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The Swan King

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Tall, blond, handsome. Green eyes - careful, knowing eyes, wide open for the ladies and for an opportunity - any opportunity, as long as it was profitable. His name was Garrison, Craig Garrison, according to the hotel registery.

Ah, that hotel! The most expensive in town, of course, the most fashionable. Well, it would hardly be otherwise for Craig Garrison, rumored entrepreneur, gambler, bon vivant, darling of the European social set, ladies' man, and possibly much more.

That was hardly his real name, surely; such as he rarely used their real names, but at least it was the name he was going by for this brief span of time. There were probably several men of that same name spread around the globe. Well, it wasn't 'John Smith', but it wasn't THAT unusual a name, after all. None of those others had quite his flair or style, of course; those were both in a class of their own, as was he.

Well, that had been obvious, that it was a sobriquet, should anyone be so bold or so rude as to question, or had even been present when the man arrived. There had been that superior, knowing smile when he'd signed the register, but combined with that briefest of hesitations as he took the pen in hand.

The manager of the hotel had already been alerted that a VIP would be checking in under that nom-de-guerre. Well, it was hardly the first time that had happened; many of the well-to-do who preferred less public attention, those who avoided rather than courted the press and the inevitable hangers-on did the same. Yes, there were rules against false registration, but rules were for the more common guests, certainly not for one of this man's calibre! That was what differentiated between a fine hotel and the very BEST of hotels, understanding the subtle little shades of care you gave your various guests.

 

He looked around him with satisfaction. New York City! It wasn't London, thank goodness! He'd never have gotten away with this in London, at least not around the people who knew him, or where he could too easily run into people who knew him - or who at least THOUGHT they knew him.

There he was the 'boy scout', the one American officer who, although quite competent at his sometimes-violent job, held himself (unless ordered otherwise) aloof from all the non-business, recreational activities most of the other officers endulged in openly and freely.

No, he was in New York. In New York, he could BE the man this Craig Garrison truly WAS, the one a good friend had laughingly termed a 'Swan King', and after receiving a detailed and highly-amusing description, even more vivid demonstrations, of what that entailed, he'd decided the term fit amazingly well with his New York persona.

Yes, a Swan King, assuredly, gliding smoothly and gracefully as he went about his business. Elegantly attired in a suit that fit his lean but well-developed frame with exquisite tailoring meant to subtly enhance every attribute. Suave, in a slightly arrogant sort of way. Certainly not lacking in self-confidence, quite the opposite. Hair sleeked back, glistening gold in the lights of the city, the elegant nightspots. Ready if somewhat aloof smile on his face, appraising look in his green eyes as he took in his surroundings, coolly deciding what was worth his attention and what wasn't.

And one thing that was well worth his attention was Rovington House, that 'private club' where some of the most influential, the most important, the most dangerous individuals from the East Coast and elsewhere mingled and enjoyed the pleasures of what was the most exclusive, most elegant, and most diverse assembly of ladies ever offered for 'refined companionship'.

A brothel? BITE YOUR TONGUE!!

No, no one would ever term Rovington House a brothel, though it probably - no, certainly - met every criteria for being classified as such. But still, don't think 'brothel'. Think, instead, of a select number of the finest hetaera, all residing in one elegant household, attending a refined and elegant nightly salon - an establishment in one of the finest of neighborhoods, all presided over by the most elegant, the most refined of all possible individuals - the dark-haired, the lovely, the incomparable Hannah Montgomery.

It wasn't easy getting admission to Rovington House, a membership-only club, so once you were inside, accepted by the staff and residents as being one who belonged there, no one questioned your bona fides; after all, one didn't simply walk in off the streets. No, there were applications, references required, careful review of the applicant's position, history, ability to meet the heavy schedule of dues and fee services, and much else.

Membership was limited to a strict maximum, so some men had been waiting for a considerable amount of time until there was an opening for which their application might be considered. Usually someone had to die for that to happen, since voluntary surrender of a membership was exceedingly rare. Even those long past taking advantage of EVERY pleasure offered did not want to give up the general atmosphere, the cachet of belonging. There was simply no substitute for Rovington House, for being able to proclaim that you were a member there - none!

There were also strict rules of conduct, clearly outlined during the application process, for after you WERE admitted, the disregarding of which would lead to discipline and quite possibly expulsion. Few risked that; the rewards, the cachet, of claiming of membership to Rovington House were just too great, and once cast out, there was no chance for re-admission. Such action was irrevocable, quite final, neither threats or bribes or pleading or promises or anything else swaying that regal decision.

Still, there were a few - at least one president, one royal prince, and a few others, not naming any names - who had found themselves on the No Admission list, much to their dismay. It had taken only one brief interview with Hannah Montgomery to achieve that, one quiet, "I regret to say you may no longer consider yourself a member. Good day, sir," to achieve that.

But for this one, this Benjamin Garwell Hamilton, Hannah had determined that that would not - could not be the case. No, while Mr. Hamilton had indeed breeched the rules, it had been more an unwritten rule, nothing anyone would ever have thought would NEED to be written down, nothing so open as to allow for that calm dismissal. This called for something more, something more than she felt capable of dealing with, something that would call for something - unusual.

And for something that unusual, Hannah was going to need to call in a favor from someone not seen in years. A favor promised, but one she had sworn would never be redeemed. Well, surely the repayment already delivered was far more than sufficient, not that any repayment had been expected, not for THAT. Hannah would have been, HAD been, appalled at the idea of expecting repayment for that instinctive act of humanity.

Now, though, as much as Hannah regretted the necessity, and however apprehensive of any resulting disruption to the calm workings of Rovington House, there were some things, things not covered by the list of rules, that were just not acceptable at Rovington House. One of those things? Treason.

 

Garrison made his way up the broad steps, taking in his surroundings carefully. Not a mansion, just a very large house, but with all the elegance and refinement you could want. Not exactly what he had expected, though he wasn't sure exactly what he HAD been expecting. Meghada's mother had explained, yes, but he wasn't sure he'd really grasped the scope of what she and Major Richards were saying. Now, it started to make sense, especially as he entered, was taken to the library at the side, was greeted by the owner, Hannah Montgomery.

"You must be very sure of this, to have involved us," he offered, sipping at his coffee {"actual, real coffee!"}.

Hannah nodded grimly, "oh, yes. My people are quite adept in listening, understanding what they hear. Well, it is part of the job description, for everyone here. You'd be amazed at what we DO hear, Craig, although discretion is also part of our code. Also part of the job description," she added wryly, and Craig laughed in understanding agreement.

"But, some things - some things DO require action of some sort. Sometimes it's a gentle hint, a warn-off. Sometimes that action comes in the form of a introduction to someone who could help with a problem too heavy to be carried alone; more than one suicide has been avoided by providing that help. Once or twice, it has been a matter of checking on a member's family, a wife or child, to ascertain if THEY need some assistance, perhaps in, um, 'relocating' to an atmosphere perhaps less fraught with tension, even peril. Such things as those I can and have managed.

"This, however - this is more than I felt equipped to deal with - indeed, was concerned that any action I might take, even if it rid the world of Mr. Hamilton and his ambitions, might not totally solve the broader issue. My responsibilities require I safeguard the occupants of Rovington House, not endanger them by angering those Mr. Hamilton is dealing with, after all. And yet, to allow these treasonous actions to go on under this roof is hardly acceptable either."

"So you called Felane. Yes, that makes sense. Heaven knows she and the Clan have resources aplenty."

"Well, I'd hoped so. And though I had not intended to call in the balance of that favor she insists she owes, at least this seemed a worthy reason to do so. I understand you are, em, well acquainted with her daughter?"

Garrison smiled enigmatically, "you might say that. And I owe the Clan a few favors of my own, as does someone I report to, so here I am. Now, how do I get a 'casual' introduction to Mr. Hamilton and his cronies?"

Hannah leaned over, pulled a leather-bound calendar to the center of the desk and opened it.

"We have a social event two nights from now, one particularly tempting to Mr. Hamilton as Talitha will be dancing. He has a special interest in Talitha, finds her quite entrancing. Frankly, she finds him less than appealing, but since he is not particularly demanding, she deals with him as the professional she is. In fact, it was Talitha who brought me the word in the first place; it would seem the boor, along with his other shortcomings, talks in his sleep. I will arrange for you to meet her as well, along with the others who reside here. I think you will find everyone most accommodating, Craig."

And so he met Talitha. And Rose. And Jocelyn, and Candace, and Lilian, and the other sixteen ladies who graced Rovington House with their presence. And he met Oliver and Claude and James and the rest of the staff who cared for the house and the grounds and the occupants. And truly, he found each introduction to be quite the pleasurable and rewarding occasion.

 

*(In a small set of rooms, in not nearly as fine a neighborhood, four men sat, on edge, waiting for their orders. They didn't like their leader being out of their sight, being too far away if he managed to walk into trouble. "Cause if anyone can, it'd be the Warden," Casino offered glumly, with no one contradicting him. Word came, and they spread out, each to do the research, gather the information that had been asked of them. Still, they wondered, and worried.)*

 

And, two days later, he met Mr. Benjamin Garwell Hamilton and his friends, and while that was not nearly so pleasurable, it was rewarding in quite a different sense. For Mr. Hamilton seemed to recognize Craig Garrison as a comrade, someone who would fit into his own sphere quite nicely. How delightful, how opportune was that??

 

*(And in that small set of rooms, they were being apprized of the progress their leader had made.

"So the bait has been, if not taken, at least sniffed at," Actor reported.

"So we do w'at? Wait some more? Ruddy tired of sitting on my arse waiting to 'ear 'e's managed to get 'imself bunged up again," Goniff fretted.

"No, there are, once again, jobs for each of us. There were others there, men Craig felt possibly had a deeper connection to the mark. We will be looking at each of them, quite closely. Come here, this is how we will handle it.")*

 

And so they formed, if not a friendship, at least the beginnings of a business relationship. They met frequently over the course of a two week span, though never at Rovington House, not after that first meeting. For some reason, Garrison expressed discomfort at the idea, and Hamilton was eager enough for the connection not to dispute the counter-suggestion of using a private room at the hotel where Garrison was staying, or a small street cafe, or the reading room of the library around the corner from the hotel, or various other places. Hamilton was impressed at the level of caution, the varying of meeting places; he'd chosen well, it would appear, in his new associate.

 

*(And after each meeting, word was passed, and the four intense men in that small set of rooms scattered to do the bidding of their leader, to gather the information he had requested, to follow the leads he'd given. Returning the scraps, the pieces to him in the same round-about manner in which they received their orders. Til, finally, the last piece of the puzzzle was in place, at least the last piece they'd been able to ferret out. And with that, word was sent to their leader, and word was sent FROM their leader to another contact, and the end was in sight.)*

 

And so it was that, when the authorities took Mr. Benjamin Garwell Hamilton into custody at his residence, Rovington House was totally out of the picture. Indeed, it had never been IN the picture, other than being the place of that first chance encounter between the two men.

Those few of his associates, really only two or three, who escaped the net, never knew just how Hamilton had slipped up, or who might have slipped the military the wink; they only knew that they needed to depart New York City with some haste.

In fact, as far as they could tell, Hamilton had been scooped up more or less by chance, caught out only by way of his unfortunate association with that Craig Garrison, now known to be the rather more infamous 'Charlie Gee' that everyone was whispering about - sometimes mob connected, sometimes not, but always with a cold calculating eye for a profit, and an absolutely diabolical instinct for avoiding the trap. It seems the authorities were onto Charlie Gee, had spotted Hamilton meeting with him so often, and understandably enough, decided Hamilton was playing the same game. Hamilton got nabbed. As usual with the slippery devil, Charlie Gee was long gone, well out of reach, and there was the unfortunate Mr. Hamilton left holding the bag!

 

Hannah had gathered the ladies for afternoon refreshments and to spend some last bit of time with the newest member of Rovington House. Oh, he didn't fill one of those coveted slots for which there was a waiting list, of course; that would hardly have been fair. But for him Hannah had created a special class of membership - 'Adjunct Merit Membership' - a membership with all the regular privileges along with several others unique to that class. So far, that class had only one member, Craig Garrison, but everyone was fine with that, including Garrison, especially when he was handed that hand-printed list of privileges that went with his very special membership.

In fact, the last of the list of privileges was one that made Garrison laugh.

"You don't think that's a little, well, expansive, Hannah? 'And any other thing that he might require that would be within the scope to be able to be provided by any resident or staff member of Rovington House for as long as that entity exists.' You might get some argument from the others with that broad a statement."

"I doubt it, Craig. We greatly appreciate all you have done for us. And besides, we've all become quite fond of you, you know," Hannah replied in all quiet sincerity.

Yes, they'd had their favorites through the years, of course, Hannah and the ladies, but rarely anyone who'd so rapidly become EVERYONE'S favorite as had this Craig Garrison, the green-eyed blond with the ready smile and the quick wit and the sharp mind and, when needed, a rock-hard fist.

They'd gained by his presence, and not just in his ferreting out and dealing with that dreadful boor who threatened to bring Rovington House tumbling down with all his planning and plotting to help the Nazis. No, he'd provided much more, including some lovely memories they would each treasure for a very long time.

{"Well, I imagine he gained by his time here as well. He's an amazingly quick study, and an eager student. Not that he was unskilled or clumsy, of course, even upon his arrival, but I imagine when he returns to his own, he will have far more to share than before. Well, Rovington House DOES house only the finest, the most talented, after all,"} Hannah thought with a complacent smile.

Somehow she took satisfaction in knowing that, while the repayment of that favor by one she'd helped so long ago had removed a thorn in her own paw, it had also allowed her to give a little back in return - a more thorough balancing of the scales.

If she remembered correctly, the one she'd dealt with all those years ago, Felane by name, had been a firm believer in that, had mentioned more than once that "Sweet Mother Erdu doesn't approve of a weighing too heavily on only one side of the scales. No, she favors balance." Hannah had taken that to heart.

No, she didn't understand totally why Felane thought the debt unpaid, even why she felt there had been a debt for what Hannah had done purely out of instinct and compassion.

Truly, Hannah had felt the offer of that no-interest loan of funds to purchase Rovington House, the assistance with finding the right location, getting all clearances and permits and such legalities, then the additional loan to keep them up and running until they became established, more than sufficient to repay the rescue of those two youngsters.

Still, the woman had been adamant - the favor was but partly repaid, and the balance would be there, always, awaiting only Hannah's call. She had thought never to make that call, thinking that would weight down those scales unreasonably, but it had become necessary, and the call had been answered, swiftly and willingly.

Still she DID understand the concept of balance somewhat, had tried to use it in her own life after her experience with Felane and the childen, and now she felt the education Craig Garrison had received had helped adjust the balance to a more acceptable level. Perhaps the woman herself would not benefit directly, but from what she understood, the woman's daughter, younger sister to the two children Hannah had pulled out of a horrifying situation, WOULD, and her not the only one.

{"Yes, balance is a good thing,"} Hannah thought with a good deal of satisfaction, {"especially when so pleasantly gained."}

 

"You sure we got the right place, Beautiful? Don't look like no 'house' I've ever seen," Casino asked, looking up at the elegant building, then back at the refined neighborhood surrounding it.

"No, I imagine it does not, Casino. Rovington House is hardly in your usual class," Actor retorted with a superior smile. He had been here as a guest a time or two, would have enjoyed being a member, but even for one with his talent at the con, the admission requirements were too stringent.

"You figure the inside's as fancy as the outside?" Chief said. "Wonder if the Warden's set up an obstacle course yet. You know how he gets if he don't get in his daily run and workout if we're not out on a job."

Goniff snickered, "got a feeling 'e's getting enough exercise without that, from w'at I've 'eard about this place."

Casino hooted, "the Warden? Come on, me or Beautiful here, sure - even you two, maybe - but not the Warden! Probably hasn't even figured out what the place really is yet, knowing him! And even if he has, can't see him taking advantage of the opportunity."

 

The doorman had bowed them in with a smile, ushered them into the anteroom then up the broad staircase.

"We were expecting you, gentlemen. Please go right on in. I believe he is having refreshments with the ladies. We will miss him, you know, all the staff, and everyone else, if I might be so bold. Quite out of the ordinary, he is."

They passed through the broad arched opening and stood at the far side of the big room with all the chandeliers and flocked wallpaper and watched as Garrison carefully kissed cheeks, kissed hands - kissed more than a few smiling lips, laughing at some of the offers and hints coming his way from the bevy of lovely females decked out in all their most beguiling 'come a'calling silks and satins'.

The Garrison they knew would have blushed at some of what they could just barely hear, but not this one! In fact, his low replies, too low for them to hear, but complete with knowing smiles, actually succeeded in bringing a few blushes to those fair cheeks instead. It was almost enough to make them wonder if someone had rung in a ringer on THEM!!!

"Damn!" Casino said in a low voice. "Didn't think he had it in him, but looks like he has every damned one a them dames eatin' outta his hand! Shit! Where's he been hiding THAT all this time? Even on the job, when he's GOTTA play the role, I mean, he handles it okay, but he's not like THIS!!!"

Actor was watching in amazement. He couldn't have done better himself, or perhaps even as well, though he'd never admit THAT out loud, of course. {"Truly a Swan King, as Meghada termed it!"}.

In fact, he was a little envious, sorry he was too well known in the area for HIM to have played this complicated game and reaped what obviously were quite generous rewards.

Still, Rovington House and its occupants had crossed his path, or rather he had crossed theirs, at least briefly, in the past, and that would have proven far too dangerous to attempt. While he was not a member, he was sure he was on at least a nodding basis with several of those who were.

However, he took some comfort in knowing that Garrison, no matter how well he might try and play the part, was nowhere near being able to take advantage of or appreciate all the varied delights that Rovington House could offer.

{"Of course, with ME, it wouldn't have been too far a stretch, playing that particular role. No, not even a stretch at all. While for Craig, it must have been quite the challenge."}.

Still, there was something about the easy, relaxed manner in which Garrison was moving, interacting, gracing each lady with his attention, his favor - something about their response as well, that puzzled the conman, made him doubt, if only for a moment, all he knew or thought he knew about the officer.

"You think he's gonna go back to keeping it tied down and packed away, once we're back?" Casino asked Actor, a little uneasy at what could otherwise be some very powerful competition with the females that came their way. In fact, he could see his own prospects dwindling, especially at HQ, if Garrison was going to get into the game for real.

Actually, the con man was thinking much the same; he had become accustomed to having a free hand with the more upper class females they encountered - the ones the other team members would scarcely appeal to. This 'new' Garrison could put a serious dent in that monopoly.

Chief let a slight smile escape, looking out of the corner of his eye at their pickpocket.

"Whatta ya think, Goniff? He gonna settle down, go back to being the Garrison we all know?"

Of course, Chief knew THAT Garrison wasn't all THAT settled down, at least in some ways, which is what made the gentle teasing of the pickpocket now so enjoyable. Well, if anyone knew how settled Garrison was or wasn't, it would be Goniff, not that the others on the team had figured that out yet, other than Chief anyway.

Goniff was watching the action with a look every bit as inscrutable as one of Chief's best. Raising one arch brow questioningly, tilting his head, he crossed his arms and leaned into the doorframe just as Garrison looked in that direction.

There was a quick welcoming grin of recognition, a very obvious twinkle in those green eyes, a sly wink, and Goniff chuckled in relieved amusement. There had been a message there, one only he could read maybe, but still a definite message, and wasn't he ruddy glad of that! A Swan King, maybe, but still HIS Swan King, his and 'Gaida's.

He'd worried about that, just a little, (well, maybe more than a little), thinking Hannah and the ladies might be a little too tempting for Craig to resist. Oh, he hadn't expected him to resist during the job, that was just part of it; even thought it might be ruddy good for the man. He just worried a little about after, about whether he and 'Gaida and the Cottage would be enough, after Rovington House.

{"Looks like 'Gaida was right. A little growing, a little more confidence, for the time spent, but still Craig, still ours."}. He couldn't bear the thought, otherwise.

"Oh, we get 'im back 'ome, 'e'll be pretty much back to 'is own self, no doubt. This much action, bound to 'ave worn 'im out for a goodly amount of time, I would think. Least for anything out of 'is ordinary, you know."

That look, those knowing blue eyes, brimmed with satisfaction, amusement and quite a bit else.

Casino snorted as they straightened up to go meet the man of the hour. "What 'ordinary', ya damn fool Limey? You know the Warden. Buttoned up tighter than a church on Monday morning. Wouldn't know a good time if it . . ."

His voice tapered off as he took in the group of lovelies, did a double-take watching Garrison thank tall, dark-haired Hannah, the one in charge of Rovington House, with a gallant kiss to the back of a lace-gloved hand as well, along with a unheard whisper directly into Hannah's ear. He blinked rapidly as the chiffon scarf at Hannah's throat shifted slightly, as the one in charge at Rovington House responded with a toss of that dark hair and a laugh, displaying perhaps more than she'd intended.

{"An Adam's apple??! Shit! Wonder if the Warden has figured out that Hannah broad is a guy??! Nah, he'd never guess. Well, I sure as hell aint gonna tell him! One thing springing that on Actor that time as a joke - Warden would likely shit a brick if he knew, especially after kissing the back of his hand and all!"}

Still, Casino had a quick uneasy thought that there might be more to Garrison's 'ordinary' than the safecracker had ever considered before. Then he shook his head resolutely. Nah, not a chance! There ever was someone you could call 'plain vanilla', (but only because there wasn't anything LESS exciting that he could think of to call the trait), it was the Warden! Hell, him and that fancy-pants Major Richards, no imagination where things like that were concerned, no drive, just plain boring, start to finish!

Anyway, he had other things to think about, as Garrison said a few words to Hannah, getting a nod in return, and then motioned the four of them over to him.

"Hannah, ladies, I'd like to introduce you to some friends of mine," Garrison said with a knowing smile. "Goniff, Actor, Chief, Casino, this is Hannah Montgomery. This is her club."

Hannah smiled, nodded to each of them.

"Gentlemen, you are welcome. Please relax, meet my ladies, have a drink. There are no other guests expected tonight; this is a private evening, a celebration if you will. There will be a buffet set out at 7:00 which I think you will enjoy, Kirsten plans to play the piano afterwards to accommodate any who might wish to dance. Feel free to spend the evening however you wish, as Craig's guests."

Actor raised his brow at that. "Craig's guests?"

Hannah smiled serenely. "Oh, each of our members, particularly in Craig's particular category, the most exclusive category, you understand, is allowed to host guests on occasion. As well as small private affairs such as this one."

Those aristocratic brows now reached for the con man's hairline.

"Member? Craig is a MEMBER of Rovington House?"

"Oh, yes. If you will excuse me, gentlemen," and Hannah drifted over to say a few words to a dusky-skinned lady clad in royal blue and gold, and her companion, a tall, fair slender blonde in green with hair so light as to be nearly silver.

He thought again about just what those requirements were, and couldn't quite wrap his mind around Craig Garrison being a member of Rovington House. If HE hadn't managed it, how on earth . . .??!

"Didn't I ever mention that, Actor? Hmmmm, must have slipped my mind," Garrison said, though how he kept a straight face was a mystery.

But, being Garrison, AND it being his guys, he couldn't resist giving one firm, if low, warning as the men filed by to go meet the ladies one by one.

"Best behavior, gentlemen. Actor, stop pouting; it's not an attractive look. Casino, don't get greedy. Chief, none of them bite, so try to be sociable, and no knife marks in the woodwork, okay? Goniff, leave the shiny things alone."

He paused, then reached out one arm to snag the pickpocket by the shoulder before Goniff got out of reach.

"No, come to think of it, Goniff, you stick by me. I'll feel a little more comfortable that way, knowing you're not getting into trouble with those sticky fingers of yours. Come on, I'll show you around."

And, talking of this and that, he skillfully guided the grinning Englishman over to where Hannah, now alone by the bar, waited with amused anticipation.

"Hannah, for the second time, this is Rodney Grainger, more often going by Goniff. Goniff, Hannah is the Clan Friend Felane told us about, the one who pulled Michael and Patrick out of the fires."

Hannah looked him up and down, fairly purred, stretching out one glove-clad hand to clasp the one being extended to her.

"Goniff. Mmmmmmmm, yes. I've heard a good deal about you, you know, from Felane AND from Craig. All quite good, I assure you, quite intriguing, actually. Come, let's have a drink and get better acquainted."

And if Actor, still sulking just a little, wondered at the laughing threesome in the corner, Jocelyn soon coaxed him out of his mood and he soon forgot about the oddly comfortable picture they formed and the even more peculiar fact that Craig Garrison was indeed a Member of the famed Rovington House. Apparently even a member in the most exclusive category!

{"Though I still do not see how that is quite fair!"}