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For such a complicated matter, it really all started with a drink and a little conversation between old friends.

It was one of the more elite of the private clubs in London, and within that club, one of the most quietly sought-after gathering rooms - one equipped with not only a well-stocked bar and velvet-footed attendants, but also several discreetly-curtained alcoves, each with a small table and comfortable tufted seating for those who preferred a greater level of privacy than the chairs and tables in the main room might provide. Which was saying a great deal, since privacy abounded even in that more open area, as one might expect in such an establishment.

Oh, the silent, patient waiters with their leather-bound menus, the smoke-boys with their selection of cigars and tobacco, along with the tidying-up-lads with their pert caps and tiny covered pans and whisk brooms to gather stray ashes and crumbs, they were stationed around the room at convenient intervals, but they were exquisitely-trained to their jobs - they were there, yet not there - would 'hear' even a raised brow summoning them, yet not 'hear' a shout that was not intended for their consumption. Such an unusual talent, yet talent that was invaluable, even a requirement, in an establishment of this sort.

Ah, to be a mouse, that one might truly hear all those conversations! One would have gained an unusually wide education as to human behavior, desires and motivations if one could only have listened in.

For example -

In one such velvet-draped alcove sat George Kildare and his old friend, indeed his university roommate, Sir Breton Kilpatrick. They had always found the simplistic manner in which the head office assigned roommates, ie by alphabet, both amusing and quite fortuitous, since they had formed a close friendship almost from the moment they met.

Kildare had studied literature and philosophy; Kilpatrick, literature and mathematics. Both had sought out extra classes in philosophy, especially those broaching the newer aspect known as psychology. They had combined those interests (and others) to their mutual benefit, setting up and running the most successful set of enterprises two young men at their university had ever managed.

Together they had run dice games, card games, sponsored a discreet brothel with an amazingly-varied table of offerings, marketed term papers and supplied the answers to various exams, and ran a sedate but firmly-disciplined loansharking operation. Their 'clientele' included not just their fellow students, but faculty and even some alumni of the prestigious house of education at which they, like their fathers and grandfathers before them, found themselves welcome additions. That they managed to effectively conceal their identities as the ones in control of those widely-flung enterprises pointed to their innate talents and determination, as well as their loyalty to each other and their dedication to their businesses.

They found themselves in accord on any number of subjects, and maintained their friendship after they left university, far more heavy in the pocket than most young men even from their exalted social strata, and equally heavy in an education their university did NOT offer diplomas in - assessing the vulnerabilities and weaknesses of their fellow men, as well as their strengths, of course, and the opportunities afforded by such.

The two had enjoyed many a private conversation over the years, encompassing a great variety of subjects, though perhaps none quite so unusual as the one just initiated by the slightly older of the two. Well, perhaps for them, with their background, it wasn't all THAT unusual. Many of their previous endeavors had begin with that same, simple "has it ever occurred to you. . .?". The gambling enterprises, the high-interest loans, the brothel, all the rest - all had had such a beginning.

"Has it ever occurred to you, George, why the so-called 'great crime syndicates' have, after such a promising start, each failed in their promise to become truly great? Have failed to sustain their structure, their growth, their power? I have given it much thought. I've made quite a study of it, in fact, in recent weeks."

Of all the things George Kildare had thought might come up in the friendly meeting with his old friend Breton Kilpatrick, 'great crime syndicates, their rise and fall', hadn't been on the hypothetical list. Still, they'd had odder discussions, those two scholarly, well-placed and quite wealthy men of middle years.

"No, Breton, tell me," he said in an indulgent tone as he poured them another snifter of excellent brandy.

"Expertise and management, my dear boy. And not at just the top levels, but at each and every level of the operation. Oh, most had their experts, well enough, their skilled craftsmen. But none took the necessary step of making sure EVERY level was managed effectively, had the proper skills and proper leadership. All, of course, reporting to an ever-upward level of the hierarchy.

"That's one thing I've thought a great deal about, especially with all these German Fifth Columnists cells that keep popping up. While I deplore their motives, of course, as any patriot must, still their organization is most noteworthy. Efficiency, expertise, organization, each level both separate from, yet firmly connected to the one directly above and the one immediately below. It really is a remarkable thing to consider."

"WHAT is?" George had rather lost track of the connection between crime syndicates and Fifth Columnist cells, being busy mulling over the origin of that slight hint of dark chocolate in the brandy {"most unusual! Could it be black cherry that has somehow aged into something more different than usual? I must see if I can get a bottle or two laid aside for me."}

"Why, just think what you could do with that sort of a structure, that sort of an insistence on expertise, but with the emphasis on not only information and profit but also control of supply and demand for the less - um - legal, less socially-approved commodities? Careful selection of potential consumers. Equally careful selection of the necesary workforce to handle the day-to-day operations. I really see no limit to the potential, George."

George pondered the matter for a few minutes, then nodded.

"Yes, much as we did ourselves. I can see it working. However, locating and developing such expertise, that might be a difficulty, especially on the scale required. Have you any thoughts there?" he said casually, reaching for his cigar cutter.

For him, it was just one more of the interesting discussions he and his friend had toyed with, though he admitted there was something intriguing about the whole notion. Actually, he was happy to consider ANYTHING other than the war and his businesses and his domestic situation. Anything to alleviate his evergrowing ennui. And he was accustomed to Breton coming up with some very interesting, eventually very profitable notions. Man just seemed to have a knack.

Frankly, George Kildare was finding things MORE than a trifle boring. His companies were running smoothly, his investments prospering in spite of (some, BECAUSE of) the war.

His wife, Henrietta - beautiful, aloof, intelligent, politically-inclined - handled the domestic and social scene without flaw, and while she knew about his mistress on Beamore Place, never quibbled at the time, attention or anything else he elected to bestow in that direction.

His mistress, known only as 'Satin', was beautiful, willing, and highly-talented in the erotic arts. She was also agoraphobic, and steadfastly refused to leave the small house he'd purchased for her, so she could devote all her time to grooming herself and pleasing him, being available whenever he showed up. Adding to that, she was a mute, and supremely uncurious about his activities when not with her, even perhaps rather dim-witted. In fact, she was, to his mind, the perfect female companion, the perfect foil to his wife, who tended to make him feel rather inferior, even ineffectual, (though he would never have admitted that to anyone, especially Breton Kilpatrick).

"I had a visit from my nephew, Christopher, last week. You know he is involved in all sorts of odd things; he's likely to end up getting his head blown off, in my opinion, but you know the young. Think they're indestructible," Kilpatrick grumbled.

George laughed indulgently.

"Yes, well, WE certainly did. Remember that race and the wager, right before we left university? From London to Edinburgh, fastest time with fewest horses lost. I almost had my teeth knocked out by that bruiser in that village pub when he mistook my urgent gesturing for a beer as an overture to his doxie, and you came in ten minutes ahead of Dillon and then almost drowned in the horse trough before you could collect your winnings!"

They laughed together over that shared memory, then Kilpatrick continued.

"Well, Christopher has made a few contacts with the more secret-doings chaps, and he couldn't stop talking about the latest group. Can't imagine what the military was thinking, setting all that up in the first place, but while he was laughing and telling me all they managed, all they got up to, it occurred to me THEY might be a perfect start, a core, you might say, to the sort of operation I was thinking about."

"A military unit? I dare say they'd not be interested, Breton, even if they DO have the level of skill you seem to think they have. Though that in itself seems a trifle odd, you know. Hardly the sort of thing a soldier would have knowledge of, not if I'm understanding you right. Are you sure he wasn't having you on?"

"No, he was quite sincere. Well, you've met Christopher; not a deceptive bone in his body, poor boy. Can't see how he manages, really. Takes after his father's side of the family, obviously."

They shared a congenial sigh at the lack of native talent young Christopher exhibited.

"This is quite an unusual group, George. They seem to be known as Garrison's Gorillas. A military officer leads them, of course, a Lieutenant Craig Garrison - trained them, formed them into a team - but the men themselves? Four convicts - a con man of remarkable international reputation, a safecracker said to be unequalled, a pickpocket cum second-story man of similar skill level, and one man of a more violent and unswerving nature - driver, knife expert, tracker. And there is someone else, perhaps already aligned with them, perhaps not, but still someone well known to them - a young woman. She supposedly has exceptional skills in reconnaissance and such, also considerable skill of the more violent sort. Said to have ice water in her veins instead of blood, and perhaps not as in step with the military as they might think - is what they call a Contract Agent, a mercenary. She could be quite useful."

"Hmmm, yes, that does sound interesting. But four men and a woman, however talented, do not make an organization. Still, it is most likely those know innumerable others, and those others . . . . Yes, I can see the possibilities."

Kildare pondered, then brought up the most obvious obstacle he could see in the notion.

"But the officer, this Garrison, do you think he would be willing to lend his efforts, join such an operation as you are describing?"

Breton Kilpatrick had considered that, but reluctantly shook his head.

"I rather doubt that. Oh, he would be a wonderful addition if he WERE willing. He is young, energetic, highly intelligent, has a certain reputation for efficiency and effectiveness, and as you know, those are two quite different things! However, his reputation elsewise is more shaded, at least as far as our purposes, and I have been unable to come up with a definitive conclusion. There are several schools of thought regarding Lieutenant Craig Garrison, running the gamut from naive fool being taken in by his charges to someone finding any number of ways to profit from their operations. However, the narrow middle ground claims, and most staunchly, that he is as honest a man as could be, upright and unlikely to be swayed from the narrow path. Hardly someone useful to us, except as a temporary dupe."

"Then . . ?" George Kildare questioned.

Kilpatrick smiled a shark's smile. "The beauty of it is, Lieutenant Garrison is so VERY efficient, he has thoroughly trained his second-in-command, the con man I spoke of, to lead in his absence. HE, this 'Actor', as he is known, I have no doubt but he would be most willing to consider such an endeavor. And with him to lead, I think gaining the involvement of the other men would be quite simple. And once we have the men well in line, the woman should be easy enough, I would think."

"Hmmmm. I must say, it is an intriguing idea, my friend, most intriguing. If only in theory, of course," Kildare added quickly, realizing the waiter had reappeared, offering the late-supper menus. Oh, caution was probably not necessary; Charles had been with the club forever, as had his father before him. But still, it might be awkward if anyone should get the wrong idea. It wasn't like they were seriously CONSIDERING such a thing. Why, the very idea! He smirked, remembering all the two of them had been involved in, things that NO ONE would have ever dreamed even possible, not for two men of their status and repute!

Waiting until Charles had left, their orders to be conveyed to the kitchen, Kildare waited, took another judicious sip from his glass, then asked, "and have you considered how to approach him, this 'Actor'?"

"Cautiously, of course. And we would have to start with some heavy controls in place, at least until we know they are totally in accordance with the plan. A little coercion might be necessary for the others, but for Actor? I think some artful persuasion, making it all well-worth his time and effort financially, a genuine showing of respect for his abilities, and being quite clear what his eventual position would be. He very much thinks himself a 'gentleman', if not higher; could easily pass for such, certainly. Yes, I think we can bring him around to our way of thinking quite nicely."

And in the kitchen, after repeating that order flawlessly from memory, just as his father had taught him, Charles hesitated, then, taking advantage of his position as Shift Supervisor, grabbed a glass of wine from the tray being readied for the party above and made his way to the small office behind the kitchens. Carefully closing the door behind him, he dialed a number he knew by heart, getting the person he asked for without question.

"Michel, I think there is something you might need to be aware of. No, not over the phone; later tonight."

Setting a time to meet, he carefully hung up the phone and drained the glass and hurried back to the kitchen. Yes, that call was a little outside his normal duties; might even be frowned on by the membership, even the club management itself.

He admitted ruefully to himself there really wasn't any 'might' about it! Certainly it would have been frowned most heartily upon by the two whose conversation he had overheard. Still, a man had a broader duty, sometimes - particularly in war time - and though it sometimes made for uncomfortable choices, still, there it was. And the man on the other end of that phone call knew that, had made similar uncomfortable choices.

And so, into the ever-growing swirl of plans being made by George Kildare and Sir Breton Kilpatrick was thrust a monkey-wrench, in the combined form of Henri Michel Marchant, proprietor of Hotel Marchant, and Charles Jean Evers - old friends, old companions, devoted lovers, and much more.

*
A note delivered by unseen hand, a request for a discreet meeting, and Actor was soon finding an excuse to make a trip to London. He smiled in satisfaction at the surroundings he found himself in, a private club where the doorman bowed and welcomed him with great respect when Actor extended the card that have been enclosed with the note. Oh, it was perhaps a bit stuffy and old hat, that private club, but then, if anyone appreciated stuffy and old hat, it was he. After all, both of those things often went hand and glove with sophistication, learning, wealth, elegant surroundings and even more elegant people - what wasn't there to like and appreciate about any of those things? Oh, he was sure his teammates could come up with a considerable list of things, particularly Casino, but he tended to discount most of what they said anyway. And there was no certainty that he would ever tell them about this meeting; there was every probability that nothing would come of it, nothing that would involve them.

He was greeted with a polite reserve, as was appropriate between individuals unknown to each other, yet any coolness quickly thawed. Surely these were men of a like mind, men with whom he had a great deal in common. Oh, perhaps he might not bear the titles or prospective titles that they did, but in much else, yes, there was considerable common ground, and they seemed to sense it as well, treated him much as an equal.

And the idea they put before him, the opportunity - ah, that had much to say for it, spoke to his own talents, his own notions of how to best make this world serve his needs, his ambitions. Yes, he could see them coming to some accord.

It was unfortunate, of course, that he was committed elsewhere - to Craig Garrison and the team and the war effort. Still, what harm could it do to at least give it some consideration? In fact, did he not have a duty to consider ALL the implications, ALL the possibilities? Surely Craig would expect that of him, expect him to be aware of any danger to the team, even to the populace. Yes, indeed, he MUST surely listen, garner all the information he could, give the idea all the proper consideration.

He left the meeting with a thoughtful look on his face. The men in the small alcove were equally thoughtful.

"Yes, I do believe you were right; he is ideal for the position. And I believe he is as interested in us as we are in him."

 

After a great deal of thought on the trip back, Actor broached the subject with his team mates.

The reaction? Well, he was not sure it was what he expected, but then, he was really not sure what he HAD expected. Perhaps a cautious interest? It was something ideally suited to their talents, after all. The military had certainly not gone out of its way to endear itself to them. The constant possibility of injury and death did pall after awhile. They would have the opportunity to continue to work together - at least, in the beginning.

Still, just as there had been with him, there was hesitation. No, there wasn't hesitation, not if he were being honest with himself - there was a quick rejection, at least of taking up the offer in earnest. Perhaps a little tinge of regret, for it really was ideally suited, but still, there had been no real hesitation. Frankly, that DID surprise him.

{"And myself? Am I REALLY giving this serious consideration? I am not really sure, not after seeing their reaction. Somehow I had expected them to feel - well, I am not sure what, but I did NOT expect them to start thinking of it from Craig's point of view, as a possible 'mission'. Did NOT anticipate them thinking the only possible real objective for me to even bring this to the table would be for the taking down of such a promising enterprise. Perhaps we all HAVE been working with the lieutenant too long - or at least they have. Or maybe they are just more impressionable, or less able to think objectively. Yes, that is probably it - they just do not have the education, the mental capacity to consider the matter objectively and rationally, from a logical viewpoint."}. If that reasoning left him uncomfortable, considering he trusted these men to have his back when on a mission, he tried to ignore it. He certainly made a point of ignoring any doubts he might have as to HIS understanding of the matter.

"You're gonna talk to the Lieutenant, right, mate? Don't want 'im to be finding out any of this on 'is own," Goniff warned. "We go 'aring off somew'ere, 'e's gonna be pissed. Sides, w'at do you want us to be doing about it? Aint our job, putting a crimp in some toffs wanting to become a mob boss, is it? Not less the Lieutenant says so."

Obviously the Cockney discounted any possibility of the team joining in for real, only as a con. Chief agreed, but watching Actor's dark eyes, that suave smile, wasn't so sure about the con man; he wondered what Actor was intending, really.

Casino was, as usual, looking on the dark side. "Gonna get our heads handed to us, one way or another. Shit! It goes right, it goes wrong - either way, just asking to get shipped back, Beautiful!"

To any casual observer, of which there were none, admittedly, Actor was coolly reassuring, Casino bluntly dismissive. Chief was blank-faced, pretty much the norm, and Goniff was visibly worried. Yeah, pretty much the norm all around.

Later, when they were alone, Goniff finally approached Chief with what kept swimming around in his mind.

"Ei, Chiefy. You don't think Actor would, well, you know, really DO something like that. Do you?"

The younger man was silent, then looked into those hopeful, worried blue eyes.

"Nah, pretty sure he'll just con them, like he does everyone else."

"Except us, right, Chiefy? He wouldn't con us, would he? And not the Lieutenant, not for real? Not about something like this!?"

Yes, Goniff was desperate for some reassurance, something that would override that feeling of impending disaster deep inside. He would have been happier if Chief had answered more quickly, hadn't been silent for that long, but still he didn't really want any casual, off-the-cuff answer either, and Chief usually leveled with him. They had a good relationship that way, less of the posturing than what went on with the others.

FInally Chief sighed, hating to admit it, but having some doubts himself.

"Thing is, it's gotta be real tempting, you know? Sounds like they talked him up just like he'd like, making him feel real good about himself, making him maybe think they look on him like he's one of them. You know, one of what you call the 'toffs'; could see him really going for that. Best con to run on him, you really think on it. Always figure the easiest to con is another con man; they all think they're too smart so they aint as careful. And can see him handling a job like that, no question. But, no, I don't THINK he'll turn on us, on the Warden. Still, won't do no harm to keep an eye open, maybe give him a nudge if it looks like he's thinking about going a little too far. Only makes sense. Sometimes a man needs a friend to give him a good hard shove, get him back in line before he does something real stupid."

Well, the others had done that for him a time or two, Garrison and Meghada right along with them, just like they'd done for Goniff. And could they even count the times for Casino!

Goniff nodded in relief, happy he wasn't the only one going to be keeping watch.

"We gonna bring Casino in on this?"

"Oh, yeah. Pappy's got just as much to lose as the rest of us, and he might see something we don't, get the chance to get in a word if we're not around. You and me, well, Pappy's got more learnin' than either of us and with Actor, that counts when he's deciding who to listen to. Not that he's likely to be listening too good to Pappy either, but probably better than us," he admitted.

"W'at about the Warden? We gonna tell 'im? Blimey, Chiefy, we GOTTA tell 'im! Can't just go off somew'ere doing something like this without 'im knowing we don't really mean it! Even if we DON'T go off, still, you know 'ow things get around; gonna be right pissed we keep 'im in the dark about something this big!"

Whether it was 'the Warden', 'the Lieutenant', as it was at the Mansion or on the job, or simply 'Craig', as it was at the Cottage, there was no way Goniff could see leaving the man in the dark. Well, only made sense. If they got in over their heads and it all went to hell, it was the young officer who'd catch it in the neck, and Goniff would go to any lengths to be sure that didn't happen.

"I know. We'll talk to Actor and Casino, figure it out, who levels with him. For all we know, this could be some trick from Kingston or one of the others who hate our guts, trying to get us tossed back in the slam. Don't intend to have that happen, not for someone playing games with us. Don't intend for it to happen just cause Actor decides to move up a rung or two, neither," Chief admitted.

And with that Goniff was, if not totally satisfied, at least a lot more so than before. He'd be even more satisfied, more comfortable in his mind, once he talked to at least one other person, a certain redhead who usually saw things a lot more clearly than most, even if her response was sometimes a little off from what you might expect. He found that didn't bother him nearly as much as you'd think, even when she surprised him sometimes with the direction she went.

This time, though, considering the phone call she'd just received, her response was just what he would have hoped for. Yes, Garrison had to know - know what Actor had told all of them, what Goniff and Chief maybe had a few extra concerns about, and about what a friend in London had just related.

 

"You said you had something private you needed to speak with me about?" Garrison asked, wondering why the request had come by a note slipped to him by Old Howie, not a simple phone call from the Cottage up to the Mansion. He had the feeling it wasn't personal, nothing about them- him, Goniff, Meghada - not from the way Meghada had taken his cap, placed it firmly on the wall hook set aside for that purpose. Well, if it had been personal, that cap would have been deposited into the basket beside the door. On the hook meant it was business. That was the routine, and one that saved a great deal of wondering and angst over time after a few early misunderstandings.

"Well, not so much myself, but a friend. He's waiting in the library," Meghada admitted. "There is something you need to hear from him, and then, something else to be added, from another source. I truly think you need to listen, Craig."

She turned, "Henri?" and the hotelier, owner of Hotel Marchant, made his careful way into the kitchen and took a chair. The look on his face clearly implied this was not a pleasure call.

Garrison was adamant that the information was wrong, just had to be, but Henri Marchant was equally sure it was correct.

"Or at least, that what was overheard was reported to me in total accuracy. Just how serious the intentions are? That neither he nor I can know, but it seemed something you should be aware of, Lieutenant."

"A crime syndicate? A mob? With Actor as, what? The organizer?? The 'boss'?"

"Oh, not that. There are already two of those, old friends, not of mine, you understand, but of each other. Members of the Club where my informant is employed. No matter how sophisticated your Actor may be, they would hardly consider him a partner, not at this stage, though they might pretend to do so to play to his ego, his self-esteem. But as a principal leader of the 'talents', as it was described, yes, they were most interested there. Jean is quite sure; and yes, you know him, have relied on him previously, though under a different name. In his professional life, he uses his first name 'Charles', and is a senior member of the staff at that club you frequent on occasion, usually in the company of Major Richards."

Yes, that made a difference. While this was a very bizarre turn of events, Charles had been helpful on other occasions, as had Henri numerous times, and Garrison had found them both reliable and trustworthy. If Henri and Charles thought it was worth paying attention to, then Garrison was willing to give it serious consideration.

When Meghada, after Henri had left, disclosed what Goniff had told her, along with his and Chief's concerns, Garrison decided he had to take it seriously, but deciding how to approach Actor was the question.

Luckily, he didn't need to ponder over it too long, since the next day, the con man had approached him.

"Craig, might I have a few minutes? There is something that has come up, something that might prove - well, it is rather difficult to explain, but I have been approached with an offer. For myself, for the men. I think it bears paying attention to, for various reasons."

And, so, while Actor had hesitated to speak with Garrison, his story was not taken with the degree of incredulous disbelief he had anticipated. In fact, if he didn't know quite well to the contrary, he would almost have thought the Lieutenant was already aware.

The subsequent discussion - what would be best, to issue an upfront refusal or to play along to see just how serious the men were, to decide where their responsibilities lay and how far to take matters - that took a goodly amount of time, and each man was completely confident the other was being totally upfront and straightforward about the situation.

That they were equally wrong was perhaps unfortunate.

 

For awhile there was nothing. No further word, no further meetings, and Garrison had just about convinced himself that someone up at HQ had been running a really bizarre test on the guys, though how HQ would have known to involve Charles, and thus Henri, was an uncomfortable question. He thought about going to Kevin Richards, see if he'd heard anything, but decided to postpone that step for the moment.

Actor wasn't so sure it was a test, even an odd game; there had been a very determined, very self-assured air about the men he'd met with. Still, all he could do was wait, wondering when the other shoe was going to drop. Whether he wanted it to, and for what reason, with what outcome - ah, that was something he pondered deep into the night more than once. He was finding himself understanding all the more just how draining Garrison's troubled sleep patterns could be, for his own were just as troubled. {"What do I want to happen? Do I really want to be put in the position of having to make a choice?"}

The others? Well, they shrugged and set it aside; it wasn't as if they didn't have other things to deal with. The blokes at HQ kept coming up with 'little jobs' that turned out to be not so little. Not only that, Doby, the ne'er-do-well village gossip and troublemaker, had been causing more trouble than usual, actually linking young Molly Miller's name with a member of the team, necessitating a little 'meeting' to get him firmly back on his side of the fence (or back in his hole, depending on how you looked at things). They might have their faults, but tampering with the wide-eyed and innocent sixteen-year-old daughter of the local constable, a constable who was agreeable enough to deal with, wasn't something any of them would consider, and neither they, nor young Mollie NOR her parents needed the grief of a lot of loose gossip!

Meghada was gone, trying to track down the odd rumors of a Nazi experimental weapons station in Greenland - luckily, just a rumor, but one which caused her to spend valuable time freezing her tail off, while simultaneously chasing it. She was less than amused with the whole matter, not being particularly fond of cold climates, and determined to find out who had so totally misinterpreted a totally innocent situation.

No, it wasn't HER idea of an ideal place for a honeymoon, but for two scientists enthralled not only with each other, but nearly as much with the 'croonings' of humpback whales, it probably seemed quite attractive, that cabin on the rise overlooking the ocean where the whale pods congregated. She'd heard far more of those sounds, all on tape, from the enthusiastic Milo and Greta Norstrum than she wanted, though keeping a kindly and appreciative smile on her face the whole time. Even her questions, then her farewell was couched in much gentler tones than most would have gotten from her; she actually found them rather sweet, in a myopic, otherworldly way. Yes, she found that reaction somewhat embarrassing for a Dragon, but, well, they really WERE innocents; no sense taking out her annoyance on them for no reason.

She thought whoever it was who'd extrapolated a simple wedding announcement into a Nazi plot might just benefit from a little visit to Greenland themselves! She'd stopped in at the 'Icicle Built For Two', that remote cabin that the Clan maintained in that cold domain, and thought it was high time someone was placed in temporary residence again. The caribou droppings were really starting to pile up. More than time someone started gathering them to use as fuel (the only available fuel) in that small cabin in the middle of nowhere. In fact, she had a few names she just might put into the hat, should the instigator of her wanderings somehow escape her retribution. Yes, she would have to think on that most carefully.

Within a couple of weeks, though, the men, Garrison included, were inclined to shrug off the odd offer as just a wild hare. Surely, if it had been a serious approach, something would have happened by now!

Little did any of them know just how patient Kildare and Kilpatrick really were, how carefully thought out the chain of events the two men had decided was necessary to ensure success.

Well, after all, they did not know, didn't understand, how long the two men had worked together; how much of their success had been dependent on painstaking attention to detail, making sure all the pieces were in precisely the right position before making the next move. Perhaps if they had realized both men were champion-level chess players, they might have had more insight, at least Garrison might have, but they did not know, and so they were lulled into a feeling of complacency.

Then, the stars aligned, and that 'right moment' Kildare and Kilpatrick had been waiting for arrived - a mission that, while successful in the outcome, left Garrison injured and tucked away in a military hospital upon their return, the men not. The men had not wanted to leave the officer alone in the care of the staff there, but had been shooed away, told to make themselves scarce.

Kilpatrick, making good uses of his sources, knew it was time to strike, to gobble up the men up like stray kernels of corn. Them, and once they were in place and starting to settle down, once the O'Donnell woman turned up again, to grab her as well. They had no immediate need for a skilled recon agent, an assassin, true, but a bird in the hand, etc. They knew quite well that opportunity rarely knocked twice, and to ignore that gentle tapping was to be forevermore regretful of that fact.

 

When Garrison came to in hospital, it was to the unwelcome news that his team supposedly had taken a bunk, or something of that sort; he doubted the whole story, to say the least, especially since three different people gave him three DIFFERENT stories, each more outlandish than the one before.

Kingston, in particular, seemed to take a great deal of delight in all the 'I told you so' gloatings he delivered. To quote, "I TOLD you you should have kept them in the stockade, only taken them out for training and for the missions! If you had, they would have been taken into custody immediately after debriefing, once it was clear you were in no condition to deal with them, and you wouldn't be left holding the proverbial bag! If you'd listened to me . . ." and so on and so forth, ad nauseum.

Which was more apt than it might have been, considering the state of Garrison's head and stomach adding to his usual adverse reaction to Major Kingston and his hectoring. The fact that he'd ended up vomiting over the Major's dress shoes had been a mixed event - unbelieveably satisfying in one regard, and - well, to tell the truth, that pretty much told the whole story from Garrison's point of view, no matter HOW he might pretend remorse and embarrassment. Just how many times had he wanted to do exactly that??

Still, a visit from someone wearing doctor's whites, one who seemed indistinguishable from any of the others in the halls of the miliary medical facility except for the smiling and well-known face under that medical mask, provided him with enough information to decide on his next move.

"I said it before, Patrick, I'll say it again! They have to be out of their ever-loving minds! It wouldn't work!"

He groaned, then, held his aching head.

"Hell, you know, it just MIGHT work! Damn! I've got to get out of here!"

He groaned again to think about his wild-card cons mixed up in something like this; at best it could - well, there really WASN'T any 'best', now was there? The last he looked, coercion wasn't considered an excuse for criminal activity, and with the guys' records? Oh, boy!!

Still, Patrick was to be trusted, if anyone was, and so Garrison, with the doctor's help, eased himself carefully into the loaned car and headed back to Brandonshire, to meet with the OTHER wild-card he had to deal with, Patrick's sister, Meghada O'Donnell.

The visit to the Cottage gave him even more reason to wonder what the hell was going on. Even after all that had happened, all Patrick had told him, he just couldn't believe it. Surely no one would really TRY such a ridiculous scheme. It had been weeks now since Henri Marchant had told him of that bizarre conversation, after Actor had told him of that cautious, ever so carefully worded hypothetical approach.

Still, his guys were missing, strange things were happening around London, things that fit all too well with his team's skills, and Meghada? Far from relieving his mind, far from clarifying matters, she merely sent his already-flustered mind into a swirl.

First, the locked gate, the long delay in answering his impatient ringing of the bell, even though he could hear movement inside the Cottage. Then, once he got inside but before he could say a word, that tiny huff of exasperation "really, Craig!" when he took off his cap, she snatched it out of his hand and almost threw it onto one of the hooks on the pantry door. The wild swinging of the cap didn't help his nervous stomach any at all.

"I hope this won't take long; I'd planned on leaving by now!"

Meghada was standoffish, talked vaguely about closing down the place, heading off 'to a place in the mountains the Family uses for times of contemplation. And Jesus, Mary and Joseph! I have plenty to contemplate!"

According to her, the men took off on their own after they came back from that last job, or at least, that's what she was told or had heard, and none of them have contacted HER to say any different.

"And if they don't care enough to let me know what's going on, I'm sure I'm not going to worry about it! I'm not their keeper, you know!"

She was amazingly detached about the whole matter, other than seeming more than a little miffed at being kept out of the loop.

He sat at the table covered in an elegant embroidered lace tablecloth, {"lace and embroidery? Meghada??!"}, noting the pink frilly dress draped across the back of one of the big chairs in the sitting area, {"pink?? When has she ever worn pink, except in that con with Steve Wheeler??"} asked his questions.

He glanced casually at that center arrangement on the table - a round contraption, something she was using as a combination flower frog and candle holder - ivory, perhaps, from what little you could see of it, with lots of slots, some containing a scattered array of small white birthday candles, others an assortment of small thin-stemmed flowers. Wax dripped down, marring the slender divisions visible on the elegant sphere. It was going to take a lot of careful work to scrape all that wax clear from those fragile shards without causing damage.

He drank her coffee, wincing, and asking for cream and sugar. She was stone-faced as she got up and got the sugar bowl and cream pitcher, setting them down in front of him.

He said nothing as he sipped doctored coffee that could have been served at a child's play tea, other than to ask if she had anything to eat, "a sandwich, maybe?"; explaining that he'd come down from London without stopping for a meal.

A slight flicker, perhaps of annoyance, crossed her face, but she got up once again, and in less than a minute he had a sandwich in front of him. That saucer hit the table with a certain crispness that spoke, once again, of annoyance at the request, warning he'd better not have any other requests to make. Doggedly munching his way through two thin slices of dry bread centered with a single slice of unadorned cheese, he nodded as she continued her saga.

Glancing around, he raised one brow as if in inquiry, this time getting a huff, this time certainly of annoyance.

"I haven't anything sweet, Lieutenant, if that's what you are asking about. I've hardly been in the mood for baking. However, there are hazelnuts; those might do for afters, I suppose," and she stood and brought a small bowl and sat back down. He watched as she cracked about a dozen of them, the heavy figure of a dragon in her hand handling the job with the greatest of ease.

"That's quite a nutcracker," he ventured and she gave him an impatient look.

"Well, it was given to me and it only seemed polite to make SOME use of it, however odd it may be."

"Aren't you afraid of damaging it?" knowing just what that statue, the gifter, meant to her.

"Oh, I imagine it's up for hazelnuts; and if a dragon can't crack a few hard nuts, what's a dragon good for?" her eyes meeting his with cool unconcern.

She pushed the cracked nuts onto the empty sandwich saucer and shoved it in front of him impatiently, obviously more than ready for him to be off and gone.

In fact, she even uttered words more or less to that effect - well, at least, a hurried "I really DO have a lot to get done, Craig. I've already wasted enough time - As I said, I'll be gone for awhile. And I'd prefer - well, I won't tell you not to use the place if you need it for the war effort, of course, but I DO ask that you respect that it IS private property. Don't really want anyone slipping around about the place, you know," was her final word as she showed him to the door.

 

A voice came from the room behind her as the clang from the metal garden gate marked Garrison's passing through.

"You did quite well, Miss O'Donnell. I'm pleased, if somewhat surprised. I've heard you're a tricky one; I was expecting some fancy signaling or something. Now, where were we?"

Garrison drove off quickly, stopped at the pub, vanished inside. An even nod to Jake, along with a casual "Jake, I need to talk to you about settling up accounts," had Nellie taking over the bar, and the men both headed to the rear to put in play that 'just in case' plan they'd discussed before. There had been several of those 'just in case' plans, involving various individuals, since Garrison had no real idea which direction movement might be coming from, or what form it might take, who might be available when the moment struck.

While Jake took care of other matters, Garrison took the back way, the way through the adjoining wooded area at double-speed, even more, up and through that concealed entrance. He caught his breath, listened grimly as the intruder finished his 'pleasantries', listened as the jovial voice now urged the woman to hurry.

"Back to business, my dear. I know you are anxious to see them once again, find out how they are faring. Probably best not mention this little interlude; they might not take it so well, of course. Either your meeting with Garrison, or our more, em, 'personal' interactions.

"Frankly, I'd have taken it a bit farther if you'd showed a little more - well, ANYTHING. I'd expected a bit more in the way of enthusiasm or perhaps more resistance. I believe Garrison aroused more emotion when he asked you for a sandwich! You really ARE an Ice Queen, aren't you?

"Well, soon enough we will all have other things on our minds. And I didn't pick you for your kisses OR your coffee-making skills, thank goodness, or I would be severely disappointed on all counts. No, I'll be well content if your professional skills are as well-developed as I've heard. As it is, I foresee a very profitable collaboration, you know. My intelligence and organization, all of you with your talents and contacts. Yes, yes. And now that we have the annoyingly-curious and overly-protective Lieutenant Garrison put in his place and out of my way, we can be on OUR way."

By the time the gate had clanged shut, by the time the hovering car had collected the two, Jake had the pub's truck waiting out of sight around the corner. Garrison dashed to climb up behind the bartender throughly the barely opened door, staying low and out of sight.

"Go, not too close, but don't lose him. He has Meghada with him now, but from what I gathered, he has the guys too, but at a different location. We find her, we find them."

"And then what, Lieutenant," Jake asked. He was willing, but an admitted non-combatant, what with his crippled arm and all.

"I don't have a clue, Jake," Garrison admitted ruefully. "I think we're going to have to play it by ear."

He was getting far too used to having to do that; in fact, was starting to find it a little annoying. Sometimes he wondered if he was getting old, or just tired. Maybe both.

 

She was motioned into the room, careful not to show the deep relief she felt at seeing the four men - alive, seemingly well. Goniff, Chief and Casino were stretched out at their relative-ease on cots. Actor was at a small desk, working on some papers. After a nod in greeting, she turned to the guard who'd brought her there.

"Four cots?" she asked with a total lack of expression. "Where am I to sleep? Or am I?"

The tall man gave a self-satisfied grunt. "Was your choice, miss. Hear the boss gave you an audition for a softer spot to spend your off hours but you didn't make the grade, not for his bed anyhow. Not even as a cook, looks like. Says your coffee tastes like dishwater! So, you're in here with the rest of them til he changes his mind, or you change it for him. He didn't say nothing about a separate cot, so where you sleep's up to you. Or up to them, more than likely."

They didn't react to that, any of that, not after having been given that casual 'play along' signal she'd learned from Garrison. Still, that 'audition' business had connected, they understood, or at least they thought they did, anyway. Though that about not making the grade 'even as a cook' was a stumper, considering what they'd experienced at her table.

Meghada shrugged, coldly indifferent to the implied criticism.

"Business is business, talent is talent, and mine is not in the domestic field. It was his choice; he could have left me alone in the first place; I didn't go looking for a job. He wants an experienced recon agent, an assassin - alright. I'll maybe play along. That's what I'm good at. The rest, not so much. Never had the interest in all that, never developed the skills. He wants to press the matter, what he gets is on him. But him saying my coffee tastes like dishwater, that was a little unfair. He wanted something stronger, he should've asked me to make him a cup of tea instead. I had tea bags in the cupboard; at least, I think I remember getting some for when my auntie visited last year. I don't think tea goes bad, and boil it up long enough it gets strong enough to suit even him, I'd think. Besides, Garrison drank the coffee without bitching about it, didn't he? Couldn't've been all THAT bad."

That was harder to keep from reacting to than the 'audition' comment. Meghada's coffee was typical O'Donnell sisters' brew, strong enough to put hair on your chest AND on the inside of your lungs if you didn't temper it somehow. And it wasn't only Goniff who suppressed a shudder at that comment about boiling tea, in bags yet! to get it strong enough to suit!

{"A con. Somehow, she's running a con, or telling us she RAN one. Maybe. At least telling us she's had recent contact with Craig,"} Actor thought, and a careful flick of his eyes saw the others realized it as well. Well, it might have been the safest way to give them a heads-up, especially with that mention of Garrison; they'd already figured they were being watched, listened to.

So, they'd play along, see where it led them. Hopefully, eventually, it or something else would lead them to a way out of this unbelievable mess they'd found themselves in. That wouldn't be easy, considering the past week and all they'd done, been coerced into doing. And they were each very aware that the law, military or civilian, would not use that coercion as justification or excuse in any degree. And, considering they were getting paid a salary, plus commission, would anyone do anything but laugh at the notion of coercion even entering into the matter? Especially when they could have pretty much just taken off when they were out, though they were generally not all out at the same time on the same job, and any repercussions for running would fall on anyone left behind.

Between that jewelry theft, the various pieces of art now in other hands than their owners', various and sundry other little projects the two men in charge had set them to, they had been kept quite busy over the past week. And Actor had to admit, the results had been highly profitable, both for the two running the show, (though Actor seriously doubted either man needed the money in the least), and for the men with their own remuneration.

Actor, getting the same share as the others, plus a percentage of what was paid each of them, PLUS that extra payment for his 'management' (the latter two payments something he felt his three teammates need know nothing about), was thinking more and more just how profitable this whole operation could be, once it was totally put into place with more skilled workers. {"More workers, more percentages, possibly a higher management fee for greater volume. Yes, quite profitable, indeed!"}

 

"So you failed the audition, kid," Casino offered casually as the guard left. "Sheesh, told you learning all that up-close-and-personal stuff could be useful. Shoulda listened to me."

"No, you told me it would be FUN, Casino," she snorted. "As I remember, "at least with ME, it would be. Hell, nobody better to teach you how it's done!""

The others laughed as her voice, face and overall demeanor switched to a gruff impression of the safecracker, before switching back again.

"Well, I know 'how it's done', Casino. I just thought learning to cook would be a better use of my time, if I must do anything. I thought I would stand a better chance of impressing, should I ever have the need or desire to. Of course, that hasn't worked out so well, either, I have to admit, though I have made an effort. None of you were all that overjoyed with that luncheon I put together. It was a bust - I'll admit it, I just don't have the knack."

"Now, Meghada, you are not THAT bad in the kitchen," Actor offered in a consoling, if not particularly believable, tone of voice. The expression on his face was a reflection of someone with memories of a severe case of indigestion. If she could give them the lead, they all certainly knew how to follow. "That last luncheon was quite acceptable for a beginning effort. I believe with more practice, perhaps a more careful reading of the recipes, perhaps better labeling of the spice bottles, more attention to the clock . . ."

She gave him a dry look, but then ruefully admitted the reality of that luncheon.

"Mrs. Wilson made the bread and sponge cakes. I did whip the cream to spoon over the sponge, though it did turn out more like butter since I got distracted and forgot to stop in time. Oh, well, it went nicely with the bread, and the jam gave the sponge cakes some spark. Rebecka made the casserole for me. Yes, I scorched the top when I was reheating it, though a little extra cheese covered that fairly well - at least til you bit into it, and I AM glad it turned out your tooth wasn't cracked after all, Casino. I DID cut up the greens from the garden and dumped on the dressing - yes, the dressing was a little odd, perhaps, but I still get confused with those 'tsp's and tbsp's and pinches and sprinkles' and all that silliness. Still, I thought it was acceptable, if a little tart, except I still got scolded for forgetting to wash the greens so they wouldn't be so gritty. Nellie gave me the jars of soup and told me how much extra liquid to add. She didn't SAY broth, I thought water would be okay! And four cups she said; so I added four cups. Turns out she meant something totally different from my big coffee cups, 'a measuring cup', which supposedly is a lot smaller - which I don't have and wouldn't know where to find anyway."

She looked more than a little disgruntled at the whole notion.

"Does it all really HAVE to be so complicated? It's just food, for heaven's sake! Something to get you through the rest of the day! Someone should really invent a pill or something - pop one down in the morning and you don't have to bother til the next go-around!"

That got an amused snort from three of the men, an appalled slack-jawed look from Goniff, though thankfully Casino refrained from his intended comment, about how the pill would probably taste a hell of a lot better than her cooking. Probably due to that sharp elbow in the ribs delivered by Chief. There was following her lead, and getting too far out in front for safety, after all!

"So, it took some teamwork, you getting some help with stuff; don't see it matters so much who did what. You got the whole thing on the table, one way or another," Chief proclaimed. "And it wasn't all that bad, not really." On his face you couldn't tell whether that was anywhere near the truth or not, but the looks on the other men's faces gave the impression that it probably wasn't all that close.

She gave him a grateful glance, and then looked with a raised brow at the one who'd said nothing. "What, no encouraging words from you?"

Goniff wrinkled his nose, cocked his head to one side, looking at her doubtfully. It was apparent to any onlooker that he obviously would have preferred to avoid offering any commentary on that meal or her talents or lack thereof, certainly not on the idea of replacing real food with a pill. Still, he couldn't just sit there, not with her expecting an answer, so he did so, as cautiously as he could manage, which really wasn't all so much, it would seem, especially when his enthusiasm for being helpful rapidly started to take over. He wasn't two or three sentences in when that happened, and the others winced in anticipation.

"Well, seems it WOULD be a draw, learning to cook proper, I mean, if you ever DID decide you wanted to find a steady man. Course, know you say that's not to your fancy either, not much seeing the need, but you might decide to someday. And could be you're just shy about it, thinking no one would fancy you. Bet there's some who would, I bet, if you made a little more effort. Even without any of the rest, someone who can put a decent meal on the table, that's someone worth at least a thought or two. Can always get the rest elsewhere, bedsport and such, you know, but a man don't like going out for all 'is meals. And a decent pot of coffee or tea, well, that's more or less expected. Maybe if you invested in one of them 'measuring cups' and maybe a set of them spoons for measuring too, that would 'elp. Think maybe you using the same size of spoon for measuring the coffee all the time, might make w'at comes out a little more, well, the same, you know? Might just find someone who'd think it worth the bargain."

He smiled encouragingly, then lost his smile, even seemed to panic at the thought she might take that as something more, well, personal, on his part than just a bit of friendly advice.

"Not me, mind you, but bet there's SOMEONE who'd maybe be willing," his eyes wide, his voice going up as he hurriedly backed away a couple of steps. "Not me, no, but - well - someone?" he offered with a very weak smile.

"Yeah, kid. Like my mom always said, 'there's someone for everyone, no matter how unlikely it may seem.' Though, I have to admit, with you, it's a little more unlikely than most. I mean, you're okay with the looks, but . . . ". His voice trailed out as the groans from the others grabbed his attention.

"You both really think that is the best way to express yourself to one who makes a profession of, ah, removing annoyances?" Actor asked, shaking his head. "It seems Chief and I are the only ones intelligent enough to know what is best left UNsaid."

Luckily the redhead didn't seem offended, more faintly amused.

"Well, we ever get back to normal, whatever the hell that is, maybe I'll get out the cookbook and try again. Might even lay down the blunt for all that fancy equipment you think I need, the cups and spoons and such. Now," she glanced around the room, bare except for a long set of shelves with folded blankets and a few other sundries, and four cots, the table and chairs, "can anyone spare a blanket? I think that corner has my name on it."

There was argument, but what it came down to, there were no spare cots. Since they wouldn't hear of her sleeping on the floor, and since she refused to take a cot and let one of them take the floor, and since Goniff was the only one who left enough room on the cot to even think about sharing, that's where she ended up.

Frankly, they all enjoyed the wrangling and arguing that let them come up with what really was the only desirable outcome, the one they'd all intended from the beginning. Well, she could have shared with any of them, had there been room, but frankly, it wouldn't have been nearly as comfortable, in any manner of thinking about it.

Actor watched the two settle in, rose and draped an extra blanket over the pair, her on the front edge on her side facing into the room, the pickpocket behind her, the con man chuckling at Goniff's fretful admonishments.

"Don't try and steal the blanket, now, and I 'ope you don't twitch and turn in your sleep. Bad enough being all crowded together like this without any of THAT nonsense keeping me awake! Coo, you don't natter on in your sleep, do you? Can't stand that, you know!"

"Goniff, just go to sleep, alright?" she sighed, closing her eyes and settling in.

A short pause, then a sudden "Blimey, yer feet are cold!!! They ALWAYS like that??! You ever consider wearing socks? 'Ad an aunt, 'er man wouldn't share a bed with 'er unless she wore socks. Feet like ice, 'e always said. Maybe you could . . ."

"Goniff, if I get up to get a pair of socks, it'll be for stuffing in your mouth! Go to sleep!!"

"Was just trying to be 'elpful, you know! No need to be rude about it," he muttered sullenly.

"Complaints, complaints! And you all wonder why I don't want a man around! No matter how obliging a person is, all you hear in return are complaints!" she snarked as she scooched back, moving closer to the warm body in undershorts and tee-shirt tucked in back of her, the curve of his body quickly moving to meet the curve of hers. Under the cover of that blanket, his arms encircled her, pulling her even closer, her arms laying over his in a warm caress.

{"How they are both keeping a straight face, keeping their voices in character, I'll never know! Now, if they just don't forget themselves, this should turn out quite well for us, and for anyone who's watching, listening."}

He knew that, by the time the morning had arrived, Goniff would have any information Meghada had, and vice versa. Well, a whisper not a hair away from a waiting ear, a quick nod or shake of the head - it was amazing just how much could be communicated. And he had every confidence that Goniff would then find a way to communicate everything to them, all without the watchers, the listeners catching on.

Of course, what Goniff shared with the young woman, that would be limited to what the pickpocket himself knew, and there were certain aspects of the situation, among them Actor's own remuneration agreement and a few private conversations he had had with the two leaders, that the con man had seen no need to share with his team mates. His own disorganized thoughts, his ongoing internal conflict? No, he'd seen no need to share those either.

Actor took his time getting back to his own cot, pacing himself, and just as he had anticipated, the door opened and a head poked through right before he got settled.

"Boss wants to see you, Actor. Just you. The others can go ahead and get their beauty sleep."

 

*
"So, she is here, AFTER a meeting with Garrison, just as you requested. The question is, can you control her?"

Actor smiled a knowing smile, "you are asking the wrong question. It is not possible to CONTROL her, as more than a few have learned to their sorrow, and it would be most unwise to attempt such a thing. And she is not the only one; there will be many who will be quite useful to us, but who cannot be 'controlled', not as you mean it. But she, they, CAN be managed, and that is far the better."

Kilpatrick frowned, "explain, if you will. I do not understand."

Actor sat back, sipping at the truly excellent brandy that had been offered to him in a brandy snifter of just as excellent a quality, thinking of how to best explain, how best to justify what he was proposing.

"Think of it as having a dog on a leash. Yes, I can control such, but only by remaining close at hand, very much connected, quite visible to any onlookers. Compare that to running a skilled and well-trained hunting dog in the field, a dog accustomed to receiving signals by hand or whistle, even a whisper as they are released to do their job. With such, not only can I maintain a safe distance, concealed, if you will, and still get the desired results, I could quite easily manage SEVERAL such dogs at the same time, each with their own orders to follow, their own game to seek out.

"If I were to 'control' her, I would be guiding her actions, yes, but overtly, which would put me too much in view. That sort of control, in fact, limits her actions and responses to such as I specifically direct, reduces her effectiveness. In an operation such as you have described, we need HER to be guiding her actions independently, based on the situation as it evolves. Oh, in accordance with the goals we set out for her, of course, but using her own mind and skills and experience to attain those goals. I believe you will find the results to far exceed what we might attain by simply controlling her."

"And you can do this? Managing her and others, I mean? How?"

"By understanding what they want, what they need; understanding what lines they draw, if any, and where. Knowing what games they play with themselves, with others; what deceptions they indulge in. When you know all that, understand that, you can manage anyone."

"And you trust her?"

Actor gave a slow look over the top of his glass, hesitated, but then acknowledged, "I TRUST no one. Trust leaves me open to the whims and inclinations of others, which makes me most uncomfortable. I much prefer to trust my own knowledge and skill in reading and managing a situation. And that brings me to the other question, the one you were about to ask - what about Lieutenant Garrison? Why did I insist on that last meeting between Miss O'Donnell and the Lieutenant?"

Kildare exchanged a startled look with Sir Kilpatrick. Yes, that HAD bothered them. It was reassuring that HE brought it up, rather than them having to ask.

A self-confident smile settled onto the Italian's face.

"Another example of managing a situation by knowing the individuals involved. In this case, Lieutenant Garrison, who I knew would not leave the matter of his missing men alone unless by a direct order from his superiors, which he had not yet received. He would pursue every avenue open to him, and the most obvious, the potentially most effective would be enlisting the aid of Miss O'Donnell. She has an almost uncanny talent for tracking, for working out the answer to a puzzle, and a most extensive network of informants. If anyone could find the men, it would be her, and he would know that."

Kildare frowned, "we had planned to take her; we told you that. He would have found her gone and that would have ended that trail."

Actor shook his head, "ah, but again, it is knowing the individuals involved, that is what is important. If he had found her just 'gone', he would have suspected foul play, and would have gone to her family. Believe me, just as you would not wish HER on your trail, on your 'bad side' as they say, a hundred-times that you would not wish her family to take up the notion. They tend to take 'uncivilized' to a level bordering on, if not exceeding, 'barbaric'. They have one or more I would genuinely term 'berserkers' in their ranks, take a great deal of pride in such, even."

He took another sip of the truly excellent brandy and elaborated.

"This way, our good lieutenant will be unsure whether she truly is merely indifferent and headed off to her 'meditation sanctuary' to regroup, or perhaps has gone to join the men where ever they might be. However, he is now assured she has no intentions of joining forces with him, he will have no way of finding her, and he is wise enough not to involve her family under those circumstances. They would not thank him for interfering in her affairs, I assure you, and he knows that. No, this way he is at a dead end, and will toddle back to his superiors, and let them put him to a new task. He might always wonder, but he will no longer be in pursuit, and unless by sheer coincidence, will never know the truth of the matter."

The looks in Kildare and Kilpatrick's faces are now ones of respect, even admiration. Yes, this was a man who would be of great benefit to their organization!

The others had proven themselves, at least their talents and their willingness to be led by Actor. Now it remained only to test their newest addition, and between them, they'd come up with something that seemed almost tailormade to the situation - a fair test and one most beneficial to at least one of the partners.

 

As a test, she supposed it was a fairly good one. Find a way to eliminate the sole obstacle to George Kildare becoming LORD Kildare, all without arousing suspicion, of course. And yes, she could have done it quite easily; had, indeed, done the recon, the research, the planning.

The problem was, she had no inclination towards murdering a staid, duty-bound and yet quite likeable man for the purpose of gaining the trust of the two entrepreneurs. Now, how to make them realize it had just been a hypothetical, that they really didn't WANT Lord Kildare eliminated, not at this time, anyway. Convince them that was what they had in mind all the time, just a simple little test of her intelligence and professionalism.

She shrugged with great indifference as she made her report. Yes, she had studied the target, knew his habits - it would be no difficulty to remove him from the picture and without any hint of foul-play. She relayed that to George Kildare and Sir Breton Kilpatrick without emotion.

They had invited her to sit, but for her they had provided no brandy; she was a tool, not a partner even to the slight extent Actor had aspirations toward; besides, she was a woman. She didn't seem to mind, even notice the oversight.

Though neither man would admit it, she made each of them slightly uncomfortable; the detachment in her gold-brown eyes, in her voice brought a slight shiver to their spines. Yes, they could easily see her as the highly-skilled assassin she was said to be. Kilpatrick was more than a little relieved that he hadn't taken matters any farther, back at her home. That might not have turned out so well.

Now she was relating the results of her study, and it was all most gratifying, especially to George Kildare. Soon to be LORD Kildare should this prove successful, and he saw no reason it wouldn't be. Actor had been right about this female; highly efficient in all ways connected to her profession, if not so much elsewise.

"Though I AM surprised at your WANTING me to remove him. Still, your business and all," she remarked in a decidedly offhand manner, "long as I get my pay, it's no skin off my nose."

The two men glanced at each other in open inquiry.

"Surprised? Why is that, Miss O'Donnell? Surely desire for advancement is not to be wondered at," Kilpatrick mused, watching her carefully.

She shrugged, "it just seems to be that being the head of the family, the one trying to keep all the parts running smoothly, keeping the funds flowing, dealing with all the nonsense - well, from what I've seen while doing my survey, it keeps Lord Kildare quite busy. I wouldn't think it would be worth your bother, not with all else you have going on. Wouldn't think you'd have the time."

"Busy?" George Kildare said with a raised brow. "I hardly thought he budged from his townhouse anymore. He's always there when I search him out."

"Oh, he rarely does, that is true. But he is very, what is the term, hands-on, the one in charge, so much so I doubt he has TIME to be out on the town. I'M surprised he has time to sleep, actually. He leaves very little in the care of others, has no one trained to step in, and even the ones who are seemingly in the position, haven't been given the authority so they really have little experience with the decisions needed to be made. During the time I was observing him in one of my varying guises, he was in steady personal communication with the managers of several of the family properties, giving directions left and right, everything from crop rotation at the experimental farm, to which new stock to purchase for the racing and breeding stables, to resolution of clerical tenancies at two locations. Not to mention analyzing which repairs were necessary and which were frivolities, which householders should be encouraged to take on more property, which to restrict. There were also the politicos and all their doings, and the locals seem to look to him quite a bit as well.

"Then there were the more personal issues - those youngsters in your family DO tend to kick up their heels and get into such mischief, particularly the Edmonton branch. Expensive, I imagine, bailing them out of trouble all the time; certainly time-consuming. Like trying to herd ducks!"

Kildare was looking askance at the picture she was presenting, but Kilpatrick gave a rueful nod.

"Yes, it was much the same with me when I first took on the title; my grandfather was another who liked to keep matters firmly in his own hands. Took almost three years before I got things in line to where they could be more easily managed, brought in people to do the actual work involved. George, we might want to reconsider that particular endeavor; we DO have quite a bit else on our plate right now."

George Kildare nodded emphatically. "Yes, I agree. I must say, I never knew the old fellow was quite so involved. Haven't much time for any of that, nor the patience, I must say. And Henrietta would hardly be inclined to take any of that on; most unbecoming if she would, in fact."

Meghada now had a mulish frown on her face. "Does that mean you DON'T want me to make the hit? Now, I did the work, you know, just as you asked! Doesn't seem quite right . . ."

"Now, now, Miss O'Donnell. Don't worry. Yes, you did the task as we asked, and quite well, I must say. Your payment will be allocated just as promised, in its entirety, if that is what you are concerned about. We've just decided to, em, 'postpone' the denoument of your endeavors."

Her face cleared. "Well, that's your decision, of course. And as long as I'm not shorted, I have no objections. Though, I must say, I had it figured out beautifully. You see, I was intending . . ." she continued eagerly, only to have Kildare hasten to cut her off.

"Yes, I'm sure it was quite masterful, but let's just hold it in reserve for now. That will be all, Miss O'Donnell."

She left, and the brandy was finally brought out.

"You know, George, Actor was quite right. If we'd kept her on a tight leash, just told her to make the 'hit' as she called it, she would have done the job without hesitation, and wouldn't THAT have left us in a bind! Far better to have her do some independent thinking, run the field on her own. Yes, Actor is quite the find!"

 

One more job, one that garnered a trio of delightful Chinese figurines, several hundred years old, resulted in some desultory conversation over a drink around the table in their shared accommodations.

"The Grandmother has something similar, as I recall; I believe one of our great-great-greats almost got herself killed protecting the Empress Wu Zetian's children. All kinds of lovely goodies in the resultant 'reward chest', along with the offer of a seat of honor at the palace. Admittedly, she had to escape in the middle of the night, unfortunately having to leave most of it behind, though she did take the figurines with her, along with a few other small tidbits. Seems the Empress decided she should - "

Meghada stopped the story in mid-sentence, glancing over at the wooden door expectantly.

"So, the vacation's over?" Casino asked as the door opened, dropping his cards back on the table. He was good with that; it had been a lousy hand anyway, and he was pretty sure Goniff had already dealt himself a winning hand. Shoulda known better than to let the little Limey deal.

"Vacation's over, Casino. Don't worry about Kildare and Kilpatrick; Major Richards is sorting all that out. Grab your stuff, we have a job. Not you, Meghada. Perhaps you might spend the time while we're gone practicing your kitchen skills," Garrison told the redhead with an admirably straight face. "I ordered a set of measuring cups and spoons and a few other oddments to be delivered, just to be helpful. Along with a new coffee pot and tea pot; supposedly quite fool-proof!"

The guys roared as she flicked her poker hand at him, showering him with the cards.

"Complaints, complaints, complaints. See what I mean? I'll tell you one thing, Craig, it'll be a long time before I fix YOU another cup of my special 'dishwater coffee', or my extra-special 'starving miser's cheese sandwich' again!"

"Promises, promises! Alright, let's get going!"

 

And they all dutifuly trooped off, the guys with Garrison to another round of bullets and bombs and tin cans, Meghada to unwrap all the special little items Garrison had shipped to her, carefully remove all the candle wax from her precious shadow ball, tuck that hideous pink dress back in her closet, and to finger through her cookery books to plan a meal that would leave them all speechless. Oh, and, on her next trip to London, to see what Alphonse would think of that little erotic figurine grouping adorned with gold and emeralds that Goniff had been unable to resist in the office of Sir Breton Kilpatrick. Amazing what two immortal beings with that many assorted limbs could get up to when they were in the mood! She was sure the antique-dealer cum fence would be highly amused.

 

It had been going so well that Sir Breton Kilpatrick was truly shocked when that stern figure in military uniform intruded on the quiet drink he and George Kildare were enjoying at the Club. Yes, Major Kevin Richards WAS a member, as had been his father and grandfathers before him, but he was hardly a friend, even though they had attended university together. He'd certainly never joined them before, never even glanced in their direction.

"Excuse me, gentlemen. So sorry to intrude, but I really must. I believe we have some quite serious matters to discuss."

Without an invitation, he pulled out a chair and opened his briefcase. It was all there, carefully laid out. The jobs, the names, the results.

Kilpatrick forced a studied smile onto his face. "How extraordinary!! We were just about to broach that very subject with someone from the military, though we had not intended to take your valuable time, Richards. And while it has all been most interesting - "

Kildare breaking in with an eager "fascinating, even - "

"we DO have other matters of interest we need to get back too. But as an exercise, it was most interesting. Rather like some of the things you get up to, don't you think?"

From the politely-skeptical expression on Richards' face, the officer wasn't all too sure of that. Still, he gradually let himself be 'convinced', though cautioning his two old acquaintances that such things really weren't 'quite the thing', and should not be ventured upon again.

"And while you need not worry about the men, the woman - they have already been collected and put back into harness, I would suggest it appropriate for you to find a discreet way to return the goods that were appropriated during your little 'exercise'."

The two looked at each other, askance. That would NOT be easy.

"We were thinking perhaps the men . . ."

Richards' face gave them no hope of help from that quarter, even before his firm "that is quite impossible. The men are being directed on a mission even as we speak. The war, you know - dreadfully inconvenient, but what can we do -"

 

*
Still, Sir Kilpatrick knew there was one more thing that had to be done. Even if the plan had to be set aside for now, there was always the future, and it WOULD be a shame to lose the services of one so valuable as the con man known as Actor. And besides, they DID need to be reassured that Lieutenant Garrison was as willing as Major Richards to put the whole matter out of mind.

"And he has accepted this, Lieutenant Garrison? That it was never meant in earnest, was merely an exercise in the possibilities? Perhaps a test of his men's reliability as well? A harmless, even innocent amusement between two old friends? Ill-advised, perhaps, but never ill-intentioned?"

"Oh, yes. It took little to convince him. He trusts me quite explicitly, you see. And he is so drearily straight-laced, he really had difficulty believing you would have meant anything ill-intentioned in the first place. He and Major Richards are quite alike in some ways, you see - depressingly so, I find."

As Kildare and Kilpatrick in turn assured him, they had been able to convince their old classmate of that same thing, the innocent intent of their activities. While Major Kevin Richards hadn't been particularly happy with their endeavors, seemed to think that, while their intentions were well and good in theory, meddling in the affairs of a Special Forces team was really outside their perview.

Still, he had been receptive to their explanation. On their part, while they found Richards amiable enough, they never HAD been particularly impressed by his intelligence, even at university, and his steadfast ideas of morality had been boring in the extreme. Needless to say, he had never been one of their customers, not in any of their varied enterprises.

(Richards, for his part, remembered them all too well, had no trouble whatsoever putting the worst interpretation on their actions. Still, as he had explained to Garrison, they all had more important things on their plates, at least for the moment. "Better act as if we believe their good intentions. I'll drop a word into the right ear to see their activities are monitored for later." Hopefully that would be someone else's problem, not theirs. Certainly the current Lord Kildare would be given a hint, that George might not be all that content to wait for nature and time to deliver his inheritance. Richards rather liked Lord Kildare, who was quite a different sort than his heir, even reminded him more than a little of his own beloved uncles.)

Kildare and Kilpatrick were most relieved that Richards had taken them at their gentlemanly word, taken the 'reports' they had prepared on the talents and proclivities of the men on Garrison's team, the woman as well, and left.

If they did take this up again, after the war, they'd have to be cautious of him, they knew. He might not be overly-imaginative, but even he might put two and two together. For now, the man would probably be content with giving the four convicts a hearty scold, perhaps even the O'Donnell woman, though Kilpatrick thought the officer should probably use a little caution there. She didn't seem the type to take well to someone chastising her. Though, perhaps she might be kept in mind for dealing with the problem of Richards, should the annoying man turn into one later. Not on the payroll as such - no, she was much too uncomfortable a person for that, but as the occasion warranted.

 

And speaking of later -

Kilpatrick tamped down his pipe, looking at Actor appraisingly.

"And you are quite sure you are NOT interested, at least at this time?"

"Quite sure. At least - at this time. Well, the war, you understand. First things first, as it is so often said."

"Yes," Kilpatrick sighed, but with an understanding nod. "We had no real intentions of pursuing the matter to any great degree until after the hostilities are at an end, anyway. More in the way of gathering the proper names, developing an organizational chart, outline of responsibilities, all that sort of thing."

That that was patently untrue, everyone understood, just as everyone understood it was desirable to have the disclaiming words spoken, just in case anyone ever inquired.

"I find it quite admirable, actually, your determination to continue with your work for the war effort. Your determination to stand beside the others of your team in that task.

"Still, the war will not last forever, Actor. There will be opportunities beyond even our wildest dreams when the final accords are signed. Come back to us then. There will be a place for you, I assure you - one where your talents can reap you the rewards they deserve. You might consider making your own lists as you go along, the men you think would benefit our new organization. Perhaps the men you are currently working with - you will know better than I how adaptive they would be to such an endeavor at that point. Though it occurs to me that you might want to forego the woman; I have to admit she makes me just a little uncomfortable - something about her eyes, I believe. But I imagine there are many others that would come to your mind. Yes, there will certainly be a place for you, never doubt that."

And then, over a final glass of brandy, Kilpatrick shared some quotes that he felt summed up the situation, quotes Actor was quite familiar with. Benjamin Franklin, Aristotle, Schopenhauer - all three plus others had some pithy wisdom that could apply, and Actor left with many serious thoughts consuming him. Well, if nothing else, it was always a pleasure to spend the evening in such literary-minded company.

Certainly he didn't get that opportunity very often, certainly not among his less-learned team mates; they had their attributes, yes, and were often reliably good company, but hardly to the standard of Sir Breton Kilpatrick and George Kildare.

He felt the pull, as always, toward those more like he'd trained himself to be. Yes, perhaps, after the war . . .

He reflected over a private drink in his room at Hotel Marchant. Yes, Garrison had accepted the necessity for this last meeting - if not the 'innocence' of the intent, at least, Actor's motivations in wanting to listen to the final proposal and then not adamantly rejecting same.

"After all, having an entree might be beneficial at some time. It would not do to cut off all such avenues, Craig."

 

Things had been strained between Actor and Meghada since the whole matter was completed. It had finally taken a crisp order from Garrison to make Actor face down the one he was now starting to consider his own personal ever-watchful Keeper of the Scales.

That the con man was reluctant was obvious, but just as obviously, Garrison wasn't going to budge. He kept putting it off, til the afternoon Garrison firmly escorted him to the library where the redhead was browsing through the herbals for a better description of how to use one of the more obscure plants Mrs. Wilson had given her.

The washerwoman's recommendation had been couched in such vague terms that the various parts of the frilly aromatic plant could be either a flavoring for rolls, an abortificant, an aphrodesiac, or a preferred method of making a broom stick levitate and fly off with the wielder. Meghada wasn't in the market for any of those, actually, (except perhaps the first), but still it seemed wise to know the specifics before settling the pretty thing into a permanent location, and certainly before making use of it.

The encounter was awkward, yes, since Garrison had basically ambushed the both of them, though Meghada just gave Garrison a mild huff and a look that might have been annoyance, perhaps something else, then gave a resigned sigh. She saw no need for this private meeting; it would change little if anything, to her mind, not yet. She was not above CHANGING her mind, no, but it would take more than words to effect that change.

Still, she thought back to that conversation with Garrison just the day before, the one where he gently accused her of holding the con man to a 'higher standard' than she did the others, "maybe just because you are less fond of him? Because he irritates you?".

Well, yes, she had to admit, she did hold Actor to a higher standard in many regards, and he DID irritate her, though the lesser level of affection was only a very small part of it. Part, the far greater part, was that HE seemingly viewed and described himself as being 'more intelligent, better educated, better overall - more responsible, more adult' than the other guys, and it only seemed right to her that if HE saw himself as 'better' in so very many ways, then he damned well ought to ACT in ways that illustrated that more often, not just in situations that suited his royal mood and ego.

So, she firmed her chin, and her resolve, intending to listen to whatever he had to say, and NOT to lose her temper. Well, TRY not to lose her temper. The man did have a way of pushing her buttons.

Still, she left the first approach to Actor, letting the air ripple with atmosphere, before he finally bit out the words, lips tight with what really WAS annoyance. No, he did NOT appreciate being forced into this confrontation, as was illustrated by the slight sneer on his aristocratic face.

"Well, let's get on with this so we can each get back to our own business. Just what are you waiting for, Meghada? I could see you are doing just that - watching, waiting, wondering. For WHAT? I admit to being curious, you see. About when you will stop questioning my motives, wondering when I am going to betray them for my own benefit? Wondering what it will take to make me turn and leave them, as Casino puts it, 'in the ditch'? You don't seem to doubt the others, even when they fall short - why me? Well, go on. Tell me - what does it take to gain your trust?? You have the floor - I will not interupt your so-all-knowing dissertation on how you see things. As I promised Craig, I cede the floor for however long it takes," he offered with a wide sweeping motion of his arm and deep bow of mock respect.

That sneer had grown, enough she longed to wipe it from his face with her fist, or more likely, the rag used to clean the communal john down the hall.

Yes, as she expected, he was turning things around to suit himself, placing himself on that high-step, her, the encroaching offender, several below. She couldn't help but to, once again, compare him to her older brother Michael - at least back in his more insufferable teenage years.

{"Michael grew out of it, to a large portion, with our 'help', before he reached his twenties. I wonder how long it will be before Actor grows out of it? It seems he really is taking a long time to get through that delayed-maturity phase!"}

He was starting to get louder by the end of all that, enough to draw Chief from the Common Room to the hallway outside. It would have drawn the others, but they were involved with Sergeant Major Rawlins at the obstacle course, something about some nonsense earlier.

Chief found it interesting that Actor was so loudly, so angrily arguing, though it seemed uncertain who he was arguing WITH. It seemed to be totally one-sided - Meghada hadn't said a word after Garrison had dragged Actor in there, certainly hadn't challenged him, not then.

Meghada waited til she was sure he was finished, then snorted with what might have been amusement.

"Ah, a dissertation, then? Very well. Sit back and be enlightened, or maybe amused. *'When Will I Truly Trust Actor? Why Do I Not Do So Now, Not Entirely? - A Dissertation'.*"

That was delivered in a severely dry and professorial tone, shifting as she finished to one more exasperated and conversational.

"Oh, I don't know, Actor. Perhaps, because no matter that the others can, on occasion, pull a truly bone-headed play, I have no doubts about their underlying INTENTIONS, where they stand when the day is at an end. You are a different story. Not only do I not know truly where you stand, when it is all said and done, increasingly I am starting to believe you yourself do not know quite where you stand. You seem to be playing a deep game even with yourself.

"If that is so, then I admit to some sympathy for your position; it must be very stressful, even painful, that indecision, especially for a man in your position. Each situation requiring new equations - weighing all the pros and cons - do I, don't I? - new judgement calls as to where your benefit best lies.

"But it does leave others in somewhat of a quandry. Trust that you will remain faithful to those who have placed their trust in you? That is what Craig and the others are doing, you know; a perhaps risky proposition, considering that getting others to trust you, often to their detriment, IS your speciality, isn't it? But then, they are used to that, each of them, taking a gamble, playing the odds. Well, they have TAKEN that gamble - they have decided to care for you, believe in you, TRUST you, even though they are aware of the potential hazards involved in doing so.

"As for me, I will delay deciding how much I am willing to trust you until I feel YOU have thought things out and made a conscious decision on who and what 'Actor' truly is, what and who he truly cares about. When you have decided to be honest with yourself. Here you have people who care about you, depend on you. Your team mates, certainly. Craig. And then, there is Lynn, who cares far more than is perhaps wise. How much value do you place on them?"

She realized she was getting more than a little wound up, but found herself resigned to the necessity.

"Deceiving others about such things is one thing, Actor - deceiving yourself is something quite else. Quite hazardous in so many ways, as well as being rather pathetic in a grown man of your stature, don't you think?

"Perhaps your perspective employers were right. Perhaps the sages were right, at least, some of them, in some ways, under certain circumstances, although I think Benjamin Franklin's advice was perhaps a little simplistic, about not hiding your talents, that "what is a sundial in the shade?" We both know sometimes talents are more useful when kept sotto voce, so to speak. But still, there are other sayings more apt, more useful.

"And, yes, it WAS Aristotle who said "where the needs of the world and your talents cross, there lies your vocation." But WHICH needs, Actor? To which needs will you apply your many talents? Ah, that is a valid question, no?

"And I think perhaps it would be a mistake to depend overly-much on Schopenhauer's comment, that 'modesty is merely hypocrisy to those with great talent'. While it is certainly self-flattering to consider, after all, did he not also say "to live alone is the fate of all great souls"? Is that truly what you want, Actor, to be so 'great', so talented, so far beyond your fellows as to be, at the heart of it, alone? I've BEEN alone, out of necessity; trust me, it's not all it's cracked up to be.

"YOU are the scholar - I'm sure there are dozens of sayings, quotes other than those that would apply to the question, others Kilbride and Kilpatrick didn't mention in your last meeting. I imagine you would know those sources, if anyone would. Perhaps you should search them out yourself, see if any of them strike home, help you come to some terms."

All that was delivered without much inflection, but it wasn't needed. Her eyes, a little angry, but also sad and patient, all too knowing, said it all, while the shock in his dark eyes, at the recognition of those words, told a great deal as well.

{"The exact same quotes Kilpatrick used, that last meeting, when he reminded me the war would not last forever. Well, except for that very last one. The quotes urging me not to discard the offer too hastily, that the offer would be waiting for me at anytime between now and then. The offer I acknowledged, though did not actually accept. But, also did not refuse. How did she know? HOW?? HOW could she know? And whom has she told, and where do I go from here?"}

He stood, immobile, not saying a word, and after waiting a few seconds more, she nodded in solemn farewell and left, taking her book with her. Actor sat down heavily in the chair, not even reaching for his pipe. The first he realized he wasn't alone was when he heard Chief's dry voice from the doorway.

"Don't you just hate it when she does that?" the young man remarked with a disgusted shake of his head.

"Does what, Chief?" Actor asked, still reeling from that 'dissertation', from her revealing all she knew about that final meeting, all she had surmised about him.

"Takes everything you thought you knew and understood about yourself, and shakes it up, turns it upside down, inside out, then puts it right back in your hands so you can take a real good look. What really gets me? Everytime it happens, turns out she could see me better than I could see myself. Makes you feel kinda dumb, ya know? Yeah, I really hate that."

And the young man shook his head once again, turned and left Actor there to carefully fill his pipe, to contemplate. To look at what had been put back into his hands after being shaken like an antique snow globe or a kaleidoscope, to try and find some clarity and understanding in the new shape of things being displayed.

Craig had believed him, he knew, when he'd said he'd refused Kilpatrick's offer, (or at least not accepted, and the reasons), and he thought, in spite of their sharp comments, so did the other three of the team. THEY had TRUSTED him, that he'd turned down Kilpatrick's offer. The only mention otherwise had been from Casino, and that had clearly been a joke about "thought I was the only one dumb enough to turn down a real sweet deal; you REALLY say 'No,' Beautiful?", referring to an earlier job in London - it hadn't been a serious doubting.

He thought back to the quiet moment with Lynn, as well, when she had laid her hand on his, had told him "it will take time for her to see what we see. What I see, Actor, when I look at you. She is one of the most protective persons I have ever know, at least for those she has taken close to her heart, and is slow to lay her protective suspicions aside. A little time, that's all it will take. I'll talk to her; so will the others. She will see, will understand - that it was just another con, that there is no way you would have taken those two up on their offer. No way you would have abandoned Craig and the guys. There is no way you would EVER abandon them. Meghada will see that."

{"And how can she 'see' that, when I am not at all sure myself, not if I am being truly honest. Lynn 'sees', or think she sees. Craig and the others 'see', in much the same way, more, perhaps, by hope and faith than by any other evidence. Perhaps Meghada is right. When I myself can 'see' that for the truth, that I am committed to them, past any temptation such as Kilpatrick or any such might offer, perhaps then SHE will see as well."}

He frowned, reaching for that book of learned quotations, struggling with the implications, the underlying truth of his quandry. {"Or, perhaps, when I can see, truly see, that she trusts me, perhaps then I can grow to truly trust myself."}.

Then he hurrumphed in bitter amusement, {"and even now I wish to put the burden of self-enlightenment on someone else. Is Chief right? Is she capable of seeing me more clearly than I see myself? That seems quite wrong, somehow, for someone of my knowledge, my learning. No, I will not allow that; I will look within, use all there is at my disposal, and I will, finally, discover who I really am, who I am truly meant to be. For my own sake, if not for others. I think perhaps being forever alone is too great a price to pay. I have not always thought so, no, even preferring that - but now? At least for my own sake, I need to KNOW."}

And with that thought, faces appeared in his mind - Garrison, Casino, Chief, Goniff - Lynn. {"Perhaps for my sake, but ALSO for the sake of others - those who have put their faith in me."}. That THAT was a thought that would not have occurred to him before this odd partnership had been formed, that was something of which he was uncomfortably aware.

And as he smoked, and thought, then pulled some different books from the shelves to reread wisdom she had reminded him of, he realized, finally, that her trust was only a small part of what he wanted. That, in fact, her trust would be only a byproduct of his achieving what, at his heart, he truly desired. A clear knowledge of who he truly was, what he truly wanted, and what price he was willing to pay to achieve what he desired.

A part of him shuddered at the thought, wondering if he would even recognize himself when all that thinking was completed.

And a part of him was hopeful, that there were others who would still recognize him, would say "but we always KNEW that was who you were, Actor. We already knew. You just had to figure it out yourself!"

 

Three months later -

It had been a mission that had seemed doomed from the very beginning. At least, that was how Casino had termed it, deliberately using the very words Actor had read from that latest chapter in that ongoing book the prior evening, a book everyone laughed at but hung on every last word the con man emoted with such feeling.

"Yeah, we understand, Major." His dry voice changed, becoming higher and fraught with despair, his face the very mask of tragedy. "We're 'doomed! Doomed, I tell you!! Fated to bid a last farewell to our very SOULS in this vain attempt to reach an accursed treasure protected by the very FOULEST of demons! Oh, woe. WOE, I proclaim!' That about it, Major?" the last back to his own dry, sardonic tones.

Richards had looked at the safecracker as if he'd lost his mind, while the rest of the team cracked up, remembering that over-the-top declaration from 'As The Night Falls', a Gothic novel praised by their scholarly teammate as "a prize example of the Gothic period. Not the Victorian Gothic, of course, but the true Gothic that preceeded that period," Actor had explained in his usual lofty manner. Well, ALMOST his usual manner, though softened somewhat, with less of a sharp edge.

The con man had changed somehow, in the past few weeks. As Chief had put it, "it's like he's more comfortable in his own skin. Don't know exactly, but it's like something loosened up somewhere."

And they had to admit it was true, though they didn't know just why or what the extent of the change might be. But Actor was slowly revealing things about himself, letting himself become more vulnerable - oh, nothing huge and momentous, just little things. Like the one demonstrated by that book he'd brought out after that mission that went all wonky, 'Grave Expectations', the one he'd found in a resale shop and insisted on reading aloud. Well, they had to admit, it wasn't what they were expecting, not from the scholarly Italian. Still, between the bodies disappearing and reappearing, bloody handprints on the sheets and windows, the howling in the night, the cryptic messages, the beautiful virgin repeatedly having to fight off the attentions of the lustful duke, they all agreed it was really kinda interesting.

That such lurid reading was a secret weakness of his, they had never known before, and it was amusing the hell out of them now. They were on the third such book, and some of the dialogue was making its way into their daily conversation, much to the bemusement of Sergeant Major Rawlins.

This latest one, the (mis)adventures of Miranda Abbott, young, innocent, beautiful, helpless in the shifting winds of adversity, hopelessly pining after the handsome, aristocratic and utterly-clueless Reginald Mayfield, (neither of them possessing as much common sense as the common goose), was becoming a fast favorite.

If nothing else, they found her habit of 'swooning' at LEAST once every chapter highly amusing, especially when said swooning came about over something so innocuous as a cobweb dangling in the corner or the flutter of some loose papers on the writing desk - all of which she dramatically declared as being either 'dire warning messages from beyond' or 'vile threats from the unseen'.

Casino had commented dryly after one chapter three-quarters the way through the book, where Miranda had set a new record, three such swoonings during that space of time, "kinda leaves her short of ammunition, though, when she meets up with that glowing skull, or the flaming sword, or shit like that. I mean, once you've 'swooned' and are out for the count, what's left? Though, I gotta admit, her recovery time is getting pretty damned good."

Still, that image did stick with them, especially since the book was illustrated with numerous pictures of that very event. They had each paid particular attention, since Miranda seemed to wear that flimsy white nightgown more than you'd think sensible in a drafty old castle. Yeah, she made an impression, all right.

"Not a bad pair on 'er, considering 'ow skinny she is elsew'ere, and don't seem too concerned about showing em off neither," Goniff had remarked judiciously, holding the book at arms' length, studying that last picture carefully. "Think that nightgown of 'ers 'as maybe lost a few buttons."

Well, the illustrator HAD made rather a point of that - a few buttons lost at the top, quite a few more from the hem upwards, yes, sweet Miranda was clearly quite a few buttons short of a full set - maybe in more ways than one.

"You think it's something in the water?" Chief had asked, face totally expressionless as he leaned over to look at the picture yet again.

"What is, Indian?" Casino had asked.

"Seems like every chapter or two, she gets another couple a inches bigger up there," motioning to his chest. "That book holds out, Little Miranda's gonna outdo that magazine picture you keeps drooling over, the one where they had to use two pages to get all of her in."

Well, yes, the heroine DID seem to be on an enhancement program of SOME nature. They all found 'Little Miranda' remarkably inspiring in one way or another, though perhaps rapidly outgrowing that nickname.

Goniff was even working on perfecting his version of 'swooning', claiming it would make an admirable distraction sometime, though his accompanying dialogue perhaps left a little to be desired. His talent in making sure to be in a position where someone would catch him, though, that was impeccable. Casino in particular had twitted him over that handy bit of stage-management, especially when combined with an increasingly-dramatic rendition, complete with broad gestures and over-the-top facial expressions that had to be seen to be believed.

This evening had seen another attempt at perfecting the performance. As usual, the pickpocket's timing was impeccable. (Well, he HAD heard and recognized those familiar approaching footsteps in the hallway outside.).

Moving into position, he grinned and winked at the others, then shifted into character (the one he secretly called 'Sweet Miranda, The Silly Little Twit W'at's Just ASKING To Get Done Over If She Don't Wise Up!'). His voice didn't try to shift into the higher octaves Casino had attempted with such lack of success, just hovered over a slightly husky tremelo that somehow captured Miranda perfectly.

"Ah, Reginald! My 'ero! At last you 'ave arrived, just in time to save me from the ravening beast. Clasp me in your strong arms, 'old me close to your strong breast, and tell me that I need fear no more!"

The back of one hand flat against his forehead, the other hand clasped at the base of his throat, Goniff swayed dramatically and lapsed into a sinuous swoon worthy of the most accomplished thespian on stage or screen on EITHER side of the ocean.

Garrison, coming through the doorway just in time to catch the limp and fluttery-eyed pickpocket, glanced down at those mischievious blue eyes glittering up at him between slitted eyelids, that expressive mouth trembling with the effort to keep from smirking up at him, twitched a reproving eyebrow high in response, and let his grip relax.

Goniff bounced once before leaping to his feet, brushing off his posterior with a severe complaint, "eh, now! That's not the way it's supposed to 'appen, Lieutenant! Some rescuing 'ero you are, going around dropping the fair young maiden flat on 'er ruddy arse!"

"Sorry, Goniff. I guess I need practice. Later, maybe. Right now, Major Richards has a job for us."

They all looked at the doorway where a wide-eyed and disapproving British Major was taking in the scene. The two O'Donnell sisters, right behind, were sharing a smothered laugh, obviously getting a lot more enjoyment out of it than their sometimes-Handler.

Well, maybe Casino had the right of it - doomed. It sure sounded that way, from what Richards laid out for them.

Their mark was known to be a highly-suspicious, even paranoid individual, having an association with only a small set of those he knew almost down to the smallest fragment of their being. While he was given to hosting 'entertainments' with music and dancing, one of which they would be infiltrating, the description sounded more like punishment rather than pleasure, the rules being not only archaic but quite strict, rigid even.

"For one thing, the most modern dance allowed within his presence is the minuet."

"The minuet, Major?" Even Actor was incredulous.

"With the appropriate period string quartet, made up of musicians from his own household," Richards confirmed.

Their job, to con their way into his remote establishment, a supposedly 'cursed' castle, as it were, "most of the rest of the family have met untimely, most unusual ends", seemed an unlikely proposition, given his small staff had been with him for years, surely well-known to him. To further locate, among his volume-filled library, the one set of books outlining the history of the castle and, somewhere within the reputed scads of drawings contained in one particular volume, locate the priest's hole where the legendary castle treasures were kept. Again, the 'cursed' treasures, if rumor held true. AND, once in that priest's hole, among all the rest, there should be a sixteen-inch casket of gold and pearl, and within THAT, HQ swore, they would find the lists of Fifth Columnist cells operating in the British Isles, Canada and the Americas.

Oh, of course, that didn't include the little side venture, the convincing of the owner of the castle to welcome at least one of their group into his intimate set of friends, to set up an on-going correspondence that might garner further important information.

"He considers himself a true Renaissance Man, a devotee of all the fine arts, the ultimate sophisticate. Provided you limit yourself to things of the Eighteenth Century or prior," Richards remarked dryly.

That would be Actor's role, of course, no one else, even Garrison, coming close to the requirements there.

"Not our usual shoot em up, blow em up, then," Casino said, getting a roll of the eyes from Goniff at the stating of the obvious.

"Well, nothing like a little variety to spice things up," Richards proclaimed in an exceedingly dry tone.

Sometimes even HE had to wonder about some of the ideas HQ came up with. Of course, the goal was admirable, and on paper it looked quite reasonable, the whole plan, and not wanting to 'waste' the manpower of sending two separate teams to the same geographic area over a similar span of time, not wanting to arouse suspicion with too many strangers in the area, well, that made sense too.

On the surface it made sense. Scratch that surface, though, and it was sheer insanity. The sort of insanity he knew only a very select group of individuals had any chance of pulling off - Garrison's wild cards and the O'Donnell sisters. Especially when Garrison's team included an aristocratic, scholarly con man, a safe cracker, and other assorted talent sure to come in handy in this endeavor. And, just because, he was going along himself. Oh, he had come up with any number of 'good' reasons to persuade HQ. How valid any of those were, that was another question, and even he elected not to pursue his reasoning too closely. Perhaps it was that, if they DID manage to pull this off, he really wanted to be around to see it!

The team, including Meghada and Ciena, had listened to the briefing by Major Kevin Richards, and it was Ciena who expressed their thoughts.

"I must agree with Casino's summation. Is this a mission, Kevin, or the plot to a highly-unlikely Gothic novel?? I feel I should order in a long flowing white dress to even make an appearance! Maybe Goniff can even give me some lessons in swooning; a haunted castle seems to be the appropriate venue for that sort of thing."

"Hey, kid, not a DRESS, a NIGHTDRESS - something thin and fluttery that don't hide too much. That's what they all seem to wear in the pictures for those kinda stories, aint it, Beautiful? And what do the gals have to do with this job? Other than go around sporting white draperies, I mean."

Richards didn't look particularly happy, but admitted, "one of the collections the castle is know for is a grouping of paintings of women - all with red hair. It seems it's rather a family weakness. No, their inclusion was not my idea, but HQ, in its wisdom, thought they might be useful in some way. What way, they did not venture to inform me." He spared a warning glare for the two young women, "I assure you I was not in favor of the idea."

In the end, the two O'Donnell sisters decided on slightly less 'romantic and frail damsel in peril' attire, more leather-clad warrior in style. Certainly their array of weaponry would have ruined the perception, anyway.

By the time they arrived at Chateau l'Vainqueur, however, elegant gowns and just-as-elegant suits were the order of the day - at least for the O'Donnell sisters, Garrison and Richards. The others were in less-splashy garb, but since they were supposed to be entering through a rear window and slinking around the library and down darkened halls, that was probably the best. Oh, yes, Actor was also in evening attire, but that was understandable, since after his efforts abovestairs, he was to go back outside and make a grand entrance, see if he could not make a suitably-favorable impression on their hopefully unwary and susceptible host.

A quick survey of the library catalogue, conveniently left on the reading rack, led to an equally-quick discovery of the proper set of books, then the maps.

"Two priest's holes, not one," Actor grumbled. "There is paranoid, and then there is overly-paranoid. Perhaps competing denominations? Oh, well, Goniff, you take this one," pointing out a location two rooms over. "Chief, cover him. I will take the one to the other side. Casino, you are with me."

They separated, the latches quickly discovered and opened, and the small rooms entered. Flashlights allowed for a thorough searching, not overly difficult since not much was stored within that met the description given them.

Actor was delayed by a few items of interest, a delightful miniature unfortunately allowed to be covered in dust, a three-foot-high crucifix both garish and daunting in detail, a few items of jewelry. There was an emerald ring, heavy and set in an oversized gold band that caught his attention. Carefully lifting it, trying it on for size, he smiled at the fit, the heft on his hand, admired the sheen of the magnificent stone. He could see something engraved into the band and lifted his hand closer to the light to see the details. {"Symbols, some sort of stylized beasts - most interesting."}

"Hey, Beautiful. You found anything yet?" Casino hissed from the doorway.

With a guilty jerk, Actor brought himself back to the present and hurried on with his search. "No, not yet. I hope Goniff and Chief are having better luck." Finishing without finding that gold and pearl casket, he exited, pulling the door closed behind him, tugging the covering tapestry back into place.

"You stay up here with the others; I will head down below," he told Casino, getting a nod of acknowledgement. "We'll meet outside. If you hear anything untoward, get out of here as quickly as possible."

"Untoward, Beautiful? Un huh. Such as?"

"I believe you will recognize it if it should occur, Casino, though I see no reason it should. I believe all should go according to plan."

It wasn't twenty minutes later that the three took off out the window, correctly supposing the shouting and yelling and loud commands counted as 'untoward'.

"Yeah, sounds like everything went right according to plan alright," Casino noted, as they circled back to see what had happened to their fellow infiltrators.

It hadn't been easy, figuring out whose cover had been blown, who was still in the clear, how to get everyone away in relatively one piece. Well, except for Actor, who was in a most unwieldly situation indeed. Unfortunately, their host seemed in no frame of mind for setting up a congenial correspondence with Actor or anyone else. In fact, he got downright pissy.

 

But finally it was over, them, bruised, bleeding and bludgeoned, but safely on that small fishing boat carrying them to the rendezvous to take them home again.

Yes, Richards had consoled Garrison, the mission had failed, but they had survived to take on the next mission, hopefully many more such missions. They had to accept that, if somewhat grudgingly. After all, their success rate was higher than most, and this one? When it came down to it, Garrison hadn't held out much hope, even from the beginning, and Major Richards even less, though the senior officer had resolutely joined them in the vain attempt.

Meghada, patching up the bullet graze along Chief's ribs, looked at Ciena, who was doing much the same for the knife slash Casino was sporting, then back at Actor sheepishly having similar repairs being done for him by Garrison, and just shook her head in disgust. Her words echoed that disgust, quite clearly.

"Damn, Actor! Of all the bone-headed plays! Why not just march in wearing a name tag! You know . . .!"

Her voice went all perky as she became the personification of that said name-tag, index fingers and thumbs of both hands giving the outline in the air in front of her -
"HELLO!
MY NAME IS: Actor
OCCUPATION: Allied Agent.
PURPOSE: Here to con you and snaffle the goods."

Then, her voice dropped again, showing her exasperation.

"It would have gotten the message across just as well, you know, and just as quickly! AND allowed us to be better prepared for the dust-up!"

Major Kevin Richards was stunned at the response from the Italian; he would have expected an angry, certainly indignant rebuttal, but there was no such thing. Instead, after an incredulous stare, the con man had thrown back his head and roared, seemingly in sheer joy, no matter how impossible that should have been. It seemed to go on for far too long, before Actor heaved a deep breath and wiped his eyes from the tears that had been forced out by his laughter.

"Actually, I did not think a name tag would go well with my suit. But, yes, Meghada, it truly was bone-headed! Thank you for that kind review of my performance! To forget I was wearing that ring, the one it turned out had belonged to his grandfather? Most unfortunate! And my cover story was equally unfortunate; logical, but unfortunate considering the mindset of our host! Bone-headed is an excellent summation."

No, the story Actor had come up with once he realized his host had seen and recognized that ring he'd tried on and forgotten to take off, (was indeed wearing an exact duplicate of that ring), claiming it was an heirloom from his father, had not elicited open arms of welcome to a long-lost relative. Instead it had brought down the fury of one who had already gone to great lengths to dispose of any and all who might lay a disputing claim to the family estates. Now, to find a new interloper literally within the castle gates, one wearing a duplicate of the ring he himself was wearing, a duplicate to the ring EACH male of his family would invariably possess and wear, possibly the very ring his own father had worn when he'd taken wary flight so many years ago, his rage was uncontrollable. Truly unfortunate!

(Even more so, once his teammates realized that story was based on the improbable plot of 'The Unexpected Heir', another of those Gothic classics, especially when the villain of THAT story had had a similar response to the arrival of a young man of uncomfortably-close antecedents. It was going to take a long time before they let him forget THAT!)

The others looked at each other, then the snickering, the laughter caught on and soon there was hilarity on everyone's part EXCEPT for Major Kevin Richards. Even Garrison had let out an amused huff.

Richards looked at each of them, and then asked, "is anyone going to enlighten me as to the prevailing joy at that comment? It hardly SEEMS the sort of 'compliment' to provoke any such thing, especially from Actor."

Garrison offered the Major a slap on the shoulder and a glass of the very bad whiskey they had found in the cabin.

"It's rather hard to explain, I admit, but it means he's finally arrived, Major. After a long, long journey, he has finally arrived."

Richards huffed in irritation at not understanding any better even AFTER the answer. Somehow, dealing with Garrison and his crew, along with the O'Donnells, that happened more and more often.

"Arrived? Arrived WHERE?"

"Within the boundaries of her trust, Major," Actor replied with a broad smile. "And to think I once despaired of that ever happening. OR to think I would ever relish being called a 'bone-head'. This war can bring about the most amazing of revelations!"

No, Richards didn't see how the events led to that conclusion, but he admitted there was much that confused him about Garrison's crew, similar to what the O'Donnell's tended to cause.

The mood was elevated even more when Goniff rummaged around in his tunic, squinted at what he held there, an oval lidded hair-collector of crystal and gold and pearl, glanced over at Meghada and asked, "you 'ave that little bit I 'anded you, 'Gaida?"

She gave him a wary eye, wondering why he was asking that particular question in the presence of both Garrison and Richards; wondered, in fact, whether that blow to the temple had rattled his brain more than a trifle. Well, neither officer, even Garrison, were likely to appreciate the pickpocket doing any idle shopping. It never stopped him, of course, his knowing their distaste for the notion, but he was usually more discreet about them finding out.

"Chiefy, w'at about you?" with a tired but satisfied glance at the Indian.

Chief gave the Englishman a long look, then a slow nod. "Right here, Goniff," and dragged out a six-inch long mother-of-pearl box, only an inch or two wide and deep, complete with gold hinges and clasp.

Meghada drew a breath and pulled out the round powder box, mother of pearl and gold, she had in her waistband pocket. {"In for a penny, in for a pound."}

"Casino? Actor?" came that calm request, and Casino handed over the gold and pearl medallion, a heavy item, easily four inches in diameter, on a gold chain interspersed with set pearls every few links.

Actor pulled out the hinged wristlet, gold to the apparent eye, with a mother of pearl inset medallion. Well, he had wondered why Goniff had thrust that piece at him to conceal rather than dealing with it himself. Now it was obvious - the little pickpocket had been on an extended shopping spree, far too much to hide on his own person. Though why he was exposing himself and his activities to the two officers was something Actor was most curious about.

Everyone ignored the square-cut emerald ring still on the con man's finger; that was a sore subject, almost the cause of their deaths, and none of them really wanted to talk about it just yet.

Ciena didn't wait for a prompt, just pulled out a long chain made from oversized lozenges, each being a cumbersome two inches long, made of pearl and gold, held it up admiringly, and handed it over to the pickpocket.

And before Garrison could pull enough breath to start yelling, Goniff gave him a sly grin.

"Wasn't anything in the 'ole Actor was searching, but mine 'ad a plenty. Seems 'e was a crafty one, Lieutenant. Found that fancy box the Major was going on about, but it was empty. 'Ad plenty of time, so started wondering if maybe 'e'd decided on some other 'iding place. Everything else big enough was empty, but looks like maybe 'e divided it out in a few different places. Don't know as I found them all before we 'ad to ditch; might have spread it out elsew'ere, but they're all on that real fine paper like you use for cigarettes, real tiny writing, so there's lots of lists, lots of names in that lot. Might take some sorting to be sure it's w'at you're looking for, for sure, but think it's likely, don't you? Seems to 'ave 'ad a fancy for that gold and pearl combination; once I caught on to that, looked at everything that seemed likely. Right pretty lot, don't you think?"

Garrison glared, reaching out to collect and open, sometimes with Goniff's help, each of the compartments of the ornamented, highly-valuable antiques. Carefully spreading out the thin paper, squinting to read the tiny letters, he nodded for Richards to take a look.

"Yes, I recognize one or two, and he is probably right." Richards took his own turn glaring at the pickpocket, then at the others. "You could have just taken the lists, you know, Goniff - left the antiques behind."

Goniff looked shocked, hand to his chest, "Major Richards! Who KNOWS w'at ELSE might 'ave been 'idden in there? Wouldn't want to go being too 'asty and overlooking something, now would I? Sides, I imagine the Warden will think of a good cause these could all go towards; 'e usually can."

Richards opened his mouth to rebuke the pickpocket, but then looked at those lists, that valuable information they'd risked, almost LOST their lives to collect, and just shook his head.

"I am quite glad he is YOUR problem, Lieutenant. In fact, I am more than a little relieved that they are ALL your problem. Well, except for Ciena, and at the moment, I would be quite happy to relegate her to your custody as well," delivering an equal glare to each of the others, but particularly the younger O'Donnell sister who had obviously fallen in with Goniff's hand-off routine without hesitation, ignoring the grins and huffs of laughter that received.

Garrison looked at his miscreants, the two O'Donnell women, and laughed. "That's alright, Major. I think the rest are all I can handle; we'll let Ciena continue to be YOUR problem."

 

Epilogue -

And, later, when Actor considered where he was now, the fold-down bed in the library of the Cottage, he knew Garrison had been right - he had finally arrived.

He'd dreaded that bed, not meant for a man of his size, knowing his feet would be left dangling. But it appeared the bed had been made long enough even for his lanky frame by the addition of a bench strapped to the end, padded with a cushion the same height as the mattress for his comfort.

He'd also dreaded fighting the blankets and sheets, knowing he'd be dealing with the usual makeshift 'two-together, half overlapping' that most considered a solution to his height. It was never a good solution, ending up with him becoming entangled halfway through the night. Then, upon examination, he realized each covering was truly one piece, extra-long, formed by cutting an extra sheet or blanket to pieces, stitching those extra lengths to the bottoms of another one uncut.

Obviously this hadn't been done as a spur-of-the-moment project, not with there being no delay between departing Dr. Riley's office and his being deposited firmly on that fold-down bed. No, this had been done in advance, held against the 'just in case', something he knew would not have been the matter a few months, even weeks ago. He smiled slightly, knowing this meant that he really and truly had arrived.

Well, Meghada's quick, even impatient, words at the doctor's pronouncement of attended bedrest had left no doubt.

"Well, you don't need him cluttering up your spare room, AJ, and he obviously can't manage the Mansion steps OR a cot right now. Stop fidgeting about it, all of you, and let's get him settled at the Cottage. At least he'll have reading material in my library, if perhaps not his preferred choice. Though don't go expecting fish eggs on toast or champagne, Actor; you'll get whatever I fix and be happy about it, understand? And the minute you start rearranging things or telling me what to do, I'm kicking you out into the garden, I promise!"

While that might not have sounded much like a 'welcome, brother, to all the largesse and comfort it is within my humble power to offer', coming from the redhead at the Cottage, it truly was. After all, Actor realized with a dawning awareness of a seismic shift, it was much what he had heard expressed to Casino and Chief on occasion, differing words but same underlying meaning, same implied warmth.

No, not the same as what was offered Garrison, of course, and certainly not the welcome offered Goniff, but he neither expected that, {"or, good lord (!), even would WANT that! Talk about a terrifying position to be in!"} The O'Donnell sisters, while admirable in many ways, were not the bedmates he would ever yearn after. {"Of course, I'm hardly their choice either, so I suppose that is for the best."}

Still, for her to accept his most recent screw-up as just 'a bone-headed play', and not something more dire, that filled him with a warmth that brought a rueful smile to his face. The depositing of a humidor of acceptable tobacco, a decent pipe onto his bedside table - the handing over of a glass of quite-tolerable brandy (not her usual tipple) - that completed his feeling of having finally arrived safely within her circle of trust.

{"A remarkably comfortable place to be, considering,"} he mused to himself, as he sat back against the pillows listening as Garrison finally reamed him for his part in that latest misadventure. He went to sleep hearing Garrison's voice outlining dire predictions for his future if he was that careless again, the taste of the brandy rich in his mouth, the warmth of the covers and his surroundings comforting him, as did the thoughts of his comrades in arms who would be arriving in the morning to check on him and deliver a few lectures of their own.

He would take that opportunity, in Garrison's absence, of course, to show them that lovely and neglected miniature from the priests' hole, a worthy addition to their retirement fund. Perhaps they might even read together; he was sure he had seen a copy of 'The Haunting of Willow House', by the same author who wrote 'As The Night Falls'. He could hardly wait.