Part 5

Ann sighed and rested her head against the wall behind her. So it was done. Her enemies dispatched, her allies bidding her well and departing, her life ready to resume its normal course. Except it couldn't. She had to heal first, and then, somehow, go back to friends, family and co-workers as if nothing more than a statistic-made-real had happened. She'd been threatened, injured, kidnapped, had her life threatened, and she was going to have to shrug it off. She was going to have to go back to her routine and pick up the strand of her life and go on her way.

Robert rested a hand on her good shoulder. "Are you ready to go home now?"

"Yes, please."

They left the ambulance and walked to his car. Only a few people remained around the jet. The cargo doors were open, and luggage was being hauled out. Ann looked at the scene with a sense of detachment.

Robert held the door for her, then got in and started the engine. Ann couldn't help but look at the back seat. Only a few small stains marked where she'd bled all over everything.

"The people who take care of my car are very good at cleaning leather," Robert said when he saw the direction of her interest.

"Good. I was concerned."

Robert glanced at her as he drove away from the scene. Her remoteness might be shock, or it might be something else. A chill of isolation was creeping into her voice.

A reporter, or at least someone with a camera, lurked at the gate, but Robert swerved enough towards him to make him jump back instead of take a picture. As they drove into Manhattan, Robert handed Ann his car phone. "Here. Call the hospital and tell them you're coming to get your things. Directory assistance is Star-5. Then you might want to call your family and tell them you're all right and that you'll be home soon."

"Bless your organized mind," Ann said as she obeyed.

The hospital was displeased at her disappearance but easily mollified. Mother was still in her meeting, and Suzy had been quietly going nuts. Ann promised her as full an explanation as she could then hung up.

"She's a chatterbox. My apologies for using up your air time. Make sure you add it to my bill."

"I would, if I were submitting one. I refuse to charge money for letting people in my care get shot."

"It wasn't your fault."

"Yes, it was," he said firmly.

"I bet people call you stubborn a lot."

"As often as they do you, I imagine." He was rewarded with a faint chuckle.

Ann looked out at the busy streets. A million stories in the naked city, and most people didn't even know they were happening. Another whole universe moved beneath the one she knew, a universe of violence, betrayal, and distrust. Luckily she had only visited for a short time. What must it do to the people who spent their lives there? She glanced briefly at Robert. He had lived there, but he left. He went back every now and then, knew the rules, but he didn't stay. She wondered what had happened to make him leave.

"Would you like me to go get your things?" Robert asked as they neared the hospital.

"No, they probably wouldn't give them to you. And there's probably paperwork to do." She almost suggested that she could take a cab home from the hospital and he didn't have to bother, but the cowardly part of her soul wasn't ready to dismiss her guardian just yet. But she was going to have to say good-bye to him soon and deal with everything on her own. Surely a self-sufficient woman could do that.

Robert pulled into a parking space near the door. "I don't know how long this will take," Ann said diffidently.

"I'll wait," he assured her. She smiled slightly and got out of the car.

Robert angled the rear view mirror to watch her and wondered if he should have gone with her. Cochran and Dushenko might have had unknown allies who would object to the network's removal. But he couldn't guard her forever, and the job he'd been hired for was almost done. So why was he so reluctant to leave Ann to fend for herself? She was strong, competent, had devoted friends and family. It just seemed that there was a portion of her soul that huddled away from the world and cringed when anything came too close. She tried to keep distance between herself and those who would help her, insisting on dealing with things on her own, even if she couldn't. The past few days were more bricks in that wall, more of her soul that she had to lock away. These weren't the kind of days respectable, well-brought up people were supposed to have.

Ann walked through the retrieval of her belongings, the paperwork and her scolding in the same sort of haze she'd been in when her father had died. She answered all the questions and made all the right noises, but the voice belonged to someone with a lot more self-possession than she had. Finally she headed for the elevator once more, with her briefcase and her African violet. She had the elevator to herself, and her autopilot got her as far as the lobby. Then she glanced out, saw Robert's car, and took a detour to sit down.

It was cowardly to want to have him around to guard her back. But when he was gone, she'd have no one who understood what had happened to her. Not that this was anything new. Maybe it was because for the first time in years she felt she was living her life instead of walking through it. She'd been pulled out of her pastel existence and yanked into a world of vivid colors and deep shadows. The people there knew life was sometimes hard and didn't hold it against you if you got scared and asked for help. Sometimes they helped you before you needed it. They knew about secrets and weaknesses. Oh, sure, her family would help her--if they knew. But old hurts were considered thankfully past and this new terror couldn't be mentioned.

Besides, Robert found her cynicism amusing, and a man with his past surely had more reasons to be cynical than a pampered, sheltered computer nerd. Maybe she wanted to figure out how to turn her jaundiced look on life into something a little more idealistic.

At the bottom of it, though, she didn't want to go back to her old, predictable, unextreme life. There were no depths of pain, she didn't allow those anymore, but had she also cut off her ability to feel heights as well? The busy have no time for tears, Lord Byron had said. That had seemed wisdom once. Now it seemed only to lead to where tears of joy were considered as superfluous as tears of pain.

But she couldn't tell Robert that. For all she knew, he was just waiting to take her home and write finis to a successful case. Well, mostly successful. He seemed to take her injury personally, and she remembered the anger in his voice when the threats against her were discussed. All that meant, though, was that he was conscientious.

But he was comforting, forgiving of what she thought of as loathsome weakness, approving of the parts of her that Mom called, with loving disapproval, tomboyish. She wanted him as a friend.

She glanced at her watch. She'd been gone half an hour. Time to go back and go home.

Robert gave a small sigh of relief when he saw her, and he got out to help. "Let me take the plant for you."

"Thanks. Though I don't know why I'm taking it home. If the cats don't eat it, it'll only commit seppuku to get away from my notorious brown thumb."

"But you have flower boxes on your house."

"Perennials, weeds, and marigolds. God with a tac nuke couldn't kill marigolds."

Robert helped her into the car. "My uncle thought me horticulturally inept when I couldn't keep an azalea bush alive."

"My mother took a back hoe to our azaleas and they still came back."

"The cat came back," he commented as he navigated out of the parking lot.

"The very next day," Ann completed.

"You know that song?"

"Doesn't everyone?"

Robert laughed and relaxed. She seemed in better spirits now, but she looked tired. When she leaned her head back against the seat and sighed, he let her have her peace.

Chelsea was quiet, with only a few cars on the street. A nanny pushed a baby carriage down the sidewalk, chatting with a small boy who held onto the side of the expensive, old-fashioned pram and chewed on his designer shirt collar. Someone else's maid was walking a pair of Dalmatians who were quite enamored of the trees in their little iron enclosures.

"St. John's Wood," Robert commented to himself.

"Hm?" Ann said, blinking back from her partial nap.

"It looks like St. John's Wood around here." He smiled faintly. "Or at least the St. John's Wood I remember. But that's almost ten years ago, the last time I saw London."

"I liked London." Ann hadn't thought of the high school senior class trip to England in years. "Suzy and I skipped out on the tour group and claimed we were lost in the British Museum. We wanted to see more than just the Elgin Marbles."

Robert wanted to ask her more about her trip to England, but they were almost to her house and she was looking out at the neighborhood anxiously. He pulled in in front of her garage door and shut off the engine.

 

 

"Oh, god, home," Ann whispered, fighting back tears. A day ago she hadn't been sure she'd ever see it again.

Robert got out and took his time going around to open her door. He glanced around the neighborhood automatically. A BMW sat where Giberto's car had been Sunday night, and no one sat in any of the cars. A quick scan of windows showed only one with a curtain pulled back, that with a young girl watching with unabashed curiosity. As he watched, Robert saw her glance over her shoulder furtively and drop the curtain. Neighborhood snoop.

Ann had her homesick tears under control by the time Robert opened her door. She handed him the plant and propped her briefcase open to retrieve her keys.

"Let me," Robert said, taking the briefcase as she tried to juggle it and the keys one-handed.

"Oh, thanks." It was nice to be coddled.

She unlocked the door and quickly headed down the hall. "Alarm," she explained over her shoulder. Robert nodded and closed the door, throwing the deadbolt and looking over the locks. It was a good steel door with a plexiglas speakeasy spyhole at a short woman's height. There'd been an intercom by the door outside, but the other end must be deeper in the house.

The hallway was dark, and he flipped the light switch nearby. The narrow hallway stretched off for a few dozen feet; it was lined with framed prints. Robert studied her taste as he walked deeper into the house. Most of the prints were Art Nouveau, Mucha and the like, with Art Deco and Maxfield Parrish thrown in.

The foyer at the end of the hall had green-gold wallpaper that nicely accented the alarm master panel. Ann was pushing buttons.

"I like your prints," Robert said.

"Oh, thanks. But I don't have enough wall space."

"In a four-story house?" She shrugged self-consciously. Robert looked for a place to put the plant and the briefcase and found a beautiful antique Georgian occasional table in the middle of the foyer. In the room beyond, at an angle off the hall, he saw the glitter of gold. "May I?" he asked, headed towards that room.

"Huh? Oh, sure. I'll give you the ha'penny tour." She dropped her keys on the table and went to turn on the lights.

"My word." He'd known she was well off financially, but it hadn't really sunk in. In her parlour was one of the finest 16th century Chinese cabinets he'd ever seen outside of a museum. Flanking it where it stood at the far wall were two gold-leafed mirror paintings of exceptional quality. And on the shelves of the cabinet were several small ivory netsuke. On that one wall alone was a breathtakingly valuable collection of Oriental art. "Who's your decorator?" he asked in a somewhat dazed voice as he went to examine the cabinet.

"Decorators exist only for access and wholesale prices," Ann said firmly. "No one is going to tell me how my house should look."

"Then I admire your taste." He blinked when he saw the scroll painting above the Georgian sideboard at another wall. "Is that Ming?"

"T'ang. Ming is decadent."

Robert laughed. "My dear girl, you live in a four-story house and complain about a lack of wall space, and you call Ming decadent?"

"Well, they are." She looked around in concern. "Where are they?"

"What?"

"Who. The cats."

"Ah, the infamous felines." He followed her out of the parlour but hesitated before another scroll, this one with a Japanese woman holding an umbrella. "'The tale of the sisters' rice bowl,'" he read.

"You know Japanese?"

"I lived there for a while."

"Oh, cool." But she was starting to look concerned. "They should have come to meet me, especially after two days."

"Perhaps they're sulking somewhere. We'll find them."

Ann led the way down an extension of the front corridor and into a small barroom. A Victorian-style billiard table took up most of the room. Robert noticed dust on the felt. Ann didn't hesitate but headed up the stairs to the next floor. There was sunlight up here, and Robert blinked a moment before his eyes adjusted.

He stood in an atrium three stories tall. On one side were balconies for the next two floors connected by a winding wooden staircase. Opposite that was the original brick wall rising unbroken to the roof and the large skylight. Bolted to the wall was an Art Deco iron sculpture of birds rising in flight.

As Robert stared, Ann looked around anxiously. "Ankh, Tut, I'm home!" she called. She listened intently and relaxed at the faint sound of a howl. "Where are you, you silly creatures?"

The feline complaints localized to the third floor, and two heads poked through the railings.

"Siamese," Robert noted. "What were their names again?"

"Yes, he's talking about you," Ann said for the benefit of the cats. "Are you going to forgive me or not?" One head disappeared, followed more slowly by the other. Thumping noises came down the stairs. "And they only weigh ten pounds each, and the stairs are carpeted." One cat came trotting towards them, mewing, with tail upright. "Hello, darling. Robert, may I introduce Her Majesty, Ankhesenamon, Lady of the Two Lands, High Priestess of Isis, etc., etc., known to her familiars as Ankh." Ankh stopped to sniff Ann's foot suspiciously. "Yes, I imagine I'm just loaded with odd smells. Where's your co-ruler? There you are." The other cat sat on the bottom stair, blue eyes glowing with displeasure.

"I don't think it likes me," Robert said.

"He's very possessive. This is the Lord of the Two Lands, Son of the Sun, Wearer of the Two Crowns, and all that, Tutankhamon, sometimes called Tut, most usually called Rotten Cat. You're going to sulk, aren't you." The cat laid his ears back. Ankh, meanwhile, was investigating Robert and started stropping his ankles.

"Does she bite?" Robert asked, stooping to pet her.

"Her? She'd show a burglar the silver." Ann watched Ankh make a fool of herself at Robert's feet. "I think I'd go mad without someone to come home to," she said softly.

Robert glanced at her as he rubbed Ankh's belly. "You have lots of people who would make sure you don't go mad." She didn't answer.

She went to the stairs and bent down to Tut. "Hello, baby." The cat sniffed her fingers disapprovingly and stretched up to sniff the sling. He was not pleased. "I know, it's nasty. But I'm home now, and I'm going to stay here." The peace of her home was settling in her soul, the tired part of her mind retreating to the quiet place with doors she could close. The world could go on its merry way, she was home.

Robert straightened and looked at her. Maybe she was just tired, but she seemed more remote than usual--unless this was usual for her, and the woman he'd been associating with was the aberration. Ankh protested his abandonment of his attentions and jumped onto a baby grand piano sitting near the brick wall. A sheet music stand stood near it, with a sculpture on top. Ankh jumped to the cabinet and arranged herself. Robert noticed a faint trail of cat prints in the dust on the piano.

He suddenly looked at Ann and her cats and felt himself on the other side of a glass wall. He felt a pull to the door and the street, back to the world of sound and bustle, away from this quiet cloister. Yes, he'd brought her back safely, but she was slipping away, like a boat sliding slowly out to sea. This house was a place apart, with all that was beautiful. He didn't doubt that the rest of the place matched what he'd seen. But there was a stillness at the heart of it that he misliked, a stillness more of locks, walls, and abjuration than of true peace and tranquility. Was this a safe haven where one rested after a struggle and made ready for the next, or was it the land of the lotos-eaters, where the world was far away and couldn't hurt you if you stayed inside?

Creatures who loved her, the material joys of her life, and a very expensive alarm system. If the prisoner is safe and content, why should she leave her prison? Especially if the prison was of her own choosing?

Ann felt at a loss as she scratched Tut's ears. She was safe in her refuge and grateful to Robert for getting her past the dragons at her gate, but she really didn't know what to do with him now, this man who carried so much chaotic life in his wake. She couldn't just dismiss him like a hired lackey, even though, to a degree, that was what he was. Her thoughts at the hospital seemed odd and out of kilter. Now that she was home, the past few days were fading to something seen on a movie screen, very involving but not quite real. Her normal life wouldn't be that hard to resume--though she imagined she should call her supervisor at work to find out when and if she should return. It wasn't like she'd never before locked off things that got in the way.

His job was done, but why did Robert feel like the most harmful thing he could do would be to leave her to her solitude? He remembered his impression of a scared soul hiding and covering its head. But would she let him try to peel off some of that shell? Damn it, he liked the tough, gutsy lady who refused to scream and went toe to toe with his old boss. He didn't want to see her subsumed in this proper, restrained mouse. He thought he saw the brilliant hues of a sunny Van Gogh behind the respectably pastel Turner. What would remove the veil?

"I imagine you missed your lunch," he said casually.

The question seemed to take her by surprise. "Yes, I think I did." Thinking about the events of barely three hours ago was difficult. They seemed hazy already. "I suppose I should be hungry, but I'm not."

Robert studied her, concerned for her physical well-being now. "Today was rougher on you than you let on. You need some rest, then I think you'll feel more your old self."

A flash of uncertainty went through her. Which old self? "I hope you're right. The world seems pretty unreal right now," she admitted.

"Then why don't you go get some sleep, and when you wake up I'll take you to dinner. I owe you that, at least." When she hesitated, he added, "You're not really in shape to be working in a kitchen."

"I'm sure there's something in the freezer I can throw in the microwave," she said, not quite as an argument.

"If ever there was a time to pamper yourself, getting out of the hospital is it."

Blame it on weakness, she told herself, not on a cowardly desire for his company. "You're right, and I accept. Shall I call you when I wake up?"

"Actually," he smiled ruefully, "you still seem like you could use someone keeping an eye on you. If it's not an imposition, I'll just stay here. I'm sure there's enough in your tower to occupy me for a few hours."

Now that it was settled, Ann felt the stirring of anticipation. "And you haven't even seen the library yet."

"Your library?"

"The crown of my tower, as you put it." She liked that image. It spoke of a strong place to be safe in. She didn't realize Robert was thinking more in terms of somewhere to be locked in and away, whether willingly or no. "Up here."

She headed for the stairs. Ankh leaped from the music cabinet to follow Robert, and Tut led the procession. The third-floor balcony turned towards the brick wall and ran the full width of the house. Backing this end of the balcony was a wall of Arts & Crafts style stained glassed windows, with a double door in the center. Ann pushed open one side, then the other.

"Welcome to the heart of my world."

Robert walked in slowly, eyes wide in admiration.

The dark room was easily seventy feet long and filled the width of the building. Bookshelves covered the long walls, and cabinets of old editions and curios filled the wall at the door end. At the far end of the room, backed by the three windows with seats in the embrasures, sat a massive executive desk covered in computer equipment. Between the windows were shelves and filing cabinets and a printer. A long, heavy library table littered with boxes and stacks of books ran down the center of the room.

"This is wonderful," Robert said, gazing about. He noticed a microfilm reader in a corner by the door. Facing it across the room was an overstuffed wingback chair and ottoman next to a table and floor lamp. "What a lovely place to be stranded in."

Ann looked around serenely. "I think so. I could spend the rest of my life in here and never worry."

The contented sound of her voice woke worries in his mind. He didn't know much about computers, but he knew they talked to each other. One could do her work and never leave the house to make a living. The only reason one needed see another person was to meet delivery people at the door.

He remembered how she'd described her house, a guilt present from her family. What guilt would be worth a person's private universe?

All at once the library became, not a lovely den, but the lure that drew the prey to the trap.

"I think I could spend several hours here quite pleasantly," he said casually. "Do you have a favorite restaurant in the area I should get reservations at?"

Ann blinked as if she'd forgotten the plans to go out. "Um, Salvatore's is good, and it's only a couple of blocks away."

"Excellent. You get some rest, and I'll take care of everything else."

She obeyed, but paused in the doorway to glance quizzically at him. Ankh jumped up on the table near Robert and chirped at him while Tut yowled commandingly from the balcony outside.

"Yes, Your Majesty, your command is my wish," she said, leaving the library.

Robert scratched Ankh's ears and chuckled. "May I have your cooperation in making sure she's all right?" The cat only angled her head so he could scratch under her collar.

He wandered the library, cat curled up in his arms. Ann's tastes were eclectic. The fiction side of the room held mysteries, science fiction, fantasy, silly romances, and Greek epics. Three shelves were devoted to nothing but the Sherlock Holmes canon and assorted apocrypha, with the two shelves below given over to Tolkien, hard bound and original paperbacks. Robert perused "The Hobbit" briefly in fond recollection, wishing he'd kept up his correspondence with that odd friend of his father's. He went to look at the non-fiction.

Was there anything she didn't have an interest in? The science and mathematics books were to be expected with her computer background, but why astrophysics? "A Brief History of Time" had corners turned down on various pages. Life sciences were pretty meager except for a couple of popular overviews and some works on psychology. But history took up half the long wall.

Robert pulled a couple of books and took them, along with the cat, to the wingback chair. Two hours later he remembered to call for reservations. He used the multi-line phone in the midst of the arcane computer junk, which he left strictly alone.

Three hours after that, Ann peeked in. Well, he was still here. He was happily ensconced in the chair, Ankh in his lap as he read P.G. Wodehouse. "Farmer Giles of Ham" was on the table next to him. She watched him a moment. The house felt different with another person in it. She felt oddly jealous that he should be so comfortable in her chair and with her cat. But at the same time it was nice to have company.

As he turned a page, he glanced up and saw her in the doorway. "Ah, there you are." He put down the book and took off his glasses. "How do you feel?"

"Sub-human. But that's an improvement. Before, I was asking animal, vegetable, or mineral."

"What answer were you getting?"

"Something on the vegetable end. At least at sub-human I have a chance at evolving."

Robert gently put Ankh on the floor. "There you go, kitty. Thank you for your company."

"She stayed with you the whole time?"

"Except for a few explorations, yes. Are you hungry?"

"Starving."

"Good. We have reservations for eight o'clock. It's seven now."

"Is it?" Ann rubbed her face. "Maybe I can achieve sentience by then. If you'll excuse me, you can finish what you were reading. I'll be getting a bit more presentable."

"Of course."

Ankh followed Ann out. After a few moments, Tut stalked into the room, sat down in front of Robert, and stared at him.

"I'm not leaving," Robert said. The eyes narrowed slightly. "I assure you, my intentions are the most honorable." The tip of the tail began flicking. "Why am I talking to you? You're a cat." Robert picked up Wodehouse and continued reading, doing his best to ignore the sapphire laser stare.

Ann was ready in twenty minutes. She wore loose clothes that were easy to manage one-handed.

"Shall we walk?" she said. "It's only two blocks."

"Certainly, if you're up to it."

They discussed cats as they walked, which segued into women who lived alone with cats, which segued to people through history who got into trouble for being different. This led to history in general, which lasted through ordering, the salad, and well into the entree.

"But England has always had a much higher tolerance for eccentricity than America," Ann said, gesturing emphatically with her fork and impaled ravioli.

"Please eat that," Robert said. "I don't want it flung into my lap to prove a point. But you're right about English eccentrics. Though if people got too odd we'd ship them over here."

"No, just the ones who got caught or were too poor to buy off the judge. America was settled by poor malcontents and stupid crooks. England kept the good ones."

"Have you seen Dame Edna?"

Ann giggled. "All right, point taken."

"And malcontents put together quite a remarkable government."

"Unwieldy as it is."

"That's as may be, but in over two hundred years you've never had a war over who would lead the nation."

"True enough. The late 18th and early 19th centuries were a mess."

"The first world wars."

"Yeah, and you people came stomping over on us in 1812 once you had Napoleon out of the way."

"Not my people, not anymore. I've been an American citizen for decades," he said proudly.

"Really? I've read that oath. I'm not sure I'd take it. Did you have to renounce your allegiance to the Queen and all that?"

"Oh, yes. And I'd only sworn an oath to her father a few years before in the Royal Army."

All sorts of questions that seemed to push the boundaries of advisable occurred to her. She resisted. "So how long have you lived in New York?"

"Years and years. I wanted to see if it was like the movies I watched as a child."

"Was it?"

"Then? Yes." He decided not to go into detail about the timeline involved.

Ann didn't notice. "I grew up here. True, we lived in one of the nicer suburbs of Brooklyn, but I was navigating the subways by myself at twelve."

"What?"

"Sure. You grow up here, you learn to keep moving and not be a target. I had a couple of close calls, but on the whole you could depend on the cops to help you out." She sipped her water thoughtfully. "That's the thing I find oddest about those movies. Everyone trusts the cops implicitly. Corruption isn't new."

"You grew up during Watergate, didn't you."

"Yeah. That must have been rough, seeing everything you trusted revealed to have feet of clay."

"Rougher than you could believe."

Ann caught the bitter note and wondered what he was remembering. "Why was everyone so shocked to find out that people in charge are only human?" she asked softly.

"Because we thought we were part of something better." He stared into the candle in the middle of the table. "Somehow we knew we were only kidding ourselves, but we had such hopes that the world would be better."

"Did you vote for Kennedy?"

The non sequitur didn't throw him. He saw the way her logic worked. "Oh, yes," he answered. 1963 came back in all its gruesomeness for a very nasty second.

"All I know of Kennedy is what I see in retrospectives," Ann said pensively. "The curse of youth, history is second-hand."

"That's what makes it history. Otherwise it's memory."

"True enough."

"Why this interest in history?" he asked after a moment. "I thought most people your age were most involved with their careers and their status."

"I am not a yuppie," she snapped. "None of the people I call my friends are yuppies. I drive a seventeen-year-old VW microbus. The nice things I own are because I need something to stop the house echoing." The pretentiousness caught her ear. "True," she grinned, "orange crates would do just as well."

"I apologize for insinuating you were a yuppie," Robert said, hiding his amusement. "But I was quite taken with your library. I found your range of tastes quite intriguing."

"Scatterbrained, is what I was once told."

"Renaissance is what crossed my mind."

"Bless you. Buying books kept me busy after my divorce." She blinked in shock that she'd actually mentioned that.

Robert saw her dismay and understood some of the pain he saw in her. "Keeping busy didn't help for me," he said mildly.

Ann stared at him. "You, too, huh?" Her glance fell on the ring on his left hand. She'd wondered about that, especially when his apartment had been such a bachelor establishment. But the old defense patterns kicked in. "A couple of winners, huh? Considering the odds on marriages these days, I'm not surprised."

He recognized verbal sidestepping and changed the subject. "Do you have a lot of family around here?"

She was grateful for the change. "My mother, my brother and sister, and various aunts, uncles and cousins. Oh, and my ninety-year-old grandmother, for whom I was named. I was named for my mother, too, but I wanted a name of my own and shortened it to Ann." She was babbling, she realized, and got a grip.

But Robert was interested. "Annabell?" he guessed.

"No, thank God."

"Angelique?"

His accent made her wish it was her name, but she shook her head.

He thought a moment more. "I give up."

"Anastasia."

"I should have known. It's very elegant."

"Thank you, but it was a bit unwieldy for an eight-year-old. My first name is Sylvia, but Daddy got tired of having to specify who he was talking to." She wondered at his interest. It had been a long time since she'd explained herself to someone new. She didn't know which pits to avoid, and she kept wanting to empty all her thoughts on him. "What time is it?"

Robert checked his watch, then looked again. "A quarter to eleven?"

"We've been sitting here nearly three hours? No wonder the waiters are glaring at us."

On cue, Hi-I'm-Pete-your-waiter showed up to inquire cautiously about dessert.

Robert glanced at Ann, who shook her head. "Not tonight, thank you."

The waiter looked relieved. "Here's your check, then, sir."

Ann debated arguing over the bill as she watched Robert hand Pete a credit card, but she imagined he was the old-fashioned sort when it came to such things. She finished her water and started pulling herself together to leave. An odd apprehension was running around her stomach. She tracked it down to an unwillingness to say good-bye.

Robert held her chair for her. "Do you like French food?" he asked.

"Only when I know what it is. I read 'Joy of Cooking', those people will eat anything." She shuddered. "Tripe, ig."

"Properly prepared, it's quite good."

"So's an old shoe, I imagine."

He chuckled as he held the door for her to leave. "Then I imagine offering you escargot is not a good idea."

"I've never had the courage to try them."

"Perhaps we should try La Poisson to lend verisimilitude to our alibis."

"Perhaps." But the reminder of terror swept away any anticipation of spending more time with him. "Robert, is it really all over? That man to whom I was so carefully not introduced didn't seem inclined to accept my story."

He took her arm as he thought. "I can't tell you who he is," he sighed.

"I know who he is." She saw him look sharply at her with distrust flaring in his eyes. "He orders Mickey around," she said quickly, "and when he tells you to jump, you at least think about it. Cochran was rather free with reasons why having you on his trail scared the shit out of him."

Robert stared at her, hoping his dismay was well hidden. Old habits warned him of the danger of her knowledge. Control was right in wondering if she could be trusted. She had put too many pieces together for anyone with Robert's job history to be comfortable. But he wanted to trust her, though he wondered why he thought he could. A clever woman could have called him when a proposal of collaboration with Cochran had fallen through.

But too many years of watching people in fear had taught Robert what real terror looked like, and he'd seen it in Ann Marshall's eyes. What really worried him was her opinion of his former employment. Did she find the thought of what he might have done distasteful? Many people refused to see the necessity of the work he'd done.

He cared what she thought of him. He wanted to tell her that those days were far behind him, but they weren't. Not when the past had the habit of rearing up and clawing him. He liked Ann, and he wanted the chance to find out how her mind worked and why.

He saw her uneasiness at his silence and marveled at her restraint. It was past time to reassure her. "As far as you're concerned," he said finally, "it is over. I was told there's no more reason for anyone to be interested in you."

"Thank god," Ann said devoutly.

"Prodigal Systems, however..."

"Oh, god. Am I unemployed?"

"I wouldn't be surprised."

"Damn it, I didn't want to put several hundred people out of work. I just wanted people to stop following me."

"It may not be that bad. They'll probably just shut things down for a while to see what else can be found."

"Probably use it for a front or something," she muttered. She glanced over at Robert's silence. He was giving her uncertain looks again. "Oh, come on, what with all the Congressional investigations and books and movies, an observant person can figure out a few things."

"But most people don't get to observe what you have."

"True enough." She looked around the streets of her neighborhood. "Mirrors and mis-direction and denials and outright lies. The world doesn't need to know anything some people say it doesn't. 'We know what's best for you, just watch the bread and circuses.' Which is the puppet show and who's holding whose strings? And which side am I on now? Truth or illusion?"

"Somewhere in the grey area in the middle with the rest of us who have seen both sides," Robert said softly. "But you get to go home and leave it all behind you."

"I'm not as good at pretending as I used to be."

"Neither am I."

Ann met his eyes and saw some of the reason why he'd left that world. They were on the corner near her house where a street lamp had burnt out. A refuge of shadows lurked there, and she decided to dare a question. "Why risk so much for total strangers? You were in the way of bullets yourself."

The dark loosened his tongue, the dark and her unexpected vision of what the shadow world was like. "I was raised to help people if I could. That's what a gentleman did. I found myself in a unique position to do a lot of good for a great many people. But one day I realized I'd lost track of which people I was supposed to be helping. So I went back to the basics I was taught, helping who you can how you can. Yes, the other work was important, but so is driving the fear from the eyes of a woman running for her life."

She had to look away for a moment. "It's a rough world for an honorable man," she said softly. "I thought people like you were out of fashion."

"How would you know, being honorable yourself?"

She laughed. "That's not a word commonly applied to hackers."

"True, only to those hackers who don't use what they find for their own profit. Or hadn't it occurred to you that what you found was very valuable?"

"Uh, actually, no. All I thought was that I'd rather be handling live plague bacteria."

He smiled and took her arm to walk her the last block home. "The danger equivalent is very close."

"You and Mickey could have been hurt because of that stuff, couldn't you." She saw the look on his face. "Forgive me, that's none of my business."

"But thank you for worrying."

They walked in silence to her door. Ann had left the lights on, and the house looked comfortable and welcoming. Robert felt safe leaving her there. He helped her dig her keys out of her large, awkward bag.

"What will you do with yourself now?" he asked.

"I don't know," she answered in some dismay. "I'm going to wake up tomorrow for the first time in years without a purpose. I haven't had to look for a job in years."

"Surely you don't need to worry about income just yet."

"Well, no. In point of fact, I suppose I don't need to work at all. But I've always had a job. Only parasites don't want a job. Hell, I hate starting over."

"You need time to heal, though." She shrugged impatiently. "You're allowed to relax every now and then. Rest is good."

"Oh, and when do you relax? Not often, I imagine."

"I've been known to snatch moments for myself. In fact, I'd planned to take a few this weekend. The Metropolitan Opera Summer Rep is doing 'Tosca.'"

Interest appeared in her eyes. "Yes, I saw. And it's not included in my season ticket package, darn them."

"I have two tickets. Would you care to join me?"

"I would love to. That's my favorite opera after a well-done 'Aida'. And my arm should be cooperating by then."

"True enough. Shall I pick you up at seven? We could get a quick bite beforehand."

"So long as it's not snails or tripe. Seven is fine."

"Excellent. Then you take yourself in and rest and I'll see you Saturday." He gave her a sympathetic smile. "And if anything happens which makes you wonder if your story has truly been accepted, don't hesitate to call. I still have some influence."

"If I need you I'll call. Good night."

"Good night."

Robert stood by his car and waited till she was inside with the door locked behind her. In a few minutes, lights began going out. He opened his car door and got in. He was putting his key in the ignition when it hit him. He'd asked her out for a date and she'd said yes. In the mutual anticipation, he doubted either had noticed the social ramifications. The last time he'd dated a client it had ended badly. But in the pleasure of getting to know her intricate mind, he'd forgotten what had brought them together.

Oh, well, it was just the opera. Surely he could risk that. But he kept thinking of things to tell her, points he wanted her opinion on. Never mind, they were both adults. Besides, he could always use another friend who mostly knew him for what he was. As he drove home, he wondered if his dress suit was back from the cleaners.

Ann had been hit by the realization thirteen seconds after locking the front door. For the first time in three years, she had a date. She couldn't decide if she should call Suzy or her therapist. Call Suzy. She was free and there was always the chance she would approve. Dr. Metzenbaum never approved of anything. Perhaps it was time to retire Dr. Metzenbaum.

As she went upstairs, she wondered how much cat hair was on her summer little black dress.

 

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