A Night in the Life

(Volume 5 of the Tales of Ann & Robert)

Part 1

If a person has a cause they believe in and work for, it doesn't pay to ignore the benefits of media coverage. Generations of publicity hounds, activists, and just plain show-offs knew that. Even Jack the Ripper knew that half the fun was in telling someone about it. The Broadcast Bomber of Wall Street was considerate, always leaving enough time for the TV stations to get their remote units to the sites of his latest accomplishment in time to lead off the late news with dramatic live coverage. One wit had theorized that he was in cahoots with the various program managers to help them out during ratings season.

The Broadcast Bomber sometimes warned his targets, sometimes alerted the media beforehand, but he always telephoned the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms ten minutes before any bomb was due to go off. ATF was leading 4 to 3 in getting to the explosives before they went off, and they were 7-0 in preventing casualties.

Still, eight weeks of the competition was getting on ATF's nerves. They especially didn't like it when the Bomber took the score to 4-all with the devastation at Schaeffer & Marshall.

 

 

A science-fiction movie boasting footage not seen in theatres was playing on a network, and Ann was happily pirating it for her video collection. Robert called during a pivotal space battle, and Ann unrepentantly told him that if he wanted to talk to her he had to come to her house, because she couldn't munch popcorn and hold the phone at the same time.

He joined her on the sofa in front of the television and ate popcorn with her. However, proximity to each other in comfortable surroundings always led to pleasant distractions, and they blithely ignored the last set of commercials. Ann made a mental note to edit them out later, then Robert's experiment to find out just how high a note she could hit claimed her full attention.

By the time they were done, the credits were rolling to the sound of the dramatic closing music.

"Were you aware that your heart beats in time to John Williams music?" Robert observed to the mostly naked woman happily curled up next to him.

"Aerobic activity, you know." Ann's stretch rivaled that of her cats, as did her satisfied purr.

"You're welcome," Robert said smugly.

"No, no, the pleasure was mine, believe me." She curled around him and smiled. "Yours, too, once I get my breath back," she added with a sultry smile.

"Take your time, I'm in no hurry." He closed his eyes in profound contentment as she sighed and snuggled against him.

The theme of the following news broadcast overlaid the movie’s end music. "Coming up on the news on 4 at 11--the Broadcast Bomber strikes again. Our live cameras are there."

Ann sat bolt upright. "Jesus, not again. Did they say where?"

"No, I don't think so."

She scrambled for the remote. CNN hadn't caught the story yet. The other newscasts were doing teasers. She was heading into the high cable channels when Robert took the remote away.

"Pick a station and stay there. You'll know in a couple of minutes." He set the TV back on Channel 4. "Why are you so anxious?"

"Most of my family works on Wall Street. That bastard's gotten too close a couple of times."

Robert put an arm around her. "If someone was hurt you'd have been called, wouldn't you?"

"I don't know."

She chewed her fingernails through the commercials and the trendy computer generated opening. The first story was the bombing, and footage ran of the site.

Even at night, Ann recognized the building. "Jesus, no," she whispered. Robert turned up the sound.

"... in the headquarters of Schaeffer & Marshall, a brokerage and finance house. There have been no reports of injuries, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms has confirmed that the Broadcast Bomber called them before the blast. Apparently a water main break on 32nd delayed the bomb squad long enough for the explosion to occur--"

Ann rolled off the couch and headed for the phone. As she punched buttons, she watched the screen.

The reporter was interviewing a fire captain, who refused to give useful information. Over his shoulder, dark clouds billowed out of the broken windows on the fifth floor. Then the scene switched to the anchors in the studio, who had managed to lasso an FBI agent on short notice.

Robert kept one ear on the rehashing of past events. "Anything?"

"Busy signals and answering machines." Ann hit her brother's number again. Nate was a notorious workaholic; working till eleven meant nothing to him. She got a busy signal again, and whoever was on the line was ignoring the call waiting signal. "God dammit, answer the phone!"

She started in surprise at Robert's touch on her hand. "Get dressed," he said. "I'll take you down there. A member of the board of directors should be able to get some answers."

She didn't comment but went over the back of the couch to find her shirt.

 

 

The streets were barricaded two blocks away from the Schaeffer building. The combination of Ann's name and Robert's nonspecific references to higher ups got the car through the blockade.

News vans jammed the street, forcing them to park. Robert hopped the curb to avoid orders to move. Ann bailed out before they came to a complete stop.

"Wait for me," Robert ordered as he shut down the car.

An ambulance came screaming through the gauntlet of vehicles and peeled rubber when it was clear. Ann stared after it, a knuckle between her teeth.

"You can't park there!" yelled a cop bearing down on them. "Get back behind the line!"

Robert ran the interception. "Ms. Marshall is a director of the bank that got hit. She needs to see whomever's in charge."

The cop blinked. "A director? Hold on. Don't move." He hooked his radio off his belt. "Dispatch, 413 needing a patch to Bryson."

Robert perked up his ears at the name.

"Kramer, this is Troutman. Tell Bryson I've got a woman down here claiming to be a director. Name?" he snapped.

"Ann Marshall," she supplied. She sidled closer to Robert and took his hand down where the cop couldn't see.

The cop relayed the information and waited for the reply.

"Officer," Robert asked, "who was that in the ambulance?"

He grimaced. "The bastard's first victim. Somebody's secretary."

"Do you have her name?" Ann asked.

"Sorry, no--" His radio crackled. "413. Yeah, Kramer. Right, out. Ms. Marshall, you're going in. Follow me, stay close, and watch the glass."

Ann was too worried to focus on inconsequentials, so Robert scanned the crowds, looking for anyone who might be gloating. They passed a knot of TV cameras and reporters going live. Robert inconspicuously put himself between Ann and the cameras.

They paused at the doors of the building to be cleared by the officer at the entrance. Ann stared up the front of the building. They had hung a heavy curtain over the broken windows on the fifth floor. The executive offices were on the floor above. The fifth floor was for middle managers and the private banking consultants.

A crowd of firemen and their equipment came out of the door, talking about where to find a decent cup of coffee when they got off duty. Men and women in jackets marked Bomb Squad pushed past on their way in.

"We go with them," Officer Troutman said, leading the way. "They've got the elevators back on line."

"That was quick," Robert said.

"The bomber's precise, he only hits what he aims for. But we walk from the fourth to the fifth. The elevator doors there are messed up."

Ann was silent in fear, clinging to Robert's hand. On the fourth floor they met a milling crowd of police, fire fighters, and people in suits. The bomb squad people were sucked into a briefing being conducted around a receptionist's desk. A policewoman detached herself from a group of suits.

"Hey, Fly," she said, coming up.

"Yo, Kramer. This is Ms. Marshall. Where's Bryson?"

"Upstairs with a vice president. I'll take 'em up."

"Right, I'm back to the street."

Kramer nodded at Ann. "This way, ma'am."

Robert wondered who they presumed him to be, that his presence at Ann's side went unquestioned. "They told us someone's secretary was taken away in an ambulance. What was her name?" Ann looked grateful for his grasp of details.

"Sullivan, I think," Kramer answered as she led the way up the busy fire stairs to the fifth floor.

"Uncle Andrew's secretary is Jacquelyn Sullivan," Ann fretted.

"Andrew Marshall? He's upstairs." Kramer pulled the door open as Ann reached back for Robert's hand.

Smoke still hung in the air forty-five minutes after the blast. Ann impatiently sniffed back tears at the wreckage. Main power was still out, leaving only the emergency lights in the corners to supply illumination. The authorities, though, had set up bright portable lights to aid in the investigation. Through the doorways of the reception area she could see blown out walls in the direction of the mail room.

"What's that way?" Robert asked, studying the pattern.

"Mail room, conference room, data processing pool," Ann answered.

"He prefers package bombs," Kramer offered.

"It's lucky he prefers late night events," Robert added grimly. "I wonder how many people handled the package?" He felt Ann shudder and put an arm around her.

Kramer conducted them in the direction of voices and flashlights, deeper into the wreckage. A bomb squad technician snapped at Ann to watch where she put her feet. Finally they reached the center of activity.

Ann recognized the blond man with the bandage on the side of his face. "Uncle Andrew!" she called, and he turned.

"Ann, what are you doing down here?" he scolded, but he accepted her hug. "I'm okay," he forestalled her. "I walked into a wall in the smoke and the dark."

"What happened to Jacquelyn?"

He grimaced. "Smoke inhalation and her angina. She was making copies when it went off right under her. We came down to make sure no one was trapped." He glanced quizzically at Robert, who stood quietly nearby, observing everything. "Ann, go home, there's no reason for you to be down here."

"On the contrary, this is the only way I could find out anything. The rest of the family is incommunicado."

"Someone would have told you if it was important." Andrew Marshall was impatient to get back to business.

"Important! Uncle Andrew, someone blew up the bloody bank!" She sent an apologetic glance to Robert, who was looking at her in mild reproof. "I'm a director, I'm supposed to care."

"Yes, well, it's hardly expected." Marshall stared to turn away.

Ann's eyes narrowed. "Uncle Andrew, by my father's will and by family tradition, the eldest daughter of the eldest son is made a full voting member of the board at age 25. True, Nate holds my proxy, but I am still as much a member of the board as you are."

Andrew and Robert both blinked at her. Robert had never heard her use that almost regal tone of voice, and apparently neither had her uncle.

Before Andrew could reply, a man in a rumpled overcoat came out of the remnants of the mail room. "I'd call a holiday tomorrow, Mr. Marshall. Structural damage appears minimal, but the engineers would know best. We're going to have to sift the floor for evidence." He aimed his flashlight at Ann's feet. "Ma'am, for all our sakes, please step back six inches, preferably moving your left foot first."

Ann obeyed, and the man bent down and picked up a scrap of wire with a pair of tweezers.

"Thought so," he muttered. "Confirmatory evidence." He pulled a plastic bag out of his pocket to put the item in.

Robert craned his head for a look. "Ah, standard gauge for a plastique explosive."

The man looked up in surprise. "My god, Robert McCall. How long has it been?" He straightened to shake hands.

"Hello, Timothy. About four years. How are things in ATF?"

"Look around you and guess. What brings you down here? An interest in the Broadcast Bastard?"

Robert smiled briefly. Timothy Bryson knew him from the old days but knew better than to mention anything. "I came with Ms. Marshall. She's a director of the bank. Was it a package bomb?"

"Probably. He's developed a pattern. If it hits the mail room, it's a package delivered late in the day. I'm just waiting for some gung-ho secretary or snoopy underling to hand deliver it or try to open it."

"But you put out a bulletin to be suspicious of strange and unexpected packages," Ann said. "I know we've been careful here."

"He's started using the courier and parcel delivery services," Bryson said. "And he has real employees' names on the things. Big places like this, packages come in all the time that the mail room isn't expecting."

Robert felt a chill. "He's sending time bombs UPS? What if one went off prematurely?"

"And my wife wonders why I have an ulcer. Picture something like this going off in a UPS truck on 42nd Street in the middle of the day. But he's good, and he doesn't care."

"You've spoken to him?" Andrew asked.

"Twice. He quotes Boswell and Moliere, and somebody foreclosed on his house."

"But we don't do mortgages," Andrew protested.

Bryson shrugged. "He's nuts, and he doesn't care. Hopefully you folk will have a record in your computers of what packages came in today."

"Find me a computer with power," Ann said, "and I can check now. The server room is on a separate circuit and may have reset by now. Unless you changed the power configuration when you got the new servers," she said to her uncle.

"I do wish you'd stop harassing our computer department," he said.

"The IS chief is a management grunt who won't give the systems people enough money to keep the company up to date. He manages by crisis, you're a good 3 gig shy--at least--on the administration servers, and your baud rate on the email is prehistoric."

"If you don't stop that," he said mildly, "I'll be forced to use terms like fee simple and LBO on you."

Bryson looked at Robert. "Uncle and niece," Robert explained.

"Oh. Robert, look, why are you here?" The two Marshalls were oblivious, continuing a long-standing argument. "I heard you'd retired."

"I told you the truth. I came with Ann to lend moral support. I have no interest in the Bomber apart from the normal interest anyone would have if there was a threat to someone he cared about or to her family."

Bryson nodded. "You might as well take her home. Nothing new is going to come out of here till at least morning, and she knows what I'll be telling the press." He hesitated. "Some people, when the family of somebody they care about is threatened, would sit back and let the police deal with it. Some people wouldn't. If somebody's independent investigation turned up anything, we'd sure like to be included in on it."

"It only seems right."

"Good."

Robert convinced Ann to leave, and they worked their way back through the wreckage and crowds to the street. Most of the TV trucks had left, searching for fresh carnage to titillate their audiences. Robert snatched what looked like a ticket off his car, but he stopped swearing under his breath at Officer Troutman when he saw it was a note from an enterprising reporter asking who the owner of the car was that had the pull to get past the police lines. He crumpled it up and threw it into a pile of rubble.

Ann didn't notice the littering. "Is O’Phelan's still open?"

"It's Friday, they should be. Are you hungry?"

"I need either a brandy or an espresso or both, and at home the phone will be ringing by now. I have the information I want, and I don't want to spend the rest of the night rehashing old news."

O’Phelan's was so busy they had to settle for sitting at the bar. Jeremy was mortified.

"So long as no one bothers us," Robert reassured him, "I hardly mind. I'm just pleased the place is doing so well."

"It speaks well for your IRAs," Ann agreed. Jeremy shrugged and filled their drink orders: brandy for Ann, French coffee for Robert.

They sat in silence for a while. "No one was seriously hurt," Robert finally said when some color came back into Ann's face.

She nodded. "Just my sense of security. Schaeffer & Marshall has always been such a bastion of hard rock New England stability. It shakes my world view to see it vulnerable."

"Is it publicly traded?"

"No, and just as well after tonight. The various Marshalls hold an 80% share. Grandma holds 20% all by herself. I have 4%, enough to make them take me seriously."

"Where are the Schaeffers?"

She settled down more comfortably to tell the tale. "Benjamin Schaeffer and his brother Isaac were diamond traders in late 1700's France. The Revolution there hit them hard, and they came to America to try their luck. Most of the good New Englanders couldn't reconcile their dislike of Jews with their desire to connect with a pair of sharp businessmen. The first Nathaniel Jedediah Marshall, on the other hand, good Anglican though he was, believed success in business was a sign of favor from God Almighty, so he didn't care if the Schaeffers were Jews or Satanists. The bank was eventually formed to facilitate the transfer of funds for the diamond business.

"Things went along swimmingly until the 1930s."

"Ah," Robert nodded. "The Holocaust."

"Yes. The family lost a lot of cousins. The Schaeffers and the Marshalls have been intermarrying for years. Anyway, the Schaeffers liquidated all their financial holdings to get money to get people out. The Marshalls gave them pre-Depression prices for their shares, and we got it to them in gold."

"Gold possession by private parties was illegal."

She chuckled. "So? This was family. And the deals were worked through Bermuda."

"Did it work?"

"Mostly. They could generally bribe someone. After the war, the Schaeffers went back to commodities trading, specializing in precious metals and gems, preferably with the money in small, transportable form. Uncle Isaac says it's a good idea to be able to pick up and move quickly."

"He's unfortunately right. Why was your uncle at the bank so surprised that you exercised your authority as a director?"

Ann leaned back with a rueful smile. "Because it's only supposed to be a token authority." Robert prompted her with a look. "The last bastion of feudalism, primogeniture, and all that. My sister and I have always been assured that we'd 'be taken care of,' but it was always assumed that we'd be getting married." She started fidgeting with her napkin.

"The presidency of the bank has traditionally gone to the oldest son. Being private, we can get away with that. The various directorships of the interlocking boards have also been divvied up to male descendants. The fathers of daughters, however, protested that they were unfairly prejudiced against in not being able to have their bloodlines represented."

Robert winced. "I think I see where this is headed."

"You're probably right. They debated whether to consider the husbands of their daughters as board material, but could you really trust a female to make a proper decision about what kind of person would be best for the firm?"

"A man's fitness as a husband and father being irrelevant?"

"The robber baron era was not known for its appreciation of family life. The fathers of daughters pointed out that they would have significant influence on their future sons-in-law, so it was ruled that sons-in-law were eligible for consideration to the boards."

"How considerate. But how did the consideration of sons-in-law lead to you holding actual directorial powers?"

"Great--" Ann counted on her fingers. "No, Great-great-great Aunt Sophronisba was the only daughter of Nathaniel Jedediah the First of modern counting."

"The First of what?"

She laughed. "Well, of course, only kings and Popes are really entitled to incrementing numbers. The family used to follow the socially correct procedure of only giving numbers to those currently alive, but in the early 1900s they decided that proof of company longevity overruled what Mrs. Astor would say. Nathaniel the Second of modern counting refused to become merely Nathaniel when his father died, and he insisted that Nathaniel the Third, my father, would stay the Third. But we were talking about Aunt Sophronisba. Her husband, who was being groomed for a major board seat, died in the influenza. She showed up at the next board meeting, appropriately dressed in widow's black, ready to take her husband's place."

"And the board was horrified."

"Oh, indeed. They very politely told her to leave, she asked what they planned to do about this empty board seat, they said they'd find someone else for it, she wanted to know why since the only reason her husband had held the seat was because he was married to her so therefore the seat must reside in herself."

"She would have been a grand lawyer."

"Undoubtedly. They spent the morning arguing it with her, and it never appeared to have occurred to them to simply say 'Be quiet, woman, and go home.' Perhaps they were impressed in spite of themselves by her cogent arguments. Sophronisba gave them the face-saver of turning over her power to her brother's proxy, and they let it ride. Also, by my reading of some family papers, there was some annoyance about silly younger daughters being snatched up by fortune hunters who realized that a potential seat on the board of a major merchant bank was a nice dowry. Family tradition was revised to limit the potential board seats to oldest daughters, who wouldn't be allowed to inherit their power until they turned 25--which saved a couple of silly eighteen-year-olds from getting grabbed by opportunists. If you could keep the girl from throwing herself away for love, you could generally nudge her towards acceptable board material."

"Is that what happened to you?" Robert asked gently.

"Almost. By the time it was my turn, the dowry aspect was being downplayed. Women's lib, you know. Still, it was expected that I'd consider the bank's interests. I think everyone thought my interest in Randy was a blind to disguise my true plans. I had everyone from second cousins to youngish widowers after me." She chuckled. "I had a grand time, being pursued like that. When I wasn't annoyed, that is. Dad was not at all pleased when he caught me ostentatiously reading books on the medieval dickering of daughters for political favors. Randy said one of the Schaeffers tried to bribe him away after we announced the engagement." To her passing surprise, she could say her ex-husband's name fairly calmly. The rest of the memories were less pleasant, and she stared at her glass grimly.

"What is it?" Robert asked quietly. The man he'd been would have let it lie, but the man who had declared his love wasn't going to let old secrets fester.

"My family didn't know what to do with me after the divorce. They're not common in the Marshall clan, unheard of for the oldest daughter. If it had been a match with someone being groomed for the board, I probably wouldn't have gotten away with it so relatively easily."

"Was it so unlikely that you'd sit on the board yourself?"

"Only three women have ever sat there, all MBAs from big schools, all proven businesswomen, all dedicated players of the old boy network. Blues-playing computer nerds need not apply. Nor do I want it. I kept them guessing right until my 25th birthday, when I went into the office to sign the paperwork. I'd talked to Nate for hours the night before, and I signed over my proxy to him--with the clause that I could revoke it at will. I never have, but the board lives in dread that I someday will."

Robert shook his head in astonishment. "How positively . . . "

"Feudal. Becky doesn't give a damn, but I enjoy rattling their chains now and then. It's not their fault, I guess. It's all they know. And I have been blessed with my brother. He holds double power, but he doesn't abuse it. And he talks things over with me. Nate is dull, but he's conscientious."

She sighed and rested her head in her hands. The weighty past, all those generations of stolid bankers and meek women. She was the first real bobble in the family tree. Oh, true, there was Cousin Ada, who had opened a brothel in her Fifth Avenue house in the 1890s and had done quite well, and bootlegger Great-Uncle Willis and his four wives, along with the various other wastrels, deadbeats, and general losers. But they had all had the grace to be younger children who could be conveniently listed as "and other children." Even Michael Marshall, who had played supplier on both sides of the Civil War, left three children with his respectable wife and six with his adored black Creole mistress, and coughed out his life on the knife of a Mexican night club singer in Guadalajara. He was the fifth son and on his own anyway. Becky had learned the benefits of also-ran years ago. But eldest sons and daughters were commodities, either to inherit or to be dickered off to other families. On the cusp of the 21st century, the choice could not be forced, but it could certainly be influenced.

Robert took her hand. "And so you are left as a very rich woman free to live her own life without the interference of your family."

"You're right," she said after a moment. "There is something to be said for being classified as damaged goods."

"Damaged--I beg your pardon!"

"Look, no, no one has ever called me that, don't call them out."

He still looked irate. "Is that how you see yourself, then?"

That little self-pitying voice at the bottom of her brain that was the actual source of the opinion squeaked and ran away. She didn't dare admit it, not sure what he might do. "Let's just say, it took three weeks for me to figure out why Isaac Schaeffer's oldest grandson kept calling me after the divorce. When I called him on it, he admitted that he'd been instructed to try and make an honest woman out of me."

"Instructed! That's bloody callous."

Ann blinked.

"Yes, I mean it. Sometimes it's the only good word. Have they stopped?"

"Over a year ago. I think they figure I've given up on men, except for discreet amours they hope I conduct away from anyone who might know me."

"What do they make of me?"

"No one's had the cojones to say anything to my face yet." She grinned. "I hope it gives some of them ulcers."

Robert chuckled, then glanced at his watch. "One-thirty. I think we've rehashed ancient history long enough."

"So do I." Ann yawned. "And all the adrenalin's gone."

"Home, then."

 

 

Nate Marshall paused outside his sister's brownstone. The young trick or treaters had long gone home to their beds and their candy-induced stomach aches. The annual Halloween party for grownups was going full blast, much to his satisfaction. Last year's party had been a less raucous affair, in keeping with previous trends. But Ann had blossomed this fall, and this party was still going strong an hour after the last guests had gone home last year.

By the sound of it, the Refugees had taken over part of the house. Nate wondered if they'd put the speakers on the roof again. After a little effort, he recognized "House of the Rising Sun." He went to the front door and pushed the buzzer. Thirty seconds later he pushed it again. No wonder, though, if they couldn't hear it.

The spyhole popped open, then closed, and the door swung open. "Happy Halloween," Robert greeted, resplendent in a green hakama and flowered kimono. "But the invitation specified a costume."

"I am in costume, I'm a capitalist running dog. But I really can't stay long. Where's Ann?"

"Upstairs in mortal combat with the piano. She and Jerry Lee are trying to get 'Foggy Mountain Breakdown' to work on keyboards."

Nate pondered the man who conducted him into the house. Was boyfriend an appropriate term for a man of Robert's age? It seemed a little too high-school, as did the old-fashioned term "beau" that Grandma Anastasia preferred. When asked what term she preferred, Ann grinned and said, "Robert. What I call him would sound silly coming from you."

Everyone acknowledged that it was a good thing that Ann's general outlook on life had improved, but there were some misgivings over the instrument of that improvement. The family wasn't used to dealing with someone who deftly turned aside polite inquiries into antecedents. Robert McCall had appeared out of nowhere, in connection with Ann's mugger problem in August. He claimed to be retired from the insurance business, but when pressed for details which might have led to common acquaintances, he only smiled and pled faulty memory. Ann had hinted at some investigatory involvement which was still too sensitive to bear discussion. When questioned as to what kind of insurance fraud had been so dangerous, she only smiled in turn and dropped references to large accident settlements, arson claims, and suspicious accidental death indemnities. The family had shut up and wondered if a man who disappeared for days on end was really retired.

All Nate really cared about was that his sister was happy and knew what she was doing. Robert was obviously devoted to her, and she looked more like the hell-raising hoyden Nate had been so fond of in days gone by. He knew their mother found the age difference disturbing, as did other members of the family, but if Ann didn't mind, who were they to protest?

Two halves of a horse were playing pool in the barroom at the back of the first floor. A pirate tended bar for a cowboy, a clown, and a woman dressed in what looked like a DNA strand. Robert greeted them all and led the way upstairs to the noise.

The Refugees were packed into the atrium, with what passed for their small speakers stacked in a corner. Currently Brass Jackson leaned against the brick wall, fedora shoved down over his eyes as he wrung melancholy night music from his saxophone. The rest of the band followed his lead in various conditions of entrancement.

Nate saw his sister leaning on the piano, chin resting on clasped hands, eyes closed in ecstasy as she listened. She was becomingly dressed as the Empress Josephine in a high-waisted, very low cut white gown.

"Let me go distract her," Robert said.

Nate watched with envy as Robert slipped deftly across the crowded floor. On him the costume looked natural, not the encumbrance Nate would have found it. He eased up to Ann's left shoulder and bent down to whisper in her ear. Nate grinned contentedly at the smile she gave her lover. She then moved gracefully out from behind the keyboard, glanced at her brother, and gestured for him to meet her upstairs in the library. Nate's progress to the stairs was not as graceful.

Ann and Robert stood on the balcony, gazing down at the party. She hugged her brother when Nate joined them. "Where's your costume, Nathaniel?"

"I'm wearing it, I'm a capitalist tool. Robert, why aren't you dressed like Napoleon?"

"And leave myself open to charges of acting dictatorially? I think not." He frowned at something below. "Excuse me, darling, I think I need to see to Mickey."

"I didn't know he was back," Ann said, craning for a look.

"Neither did I."

Nate saw them look at each other with concern. "Go," Ann said. "I'll see you later. Come on in the library, Nate."

She paused at the doorway and looked back. Mickey lurked to one side of the stairs. By his look, people would assume he'd come as a psychopath. His clothes looked slept in, he had a couple of days' growth of beard, and he started nervously whenever anyone stood near his back. As she watched, Robert went up to him, obviously careful not to sneak up on him.

"What's wrong with him?" Nate asked.

"I don't know. Robert will find out."

Ann closed the door behind them and led the way to the chairs in the middle of the room. Nate paused to watch her. The long lines of the gown made her look taller, and she moved gracefully to sit. There was a queenly air about her that reminded Nate of their mother.

"You look better than you have in years," he said. "Robert's been good for you."

"Love's like that," she smiled.

"Is that what it is?" A warm glow lit in his heart at the peace in her eyes. "I see it is." He realized he was avoiding the subject. "Why am I here?"

"Why are you here? And why can't you stay?"

"There's a problem at work. You're a director. This is something big."

"And you've been deputized to tell me?"

Nate grimaced. "Uncle Andrew's still annoyed with you over the bombing. He's not used to his young female relatives facing him down. There was a closed board meeting today." He finally said the words that were anathema to a banker's heart. "There's a discrepancy in the accounts."

Ann, daughter and granddaughter of bankers, looked grim. "How big?"

"Approaching seven figures, possibly bigger."

"How?"

"It looks like we've got an embezzler."

"Do you know who?"

"Not yet."

Ann thought a moment. "What did the board decide?"

Nate got up to pace. "Half of them hope word filters down that we're on to him, and he'll call it good and stop. The others want his head on a pole in the lobby. The head on a pole people carried the day. Investigations are under way."

"Looks like it's time to call in the Guerilla Accountants again," she smiled.

"No, please, not again. Once was enough.":

Guerilla Accountants was a CPA firm formed by people Ann had met in college. Their motto was "No toes are too big to step on." She had called them in to look over the books when she became a director. Nothing illegal had been found, but several embarrassing personal accounts had been revealed.

"They'll find your siphon."

"So will you. The guy's using the computers."

Ann sat back thoughtfully. "I'll need all the access codes and several hours' privacy."

"Tomorrow night?"

"OK. Why not have one of your own computer people do it?"

"Those are our suspects. Besides, they're a clannish bunch, they might not rat on one of their own."

"Nate, I could be one of your suspects, too."

He smiled at his sister. "If it were you, we'd never have caught you. I know how you work."

She grinned back ruefully. He'd never mentioned what he'd found all those years ago in that notebook in her dresser drawer, but there was always the chance. "Blackmail, huh? All right, I'll check the computers. Relax, I was kidding about the blackmail. Sit down and give me the details."

 

 

An hour later, after showing Nate out, Ann wandered the winding-down party in search of Robert. Happy noises from the hot tub room said someone had disobeyed instructions to stay out of there. She made a mental note to check back in ten minutes to make sure no one had drowned. Three people sat in the formal parlour discussing art. One of them was Jordan, but Ann waved him back into his seat as she paused briefly in the doorway.

"The Court Jester" was playing on the big screen TV in the living room. Chants of "the flagon with the dragon" rose from the couch. Ann didn't hear Robert's voice among them. In the atrium, Malcolm and his bass were duetting with Jerry Lee's synthesizer on something terribly sad while Brass leaned in a corner, nodding in approval. Johnny's drums were missing, so he must have gone home to his wife and new baby.

She headed through the dining room on the way to the kitchen, growling a curse as she snatched a wet glass off her 230-year-old dining room table.

"Mutter mutter, nasty words," she said as she walked into the kitchen. "Oh, there you are."

Robert looked up from where he and Mickey sat at the breakfast table at the far end of the room. "Hello, love. That was a long chat. Is something wrong?"

"Possibly, but I can deal with it later. Hi, Mickey." He waved indifferently, and she looked at Robert in surprise.

"Do you mind if his car spends the night in your driveway?" Robert asked. "I've confiscated his keys."

"Heck, I don't mind if he spends the night. I've got three guestrooms up top."

Robert stood and met her halfway across the room. Mickey never looked up. "What's the trouble with your brother?"

"Bank trouble, I'll tell you later. What's wrong with him?"

"Things one never gets used to but which people in his line of work have to deal with anyway."

"Oh. Should I leave?"

He smiled at her understanding. "On the contrary, a friendly female voice would do him a lot of good just now. Tell him about the cats or your car troubles. Just don't expect him to answer. I'm going to check the house over. I remind him of things."

"Good idea. Check the hot tub, make sure no one's drowned in there."

"Certainly." He hesitated and lowered his voice. "Try to get him to eat something. That's his third scotch."

"Ick. You might want to check room readiness, too."

"Bless you. I'm off."

Ann poked around the kitchen until she found some hors d'oeuvres the guests had missed, as well as her hidden stash of chocolate chip cookies. If he didn't eat them, she'd be glad to. She sat at the breakfast table across from Mickey, turned the chair so it backed against the wall, and leaned her head back.

"I don't know why I'm always surprised at the chaos," she sighed. "Invite thirty people to your house, and there's going to be bedlam and schtupping in the hot tub. I'm probably going to have to the change the water now. Oh, well, such are the trials of the master of the bacchanals." She reached for a cheese puff, nudging the plate closer to Mickey.

His hands were clenched around his glass as he stared at the bottom. She went into stream of consciousness. "I suppose the cats are in the bedroom, barfing on the comforter from stress. Not social creatures, those two. I'll have to spend the next week apologizing to them. I hope Robert lets Ankh sleep on his feet, that always makes her happy."

A noise outside caught her attention. She glanced out the window. The police had caught a group of teenagers in possession of spray paint and crowbars. "Stupid kids. That's why we bribe the cops, to keep louts like you out."

"That's what people in the 60s said about the war protesters."

She looked at Mickey in surprise. The colossus speaks. He still stared into his drink, but his hands were loose. His words sank in. "How annoying. You're right. So much for my pretensions of liberalism. But I don't see free speech in broken windows and graffiti. The police probably did hassle them without cause, but possession of paint cans and crowbars could be construed as intent."

"A weapon, once invented, must be used, else it is useless," he muttered. His hands went around the glass again.

Was this conversation better than his grim silence? Ann wasn't sure, but riffing to car troubles seemed cowardly. "True enough, on the face of it. But how much braver to set that weapon on the table, in plain sight, and never touch it?"

"Unless the other guy goes crazy from the suspense and shoots anyway."

"Then we're all dead, in union with the cosmos, and we have eternity before us to forgive each other."

He looked up. "Aren't you afraid of death?"

"Death, no. Dying, yes. The method of the going. Lady Death is only a tired old woman doing a nasty job that needs doing."

"Who forgives Lady Death?"

"The dead, sometimes, when they're grateful for someone who can call the game over."

"But if it's not time? Who forgives the headsman then?"

She reached over and pulled the glass out of his tightening grip. "The ones who love him."

His eyes, meeting hers, challenged her and hoped. "What do you know about death?"

"I saw her, when she came for my baby and took what soul he'd been knitting there in my womb. I begged her not to take him, to take my life if the ledger needed balanced. She refused and said it was a kindness to my little Jeremiah. Then she did her work and was gone. The doctors said it was the drugs I was under when I told them. She said it was the special curse of mothers, to thumb our noses at entropy and dare to brew new life to fling in the face of inevitable death, and to sometimes lose that tug of war, to lose that being growing under your heart."

She wasn't thinking about Mickey anymore. "I saw her again when Randy hit me. I was hoping she'd show. But she looked disgusted when she saw me. 'Are you going to die just because someone tells you to? Only you and I have the right to say when you die, and if you want to now, well enough, but it's a coward's way out.' So I got my butt off the floor and went for help." She put the tension away and smiled ruefully. "I didn't tell the doctors about that, I didn't want Thorazine." She glanced at Mickey cautiously. This was not the kind of conversation Robert had recommended, and he knew Mickey's potential psychoses better than she.

Some of that lurking madness was gone, but pain still haunted him. "I killed three people yesterday morning, two myself and one civilian caught in the crossfire. A woman. I don't know if I did it or not. But I could have. At the time the reason was a good one, there were other lives at stake. But why were theirs worth less than the ones I was protecting? Three people are in boxes, three people who probably liked soccer, sleeping late, making love . . . "

She sneaked her hand over his. "Three people just like you. And so you mourn them."

"Yeah. I have to."

"That's what makes you human. But if you mourn too much, the next time you go out you'll hesitate, and then we'll be mourning you."

"Why would you? You barely know me."

"A person knows their friends immediately, and those members of their family that they hadn't been aware of. Don't ever think that only Robert would mourn you. Even Ankh would cry."

Mickey dropped his eyes from the concern in hers. "There's blood on my hands. Like Lady Macbeth, it won't come off. I have nightmares too."

"Shall we compare night phantoms sometime? I have nightmares. Robert has nightmares. I could open a stable here with the nightmares that have cantered through. Robert can't watch movies about the Battle of Britain. I can't watch movies about lost or injured children."

"I broke a radio playing The Who's 'Behind Blue Eyes' once," Mickey admitted. "Can I have my glass back? There's still some Scotch left."

"No. Have a cookie. Have four." She shoved the plates at him. "Eat, you grow thin. No guest grows thin in my house."

He took a cookie slowly, bit into it, then swiftly finished off the rest. Ann rescued three for herself and pushed the hors d'oeuvres at him. "Here. Protein. Vegetable matter. Try not to eat the plates while I cook you some real food."

He choked down the cucumber sandwich he had in his mouth. "You've got guests, you can't be waiting on me."

"My house, my rules." She pulled out some eggs, ham, and cheese. "Chez Ann prides itself on its hospitality. Besides, Robert's out there doing host duty." She punched life into the coffee maker and set the pot, then pulled out the omelet pan and some spices.

Watching her bustle around her kitchen in her white costume, Mickey felt some of the pain leak out of his soul. He sat back, half drunk, to observe, finding peace in a happy woman going about her peaceful business. He even forgot to be embarrassed about enjoying the displays of flesh she inadvertently provided as she forgot her low-cut gown was not designed for reaching up to shelves and across counters.

Twenty minutes later, Robert poked his head in and saw Mickey engrossed in one of Ann's mega-omelets. He smiled at her, and she waved him in to sit.

"There were only four eggs left, so I decided to cook them. I'll split them with you. How's the party?"

"Gone home. Brass says he has a class tomorrow and needs his sleep, and the others said they'd see him home. They were the last. Why would Brass need help getting home?" He sat next to Mickey, who looked at him sheepishly as he chewed.

"I didn't know I was this hungry," he finally mumbled. Robert only smiled and topped off the coffee cup.

Ann finished flipping the omelet and slid it onto a plate. "Brass is the very old-fashioned sort who finds All Hallow's disturbing. He's from New Orleans and is an odd sort of Catholic. Suffice to say he prefers to be home behind his doors before midnight on Halloween."

Mickey looked at his watch. "He's not going to make it."

"Hence the escort." She brought the food and a jug of milk to the table. "The last couple of years these parties ended early so he had lots of time. He told me once that his grandfather likes to come visit. He doesn't mind Grandpa, but he says there's a guy called Paul Duchez who knocks on his door that he doesn't want to see."

Robert didn't hide all his grin. "And Paul will get him if he's on the street?"

Ann looked at him sternly. "Was he nervous when he left?"

"Well, yes."

"He believes it, that's all that matters. I bet he had his rosary out."

"He had something, but it wasn't a rosary."

"Oh, dear. One of Mama Finé's things. I'll have to call him tomorrow and apologize for keeping him out so late."

"Don't laugh," Mickey said to Robert, pouring a big dollop of milk in his coffee. "Remember the Cambodian witch doctor who cursed you?"

"My god, Robert, what did you to do him?"

"That was all a coincidence," Robert protested. "He thought I was French and chanted something at me."

"He went back a week later to get it taken off," Mickey said with an evil grin. "It cost him his favorite watch and certain other considerations I swore never to mention."

"Why did you go back if it was all coincidence?" Ann asked.

"Because no one would allow me in a plane, chopper, boat or car until I did."

"And what about that chandelier that fell on you?" Mickey asked.

"What?" Ann squeaked.

"It didn't fall on me. And it was an old house."

"Uh huh." Mickey nodded, then frowned. "OK, Scotch and omelets apparently don't mix. I guess I sit here a little longer."

"Feel free." Ann stretched and yawned. "How bad a mess is the house, sweetheart?"

"Oh, not too bad. It can wait till tomorrow."

She glanced at Robert curiously for his distracted tone of voice, then hid a smile at his thoughtful regard of her neckline. Perhaps she shouldn't have stretched like that.

"What did your brother want?" Robert went on.

She leaned back, forgetting her neckline. The two men didn't. "Schaeffer & Marshall, along with their other problems this month, has an embezzler. They found him when checking the computer for glitches after the bomb. It's going to be a hell of a quarter on the profit sheet."

"So he came to tell you about it?"

"He wants me to investigate. It's a computer thing. So he's going to get me the codes, and I'm going in tomorrow night to see what I can find."

"Would you like some company?"

She smiled at her lover. "I was going to ask. I've never dealt with computer fraud before." She gave a deep sigh.

"Vive la France," Mickey said contentedly.

"What?"

"Nothing. I'm drunk. Milk, it does a body good."

She looked at him curiously, then shrugged. "I'm going to bed. You two do as you like." She gathered her skirts about her and swept out, pulling hair pins as she went.

Robert kicked Mickey. "Vive la France indeed."

"I'm just expressing my admiration of French fashion. Too bad it went out of fashion."

"Too many women dying of pneumonia, I imagine."

 

 

In the morning, while Ann went to the library to see what she had in her records on bank fraud and computers, Robert went down to start breakfast. He found Mickey in the same chair as last night, looking, as the phrase had it, shot at, shot up, and shot down. Ankh sat on the table in front of him, every now and then chirping worriedly.

"You're up," Robert commented.

"Yeah."

"I've seen you worse."

"Yeah. I haven't thrown up yet. I guess this is good."

"You stopped at a reasonable time." He got some orange juice out of the refrigerator and put it in front of the cat. "You're usually thirsty. Don't bother with a glass, you can have the carton."

"Oh, god, thanks, man." Mickey put half a quart down him and felt life returning. "Where's Empress Josephine?"

"Research in the library, getting ready for tonight. Are you sure you want to be around for breakfast?"

"Depends. What's on the menu?"

"Waffles."

"If I'm invited, sure, I'll stay."

"You're invited. Ann made a point of it."

Once again, Mickey watched someone being domestic. By McCall's familiarity with the kitchen, he must do a lot of cooking in the place. When he added an item to the shopping list on the refrigerator door, Mickey chuckled.

"What's so funny?" Robert asked.

"Why don't you just move in with her? As much as you've made yourself at home in here, it's a waste of money to keep your own place." He expected a good-natured "sod off" or derisive sniff, but the faint flustered look surprised him. "Oh, really."

"'Oh, really' what?"

"Nothing." He hid his grin behind the orange juice carton.

Ann came in, distracted and muttering to herself about algorhythmic progressions. She sat at the table, pulled out a complicated calculator and a pad of paper, and started crunching numbers. Mickey, recognizing obsessive concentration, pulled the milk and orange juice out of her way. She didn't comment but spread out to fill the space. Ankh mewed hopefully, and Ann reached over with her left hand to scratch the cat's ears, her other hand still pushing buttons.

Mickey grinned at Robert, who only smiled in fond understanding as he fixed the waffles.

Five minutes later, Ann looked up and blinked. "Oh, hi," she said to Mickey.

"Good morning. What's the big project?"

She blinked some more. "Just a second, I've got to switch brain hemispheres to verbal. In college I'd go for days without saying a word that didn't go through a keyboard."

Robert put a plate in front of her and pushed Ankh off the table. "Go through your breakfast instead."

"So how are you this morning?" Ann asked Mickey.

"Humanoid. Thanks for putting me up last night," he added sheepishly.

"No problem, friends are welcome any time." She studied him surreptitiously. He still looked a little haunted, but the ghosts were small ones. "I hope you have a day off or two coming."

He smiled at her tone of maternal concern. "Yeah, a few. I thought I'd get out of town for a while, maybe someplace with a beach."

"A beach," Ann sighed. "What a happy thought for the first day of November."

As she ate her breakfast, she looked at her notes. Switching the fork to the other hand, she picked up her pen and made some annotations. When she looked up again, Mickey was gone and Robert was sliding her empty plate out from under her absently moving fork.

"Yes, he's gone," Robert said at her expression.

"How rude of me. I didn't say good-bye."

"You waved the fork at him. How's it coming?"

"It doesn't look too bad. I need to stop trying to design a better system, though, or I'll be here all day." She stretched, then wrapped her arms around Robert's neck as he leaned down to kiss her. "Alone at last," she grinned.

"That's what you said last night."

"It bears repeating."

"All of it?"

"Always."

He was just leaning down to kiss her again when the phone rang. They sighed.

"I hate that phone," Ann muttered, getting up to answer it.

"Thank you for taking it out of the bedroom, though."

"My pleasure. Hello? Nate, your timing sucks. All right, you're forgiven, but only because I'm up, dressed, fed, and already at work. Yeah, bring the codes over, I'll take 'em into the office later. None of your business, be a grown-up about it. Yeah, see you later."

Robert finished loading the dishwasher. "Just as well," he said, resigned. "I have a court appearance this afternoon that I have to get ready for."

"Why do you have to be in court?"

"Testifying for the defense in an aggravated assault case. The defendant's brother asked me to find proof that it's a frame-up by the accuser."

"Did you find it?"

"Oh, yes, the woman was sloppy."

Ann didn't ask, being pretty sure she didn't want to know. "When will you be done?"

"Before six, I imagine. Where shall I meet you?"

"Salvatore's. I'm going to need the fortification of their calzone. Eight o'clock?"

"Sounds good."

 

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