True Faces

(Volume 10 of the Tales of Ann & Robert)

Part 1

Perhaps everyone's first year of marriage is full of revelations, unwilling compromises, and moments when reality doesn't quite match the dream. Luckily, most first years also confirm the commitment made by showing the couple how good it is to love someone, to have every day together, to know one is no longer alone, and to realize a pair is stronger against the world than the solitary soul. The first anniversary, then, is a celebration of not only a year of happiness, but also a year of meeting the world as it really is instead of a fantasy, a celebration of challenges met and success won.

At least, that's how Ann McCall thought of her anniversary as she stood on the deck of the cruise ship returning to its New York Harbor dock from two weeks in the Caribbean. Her husband stood behind her with his arms around her and peace once more in his eyes. In the chaos of daily living they had almost lost track of each other, but two weeks along together had given them a chance to reconnect. Trips together to offset the confusion of life had been ruled a necessity.

It had been a strange year, and Ann wondered if every year would be like that. The return and death of her first husband had only been part of it all.

A rock 'n roll guitar god with a homicidal fan had needed Robert's help after Ann had been called in to perform emergency surgery on the concert tour's computerized light and sound system at the Garden. Robert had stashed the man at the house, and he'd proved to be a nice enough guy, even with his desire to screw anything that would let him. He'd tried to seduce both Ann and Robert, luckily on different occasions. But he'd graciously taken no for an answer, especially when backed up by a decisive slap or a threat to break his hand.

But there had also been the woman in the projects who had buried all three of her sons because of drugs and gangs and was seeing her only daughter heading down the same path. Robert hadn't been able to save her, and his method of avenging her death had been brutal. The bereft mother hadn't been comforted, and Ann had sat with her through the long last night in the hospital when she'd made the horrible decision to remove the life support from her brain-dead last child. The McCalls had paid the funeral and hospital bills, the only way they could help, which wasn't enough.

Tragedy and farce, fear and dangeróbut never dull, never boring. Life now was a Technicolor adventure as opposed to the stultifying morass Ann had known before.

And above all was Robert, her maddening, stubborn, caring, heroic husband. She didn't know how he dragged himself from drama to drama, but if she was any help in the process she was content.

Robert heard her sigh of contentment and tightened his arms about her possessively. So fragile, so strong, so infinitely loving. She saw the fearsome parts he tried to hide and she came to him and held him until he was fit to be called human again. It never seemed to occur to her that she didn't have to put up with the dangerous, stressful life he'd brought her to. On the contrary, she seemed proud to be a part of what she considered an honorable venture. He knew why he'd embarked on his crusade to help the people with their backs to the wall, but he sometimes wondered if she was paying off some karmic burden of her own.

Not that he cared. He was just grateful that her work included him. He was profoundly, frighteningly grateful for the refuge of her arms, her patient, nonjudgmental ear, and the resourcefulness she was glad to bring to his aid if needed.

He tried not to ask her help too often, what with her own intense work and his desire to keep danger far from her. But sometimes she was just ideally suited for a situation, and sometimes he just wanted her near in whatever morass of foul dealings he'd found himself in. She was the fierce guardian of his soul against any and all comers, and he hadn't drunk himself to sleep since he'd met her.

She leaned her head back against his shoulder and snuggled in. "Have I told you lately that I love the way you smell?"

He kissed her temple. "And have I told you lately that I adore you?" he said, but in French. He enjoyed her reaction when he spoke French to her.

She shivered faintly and glared at him. Robert smiled back. "Darn you," she said, fighting a grin. "You know they won't let us back in the cabin once we've turned in the key."

"How sad," he smiled, still speaking French.

"Stop that!" Ann gave in and laughed. "Beast," she muttered fondly.

"I'm sorry," he laughed, in English.

"No, you're not."

"No, I'm not."

She hugged him as hard as she could. He felt a vertebra pop back into place. "My god, I love you," she murmured. She smiled up at him, delight and wonder on her face. "You're my husband."

"Have been for a year." It still struck him that way sometimes, too. He was learning to not duck away from the feeling and allow himself to be happy. Control had caught him humming to himself last month during a quiet moment in one of those sordid little contretemps Control always involved him in.

The two of them went back to watching New York get bigger and the cruise ship take its place in the harbor traffic. As the tugs began maneuvering the ship towards its berth, a sense of dread suddenly came over Robert. He could only stand in shock for a moment as he tried to track the feeling to its source. Then it dawned on him: he really didn't want to hear what was lurking on his answering machine. Triggered by the thought was his dormant sense of guilt at having left possibly desperate people in trouble while he indulged in hedonism. He wallowed in recrimination for a few seconds, then common sense rebounded him to the middle ground. As much as desperate people needed his help, he needed Ann to keep him going. Therefore, time with his wifeóstill a startling thought applied to himówas essential.

None of which, though, changed the fact that his answering machine was likely full of demands. At least the thought no longer inspired an urge to throw the machine through the nearest window, as it had before the trip.

The sounds of the city got louder as the ship angled into its dock, honking horns, screaming sirens, the amorphous hum that was the voice of New York. Robert winced, already missing the silence of the open ocean and the slower refrain of the islands. But Ann, born and raised to concrete canyons, felt some uneasy section of her soul relax. It was too darned quiet at sea. It wasn't natural, she thought with a private chuckle.

"If we hurry," Robert said, "we can be among the first off."

"That anxious to get back to work?" Ann smiled.

"That anxious not to be stuck in the crowds around luggage claim. At least Mickey will be here with your car, so we won't have to fight for a taxi."

Ann followed Robert towards the boarding lounge. "Why my car?"

"More room in the trunk."

"Ah, yes." Hers didn't have an armory under a blanket in the trunk.

Ann hummed the "Love Boat" theme under her breath as they waited to be checked off the passenger list. A few of the other passengers came up to her and Robert as they left, insisting on trading addresses and proposing future trips together. Ann and Robert managed to be noncommittal to most of them, but they made sure to get the address of the accountant from Des Moines and his boyfriend. Ed and Vince had quite enjoyed the company of the computer systems consultant and her semi-retired security adviser husband. Such a description allowed Robert to talk about the non-classified things he knew, and even Ann's family had accepted that categorization.

Finally they left the bell jar of genteel shipboard life for the frenetic New York waterfront. Porters jostled for work and yelled for passage while transporting baggage. Passengers blinked uncertainly, dazed by the competing cacophony of taxi drivers, buses and limo services, all insisting that they were the only intelligent choice for transport to the city and the airports.

Something clicked in Robert. His unease at the bustle and mad energy flipped to anticipation of the challenge of the city and the pleasure of knowing he could master the place. The Caribbean was beautiful and peaceful and soothing, but the good fight was in the ugly alleys and busy streets of the city.

He took Annís hand and led her through the crowd. Standard procedure for meetings in crowded termini was to find the most prominent time piece and wait there.

"Yo, McCall!"

"Ah, Mickey. Have you found the baggage claim?"

"Yeah, itís over there." Mickey paused before he headed in the right direction. "Got a surprise for you, McCall."

"A good surprise or a bad surprise?" Ann asked suspiciously. Mickey had been housesitting, and things kept happening when he was in charge of the house.

"You tell me." Mickey glanced over his shoulder.

A blond young man came forward a little hesitantly. "Hi, Dad, Ann."

"Scott!" Robert said in delight. He dropped Annís hand to hug his son. "I didnít know you were coming to New York."

"Yeah, neither did I," Scott said, his casualness a little forced.

Robert didnít see it. "How long have you been in town? Where are you staying?"

Scott shifted nervously. "Three days ago. Mickey answered the phone at your place and told me there was room there."

"I should hope so," Ann said. "Weíve got that guest room up top for a reason." Robert smiled at her, pleased at her welcome of his son. "How long can you stay?" she asked, not really noticing the faint regret that social amenities would put a crimp in private life.

Scott smiled for the first time. "No, itís OK, Iím looking for a placeó"

"Why?" Robert asked. "Donít spend your vacation looking for a hotel."

The smile disappeared. "Well, thatís just it. Iím not on vacation." He hunched in on himself. "They threw me out of the Conservatory."

"What!" Ann beat Robert to the outrage by a hair. "Why?"

"I told off a visiting conductor, a maestro from Vienna."

"Good lord, Scott," Robert started, parental disappointment heavy in his voice, "what possessed youó"

Ann put a hand on her husbandís arm, cutting off the tirade. Scott, in the midst of readying a defensive salvo, blinked at the ease with which she controlled his father.

"Did he deserve it?" Ann asked.

"Thatís not the point," Robert started again. "One doesnít tell offó"

"Sweetheart," was all she said, but he subsided again.

Scott fought to keep his jaw from dropping. Was his father being managed?

"So?" Ann asked Scott. "What happened?"

"I disagreed with his interpretation of a section of Mozart, he told me Americans donít know anything about classical music, I brought up Leonard Bernstein, and it went downhill from there."

"Oh, dear." Ann was torn between sympathy and laughing.

"Can you apologize?" Robert asked.

Scott sighed. "He told the Conservatory that it was him or me, and theyíd rather have him. They refunded my unused tuition, though, so itís not all bad."

Robert was over his first reaction. "I think we can work this out. Iíve got contactsó"

"No, Dad. IóI donít know what I want to do yet." Scott shook himself. "So, did you two have fun?" He laughed at Annís grin and his fatherís chuckle.

"What did you two do?" Mickey asked, recognizing the signs.

"Werenít we getting the luggage?" Ann asked helpfully, headed towards baggage claim.

Mickey looked pointedly at Robert. "Well," Robert said, "she confounded the people who thought she was a trophy for my latter years by handily winning the talent show and taking over a lecture on computers when the speaker came down with a bad case of drunk."

"He," Ann tossed over her shoulder, "insinuated that his father was an illegitimate child of Edward VII and that he was fighting a battle to gain recognition. Three more like these," she added, yanking a piece of her purple Louis Vuitton luggage off the baggage carousel.

Scott stared at Robert, who smiled ruefully. "A vacation amusement. Whereís the car, Mickey?"

Mickey led the way, catching them up on the scandals and gossip of two weeks in the life of New York City.

Robert finally bit the bullet. "And how many messages are on the machine?"

"None."

"None? Mickey, Iíve never seen two weeks go by without there being at least something that deserved listening to. How can there be nothing?"

"Itís been quiet. I thought the machine was broken or your ad had expired. Well, there was one guy who wanted help finding his pet iguana."

"His what?"

"But he called back and said he found it in the oven."

"Euw!" Ann protested.

"Not dead, just keeping warm. Oh, and Vampire Girl called twice."

Robert shook his head. "Must have been the full moon. Did the Wolfman call?"

"I think so, there was one message that was nothing but howls."

"Sometimes I think you should talk to those people too," Ann commented.

"Iím not a shrink, darling, no matter how much help they need."

"Vampire Girl?" Scott finally demanded. "The Wolfman?"

"Regulars," Robert said long-sufferingly. "At least that man finally stopped calling about his stereo equipment."

Ann chuckled. "Thatís because I picked up the phone and told him to call Radio Shack instead of you."

Scott offered once again to find a hotel now that Ann and Robert were back. Ann glanced at her husband then insisted that Scott stay with them as long as he needed to.

"Itís a four-story house, Scott," she added as she sorted through the accumulated mail. "I doubt weíll be tripping over each other."

Scott looked carefully for signs of reluctance but didnít see any. He finally relaxed and smiled. "Thank you, Ann, Iím grateful. At least let me help pay for food."

"Sure," cheerfully agreed the multimillionaire daughter of merchant princes.

They were all in the kitchen of the Chelsea brownstone. The cats had come out of hiding and were bewailing their abandonment and ill treatment. Tut attached himself to Annís left ankle, and Ankh forced Robert to pick her up to prevent her from deploying pitons and climbing. Scott, running the coffee maker, glanced about and almost chuckled at the domestic scene.

"I ought to go check my email," Ann said, looking thoughtfully at the ceiling and the library above.

"You promised you wouldnít touch a computer until tomorrow," Robert replied. "Surely whateverís up there can wait."

Ann sighed. "I suppose so." She smiled and went to kiss him. "Withdrawal. I donít suppose I should go call Suzy, either."

"That depends on if we had any plans for the next two hours," Robert teased. "Gentlemen, what are your plans?"

Mickey, perched on the kitchen counter in lieu of a real seat, brightened. "Iím hungry. When Scott mentioned food, the cats looked tasty."

Tut ducked behind Annís legs and hissed at Mickey. Ann looked at the cat, then at the human. "Mickey, what do you do to my cats when Iím not around?"

"Oh, the usual, tie their tails together, torment them with giant mice, put whiskey in their water bowls and laugh at them when they stagger."

"Food sounds good," Scott said over Ann flinging a dishtowel at Mickey.

"Food it is," Robert decreed. "A late lunch ó" he glanced at his watch "ó or early dinner, as the case may be. May I suggest Chao Tsuís?"

"Good Chinese, yes," Mickey said enthusiastically. "Whoís buying?" He threw the towel back at Ann.

"We are," she said. "I suppose we owe you that for housesitting and tormenting the cats."

"Oh, the cat tormenting was on the house," Scott grinned.

Robert intercepted Ann from throwing anything at Scott and glared at his son while trying not to laugh.

Chao Tsuís restaurant, the Jade Pagoda, was down on Mott Street, with the usual nonexistent Chinatown parking. Annís phone call had procured the best table in the house and obviously special treatment.

"You guys always get treated like this?" Scott asked.

Mickey peered at the menu. "We only hang out in places where people owe us."

"She paid me off years ago," Ann protested. "Chao Tsu was my roommate in college," she explained to Scott. "She was majoring in business at Harvard while I was at MIT."

Ann and Scott got to talking about schools; Mickey took the opportunity to catch Robert up on some more delicate news that required less publicity.

Near the end of the meal, Mickey, on his way back to the table, paused by the kitchen door at the sound of raised voices. He had learned enough of the major Chinese dialects while in Asia to understand curses, and he enjoyed learning new ones. But the shouting wasnít the usual extravagant threats of a chef ordering his helpers around. Mickey slid closer to the red lacquered doors and peeked through the portholes.

Two Chinese men in suits were yelling at Chao Tsu, who was standing her ground and yelling back. Mickey caught enough to realize the men were ordering Chao Tsu to do something and that she was refusing.

Mickey decided it was probably some Chinatown squabble and started to leave. Then he saw the guns under the menís jackets. He debated, then headed back to the table.

Robert glanced up and frowned at Mickeyís expression. "What is it?" he asked quietly.

"Trouble in the kitchen." Mickey glanced at Ann and Scott, who were talking about Annís contacts at Julliard in case Scott wanted to pick up more classes. Mickey scooted closer to summarize what heíd seen for Robert.

"Tongs, maybe?" Robert wandered, glancing toward the kitchen.

"Maybe. But they didnít look like hoods. Should we get involved?"

Robert sighed. "Itís none of our business." He flicked a glance at Mickey. "But if we hear a commotion, it seems a good citizen should get involved."

"You can hear it better over there."

Robert was about to excuse himself from the table when he saw Chao Tsu approaching the table. The Chinese woman looked composed and she smiled easily as she hugged Ann.

"Iím sorry I wasnít here when you arrived," she said, pulling out a chair and sitting down with them. "Was everything to your liking?"

"Perfect as ever," Ann grinned. "Howís business?"

Chao Tsu reached up to adjust one of the cinnabar pins holding up her long hair. "Quite good. I have people after me to open another restaurant in the suburbs, but I donít want to be a chain."

"Pushy would-be investors?" Robert asked, glancing at Mickey.

"Oh, theyíre too polite to be pushy, but theyíre persistent."

As Ann chatted business with Chao Tsu and reintroduced Scott, Mickey slid closer to Robert.

"They werenít talking restaurants, and they werenít being polite."

Robert sipped his tea. "Unless she admits somethingís wrong, I donít see how we can interfere beyond asking if she needs help." He leaned back into the main conversation.

"If itís a matter of capital . . . " Ann started.

Chao Tsu laughed. "Ann, not everyoneís cut out to be a mogul. You were raised a capitalist running dog, Iím still fighting my conditioning."

Ann grinned. "I thought I just was a capitalist tool."

"Oh, no, now that youíve gone entrepreneurial, youíre a running dog."

"Listen, Lotus Blossom of the Celestial Kingdom, youíve been an entrepreneur longer than I have, and youíve done quite well at it." Chao Tsu shrugged, and Ann looked closer at her. "Somethingís wrong, Chao Tsu. What is it?"

"Nothing, Iím just tired." There was a crash from the kitchen. "Excuse me," she said, making a graceful but swift exit.

Robert watched till Chao Tsu was out of earshot, then touched Annís hand. "Is there something wrong that we can help with?"

Ann watched after her friend with worried eyes. "I donít know. Sheíd get like this in school, kind of distracted and quiet. She called it feeling Chinese in the world of the round eyes. And Iíve always wondered how deep the Communist indoctrination is still set."

"Sheís from the mainland?" Scott said. "I thought she was from Hong Kong."

"No, Shanghai. Very westernized, but still part of the main bloc. Her grandparents were party officials and they raised her after her parents died. She still has the Mao quote book they gave her."

"How did her parents die?" Robert asked.

"One of the intermittent spasms of the cultural revolution. Her father taught mathematics and overly praised the work of Western theoreticians. He and his wife were shipped to a reeducation camp, and Chao Tsu went to her grandparents."

"Let me guess," Mickey said cynically, "her parents Ďtook sickí."

"Uh huh."

"Lead poisoning, no doubt. How old was she?"

Ann drained the last of her tea and studied the pattern of leaves in the cup. "Seven."

"Old enough to remember," Robert said grimly, "but young enough to be molded. She was being groomed, wasnít she?"

"Yeah." Ann chuckled. "Iím afraid I corrupted her with blues clubs and pizza and long nights arguing with philosophy students in Cambridge cafes."

Mickey laughed. "Thatíll do it. Have they ever come after her?"

"She hasnít said, but they must have. Sheíd get letters and phone calls that she wouldnít talk about."

Mickey shrugged at Robert, who nodded.

Ann glanced at her watch. "Itís almost bedtime. Someone at this table has to get up and go to work in the morning."

"Already?" Robert protested. "Surely you can take a day to reacclimate."

"Sweetheart, we were expecting that Citibank contract any day, and thereís that article I have to finish, then thereís ó"

"Yes, yes, all right, I know." He glared at her fondly. "Workaholic. Iím amazed I pried you away for two weeks."

"You pried her?" Scott said in disbelief. "You mean you went on vacation willingly?"

Mickey choked on his beer and Ann giggled. Robert paid the bill in dignified silence and led the way to the door.

They waited on the curb for the cab that had been called. Ann snuggled in against Robert, reluctant to give up the last moments of their vacation together. Scott watched them with approval, then asked Mickey if he knew of any cheap apartments.

Robert was simply enjoying the feel of the woman in his arms. Chinatown bustled around them, the exoticness reminding him of the tropical sights he and Ann had seen on their vacation. How delightful to be able to enjoy his travels and to have a beloved companion to share them.

"I love you," he said softly. Ann chuckled and hugged him, letting her obvious contentment serve as answer. He breathed in the fragrance of her hair and wondered how good the soundproofing was around the guest room Scott occupied.

A different fragrance teased him, one that triggered memories. Sandalwood and jasmine, with a hint of musk. Robert suddenly remembered Hong Kong, a younger manís weaknesses and the expensive lesson of foolishly trusting a pair of beautiful blue eyes in an enchanting Oriental face.

He looked around the street, dark but for the neon lights of the stores and the street lamps. The scent was just a memory again, and he wondered if heíd really sensed it.

Ann looked up at him in concern. "What is it?"

Robert got his reactions under control. "Nothing. Just a memory. Nothing." The cab pulled up, and he urged everyone towards it as he continued to scan the alley mouths and crowd. But the Chinese women all bore the dark eyes of their heritage, not the pale legacy of an East-West liaison.

He was quiet when they reached Chelsea and Mickey said good-night. He barely noticed Scott and Ann studying him, and he answered Scottís good-night absently.

Ann watched her husband as he studied the piano while she waited for Scott to reach the top floor and the guest room. When he was out of range, she went to Robert and put her arms around him from behind, resting her head on his shoulder.

"Somethingís wrong," she said quietly.

"No, love, Iím just remembering." He picked a major scale out on the piano keys. "Did you know that Oriental music uses utterly different compositional rules from ours? I never thought Iíd ever be able to listen to it without wincing, but after several months I began to hear what they heard."

"Who did you listen to music with?"

Robert glanced at her, wondering when sheíd learned to read him so well. "It was long ago and far away."

"And besides, the wench is dead?" Ann came around to see his face. She feared no living woman, but the idealized ghosts of his lost loves terrified her.

"What? Oh, no. At least, I donít think so." Robert broke his reverie and really looked at Ann. "And how did you know I was remembering a woman?"

She relaxed under his smile. "You get a look in your eyes, and your voice goes all soft and wistful."

"Does it? Iíd best watch that." He put his arms around her. "Her name was Han Lin, and she made an ass of me in Hong Kong. I thought I was wooing her into betraying the Chinese while at the same time she was learning more about Western movements in Asia from me than was good."

"She tricked you?" Ann was shocked.

"I am not always omnipotent," he laughed, though not without a bitter edge. "My one consolation was that this was almost twenty-five years ago."

"How comforting, you had a foolish youth too."

"Dear God, yes." He sat on the piano bench and pulled her down next to him. "She was very beautiful and very exotic. Many operatives had tried to gain her confidence. I was quite smug at my apparent conquest." He laughed at himself again. "I thought she was in love with me. I was more than half in love with her."

"Wasnít that dangerous?"

"Of course. That was part of the thrill."

Ann was quiet, and Robert looked at her. She looked like she was struggling with something. He wondered if he could guess what.

"I never asked if it bothers you to talk about women I knew."

Ann struggled to be grown-up and rational, but it got away from her. "Itís not the ones you could run into that I worry about. But the ones you remember so fondlyóI canít help thinking that Iím the acceptable replacement for the one that got away," she finished quietly.

He put his arms around her and hugged her tight. He took a moment to get the unaccustomed words in order. "Youíre not the first woman Iíve loved, and I loved some of them almost as much as I love you." She looked at the floor, and he drew her chin up so sheíd meet his eyes. "They were comrades in arms, for the most part, and I knew Iíd never get the chance to spend my life with them. I love you in a way I didnít think I could. I always held part of myself away from my lovers. I donít with you, I trust you."

His innate reserve cut him off before he could completely bare his soul, which was just as well, as Ann leaned over to kiss him. They went to bed in short order, unconcerned with their unexpected housemate.

Ann was late to work the next morning, but she didnít care. By the time she and Robert had breakfast, Scott was gone. He left a note saying he was pursuing job and housing leads.

After kissing Ann good-bye, Robert spent the day dealing with correspondence and catching up with various peaceful whatnot. After several enjoyable hours outlining a possible article on pre-Civil War information gathering by the War Department, he went out for a stroll down 23rd Street to Chelsea Park.

May was a glorious month even in New York City. The last remaining chill of spring was gone, and the summerís oppressive heat was still only a threat. Robert sat on a bench in the park and watched the Frisbee throwers, football passers, and roller bladers. Not even the dueling rap "songs" from multiple portable stereos dampened his mood.

Then it drifted by again, that scent out of memory.

He scanned the park before him, checking every shadow for threats, assessing every person who just a moment before had been an innocent May worshiper. When nothing triggered his alarms in front of him, he slowly looked to either side of him, starting to sweat as he waited for the trap to spring shut.

Finally he stretched as casually as he knew, stood easily, and glanced behind.

She stood there, motionless and graceful as a willow, the Western suit made exotic by the Oriental woman who wore it. Her hair was still night-dark, her eyes were the same shade of blue, but the years had refined a stunning beauty into noble grace and elegance. The poised carriage hadnít changed.

"Han Lin," Robert breathed.

"Robert," she replied, a faint smile flitting across the reserved mouth.

He looked around swiftly, cursing his shock for distracting him from the danger of the situation.

"Iím alone," she said, and the smile flickered again at the glance of disbelief he gave her.

Finally he accepted that at the very least her back-up was too well concealed for him to spot. He looked at her, and after the first wash of agonizing memory at how young heíd been and how badly heíd messed up in Hong Kong, there came the chilling realization that the enemy knew where he lived.

"Did you follow me home last night?" he asked, his easy smile not disguising his wary distrust.

Han Lin chuckled and walked towards him slowly, keeping her hands in plain view and stopping out of armsí reach. "How did you know I was there?"

"I smelled your perfume," he admitted, unable to keep some of the bittersweet memory out of his voice.

Her smile was faintly smug, and she dropped her eyes a moment. "The years have been very kind to you."

Robert chuckled. "If thatís so, then theyíve been uncommonly generous to you." He frowned mentally at his distraction. "The requisite compliments given, why are you here, now?"

Han Lin gave him a disappointed glance. "You used to have more patience with the game."

"I donít play the game any more. Iím out of it."

"Of course." Her smile mocked him.

"Why are you here, Han Lin?"

She shrugged delicately and strolled a little bit away. "I saw you in Chinatown, and remembered everything. I wanted to see how you were faring." She smiled at him over her shoulder, and it looked sincere. "Iím glad youíre not dead, that youíre prospering. Who is the woman?"

Robert allowed his voice to show his smugness. "My wife."

Han Lin shook her head. "Sheís too old for you."

"Excuse me?"

"Unless sheís a proper Chief Wife and finds delectable young maidens for you. Youth feeds a manís vigor."

Robert laughed as well as he could while assessing risks and possibilities. "You neednít play mysterious Middle Kingdomer with me, I know you graduated from Stanford."

They laughed together, allowing shared memory to be a pleasant bond, but only for a few short moments.

"What was your business in Chinatown last night?" Han Lin asked, steel beneath the silk.

"Dinner. Why your interest in my movements?"

"If one finds a sleeping dragon in oneís backyard, shouldnít one keep at least one eye on the creature, so as to catch its first stirrings?"

Robert grimaced at the metaphor. "Why are you in New York, Han Lin?"

She walked back to him, this time coming closer. "You wouldnít believe it was to see an old ó friend?"

He tried not to let her perfume overwhelm him. "No."

She smiled knowingly, and very briefly brushed his arm with a delicate hand. "Nor would I. But you say you donít play the game any longer. Why should you care?"

He caught her hand, and his grip was not gentle. "If one finds a cobra in oneís kitchen, shouldnít one find out how it got there and if itís still safe to use the kitchen?"

The comparison to a snake made Han Linís eyes narrow. She yanked her hand free. "It is none of your affair, Robert, and nothing you should make your affair. I pray you really are out of the game. If you are, stay that way."

She turned and walked away, but she paused before entering the trees. When she looked at him, there was something of the old way sheíd looked at him in her eyes. "Donít die of this, Robert," she said softly. "Too many people would be pleased, and it would be difficult for me to kill them all."

Robert stared after her, barely remembering to watch the periphery for Han Linís outriders. Heíd be a fool to believe her, but sheíd made a fool of him before.

He shook himself. Nice to know she remembered him fondly. But he had to report this, even if he was retired. No one in the park seemed to have noticed the conversation, and no one took notice as Robert walked very warily to the side of the park farthest from the house. He flagged down the first of several taxis that would take him to Control.

Scott didnít get back to Chelsea till dark, having spent his day looking up old friends and contacts. Heíd auditioned for a club owner Ann had recommended, and Scott was pleased that his talent changed the polite, obligatory hearing to something more encouraging. He hadnít been sure he should take advantage of Annís connections, but all sheíd offered were chances. The rest was up to him.

Lights were on in the house, and both cars were in the garage. Scott went up to the kitchen level carefully, trying not to laugh at what he was afraid of interrupting.

Music came faintly from the library, and, after a brief raid of the refrigerator, he headed up.

The sound of Louis Armstrong and his band filled the room. The only light came from the green shaded desk lamp next to Annís computer, where she was studying something on the screen and taking notes.

"Hi, there," Scott said, coming down the long room.

"Oh, hi." Ann pushed the remote to turn down the stereo. "Howís it going?"

"Pretty good." Scott sat down in a chair near the desk. "Your friend Pauly said he might have a gig for me in a week or so."

"Cool! Pauly doesnít make offers he doesnít intend to keep. But make him pay you a flat fee up front. He tries to tell players that business is off and he canít pay them."

Scott filed the information away. "Thanks for the warning." He glanced around. "Is Dad upstairs?"

Ann fidgeted a little. "Heís not here."

Scott sighed. "A client already?"

"I donít know." She leaned back in her chair and tried to sit still. "Somethingís called him away, but he didnít leave a note."

"Typical," Scott said cynically. "He forgets there are people who want to know whatís happening to him." Annís silence made him look at her, and he stiffened at the glare she was giving him.

"He may be your father," she said in a low voice, "but heís my husband, and I donít put up with derogatory comments about him from anybody."

"Even though he doesnít care that youíre sitting here worrying about him?" he dared, venting some of the frustrations heíd had for years. "Mom would go for weeks without hearing from him. We didnít know if he was alive or dead."

"What he does is importantó"

"More important than his family?"

"On some days, yes," Ann snapped. "More important than having to worry about checking in with someone who wants to keep tabs on him. And sometimes thereís just no time. Iíve seen situations where every second is crucial." She stared pensively at her computerís screen saver. "Peopleís lives are on the line out there. I will not be a party to harm coming to someone by intruding where I shouldnít."

Scott thought for a moment. "And so you just sit here and worry." She nodded. "And he risks his life for total strangers."

He watched her rub her right hand, massaging the area around a scar on the back of her hand. "I have been that desperate stranger on the phone," she said softly. "How can I say their danger is less important than mine? I owe them, Scott. Theyíre not strangers. Iíve been on the road they travel, and I canít buy my peace of mind with their pain."

She went back to the computer, leaving Scott to feel ashamed of himself, both for judging what he didnít understand and for letting the past rule him when he wanted to move on. Every time he saw his father, all the old hurts poisoned the air. He sat and thought and wondered if heíd ever be free of the resentment.

Ann was distracted from her worry by her misgiving that sheíd overstepped her bounds. Sheíd sworn to herself that sheíd stay out of Robert and Scottís relationship, but she couldnít bear to hear the man she loved be so misjudged, especially by someone he loved too.

Finally Scott got up to pace. Heíd looked over the books while Ann and Robert had been gone, but heíd left her desk alone. While he tried to formulate an apology, he looked at the pictures on her desk. One distracted him.

"Whatís this?"

Ann quickly analyzed the question for booby traps, but the memory of the picture made her smile.

She and Robert were waltzing in the picture, he in his tuxedo and she in her heavy green satin ball gown, the diamond and pearl necklace heíd given her around her neck. "The New Yearís Eve debutante ball before we got married. My introduction of Robert to the high society of New York. All the best people were there."

"Well, la-di-dah," Scott laughed. "How did he take it?"

"Beautifully. They were all making a big fuss because weíd just gotten engaged, but my sister-in-law had the good timing to go into labor right there. Robert drove her and my brother to the hospital."

"How handy. Do you go to a lot of these things?"

"Two or three a year. Itís fun to gawk and dance, and we donít get bitched at if we pay lip service to the conventions. They think weíre dull."

Scott laughed out loud, then sighed. "Iím sorry about what I said."

Ann leaned back in her chair. Behind her in the window seat, Ankh yawned hugely and glanced up from her catnap. With an inquisitive mew, she reached way up to pat the back of her humanís head.

"Good morning, baby," Ann said, turning to pet the cat. As she turned, a red light shining through the library window flashed briefly in her eyes.

She grabbed the cat and flung herself against Scott, knocking them all to the floor.

The window blew inwards and the computer monitor exploded. Glass sprayed across the room.

"What the hell!" Scott shouted.

"Stay down!" Ann fought to keep hold of Ankh, oblivious to the clawing she was getting as the Siamese yowled in terror. Two more impacts chewed up the desk, hitting the lamp and plunging the room into darkness.

Ankh clawed free and bolted for the door at the far end of the library. Scott grabbed Annís arm and tugged her in the same direction.

The other two windows crashed to pieces, and what their minds finally acknowledged as bullets tore into the shelves, the floor, and the library table in the middle of the room. Scott and Ann retreated to the shelter of the thick cabinets just below the windows.

Finally the only sound was the distant howl of terrified cats. Scott sneaked a rapid peek out the window. Nothing happened, and he risked a longer look.

Across the street, lights were coming on in the brownstones, but the roofline was clear. Through the smashed windows came the sound of inquiries from the street below.

"Scott, get down!" Ann snapped, still on the floor.

"No, I think itís over. We gotta call the cops."

"The alarm will bring them, the breaking glass triggered it." She started shaking. "Oh, god, whereís Robert?"

Next