolled his eyes and watched her hand over her credit card. The only thing that kept him playing along with her demands to be ferried around Boston and shown every square of stone Washington had so much as sneezed on—was his guilt. Because he was leaving and he couldn't tell her the truth and he might never see her again if his luck didn’t hold.
As he'd predicted, she went into hysterics when he told her he was going to work with Sheehan in Russia for a while. It was a near thing, but he'd managed to keep his professor and his mother separate after graduation. His mother would have demanded to know why Sheehan was dragging her son all over the world and making him miss family holidays, and spewing all the other manipulative jibes on her hit parade.
She asked once where Frankie was and when Alpha said they'd broken up, she said, "Well, that's good. She wasn't right for you."
"What do you mean exactly?" Alpha had been about to take a sip of coffee and lowered the cup.
"She's a user—only out for what she can get from you. You can't trust her."
His unspoken thought was, "You mean like you, mom?" But it wasn't true about Frankie and he didn't want to know why his mother saw her that way. Maybe she was projecting?
He was glad to see them into a taxi on the last day. It was weird to be leaving Cambridge, but Harvard was a weird place—almost mercenary. Sure. People go to Harvard because of the prestige, and to get what was supposed to be a world-class education, but mostly they go because of the doors it'll open for you later on. And for Alpha it had served its purpose, but OK, fine. He'd miss it. He hadn't loved it with the same naïve affection he'd had for Alabaster, but perhaps clear eyed affection is more lasting.
He put the last of his things into the rental truck that Sarah had arranged for him and watched the driver speed off with his entire life—at least his old life. With only one change of clothes, two books, and the things he'd been instructed to bring to Langley-Eustis, he left for the airport.
Maybe it was better he hadn't seen her before he'd left, but it still hurt like fuck. It felt like a lot of things—like he was leaving a vital part of himself behind, like he would never heal, like he was making a terrible mistake. He ignored all of those feelings.
When they landed in Dulles he switched his phone back on and there was a text. It said, "Be well. Think of me from time to time. I'll miss you."
He sat down in an empty row of seats, permitting himself the luxury of sinking into his misery for two whole minutes. It was over. He'd probably never see her again. He wondered how she'd turn out, but he made a firm promise to himself: he would not use his resources to check up on her.
And for six years he kept his word.
Chapter 11: Six Years Later
He couldn't remember when he'd started to think in Celsius and metric units, but he did now, occasionally translating back into the quaint measurements of his childhood. It was 29 degrees today in Cyprus and much warmer than the three Celsius it had been in Grozny when he'd flown out two days ago, or it was eighty-four degrees and thirty-seven degrees respectively. It'd be a few more days before he thawed all the way down to his marrow. Russian winters are exactly what you'd expect.
He lolled back in his beach chair and tried to be present in his body and nothing else--only aware that he was warm and breathing. He could never completely relax because he was never truly 'off duty.' He could never be sure no one was watching him, couldn't be sure he was safe. He'd been warned about toll hypervigilance takes on a person, but it was better to be fucked up than dead. He'd been attacked so many times and could be jumped again at any moment. It was less likely on vacation though it had happened that time in Morocco. But still he did his best to let the Aegean sun turn him soft and sleepy.
The Organization trained him for nearly two years after he left Harvard, though they'd sent him on many short missions during that time. He'd been to see his mom twice in the last six years and he'd heard from Matthew Livingston two or three times, but otherwise he couldn't talk to anyone from his past and there weren't that many people in his present he wanted to have a heart to heart with. In fact there were exactly zero.
Four years ago he'd been posted in Grozny to set up shop as a disillusioned American ex-pat with a taste for gun running and dabbling in the black market. His training and most of the missions had all been in the service of creating a life and a back story for 'Joe Turner', which they'd all agreed, was a really fake sounding alias. They didn't want anyone to think 'Joe Turner' was the sharpest knife in the drawer. Russians and Europeans often dismissed Americans as spoiled and not very bright. Alpha was able to pull that off with ease.
He sank deeper into the yellow canvas chair, gritty with sand, and switched his focus to the waves lapping against the shore, but he was too attuned to listening to people, listening for footsteps, bracing for explosions and gunfire, and even small things like the snick of a lock. He couldn't just listen to the ocean, because it was drown out by everything else. It was like this the first couple of days of every vacation; he couldn’t turn off.
For the first year or two, he'd ignored Sarah's suggestion that he take a break, go somewhere and relax, go be a tourist somewhere. He'd kept working, because the thing about being a spy? There's a lot of downtime. A lot of planning. Long spates of waiting and research, gathering Intel, punctuated by bursts of activity. He decided he'd had enough downtime as it was and kept on working.
Then he'd been shot in the neck. It wasn't the first time he'd been shot, but it'd been the first time he'd been critically injured. He'd thrown himself in front of a small time smuggler who specialized in high-end electronics, which you just could not buy legally in Chechnya for love or money. Alpha should have been able to knock the target aside without managing to get himself shot. His reflexes were dull. He had to be spirited out of the Russian hospital and transferred to an American Army base in Uzbekistan once he was stable.
The doctors had diagnosed him with exhaustion on top of the bullet wound that had come very close to severing his carotid. He'd been ordered (directly by Hinckley) to go to Aruba and sit on the beach for a month. Ironically Alpha'd been shot by an acquaintance in the CIA, who sent him a get-well card:
You were lucky my aim was off.
Your pal, John Wilkes Booth
During that recovery he was forced to admit that Sarah had been correct. He needed downtime—real downtime away from his work. He couldn’t' stay sharp if he didn't at least pretend he was relaxing and thinking about something else. He certainly slept better when he wasn't at his dismal flat in Grozny. It was a nice flat—very modern—but it was impersonal. He couldn't afford to let it be personal. Every item was about projecting an image—right down to his underwear, which was hand-embroidered silk. Tacky.
He shifted in his chair, wiggled his toes in the pebbly sand, and breathed deeply, the moist warm air a balm to his exhausted body and spirit. He had a slew of newspaper articles on his iPad that Sarah had collected for him, all written or edited by Livingston, but he didn’t feel like reading. It was too risky to look at anything that might connect Joe Turner to Alpha, or people in Alpha's past—so he could only catch up on Livingston's work on a special iPad that Sarah sent to each of his holiday destinations. Sarah also sent him updates on his mother and his grandmother. He never asked about Frankie and Sarah didn't offer any information. That was probably better left in the past, but when he was quiet like this he wondered and remembered too much.
The sun was making him lazy like a seal flopped on the shore. He peered out from under his heavy lids and through his dark sunglasses at the water until two girls interrupted his view—neither was a day over sixteen. Both were wearing bikinis, but they were children, though perhaps not physically. He roughly smothered the memory of another girl about their age in a bikini on a beach half a world away. Nothing good could come of remembering that day all the fantasies he used to entertain.
The girls were Bulgarian. Alpha's Bulgarian was pretty paltry, but he knew they were talking about him, darting glances his way and giggling. He'd learned, at his peril, to dismiss anyone as a possible enemy and so he listened to them for several minutes—alert to their body language, tone, and word choices.
He was roughly 92% sure they were what they appeared to be—two teenage girls on vacation, ogling a slightly dangerous looking older guy on the beach.
They were whispering about his tattoos. The ink that liberally covered his arms and back had been neither his idea, nor his choice. They were necessary tools of his trade, signs of approval, accomplishment, and protection from various gangs he'd worked with. The first tattoo had been foisted on him right after he'd shot someone, defending the head of a gang, or Bratva as the Russians called them--Brotherhood. Back at his sprawling house, the head of the Bratva had kissed Alpha three times, handed him a bottle of vodka, and pushed him into a chair where a colossus of a man wrestled off his shirt and drew a wolf snarling on his bicep it's right paw on a stylized letter K in a shield. The sweaty giant inked it, which took hours and half the bottle of vodka. It was hideous—most of the tattoos that followed were abstract designs, thank God. Some day he might be able to see a plastic surgeon about the wolf. The only ink he'd ever gotten for himself was a small outline, a sketch really, of a rabbit curled around a capital F. It sat right beneath his heart. When asked about it he said it was in memory of his sister, who'd died when they were kids. He'd fallen into a drunken, maudlin fit in Thailand when he realized it was August 20th and decided having an indelible reminder of Frankie was a great idea. Why couldn't he be the sort of man who forgot anniversaries and important dates?
Between the tattoos, the scars, and the well-developed muscles—Alpha was used to being noticed, even admired. Most of the time it proved a very useful weapon in his arsenal. Information that could be charmed or seduced out of other people was easier to get than extracting it by threat or force. He'd done both. He'd killed people—though, as a rule, he did everything he could to avoid that. Sarah had reprimanded him on more than one occasion for merely wounding someone they considered problematic. Well, his thoughts would not settle and there was no point in sitting on the beach and getting increasingly antsy.
He gathered up his iPad, water bottle, and towel and headed for the outdoor bar on the edge of the beach near the hotel. He slid onto a bar stool under the shade of the canopy. He could use something icy, something silly, something without vodka in it. Then he'd get dressed and head out to dinner. He was meeting an old associate, which would make a nice change from eating alone, or eating with people you're observing.
He was hunched over the bar reading through one of Livingston's articles on sewer problems in Staten Island when he felt a prickle of unease and glanced up. The bar was nearly empty, but across from him a woman was sliding unsteadily off her stool into the arms of a greasy looking older man. She was dark haired and slender and Alpha wouldn't have thought too much about it if she hadn't laughed. The couple stumbled off toward the hotel and Alpha sat stupified for several minutes.
It couldn't be. It just couldn't. His mind was playing tricks on him. He reviewed what he could remember of the woman's back. Yes. It could have been her. Right height. Right shape. But no. It could not be her. Not here. She could not be here. Could she?
Alpha flung down some money and tore off after the couple as if he'd never been trained to stealth and caution. He collided with a man in the lobby and apologized in both English and Greek, but he couldn't spot the couple anywhere. They'd disappeared. It had probably been wishful thinking, he told himself. Forget about it, he told himself. She's in your past, he told himself. For her own safety he needed her to remain there.
It was about an hour drive from Salamis Bay on the east coast of Cyprus into the capital, Nicosia, where he was meeting Wendell of all people. Wendell who'd taught him how to pick locks and lift wallets all those years ago. It was gauche to ask pointed questions, but he gathered that Wendell was doing some sort of diplomatic work these days, in addition to her intelligence work. She was dragging him to some shindig at the Russian Embassy and Sarah had ordered him to attend—so there must be some reason, unless Sarah and Wendell thought he was spending too much time alone. As usual they left out any pertinent information. Dress was black tie, but he hung his jacket and tie up and drove in his shirtsleeves.
He met Wendell outside the Embassy. She was wearing a long black dress that washed her out, quite a feat for someone with hair so red, but she looked much prettier than she had in her fatigues. She kissed both his cheeks and beamed at him and he couldn't help wondering if she had plans for after the party. He didn't have flings all that often, but it had been a while and he was on vacation. He'd have to wait and see what Wendell's body language indicated before he brought it up.
Wendell greeted and chatted with many people and Alpha grabbed a glass of champagne from a passing tray—giving the frosty glasses of vodka the fish eye. The food was also Russian, but not the sort of thing you can easily find in Chechnya—caviar on blini and smoked fish on black bread. Alpha made great friends with the woman carrying the trays of blini and she kept stopping by and letting him refill his little white plate. Once he surmised there wasn't going to be a sit down dinner he shamelessly ate as many hors d'oeuvres as he could.
He was waiting patiently off the side for Wendell to finish talking to a gorgeous Saudi, pretty sure any hopes he had for something after the party were dead in the water. He heard that laugh again—throaty and so familiar. He whipped around and there was the woman from the beach about three feet away with her back to him. She wore a strapless red sheath that fell straight to the ground, but gently skimmed every curve of her body when she moved, a body he swore he recognized. He felt so certain that he'd touched this woman hundreds of times, that he was intimately familiar with the back of her neck.
Alpha edged around the group gathered around her. He set his empty glass down and reached for the nearest fresh glass, which was vodka, unfortunately. He didn't dislike vodka, but it was just everywhere all the time. Devout Muslims didn't really drink and most of Chechnya was Muslim, but the crowd Alpha associated with were by and large Russian and the few Muslims he met with were not what he'd call devout.
At the last second he almost turned away so as not to be disappointed when he saw her face. From the side, her hair was cut sharply to just below her jaw. It was shiny and absolutely straight, so dark it was almost black. Hair color was easy enough to change, but he saw no sign of lighter roots. She reached up and tucked her hair behind her ear. Her face. He felt his knees almost give. It was Frankie. It had to be. It was her face. He edged closer as if he were being slowly drawn into the conversation out of mere curiosity. He examined her without staring directly at her. This woman's eyes were a dark golden amber color, which could, of course, be contacts. But her left arm was a smooth pale unblemished stretch of skin. This woman had no scar, not even the hint of one. He should be relieved, but he felt like he'd found nothing but coal in his Christmas stocking.
She spoke. Her voice was like whiskey and soda and very upper crust British. Her voice was not Frankie's voice. His mind was playing tricks on him, but why? Why now? He'd stopped longing for her, well, mostly. He'd stopped regretting what he'd had to do, the way he'd had to cut her out of his life completely. Hadn't he? Sure there was a small reservoir of want that he could never entirely drain away and that he did not want to. Whatever happened he didn't want to let go of that yearning because he suspected it would feel like she'd died. It also provided ballast for him in his current life, reminded him that there was something else beyond this strange existence.
Wendell clicked over in her spiked heels and touched his sleeve, drawing him back from the group. Under her breath she said, "I see you're admiring Zhirov's mistress. He gets a new one about every eighteen months."
He didn't have to ask about Zhirov—he was a minister in the very corrupt Chechen government—Russian puppets the lot of them. Zhirov was reputed to be highly connected in the Russian mafia, but no one had been able to prove that, or figure out who he might working with. What was he doing here? It made sense that he'd be at a Russian Embassy affair, but why here in Cyprus?
"Who is she?" He asked turning his attention back to the woman who looked so familiar it made his lungs nearly turn inside out.
"Claire Hopkinson. Zhirov has been married for thirty years. Has six kids, but he always flits around with a pretty young thing in public. She's just one in a very long line. He doesn't like them a day over twenty-five."
Alpha appraised Zhirov—a small, oily man with a receding hairline and bad teeth. He had his hand low on Claire's back, really on her ass. Alpha was seized by the urge to march over and yank the man's hand away, but what was it to him if Zhirov wanted to own her in public? It was nothing. She was a stranger who just happened to look a lot like Frankie. He usually attempted to keep her name out of his thoughts, because it often provoked an emotional avalanche.
Someone said something to Claire about her necklace, which was a blinding choker of large diamonds. Zhirov reached up to tap the necklace and lazily trailed his fingers right down into her cleavage. She laughed indulgently as if it was just his way and she was used to it. That sealed it—there was no way that was Frankie. She'd have words with anyone who did something like that to her in public. Still Alpha had to clamp down hard on the urge to talk to her, make her look at him—search her expression for any twitch or quirk he knew.
"What else do you know about her?" Alpha asked.
"Not much. You should ask the Ambassador's aide. There he is. Yelagin?"
They drifted over to a very blond Russian with glacier blue eyes. He kissed Wendell on each cheek. His English was pristine, but heavily accented. "How may I assist you, my beauty?"
"My associate, Mr. Turner, is curious about Claire Hopkinson. Can you fill him in?"
Yelagin glanced over his shoulder and then back and nodded. "She's a popular topic of conversation this evening. But come. I will show you some of the icons we have on display in the hall outside the Ambassador's office where it's less noisy."
"I'd love to see them," Wendell said and took Yelagin's arm. There was definitely a spark there. Perhaps after Yelagin told him what he knew about this Ms. Hopkinson, Alpha could slip away and leave them alone for a few minutes. He could be helpful like that.
"This is a very fine sixteenth century icon of Saint… " Yegalin described three of the icons and then in lower tone said, "Ms. Hopkinson is British. Educated at Cambridge where she did not complete her History Tripos. Her father was a wealthy banker. She grew up very spoiled. Then her father lost all his money and shot himself when she was at Cambridge. She was used to the good life and instead of finding a job or trying to marry well in England she took up with a Saudi billionaire and went to Dubai for a few years. That's where Zhirov picked her up a few months ago. He gets tired of them pretty quickly. Hopefully Ms. Hopkinson won't vanish like the last one did. No one knows what happened to her.
"A friendly word of warning--don't get too close to her. Zhirov may consider her disposable, but he also considers her his property. If you trespass he will not take it well."
Alpha thanked him and with a pointed look at Wendell drifted back to the party. He stood on the stairs slightly elevated above the throng of mostly black clad attendees. There was music coming from somewhere, but it was merely atmospheric and not the sort for dancing. Alpha set the glass of vodka he'd been carrying down on a passing tray.
"Are you sick of the beastly stuff too?"
She'd sidled up to him and they looked out over the chattering crowd together. He avoided looking at her and kept his eyes dead ahead.
"Pretty much." His heart was doing something anatomically improbable in his chest, but he kept his expression bored.
"I guessed that you were American," she nodded as if she was confirming something to herself.
"What gave me away?" Alpha was used to being pegged right away. He wanted to be. He could never pass for Russian or anything else. There was just something about him that screamed born in the USA.
"Oh, you know. You have that look about you and your teeth are a dead give away."
Alpha glanced at her. There was a slight gap between her top front teeth and one of her bottom teeth was quite crooked. That sealed it. Frankie had had perfectly even teeth. It's not her, he told himself again. Now if he could jut believe it. Some part of him would not stop asking, "Are you sure?"
"Joe Turner," he said and held out his hand to shake hers. A static shock startled them both when their hands met and for a moment her carefully urbane mask fell. Maybe he was imagining things. Maybe it was wishful thinking, but she pulled her hand back quickly and swallowed uncomfortably.
"Claire Hopkinson," she said over brightly.
He studied her face, seeking out the differences and similarities. Face shape and bone structure were remarkably similar to Frankie's, but there was a freckle, a beauty mark, at the corner of her right eye—Frankie didn't have that. And her nose, Claire's noise was more tapered, more English.
"I'd give my first born for a whiskey right about now."
"Please. Allow me escort you to the bar before you start adoption proceedings." Alpha held out his arm. She hesitated and looked around before accepting.
"Zhirov got you on a tight lead?"
"Something like that. He's very suspicious."
"Why take a chance then?" Alpha asked the bartender for two whiskeys.
"You look like you can handle yourself." Claire looked him up and down slowly, and Alpha felt as if she were drawing her hand slowly up his spine, flesh to flesh. "Zhirov would never hurt me."
Alpha knocked back the whiskey and knew that when it mixed with the champagne in his stomach he was not going to be comfortable. Claire sipped at her drink, which gave Alpha an excuse to stare at her lips. Those he'd swear he knew, the shape, the feel of them. He was starting to sweat just a little bit in his formal clothing, but at least his tuxedo jacket hid his arousal well.
It felt more than a little pathetic to be wracked with lust by a woman who strongly reminded him of his college girlfriend. He could normally turn his desire on and off with ease, it had been a long damn time since it had gripped him by the short hairs and shaken him this hard.
"So tell me about yourself, Ms. Hopkinson."
"Well, Mr. Turner, I'm afraid my life story is very boring. I was born in raised in a tiny little village that no one's ever heard of—"
"Try me," he said.
"Oh. Do you know Lincolnshire then?" She took another sip of whiskey. "It's called Apley. It doesn't even have a rail stop. Then I went off to Cambridge and now I'm running around Russia with Zhirov."
"What about the Saudi billionaire who took you to Dubai?"
She wasn't flustered by having been caught out. "A mistake." She lifted on shoulder. "Oh, God. Here comes Zhirov. Must run."
Zhirov glared at Alpha for a moment and then spirited Claire, or whomever she was, away.
Apley? That couldn't be a coincidence, could it? Someone was playing with him, not because of his cover or his job, but with him personally and they were going to a lot of trouble to do it. He'd made a lot of enemies over the years, but this seemed a bridge too far.
It was getting late and Wendell hadn't reappeared. Most of the guests had departed so Alpha left a note for her with the majordomo and headed back to his car, parked a few blocks away. He sensed the blow before it landed and twisted to the side, evading it. He had no trouble flipping his attacker and pining him face down with his arm wrenched up behind him. It was one of Zhirov's thugs. No surprise there.
"What's the message?" Alpha asked in Russian.
The man whined about his arm so Alpha tugged it higher until the man grunted.
"He said you're to stay away from her."
Points deducted for lack of imagination. He'd at least expected some kind of gruesome and highly detailed threat to his person.
Alpha let the man up and watched him hurry away. His adrenaline high was going to take a while to ebb away. He vowed to spend the rest of his vacation sitting on the beach and doing nothing, which is exactly what he did.
Zhirov and Claire didn't reappear at the hotel in Salamis again, which was a relief--and pretty suspicious. It was too bad he couldn't switch off his brain. Memories he'd locked away were running amok. Frankie laughing on the street in the city, pink cheeked with snow in her hair, drinking a root beer in the Science Center and wrinkling her nose at the bubbles, reading curled up on his bed, the gorgeous flush on her face after they'd had sex and the feel of her, he could remember it so precisely—her skin, her mouth, and the bliss of being inside her. He spent the next week dazed on rum and recalling everything he could about Frankie, marinating himself in memories, until he was sick with them, like they'd crawled into every cell in his body like a virus.
Upon his return to Grozny the man who managed his building told him he looked terrible. Alpha said he'd had food poisoning on his trip and the man nodded and said, "That's why it's best not to travel. You never know what foreigners put in their food."
There about as much point in arguing with the man as there was in trying to nail Jello to a wall. So he nodded and let himself into his stale smelling apartment.
He snapped right back into place, working at all hours. Much of his work was done online, lots of monitoring, but he also had to meet with people and make new connections. He had to keep up his cover—that he was cog in the machine of the black market, that his services could be bought for the right price, and that he could be quite dangerous and should not be crossed lightly.
Weeks passed and the memories began to fade again, which was a blessing. He even tried drowning her out with other women, but that backfired on him badly. It was the most mechanical sex he'd ever had and left him depressed for days.
But work—there was always work, more work than could actually be accomplished. Alpha was attempting to monitor the activities of several groups both in and out of the current Chechen government. He was busy sussing out where rebel factions and corrupt government officials got their funds, and he had to keep up his front as a purveyor of high-end electronics and luxury items from Europe and the United States that fattened the pockets of the local mafia.
Twice he crossed paths with Zhirov, but neither time was Claire with him. Zhirov was icily polite because he wanted Alpha's merchandise, but he made no reference to the thug he'd sent, or his warning. Zhirov was buying items for personal use. The transactions couldn't be used against him, unfortunately
After the second meeting with Zhirov, Alpha couldn't help wondering what things were like between him and Claire. He couldn't imagine them kissing, never mind anything else. OK. He could imagine it, what he couldn't imagine was Claire enjoying it. He shut down that line of thought.
He did a little snooping and found out where Claire lived, and where she went—merely so he could avoid her, he told himself. And he broke down one night when he couldn't sleep and he searched for Frankie. It took some digging and he'd gone through a couple of back doors that weren't technically legal, but he found out what he wanted to know.
She'd graduated summa cum laude from Harvard with an SB in Anthropology. He'd known she'd been leaning towards studying social anthropology in developing countries, specifically the state of health care available to women. The sudden realization that she hadn't been frozen in time as she was in his memories threw him off balance. She'd done two years in the Peace Corps in Botswana working with AIDS/HIV patients and trying to educate people about the disease. She'd blogged about it for a while and he read every word. Maybe it wasn't his place, but he felt unbearably proud of her and what she'd been up to. He discovered her Flickr account and looked at as many photos as he could stand. She looked happy. Livingston was even in a few shots and so were some of her friends he remembered from Harvard, there was even one of an Alabaster reunion of sorts. Most of her photos were taken by her and not of her, but occasionally there she was looking tired, but happy in Africa. That was his Frankie and he was almost certain whomever Claire Hopkinson was she was just someone who looked freakishly like Frankie. It ate it him--the uncertainty.
Facebook told him that Frankie was finishing up a degree in Public Health, living in Cambridge. Hacking into Harvard's system he saw that she was on a partial scholarship and that her father paid the balance of her tuition. She lived with her boyfriend—Kyle somebody or other. The City of Cambridge's records told him that they had a car (a silver-blue 2012 Prius) registered for a parking permit in Ward 9. He didn't know Kyle, but was a medical student. There was a photo of him with his arms around Frankie's waist and his face buried affectionately in her neck and the happy look on her face reached into his gut and twisted everything up tight. He shut down all his tabs, cleared his cache. He wanted her to be happy and she was. Except deep down he'd really hoped she missed him nearly as much as he missed her and apparently she did not. She'd moved on. He wished he could say the same.
But, no. It was good. She had Kyle, and a future—she was going to save the world. What did Alpha have? A cold, lonely flat and a fistful of lies.
He really had no clear picture of what he was doing, what the information he uncovered was used for, or if it was used at all. He had the sense that he'd been implemented as a kind of political seismograph to detect vibrations in the North Caucus region. He had to go on faith alone that the work he did would help, would make something better, would save someone somewhere from suffering, would make people in the US safer. But at that moment faith was in somewhat short supply.
He'd been cooped up for days monitoring communications between a member of a pro-Chechen rebel group and a member of President Kadyrov's security detail. He'd spent months trying to figure out who they were (they used aliases). He was always a step behind figuring out where and when they were meeting just too late. He'd managed to identify the security officer, but he hadn't been able to pin down the identity of the rebel. Until today when the last piece had finally clicked into place. They were brothers. That's why they were talking so frequently. It seemed likely that Kris, who worked for Kadryov, was probably a mole feeding the rebel group information.
Alpha encrypted his findings, sent them, and practically ran from his apartment, just to get a breath of what passed for fresh air in Grozny. Friday prayers had just finished and the streets around the mosque were crowded. He wove his way to a small café where he knew he could get a nice bowl of zhizhig-galvash, which are cornmeal dumplings with boiled lamb. Chechen food tends to be very simple and feature very few vegetables—evidence that this city, and this country had been very nearly destroyed over and over. They'd been fighting for independence since 1785 for God's sake. President Kadryov (who'd inherited the position from his father) was pro-Russian and known for his lavish lifestyle and devil may care attitude. He was like the Silvia Berlusconi of Russia, except when he cavorted with scantily clad young women at parties—no one cared, or said anything. Not out loud anyway.
Alpha had met Kadryov twice and he seemed every bit as self important and slick as Alpha had expected. Chechnya was important because it had oil, but also because it provided a place for illegal business to thrive.
You couldn't legally buy much in the way of anything thanks to the lack of infrastructure and the high levels of corruption.
Edil, who ran the café, greeted Alpha with arms thrown wide. He was tall, thin man with a glorious smile. "My friend, Yusup, come. Sit. Eat. You look tired. Why haven't I seen you in so long? I thought you forgot about me!"
"I've been traveling. You know, business."
Edil herded him to a table. They exchanged friendly small talk and then Edil brought him tea and a big bowl of stew.
Alpha left full and mildly calmer than when he'd set out from his apartment in the Leninsky district. Grozny is a small city, with just over two hundred thousand inhabitants—so not a backwater, but not quite a bustling metropolis either. Without direction Alpha wandered into the Staropromyslovsky district. He was used to driving around the city, but it was nice to walk for a change. He could probably hop a trolley at least part of the way home if he walked too far.
He wasn't even sure what street he was on and stopped to look around. Before he could get his bearings someone grabbed his arm and without thinking he slammed the person down onto the ground, only to realize it was a woman. It was Claire. He helped her up and apologized, but did not touch her, because men and women generally don't in public.
She was upset. Her makeup was a mess. Alpha had startled her, but there was terrible bruising on the right side of her face--that he could not have put there. It looked like it might be a shoe mark.
"Did Zhirov do this?" he waved a hand at her face.
She pulled her hijab forward to shield her face a bit more. "Not directly. No."
She was shaking and he couldn’t leave her injured and walking the streets. Women alone at night were not safe.
"Can I take you to a hospital? Or at least to see a doctor I know?"
She shook her head. Her lower lip was swollen and scabbed on one side. "No. I'll be OK. Could you just help me home?"
"You're going back to him?" This shouldn't have surprised him and maybe it didn't, but he was aghast.
"I have no choice. It will be worse if I don't go back. Worse for both of us if he finds out I've been with you."
"I can handle it. I'm not taking you back."
Apparently she'd been grossly in error when she'd told him Zhirov wouldn't harm her.
"I've nowhere else to go." She wrapped her arms around herself. She was wearing a thin sleeveless dress, which wasn't warm enough for the evening. He took off his coat and draped it around her shoulders. She shrank into it and he thought she sniffed the lapel. Maybe she wasn't sure it was clean?
"You can stay with me." He turned to walk away, hoping she'd follow instead of arguing.
"But what about tomorrow? I can hardly stay with you forever."
Alpha shrugged. "We'll think of something. I'm not taking you back to Zhirov."
She was thinking about it, but she couldn't make up her mind—she was rocking her weight from foot to foot.
"Are you hungry? Maybe you'll be able to think more clearly if you've eaten."
"Is it horrid of me to be hungry after this?" She gestured at her face.
"No, it's human. Come on. I know a good café. My friend's wife can take you in back and you can eat there where no one can see you."
She nodded and they went back to the café. Edil clucked over Claire's face and rushed her back into the kitchen where his wife examined and treated all her bruises with a salve one of her neighbors had made. They fed her an enormous helping of lamb stew. Alpha leaned in the doorway and watched silently, still a little startled by Claire's resemblance to Frankie. Frankie who was probably in Cambridge—maybe studying in her apartment next to her boyfriend, Kyle, who got to sleep with her, and eat vegetarian food with her, and kiss her. God, he hated Kyle. It wasn't nice and it wasn't fair, but Alpha didn't quite know that those words meant anymore.
"I'm sorry. I have to go back. I can't explain." She was resolved to find her way back without him, so he went with her.
He made her memorize his cell phone number as they crossed back over the river. When they reached the corner of her street she left him and walked towards a new modern block of apartments. He walked home and though he'd thought about it before, it struck him anew how weird it was that If you didn't look too closely—Grozny looked like a shiny, well-lit, prosperous city, but when you looked closely you could see that many areas are still a crumbling mess, that there is incredible wealth cheek by jowl with crushing poverty. The shining prosperous city is little more than a veneer over ruins. It was not a cheerful place.
It was late when he returned to his flat and he was more than a little downcast. Walking with Claire had shaken something loose inside him and he couldn't quash the impulse to draft an email:
I shouldn't contact you, but I can't stop thinking about you. For years I was able to forget, but lately… I met an English woman who could be your doppelganger and it's freaking me out. (There is nothing going on between us. That would be pretty creepy.)
I really hope you're well. I want you to be well. But I need to tell you that cutting you out of my life was the hardest thing I've ever had to do. I regret it. I'm so sorry that we left things as we did. I wish it could have been different.
I'm not asking you for anything here, nor do I expect anything. I just needed to say it. My feelings for you remain as ever.
His email program had been rigged so that all the header information indicated that any message he sent issued from lower Manhattan, after being bounced through too many relays to trace. He addressed his message to the old Gmail account she'd set up at Alabaster to impersonate him. There was a good chance that she'd never see it there, but he could still have the satisfaction of having sent it.
He slept badly and got up early to make coffee and plan his day. The polished hardwood floor was cold against his bare feet, but in a pleasant wake-you-up sort of way. He pushed the button on his fancy espresso machine that ground the beans, made the coffee, and disposed of the beans without Alpha having to do anything. His flat was full of devices like that—expensive gadgets, only the best, to keep up his cover. It was definitely a gilded cage. He stretched until his back cracked and leaned his hip against the marble edge of the kitchen counter, the warmth seeping from the skin above his waistband into the frigid stone. Spring here was not gentle or welcoming.
He rarely had people to his flat, but he knew they all talked. Trust in criminal circles travels by word of mouth and reputation. Everyone who needed to knew how he lived.
He took his double espresso to his desk and began to read emails and check phone messages. There was a message from Sarah in code that asked him to call in later that day. They hadn't spoken in months. She never called unless it was crucial to speak with him—and then he had to be very careful because of the bugs in his apartment. He had to leave them in place to keep up the ruse that he wasn't going to be considered for Mensa anytime soon. He needed whoever was listening to hear what he was up to so they'd trust him. In order to talk to Sarah he'd have to use the SAT phone he kept hidden in a safe under the floorboards under his bed. He'd have to lock himself in his walk-in closet, which had been soundproofed and which he swept for bugs before he used it for the extremely rare conversation he did not want overheard. The closet had been bugged by his employers though, which was funny considering they only people he every spoke with in there were them.
He returned a few phone calls, one to his contact in Prague who was about to ship him a truck load of laptops and smart phones. He set up a meeting with a new potential client, and returned a call to someone who only gave the name Alexei. He left a message. Alexei had left Alpha vague message, merely saying he had a lucrative opportunity for Mr. Yusup Turner. Chechens called him 'Yusup' instead of Joe or Joseph because the letter J looks and feels suspicious to them. He didn't mind. Anything that helped them accept him was good for business, for all his business.
At four he swept his closet for listening devices and cameras that shouldn't be there, before locking himself inside and switching on a white noise machine built unobtrusively into the door.
"Alpha, how are you?" Sarah said.
"And even if you could—you wouldn't." Sarah sighed. She was always trying to mother hen him.
"What's up?" Alpha wanted to get this call over with. He had a feeling he wasn't going to like whatever Sarah had to say. He rarely did and lately he'd been frustrated. He kept hoping she'd give an end game to focus on.
"We know you ran into Claire Hopkinson on the street last night. I understand why you're drawn to her, why you wanted to help her, but she's not Frankie. And you have to steer clear of her. It's too dangerous for you and for her. Zhirov is becoming wildly unpredictable. One of our analysts has uncovered that he's been seeing a neuro-oncologist."
"Noted. Is Claire an agent?" Alpha hadn't thought of that before. Why hadn't it occurred to him? Because he'd been too distracted trying to rule out that Claire wasn't Frankie. That's why.
"We don't think so, but even if we did you know I couldn't tell you."
Alpha switched the phone to his other ear. "Why did you send me to the Russian Embassy in Cyprus? Was it to meet her?"
"No. Wendell just wanted to make sure you didn't spend your entire vacation drunk at the hotel bar."
Alpha tipped his head back against the wall of his closet. "God. Doesn't Hinckley ever get tired of his little experiments?"
Sarah laughed, but Alpha hadn't been joking. It was exasperating to consistently be sent into missions without key information, to be forced to think on you feet at all times. Hinckley was convinced that's why his success rates were so high and why most of his agents lived to see retirement. (Retirement age was very young. Very few people stayed in the field after they were thirty-five.)
"Just stay away from Claire Hopkinson, OK? And don't send Frankie any more late night emails. It won't do either of you any good." Sarah rang off before Alpha could respond. Damn. He couldn't so much as sneeze without someone knowing about it and probably recording and analyzing it, possibly swiping a sample and… OK. That way lay madness. Best not to think too deeply about the goldfish bowl he lived in.
More and more often he thought about getting out of this line of work. He just needed the right opportunity, the right circumstances, and probably for the planets to align properly. No way Hinckley would let Alpha up and leave out of his own accord. And honestly Alpha cared too much about his work, had invested too much time, effort, and blood to just throw up his hands and stomp away, but he'd find the trap door out as soon as he could. This life was making him hard, compacting his feelings into useless walls and defenses. His recent brushes with Claire had reminded him what it was like to actually process emotions. It was kind of funny how he used to constantly complain about things, like a cranky old man. He almost couldn't remember how he used to feel everything so deeply that it motivated his actions even when he knew better. Every move he made these days was highly calculated.
He accepted things as they came with a certain degree of stoicism. He'd seen people in circumstances so awful that he felt he had nothing to complain about, at least not without feeling like an utter fraud. He'd supposedly been trained not to minimize his feelings when possible. It wasn't a healthy coping mechanism, but then what about his life could be called healthy? He suspected all the training he'd received about good mental health and PTSD was merely another experiment of Hinckley's. Making his agents minutely self-aware of their own mental health while putting them in situations that forced them to cope as best they could, all while recognizing what they were doing was problematic. Hinckley probably thought it built character, but really it was a subtle form of torture. Alpha switched off the white noise machine and deftly slipped the phone back into it's locked and coded hiding place, under cover of checking one of his guns. All those years ago Wendell had taught him sleight of hand for moments just like this.
Alpha squatted on the floor next to his bed, calmly checking his ammunition supply. Hinckley had done a PhD in psychology at some point and it showed. Alpha could never comfortably decide if the man was an evil genius, a sadist, or just a brilliant tactician, not that those things were mutually exclusive.
Later that day, Alpha received a large shipment of handbags, makeup, and perfume from France, which he looked over and then passed on to his distributors. He went back to the monotony of his flat. He listened. He watched. He waited.
The mysterious Alexei returned his call a week later. His Chechen was basic and he switched to Russian once he realized that Alpha spoke it. He wanted to meet with Alpha, but something seemed off there. He wouldn't give any details of the job and he wanted to meet outside the city in a bombed out area that hadn’t been touched since the last war.
"I won't agree to meet about a job I know nothing about," Alpha said hoping to wind the call up quickly.
"But you see we cannot tell you unless you accept first." Alexei inhaled like he was lighting a cigarette clamped between his teeth. "We'll pay you triple."
Upping the offer to nearly a million US dollars and with the exchange rate for rubles being thirty-to-one, well, that was a stupid amount of money for a single job.
"All right. When do you want to meet? You have to tell me that much."
Alpha had to find out what this mysterious job was if someone was that desperate. He'd probably be walking into some sort of ambush. He doubled his treadmill time and practiced defense maneuvers as well as one can on alone. He could never spar or train in public as it was key that no one know his true capabilities. He needed to be easily dismissed--not too resourceful, not too agile. He often faked a limp when out and about doing business. He'd been shot in the same leg twice so that just lent credence to his affectation. Jeez. Where hadn't he been shot at this point? Thankfully nowhere vital except that one time he almost died.
He drove out to the meeting site, and waited, leaning against his black Jaguar, which stood out among all the Mercedes-Benzes and BMWs favored by his associates. At least Hinckley never skimped on the tools necessary for Alpha to his job, though he hated to think about where the money was coming from to fund his lavish life style, though he assumed some of it was probably from all the money he made illegally.
A BMW pulled up, an armored behemoth capable of withstanding tank fire. Whomever this client was—he was rich and possibly paranoid, or a big fat target. When the car pulled to a stop, crunching on the debris that was everywhere, a short, thin man in an overcoat that was much too long for him got out of the back—leaving the door open long enough for Alpha to see another man in the backseat. Zhirov. Oh, this was getting fun. Zhirov wanted him to know that he'd be working for him, but that he didn't consider Alpha important enough to deal with directly. Noted.
Alexei was wearing a suit that seemed a little too small for him and he tugged at it constantly as if he could stretch it out to fit. Why had Zhirov sent such a nervous negotiator? Another puzzle.
"There are three parts to this job. Upon successful completion of the first part half the sum we agreed upon will be wired to an account in you name at a private bank in Cyprus.
Alpha circled back around to the question that had been niggling at him. What had Zhirov been doing in Cyprus? Someone was setting Alpha up, or setting something up—he just couldn't see the bigger picture. Yet.
"The first job?" Alpha asked.
"So you agree?" Alexei glanced back at the tinted windows of the BMW.
"No. I agree to consider it. Tell me what the first job is or I walk away now."
"One moment." Alexei climbed back into the BMW and after a minute reappeared red faced. "All I can tell you is that you'll be required to neutralize a target as quickly and quietly as possible. You'll need to follow our instructions to the letter. If you do as we tell you suspicion will fall on specific people who are not sympathetic to our interests."
"Not my area of expertise." Alpha pushed out his chest, puffed up like an angry lizard. He didn't have to dig deep to find a source of outrage.
Alexei relaxed a little bit. "Come now. Don't be coy. We know you pulled off that tricky job for Roskov last year—the Turkish gentleman. Then there was that woman from Argentina, and we suspect you were also responsible for taking care of a certain unpleasant Serbian gentleman."
The first two were true, but Alpha let people assume he'd killed the Serbian drug lord. Damn it. He hated these jobs. He'd end up having nightmares and barely being able to look at himself, or stand being in his own skin for weeks after. He knew he should be tougher, more callous—but if he gave up his last vestiges of decency and humanity—well, what was the point in anything?
He made a snap decision. He had to see where this led, had to play along in order to find out what Zhirov was up to, or whomever was pulling the strings. Alpha suspected Kadryov was likely behind all of it, or one of his other advisors. It's possible it really was Zhirov, maybe trying to impress Kadryov.
Alpha nodded as if to say, OK fine.
Alexei held out a card with QR code and waited for Alpha to scan it with his phone. What a weird way to receive an assignment and hardly very covert. Almost anyone could figure out a QR code. Not to mention he'd have information on his phone. He'd memorize it and then make sure it was eradicated from the device.
The details loaded and Alpha read through them. Target was a Chechen separatist who'd been trying to fan the flames of rebellion back to life. Alpha had worked with the man a handful of times—he was the one responsible for the snarling leopard inked on his right shoulder blade. The artist had positioned it so that it looked like the leopard was about to attack the wolf on his arm—rival gangs. They were endlessly petty. It had been a job of work to prove himself a mercenary out to make a buck and loyal to no one except the highest bidder.
Alpha nodded wearily and said, "I'll take care of it." And tried not to spiral into self-disgust.
"We'll know when it's done." Alexei had to gather up the bottom of his coat before he climbed into the BMW, which pulled back out onto the road, kicking up a thick cloud of dust.
Alpha drove back home and planned out his mission, forcing himself not think about the ramifications of what he was doing. He had to fly on autopilot with these jobs. At least he wouldn't have to do it at close range—using a long-range sniper rifle made the whole thing a smidge easier, but only a smidge. Alpha did not believe in God or sin or eternal damnation, but he did believe that each time he killed someone he was ripping off another chunk of his humanity and throwing it away. The worst past was not knowing if there was even any purpose to it, if Hinckley had a long-term goal, or if he was just experimenting again. OK. That way lay madness. Don't think. Do the job. Go about your business.
The job went off without a hitch. Alpha went home and did not throw up, but he did lie on the cold, hard leather sofa in his living room for an hour—doing his best to exorcise the memory of his target bucking under the impact and crumpling to the ground. He locked the image away in a little box, next to eight similar boxes. He didn't kid himself. He knew that people were dying every day as a result of his business ventures—the people he worked with were often funded by various terrorist organizations, or in turn funded them. He dared not hope his work would dismantle anything, that was naïve thinking and he'd been stripped of that luxury years ago. Occasionally he could wound the beast, but mostly he provided information to other hunters.
To calm himself he imagined Frankie sitting in her apartment, or the library, chewing on the end of her pen, bent over her laptop. She was happy and safe. He clung to that image even though it was probably an unhealthy one for him to meditate on.
Alexei texted him the next day and told him to pick up a package at a cobbler not far from The Kadryov Mosque. Alpha thought this had Hinckley's handprints all over it, either that or Zhirov had been taking lessons from him. There was no way that Zhirov was as intelligent as Hinckley though.
Alpha had no choice but to follow the trail of breadcrumbs now that he'd started down this path. It had been that way since he'd decided to climb up into that ceiling in the hallway to nowhere all those years ago. Step out off the ledge with no idea how far the fall will be.
The brown cardboard box was larger than he'd expected and the cobbler was a very young guy with a wispy moustache that looked like a smudge of dirt under his nose. He merely nodded when Alpha thanked him. He did glance down at Alpha's shoes with a sour expression. They were Italian and pristine.
Back in his apartment Alpha carefully sliced open the tape that held the box closed. Inside he found all the components needed to assemble a bomb made with plastic explosives. Shit. This was something he'd never had to do before. He'd been trained to assemble and diffuse explosives, but he'd never had to use them in the field. He unpacked the components and with gentle hands lay everything out on his kitchen counter. There were two sheets of paper in the bottom of the box. One with an address, a date, and a time and the other with a rough sketch of the basement where the bomb was to be placed.
He didn't have to look up the address. He knew it. Another gang he'd worked with was headquartered there—this one was an arm of one of the more major Russian Bratvas. This job was going to prove far trickier, because getting in and out quickly and without being seen was going to be dicey and if he was seen or caught he was as good as dead. It would probably be the sort of slow, painful death he'd prefer to avoid. This was not the sort of job you'd give to a brainless criminal. Perhaps he should botch the job somehow? What he shouldn't do was get caught by anyone. He double-checked the date and time. They'd written the date the way European dates were written with the day, then month then year: 8/5/2012
It wouldn't do him any good to claim he thought the bomb was supposed to be planted in August instead of May. The time was given in twenty-four hour time: 22:00 so he couldn't swap AM for PM either to reduce the number of casualties. Though those were the kind of mistakes the man he'd been pretending to be would make. He massaged his temples.
He could, maybe, find a way to jerry-rig the bomb so that it caused a big bang and some structural damage, but would limit injuries to people. He'd probably be unable to avoid maiming or possibly killing some people. He gripped his counter and bowed his head. He knew all too well that just disappearing wasn't an option. No matter how good or careful he was, they'd find him no matter where he went. He'd been sent to recover two agents who'd gone AWOL over the last few years. One had begged him to shoot him and Alpha hadn't done it, though he had almost let the guy go out of pity. The only thing that stopped him was that Hinckley would know. He always knew. The second agent? He didn't think about how that had gone down. Ever. It was locked away in his sixth little box.
Alpha had been told that he was the only agent in this part of Russia, but he assumed that Hinckley had someone local watching him on top of all the routine surveillance trained on him by the cameras and radio transmitters placed in his flat by multiple sources. Basically he'd learned to second-guess everything and to trust that no one was ever telling him the truth, or at least the whole truth. There wasn't room for philosophical inquiry into the nature of truth when plain old lack of information was likely to get you or someone else killed.
He touched the packet of explosive material and it was like remembering a dream—when he recalled his time at Alabaster, or his first three years at Harvard. A time and place when his biggest worries had been hilariously insignificant like his exam results and whether the girl he liked, liked him back and how he was going to amuse other people. And he'd thought he was so cool, so smart, and so indestructible. What a joke. He took a long shower, his second that day.
He had three days to come up with a plan for planting the bomb. He figured out how to more or less degrade the explosives so that they'd detonate, but not with the force expected by the amount used. He'd have to claim ignorance, but they (whomever they were) were going to suspect him no matter what he did. Would Sarah tell him if this was another one of Hinckley's rat-in-maze experiments? Probably not. She might not even know.
Jump through the hoops and see what happens, he told himself. And hope for the best, whatever the best might be.
Alpha had been invited to several parties held at the gaudy over sized mansion where Maxim Roslov ran his operation. Roslov had all the classics in his repertoire as a crime lord. Prostitution, murder, drugs, and black market goods. Alpha usually declined the invitations—though his contact, Dmitri, always extended the invitations. There was one on the fifth and he knew that was no coincidence. He called Dmitri to accept the invitation and the man had been overjoyed. "This party is going to be enormous and all the most important people will be there. Very good for business."
The night before the party Alpha hid a bag of supplies, including the bomb components, in the yard in a field near the mansion, but outside its radius of surveillance. The night of the party Alpha parked about half a mile away and shot his cuffs when he stepped out of his car. He never felt less like James Bond than when he was wearing a tuxedo. One of the many ironies of being an actual spy.
The house was one of those monstrosities that popped up on the edge of the city—all lit up like an octogenarian's birthday cake. The guards didn't know him, nor was he on their list. They had to send for Dmitri before they let him in, which put Alpha on edge. He wasn't going to be able to slip in unobtrusively.
Dmitri barreled at him with open arms. He was a bear of a man, covered in shaggy dark hair—and he smelled rather pungently of cigars and body odor at all times. Alpha tried not to flinch when Dmitri embraced him in a fetid cloud of underarm stench. He grabbed Alpha's jaw, much the way his grandmother used to when he was small and said, "You never come to see us! Finally you come to see us! Come, my friend. Come in. We have glorious food, beautiful women, and much to drink."
The party turned out to be a bizarre mixture of discordant elements. Loud dance music thumped in the elegant ballroom, shaking the enormous gilt edged mirrors. The crowd was almost entirely men, though there were a few mafia girlfriends, Amazonian blondes no older than twenty in cheap evening gowns and makeup that had been applied with a putty knife. There were a couple of other women in pretty much nothing but underwear, who assumed were prostitutes. He was long past the need to rescue them all. It had been burned out of him the first year he'd lived in Grozny, along with the worry that maybe he should worry about that loss. There was lots of vodka; you could smell its sharpness everywhere. Every man in the room was packing at least one gun, judging by the lumps and bulges just behind every man's armpit. If any of the women were armed, he couldn't tell. On occasions like this Alpha carried a stupidly large gun for show, though he preferred a much smaller pistol for actual use.
Dmitri dragged him over to a group of men in ill-fitting suits and said, "Fyodor, you remember our friend Iosif Turner." He thumped Alpha on the back.
Fyodor was slumped on a sofa, chin on chest, quite drunk, with a girl sitting on each knee looking bored. All three of them looked bored. Fyodor's brother, Maxim, was the head of the Bratva. Fyodor was a hanger on and important merely because he was under his brother's protection. Alpha had actually never seen the man sober or standing.
"The American? Yes. Have a drink." Fyodor waved wanly at nothing in particular. "You're not the only American here tonight."
Alpha flicked a glance at Dmitri. "It's true. Maxim is meeting with a friend right now. They'll be down soon. We are celebrating tonight. Big news!"
Dmitri was called away by one of the staff to oversee something about the food and left Alpha to mingle. Most of the men were bent on their own pleasure and paid him no mind. The few who recognized him nodded at him, but were neither friendly nor hostile.
Alpha accepted a shot of icy vodka so he'd smell like alcohol, but only wet his lips with it before subtly throwing the rest into a decorative urn. He scanned the room over and over, but nothing seemed amiss. He had to get outside to retrieve his satchel at some point, be he couldn't disappear this early. Dmitri would notice.
Luck was on his side, because he just happened to be standing next to a door, which opened, tucking he behind it. Maxim entered the ballroom to numerous drunken cheers. Behind him trailed a little wispy haired man. Alpha steeped deeper into the shadows. This man absolutely could not, should not see him, because it was Professor Sheehan. And Sheehan would identify him in a New York minute.
What was Sheehan doing there? With Maxim? Had he been feeding information about Chechen rebel groups to the Russians, or to the gangs, or both? Something was rotten, but he couldn't quite see how it all fit together. He had several nasty suspicions though. He stopped himself. He had no idea why Sheehan was there, or what it meant--and it wasn't his job to find out. He'd learned early on to pick his battles or face insanity.
He slipped out into the hall, ostensibly looking for the john, but keeping behind Sheehan at all times. Alpha walked down a long, heavily carpeted hall, simply to get the lay of the land and to figure out his next move.
"What are you doing here, Mr. Turner? Have you lost your way?" He knew the crisp British accent at once. Which meant Zhirov was around here somewhere. Interesting.
"Maybe," he turned and smiled lazily at Claire and tried not to gape. Her dress was just this side of obscene. It must've been taped on because there is no way such flimsy material could stay put on its own. "Nice dress."
That ruffled her. "I did not choose this eyesore." But she wore it well and did not feign modesty, or apparently have any. If Alpha were a woman who looked like that he wouldn't have any either.
He thought she was going to walk past him, but stepped very close and paused, just brushing his side, easily within reach. She whispered in his ear, "I have better taste than this."
He looked down the plunging neckline, which went nearly to her navel and was again shaken by a wave of familiarity. He couldn't blame the vodka for what he did next, because he hadn't drunk any. He grasped her hips pushed her up against the wall. Her eyes went wide for a moment and then she smiled.
"Why, Mr. Turner. I had no idea you were interested."
"Stop lying to me." He looked her hard in the eye, held her gaze. "I know you. Don't I?"
"Yes," she said, puzzled. "We met in Nicosia. At the embassy." She didn't fight against his grip. Maybe she'd become used to being passive and that irritated him. How the hell had Frankie ended up like this? Was this Frankie? Did she feel like Frankie?
"No. Stop. You know what I'm talking about. Just give me some small sign. Please." He shouldn't be doing this, not least because he was probably wrong. Was he so lonely and desperate that he'd delude himself about this woman's identity?
She cocked her head, still smiling a little. "Mr. Turner, I don't know what you want me to say. I'm afraid you're deep in your cups."
He wasn't drunk and he just couldn't be imagining the physical recognition that flooded all his senses. He was split into two. Each half trying to pin the other into submission—the part that believed this was Frankie and that part that knew better. Though he'd swear down to his bones that he was holding Frankie against the wall. He'd know for certain if he kissed her.
She was passive for the first few seconds and then kissed him back enthusiastically. Alpha tore himself away and released her. The kiss had been familiar in the way every kiss is sort of like another, but she didn't kiss the way Frankie did. At all. Oh Holy God. It wasn't her. It was not. She was in Massachusetts with her boyfriend Kyle. He knew that.
"I'm sorry. You remind me so much of someone else. I have never seen a dead wringer before."
He shook his head slowly.
She remained leaning against the wall. "You loved her?" Claire tilted her head, like a robin considering a worm.
Alpha snorted and ruffled his hand through his hair.
"Ah. You still love her." Claire raised an eyebrow. "That's never a good time."
They stared past each other until Claire said, "You know. If you want to pretend—I wouldn't mind."
He felt a little sickened by how tempted he was. What was wrong with him? He'd given her up years ago. He'd done it of his own free will. He had to stop clinging to memory like this. It was really goddamned unhealthy.
Claire put her hands on his shoulders and gently turned him so that he was the one with his back against the wall. God help him, he did not resist at all. She kissed the side of his neck above his shirt collar, down his jaw, and for a moment he let himself pretend, even though she didn't smell right, or kiss right. He'd been prepared for the raging lust, which left him shaky and desperate, but the emotional onslaught caught him off guard, which is why he didn't hear anyone approaching them.
"Claire!" It was Zhirov, followed by three of his thugs, storming down the hall.
Before either of them could say anything, Zhirov shoved Claire at one of the guards who dragged her roughly down the hall. She didn't look back, was probably too busy staying upright in her stilettos. God, what kind of sick asshole was he to pretend she was Frankie. He wanted to puke and then crawl out of his own skin.
"I was getting tired of her anyway." Zhirov examined his fingernails, smoothing down a hangnail on his index finger. "English women are much too difficult. Temperamental. Entitled."
Zhirov offered him a perfectly calm appraising look. "I do not share my things, Mr. Turner. What's mine is mine. Because you are a trusted friend of the Bratva I will give you this one friendly warning. I will make your excuses to Maxim. Show yourself out."
The two remaining thugs watched him walk to a door, thankfully it was a side door. He headed toward the front of the house in case anyone was watching him, pretended to stop and relieve himself in some large bushes. He knew there had to be security cameras. They were well hidden, but he spotted two. He had to pick a lock in a door that led out into the field behind Roslov's property. Alpha made his way out into the field without being seen, retrieved his satchel, and returned back through the door, locking it again. He located a shadowy spot just under an eave, but still out of the cameras' sight, quickly stripped off his suit and white shirt. He stowed them in his satchel along with the gigantic gun and hooked the bag across his chest. He checked the small pistol he wore at his ankle and moved forwards, holding it pointed downward. Underneath his tuxedo, he'd been wearing a tight fitting blackish gray garment, like lighter version a wetsuit, that made him very hard to see in low light. Truth be told, the outfit made him feel like he was playing dress up, spy dress up. Even though he'd thought he hadn't--all his notions about being a spy had been highly romantic and callow.
This situation was turning out both good and bad. He'd avoid Sheehan this way and finish the job without being seen. Hopefully. But was Claire really in danger? Alpha thought it unlikely that Zhirov went around making empty threats. He'd have to figure out what to do about Claire later. He was carrying explosives on her person--that was where all his focus had to be.
Hugging the wall he skirted around to the back of the enormous house and searched for a weak spot, an entry. There was a sort of mudroom off the busy kitchen. He slipped in unseen and found his way down into the basement. Alpha examined the different rooms and corridors for surveillance equipment. He found a single camera in the main hall and quickly reset it, jostling it as little as possible, so that it was frozen on an image of the empty hallway and ceased showing a live feed.
Muffled sounds from the party drifted down through the floor above. He paused before getting to work. The room he was about place the bomb in was full of live ordnance and many cases of alcohol. It wasn't going to matter very much that he'd degraded the explosives. He focused on the steps and only the steps he needed to set up the device. If he thought about what was going to happen when it detonated—all those people with lives and families, all those people living and breathing who didn't deserve to die, even if they weren't the best people around. If he thought about that he'd accidentally blow himself up or enter a state of catatonia.
He connected the last wires and checked his work. He'd detonate by burner cell phone when he was far away and the time was right. Not that it would ever be truly right. He reached out to disconnect several wires, let his hand hover, and then drew it back. This was the job. This was what he'd signed up for. How he'd live with himself after this—he had no idea. He'd managed before and he'd do it again. Somehow. The only thing keeping him from thinking too hard about just setting the damn thing off while he was standing next to it was Claire. She was going to need his help. He didn't want her death on his head too.
He snatched a bottle of vodka out of an open case and crept out of the room, set the camera back to its live feed, and considered his next move. He could sneak out and head home and wait to hear what the next step was, what the third task would be. Or he could try and find Claire before Zhirov made good on his threats. What the hell was a woman like that doing with Zhirov? Why did she look so much like Frankie? He couldn't shake the feeling that someone was someone was fucking with him.
Alpha put his somewhat wrinkled tuxedo back on, folded up the now empty satchel into a small flat parcel and stowed it in a pocket. He splashed his arms and chest liberally with the vodka. Affecting a rolling stumble, he staggered his way up into the kitchen. The busy staff just shook their heads at another drunk party goer who'd lost his way. He bumped into the edge of a stainless steel counter and took a moment to redirect his body out of the way of impediments, nearly losing his balance in the process—at least seeming too.
One of the cooks muttered something about people who can't hold their liquor. And another muttered something about it always being Americans who can't hold their liquor.
Alpha kept up the ruse, staggering outside in the garden in clear view of the cameras. He rounded the front of the house, clinging to the corner of the building, which gave him a moment to assess the situation. Still just two guards. They both touched their earpieces to listen--amateurs. Then glanced at him. One approached.
"You're not allowed out here. Come on," the guard said in Russian. He was a tall, nervous looking man, whose eyes darted from side to side.
"Juss needa lie down for a sec," Alpha replied in lazy English. The guard shook him. Alpha repeated himself in broken Russian.
"No. Come on." The guard half-carried half-dragged Alpha toward the opening in the high spiked wall in front of the house and pushed him through it. The other guard said something Alpha couldn't make out and they laughed. Good. They weren't suspicious. They hadn't been keeping an eye out for him.
He kept up the affable drunk routine for two blocks until he was certain no one was following him. He rolled the bottle of vodka into an alley and hurried to his car.
It took about ten minutes to get to Claire's neighborhood. He parked as close as he dared. It was surprisingly easy to get up to the top floor where Zhirov kept her in probable splendor. The apartment was a sort of penthouse, on steroids. It took up the top two floors of the building.
He scaled down from the roof onto one of the three balconies and hid in the shadows. He heard shouting and the sound of splintering wood, but kept hidden and still.
Claire rushed into the living room loping along on one high heel, clutching the other. Her flimsy dress was torn—rent up to her hip. One sleeve was missing. Tears tracked down her face, but she looked furious instead of frightened. Zhirov hurried after her and grabbed for her, but he was too old and too slow. She rounded one of the sofas so that there was something solid between them.
"Claire. Darling. Come now. You will do as I tell you."
"I owe you nothing." Claire took off her remaining shoe, as if she could defend herself with them.
Alpha held his position.
"Oh, my sweet child. You owe me everything. Every breath of air you take, you take because I permit it." Zhirov edged around the sofa and caressed her arm. Claire looked uncertain--not about Zhirov, but about what to do.
Alpha's hands twitched but he left both his guns holstered, though unfastened in their holsters. He could take Zhirov out so easily, but he hadn't been ordered to and there would be repercussions if he did. Unless Zhirov was about to kill him or Claire, he really couldn't shoot the man in the head. That didn't mean that he had to stand there and watch her be assaulted.
Zhirov ran his thumb across Claire's smudged red lips and said, "I changed my mind."
Claire looked wary and waited to see what that meant.
"You are too much work." He tried to push down on her shoulders.
She did not cooperate.
Zhirov sighed and called one of his thugs into the room. The largest looking creep of the three entered.
"Luka, please help Claire make a good decision. She needs proper encouragement to do what I've told her too."
Luka took out his gun. Of course it was overkill—he was carrying a fifty caliber Desert Eagle. It could probably take down an elephant. He held it to Claire's head and didn't bat an eye as she sank to her knees in front of Zhirov. Luka stood in profile to the open French door.
"Claire. I'll give you one last chance. Will you do what I asked you to or shall I have Luka shoot you?"
Luka didn't show even the slightest trace of expression on his grim face. The lack of expression more than anything else freaked Alpha out.
Claire grimaced and shook her head. Luka's trigger finger twitched ever so slight and it was probably the stupidest thing Alpha had ever done, but he aimed and shot Luka in the head. He moved quickly to take Claire out the front door.
Zhirov let out a disappointed sigh. "I told you only one warning, Turner. You're useful and I do not like to destroy things that have purpose, unless they actively interfere with my own. I guess all my hard work with you is pointless now. But you were never supposed to survive after all the work was complete. You two do make things annoyingly hard."
Zhirov called over his shoulder and thugs two and three came pounding down the stairs. Alpha fired and hit the one in front in the gut, but the second one, the one with a face like a pug's, held back, waiting to see what Alpha would do.
He dragged Claire out of the apartment, keeping his gun trained on Zhirov and his body remaining guard.
Once they were out in the hall Claire did something to the door of the apartment. "Fused closed. It'll slow them down."
"Stairs or elevator?" Alpha asked, pushing the elevator button just in case.
"Elevator. Twenty-eight floors will take too long. And I'm barefoot."
Alpha opened his mouth to ask her what the hell was going on with that door trick, but she shook her head—a warning. She was right. It probably wasn't safe to speak. It wasn't safe at Alpha's apartment either unless he disabled some of the bugs. But he couldn't think of anywhere else to go and he'd already burned several bridges. Silver lining? At least he wouldn't have to detonate that bomb now, though he couldn't warn anyone it was there, or diffuse it without going to a stupid amount of trouble.
As they headed for the first floor, his thoughts ran: Stay focused. Get Claire to safety. Find out what the fuck is going on. Make a new plan.
She walked as quickly as she could without shoes on the inconsistent sidewalks and paving. Some were new and smooth—others were broken, buckled, and deeply pock marked, littered with debris.
He offered to carry her, but she glared at him and kept completely silent on the drive. She followed him warily and wearily into his apartment and waited for direction. He led her on a meandering course through the apartment that avoided the cameras and pulled her into his closet. He switched on the white noise machine and smashed the bug that let Hinckley and Sarah listen in. He wouldn't be surprised if Navy SEALs, or half he Russian mafia burst into his apartment in a few moments. He wasn't defenseless, but he didn't want to have to fight his way out. Especially against SEALs.
"Here." He pulled a deep blue silk robe off a hanger and handed it to her. Her dress was little more than a rag at this point.
She didn't take it, didn't do anything.
"I thought you might be cold."
She didn't react, just stared at something to the right of his head. He shrugged and hung it back up.
"You've made quite a mess, Mr. Turner." She shook her head. She was angry, but kept herself in check. "We need a plan and a good one, or neither of us is going to make it out of this city alive."
"What were the parameters of your assignment?" he asked.
She massaged her temples, surprised and maybe disappointed that he'd ask a question he knew she wasn't supposed to answer that no matter what.
"Who are you working for? I know you're not just Zhirov's mistress after that trick with the door."
She stripped off her dress and completely naked, she rifled through Alpha's clothing for something else to wear. She grabbed a pair of gray trousers and a belt and looked coyly over her shoulder. "You don't mind, do you?"
He didn't answer, wasn't sure he even could. She chose a gray button down shirt and grabbed an undershirt. Before putting them on she faced him and cocked her head to one side. "That's sweet. You really do like me."
There was no hiding his obvious arousal now that he'd taken his jacket off, nor could he hide the way his eyes were practically devouring her.
Fine. He was tired of fighting this and he had a feeling she far from indifferent to him. This wasn't the right time. They didn't have time for this. He didn't really care. He practically ripped open seams getting his clothes off. Her eyes grew rounder and rounder as he stripped down. This wasn't the time, but he really didn't care.
"What do you think you're doing?" She was flustered. A tiny crack in her indifferent façade.
"Leveling the playing field." He offered her a lazy smile and waited. Her eyes roamed over all of his tattoos with a puzzled look on her face. She glared at the one below his heart—the tiny F with the rabbit. She swayed ever so slightly toward him and closed her eyes tight. Her lower lip trembled slightly.
"This is a very bad idea," she whispered.
"Do you care?" He took a step toward her—was mere inches away. He could see gooseflesh breaking out all over her upper body.
She opened her eyes and shook her head. She reached for him, but he grabbed her hands. "I know you aren't her, but it feels like you are. I can't help it."
"I don't care," she said.
He let her go and she collided against him, chilled flesh against his warmth. For a moment he just held her, felt her—still not sure it wasn't actually Frankie. He must be losing his grip on reality.
"This will have to be quick," she said close to his ear. "We're not safe here."
"I don't think I'm capable of anything else just this second."
She giggled quietly and kissed his neck and then his mouth. She still kissed wrong, but the more he kissed her and touched the more confused he became about who she was.
She spread his robe out on the carpet and pulled him down.
"Hurry," she said.
He rolled on a condom and pushed into her. She was more than ready. He didn't know if it was him or the adrenaline that had made her so excited. He didn't much care.
It was fast and not at all tender. He tried not to watch her face, not to look for someone else. She was getting close, but he couldn't hold on. He tried to keep going, to get her there, but the door splintered open behind them, before he could even finish.
A second before multiple men in black paramilitary gear wrenched them apart she nipped his earlobe and pressed a kiss behind his ear. The intruders knocked him unconscious as he realized. It was her. It had to be her. No one else would know about that quirk of Frankie's. How could they?
He came to in a dark, dank room. It felt like his head was about to crack open and hatch something. His hands were cuffed painfully behind him and he had nothing he could pick them with. He was wearing a pair of track pants and nothing else. There were no wires or anything hidden in any of the seams—they were just pants. His ankles were shackled to a steel ring half way up the wall, and with so little chain he couldn't stand up, or even put his feet on the floor. He experimentally tugged all the locks and chains, but they were secure. The door looked like fortified steel. Awesome.
There were no windows, but there was a camera mounted in one corner, looking down on him. To keep himself calm he recited the first poem that entered his head. "In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure done decree... " "A damsel with a dulcimer in a vision once I saw…"
Frankie loomed over him, pointing a Ruger at him with the safety off.
"I'm sorry," she said, still sounding British and wrong. "He said he would make my death quick and painless if I killed you first."
Alpha continued, "It was an Abyssinian maid, and on her dulcimer she played…"
Frankie knelt and kissed him and this time it felt like her. She was kissing him as herself and he wondered how you trained yourself to kiss like someone else. And why?
She slipped something between his cheek and lower teeth with her tongue and looked into his eyes, trying to tell him something. She'd given him a key. Then she stood up and shot him.
He rose up through the pain and back to consciousness. She's shot him in the side—enough to make him bleed a fair amount, but he didn't think she'd hit anything vital. Holy hell did it hurt. It took an agonizing few minutes to contort himself into position and to get the key into the lock of the handcuffs with his teeth. Hinckley had forced him to endure several years of Yoga. He went from being the least flexible person in this history of history, to being quite bendy. Though he'd hated Hinckley every moment he'd had to spend in that sweaty room with hairy men grunting and trying to hold bow pose, he could kiss the man right about now.
Alpha must have passed out again, but he came to with his arms free. He wondered why no one had come in to stop him, but then maybe no one was watching the camera's feed. He had to feel around in the dark for the key. It wasn't the right one for the shackles, but he managed to force the lock open with it anyway. God bless Wendell.
He wasn't sure he could stand, so he crawled to the door, which was miracle of miracles—ajar.
He made it half way down an empty hallway, partially upright, smearing blood along the gray cinder block wall. It was a trail, but that couldn't be helped. He had to get out of the building and out of this city, if he was still in Grozny. He had no idea how long he'd been unconscious either time. If he could get over the border into Georgia alive, he might be able to get help. Spots swam before his eyes. He'd be lucky if he'd make it out of the building. She'd shot him. Actually shot him! What the hell was she doing?
But it had been her all along. He wasn't going crazy. Cold comfort. Was she dead? Had Zhirov killed her? Who was she working for? What kind of training had she had? How much should he worry?
He fell to his knees, landing on the dusty concrete floor teeth-jarringly hard, but he barely felt any other pain above the sharp burning ache and pull of his side. He was clutching his hand over his wound. He hadn't even realized. There was a fair amount of blood, but not so much that he was dying. Yet. He felt his back for an exit wound and was relieved to find one, although that meant he had two possible pathways for infection to crawl in.
He dimly heard helicopters circling the building. That could be good or bad depending on who was in them. There was nowhere to take cover and not enough time to get back to his cell, so he waited where he was, too exhausted and in too much pain to do otherwise.
He heard explosions, shouts, and boots running, lots of boots. The corridor filled with acrid, eye watering smoke. He knew to close and cover his eyes, knew there would probably be flash grenades.
Men came for him. They were wearing gas masks, carrying rifles, and when they picked him up the last thing he noticed was the American flags sewn on their uniforms. Thank God. Though what sort of trouble that could cause if the Americans didn't have Russia's permission to be there--he didn't want to contemplate and thankfully blacked out.
He came to in a chopper headed God knows where. A medic was dressing his wound. There was an IV in the back of his hand. They'd given him something for pain that made his vision slightly hazy.
"Good to see you're still with us, Captain."
"Captain?" Alpha tried to clear his mind of cobwebs.
"Do you know who you are?" The medic began palpating Alpha's head for signs of injury. "Does your head hurt?"
Then his training clicked back into place. His tongue was thick an inflexible, but he managed to say, "No. Head is fine. Captain Eli Jones."
"Good. We've contacted Major Winston at Langley to let her know your status. We're taking you to Tbilisi. They've granted us permission to get you loaded into a plane there headed to the nearest military base that can patch you up."
"Bulgaria?" Alpha knew, had had to know how far away help was. How very far away it always had been. Then something else occurred to him. "How did you know where to find me? How did you know who I was?"
"Captain Smith radioed us early this morning and told us where to find you. She didn't tell us you'd been shot."
Smith? Jones. Why hadn't he seen it earlier? Damn it all to hell. Frankie was working for Hinckley. Damn her. Damn Hinckley. If he lived he was going to have words, if he could find anybody to have words with.
"Where is she?" He had to shout to be heard.
The medic shook his head. "I don't know. She stayed behind after she made sure you were alive."
Alpha wanted to ask more, but his consciousness slipped out of his grasp once more.
He was only dimly aware of being loaded into a plane on a gurney, mostly by the roar of the engine and the feel of cold air. He woke parched and sore, lying in what could only be an army hospital. They were all the same unpleasant color. His side was heavily taped and bandaged. He thought he could feel stitches, which meant he'd already seen a surgeon.
They kept him in the base hospital in Bulgaria for two days before loading him into a plane headed for Spain and then from Spain they flew him to Felker Air Field at Fort Eustis.
He was able to sit up and shuffle along when they landed, but Winston, who came to meet him in person ordered him into a wheel chair. He hadn't seen her in almost five years. She had a tiny bit of white in her dark hair, but she looked as no nonsense and upright as ever.
"Jones. Glad to see you're not dead."
She saw him into far nicer quarters than he'd ever seen, or stayed in on base before. "Get settled. You'll need to see a doctor in about an hour. Then we'll talk about what happens next."
The doctor was a tiny woman who looked like she'd never smiled in her life. She said he was fine, just needed time to heal. She gave him instructions about how to keep his wounds clean, which he didn't need. And instructions to move around, which he didn't particularly want, but knew he'd adhere to—like Winston would let him get away with not following orders.
He walked stiffly out of the infirmary and was picked up by a corporal and driven to Winston's office where he found both her and Sarah.
"You look like hell, kid," Sarah said by way of greeting.
Winston just stared at him until he remembered and saluted with his left hand, because he'd been shot on his right side.
"Sit." Wendell indicated the free chair on his side of her desk.
They all sat. No one spoke. Alpha cleared his throat.
"We're retiring you." Sarah pushed a folder into his hands. "I know you're not surprised that there's paperwork for this."
"What about Frankie? Where is she? Is she alive?"
"You know I can't tell you anything," Sarah said. "In your packet you'll find your final compensation package. Hinckley will write a glowing recommendation to whomever can help you do what you want to do next. There's no need to figure that out today. You have time. You'll stay here for a week and then you should go home. I spoke with your mother yesterday. She'd like to see you. You're welcome to stay with her for as long as you like."
Alpha's mother was oddly subdued when she met him at the airport, but she hugged him so hard he worried his stitches might pop, but he didn't stop her.
She'd hired a town car to drive them back into Manhattan from LaGuardia. She held his hand the entire way home, as if she were afraid he'd disappear if she didn't hold on. He felt something like guilt, but it was much bigger than plain old guilt. It was an iceberg made of guilt, shame, remorse, anxiety, and sharp pointy things.
She'd redecorated the apartment, of course. Hinckley paid people in unconventional ways. Part of Alpha's agreement to work for him had been money sent to his mother every month, so that she could afford to live in this white elephant. It wasn't anywhere near the allowance she used to receive, but it had been enough that she hopefully hadn't put a zillion dollars on her credit cards.
They had a quiet dinner together and he was surprised she wasn't driving him crazy with questions. He still wasn't exactly sure what Sarah had told her about where he'd been, or what he'd been doing. He was afraid to ask, and loathe to have to admit that he didn't know. He grimaced.
"Does your side hurt? Can I get you anything, baby?" His mother reached over and pushed his hair back from his forehead and kissed him. She hadn't done that since he was ten. His throat constricted and he forced back tears. This of all things was not going to be what cracked him?
"No, just tired."
She looked older, her age finally catching up with her a little bit in her late forties. She'd been little more than a child when he was born, just turned twenty. He felt positively ancient at twenty-seven. He took in the fine lines around her mouth and eyes. She couldn't pass for a pretty young thing anymore. He wondered how hard that was for her? It had been the one thing she felt like she had going for her when he was a kid. It had annoyed him because she wasn't stupid, though she often played dumb.
He'd half hated her for being that way, thought she was weak and silly. And maybe she had been, but he felt compassion her now. She'd been young and unprepared for motherhood, but she'd kept him. She'd found a way to raise him in luxury, and she'd always loved him—though she'd never understood him. He couldn't blame her for that though. He barely understood himself or the wreck he'd made of his life.
"Go get some sleep," she said.
He stood up carefully and nodded. "It's good to see you, mom. I missed you." He was surprised that he truly meant it.
His room was frozen in time. Everything had been dusted, but was right where he'd left it. His battered old MacBook was still on his desk. He opened it and powered it up. The sucker still worked.
He waited for it to connect to the wireless and noticed a bit of paper wedged under the F key. He had to pop the key off to free it. It said, "Take it from the top." He knew the handwriting. He just didn't know what she was trying to tell him.
He went to bed in an ancient Alabaster t-shirt still puzzling the message. He woke at three in the morning needing to use the bathroom and take some ibuprofen. As he was tapping out the little brown pills into his palm he realized. Take it from the top. Go back to the beginning. Go back to where they'd first met. But when? Probably the same day in August. Shit. It was only the end of May, though it had been the longest May of his entire life.
He healed--physically. He spent a lot of time with his mother, taking her out to dinner, to movies, and to galleries where she seemed to know half the artists. He pretty quickly realized she was seeing a guy who owned a gallery on 22nd over near 10th. She didn't seem to want to tell him, which was weird.
"So, mom--that guy we keep bumping into? Charles? You're seeing him, right?" Alpha asked over morning coffee.
She froze like a kid in trouble, but then nodded, clearly braced for his disapproval. What kind of asshole had been when he was a kid?
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"Well… " she swallowed hard. "I thought you might not approve. He's a lot younger than I am."
"He's what? Forty?" Alpha didn't care how old his mother's boyfriends were, though he guessed he might be weirded out if she started dating someone his age or younger.
"Thirty-eight." Her eyes darted to the side. She was embarrassed.
"Are you happy?" he asked.
"Yes. I think I am. We were friends first. I'd never really done that before—be friends first."
Alpha nodded. "Then I'm glad. I just want you to be happy, mom."
She grinned all the way through her second cup of coffee. He'd never really thought about making her happy before, everything had been about placating her, keeping her off his back and out of his hair, despite her need to cling to him.
Alpha spent the summer decompressing, wandering around Manhattan, and ignoring Sarah's phone calls. He should have known what that would lead to. She showed up on his doorstep one afternoon. It was raining and she sprayed him with drops from her umbrella when she tried to close it and it popped open again.
"Know why I'm here?" she asked as he ushered her into the living room.
"Yeah. I can guess." Alpha didn’t bother to apologize. They both knew he wasn't sorry.
"There are still tasks you need to complete, loose ends. You never finished or submitted your paperwork. You haven't met with one of our approved mental health professionals. You've shown no signs of planning your future or doing anything other than hanging out with your mom, which is nice and all, but we can't let you languish."
"Why the hell not? What difference does it make what I do now? I don't work for you anymore."
"Alpha, we put enormous resources and funds into training you. Did you think we were going to send you off with a pat on the head and ask for a post-card once in a while?"
"Did you even look at the packet I gave you in May?" Sarah was being extremely short with him, all her usual long-suffering humor absent. "Go get it. We're going to look at it now."
"I shredded it."
"Well, it's a good thing I brought a copy of everything." She pulled a blue folder out of her case. "Any chance of a cup of tea?"
Alpha headed for the kitchen and she called after him, "No milk, no sugar."
She had the papers in five neat piles when he returned with tea and some sort of Swedish gingersnaps his mother thought he liked, because he'd eaten an entire box of them one night when he couldn't sleep.
Sarah methodically squeezed out her teabag and set it on the edge of her saucer. Alpha waited patiently.
"These," Sarah tapped the first pile, "are the forms you need to fill out, sign, and date so that we can pay you and close your active file. These are reports we need you to check over and fill in missing details. This is a questionnaire that Hinckley likes everyone to fill out when the end their appointments with The Organization. This is a list of mental health professionals in Manhattan who have been vetted and approved to see you. You're required to set up an appointment with one of them and if you like him or her you must meet with him at least ten times over the next six months. We will pay for your visits and if you'd like to see the person more than ten times, we'll cover that too. We know that you have issues you'll need to work through after everything you've seen and done."
"What's the last pile?" Alpha craned his neck to try and see it, but it was the farthest away.
"That's another NDA. It explicitly states what you can say to the mental health professional you see and what you cannot. If you sign it you also agree that you will never speak about your time with us to anyone, not even to another agent. You may speak to me, or Hinckley freely, but otherwise? No."
"I'm surprised he doesn't want to see me," Alpha said.
"He does, which you'd know if you'd answer the damn phone. He'll see you at some point. You know how he works. Well, I mean you know he's unpredictable."
"That's putting it mildly." Alpha sighed. "You're going to sit here until I finish this, aren't you?"
Sarah bit one of the cookies, chewed it thoughtfully. "I have a week long reservation at the Pierre."
"Nice. How did you swing that?" Alpha was impressed. Hinckley didn't spend money when he didn’t have to.
"I was due for a vacation and instead I'm here." She looked at him pointedly.
At least he felt a stab of guilt for being a childish pain in the ass. Feeling something was good. "So if I get these done ASAP, you can get out of my hair and go off on your vacation?"
"Its not just the forms," she said.
He glared at the list of mental health professionals. "You're baby sitting me until I see a shrink?"
She tapped her nose and pointed at him.
"Alpha. Where are your brains today? Why do you think?"
He thought about it. She was right—his thoughts were terribly slow. He'd been trying very hard not to think at all about anything for the last two months. He'd had some nightmares here and there, but usually a couple of fingers of whiskey took care of those. Though with less effectiveness lately.
So why? Why were they going to micromanage his life until he jumped through all their hoops? It couldn't just be that they were control freaks. Alpha splayed his fingers out on the table. He'd done a lot of things with these hands in the last eight years; he could still do a lot of things with his hands. Things the average person can't.
"Because I'm too dangerous to walk around unhinged like this." He nodded.
"Not the way I'd phrase it, but you can't expect to just waltz back into normal life. You need to transition and it would be irresponsible of us not to help you do that. We made you who you are, now we need to help you find a way forward. Going back isn't an option."
"Let me guess. Hinckley did some of his creepy little experiments and when agents couldn't transition back into "normal life" he had adequate proof that there needed to be a protocol in place to cope with this."
"He's not as bloodless as that, you know." But her smile was pretty damn wry. "Make an appointment before we do anything else."
Alpha read through the list of names. "How am I supposed to choose someone from this? All it gives me are names and phone numbers."
Sarah shrugged. Jesus. Even now she wouldn't give him a straight answer, or complete information. He fetched the battered old laptop and carried it back to the dining room table. He researched every name on the page, made some notes, and chose two doctors. He called Dr. Rogova's office and the secretary told him there wasn't an opening for a new patient. Alpha hung up and frowned at the paper.
"What?" Sarah looked up from her own laptop.
"This one isn't taking new patients. Has anyone updated this list lately?"
Sarah flapped her hand for the phone. She hit redial. "Hello, this is Sarah Gomez. I'd like to make an emergency appointment for Alessandro Tesorieri. Yes, I understand, but this is a V-21 appointment. Yes, I can spell his last name for you. Thank you."
"You've got an appointment tomorrow at ten." Sarah passed him back the phone.
"Why didn't you tell me how to make an appointment--- oh. Because you didn't want the office assistant to know there was anything special about me unless you had to."
"See? Your brain isn't as rusty as we thought." Sarah sipped her tea.
Alpha made a second appointment with a Dr. Crispin for Wednesday afternoon without having to explain his extenuating circumstances.
Then began hours of paperwork that cramped up Alpha's hand and he had a terrible thought. "Is Hinckley just going to shred these?"
"Eventually. They'll be scanned first. And before you ask—I actually have no idea why he insists all paperwork be filled out by hand instead of on a computer. That one is a mystery."
The sun set late in the day, but it was heading for the horizon when Sarah said they'd done enough for the day. Alpha stood up and stretched.
"What are you doing for dinner?" he asked.
"I don't have any plans." She was packing up her things. "I'll look for a place near my hotel."
"Why don't you let me take you to dinner then?"
She looked puzzled. "I don't know if that's technically allowed. There's no protocol that says we can't, but—"
"But nothing. I know this amazing Tuscan restaurant down on Elizabeth Street. You'll feel like you died and woke up in Montalcino."
"All right, but no shop talk."
"Fine with me." Alpha changed and they hailed a taxi to take them down to NoLita. They didn't talk much in the taxi—Sarah was too busy looking out the window.
"You've never spent much time here, huh?" he guessed.
"I've only ever been through the airports," she said.
"That's a crime," he said. "If you're going to spend all your vacation time here you need to take the Alpha tour of Manhattan. I won't take no for an answer, Sarah."
"We'll see how the paperwork goes." But she was smiling a pleased little smile.
They talked all through dinner. Sarah turned out to be an adventurous eater and they split the Polpi in Purgatorio, which are baby octopus with hot chilies, which she followed with rotisserie suckling pig. Alpha had the lamb with polenta. The conversation was kept to books, movies, things they liked. They'd never talked like this before and were thankfully easy together. They drank a bottle of excellent though pricey Montepulciano and charged to Hinckley. They were both too full for dessert and Alpha suggested they take a turn around Little Italy and maybe stop in at a pastry shop on Mott Street that his grandmother used to take him to for cannoli and Manhattan Special espresso soda, until she thought he was old enough to drink a real espresso at age twelve. He missed her sometimes. She was one of two people he permitted to call him by his given name. He was going to have to do something about his name going forward.
Alpha led her through the crowded, narrow little streets—pointing out tourist traps like Ferrara and Lombardi's. "It's actually pretty good pizza, but you always have to fight a crowd of clueless tourists to get in there. It was the first pizza place in the US. That's why."
He told her what the Feast of San Genarro was like—sort of a tiny Mardi Gras, with less boob flashing. But everyone stumbling around with enormous blue frozen drinks, eating grilled food from stalls, and how his grandmother used to take him to the same cart for zeppole every year, which are warm deep fried balls of dough covered in powdered sugar. Mostly he just reminisced and pointed things out to Sarah. Alpha hadn't been this chatty in years. It felt odd and he had to fight the impulse to shut up.
He was glad the little place on Mott Street was still there, because you never know what might just disappear one day without warning—and Alpha hadn't been down in this neighborhood for years. The cannolis were as good he remembered, but the espresso seemed a little sour. Of course, he'd spent six months in Venice drinking their coffee so his standards had probably shifted.
Sarah didn't tell him much about herself or her history, but they chatted away about inconsequential things, the sorts of things you discuss with a good friend whom you already know all about.
He saw Sarah back to her hotel and headed home, walking up Fifth toward Seventy-second. He wondered where Livingston was, what he was up to. When he got home he Googled him. Livingston was an editor at the Staten Island Advance, which Alpha vaguely remembered might be a farm for the New York Times. Was that the right word? Like a farm team? He wasn't sure.
He found Livingston's email address. He'd like to see him, but he wasn't sure what he'd say, or how he'd be received. Maybe Sarah had some sage advice about how to try and renew friends you abandoned to become a spy.
Sarah didn't have any advice beyond, "Email him and see what happens. You've been trained to withstand torture. You've been shot what? Six times? Surely, you can take it if one guy you went to prep school with doesn't want to talk to you."
Alpha drafted an email and poked at it for two days before sending it. He felt nauseous as soon as it sent. He didn't hear back the next day and was more than a little disappointed, but understood. He really didn't deserve a second chance.
He took Sarah on a tour very similar to the one he'd taken Frankie on all those years ago, but it was summer and there were place to see this time of year that you'd never take anyone to in the winter. He wrangled a key into Gramercy Park from an old friend and showed Sarah the statue of John Wilkes Booth's brother Edwin. He dragged her out to Prospect Heights for excellent ice cream and then grudgingly agreed to take the Circle Line tour with her, during which he admitted he'd never done it before and it was kind of cool, despite all the annoying tourists. Funny how being back in New York made him revert to being about sixteen years old a lot of the time.
Alpha's first shrink appointment went well and he liked the tiny Russian woman quite well. She was sent into transports of delight when she found he spoke Russian, but she asked him what accent he was using and he wasn't sure he could explain where he'd been. She held up her hand when he hesitated and said, "Pretend I didn't ask."
His second appointment was a wash. Dr. Crispin said two words and they were both in a monotone. His office looked like something from a New Yorker cartoon—the Freudian analyst's couch, the Eames chair, the Kandinsky prints on the walls. He made a series of weekly appointments with Dr. Rogova.
On Friday he saw Sarah off to the airport and returned to an email from Livingston. He was afraid to open it and let the cursor hover for nearly thirty seconds before clicking it.
"Wow. I thought I'd never hear from you again, but I am glad to know you're alive. Yes. I would love to see you, Dog. Of course I would! Can you meet for drinks or dinner? Sunday around six? Pravda on Lafayette. –M."
Much friendlier than he'd expected. A weight lifted off his chest. Though if Livingston asked him about Frankie—he had no idea what he'd say. He better think of something because the subject was bound to come up. Mostly he tried not to think about her, not to worry, not to wonder where the hell she was. He did OK, but a lot of little things reminded him of her. Another month. Hopefully he'd see her in another month. He held on to that with both hands.
Pravda was a sleek little place in a basement, full of perfectly manicured and coiffed people. He found Livingston waiting at a little table in the bar. They shook hands cordially. Matthew looked well, as handsome as ever—a little more angular—like he was either not sleeping or eating enough.
They sat and drank dirty martinis for three hours. Livingston was doing very well, to no one's surprise. He was expecting to end up at either The Globe or The Times in a few years, but he really liked his editorial work and would be sad to move on to something managerial.
He insisted on paying the bill and said, "You know this is perfect timing. You remember Marnie? We're getting married in October. I had to let her brother be the best man, but would you stand up with me?"
Alpha almost inhaled the olive in the bottom of his glass. It was a no brainer. "Of course."
Livingston grinned at him and slapped him on the shoulder. Then he lifted the sleeve of Alpha's t-shirt. "Hey, what's with the tattoos?"
"Drunken mistake," Alpha said. He really needed to make an appointment with a plastic surgeon. He couldn't keep the damn things even if he'd wanted to. The last thing he needed was someone recognizing Russian and Chechen gang symbols.
"So you haven't asked me about—"
"I know I'm not supposed to. I don't exactly know what you two have been up to, but I can guess. I've been told enough to make a fair guess. I know she wasn't working for the UN or whatever she told me. And I know you weren't with the Peace Corps for six years, unable to contact anyone.
"You know I had dinner with your mom a few times. She was really lonely. I think she really missed you. I know she was used to you being away, but not unreachable."
Alpha nodded. "I've been spending a lot of time with her since I got back. Trying to mend fences. We're getting along pretty well. She's dating a guy who owns a gallery over on 22nd."
"Charles? Yes, I've met him. Your mother had him invite me to a couple of openings. Nice guy."
"He better be," Alpha said without heat.
"Why cause you know people?" Livingston joked, and then the smile slid right off his face. "Oh, God. You probably do really know people. Don't you?"
Alpha lifted one shoulder. He wanted to say, "I am people," but it sounded lame even in his head, and he couldn't admit that he was basically a walking lethal weapon.
"Marnie wants to see you," Livingston said out on the sidewalk as they headed for the Bleecker Street subway stop. "I'll find out her schedule and then we'd like to invite you over for dinner."
"I'd like that," Alpha said. Livingston surprised him by bear hugging the crap out of him. Maybe they should have had one fewer martinis, but whatever. It was nice. They slapped each other's backs in that manly way straight guys do after they've hugged too long.
"It's so good to see you, man. I missed you."
"I'm sorry," Alpha said. "I missed you too."
He rode the Six up Lexington Avenue to Hunter College and walked over to Madison and up to his mom's apartment on 72nd. He paused outside the Frick and remembered the day he took Frankie there and how much she'd giggled over the boy with the enormous silver codpiece. He rubbed at the spot where her initial was tattooed and it did nothing to alleviate the ache.
Dr. Rogova convinced Alpha to tackle some of his more traumatic memories through Cognitive Processing Therapy, which was originally designed for sexual assault survivors, but is now widely used on Veterans returning from the Middle East, or really anyone suffering for PTSD.
It was hard facing these demons, having to write down an account of everything he remembered, every smell, every sound, how he'd felt—every last gory detail of the first time he'd killed someone. Then he had to read the account to her over and over. The first time his voice had given out two sentences in and he couldn't find it again. He went home and drank too much and actually cried. He distinctly remembered the last time he'd cried, but it had only been a few scattered tears for a dead kid in Grozny. The tiny coffin had just been the saddest thing he'd ever seen. He hadn't killed the kid or anything, but he'd still felt culpable somehow. These tears were different--great snuffling sobs he couldn't remember letting out since he was a little kid.
He'd been able to get through this morning's appointment pretty well. He'd read though the account twice and it was getting easier. He was learning to identify patterns of problematic thinking and back himself up when he got into trouble minimizing or denying. There were plenty more traumatic memories to tackle, but he felt like he could do it.
He felt pretty good when he hopped in a rental car and headed south for Cape May. He sang along tunelessly to loud music the whole way, so as not to vibrate right out the window with excitement. They hadn't specified on a time, although it had been about two in the afternoon the day they'd met. He was prepared to wait all day if he had to.
And he did. He stared out at the ocean until the sun was nearly set. He'd seen plenty of people, but not Frankie. He wondered if he was here on the wrong day—but figured it was more likely that it was the wrong year. She wasn't free yet. Hinckley couldn't keep her forever, if he was even the one who had her. How long was he prepared to wait for her? He decided that wasn't a decision he was ready to make today. He was also afraid of the answer.
The CPT sessions grew harder and then easier and then harder again as they tackled different traumas. Alpha refused both Ambien and an anti-anxiety medication, not because he didn't think that they would help, but because he thought this process should be hard—and he should suffer. He'd done horrible things, but he was learning to handle the memories and live with them as best he could. Dr. Rogova tried to persuade him that the drugs would help him heal more quickly, but he didn't deserve that either. Maybe that was a little melodramatic and self-martyring, but it actually made him feel better about himself.
He'd found a good plastic surgeon who was slowly lasering off his tattoos, except the little rabbit under his heart. Some of them were gone within the first four sessions, but two of them were proving exceptionally stubborn. The stupid wolf would probably never be completely gone. The surgeon had suggested it might be better to just have it tattooed over in some other design, but Alpha didn't want that. He'd settle for mostly gone and unidentifiable.
He bounced around the city, did some volunteer work here and there, and tried to figure out what next. He wasn't sure it was he wanted to do, but he took the LSAT and applied to several law schools. If he got in, he'd decide then if it was what he wanted to do. He did not ask for Hinckley's recommendation because he knew he was old chums with the Deans at both Harvard and Yale Law Schools.
He got in to both Harvard and Yale and Alpha couldn't help but wonder if Hinckley had found out and said something behind his back, because he was offered a full ride at both schools and that was virtually unheard of. His LSAT score was high and he'd done well in undergrad, but his essays about his life had been a masterpiece of vaguery. He had to lie, but he didn't want to make it sound too much like he'd been off in the Peace Corps saving the world. He'd gone into The Organization thinking that he would be saving the world, or at least helping, but he still had no clue what he'd done, what sort of cog he'd been, or any of the ramifications of his actions. He would probably never know.
He stood up with Livingston at his wedding and had almost fled during the reception when one of Marnie's bridesmaids, whom he barely remembered from college, drunkenly confessed that she'd had a crush on him freshman year and then tried to kiss/grope him.
He didn't flee. He gently told Elizabeth, hoping he was getting her name right, that he was flattered, but not interested. She took it well and he went to the bar and ordered a double scotch on the rocks.
He literally bumped into Hinckley Jr. who was, as per usual, pretty hammered. He looked a little bloated and ruddy—like a habitual drinker. Hinckley bribed the bartender into handing over a bottle of twelve-year-old Macallan and made Alpha sit down with him and ran through a confusing and very slurred jumble of memories.
"And. Holy crap. Whatever happened to that girl friend of yours? The super hot one."
"We've lost touch," he said and poured himself another glass of whiskey.
"Ah. Bad break up." Hinckley sat back and tried to compose his expression into something serious, but he broke into giggles. He began to laugh so hard he had to hunch over the table, bunching up the rose-colored tablecloth in his hands.
Alpha signaled a waiter for some water and patted Hinckley on the back wondering how the hell father and son were even related. Though if Hinckley Jr. was just one more of Hinckley Sr.'s psych experiments—it made a sick kind of sense.
"Sorry," Hinckley said, dabbing his eyes and nose on the edge of the tablecloth.
"For what?" Alpha said.
"Because… I shouldn't tell you. S'not even funny really." Hinckley picked at the label on the whiskey bottle, prying away a corner.
" You can tell me." Alpha leaned forward.
"I didn't know. He didn't tell me what he was doing, but I should have known." Hinckley shook his head.
"Known what?" Alpha was getting a little weary of drunken confessional time.
"I shouldn't have set up the meeting. He asked to meet her. He figured since he'd already got his hooks in you it would be easy enough to reel her in too. But I shouldn't have done it. Shouldn't have made it easy for the son of a bitch."
"He would have gotten to her another way and she could have said 'no' to working for him." Alpha was in no mood to absolve Hinckley of his guilt and he started to stand. At least he knew Frankie was almost certainly working for Hinckley.
Hinckley grabbed his arm. "I don't speak to him anymore. Won't have anything to do with him. He's… I just don't want him in my life. I was never supposed to know. What he does? I was never supposed to know. My mother still doesn't. But I hid under his desk one day and I heard. I heard things. And then he used me when he could."
Alpha was bent at an odd angle over Hinckley. He looked down on the wreck of a man and felt sad for the guy. He sat down again. "Look. I never met my father and he's never wanted to meet me so I figure he's probably an asshole and I'm not missing anything. But if I had a father who wanted to see me? I'd see him. Your father may be a piece of work, but he's still your father and I think he cares about you. He may be a lot of things, but you're still pretty lucky to have him."
Hinckley looked thoughtful, or looked like he was attempting to be thoughtful and failing due to intoxication. Alpha patted him on the back and walked away wondering if Hinckley would even remember the conversation when he was sober again. Wondering if what he said was even true. Perhaps Hinckley Jr. was better off without his father in his life, perhaps not.
Alpha had intentionally kept clear of reading or listening to news about Russia and Chechnya, afraid it would send him into some kind of depression or into an angry fit. But Livingston and Marnie dragged him back into awareness. He had dinner with them a couple of times a month.
He arrived at their apartment to find Livingston glued to his laptop and the TV muted in the background. Marnie was on the phone, mostly listening to someone.
Livingston poured Alpha a glass of wine and went back to reading without so much as a "Hi, how are you?"
The TV showed footage of a bombed out building and even without the sound, without the location named at the bottom of the screen—Alpha recognized it. It was Maxim's mansion on the edge of Grozny. What the hell was that doing on the news? And what the hell had happened to it? It looked like a--- oh.
He dropped his glass of wine in shock.
Livingston ran for a couple of towels and while he was mopping up the mess he said, "You know something about this."
"OK. I know you can't talk about it, but why do you look like a marching band just stomped across your grave?" He refilled Alpha's wine glass. "Drink that and take a breath."
"I don't know where she is. I can't say anymore, but that's one of the last places I saw her." Alpha jabbed a finger at the television. Aware he'd said way too much, he braced himself and waited for Special Forces to come crashing in and drag him off somewhere never to be seen again.
Livingston just stared at him owlishly and then slowly said, "You were in Grozny? With the Russian Mafia? And you think Frankie is still there?" He shook his head slowly as if he could shake the disturbing thought right out and make it go away.
"I shouldn’t… I don't know. I honestly don't. They won't tell me where she is. They won't tell me anything." Alpha drank down half the glass of red wine. It was a very tannic cab and made his teeth feel chalky, but the warmth that spread through his chest and into his marrow was welcome.
Livingston dropped a hand on his shoulder and squeezed reassuringly. "I don't know how you've been sleeping at night. The news from that area has been hair raising—"
"What do you mean? I haven't been following it. I've been avoiding it for that reason-so I can sleep. What's happening?" Alpha looked back at the TV and the camera was panning across streets he recognized, lots of smoke, some fire. It was night, so probably not a live shot since it was nearing dawn there.
"About a week ago Chechen rebels staged a military style coup and the government, the Russian installed government has fallen. It started when the president's deputy committed suicide, apparently."
"Zhirov." Alpha fought down a groan. This was getting worse by the second. He was pretty certain Zhirov was not the suicidal type, but since he didn't know the particulars he wasn't going to guess.
"Yeah. I guess you would know that. Anyway the separatists took over and assassinated the president and most of his administration. The Russian government is sending in troops now to quash the rebellion, but it's an Ungodly mess. Marnie is working with two reporters who are getting all their information second and third hand from Russian and Armenian sources. That's why she's stuck on the phone. She's been on it for two hours.
"I think we should order some Chinese because cooking is just not going to happen tonight. What may I get you?"
Alpha shook his head. The idea of food was repugnant.
"I'll order you something low key. Beef with broccoli. You need to eat something. You can't just drink all my cabernet sauvignon and watch this unfold."
"I need to make a call." Alpha went into the bathroom and turned on the fan and the water. It was the best he could do. And he called Sarah.
She answered by saying, "I can't tell you anything."
"If she died, if any agent died how would I be notified? Theoretically."
"Well, you wouldn't be notified unless you were family. Once it was confirmed, by one of us directy—we'd contact her next of kin. Then they would notify whomever they wanted to."
"Sarah, I need more than that. I don't think you understand—"
"I understand, Alpha. I just can't do anything to help you. Don't give up hope. Not yet." And she hung up.
She'd said not to give up hope, which meant as far as Sarah knew—Frankie was alive. That was enough to go one for now, but it didn't close up the yawning pit of anxiety in his gut. He didn't dare call Ruth to see if she knew anything.
He walked back into the living room and just shook his head at Livingston. "They can't tell me anything. Everything is classified. Everything is a secret."
"How do you live like that?"
"You just do." Alpha drained his glass of wine and decided to hold off on more until he'd eaten something. He would eat and sleep and keep going because she was probably out there somewhere. Not that he could do a damn thing to help her. Even if he could get into Chechnya, he had no idea where she was, or what she was in the middle of. She didn't need a knight in shining armor. She needed luck. She needed to be her absolutely brilliant and conniving self.
They watched the news until nearly three am when Marnie fell asleep and Livingston was close to it. Alpha cleaned up a bit, shook them both awake enough to go to bed and saw himself out. He walked almost four miles from Grove Street up to 72nd to clear his head, or at least try to. It didn't work. He couldn't sleep. He couldn't stop recalling his hands hovering over that bomb, almost diffusing it.
He started running again the next day, just to work off nervous energy. His body did not want to do it, but he forced his limbs to cooperate. It felt like he was running through molasses both because of fatigue and because he was out of shape. But he did it.
Three weeks went by and there was no news. Well, there was tons of news, but nothing that indicated Frankie's status or whereabouts. Alpha briefly considered going to DC and marching into Hinckley's office and demanding answers, but he had no clue where Hinckley's actual office was located and he had a feeling he wouldn't make it through the front door—at least not armed.
He read the news—as many sources as he could English, American, Russian, Chechen. He placed some calls he probably shouldn't have. But nothing gave him any of the answers he wanted most. Where was she? Was she all right? And what the hell was really going on?
And he ran. Sometimes twice a day. Ran until his legs nearly gave out. He had to or he couldn't sleep. He almost broke down and asked the good doctor for an Ambien prescription, until he tried adding an evening run to his routine.
His mother didn't ask too many questions, but she fussed over him and plied him with food, which he accepted as gratefully as possible and tried to be as kind as he could to her, although he wanted to snarl at everyone he saw. Not just because Frankie was missing, or whatever she was—but because he had the sickening feeling that he'd had a hand in all this, that he'd done things that had set this all in motion. Somehow. He'd never kidded himself that he was an important player like a Knight—he'd always been a pawn. It just hadn't upset him until now, until the full weight of that knowledge settled on him like an elephant standing on his sternum.
He beagn having more frequent and repetitive nightmares. There was a particularly gruesome one in which he was wielding a large saber and sliced right through Zhirov's neck, only to find that he'd beheaded Frankie instead. He woke up sweaty and hoarse after that one every time. His mother came to check on his on the really bad nights when he must have woken her with his screaming. She made him warm milk with cognac and honey and sat with him until he went back to sleep.
It was ironic because she hadn't been this good of a mother when he was a kid, but she'd changed. She'd calmed down or something had shifted inside her. Whatever it was—he was immensely grateful for the change and whatever had caused it.
It never occurred to him that he might be responsible for it—that his absence and the strange man he'd returned as—had changed her.
Weeks turned into months and Alpha's anxiety wore itself out a bit. The news from Chechnya, or Ichkeria as the separatists called it, grew less grim. The situation was stabilizing and Russia was backing off a bit under increasing pressure from the UN and the United States as well as most of Europe. It was still something of a powder keg though.
Alpha had to make a final decision on law school, or let it go. He spent three days feeding the ducks in Central Park and waiting for an answer to descend on him from the heavens. No matter what happened with or to Frankie he had to live the rest of his life. He couldn't continue on pause like this, everything on hold. So he accepted Harvard's offer, in part because he couldn't face living somewhere new. He knew Cambridge. He knew Harvard. It would be like going home. He knew the entire place would be haunted, but in a sick kind of way he wanted that too.
Livingston and Marnie insisted he come up to the Vineyard for a few weeks in the summer. They had a nice, relaxing time. Marnie was pregnant and looked exhausted and could eat almost nothing. She had to go for a walk the one night they ate lobster and she made Livingston leave all the windows open to air out the smell that night. Alpha read discolored paperbacks he found in the library--the pages grown rough with age, slept in the sun, went for runs, and fought to remain in the present. His thoughts kept drifting toward August. He had to move into his new apartment in a nice pre-war building up in Porter Square. He needed to buy all sorts of things—new clothes, a new computer, some furniture. He didn't think he'd need a car. The Law School was right down the street and he could take the T everywhere. Besides parking in Cambridge was a pain in the ass and he didn't feel like renting a parking spot.
But under all that was—the day. The day he'd take himself off to Cape May and would wait all day on the boardwalk only to leave alone and crushed. But he'd do it. Just in case. Then he'd start a new life.
He imagined that in time he'd stop waiting for her. He'd maybe even move on to another relationship, but he wasn't ready for that yet. If his present self went back and met his seventeen year old self and told him what a monk he'd become—he was pretty sure his seventeen year old self would laugh himself to death, which would cause a paradox and would cause his present self to not exists. OK, maybe watching all that Doctor Who with Marnie had been a bad idea.
On August first he took Amtrak up to Boston and the T into Cambridge, where he met his new landlord and saw his new apartment. It had been freshly painted—all shades of cream and eggshell. The place was small, but perfect. It was on the third floor, tucked away in a corner, far enough away from Mass Ave to dull the constant symphony of traffic and sirens. His windows overlooked a neatly landscaped courtyard. He thought he might be happy there.
He decided he could be happy if he let himself, if he could figure out how to let himself. He bought a bed, and small dining room table, a TV and sofa, and all the things he'd need—dishes, linens, pots, silverware, etc.
The day before "the day" he drove down to Cape May and checked into a little Inn and was up and at the boardwalk early with coffee. He didn't bring a book or anything. He just waited. And waited. Wondering if he was the stupidest man in existence.
Around noon he saw a girl running toward him, but she was too young. For just one second his heart had seemed to beat outside his body.
At almost precisely two pm he spotted a woman walking along the beach. In a bikini. A striped blue one. One he'd seen before. Her hair was lighter now and longer than when she'd been Claire.
He stayed where he was, mostly because he wasn't sure standing was an option if he wanted to remain on his feet. He gripped the edge of the boardwalk so hard it was almost cutting into his hands.
She didn't seem to notice him and walked by—on up the beach. Well, he had no idea what had happened to her. Maybe she'd had some sort of traumatic brain injury. Except if that was the case why would she be here at all? His brain must be fried by over excitement. It was not working at all.
She ambled back holding frozen custard. A vanilla frozen custard. He was smiling so hard he though his face might crack.
She walked up to him and held out the cone out. He took it and he wasn't quite sure what to do with it.
"I'm pretty sure you're supposed to eat it," she said, one corner of her mouth tilting up.
"I can't believe you're here."
"Me neither," she looked around. Her eyes were back to their normal starbursts of blue and gold, but her teeth were still slightly crooked and her face, he cocked his head. "Did you have plastic surgery?"
She rubbed her nose. "Yes. They didn't want you to be sure it was me. They said they could try and change me back, but I've sort of gotten used to this face."
He noticed a long pink scar on her bicep. He wanted to check her from head to toe for injuries, or evidence of them. They could do that later. In private. Hopefully. She probably wouldn't have come dressed like that if she were planning to reject him.
Vanilla custard was dripping all over his fingers. "Can I toss this? I want to kiss you."
She nodded and took the cone away, flinging it toward the water and some lucky seagulls. He drew her between his legs and held her face even though one of his hands was cold and sticky. She slid her arms around his neck and brushed her lips across his, so lightly he barely felt it. The second kiss he felt so deeply he was sure people across the Atlantic in Portugal must be feeling it too.
She kissed like herself and not like Claire. He'd ask about that training later, well—maybe it was better not to know who'd trained her to kiss differently, or how they'd managed it. There were probably a lot of things he didn't want to know about and that he would never ask her, but he'd listen if she needed to him.
When they broke apart after a very long while he had to gently detangle his sticky fingers from her hair
"I can't believe you still have this," he said, running his finger under the string that went up around her neck and tied her bathing suit in the back.
"You said you dreamed about taking it off me. I thought you'd waited long enough."
"I've got a room," he said and his voice actually fucking broke as he was speaking.
"I've got a house," she countered.
He'd driven. She'd walked. It wasn't far, but why waste time walking when they could be otherwise engaged?
"You walked here like that?" he said, as they headed back toward the parking lot.
She laughed. "You sound like my mother."
"Well, did you?"
"No," she smiled at him. "But I could have if I'd wanted to. I'm twenty-six years old and it's not like anyone could actually try to hurt me and walk away."
That stopped him dead in his tracks. He glanced around and no one was close enough to hear. "Why did you do it? Please don't tell me it was because of me."
"Of course it was," said a deep voice near them.
Both Frankie and Alpha whirled around. Hinckley was standing there a few feet away in a fishing hat and a sun bleached polo shirt. Why was Alpha even surprised?
Frankie glared at him. "Not entirely. You know that wasn't the entire reason."
"I want to talk to you two," Hinckley said, scratching at his unshaven chin.
Frankie and Alpha exchanged looks. She squeezed his hand and gave a tiny shake of her head.
"We're busy right now," Alpha said without looking away from her.
"Come to dinner. I've rented a little cottage. Come around seven," Hinckley looked at them for a moment and added, "Seven tomorrow." He told them the address and walked off.
"Damn him. He knows we'll be too curious to stand him up," Frankie said.
"That gives us almost twenty-eight hours," Alpha said and tugged her toward the car.
"Oh, for what?" Frankie feigned innocence.
"Getting reacquainted." He fumbled getting the key into the car door. If he wasn't about to have marathon sex, he knew he'd have to go run ten miles before he could stop shaking.
"Oh, is that what we're calling it these days?"
She had a button down shirt in her bag and tossed on before sitting on the sun hot passenger seat. She kept glancing at him and curling and uncurling her hands. She was just as wound up and excited and he had no clue what he'd ever done to deserve this, but he wasn't going to complain. He might not ever complain again about anything.
The cottage was small and neat, full of faded furniture that Alpha did not care about. She set her bag down and turned to him, placing a hand flat on his chest.
"Is there anything I should know?" She searched his eyes.
"About what? Like do I have an STD or a wife and eight children?"
"Yes, and anything else? Any injuries? Any triggers?"
He shook his head. "I'll show you all my scars, but they're healed."
"Even these?" She cradled his head her hands.
"They're healing." He cupped her chin in his hands. "What about you? You haven't been back very long I'm guessing."
A shadow crossed her face and it tore something inside him in half. "It's been… difficult. But I'm dealing with it. Right now I want to forget. I just want you. That time in your closet wasn't very satisfying."
She shrugged off the button down shirt and looked at him expectantly. When he didn't move she said, "Do you want me to turn around?"
"What?" he was still trying to puzzle out whether her using sex to forget was a problem or not. If he should back off.
"I can take this off, but I thought you wanted to do it."
"One second. Yes, I want to. Just one second." As coping mechanisms went sex probably wasn't the worst. Unless. Unless she didn't care about him anymore and he was just convenient.
He couldn't help it. He had to ask. "Do you still love me?"
"Do you have to ask?" she said.
"Apparently, yes. We're not the same people we used to be."
"Alpha. Hinckley was partially right. I took that job to make sure you were as safe as I could keep you. I took it for other reasons too, but that was one of them. You know some of the things I had to do, had to put up with. Do you think I would have endured that if I didn't love you more than anything on this earth?"
"OK," he said.
"OK?" She stepped a bit back from him.
"That's all you want to say to me? OK?" She was on the verge of losing her temper.
He kissed the corner of her mouth, then the spot in front of her ear. He reached behind her neck and slowly loosened the bow there. Before he let the strings drop and moved to the ones tied around her back, he leaned away from her and said, "Yes. It's OK. Because I adore you and nothing was right without you. And I am never letting you go again, or walking away and if we get sick of each other we'll just have to kill each other."
She gave a little nod as if he'd given the correct answer in a math class.
He let go and the top of her suit fell to the gray painted floor. She shivered and he let the moment draw out. In most of his fantasies, fantasies he hadn't let himself think about in many years unless he was very drunk, he usually fell on her like a starving dog. But he wasn't going to rush this. He'd been waiting such a long time and he had how ever long he 'd have with her in future, but he hoped it would be a good long time. Fifty years was an acceptable minimum. He pulled at the bow on the right side of her hip and let the strings dangle, the bikini bottom hanging a bit drunkenly. She bit her lip, trying to be patient. He could tell she was seconds away from yelling at him to hurry up, was forcing herself to hold still. He wouldn't torture her. He undid the other bow and the bottom dropped to the floor.
"My turn," she said and ripped his shirt over his head. She was anything but slow. She had him stripped down in seconds. "If you don't touch me I am going to self-immolate."
He didn't need asking twice.
When they showed up at Hinckley's (late) the next evening they looked a little rough. There was a snarl Frankie hadn’t had time to get out of her hair—thanks to the frozen custard Alpha has mashed in there. Alpha had bruises that peeked just above the collar of his shirt. Both of them looked exhausted and although they had showered, the still smelled like they'd spent a week in a brothel. They also stayed pressed together, side to side, moving in unison like magnets
Alpha accepted a glass of wine from Hinckley, but Frankie asked for water.
"Oh, yes. I'd forgotten about that." Hinckley went into the kitchen to get her a glass of ice water.
"Are you going to fill me in?" He squeezed her hand, terrified that she was about to announce she was pregnant.
"It's nothing. You know the scar on my rib cage?"
He'd noticed it. He'd run his fingers up and down it, had kissed it. Like some of her other scars—it wasn't old, wasn't faded to silver white. "It's over your liver."
"Yeah. One of Zhirov's goons stabbed me after I... well, you know. I killed him." Her eyes darted toward the kitchen where she heard the tap running. "There was some liver damage and it's better if I don't drink until it's absolutely healed."
"But it will heal? You'll be fine?" He bent down to look into her down turned face.
"Yes. The specialist I saw in Germany said I should be fine. It might take a few months to be totally healed."
"Did you get a second opinion?"
He wanted to march her out the door and drive her to Columbia-Presbyterian that minute.
"Yes. And a third. Stop fussing. It just means I can't have a drink for a little while. I'm fine." She sat down on an ugly wicker sofa.
"She's not lying. I saw both doctor's report. She'll need to be retested in a month's time. Do you have an appointment with Dr. Rockler yet?"
Frankie frowned at Hinckley. "Stop doing that. I haven't told him yet."
Alpha set his glass of wine down just in case. He really didn't want to get a reputation as the guest who was always dropping wine on people's floors in shock.
She turned to him. You and I haven't discussed this yet so I know this is a little presumptuous, but I made an appointment with a specialist in Boston. I know your orientation starts on Thursday.
"Are you moving to Boston?" Alpha wasn’t sure what his tone was like, but it must have been off, because Frankie withdrew a little.
"Not if you don't want me to. I can stay in New York—"
He grabbed both her hands, which knocked the water glass she'd picked up again to the floor. So much for that reputation.
"Are you kidding me? Don't want you?" He shook his head. "If I could I would superglue myself to you."
Frankie turned to Hinckley, "So that's a yes. I'll be seeing the specialist at Beth Israel."
"And…" Hinckley motioned for her to continue.
"You're really going to make me tell him all this in front of you, you giant sadist?"
Hinckley nodded without shame.
Frankie sighed and turned back to Alpha. "I've been accepted into a joint master's program in public health and law. I'm in your class. We can make sure we don’t end up in the same study group or anything."
"But there's no Kyle, right?"
"Who's Kyle?" Frankie asked.
Hinckley laughed. "He's the boyfriend we invented for you when Alpha went poking around. We made sure he found a fake Facebook profile that said you were at the School of Public Health and were living with your boyfriend Kyle. Alpha obviously wasn't paying attention to details because he didn't even notice he wasn't really on Facebook.
"You see—you've always altered his thinking, though I wouldn't call you a weakness, but I knew I could use that. Could use you to control him. I think I probably owe you both an apology, but I shan't ever give you one. In the end I think we did a good job. You two did excellent work. We're all very pleased with the results."
"Which are?" Alpha asked.
"Oil rights. Money. A new ally friendly to American interests." Frankie looked over to Hinckley for confirmation.
"More or less. You know I can't say more." He smiled at them over the rim of his wine glass.
"What about Sheehan?" Alpha asked. That detail had been niggling at him for a long time.
"He's fine. He played his part well."
"He works for you too?" Alpha blinked rapidly as if that would help him understand.
"How do you think I found you, Alpha?" Hinckley stood up. "I'm famished. Come along."
Alpha looked over at Frankie, "Should we kill him?"
"I don't think we could get away with it. Unfortunately."
"I heard that," Hinckley called from the dining room. "And no. You most certainly could not."
Frankie moved toward the dining room, but Alpha tugged her back.
"So you're going to live with me, right?" He tucked her hair behind her ear.
" Yes. I thought we covered that."
"Yes, you implied it. But I want to hear you say it."
"Yes, Alpha. I'm going to live with you. I'm going to sleep in the same bed as you every night. I'm going to hang my bras up to dry in the bathroom. I'm going to forget half eaten bowls of cereal all over the apartment to annoy you. All right?"
He nodded and kissed her. "We don't really need to stay for dinner, do we?" He glanced toward the dining room.
"I heard that as well," Hinckley called to them. "Now get in here. I need you to eat all this food. You're both too thin."
They exchanged amused glances and went in to dinner, which they ate as quickly as possible. Hinckley didn't force them to stay. Even he knew a losing battle when he saw one.
Chapter 16: And Now a Sort of Sappy Epilogue (I couldn't help myself.)
The sun slanted low through the windows, picking out the gold in Frankie's hair and every single dust mote in the existence of ever. Alpha was supposed to be reading for Contracts, but he was slumped on the sofa watching Frankie lie on the floor. She was deep in thought and the kitten she'd just adopted was asleep on her belly, curled into a tiny kitten swirl--riding the rise and fall of her breath. He'd never had a pet before, but he was getting used to it.
"We need to vacuum," Frankie said, picking a clump of dust off the black kitten.
"I did it last time," she pointed out.
"One, that was two months ago and two, I don't know why we can't hire someone to come in once a week. We can afford it."
"It feels weird to pay someone to clean up after us." She chewed on her lower lip for a moment. "But we really never get around to it. Do we?"
Alpha shook his head, rolling it back and forth along the hard edge of the sofa, which massaged the base of his skull pretty effectively. They were busy people, very busy. They almost never made it to the grocery store and relied on take out from the excellent sushi place across the street and the little pizza place, which Alpha decided was perfectly edible, but not pizza. Apparently no one in the state of Massachusetts was capable of making decent pizza. He felt a little pang of homesickness for New York.
"We need to do laundry too," she said. "And I have a ton of reading to do."
She shrugged, which looked funny when she was lying down. He set his heavy textbook aside and knelt down on the floor next to her. She looked tired and although the her nightmares were less frequent, she still didn't seem to sleep well. Sometimes he didn't sleep well either and he'd find her in the living room watching old black and white movies at three am. He brushed aside a strand of hair that was stuck to her cheek and it still seemed shocking that they were here, that they were together, and that they were mostly happy.
"Come on. Out with it," he said. She was mulling over something she wasn't happy about.
"I'm hungry." She scooped up the kitten and dropped a kiss on its head; watched it yawn and stretch in her cupped hands. She set the cat down on the sofa and the tiny creature scramble onto Alpha's open textbook and settle in the crevice. The cat loved to sleep on paper--maybe all cats were like that. He had no clue.
They agreed to walk down the street to a little bistro where they were regulars. The hostess, Molly, seated them near the window and asked them how they were, told them about her new boyfriend and invited them to see his band on Tuesday.
"I'm going to Haiti," Frankie said once the wine they'd ordered had been delivered.
OK, that was news. "In the summer?" he asked.
"No. In April. Just for a week."
Alpha nodded. She'd been in worse places than Haiti. He still didn't actually know all the places she'd been. They both feared that if they shared all their secrets somehow Hinckley would know. Secret keeping becomes a habit that is hard to break.
"When should we get married?" He asked, simply thinking aloud, without much consideration to what he was saying. He looked up at her utter shock, her fork paused halfway to her mouth, and cringed a bit. "Sorry. I shouldn't have--"
She shook her head. "It's fine. What about July? I think we're both free in the end of July." She took a bite of salad. He should have known she'd simply take it in stride.
"Should I have done that differently? Was I supposed to get a ring?" He pushed his fingers through his hair.
"I have a ring. It was my grandmother's. We can have it resized. I really don't want to give money to the diamond industry." She ate three more bites of salad before adding, "No. I don't need you to go down on one knee or any of that fairy tale crap."
"Are you sure? Don't most women want that sort of thing?"
She laughed. "Do you even know who I am?"
He nodded. "You're the woman who saved my life by shooting me."
"I said I was sorry about that a million times. Are you ever going to let that go?"
"No. You shot me. With a gun. With a real bullet." He could almost feel a twinge in his side and rubbed at it. "But since you saved my life and you're going to marry me--I forgive you."
"Tell me why I'm marrying you again," she said over the rim of her wine glass.
"Because I don't think we should have six children out of wedlock."
She came close to spitting out her wine and it took her a moment and several sips of water to stop spluttering. She wiped her eyes with her napkin. "Six?"
"Too many?" He grinned.
"I'm getting cramps just thinking about it." She lay both palms across the flat of her stomach. "I didn't even know you wanted to have children."
"I didn't either, but just imagine someone who is half me and half you. Go ahead. I'll wait."
"That's absolutely terrifying."
She downed half her glass of wine.
"That's why we need a whole passel of them. They'll keep each other busy."
"As long you don't expect to have them any time soon." Frankie refilled both their wine glasses and raised hers. "To our six future monsters. God help us all."