Rose giggled demurely at Jim’s anecdote, although Jim knew he didn’t do the amusing story justice. Jim’s partner, Aremus Gordon, was the storyteller - a weaver of words who could make even the most mundane mesmerizing. But Rose laughed anyway, despite Jim’s clumsy telling. Jim expected nothing less. He was well aware of the effect his looks and physique had on women. Jim figured he could make Rose pretty much stand on her head if he smiled her just right.
The thought brought him little pleasure, despite the fact that Rose was a beauty in her own right and would be an admirable conquest. She was put together as fashion demanded, with blue eyes that sparkled from a china doll face and golden curls that cascaded over her delicate shoulders, perfectly set off by the cerulean silk of her dress. Jim may be perverse but he wasn’t blind. He did find her attractive. But then again, James West found almost every woman attractive.
Jim had discovered years ago that each female had their own particular charm, just as each one did their best to earn his attentions. From the dimpled toddler to the age-worn grandmother. And he was happy to oblige - at least momentarily. He’d provide a compliment, a kiss on the hand, engage in a graceful gavotte. He wasn’t even above bestowing a bump against a thigh in a crowded carriage. It was all so easy to make them blush.
It was a harmless diversion more than anything else.
What was difficult was for a woman - especially one as predictable as Rose - to maintain Jim’s interest. A bare-knuckled fight with muscle-bound brawler was simple in comparison. A quick feint, a hard jab in the right place and the encounter was quickly over. Listening to Rose’s banal conversation throughout a drawn out, four course meal, however, was agony. A slow kind of death.
Ordinarily, Artie would have accompanied Jim on an evening such as this, but Artie’s own designated companion had taken a nasty spill from a horse earlier that day and was nursing a twisted ankle. Artie had sent a bouquet of flowers to cheer the young lady and accepted the prospect of a quiet evening at home with grace. In truth, Jim was the one who was the more disappointed.
“Go along, James my boy,” Artied urged affably when Jim would have begged off. “I’m sure you’ll have a perfectly lovely evening without me. Rose seems like a charming companion. And her father, the general will be pleased to have you accompany her to dinner. Besides,” he’d added with a teasing wink, “this could be The One. You’re not getting any younger, you know.”
Ah yes, another high-placed official hoping to secure a match for a daughter - or sister - or niece - with the illustrious, yet infamously unattached, Secret Service Agent. What would it take to win Jim West’s enigmatic affections?
Jim might have pointed out that Artie wasn’t getting any younger either, but he didn’t. Despite the fact that Artie was Jim’s senior by several years, their shared joke that Jim’s future was the one hanging in the balance, by some undefinable logic.
Throughout the meal, Jim had taken in every detail of his dining partner, an occupational hazard. He saw how straight Rose sat, how tiny were the morsels she brought to her lips, as she was undoubtedly taught at some Eastern finishing school. She could probably embroider a handkerchief beautifully and host a soiree that would be the talk of the town. Yes, he concluded, Rose would make any ambitious man a fine wife.
But James West wasn’t just any man. While the general’s daughter admired his exterior perfection, Jim wondered what she would think if she knew the shadows on his soul? It wasn’t just his skill that made him a highly sought-after government agent, the fact was, he actually relished the danger of the job.
Only Artie understood that Jim didn’t fear death - he chased it. He longed to spit in the face of the Specter that had cursed him with the looks of a god that stopped everyone from being more interested in what was underneath. That stopped him from being content with what would satisfy other men.
Now, sitting across from the lovely Rose, it was Artie’s company that Jim sorely missed. Artie’s absence - along with his ability to fill in the lapses in conversation - was growing glaringly obvious. Jim had run out of appropriate anecdotes after the oyster soup, and by the time the raspberry tartlets were served by the black-coated waiter, he was eager to escape Rose’s heavy perfume and feminine wiles, the way he’d so often slipped the clutches of Dr. Loveless.
What would Rose do if she knew that, at just that moment, all Jim wanted was to retreat to the comfortable confines of the train car he shared with Artie. Where he could enjoy a glass of sherry - or something stronger - with Artie and engage in stimulating conversation. He thought of how Artie would play him a violin concerto or Jim might show off the latest jiu jitsu element he’d worked out. Artie would give the move an honest effort but wouldn’t quite manage its intricacies the way Jim could, just as Jim could never possibly hope to play the violin as exquisitely as Artie.
In the shade cast by Jim’s charisma, Artie was often overlooked. Only Jim knew Artie had a thousand hidden talents. With a mind was a quick as Jim’s fists, Artemus Gordon was the one he depended on to stage a last minute rescue in his own inimitable way, then let Jim walk away with all the glory. Artie somehow understood that Jim needed the accolades to reassure himself he was more than a mere mirage.
Could Rose ever look beyond the perfection of Jim’s own exterior to the man underneath or did she merely aspire to create a matched set of bookends? Did she care to engage his mind the way his profession pushed his body? Might they still have something to talk about at night when the illusion of their lives faded away? In order to endure, Rose must realize that while James West was the hero who’d vanquished countless villains, it was his soul that needed saving.
The truth of it stopped Jim cold, causing him to set down his fork with a heavy clink. While Jim provoked death thousand different ways, Artie had a thousand and one ways to rescue him. To save him from himself. It made Jim wonder what Artie cared more about -- the assignment, or Jim’s sanity.
There were no two ways about it - Artie was his touchstone in a world gone mad.
Jim pictured Artie stretched out the velvet settee, a crystal glass listing from his fingers. He knew that Artie’s nose would be in a book or the latest installment of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea in the original French.
Someday he and Artie’s assignment would end and they’d go their separate ways. Of course they would. Artie would find himself on a stage or in a concert hall, perhaps even writing poetry or designing experiments in a chemist’s lab. But without Artie, what would happen to Jim?
The thought cut like a dull-edged blade.
Jim blinked the vision away and forced his focus to return to Rose. He wasn’t getting any younger - Artie had said so himself. And neither was Artie. How much longer could he expect Artie to be his saving grace? Jim owed it to all concerned to give Rose another chance.
“I hear Frederick Douglass was in town for a lecture here last month,” Jim blurted out in a rush that sounded uncharacteristically desperate to his ears.
Rose stopped mid bite, her fork balanced in her dainty in her fingers. “Who?” She asked politely, yet with obvious confusion.
References to politics were usually considered taboo on occasions such as this, but Jim thought perhaps Mr. Douglass, with his support of the women’s suffrage movement. might be of particular interest to Rose. Besides, anything was better than another discussion of the weather and how the mud in the streets ruined one’s shoes.
The blank look that had come over Rose’s face let Jim know he right as well have asked her if she ever thought about traveling to the moon.
“Frederick Douglass - the former slave who lectures and writes about civil rights?” Jim prodded. “He’s a fascinating man.”
Rose’s confused expression melted into syrupy sweet smile. “As far as I’m concerned, the most fascinating man is right here with me now,” Rose oozed and batted eyelashes that framed her eyes.
Jim paused for the smallest fraction of a second, then forced a smile on his lips, a twinkle in his eye. “I’m flattered,” he said, exactly the way she’d wanted. He didn’t bother to correct her mistake. The truly fascinating man was ensconced in a train car on the outskirts of town.
When Jim walked in the door of their car hours later, he saw Artie just as he had pictured him throughout dinner. A vision of repose and contentment, his stockinged feet propped up. A glass of brandy listed in his hand as he read from a leather-bound tome.
“How’d it go?” Artie greeted him.
Jim tossed his jacket on a nearby chair and loosened his tie. “Rose is a beautiful woman, but …”
Artie smiled at him indulgently as he closed the book and sat upright. “But she’s not ‘The One,’ he supplied.
“No,” Jim replied.
Artie sighed. He moved to pour Jim a drink from the nearby decanter. “James, my boy,” he said with a smile, “we might just end up growing old together.”
Jim clinked the rim of his glass to Artie’s. “I don’t mind if you don’t.”
Funny how Artie could seem equally at home cavorting on a stage or engrossed in a game of solitaire, while Jim only felt at home when he was with Artie, Jim realized. He’d saved him from a fate worse than death once again.