If You Knew the Truth

(Act 4 of the Tales of Ann & Robert)

Part 1

"Robert," the doctor said, "you don't have to go through this. We can fix it, make everything work right again. Just a little more therapy, a short stint in the surgery, and you'll never know it had ever been broken."

"No," Robert said, clutching the cane. "No more. It's not much in the way." He stared down at his right leg. The twist was barely notice able. "I can manage."

"But you don't have to. You can be rid of that cane and stand straight. Only a little courage, and I know you have that."

"Do I? I'm not certain. Besides, I can get it done whenever I want. There's no hurry."

"If you don't do it now, you never will," the doctor said bluntly. "You may not get another chance."

Robert stood, though slowly and being careful of his balance. "I'll run that risk." He headed for the door, learning to adjust to that hitch in his step and making fairly good time. His body would get used to the different balance.

The doctor followed him down the hall, past treatment rooms. "You were always more stubborn than was good for you. You have a martyr complex, that's your problem."

"I just know my limits, doctor, that's all. I can't worry about it now, I don't have the energy."

A woman screamed in a nearby treatment room, a scream of fear and pain and longing. Robert froze in his tracks, every fiber in him wanting to go to that unseen woman. For the moment he stood on both feet solidly, the cane forgotten in his hands except as a possible weapon to drive off what ever tormented the forsaken soul he heard.

"No, Robert," the doctor said, a hand on his arm. "You're in no shape to do anything for her. Besides, she's not your problem."

"No. No, of course, you're right. It's not my problem." The scream had turned to wracking sobs that begged for a shoulder to soothe them. But his leg ached, and, reluctantly, he leaned on the cane to support him. He couldn't help her. He had to worry about himself, about protecting his weak spots until he could adjust his defenses. Then he could help others again. He started down the hallway again, leaving the weeping woman behind....

 

 

He woke, longing and worry leaving an aftertaste in his mind. With a shaky breath, he knew he'd dreamed about Ann again. The details were fuzzy, but he wanted to go to her. He took a deep breath and shook that desire off.

He'd given her up willingly. It was for the best. But waking up was always followed by the crushing disappointment that he was alone. Getting out of bed took effort. He didn't like looking at the face in the mirror. Dorian Grey was beginning to look back.

It had only been a week ago he'd said good-bye. One week was not long enough to know for certain that he'd made a mistake. Let a little more time go past, get the impartiality of distance before making a decision. Let her slip a little further away. Look at it calmly, rationally. He'd always prided himself on being a rational man. He couldn't consider something as important as this in the emotional state he was in. It was like drug withdrawal, willpower would get him through it. He'd become too dependent on her anyway. He'd managed for decades alone. It was only the new growth in his soul that hurt anyway, it would scab over eventually.

He shifted his right leg uncomfortably. That odd dream was carrying over. Thank heaven it was only a dream. What would have prevented him from doing whatever necessary to get himself back in complete working order? He was useless crippled up the way he'd been in that dream. Only some foolish blindness would make him think a twisted leg could be ignored.

Slowly, unseeingly, he put the milk back into the refrigerator, closed the door, and leaned against it, shaking. It wasn't his body that was twisted, it was his soul. He'd run from the effort of healing himself in his heart, love was what he told himself he didn't need, that he could live without. He knew he could adjust to its absence, he'd done it when Kay had left him. But he moved with a cane, crippled in his spirit. In cutting himself off from Ann, he stood in danger of cutting off that part of him that cared enough to help people. Strangers had been safe to help, they didn't demand anything from him beyond his experience and competence. He could isolate himself from them. At the heart of it, he was no different from Ann closed away in her tower. He just carried his cloister with him.

He loved her. It wasn't just affection and friendship, wasn't just physical desire. The roots of his heart were sunk into her, drawing strength and nourishment from her. And instead of resenting the drain, she bloomed. Like a climbing rose, she twined her own new growth around his soul, carrying both toward the light. When he'd said good-bye, depending on her young strength to carry her, he'd left his heart with no choice but to wither.

But surely that was a small price to pay for her safety. So close, so close it had been. He had been inexcusably negligent. Sandahl should never have gotten his hands on her.

So now you're God?, asked some little reasonable voice far off in the back of his mind. It got a little messy, but it worked out. She never blamed you for anything.

I should never have allowed her to become involved, he repeated stubbornly to himself.

It wouldn't have worked without her.

I'd have found a way.

She volunteered. It was her idea.

That has no bearing on it. I could have refused to let her be a part of it.

And since when is she your pet that you can tell her "Sit" and expect her to obey? Thirty years she's lived her life, through hells that make you cringe to think of. What gives you the right to tell her what she is and is not capable of?

I don't need to be a party to it, I have no right to make it worse.

And because you can't control her life, you ran, washing your hands of any responsibility, however remote, that she may know some pain because of you. She will not stay home and knit your socks. She will demand to stand beside you. Perhaps you can't deal with a woman that strong. She knows pain. It doesn't seem to frighten her. Perhaps that's what terrifies you, that a woman deems you worth slogging along the shore line of hell. And you can't bear to allow her the choice of what she wants to risk for you. Which are you afraid of, that you'll be found unworthy of her risk or that you won't be able to match her free, unhesitating courage?

Never mind that, when you loved, they left. You give your soul to a woman, and she leaves, she dies, she's taken from you. He couldn't do that anymore. So much safer to leave it behind, to forget how it felt to cause a light of happiness in someone else's eyes, to be the one to bring that smile to their lips. It was never for real, forever. Ignore the small creature down inside who reached out for the hand that was reaching out itself.

He turned away, as if he could run from himself. Surely he was too old to feel this way. He remembered the night they'd become lovers, the terrifying jolt he'd felt when he'd looked into her eyes and saw the passion that matched his own. It had been love then, but he'd refused to see it. He wasn't that kind of man, to fall so hard and so irrationally. Her laugh haunted his dreams, he found himself looking twice at red-haired women on the street, his heart in his throat. This was nothing like the rational affection he and Kay had had for each other. He'd thought that was love. He hadn't known love was wicked and twisted, full of sharp edges and cruel hooks, chaining hearts and souls together in painful bondage. Why did people seek it so desperately when it hurt so much?

He couldn't go on like this. The face in the mirror was beginning to look like the nasty, vicious old man he'd always dreaded becoming. He had to make some effort to reclaim the gift that had crept up on him all unawares.

And if she says "Get thee gone, old man"? asked the judge in his heart.

His soul shook with dread. Perhaps she'd come to her senses in their days apart. With her heart roused from the gray torpor he'd found it in, the world's romance was at her feet. Every night her club was full of young men she could sample at her whim.

"Don't risk it," self-preservation whispered. "Give it up as a fond memory."

Undecided, he wandered into the living room. He paused by the couch and looked aimlessly around. Suddenly he remembered the last time they'd made love, here in this apartment. In this room, in fact. They'd just come back from the police station after giving their statements regarding Sandahl. He'd been caught up in the first wave of guilt for getting her involved in such danger. When he'd turned from locking the door, she'd thrown herself into his arms, near tears.

"Make me forget this," she'd begged. "All I can hear is that man's voice. I want to hear yours." She'd kissed him with desperate passion, and he hadn't been shy in responding. And when they'd finally gone to bed for real sleep, she'd made sure to have some part of him within reach. Those weren't the actions of a woman making do. Only an ill-timed phone call the next morning had stopped him from answering the half-bashful smile of amazed memory and invitation. It had been when he was away from her that his doubts had come back, and by the time he'd seen her again they'd calcified into self-righteous resignation. She'd tried to talk him out of leaving. Somehow he'd forgotten that. Maybe he did have a chance. Maybe.

His conflicting desires, for her and for her safety, were only chasing his mind into a knot. He went to get dressed, then to find a neutral ear to talk to. He avoided looking in the mirror on his way out.

St. Olaf's on Staten Island was where Robert went when he needed to talk to someone neutral. Father Mills didn't care what Robert did, he knew the world required someone to be willing to risk his soul for the rest of humanity. And the priest knew that those people needed the healing solace of a sympathetic ear more than most.

The church was old, lived-in, loved. Robert usually felt better just walking in the door. The bulletin board by the door was always full of announcements for upcoming events and happy occasions. For all its dowdiness, the church was a focal point of the neighborhood, home of a truly peaceful, loving spirit.

But today, the mood only depressed Robert further. He was amazed the giggling teeny boppers didn't hide their faces from the entrance of someone so steeped in death, age, and loss.

"Excuse me," he said.

The girls giggled until one of them got the courage to stand far enough out from the crowd to answer. "Yes, sir?"

He was 'sir' to a twelve-year-old. "Is Father Mills available?"

"No, he's a priest." The girls cackled madly.

Robert closed his eyes. "Is he here?" he repeated as quietly as he could.

His informant must have heard something in his voice. "He's in the choir, tending the flowers."

"Thank you."

Father Mills was chatting with the Women's Auxiliary over the upcoming fall decorations and what would be required for the harvest table. He glanced up at Robert's approach. "Excuse me, ladies." He went to meet Robert. "If ever I saw a man with a crisis of spirit, I'm looking at him. Would you like to go to my office?"

Robert looked around at the worn pews, chipped stained glass, and lovingly repaired hangings. "No, this is ... pleasant. For some reason I feel I haven't seen the sun in days."

The priest led the way to a side pew. "How can I help you?"

"I'm afraid I've discovered myself to be egotistical, selfish, manipulative, and repressive," Robert said finally.

"Ah. You're human. To some people it can be a shock."

The calm acceptance was a revelation. Father Mills was a man his own age and had seen too much in almost sixty years to be shocked anymore. Even the adolescent drug dealers on the corner only moved him to profound sadness.

"What precipitated this discovery?" he continued.

"I've met a woman." Robert told the whole story, keeping back only the things that hadn't already been guessed.

"And now you're not sure if leaving her was the wisest decision," Mills said when he was done.

"Wisest? Yes. But I thought it would stop hurting by now."

"Do you love her?"

He covered his eyes. "Yes," he finally admitted. "I love her. And I have no right to."

"Why?"

"Well, for one thing, I'm a quarter century older than her."

The priest glanced up at a window showing the Nativity. "The Lord chose Joseph, a significantly older man, for Mary."

"Joseph and Mary did not have the kind of relationship Ann and I did," Robert said dryly.

"Indeed. But I don't think the Lord minds."

"Forgive me, Father, but the Lord's opinion is not the point."

The priest studied him. "What do you want, Robert?"

Robert sat back, caught flatfooted at the bald requirement for a statement of position. "What do I want. I want to stop hurting."

"That's easy enough. Ignore your heart, ignore what the pain is trying to tell you. Soon enough those calluses will re-grow and the pain will drift away. But God created pain to tell us something is wrong. You can either get used to the symptom of your pain or you can find out what's causing it and treat the problem."

Robert remembered his dream of being crippled and unwilling to face the work of being healed. The time was here, and truth, and the time was past when he could tell lies to himself. "I want her back. I want her in my life. And I don't dare."

"Why?"

"She trusted me to look after her, and I led her into danger." His sight darkened as he saw the night and heard gunshots where his lover was.

"Was it your fault there was danger?"

He thought a while. "The danger existed regardless, but it is my fault she was there."

"You said the girl asked for Ann to be there."

"I didn't have to allow it."

Father Mills sighed and tapped his finger against his lips. "Pride is one of the deadly sins. I'm afraid you're claiming credit where you don't deserve it."

"Claiming credit!"

"What if she had refused to allow you to risk yourself for this girl? You came closer to harm than Ann."

"That's ridiculous."

"She cares about you, she would be within her rights to ask you not to put yourself in harm's way, even to demand that you cease doing this dangerous job of yours."

"She wouldn't."

"Why not?"

"She said she refused to keep me from doing something that was so important to me. She knows why I do it."

"And so why, if she won't stop you from doing something important, should you stop her?"

Robert could only stop and blink. "Because..." Because he wanted to protect her, the thought of being the cause of harm to her ate at his soul. "I don't want anything to happen to her."

"Of course not. But you were her lover, not her master. You can only ask, and accept the answer."

"I still shouldn't have let--"

"Robert, that's pride again. Why is what you think is important more acceptable than what she thinks is important?"

"She could have been killed, though," Robert whispered. "And it would have been my fault."

"And that is your penance, the sick fear of what might have been. But I think you've carried your legitimate anxiety a bit close to martyrdom." Father Mills paused to study the pain on Robert's face. "When did you decide you had lost the right to be happy? The most miserable sinner in the lowest depths of despair has the right to try to be happy."

Robert stared at his hands. "I'm frightened."

"Change is always frightening."

"I don't want to be a disappointment to her. And--" he made himself confront that worst of his fears. "And someday she'll look at me and see that I am old and she is young, and she'll see someone strong and handsome with the best years of his life yet to come, who hasn't squandered his life."

"Do you really think you've squandered your life?"

He closed his eyes in shame. "I have done such awful things."

"Who has not? And you have done much good. There are several people in this city who have you to thank for their continued existence, your lady among them. Everyone is deserving of love."

"She doesn't love me."

"Are you so sure? Have you asked her? Have you told her how you feel?"

"And run the risk of seeing the disgust on her face? No."

"You run a risk, yes. But you also run the risk of seeing joy and happiness."

Robert was silent. There was an answer to all his fears, if he was willing to accept it, if he was willing to take the risks. "I have been a fool," he said softly. "No wonder she was so angry with me. But I don't know if it's in me to step back and let her run risks in my behalf. And she will want to. She's that kind of woman. She'll want to help me, and I don't think I can bear to let her."

"That is something you'll have to discuss with her." Father Mills smiled. Most of that haunted pain had left Robert's eyes, leaving the nervous fear the priest had seen in all men contemplating the possibility that someone in the world could care so much about them.

"I wonder if she'll even talk to me."

"She has the right to be angry with you."

"Yes. I belittled her courage and her heart. How could I have been so blind?"

"None of this changes the fact that danger runs in your shadow."

"No. But maybe she can trust me enough to let me tell her when some thing is over her head." The memory of Sandahl shook him again. "I knew that night was a trip, and still ..."

"You're only human. God is watching over you, as he watches all his soldiers fighting for good."

Robert shifted uncomfortably. "I don't deserve that title, Father."

The priest smiled. "None of God's soldiers think they do. Now, what are you going to do?"

"Talk to her. Beg her forgiveness. See what can be salvaged from my stupidity." He sat up straight. Time stopped looking like a gray, stony wilderness and became a sunny place that held the hope of joy. His leg stopped hurting. But she might not be willing to listen. The thought caused him pain, but it was a pain of the pursuit of life, not the pain of waiting for death.

Father Mills nodded to himself as Robert looked impatiently as his watch. "Go, then, you have things to do." Where once had sat a man lost and stumbling was now a man with purpose and plans. "God go with you, Robert."

Robert shook his hand as they stood. "Thank you, Father. I'm very grateful you're here."

"I bloom where the Lord plants me."

"As do we all."

He walked away, a man in a hurry, with places to go and people to see. Father Mills watched him maneuver neatly around the giggling Girl's Auxiliary, then he went back to the discussion of decorations. He made a mental note to say a rosary for all people doing the difficult work of keeping back the dark.

 

 

On the Staten Island Ferry, Robert tried Ann's number again, leaving another message on her machine.  She must be out on a job, he finally decided, and he drove to her neighborhood to lie in wait.

But lights were on in her house, and a car parked in front.  Robert parked a hundred feet away and sat in the car, gathering his courage and wondering how to go about this.  Just looking at her house gave him pleasure.  He thought of the nights he'd spent there and the ones he hoped still to have.

He came alert as the front door opened.  A man in a suit and carrying a briefcase came out, paused to speak to someone out of sight, then went to the car.  The door closed swiftly behind him.  Robert studied the man.  An expensive suit, very expensive shoes, the pallor of a man who lived in an office, a fatherly, concerned look on his face.  Some relative of hers from the bank?  Robert made a quick, automatic note of the license plate of the power gray Mercedes.

He debated going to the door, but cowardice prevailed.  He knew she was home, so he tried the phone again.  But all he got was the answering machine.

"Ann, if you're there, please pick up the phone," he said at the beep.  "I'd like to talk to you."  He paused.  No answer.  "I understand if you're angry with me.  Can I try to apologize?"  He paused again.  "All right, perhaps you can't hear me.  Please call me.  I'm in the car.  I need to talk to you.  I miss you."

He hung up before he could blurt out more unwary truths to a machine.  Better to be talking to her directly.

Half an hour later, all his resolve had curdled into the dread that he'd waited too long.  She hadn't called.  He tried to tell himself that she hadn't checked the machine yet, but he knew her habits.  The machine was near the kitchen doorway and she looked at it every time she passed by.  Lights had come on in the kitchen, so he knew she was there.

She didn't want to talk to him, that's what it meant.  He'd pushed her too far.

He leaned his head on the steering wheel.  So did he now meekly accept it and skulk away, or did he argue the point?  The gentlemanly thing to do would be to quietly accept it and go home.  Alone.  For now and forever.

A shadow on the kitchen windows caught his eye and his heart.  He knew that outline.  A cat jumped onto the window sill in the center, clear window, and the shadow moved towards it.  Robert's interest was touched with concern.  She was moving slowly, as if she'd been ill or was exhausted to the limits of endurance.  She leaned against the window frame and reached down to scratch the cat's ears.  Robert reached for the redial button on his phone.

He saw her jerk at the first ring, but she didn't move from the window.  The answering machine clicked on.  "Ann, please pick up the phone."  He saw her flinch, but still she didn't move.  "I know you're angry and that I hurt you.  I'm sorry."  She hunched in on herself and raised her hand to her face.  "Darling, please."  Some of his own pain got through.  She took a half step towards the phone, then turned away, her arms around herself.  His thoughts were on that pain-filled outline.  "Why won't you talk to me?  What's wrong?  Let me help."  To his dismay she seemed to be cringing even more.  "Oh, mon coeur..."

The answering machine switched off.  She collapsed in on herself, picked up the cat, and buried her face in the fur.

Robert was out of the car, across the street, and in front of her door before it dawned on him that if she didn't want to talk to him on the phone she wasn't likely to let him in the house.  But it was harder to ignore a man on your doorstep.  He pushed the doorbell, and something in his soul was amazed at his willingness to put his heart in harm's way.

He gave her a count of fifty, then pushed the button again.  The intercom by the door clicked on.  "Hello?"

Her voice was scared, defensive, a little husky from crying.

"Ann, it's me, Robert."

"Oh, my god..."

"Please, may I come in?  I need to talk to you."

"I--I'm sorry, I can't."  She tried to muffle new sobs.  "Please go away."

"What did I do?" he whispered, aghast at her pain.

"It wasn't you..." was the faint, fading answer, ending in another choked sob.

"Darling, what's wrong?"

The intercom clicked decisively.  He pushed the doorbell again, but there was no answer.  Finally he accepted his dismissal and went back across the street.  At his car, he glanced back at her house.  The kitchen was dark.  He paused, watching, wondering if she stood at the window looking at him.  He touched his fingers to his lips, just in case, then got in his car and drove slowly away.

As the night deepened, he sat in his darkened living room, sipping brandy and thinking seriously.  Ann was in that house, in agony.  But was it his fault?  Had breaking up with her caused the problem?  She had said it wasn't his doing, but was that residual courtesy?  Was his pestering her part of her pain?  He wasn't sure if he should leave her alone or give in to his need to stop her pain.

In all bluntness, would breaking up with a lover cause that much damage?  It had been a week.  And honestly, he rather expected her to react with anger, not pathetic tears.  She should have been giving him the sharp edge of her tongue, calling into question the legitimacy of his parentage and such.  He knew the kind of temper she had.

He sighed and went to look out the windows.  Unless her feelings had been deeper than he'd wanted to admit.  The loss of love hurt.  He knew that well.  But if, by a miracle, she did love him, why would she refuse to talk to him?

The question remained of whether to leave her alone.  She hadn't said in so many words for him to leave her be, though her actions did.  The pain in her voice haunted him.  Until he knew for sure if he was the cause, he had to see if he could help her.  He loved her.  He couldn't leave her in her tower alone.

The next day, he went by Mickey's place to pick up his van.  Mickey was out of town on an assignment, and Robert had a set of keys for the van.  Ann would be looking for the Jaguar and hadn't seen the van often.  Robert didn't like spying on her, but he needed information.  Cross-examining Suzy was an option, but he didn't want to show his hand until he needed to.  If he was the problem, he wanted the option to make a quiet, dignified retreat.

He took up a position half a block from her house and began his watch.  A quick run by her office had shown she wasn't there.  He didn't try to call her; if she was avoiding him, filling up her answering machine would not make her any more kindly disposed to him.

For several hours, nothing happened.  As traffic picked up with the evening rush hour, a car pulled up in front of Ann's garage.  Suzy got out, then reached into the back seat for a bag of groceries.  She carried them to the door and pushed the bell with her elbow.  The door opened and closed behind her quickly.

Robert tried to think logically.  Perhaps they were planning a special dinner that required things Ann didn't have in the house.  But he couldn't help remembering what she'd told him about when she'd been turning hermit.  He wondered if she'd been having food delivered all week.

Lights went on in the kitchen.  After several minutes, Suzy came to the windows to look out.  A brief scan satisfied her, and she turned to talk to someone.

Robert debated, then started the van and left Chelsea.  Suzy would look after her.

At home, he debated his next move.  She'd gone hermit and wouldn't talk to him.  He thought he knew her well enough to figure that a broken heart wouldn't drive her into seclusion.  What had driven her there before? He'd supposed that it had been the combination of her miscarriage, divorce, and father's death.  But thinking back over old conversations, she'd been evasive about that whole time.  Granted, it was painful and Robert had no right to pry, but he sensed a secret.  Something dreadful had happened then.  He had the feeling that something dreadful had happened again.

"Dear god," he murmured.  What was one thing almost guaranteed to break a woman's spirit, to make her shy away from any but the most trusted people?  If she'd been raped--

Raging fury filled his ears, and he found the phone in his hand and her number half-dialed.  He made himself stop.  Would she thank him for demanding answers when she was trying to avoid him?  Besides, he'd told her to call him if she need help.  She hadn't done it.  If she was still working through shame, undeserved though it may be, a former lover was the last person she wanted to see.

And maybe he was wrong.  It could be any of a dozen other things.  His next step was to get a look at her, to see how she was bearing up under whatever load she carried.  If she looked as bad as she sounded, stronger measures would have to be taken.

That decided, he went to bed, already planning the next day's stake-out.  

 

 

He took Mickey's van again, and he got there early, in case she decided to go to work.  But morning rush hour passed with no movement from her house.  At ten o'clock, a taxi pulled up and double parked in front of her house.  The cabbie got out and knocked on Ann's door.  Robert started the engine in preparation, blessing Mickey's obsession with well-tuned engines in shabby exteriors.

The front door opened, but as much as Robert craned for a view, he couldn't see anything beyond red hair tied back with a scarf and a pair of sunglasses on a cloudy day.  She dashed into the cab.  Robert was already pulling out when the cabbie settled into his seat.

Robert followed the cab to the business district.  When the cab pulled over in front of a building, Robert whipped the van into a nearby ally and parked illegally next to a dumpster.  If it got towed he'd pay for it.  It wouldn't be the first time that van had seen the inside of the impound yard.

He locked the doors and hurried out of the alley.  The cab was just pulling away as the doors of the building swung shut.  Robert did his best to blend in with the crowd as he went into the lobby.

He spotted her immediately.  She was talking to the man who'd been at her house two days ago.  Robert eased his way closer.

"...up to my office then," the man said, gesturing to the elevators.

"You didn't have to meet me, Jacob."  Ann's voice was listless and soft.

"It's enough of an achievement for you to get out of the house."  He pushed the up button.  "Have you decided what you wanted to do about the restraining order?"

Robert felt his heart chill.

"You said you didn't think there was any purpose to it."  A definite note of fear appeared in her voice.  "Even with the prior record."

"He hasn't done anything."

"Hasn't done--"

The closing elevator doors cut off the rest of her statement.

Robert faded back to a niche across from the elevators and watched the floor marker.

Who did she want a restraining order against?  Him?  The man was revealed as a lawyer, and, unlikely as it may be, Ann might have confided some details to him.  Her reference to a previous record puzzled him, though.  Robert may have been in a few cells in his day, but he'd never mentioned any of them to her.

The elevator stopped first on the second floor, then continued to the seventh, then the eleventh before starting back down.  Robert went to the building directory.  There were two law firms in the building, Kaufmann & Baher on the fourth and fifth floors, and Rosenburg, Kohn, Zumwaldt on the seventh.  Robert debated going up to the seventh floor, but decided to hold his ground where Ann was mostly certain to reappear.

In the hour of waiting, no one seemed to notice him.  He was good at blending in when he wanted.  He bought a paper and claimed a corner, turning pages idly and looking up when the elevator doors opened.

Finally he looked up and saw a familiar scarf around familiar hair.  He folded his paper as she walked slowly out of the elevator, and he fell in close behind her as she moved through the lobby.  She looked around cautiously and seemed to shy away from young men.

Out on the street, as she paused to scan for a taxi, Robert took a deep breath and went to stand just behind her.  "Can I offer you a lift?"

Ann whirled with a gasp of horror.  "Robert," she whispered.

He started to reach to her, but she shied away.  "Please, Ann, talk to me," he said softly.  He was taken aback by the look of her, the hollows in her face, the fear in her eyes.  But dread lifted from his heart when the fear faded a little.  It wasn't him she was afraid of.  But there was still that vast dismay on her face.

"I can't," she finally said, backing away.  She looked around, saw a taxi just unloading a fare, and dashed to it, cutting off a man with a briefcase.

Robert didn't try to stop her.  His worst fears were calmed, but there was still some other trauma haunting her.  He knew who would know.  

 

 

Wilcox, Jones & Monroe was not the kind of garish company to put their name on the front of a building, but neither were they the sort of low-class establishment to make do with little white letters on a signboard.  A genteel brass plaque on the polished pale green marble wall discreetly announced that the main office of WJM would be found on the eighth floor of the impeccably maintained pre-war office building.

Robert found himself in the odd position of feeling at a disadvantage, and it wasn't just because his mission was delicate and perhaps not in the best of taste.  He was glad he'd worn his best dark suit, even if the Young Turks in the plush-carpeted elevator did ignore him.

He was the only one to get off at the eighth floor.  The elevator lobby was spacious enough to be polite, but small enough to stress that this was just a place to pass through.  The receptionist seated at a desk just to the left of wooden double doors looked up with a gracious smile, but Robert could see she was not the type to let herself be talked into anything.

"May I help you, sir?" she said.

"Yes, I'd like to see Ms. Johnson in Estates and Trusts."

"Is she expecting you?" the receptionist asked as she reached for the phone.

"No, she isn't," Robert admitted.  "I'm hoping to catch her if she has a few moments to spare.  It's fairly important."

"Your name, please?"

"Robert McCall."

"Thank you.  If you'll have a seat, I'll see if she's free."

"Thank you."

Robert took his time sitting down, but the receptionist knew how to pitch her voice so it wouldn't carry far.  He spent the time waiting trying to get his words straight.  It took more than a few minutes, and once Robert saw the receptionist glance at him with a trace of mere human curiosity.

Finally she hung up.  "Mr. McCall?  Ms. Johnson's secretary says she has twenty minutes free.  Do you know your way?"

"No, I don't."

"Just a moment, then."  She pressed a button on her desk.  A few seconds later, a boy with a grin straight out of Dickens opened one of the double doors and came out.  "Sammy, please take Mr. McCall to Ms. Johnson's office."

"Right-o, mum," was the Cockney reply.  "This way, if you please, guv'nor."

Robert hesitated in amazement and wondered if the receptionist would throw him out if he burst into laughter.  But a hastily muffled smile escaped from the genteel manner.  "Sammy," she chided gently.

The boy grinned.  "Sorry, Ms. van der Koop," he apologized in a voice of the purest Bronx.  "This way, please, Mr. McCall."

"Thank you, Sammy."

Sammy looked at Robert speculatively as the door closed behind them.  "I don't normally  practice my voices at work."

"Probably a very good idea.  It could get you into trouble."

The boy's eyes widened in appreciation.  "Ooh, you've got the real thing, then," he grinned.  Apparently Robert's mild reply had reassured him.

"Not according to the people who still live there."  He wondered if an Americanized British accent was being added to the boy's repertoire.  "Is Ms. Johnson's office far?"

"No, it's just over a few hallways."  The Bronx was shading into something closer to the playing fields of Eton.  "But I have the best ear for Japanese in the place, which came in handy the other day when we were dealing with a new international operator in Kyoto.  Ms. Johnson's office is right up here.  Her secretary's name is Lois."  By this time, Sammy could have passed for any young relative of Robert's who had spent his life shuttling back and forth across the Atlantic.

"Thank you, Sammy."

"Lois," Sammy said, going up to the young blonde at the desk, "this is Mr. McCall to see Ms. Johnson."

"Thank you, Sammy.  Hello, Mr. McCall, I'll tell Ms. Johnson you're here."  She picked up her phone.

"Thank you.  Domo arigato, Sammy-san.  Konnichi wa."  Robert bowed to the appropriate angle.

Sammy returned the bow immediately, to the appropriate angle of a youth to an older man.  "Konnichi wa, McCall-san."  His accent would have passed without comment on any street in Japan.  He straightened, grinned, and left.

Lois smiled as she hung up the phone.  "He's a chameleon, that boy.  Ms. Johnson will be right out."

"Thank you."  Nerves twisted his stomach.  He was used to being in the position of power in confrontations.  He despised being the supplicant.  But too much was at stake to let his natural emotional reticence have control.

Suzy came around a corner and paused to look at him suspiciously.  Robert blinked a moment.  He'd never seen her in full lawyer regalia.  Her hair was pulled back, tasteful gold earrings lurked on her earlobes, and she wore an expensive gray suit.  She looked like she belonged in this very exclusive company.

"Come into my office," she finally said.  She turned away before he saw the uneasy hope in her eyes.  She couldn't, in honor, go out of her way to interfere in Ann's relationship, but she could sure hint hard if some silly man had finally got his act together.

Robert decided to take any unpleasantness as his just due, since it was his cowardice that had precipitated the whole problem.

Suzy's office matched the understated elegance of her business ward  robe.  She didn't rate a window yet, but the painting on her wall was an original oil landscape from the Hudson River Valley School.  She gestured him into a chair, sat down behind her desk, clasped her hands on her desktop, and looked at him seriously.  "What can I do for you?"

"You can tell me what's wrong with Ann."

"I don't think I should."

"Why not?"

"You left," she said bluntly.  "You disavowed any further interest in what happens to her."

"Yes, I left," he admitted, "but I told her that if she ever needed my help she could call me."

"And did you really think she would?  A clean break was best."  She decided to drop a small bomb to make sure of what she thought she was seeing.  "In fact, she's thinking of selling her house and leaving town."

"But she loves that house!"

His outrage reassured her.  "True enough.  But she thinks it would be best to not be where certain people can find her."

"Like me?" he asked bleakly.

"No."  Suzy's first loyalty was to Ann, but she couldn't let a man she considered a friend sit there with that kind of pain.  She felt a chill as his relief was quickly followed by thoughtfulness, then the beginnings of that hard, dangerous edge she'd caught glimpses of.

"Who, then?" he asked quietly.

"I can't tell you."

"Can't or won't?"  He nodded at her hesitation.  "But you do know."

Suzy sighed and gave in a little.  She needed someone to talk to, as well.  "Not all of her scars are visible.  And some I thought were healed only had a very thin scab on them."

"New scars or old?"

"Both."

"Who hurt her, Suzy?" he asked quietly.  She wouldn't meet his eyes.  "Suzy, what's happened to her?"

"I promised I wouldn't tell anyone."

"Then tell me why she won't talk to me.  I saw her today, she ran from me."

"I know," she said, answering the pain in his voice.  "She called me, in tears."  She made a quick decision as to which side she was on.  "Robert, if you keep pushing her she'll only run."

He grimaced.  "And when I left her alone she went into hiding.  Is what happened really so awful that she can't bear to see me?  Not even to apologize to her for how much I hurt her?"

Suzy blinked.  "She doesn't want your apologies if all you're going to do is give her some noble clap-trap and leave again."

"I can't ask for a second chance until she forgives me for being a fool," he answered softly.

She sat back and brought her hands to her mouth, mostly to hide the triumphant smile.  She'd thought so, but Ann had been in no condition to hear it.  Her smile faded as she thought of her sister's terror.  "I don't think she can bear to see you," she said thoughtfully.  She felt a start of fear at the look on his face.

"That bad, then," he said softly.  "And you say you know who's done this to her.  I want a name, Suzy."

"Robert, I can't tell you, I promised."

"Is it a police matter?"  She bit her lip uncertainly.  "She won't let anyone help her, is that it?  The only thing she can think to do is run?"

Suzy had never felt afraid of Robert before, even though Ann had told her a few well-edited tales of things he'd done, including the precipitating matter of Pietro Sandahl.  But now that she stood in his way, that fearsome intensity was pointed at her, complete with the hints of threats of what he might do to get his way.

"She's scared," she managed to say in a shaky voice.  "I've tried to talk her out of it, told her to talk to you, but she won't.  She just wants to go away and not deal with it anymore.  And if she runs she won't stop," she added, finally admitting her own fear.

Robert resisted the urge to shout, but his frustration was threatening to boil over.  "Is she in any actual danger?"

"She shouldn't be, but..."

"Suzy, you have to help me get to her.  I must talk to her."

"Yell at her and she'll break in a million pieces."

He sighed.  "I don't want to yell at her, I want to help her."

Suzy debated with herself, weighing her fears against her promises.  "Is that all you want to do?"

"No," he said softly, but he was reluctant to go into detail until he knew where she stood.

She thought about her dearest friend in the world, hiding away and cringing when the phone rang, and of this man who so desperately wanted to protect his woman and make amends.  How could any lover of romance remain unswayed?

"The Refugees are playing the Whale tomorrow night," she told him.  "I talked her into going with me.  Leave her alone until then."

He smiled for the first time, finally finding an ally.  "Thank you."

"I can't promise anything," she added quickly.  "I don't want her to think she can't trust me, she needs somebody to talk to.  You're on your own."

"All I ask is a chance for her to listen to me.  If she truly doesn't want me around..."  Old fear returned.  "I promised myself I'd go quietly," he finished bleakly.

"I can't offer you any certain hope," she told him, wanting to reassure him but not sure she could.  "She's badly spooked."

"Just a chance.  Tomorrow night?"

"Tomorrow night.  Don't tell me what you plan."

"That's all right, I don't know myself."

 

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